On 18th January singer-songwriter David Crosby passed away at the age of 81. Proclaimed an “architect of harmony” in Bob Dylan’s memoir, Crosby was an obstinate non-conformist, idiosyncratic in his craft and instrumental in creating the template for folk-rock in the 60s and the emergence of the ‘California sound’ in the 70s. Co-founder of The Byrds and later belonging to one of the first supergroups, Crosby, Stills & Nash, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 and 1997. During his time in The Byrds, he recorded some of his more outré material such as ‘Mind Gardens’ (1967), which Crosby himself said “neither rhymed or had rhythm”. His most groundbreaking release with The Byrds was undoubtedly ‘Eight Miles High’ (1966), considered by many to be the first psychedelic single ever released, laden with Crosby’s signature harmonies.
His contributions with Crosby, Stills & Nash were no less unorthodox. The band’s 1969 self-titled debut album boasted three Crosby contributions. ‘Guinnevere’ is a hauntingly beautiful ballad, which showcases Crosby’s interest in finding new and unexpected tunings for his guitar. Crosby expertly weaves together the stories of three different women: Joni Mitchell, his late-girlfriend Christine Hinton who died in a car accident, and a mystery woman he refused to name. ‘Wooden Ships’ is an apocalyptic anti-war song, detailing the consequences of nuclear conflict and the desire to escape reality for a place “far away where we might laugh again”. Also carrying a political message, ‘Long Time Gone’ was written following the assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. For Crosby, “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”.
Crosby remained politically inclined until his death, an active Twitter user, criticising Republicans and praising Greta Thunberg in his final posts. His qualms with society weren’t always met positively, however, with fellow Byrd Roger McGuinn stating Crosby was “insufferable”, launching into lengthy political rants on stage. But Crosby’s tensions with bandmates didn’t stop there. Crosby embraced a hedonistic 60s lifestyle of excess, eventually convicted of possession of cocaine and a loaded pistol and sentenced to five years in jail in 1983. When asked why he carried the weapon, he simply answered: “John Lennon”. CSNY member Neil Young denounced Crosby’s choices in the release of his song ‘Hippie Dream’, a criticism of the “ugly” counter-culture movement of the 60s. Crosby also clashed publicly with Neil Young and Graham Nash, bashing both for leaving their wives for younger women. Although he was known for his ego, with Chris Hillman saying he had a superiority complex, Crosby was not unaware of this fact and himself admitted that he was “a thorough prick”. However, it seems his contrarian nature did not quell with age, with Crosby publicly dissing Kanye West, Phoebe Bridgers and the Doors.
Whilst notorious for being a difficult character, Crosby’s life was also one littered with acts of great generosity. In 1967, he came across Joni Mitchell playing in Florida and brought her back to California, helping her to secure a record deal and producing her first album Song to a Seagull. Also, during the 90s Crosby became the sperm donor for Melissa Etherdige and Julie Cypher, happy to encourage people to see that gay families were “not something strange”. Moreover, after grappling with drug and alcohol addiction for many years, Crosby and his wife Jan Dance took in 14-year-old Drew Barrymore, who was battling addiction herself after she became legally emancipated from her mother.
In Cameron Crowe’s 2019 documentary ‘David Crosby: Remember My Name’, Crosby stated that “time is the final currency. What do you do with the time you have left?”. Crosby’s preoccupation with his own mortality was evident not only in this film, but he also frequently referred to the limited time he had left in interviews. This profound sense of the fleeting nature of his own life seemed to drive Crosby to continue creating against the clock, releasing six studio albums in the last decade. Some of his earlier work even gained greater public appreciation later in his life. Crosby’s solo debut If I Could Only Remember My Name (1971), which featured backing by Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell, was far from revered at the time of its release. However, it reached new ears decades later with its influence particularly recognisable in the records of contemporary artists such as Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear. The delayed popularity of his solo endeavours points towards the motivation behind Crosby’s music, creating for himself, rather than to garner listeners and fame. When asked about his new material, Crosby declared, “I don’t think kids are gonna dig it, but I’m not making it for them. I’m making it for me. I have this stuff that I need to get off my chest”. However, like many older artists, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young included, Crosby found issue with the new age of streaming, as it is often impossible for artists to make money through streaming alone, hindering the emergence of young musicians, “the music industry is making a terrible mistake. They are stealing, and they are thieves”.
Crosby certainly diversified later in his career, singing backup for Indigo Girls and Phil Collins as well as releasing his book ‘Stand and Be Counted’ which investigates the intersection of celebrity and social activism. Most importantly, however, he lived out any Arts and Culture writer’s dream: he got a column at Rolling Stone. Crosby’s advice column, ‘Ask Croz’ featured gems such as “David Crosby Answers Your Questions About Heroin, Monogamy, Weed and Forgiveness.”
David Crosby was an undeniable trailblazer, seeking to provoke and question, an innovator until the end. Graham Nash gave tribute to Crosby on the day of his death, “he spoke his mind, his heart, and his passion through his beautiful music and leaves an incredible legacy”, with even those he clashed with most remembering and revering him as a genius of his craft.