David Crosby

 

 

“It’s been a long time comin’
“It’s goin’ to be a long time gone”

1.

David Crosby was a difficult man.

But he was brilliant. And the special sauce, the man whose magic could be hard to pin down, but without him in the room it didn’t happen. And when he was…

Let’s start with James Taylor’s “Mexico.” James was on a losing streak. He was losing his impact. After “Mud Slide Slim” the excellent “One Man Dog” was not well-received commercially and the follow-up, “Walking Man,” produced by David Spinozza, was a dour disappointment. Not that James had lost his songwriting talent, it’s just that certain something that endeared him to the public was gone.

And then came “Mexico.”

Believe me, no one was waiting with bated breath for a new James Taylor album. The story of the summer was the domination of the Eagles’ “One of These Nights” and the continued impact of Bob Dylan’s revelatory “Blood on the Tracks,” it was no longer 1970. And then out of the car speakers was heard…

“Oh, Mexico
It sounds so simple I just got to go
The sun’s so hot I forgot to go home…”

It was the background vocals that put “Mexico” over the top, the voices of David Crosby and Graham Nash. I need to mention Russ Titelman and Lenny Waronker’s production, they brought a sunniness back to James’s sound, but when you heard those background vocals you smiled like you just bit into a candied apple and felt life was beautiful and you couldn’t wait to live it.

Which is not the way it was for most of the sixties.

The sixties were all about growth, testing limits. The youth were quaking, and the establishment didn’t like it. And what drove the youth was the music, it was the tribal drum, radio was far more important than television, music was not compromised, it embodied truth, and everybody listened.

First, there was the British Invasion.

Next came folk rock. After that came the San Francisco sound.

And folk rock was ushered in by the Byrds, with “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Sure, today everybody knows it was written by Bob Dylan, but this was before Bob broke through on Top Forty with “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Yes, it was the jingle-jangle of the guitar. And Jim McGuinn dominated the vocals, but David Crosby was there too.

And back then music was scarce, not plentiful, you tuned in “Ed Sullivan” just to get a glimpse of your newfound heroes. And sure, Jim wore those granny glasses, but there was this slightly chubby guy with a Prince Valiant haircut holding his guitar high on his chest, the one who wore that velour overshirt that became all the rage.

That was David Crosby.

We didn’t know who David Crosby was, we didn’t know who ANYBODY was, other than the Beatles. All we really knew was what was on the album covers and what we occasionally saw on TV. But what we did know was everything, we wore the clothes of the stars, we wanted to be different, we wanted to stand out, we wanted to stand up for something.

So Gene Clark left the Byrds, and Crosby was kicked out.

This was before Eric Clapton formed and dissolved bands on a regular basis, we thought our groups were forever. And to a great degree, we forgot Crosby, he didn’t have a hit on the radio…

But neither did the Byrds, without Crosby they never had another hit single. Sure, they did “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” with Gram Parsons. And “(Untitled),” but that certain something that puts a track over the top, to the point where you had to hear it so much that you went out and bought it, was gone.

And then Crosby resurfaced with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash.

Stephen Stills was the guy who sang “For What It’s Worth.” And there were some hipsters who owned the Buffalo Springfield records, but that’s about all most people knew about Stills, the hit. As for Graham Nash… The Hollies were seen as a lightweight pop group, and if you knew, and almost no one did, you thought Allan Clarke was the star. Believe me, when it was announced as “Crosby, Stills & Nash,” most people went HUH? regarding Nash.

Which is all to say that the CSN debut was a complete surprise, a tour-de-force that no one was looking for, never mind expecting.

And it was all about “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” You heard it once… I tingle even thinking about it. There was nothing quite like it. Acoustic-based, but with energy, long, with changes, meaning… You could listen to it again and again and again, you had to, you wanted in on this!

Sure, “Marrakesh Express” got some Top 40 airplay, but that was not the track, it was all about what was being played in people’s houses. Yes, “Crosby, Stills & Nash” was not an immediate monster, that was ” Déjà Vu.” It took a while for the word to spread, half a year, a bit more. Most markets didn’t even have an FM station, you went to a friend’s house and they spun “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and your eyes bugged out. It was like J.C. had returned from the dead, embodied by these three angels.

