By Eleni P. Austin
David Crosby is kind of a dickhead. He’ll be the first person to agree with that assessment. Most of his lifelong friends aren’t speaking to him these days. Ex-Byrds bandmates have labelled him “insufferable” or insisted that he suffered from a “superiority complex.” He’s a walking contradiction, anti-war but pro-gun, he’s disarmingly blunt and unapologetically unfiltered. But man, can this guy sing, and that remains his saving grace.
David Van Cortlandt Crosby was born to Hollywood royalty, his dad, Floyd Crosby, was an award-winning cinematographer. Thanks to his mom, he and older brother Ethan grew up surrounded by music mostly Classical, show tunes and Folk. Later, Ethan taught him how to play guitar and introduced him to the West Coast Jazz of Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan and the Hard-Bop of Miles and Coltrane. With little interest in academics, he was kicked out of more schools than he could count. But David realized rather quickly that he could sing and harmonize with anyone. After high school he toyed with becoming an actor, but figured it was easier to attract girls by saying he was a musician. In the early ‘60s, he headed for New York City, epicenter of the thriving Folk music scene. He made some friends and some connections, but this California kid could not get used to the cold.
Back on the West Coast, Los Angeles was experiencing its own musical renaissance. David fell in with like-minded musicians like Roger (ne’ Jim) McGuinn, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke. First known as the Beefeaters then The Jet Set, they finally settled on The Byrds. Making a name for themselves playing clubs on the Sunset Strip, they signed a record deal and scored a #1 hit with their Folk-Rock rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Tambourine Man.” Somewhere along the way David earned the nickname “Croz.”
The band kind of invented Folk Rock, (motivating Dylan to follow suit and go electric). They consistently topped the the charts with songs like “Eight Miles High” and “So You Want To Be A Rock N’ Roll Star.” But five raging healthy egos made it difficult to to peacefully coexist. Croz didn’t help matters by airing his Kennedy conspiracy theories on stage, during gigs, or insisting the Byrds record “Triad,” his enthusiastic ode threesomes. (Jefferson Airplane later covered it). By late 1967, Roger and Chris had ousted him from the band.
He promptly borrowed $25,000 from Peter Tork and purchased a sailboat. Sailing around the Florida Keys he happened upon a club in Cocoa Beach and kinda-sorta discovered Joni Mitchell. Returning to L.A. with her, he not only did he secure a record deal for her, but he also produced her self-titled debut. (Actually, he retained a producer credit, but he essentially stayed out of her way and let Joni call the shots). Croz had been jamming with Stephen Stills, who was at loose ends following the dissolution of his band, Buffalo Springfield. Not long after, Mama Cass (the doyenne of Laurel Canyon), introduced him to Graham Nash. Graham had gained some fame as part of the British Invasion group, The Hollies, but he was looking for new challenges. When the trio sang together, their vocal chemistry was electric. Graham tendered his resignation to The Hollies and Crosby, Stills & Nash was born.
Their eponymous debut arrived in 1969, delivering an irresistible combination of ethereal harmonies, adroit musicianship, winsome melodies and socially conscious lyrics. It was an immediate hit, winning over skeptical critics and topping the charts. The following year, Stephen Stills’ ex-Buffalo bandmate/frenemy, Neil Young joined their ranks and the trio became a quartet. The four-piece began recording Déjà Vu. As the album neared completion, Croz’ girlfriend was killed in a car wreck. Once it was released, the record was another smash hit, but it was a pyrrhic victory for him… Devastated by Christine’s death, what had been recreational drug use became a full-blown addiction, as a means to assuage the pain.
Trying to stay busy, he enlisted famous friends like Jerry Garcia, Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash and recorded his solo debut, If I Could Only Remember My Name. For the next several years he toggled between writing, recording and touring in different configurations: Crosby-Nash, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The results were hit-and-miss, as drug procurement and consumption became his true vocation. He functioned, after a fashion, but his Lost Weekend lasted nearly 15 years.
By 1985, strung-out from freebasing, he was on the run from the law, facing myriad drug and weapon charges. He ended up turning himself in and served nine months in a Texas prison. He finally got clean and sober during his incarceration, he was even allowed to start a band, but he was forced to say adios to his long hair and trademark Walrus moustache.
Since his release from prison, he has endured triumph and tribulation with his typical leonine equanimity. In 1989, even though he was on probation, a sympathetic judge allowed him to marry his longtime girlfriend, Jan Dance.
In 1994, their house was destroyed by the Northridge earthquake and he underwent a successful liver transplant. But at the same time, he connected with a biological son, James Raymond, who had, unknown to him, been given up for adoption at birth. (He already had two grown daughters, Erica and Donovan Anne from previous relationships). Already a working musician, James and Croz built their father-son relationship from that shared interest.
