For David Crosby, life is especially sweet. Survivor of a lifestyle that nearly killed him dozens of times over, the two-time inductee into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame (The Byrds in 1991, CSN in 1997) has recently released Croz, his first solo album in more than 20 years. Containing 11 new songs, its title is a wry reminder of Crosby’s long and winding return to consciousness in the years after his brilliant 1971 solo debut, If I Could Only Remember My Name. Recorded with his son James Raymond (keyboards, vocals), Shayne Fontayne (guitar, vocals), Marcus Eaton (guitar, vocals), Kevin McCormick (bass), and Steve DiStanislao (drums), along with guest appearances from Mark Knopfler and Wynton Marsalis, the album exudes a tremendous sense of vitality, featuring complex chord changes, unusual key and time signature changes, and an abundance of subtle poly-rhythms, over which beautiful melodies and harmonies soar and intertwine … all hallmarks of a David Crosby project. It may well be viewed as his masterpiece.
Today, the operative word for David Crosby is grateful: He is grateful to be alive, grateful for his family, grateful for his friends, and grateful for his fans. On the road to support Croz, Crosby’s recent sold-out appearances at City Winery in NYC showcased a man who, at 72, is at the peak of his creative powers. I had the rare opportunity for a lengthy discussion with a true musical legend.
David Crosby: I can’t. When something like that happens, sometimes you can take credit and sometimes you simply have to stand back and be grateful. That’s really where I am. I certainly didn’t take care of it, I didn’t treat it like the gift it is, and I’m kind of stunned … but it was very well recorded by my son, James. I got the drugs out of the way, which gives me consciousness, but I’m kind of amazed at the quality level that we managed to deliver. I listened to that vocal on “Holding On To Nothing” and I don’t know if I’ve done much better than that.
RA: How and when did the album begin to take shape? I remember hearing “Radio” a couple of years ago when you performed it first with Crosby/Nash, and then with CSN.
DC: “Radio” was the first one that James and I put together. I had this set of words, and James wrote the music. When we listened to it, we thought, “Hmmm … gotta make a record!” Records, for us, are not “I gotta make a record – let’s write some songs.” They’re, “Hey, I’ve got some some. Think we can make a record?” The songs are the key, man. If you don’t have a song that you can sit down and sing to somebody and make them feel something, you don’t have the wherewithal. And if you take substandard stuff and put a lot of production on it, you’re just polishing a turd. The key to whole process is good songs and once you have them, you serve the songs. Anything else is putting the cart before the horse. You are there to serve the song. That’s the way we look at it, James and I. The fact that you heard “Radio” two years ago will tell you how long we’ve been working on it. We might have even started before that, but I think that was the first one where we looked at each other and said, “Yeah, we’re sure.” It was a long process because we didn’t have any money. We had to do it on the cuff and with the generosity of friends—with an incredible amount of generosity of friends.
RA: How did the collaborative partnership between you and James evolve?
DC: Well, it’s genetic, first off. Secondly, we speak two languages—music and English. Thirdly, it’s been a consistently growing thing ever since the first time we met. We’ve both matured more as writers since then and we’re delivering pretty good songs, I’ve gotta say, I feel strongly about every single one of those songs on the record. I think we had something to say and didn’t shy away from it. I can’t stress enough how central good songs are to the whole process.
RA: What opened you up to collaborating with others as a songwriter?
DC: Well, I find that other people … (and I think the first person that I wrote really successfully with was Graham Nash) … I find that sparking off another person really lights up the process. Inevitably, you widen the range of input; they have ideas that you didn’t think of, you have ideas they didn’t think of. If you’re not defending your turf and trying to get all the publishing (rights), if you’re open to it, it allows you to get songs like “Dangerous Night” and “Find A Heart” … I can write pretty well, but I wouldn’t have thought of either one of those.
RA: Can we talk about the recording process for the album (involving your son and Jackson Browne)? How did Mark Knopfler and Wynton Marsalis get involved?
DC: Well, that’s about four different stories … First of all, the Jackson Browne studio stuff was when we did a couple of tracking dates and was very successful but that was grocery money and we couldn’t afford to step in there and stay there for a month, which is what I would have liked to have done. The Wynton story is … CSN did two shows with Wynton and the Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra in New York, so I had gotten to know Wynton then and I found him (as all other musicians do) to be a dedicated, lifetime, extremely talented musician and a gentleman … a really nice cat, man. We kind of made friends, and when I had that song “Holding On To Nothing”, it did not have a solo on it. I sent it to him and said, “Does this tickle your whistle here? Could you do this?” And he sent back, “Yes, I will. I like it!” It was such a beautiful thing he played. The Knopfler story is also fascinating. I have a friend in Italy who’s been my promoter for 20 years, Adolfo Galli, a very, very good friend—a good man. He spoke to Mark Knopfler’s manager; he handles Mark in Italy also, and he said (adopts cultured Italian accent), “This-a David Crosby, he’s-a good, and I think it would be good for him and Mark to do something together, maybe write a song.” Mark’s manager replied (adopts cultured British accent), “Well, Mark doesn’t really do that, but he might play on something.” By that time, he was talking to me, and I said, “Uh, yeah, I do!” So we sent it over for him to have a listen and he said, yeah, I like that song, and I’ll play on it. We sent (the track) over, and he played unbelievably good guitar. And the thing you notice is not only that he is a great guitar player, but man, is he a master craftsman at making a record. He makes setups and payoffs and framing lyrics … he’s a brilliant guy. I don’t even know him. He did that for the music, because the music was good enough and not out of anything else; generous thought. I have tremendous respect for him. I think that was a very generous and nice thing for him to do and I’m deeply grateful.
RA: Referencing your first solo album, If I Could Only Remember My Name, to the brand-new release … the songs appear to have brought all the participants to new heights of performance. Jerry Garcia was quoted as saying that he felt that you brought a better performance out of him than he was capable of achieving on his own. What do you bring to the mix that inspires other musicians to that level?
DC: I don’t know … it’s tough to talk about yourself … I’d rather somebody else was answering this question … but (perhaps) it’s devotion to the song and a certain freedom from preconception, a willingness to let the music go where it wants to go and see what happens. I think that’s a tremendous compliment; I didn’t know Jerry said that. I really loved the guy. What we would do, he and I, was precisely that. We would feed each other a scrap of a song and see what would blossom out of it. We would write songs together as we were just goofing off, just jamming. Some of our jams turned into songs. I miss him. I wrote a poem about him because I was just missing him tremendously.
RA: Lyrically speaking, your abilities as a “cinematic lyricist” and a painter of “psychic portraits” are evidenced in songs like “If She Called” from Croz, “Through Here Quite Often” from 2004’s Crosby/Nash double album, and “Yvette in English” from 1993's Thousand Roads. The ability to switch from writing deeply personal, autobiographical lyrics which you are well known for to those which contain virtual “psychic snapshots” of other people is remarkable. I’m wondering how that process works for you …
DC: It’s probably where I do it better. Talking about the stuff that I’m going through and the questions that I have is one level. When I go into someone else and describe someone as in “Through Here Quite Often”—this purely imaginary figure—I get better, I think. I think the story songs are better, I think they communicate better. I’m grateful that you like them! “If She Called” … that’s a very sad tune, and it comes as a sort of vignette about that little European hooker. But it’s a very genuine thing, you know? You have to wonder where they hide their hearts. I was watching them and I couldn’t help feeling empty for them … because their life’s got to be terrible.
RA: “If She Called” and Stephen’s “Love Story” could almost function as companion pieces—
DC: His stuff and my stuff do work pretty well together!
RA: If we were to play word association with just some of the people with whom you’ve worked, could you offer some thoughts on them?
RA: Graham Nash …
DC: The man’s had a huge effect on my life, and I guess I’ve had a large effect on his. He’s a great friend. He is a fantastic harmony singer, probably the best there is. There are other good harmony singers—we lost one in Phil Everly—Graham and I learned our trade from the Everlys. I guess you’ve probably listened to (their music) … they’re amazing harmony singers. Graham … I put him through a lot. He watched my whole downhill slide, tried to stay my friend, and was there for me when I started the long rung-by-rung climb back up. He’s a good man; a self-made sort of Renaissance Man, fascinated with everything, a brilliant photographer, a brilliant thinker. I love him.
RA: Stephen Stills …
DC: Oh, man. Well, you know, he’s a tougher guy on the surface, but underneath, there’s somebody at home to talk to. My God, has he written some wonderful stuff. “And there’s a rose in the fisted glove, and the eagle flies with the dove, and if you can’t be with the one you love … “
RA: Love the one you’re with!
DC: Would you have loved to have written that? (laughs) He’s a brilliant guy and he’s done a whole lot of fantastic songs. He’s a pleasure to work with. I’m happy about it!
RA: Neil Young …
DC: Neil! Oh, boy! He’s a really fascinating human being. I think the thing to notice about him is, first off, the talent that he has for writing songs that really matter to you. “Old Man” will always be one of my favorite songs, always. He set the bar really high. Now, he hasn’t always come to that bar, but I think that most of the time he has. The thing I love about him most is that he’s pretty fearless. He will push the envelope. He will go out of the edge. Live, he’s the most live live guy you ever saw. He approaches the song the same way Nash and I approach harmonies live; we don’t ever do it the same (way) twice, and Neil has never played a song the same way twice in his life. He’s always out there on the edge, looking for his muse, looking for “Where can I take this? How far will it go?” And that’s him—you’ve gotta respect that. It’s not a common trait; it’s the exact opposite of show-biz. I love him, I can’t help it. He was a really good friend to me when it really was hard, and I will always have respect for him and care about him.
RA: Your son James …
DC: What a shocker, huh? Yeah … He’s been a musician already for 20 years before he found out that I was his dad. His mom put him up for adoption when he was born, and the genetics had blossomed for him and he had gone and become a musician and … when I met him, he was a better musician than I was, and he’s been steadily growing ever since. On this record, he played, wrote, he sang, he produced, he engineered, he wrote some more and engineered some more and then produced … I can say honestly that this record wouldn’t have happened without him. You can see that by how much he contributed. We made it at his studio in his house. I’d wake up, he’d make me breakfast, and we’d just go to work. I owe him so much I’ll never be able to repay it all.
RA: Roger McGuinn …
DC: It brings such a rush to me. I really love the guy. Nobody would question that he was the main guy in The Byrds. He made the Byrds possible: His arranging sense, and his writing sense, and his playing, and his storytelling ability with his singing … incredible. I have huge respect for him. I wish that he would play with me and Chris but he doesn’t want to. You can’t make somebody play, you can only ask, and if he doesn’t want to, I have to respect that. I really loved making music with him, I really did.
RA: Jack Casady …
DC: Ah, Jack … a wonderful guy and one of the greatest bass players ever. One of the best sounds, one of the best minds, one of the best grooves. He’s an incredible player. Did you ever hear (the version of) “Guinevere” that he played on?
RA: Yes I did. His bass playing functions as a third voice, practically.
DC: It’s spooky, isn’t it?
RA: Yeah— any additional thoughts on Jerry Garcia?
DC: Well … I wish he was here. I wrote a poem about him, it’s out there somewhere. It’s called “Missing You Tonight” ….
RA: Joni Mitchell …
DC: What a controversial figure! I think that in 100 years, when they look back, they’re gonna say, OK, the best writer of that era was … they’re undoubtedly gonna say Bob (Dylan), but I think they’re also gonna say Joni, but, for me, I think that she, at her best, was as good a poet as Bob was or very close. A much better musician and singer … so I’d give it to Joni. I think she’s probably the best singer-songwriter of our times. I think that most of my cohorts would agree.
RA: Phil Collins …
DC: Wonderful cat. A wonderful, generous, very smart, very decent guy. He not only made some wonderful music with me and let me make some wonderful music with him but he helped me get through a very, very, very hard scene, and I will be forever grateful to him.
RA: I’ve heard you’re also a fan of Peter Gabriel. What draws you to his music?