But the amazing thing was it wasn’t only “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” You bought the album, you had to, and it took no time to get it, but the more you listened, the more you understood.

And the Stills songs contained a certain genius. Nash added a bit of lightness. And Crosby? David delivered the heaviness. It was a heavy era, completely different from today. You “rapped” with your friends about not only politics but emotions, personal development, it was all about conversation, who you were, more than money. We all had questions, and we were willing to raise them, but there were not a ton of bloviators boasting they had answers. All we had was these musicians, we pored over the words and the music looking for insight.

2

Don’t forget, there were two sides, and they were different. I always preferred the second side, which began with “Wooden Ships.”

“If you smile at me I will understand”

It started off quietly, then boasted searing electric guitars, and then got all quiet again. And Crosby wrote “Wooden Ships” with Stills and Paul Kantner, but it was definitely Crosby’s song. There was a rich mellowness that Crosby specialized in. That only he could deliver. They say it was the honey in his voice, however, you want to describe it the truth is it was unique, you always knew it was him, and unlike so many of his contemporaries, Crosby still had it, intact, when he died.

But my favorite song on side two is “Long Time Gone.”

Talk about heavy.

You can’t fully appreciate “Long Time Gone” on headphones. Because it’s the bottom that pushes it over the top. An oozy substructure on the verge of distortion that touches your heart and soul, your body vibrates in concert.

And the groove. Just a bit slow. You couldn’t listen, still can’t listen, without nodding your upper body in time.

“Speak out, you got to speak out against the madness
You got to speak your mind if you dare”

Talk to a performer today, I do all the time, and the one thing almost no one wants to talk about is politics, they don’t want to take a stand, they’re fearful of alienating a potential audience member, their pocketbook. But that was not the ethos of the sixties, and David Crosby was a representative of that era and never lost its essence. He continued to speak his truth, which was always considered and reasoned, sometimes uninformed, but he was willing to mix it up, get the issues in play, and you can’t come to conclusions, can’t get to the truth unless you lay it all out and argue about it.

3

“Déjà Vu” was a disappointment. Nothing could live up to the expectations. Not that that hurt sales. In my mind, adding Neil Young changed the chemistry. It wasn’t the same band. Neil’s songs didn’t fit in.

Now that I’ve offended Young fans, I’m going to stick to my guns.

The “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” was “Carry On,” which was nearly as magical, nothing could equal “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and nothing has to this day, by either these guys or anybody else. But the sheer elation of “Carry On”…you listened to it and felt hope, possibility. And the magical blending of the voices…

And David’s impact on “Déjà Vu” was not as obvious. Of course, “Déjà Vu” contained “Almost Cut My Hair,” but to tell you the truth, it seemed a bit obvious, a bit out of date, playing to those who hadn’t gotten the message. It wasn’t long after this, a matter of months, that I cut my own hair, because I didn’t want to be associated with those who thought by growing their hair they were hip.

Not that “Almost Cut My Hair” is not a great track, it’s got that “Long Time Gone” feel…slow, hypnotic, great guitarwork, great vocal.

And forgetting the title line, deeper in the song there is meaning and magic that had impact.

“Must be because I had a flu for Christmas
And I’m not feeling up to par
It increases my paranoia
Like looking at my mirror and seeing a police car”

Personal. Today people strive for the universal by being general, but the opposite is true, the more you testify as to your personal truth, the more your music resonates.

And the police are not your friend. Nor is the military. Necessary evils, but don’t expect them to be there for you. The police don’t even come, and if they do, they do so late. I get uptight whenever I see a policeman or a cruiser. Too many of these guys are uneducated and aggressive. Yes, I’m a child of the sixties, Joni Mitchell, Crosby’s discovery, sang about kissing a Sunset pig in “California” and she was not talking about the kind of swine that lives on a farm.

We were all paranoid, untrusting. As we should have been. As those in minority communities still are. That’s what the L.A. riots taught us thirty years ago, everything the rappers were saying was true, and their music burgeoned because of this truth.

