Remembering David Crosby

Remembering David Crosby

Feature Photo: Ben Houdijk / Shutterstock.com

Musicians and listeners the world over collectively mourned the passing of musician, singer/songwriter, and cultural icon David Crosby this week. The impact of the loss was monumental, incomprehensible even, which may come as a surprise to some given that the music legend – best known for his work in landscape-altering groups such as The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young) – by all accounts, should have died long ago according to Crosby’s own words.  Crosby told NME in 2021 that he didn’t expect to live to the age that he had.

Indeed, Crosby’s image became that of a sort of folk Keith Richards in his later years: the tough old son of a gun who refused to go down after having steered head-on into nearly every vice imaginable, all while crafting timeless and beautiful music. Crosby made no bones about his declining health during his final years. But in the face of his unflinching commitment to crafting new material – which manifested in a staggering five-album run over a seven-year span between 2014 and 2021 – along with his insistence on continuing to tour, it was hard not to believe Crosby was invincible on one level or another.

In fact, the 10-time Grammy nominee was making professional commitments and planning for the release of new material right up until his final days. His final proper release David Crosby & The Lighthouse Band Live at the Capitol Theatre was released on December 9, 2022, just over a month prior to his passing. That same month, on December 30, 2022, Crosby took to social media, boldly declaring his intentions to attempt further performances even in the face of failing health.

It’s no secret that the musician’s health struggles were becoming more and more evident as time passed. Crosby revealed to Howard Stern in 2021 that, due to tendinitis, he was losing the physical capacity to even play his instrument of choice, explaining to the famed radio host that he was losing his ability to play the guitar. Crosby felt as though he had another year or so of being able to play.

While Crosby’s innate and seemingly effortless ability to conjure up the perfect vocal harmony for any situation has been the subject of much praise since he first burst onto the scene with The Byrds in 1964, his highly stylized, subtle, and deceptively complex guitar playing had always been an effective tool through which to distinguish himself and his songs.

Taking enormous influence from the likes of jazz guitar giant Django Reinhardt – after whom he would name his son, born in 1995 – and Indian Sitarist Ravi Shankar, Crosby would utilize a jazzy, fingerpicked style that often incorporated complex alternate tunings and chord voicings. This technique can be heard on several classics of which he was involved in the creation, including the title track for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s acclaimed 1970 album Déjà vu, as well as “Guinnevere,” the latter of which would become a signature song of sorts for the folk legend.

On the subject of alternate tunings, Joni Mitchell, another well-known proponent of alternate tuning techniques, was an artist Crosby admired perhaps more than any other. He could frequently be seen singing Mitchell’s praises on social media, writing as recently as August 11, 2022, “Besides being the best songwriter I have ever heard… Joni was one of the best singers of all… ever.”

Ironically, it was Crosby himself who would afford the fellow songwriting legend her commercial breakthrough after having first heard her during a 1967 club performance. He would subsequently bring her along when he returned to Los Angeles, producing Mitchell’s debut album Song to a Seagull which would be released the following year. Crosby would also credit the songstress with sparking his own interest in alternate tunings. Asked by a fan on October 1, 2021, whether he’d been inspired by another musician to utilize the technique or if he had developed the style on his own, Crosby succinctly responded, “Joni.” Crosby’s candid and frequent use of social media as a means of voicing his thoughts on everything from food and cars to music and world issues would act as a continuation of a fearlessness and sincerity with which the singer would become associated early in his career.

It was this forthrightness which, among other issues, musical and otherwise, would serve as a source of conflict with his bandmates in both The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, & Nash. But like many great artists of our time, Crosby was committed to doing things his own way – not necessarily because he believed it to be the best way of doing things, but because it was truly the only way which he could conceive of them being done. Much like Bob Dylan and his good friend Jerry Garcia, Crosby’s vision was singular and unwavering, and he lived his life in such a way as to never falter on that which he believed to be true.

Crosby’s contributions to the extended canon of popular music are well-documented, with the songwriter having amassed writing credits on bonafide classics such as The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” – inspired by the work of Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane, and cited by many as having birthed the psychedelic rock genre – as well as Crosby, Stills & Nash cuts like “Wooden Ships,” and “Almost Cut My Hair,” the latter performed with the augmented lineup featuring Neil Young.

But the career of David Crosby is a particularly layered one, and some of the songwriter’s most engaging work can be found on projects outside these key collectives. Such releases include Crosby’s consistently strong string of albums with Graham Nash as a duo. Some highlights from those projects include “Carry Me,” “Traction In the Rain,” and “Page 43.”

But what has perhaps been Crosby’s most encompassing and enduring artistic statement comes in the form of his eclectic and highly influential debut solo LP, 1971’s If I Could Only Remember My Name, which would prove to be substantially impactful in influencing future generations of artists through its utilization of abstract and avant-garde elements.