DC: I had a reaffirmation. I went to see him with the New Blood Orchestra—I don’t know if you got to see one of those shows—the orchestration was done so brilliantly, I think that guy who wrote the arrangements should get a medal! And I think Peter should get one for bravery and for being the only person to have his stuff orchestrated and then play it that way; the only guy I ever saw, anyway, who actually pulled it off. He’s an incredible singer. To this day, he’s still one of the best singers alive and one of the best writers. And one of the best of us all. I mean, there’s no question!
RA: Would you ever consider working with him?
DC: Oh—what are you, kidding? I’d walk to England to work with him!
RA: Going back to the City Winery show … you performed “Turn, Turn, Turn” as a tribute to Pete Seeger. How would you describe his influence, not just upon music, but upon social activism?
DC: Well, he taught it to us! This is a man who was brave enough to stick up for what he believed in, right from the get-go. He learned it from people like Woody Guthrie and he taught it to us. And thank God we were listening. He spent over 90 years on this planet trying to do the right thing. He was such a stand-up guy, and at the same time so gentle, and so fiercely human. He really held true to himself and what he believed in the whole of his life. I don’t know of a more exemplary human being. I rank him up there with Martin Luther King and people who were willing to risk their lives for what they believed in.
RA: Are there any current artists whom you respect?
DC: I’ve always dismissed rap and hip-hop as being incredibly shallow and pointless. And then my son turned me on to Macklemore and Ryan, I listened to "Ten Thousand Hours" and read the lyrics. Read the lyrics! If you read them, you’ll walk away from it saying, “Holy shit! This is good!” And you can’t ignore it. It was a shocker to me; I had to change how I felt about things, but there it is. Now, Lady Gaga … what an interesting person! This is a person who maybe is—possibly is—as crazy as a fruit fly. But she completely, unlike all the manufactured pop tarts, and we all know who we’re talking about there—I like that phrase, though: “Pop tarts”! It’s so descriptive!—[laughs]… Lady Gaga was a shocker for me because I was sitting 50 feet from her and I can see her hands and I can see her face and I can hear her sing and the shock was that she can really play and really sing, and that she really cares. She sang “You’ve Got a Friend” to Carole King and brought tears to my eyes. Done! You’ve got to give her props, man. She can really do it.
RA: Who else do you view as the new “front line”?
DC: I have to go back to my two favorite current songwriters in America who aren’t big stars. Shawn Colvin: I think Shawn has been a great writer ever since “Steady On.” She’s just a fantastic writer, player, and singer. I don’t think I’m as good as she is. And I look up to her a lot. She’s a joy to watch and a joy to listen to. The other one that’s notable is Marc Cohn. He is a guy that everyone thought was a one-hit wonder with “Walking in Memphis” and then he just didn’t go away. He kept writing brilliant songs, he kept making records whether they were hits or not; he kept making brilliant records. His last record has a song on it that I think is one of the best songs written in the last 10 years—“Listening to Levon.” The record’s called Join the Parade. It’s an astounding piece of work, the whole record is. I listen to him a lot, I listen to Joni still, I listen to Randy Newman, the Indigo Girls, I always listen to Steely Dan. Man, I think Donald Fagen is just incredible. I have such respect for that guy.
Author’s Note: The following question was asked by my 19-year-old stepson Eric, who was on the receiving end of both life and career advice from David when we chatted backstage after the February 1 City Winery show; an unforgettable moment that I will always be grateful for. Thank you, David!
Eric Gordon: As a self-described Constitutionalist and a lifelong advocate of political awareness, what advice could you offer to today’s young people as they grow into adulthood and assume the responsibility for moving our country and the world forward?