After undergoing fertility treatments, Jan gave birth to their son, Django. Around the same time, it was also revealed that Croz was the sperm donor/bio dad to his pal Melissa Etheridge and then-wife Julie Cypher’s two children, Bailey and Beckett. Although his years of addiction left him dealing with Hepatitis C, Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease, he has continued to make music with CSN and CSN&Y. When those guys weren’t available, he teamed with his son James and bassist Jeff Pevar, hitting the road as CPR. All told, they’ve released two studio albums and two live recordings.
For decades, he has thrived in group settings, only sporadically releasing solo efforts like 1988’s Yes I Can and 1993’s Thousand Roads. That changed in 2014, with the arrival of his fourth solo endeavor, Croz. It was embraced by fans and hailed by critics as his most assured solo album to date.
What followed was a late-life creative renaissance that has produced a series of solo records, Lighthouse, Sky Trails and Here If You Listen, respectively, released between 2016 and 2018. Critical acclaim was swift and effusive. But offstage, Croz being Croz couldn’t keep his opinions to himself. Twitter proved the perfect platform, allowing him to shoot his mouth off in real time.
In the process, he’s managed to alienate bandmates like Graham Nash and Neil Young (who now refuse to work with him), as well as stalwart compadres like Jackson Browne. At this point, reconciliation seems like a pipe dream, even though he seemed truly remorseful and repentant in the Cameron Crowe- produced documentary, David Crosby: Remember My Name,
For several years, his primary source of income was derived from touring. Croz spent much of his seventh decade on the road. But the Covid pandemic put the kibosh on that revenue stream. Faced with losing his house, he wound up selling his publishing rights. That has given him a measure of financial security. Last year delivered a second blow when Beckett, his biological son with Melissa Etheridge and Julie Cypher died at age 21 as a result of an opioid addiction. Although they didn’t share a traditional father-son relationship, they were in each other’s lives.
Facing the fact that his touring days may be behind him, Croz and James Raymond spent their pandemic days coming up with his eighth solo release, For Free. Arriving just ahead of his 80th birthday, the album boasts a delicate watercolor portrait the curmudgeonly artist in his winter years. Despite his weathered visage, the music contained herein, is as fresh and mind-blowing as the stuff he created more than 50 years ago.
The record opens with the one-two punch of “River Rise” and “I Think I.” On the former, the plangent piano notes reinforce David’s remarkably elastic tenor on the opening couplet, is quickly augmented by stealthy percussion sparkly guitars shivery bass and incandescent harmonies, courtesy ex-Doobie Brother, Michael McDonald. Cheerful lyrics like “The golden light surrounding a sea of humanity and the wind has its own language, spoken by the trees/Diamonds shine forever, underneath a twilight sky, as the day grows dim, I start to be always one more try,” celebrate the now (which is probably a good policy for an octogenarian). Buoyed by a crisp and concentric arrangement, Croz unleashes a stratospheric note guaranteed to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand at full attention. Lush and percolating guitars dart in and out of the mix, unspooling ricocheting riffs as the song winds down.
Both tracks are written by Croz and the latter feels wildly optimistic for Rock & Roll’s most churlish cherub. Meandering pedal steel, lowing bass and sun-dappled acoustic notes are bookended by a tick-tock beat. Straight off, he impishly insists, “I think I, I think I found my way.” Life-lessons are plentiful, but not in an unctuous, Stuart Smalley way, as lyrics concede “And they don’t tell you when you’re right, all the things you need to stay alive, there’s no instructions and no map, no secret way past the trap, it’s so confusing we keep losing our way.” Fleet and filigreed fretwork dominates on the break.
Luckily, Croz has formed one of his most consistent and long-lasting musical partnerships with his son. Not only has James acted as music director for several years, he’s also included a few of his own compositions on For Free, that feel tailor-made for his dad. Take “Boxes,” which is powered by rippling acoustic guitars, lithe electric riffs, spidery bass lines, pulsating keys and a thunky beat. The opening couplet offers a truculent caveat; “This time I got nothing to say about it, I’m about as still as water could be, I won’t fuck with anyone’s arrangement, let’s open these boxes and see.” But digging deeper, he seems to acknowledge his foibles; “Last time the kettle was boiling over, we made a mess of it, I made a mess..” and he’s attempting a course correction; “I tried so often to summon my better angels, but they’re over the horizon once again..” A stinging guitar solo on the break adds a mischievous note to this late-life mea culpa.
On “The Other Side Of Midnight,” cascading guitars partner with a wash of keys, wily bass lines and a snapback rhythm. Dreamy lyrics speak to spirituality, pain and regret, but the spotlight shines brightest on gossamer harmonies and the intricate and iridescent guitar work on the break. Both instrumentation and arrangement echo the crystalline sound that Crosby, Stills & Nash achieved on their undervalued 1977 gem, “CSN.”
The album’s best tracks stack back-to-back, dead center. There’s a Jazzy, Steely Dan sleekness to “Rodriguez For A Night” which feels wholly apropos since the song was co-written by Crosby, James Raymond and half of the Dan, Donald Fagen. In fact, Croz recently admitted “we Steely Dan’d it right into the fucking ground!” Funkified bass lines pivot between muted keys, glassy guitar riffs and a heartbreak beat. Ascending horns bob and weave between verses as lyrics pine for a former love, currently entangled with an alluring outlaw; “I confess he had some qualities that might attract a foolish girl, an effortless charisma and a clever way with the world/Now I’m just a drugstore cowboy, you know I’ll never be Mr. Right, still, I would sell my soul if I could only be Rodriguez for just one night.” A keening guitar solo cuts like a knife (but not in an icky, Bryan Adams way) on the break, bolstered by the syncopated horn section.
There’s an autumnal ache to “Secret Dancer,” which opens tentatively as quiescent acoustic arpeggios lattice over feathery keys and a hi-hat kick. Crosby’s mien is wistful, even as he concocts a fantastical tale about a sentient robot who decides it’s female and likes to dance; “The creation started dancing, silently, gracefully, beautifully, slowly, in the dark, in the dark.” Willowy trumpet and lissome piano appear on the break, to enact a blissful pas de deux.
Finally, “Ships In The Dark” is another in a long line of nautically-themed gems like “Wooden Ships,” and “Shadow Captain.” Peppery drums, liquid acoustic riffs, slinky bass lines and a handclap rhythm lock into a mid-tempo groove. It’s part technological rant, part philosophical harangue; “I am awake as the world sleeps, I can’t seem to touch this world, I’d sleep while the world weeps, my ship’s still, my sails furled, my sails furled.” In between the verses, Waspish riffs and Bluesy guitar licks tangle with tart electric piano notes, underscoring Croz’ peckish vibe.
Other interesting songs include a painterly duet with Americana singer Sarah Jarosz on the title track, a Joni Mitchell deep cut that he has been noodling with for years. Then there’s “Shot At Me, a song that evolved from a conversation Croz had with an Afghanistan War vet tormented by PTSD and haunted by one of his kills. The album closes with its most potent track, “I Won’t Stay For Long.” By turns tender and tough, poignant and pragmatic, it reminds the listener that at 80, David Crosby has, to paraphrase Shakespeare, reached the winter of his discontent. Sylph-like guitars partner with lanky bass lines, hushed keys and a supple backbeat. The first verse finds Croz putting his cards on the table; “I’m standing on the porch, like it’s the edge of a cliff, beyond the grass and gravel lies a certain abyss and I don’t think I will try it today/I’m facing a squall like a thousand-year storm, I don’t know if I’m dying or about to be born, but I’d like to be with you today, yes, I’d like to be with you today.” Fluttery flugelhorn notes act as a wordless Greek chorus, quietly underscoring the song’s inherent fragility. Written by James Raymond, it manages to put Croz’s vulnerability on full display. The final verse seems directed at his wife Jan; “And I won’t stay for long, I’ve got a place of my own… An abandoned song, it echoes through this well I’ve fallen in, if I could just hold on to the smell of your skin, I could live, I could breathe, I could breathe.” A clear-eyed meditation on mortality, it’s an evocative end to a stellar record.
Co-produced by Croz and James Raymond, the album features the talents of Steve DiStanislao, Abe Laboriel, Jr. and Gary Novak on drums, Andrew Ford and Eli Thomson on bass, Dean Parks, Steve Postell and Shawn Tubbs on guitar. Walt Fowler played trumpet and flugelhorn, Steve Taviglione blew saxophone. Gracie Raymond, Bella Stevens and Michelle Willis handled backing vocals. The legendary Greg Liesz added some lonesome pedal steel. Not only did he add harmonies to “River Rise,” he also wrote the song’s second verse, on the spot. However, MVP status belongs to James Raymond who contributed drum programming, Fender Rhodes, percussion, keys, synthesizer, guitar, synthesizer bass, backing vocals, Wurlitzer and horn arrangements (phew).
As David Crosby edges toward the Exit sign, he has managed to create the most uncompromising, vital and heartfelt music of his life. Hopefully, the work will speak for itself, eclipsing the um, extracurricular activity that defined the first part of his career. There’s an elegance and a majesty to this record that transcends his past transgressions, and that’s enough for now.