The third in a series of high-profile solo album releases by the members of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, If I Could Only Remember My Name boasts an ensemble cast of supporting musicians including CSNY bandmates Neil Young and Graham Nash, Grateful Dead members Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh, and Jack Casady, and Jefferson Airplane members Jorma Kaukonen, Paul Kantner, David Freiberg, and Grace Slick among others. The star-studded lineup, informally dubbed The Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra by Kantner, was indicative of Crosby’s status as a social lynchpin and respected figure in the San Francisco music scene during the time. Crosby would refrain from releasing any full-length solo work for nearly two decades following the release of If I Could Only Remember My Name, as the period from the mid-70s to the mid-80s saw his productivity and general capacity as a functioning human being progressively derailed by increasingly worsening substance abuse. This period famously culminated with Crosby spending nearly a year in a Texas state penitentiary on possession charges – a sentence which he would later claim saved his life.

Having refrained from the use of hard drugs since his release from prison, Crosby would spend the following years generally focusing on work with Crosby, Stills, & Nash, though he also released two solo albums – Oh Yes I Can (1989) and Thousand Roads (1993) as well as two live albums It’s All Coming Back to Me Now… (1995) and King Biscuit Flower Hour (1996.) Crosby, Stills & Nash would release four proper albums together – including two featuring the CSNY configuration – before experiencing what would be their final split in 2015 when they ceased performing together permanently.

The fracture in the group dynamic during these later years has been said to have occurred as a result of friction between Crosby and Nash, with both parties having confirmed such issues in recent years. Despite the troubled final years between Crosby and Nash, the two have worked together indirectly in promoting recent Crosby, Stills & Nash releases such as a special edition rerelease of CSNY’s 1971 classic Déjà vu.

Upon the news of Crosby’s passing, Nash took to social media to share a heartfelt tribute to his longtime friend and sparring partner which featured a photo of the two musician’s guitar cases side by side. The sentiment was indicative not only of the nature of Crosby and Nash’s decades-long relationship, but of the notoriously turbulent dynamic of Crosby, Stills & Nash as a unit. Bitter battles followed by extended periods of (relative) peace were not uncommon within the group, and this speaks to the sheer force of the personalities involved therein, and indubitably informed the timeless music the group created together.

Stephen Stills, with whom Crosby was on good terms prior to his passing, also took time to share his thoughts on the immense loss, writing of his former bandmate that he was happy to be at peace with him even though they had butted heads that had left their skulls numb.

Despite the mid-2010s having entailed the demise of the musical vehicle for which Crosby would be most well-known, it was also the period of a true creative renaissance for the musician. Beginning with the release of 2014’s Croz, David Crosby established himself as a formidable force all his own with a string of consistently high-quality solo releases culminating with 2021’s For Free.

During this period he would collaborate and mentor several young musicians including but not limited to, Michael League of Snarky Puppy, Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis, and his own son, producer and multi-instrumentalist James Raymond. For what would be his final studio album, Crosby would collaborate with Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen on the excellent “Rodriguez for a Night,” – undoubtedly a pivotal moment for the highly outspoken Steely Dan fan – as well as Michael McDonald, who contributed vocals and writing to the album’s opening number, “River Rise.” But it is the closing tune of the record which holds the most emotional weight with consideration to recent events.

“I Won’t Stay for Long” is an emotional, piano-based ballad that sees Crosby staring his inevitable demise in the face, expressing appreciation for his loved ones, and reflecting on an astounding run through life. Along with his CSN bandmates, multiple figures in the world of music shared their condolences upon the spread of the news of Crosby’s passing, including Jason Isbell, who Crosby joined to perform live on stage during his final years who stated that he was grateful for the time we had with David Crosby.

Ringo Starr was also among those to comment on the unfortunate development, with the legendary drummer offering his thoughts the following day and condolences to the Crosby family. “God bless David Crosby and peace and love to all his family,” Starr declared. The estate of Tom Petty wrote about how Tom Petty counted David Crosby as a friend and a hero who often visited at his house in the valley. They talked about how He was funny, provocative and electric with talent Crosby was.

David Crosby was a Grammy Award winning musician, and one a few among the likes of Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Lou Reed, The Beatles, and his CSN bandmates to have been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame multiple times. Crosby, like his bandmates, was inducted both as a member of CSN and a preceding band, this of course being – in Crosby’s case – The Byrds. At the time of writing, only 26 musicians can lay claim to the distinction of having been inducted into the Rock Hall multiple times.

The musical legacy of David Crosby is so vast and expansive that one estimates it to be impossible to fully appreciate and understand at the present time. The processing of this enormous loss, along with public reassessment of the work and the inevitable discovery and re-discovery of much music assumed to have been lost to cultural and stylistic changes is in order before the pieces can be even remotely ready for the establishment of a more objective and appropriate context in which to place the man and his endless artistic contributions within the scope of the greater rock canon.

But beyond his musical triumphs, David Crosby was a force for personal integrity and unwavering honesty – a beacon of truth and transparency in a world and business characterized by tepid platitudes and routine slight of hand. He wasn’t concerned with what you, me, or anyone else thought. But he was absolutely certain of what he thought, and he was sure to spell it out as clear as day for anyone willing to listen.

“Anything you want to know, just ask me,” Crosby sang on “Anything at All” from Crosby, Stills & Nash’s 1977 album, CSN. “I’m the world’s most opinionated man.” Indeed, the iconic songwriter made a habit of sharing his thoughts with the world over the years. Today, the world is a little bit dimmer without them. Rest in peace, David Crosby (1941-2023).

Remembering David Crosby article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023

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