DC: Well, you’re facing a very difficult task. To start with, your government is owned by one percent of the population. Your government is corrupt to the point where that one percent of the population can call their senators or Congressmen they’ve bought and get just about anything they want. "Give us a war we can love. We need nobody to notice while we do this awful thing over here" … And they get it. It’s a corporatocracy, not a democracy, and that’s a very worrisome situation to start out with. We had stuff like that to look at when we started sticking up for what we believed in. Black people in the South couldn’t vote in their own country. We didn’t think that was right, so … the civil rights movement. We went to war in Vietnam, we had no business being there; we fought against it. Nowadays, it’s very tough for young people to not feel that they’ve been handed an impossible situation. They’re perfectly aware that Fukushima is out there poisoning the Pacific Ocean, they’re perfectly aware that climate change is real. Jesus God, help us from the Republicans! And they’re perfectly aware that conditions in the United States are deteriorating, that there’s more poor people and that the top one percent has got 95 percent of the money. It doesn’t look good to them. They want to have faith in democracy, but this isn’t a democracy any more. I don’t blame them for doing things like Zuccotti Park and other places where they said we know we’re being handed the short end of the stick and we may not be to stop you, but we do know, and we’re watching. I wish there were more. One of the big differences is that back when I was fighting against the Vietnam War, there was a draft, so every college campus in the country was a hotbed of anti-war. No draft now, so that’s not true. The people on the campuses are desperately trying to earn their degree and desperately trying to figure out how to earn a living in a slowly collapsing, badly-guided economy. Meanwhile, we sell jobs to the Chinese, who hate us. It’s not a good situation; it’s not easy for any young person to look at, and feel that they have a path ahead of them that they can have confidence in. In the face of all that, my advice is that you simply can’t roll over and put your paws in the air. If you’re gonna be a stand-up guy, that’s what you have to do. You have to find ways to fight the situation rather than just accept it, ways to keep it from degrading you. A lot of people just say, “Ah, fuck it,” and get drunk. I think you gotta watch out for that yourself and you gotta have self-respect and that will entail you having to go against the stream and God bless you if you do!
RA: At your shows for the past few decades, you’ve always voiced your appreciation for teachers. What’s your take on the American education system these days?
DC: It’s degraded quite a bit. In the United States, schools have gone seriously downhill. California used to be number one in the nation, now we’re behind Alabama, Mississippi. The United States used to be number one in the world, now there are 26 other countries ahead of us. In other words, every industrialized nation in the world is doing a better job than we are which is really, extremely worrisome. This may be a conspiracy theory, but I think they are really actually wanting the schools to be dumbed down, because it gives them a less intelligent, more easily manipulated population.
RA: George Carlin once said that—
DC: Yeah, I think it’s true. I think they want us dumb and patriotic, because those are both handles that they can use to manipulate us. I think that’s terribly sad. Teachers can be so influential, can make such a difference in a young person’s life. A good teacher (is one) that doesn’t just try to jam a square peg in a round hole and will actually dialog with the kid and spark them. It’s a fantastic opportunity to do good. That said, I don’t think that an awful lot of them are doing that. I think a lot of them are sitting on tenure and twiddling their thumbs, and I can’t feel good about it. Teachers should be paid two or three times what they’re getting, so that we get the best young people out of college going into teaching. If I can figure that out, anybody can figure it out! That’s what should be happening.
RA: Where do you see society headed?
DC: I’m distressed to see it run by the corporations. I’m distressed to see the military getting all the money and the schools getting none, and that’s just completely wrong priorities to me.
RA: The past several years have seen you working almost nonstop on the road, whether with CSN, Crosby/Nash, and now your solo tour. You seem to be working harder with the passage of time. Does the lure lie in the music itself, or does the concept of time play a role here?
DC: You get a sense of that you’ve only got a certain amount of time and you want to spend it the best you can, and since that what we’ve spent our lives doing, all the people that you’re talking about, we treasure our time more, as we get smarter, as we get older. We say, “Oh, damn, I wish I hadn’t wasted as much time as I did.” Hopefully, we get smarter. I love being able to play music. I don’t like being away from home, I don’t like eating restaurant food, I don’t like being alone in a motel room and stuff, but I love to play!
RA: OK, final question: With the upcoming release of the CSNY 1974 tour on CD and DVD, Graham Nash has alluded to a possible CSNY tour this summer. Can you offer an update?
DC: You’re asking the wrong guy! (laughs) You know who you should be asking! (referring to Neil Young, the usual catalyst for all CSNY reunions)
|David Crosby - photo by Buzz Pearson|
© 2014 by Roy Abrams
Note: an edited version of this interview appeared in the April 2014 issue of Long Island Pulse