“But I’m not giving an inch to fear
‘Cause I promised myself this year
I feel like I owe it to someone”

Standing up, not giving in. That’s a sacrifice most people are unwilling to make. As for owing it to someone…that’s us, the audience, Crosby was standing up for us!

4

You can rewrite history all you want, but “If I Could Only Remember My Name” was a disappointment then and still is. Oh, I bought it the day it came out. The opening cut, “Music Is Love,” with everybody involved, is hypnotic and magical, especially when Neil starts to sing, but then…

“Tamalpais High (At About 3)” was supposedly about checking out the high school girls when they exited the building. Who knows, this was back when you couldn’t check out rumors on Snopes. Furthermore, most people had no idea where or what Mt. Tamalpais was and still is.

“Laughing” is also hypnotic, but…

You see David Crosby was never supposed to be the leader, he was always supposed to be in a group, the guy calling b.s., adding the special sauce. When in total control, he didn’t quite know where to go.

Believe me, if you were stoned, some of the cuts, like “Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves)” would take you on a trip down a lazy, lolling river, or eight miles high.

But “If I Could Only Remember My Name” had to stand up against everybody else’s work. “Stephen Stills,” “After the Gold Rush,” and the complete surprise, Graham Nash’s “Songs for Beginners,” and just wasn’t in the same league.

But Crosby was smart enough to throw in with Nash and they immediately recaptured the magic with “Immigration Man.” Sure, it’s Graham’s song, but Crosby is in there too. “Immigration Man” was a hit, whereas as good as “Songs for Beginners” was, it didn’t break through on Top 40.

And then the duo switched to ABC, a second-rate record company, and the label might not have been able to deliver, but the opening cut on the act’s first album for the label was so special, one couldn’t even imagine it being cut, I mean humans can’t produce this sound, can they?

“Carry me, carry me
Carry me above the world”

Play “Carry Me” for a youngster, they’ll be stopped in their tracks, they’ve never heard anything like this before. It’s like a Dead Sea Scroll, nobody makes music like this anymore. Authentic, from the heart, without airs, yet smooth and easy at the same time. “Carry Me” carried you away, above the world, released you, inspired you, what else can you ask for from music?

5

And when everyone had given up on the band reuniting, they did! Sans superstar Neil, but that meant there was no disruption in the magic, no thorn in the sound, it was what it once was, but the better part of a decade later. Sure, 1977’s “CSN” was not as good as the first two albums, but it was in the same league.

The album opened with Crosby and Craig Doerge’s “Shadow Captain” as opposed to a Stephen Stills extravaganza, but “Shadow Captain” was a journey on its own, it had the power of an opening cut, it inspired you when you dropped the needle, this was SERIOUS!

After that…

6

Well, there were more albums, even with Neil Young, none as good, the band lost credibility and stature. And the last time I saw them… It wasn’t good. There was something missing, they were all there, but there was no magic. As for some of the voices…

But not long before that, in 2004, Crosby & Nash made an album that came out on the ill-fated Sanctuary label that opened with a cut…

It was a two-CD package in an era where the CD was in deep decline. As was terrestrial rock radio. I heard “Lay Me Down” a couple of times on XM, but…

I had a promo copy, but nobody I knew was even aware of this cut. A complete return to form without being nostalgia, “Lay Me Down” was exactly what it sounded like, aged rockers sans plastic surgery, owning their history, laying it down in the present.

And then Crosby commented on Young’s wife-to-be and did something to Nash that is still unclear and not only did collaboration amongst the four end, the speaking relationship, other than with Stills, was gone too.

But at this strange point, completely down on his luck, Crosby soldiered forward. Decided to continue to make music, test limits, and the end result was GOOD!

This is astounding. Neil Young pulled out all the PR stops but his new album is nowhere near as good as Crosby’s last, not that most people heard it. Crosby kept putting out records, kept going on the road, he was an inspiration, but even better what he was doing was current and had appeal. When everybody else was dyeing their hair and playing their hits David was still exploring, testing limits. You WANTED to listen to his new music, and I can’t say that about most dinosaurs.

7

Yes, there was that song “Triad,” but isn’t it interesting that eventually it was Crosby who ended up with the most sustained relationship, with Jan.

And all that drug stuff…

None of it admirable, but Crosby admitted his faults and flaws and soldiered on, he didn’t keep trotting out his sordid past for attention and cash.

Crosby was like Dylan in this way. They were artists, they needed to create, otherwise the whole enterprise didn’t make sense.

And then there were the complaints about the internet and streaming… I didn’t bother to get into it with him, he was convinced, but I believe he was ill-informed.

But talking to Crosby…

Did you see the movie? You should. One of the greatest rock movies ever made. Because Crosby is completely honest, not only revealing his warts, but owning them. NO ONE DOES THIS!

And speaking to David… He always talked about dying, at least for the last few years. To the point where you felt he’d be here forever.

But he’s not.

Crosby’s death was a shock in that it happened so soon, not in that it happened at all. He kept telling us he was in ill-health. He told me he probably didn’t have the strength to go back on the road after Covid… But he was continuing to make music.

Jeff Beck was a complete shock, out of the blue.

Whereas Crosby…

Warren Zevon kept telling us he was going to die and he continued to live to the point where we wondered if he really had the Big C. We figured it would be similar with David, but it was not.

8

So where does this leave us?

Crosby was there. At the beginning. When America awoke after the Beatles. And he’s been on the ride ever since, engaged, observing, not changing his identity a whit.

Let’s be clear, Crosby didn’t suffer fools. And hanging with his buddies he could be insufferable…I’m a rock star and you’re not!

But the whole game changed in the last two decades and when all his contemporaries refused to own it, wanting the past to return, Crosby got into the flow and continued to swim, maybe with an aged body, but with all that experience, insight and wisdom.

Crosby was an untouchable god.

And then you could get into it with him on Twitter, he was right there.

Image? This guy didn’t care at all.

Crosby was a survivor. When so many were not. And unlike Keith Richards, he realized, was forced to realize, the error of his ways, he adjusted, he changed, in a world where almost no one does. It’s a badge of honor to change, to admit you were wrong. If someone never admits they’re wrong ignore them, they’re untrustworthy.

So when I think of David Crosby, I don’t only think of the music. He and his work make the eras come alive in my mind. He was engaged. Sure, he lost a decade or more, but so did I, most everybody who lives long does, especially if you’re pushing the envelope, living your life according to your own principles. People don’t like that, they want to beat you down, make you crumble. But Crosby never folded.

Sometimes you wanted to be David Crosby, and sometimes you didn’t. But who else had such a long career and continued to mean something?

Almost no one.

And Crosby wasn’t running on fumes. The fire was still lit.

But now it’s out.

9

David Crosby’s death was a long time coming.

He talked about his money problems. Sold his catalog to Irving. He was not a rich rock star living off his past in the hills, he needed to work, he wanted to work. You see that’s what artists do.

“Turn, turn any corner
Hear, you must hear what the people say”

Crosby was telling us to listen. To pay attention. To the people. The truth. Not the supposed leaders. That was the magic of Crosby, he was beholden to nobody, and he did not want you to be either, he was an inspiration.

“It’s been a long time comin'”

It most certainly has been. Marijuana may be legal, but not abortion. In so many ways we seem to be going backward. Sure, we have these shiny devices, conveniences, but people’s brains, what they think…

But David Crosby never gave up.

“But you know
The darkest hour
Is always, always just before the dawn”

Sure, it’s a cliché, but the dawn Crosby was talking about…we believed in the possibility of change. We had no idea that Ronald Reagan would legitimize greed and the boomers would sell out to the dollar.

And many acts sold out too.

But David Crosby maintained his internal tuning fork throughout his life. He never compromised, never did it the easy way, always kept pushing towards the goal. There are people who don’t like this, but Crosby was smart enough to know you don’t retreat because of institutional blowback, you stay the course, otherwise you can never get to the goal.

So that’s all she wrote. All he did. There will be no more story.

But there’s enough for two or three lifetimes.

David Crosby first and foremost embraced life.

He’ll be a long time gone.

~~~

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