Popular music has lost one of its most colourful characters – certainly of the Rock ‘n Roll era – with the death on January 18 of David Crosby, not only a member of one of the greatest supergroups in modern music, but a pioneer of folk rock.
News of his death came in a text from Patricia Dance, sister of Crosby’s wife Jan Dance. It simply said he “died last night.” He was 81. No cause of death was given.
Crosby found fame as a founding member of two classic bands in the sixties.
Firstly, with the Byrds, which – largely through creative interpretations of two Bob Dylan songs “Mr Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” – established what became known as folk-rock. And then as the lead name in super-group Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young,
His personal indulgences would overshadow his musical achievements. He became addicted to heroin and cocaine in the 1970’s and this would lead to drug and weapons charges and eventually a stint in prison. His addictions later led to medical problems and a long battle with hepatitis C necessitated a liver transplant in 1994
But he was never shy of talking of about his shortcomings or giving his opinion on anyone or indeed anything that took his fancy, so to speak.
On drugs, he recently told Rolling Stone: “Don’t do hard drugs. I wasted time. Time is the final currency. Not money. Not power. I wasted probably 10 years, more, just on being stoned. And not happy stoned like a pothead. Desperate stoned like a junkie. It was enormously hard to feel that bad about myself for that long. It’s an enormous relief to feel good about myself now.”
On the state of the nation, especially after the January 6 insurrection, he told The Daily Beast in 2021: “There’s a fairly good chance that the United States of America will come unglued.”
On Donald Trump: “He’s an evil bastard.”
His hedonistic personality also strained his relationships with the various musicians he collaborated with over six decades.
He released five albums with the Byrds, arranging the impressive vocal harmonies on all. But he was eventually fired in 1967 after numerous conflicts with bandmates Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. The final straw came when he made political remarks between songs at the Monterey Pop Festival. Crosby told Uncut magazine: “They said I was impossible to work with, and I wasn’t very good anyway, and they’d do better without me.”
In fact, as it turned out, it was Crosby who did himself better.
In 1968 he teamed with two other band exiles – Stephen Stills from Buffalo Springfield and Graham Nash of the Hollies – to form the super trio Crosby Stills & Nash, the title of their much-acclaimed debut album in 1969. By the time they appeared before a half-a-million fans at Woodstock in the same year, the trio was now a quartet with the addition of ace singer-songwriter Neil Young. Deja Vu, the first album of the foursome, was released in 1970. It sold eight million copies and would earn Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young a Grammy for Best New Artist.
As in the Byrds, there were internal disputes within CSNY and at various times, neither Stills, Nash or Young would be on speaking terms with Crosby. Despite the so-called “infantile ego problems,” the group engaged in popular reunion tours during the first decade of the 21st century.
And Nash was one of the first to react to the news of Crosby’s death. He issued a statement: “It is with a deep and profound sadness that I learned that my friend David Crosby has passed. I know people tend to focus on how volatile our relationship has been at times, but what has always mattered to David and me more than anything was the pure joy of the music we created together, the sound we discovered with one another, and the deep friendship we shared all these many long years.
“David was fearless in life and in music. He leaves behind a tremendous void as far as sheer personality and talent in this world. He spoke his mind, his heart, and his passion through his beautiful music and leaves an incredible legacy,” Nash added. “These are the things that matter most. My heart is truly with his wife Jan, his son, Django, and all the people he has touched in this world.”
In the hurly-burley extremities of music in the 1960’s, Crosby’s ability as a thought-provoking songwriter was often under-appreciated, though he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two times, as a member of both the Byrds and CSNY.
Two of his finest compositions “Long Time Gone” and “Guinnevere” were standout songs in the original Crosby, Stills & Nash album.
Crosby wrote “Long Time Gone” right after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.
It’s been a long time comin’
It’s been a long time gone
But you know
The darkest hour
Is always, always just before the dawn
“It was the result of losing him, of losing John Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I started to feel overwhelmed,” he told Rolling Stone in 2008. “ It seemed as if it was ballot by bullet. It seemed as if it didn’t matter how good a person we could find to put up as an inspiration and a leader for the good, that somehow the other side would triumph by simply gunning them down.”
“Guinnevere” was a soothing love ballad with exquisite harmonies. “It’s about three women that I loved,” Crosby said. “One of whom was Christine Hinton, the girl who got killed who was my girlfriend, and one of whom was Joni Mitchell and the other one is somebody that I can’t tell. It might be my best song.”
Crosby recorded seven solo studio albums, the first If I Could Only Remember My Name in 1971 and the last For Free in July 2021, a month before his 80th birthday. There was also a collaborative album with, Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis and Michael League from The Lighthouse Band, his long-time tour group.
The well-received For Free was produced by his son James Raymond, who wrote seven out of the 10 tracks. Their musical association goes back to the mid-nineties, a few years after Raymond discovered Crosby was his biological father. Raymond was a regular member of whatever musical assortment – jazz or otherwise - Crosby has concocted in recent years.
The standout performance was in fact a cover when Crosby teamed up with Americana star Sarah Jarosz on the title track “For Free” which was written by Crosby’s lost love Joni Mitchell. (He also produced her debut album.) It has been on a Crosby playlist since his days with The Byrds.
By the time his final album was released, he had developed tendonitis and was having trouble playing guitar. All promotional touring was put on hold.
It saddened him. “I can still sing. That’s why we’re doing the records, because we love making music. Right? They obviously don’t pay us for them, so that’s the only reason there could be,” Crosby told The Bluegrass Situation. “ We’re not trying to win the ratings war or something. We’re just singing exactly the music that really rings our bell and makes our heart sing. And there you go. And if people like it, great. And if they don’t like it, great, we don’t care.”
Crosby did not take kindly to becoming an octogenarian. When asked if his big 80 birthday would be a special celebration, he replied: “No, no, no, birthdays are not happy when you get old,”
But he had found contentment in life, much of it credited to Jan, his wife of 35 years. He put it in song with the beautiful “Things We Do For Love,” a song dedicated to her on his 2016 album Lighthouse. He told the Wall Street Journal at the time of its release: "I’m a very happy guy. That may be the key to the whole deal.”
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation