Monday, June 15, 2015

David Crosby: Like Fine Wine and Good Cheese

image by Eleanor Stills
Strong, clear, and incredibly dynamic, David Crosby‘s voice permeated the electrically-charged atmosphere of Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre, bringing the sold-out crowd to its feet time and again during the triumphant May 16 performance by Crosby, Stills and Nash. Graham Nash was equally as powerful in his own right, and Stephen Stills reclaimed a level of vocal strength not heard in years, but it was Crosby who astounded the most. Like the young Byrd who flew into uncharted musical territory in the 1960s, Crosby’s voice soared effortlessly to stratospheric heights, melodiously swooping down, around, and through the voices of his two partners, creating transcendent harmonies that left me open-mouthed in awe from start to finish. Judging from the reviews of CSN’s recently-completed U.S. tour, the group has reached deep into itself and found new reserves of energy and stamina, delighting audiences from coast to coast. Speaking with David backstage after the May 16 show, it was immediately apparently just how stoked he was with the performance, citing the audience’s overwhelmingly positive response as the catalyst that brought out the very best in the band. Including—as always—new material with the classics, Crosby’s solo spot provided a tantalizing hint of what is to come when he brings his summer solo tour to Town Hall in New York City on June 25.

A lengthy phone conversation with Crosby conducted on May 30, one week prior to the tour’s launch on June 6 at the Kerrville Folk Festival, provided an opportunity to revisit some familiar territory and explore uncharted terrain with a musical legend.

Roy Abrams: Having seen CSN on every tour since 1977, what I witnessed at Kings Theatre on May 16 may well have been a performance high. I’ve read nothing but stellar reviews of the shows. With the US tour wrapped up, what was the general consensus from the three of you?

David Crosby: Well, frankly, we’re kind of surprised at how well it’s going. We felt the same way as you did. Those were stunner shows, the two of them there. We did two out in New Jersey and we did two there. I was amazed. You know, we can deliver a certain level 95% of the time but a great audience pulls us up. That was a great audience. They were really into it. I think it’s partly because it was New York and partly because it was Brooklyn, and partly because that theater was so good. Is that a beautiful theater or what?! I don’t know if anybody’s going to play the Beacon anymore! That place is a stunner!

RA: Definitely! As far as the acoustics are concerned—

DC: —Fantastic!

CSN, May 16, 2015, Kings Theatre
image by Roy Abrams

RA: Going back to last year’s performance at City Winery in Manhattan in support of your Croz album, your voice just keeps getting better and better, defying both time and logic. Although I asked you this question last year, how do you account for it? Do you do vocal exercises or anything of that sort to keep it in shape?

DC: Like fine wine and good cheese, it improves with age! I have no real explanation for it, man. If I were religious, I’d say well, they have more work for me to do … but I’m not. I can’t really find any sensible way to look at it except to be grateful. I go for it in the middle of a song, and it’s there. I can hear it; I know it is, I know I’m singing well. I don’t want to brag about it, because it’s not something that I am really responsible for, as if I had cleverly written a great song. I’m personally proud of it when I write a great song, that’s something else. But to be given the gift of being able to sing the way I do at this age, I can’t take personal credit for that; it’s just something that’s there. The only sensible thing I can do about is be grateful … and I am incredibly grateful.

image by Buzz Person

RA: I’d like to talk about the two new songs you unveiled during the tour: “What Makes It So” and “Somebody Home” … What was the genesis of each of those pieces?

DC: In each case, they came out of a tuning. I find a tuning on the guitar, I start playing, and words would come. “What Makes It So” is me, once again, championing independent thought and “think for yourself” and the other one, “Somebody Home”, that’s sort of an apology from all men to all women. It’s me saying, “You know, we all make this mistake of thinking that the wrapping paper is what’s important and it’s not, it’s the gift inside.” We all do, man. We all look at a great-looking girl and we think, “Wow, that’s a great-looking girl!” We don’t really think about the person inside that girl, which is really where the pay dirt is.

RA: As evidenced by your guitar playing on “What Makes It So”, you are obviously still uncovering new places to go with non-standard tunings. I know that EBDGAD is a personal favorite of yours.

DC: I have a bunch, man. [chuckles] The most remarkable one is the one I found by accident, recently, and so far I’ve got two entire pieces of music in it that are just amazing! And not only that, but I showed it to my friend Marcus Eaton, and he’s got two songs, finished songs with words, and it just happened by accident. I was trying to reach another tuning and I did it wrong [chuckles] and I hit that one.

RA: When we chatted backstage at the Kings Theatre show, you mentioned that you had 14 new songs under your belt, which begs the question: Are there any new plans for a follow-up to Croz, or maybe even a less band-oriented record that mirrors your upcoming solo tour?

DC: Yeah! Let me count them here, I’m looking at my computer. I’ve got one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen … I have fifteen sets of words here on my computer screen and two finished songs. And then I have, I think, five pieces of music that I'm working on that don’t have words yet. (So there are) nineteen things that I’m working on!

RA: Speaking of new music—

DC: Oh, I have another finished one here! I just finished one with Michael McDonald. Amazing, amazing! God, is he fun to work with! Holy shit!

RA: How did you cross paths with him?

DC: I’ve idolized him. I don’t know if you know this, but all these singers in the world, we all wish we were Michael McDonald. He’s the best male singer of all, period. There isn’t anybody close. The way Bonnie Raitt is for women, he’s head and shoulders above the crowd, and I’ve always idolized him. So, when I got a chance to meet him, I tried hard to befriend him, and we did wind up being good friends. Now he lives here in Santa Barbara, near me, so we got together at his house and my house, and got this song, and I think we’re both going to record it. Now we decided that we’re going to write some more, because it was a very good process.

RA:  Speaking of new recordings, I asked Graham if there were any plans after this frenetic year of touring to reconvene for a new CSN studio album. He said that he felt the three of you would probably sit down and discuss it at some point next year. What are your thoughts on that?

DC: I don’t want to write it off—never say never. But right now my focus is on solo stuff.

RA:  Your views of the songwriter as troubadour have always struck me as particularly on point, especially given your history of speaking out when you have been sufficiently moved to do so, which has not always been confined to the medium of song. Given your role as a community crier of sorts, I’m curious to know your thoughts on the current political environment in the United States and our current standing in the global environment.

image by Buzz Person

DC: You know that song of mine, “What Are Their Names?” Well, that’s about who’s running things; who’s really running things. And here in the United States, because of decisions like Citizens United … money talks. The really wealthy people (and) the corporations have bought our Congress, with one or two exceptions. But massive 98% of the Congress is completely bought, which means that the system is completely broken; it’s no longer a democracy, it’s a corporatocracy. That’s a very bad thing. We’re getting into another war in the Middle East because—there’s no political or even religious basis for it—it’s because they want to make a profit. People who arm, train, house, clothe, feed, transport our army make a profit (costing) trillions of our dollars in order to do that. So they call up Congress to say, “Give us a war, we’d like to have another war, thank you. And make it nice and far away, so it’ll cost a lot to get our stuff there.” And Congress says, “Yes, sir!” That mess in the Gulf, where the platform blew up and we killed eleven guys, that didn’t happen. And nobody’s gone to court, by the way, and nothing really happens. BP spent more money telling you how cool they were and how they were cleaning up than they did on cleaning it up … and that’s corporations running things! It’s not a good thing; it’s very bad for the American people. It means that the Constitution is no longer the rule of law, and I’m very distressed by it. I think any conscious American would be.

RA: Is there any politician among this current crop of Republican contenders that stands out to you as being particularly scary?

DC: Yeah, all of them! [chuckles]

RA: Moving back to the music, for the solo tour, given your extensive catalog, what was the song selection process like? As a follow-up question to that, is the set list going to be relatively static or are you planning on making each performance somewhat of a unique entity?

DC: You know, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have way more songs that I need for the song list. I do have a song list in mind; I did a little experimenting in Italy with solo acoustic; I did a few gigs there just to try it out and see if I still could do it. I did one test gig here in the States, a benefit for a club here that I want to keep in business. How it will turn out after I get comfortable with it, after the first four or five gigs, I expect I’ll probably be switching songs in and out pretty frequently, because I have more than I need by a long shot.

RA: How do you go about narrowing it down?

DC: Well, think about it … acoustic guitar and one voice. I’m probably not going to try “Wooden Ships” even though it’s one of my best songs, because it’s a band song and it really depends a lot on the three-voice harmony. But I have a ton of other ones; clear back to probably my first decent song, “Everybody’s Been Burned” … I’m probably going to do that. I’ll probably do everything from that to stuff I wrote last week.

RA: How does one keep the fire burning underneath songs that you have performed literally thousands of times during your career? I remember hearing James Taylor speak about his relationship with songs of his in that category, such as “Fire and Rain” … what is that like for you?

DC: The answer is that you just don’t do them the same each time. It’s harder with a band than it is by yourself. When I do them by myself, (a) they’re completely different than when I do them (with) a band because when you’re singing with other people, you have to sing in lockstep with those people. By yourself, you can take liberties with the melody and go anywhere you want. It’s a lot more expressive in telling the story. One of the reasons I’m doing this is because that’s where I started out.

RA: Full circle! Speaking of the writing process, you mentioned that it became easier for you being drug-free. In fact, the quote was “I got the drugs out of the way, which gives me consciousness.” It was somewhat of an ironic statement, given the atmosphere of the ‘60s and mindset of “expanding one’s consciousness” through certain substances …

DC: Here’s the key to that whole subject. All drugs are not the same. That’s one of the mistakes the government’s made right from the get-go. They just say “drugs”, period. They don’t understand, or they seem to not understand, that they’re all completely different.  Hard drugs—cocaine, heroin, speed, stuff like that—absolutely destroy your ability to write. They destroy your creativity along with destroying your life. I wouldn’t say that was true about weed. Weed, if you smoke it in the morning, you’re not going to get anything done that day! I’ve always written in bursts, and when this latest surge hit, it hit so intensely and it’s lasted so long that I stopped even smoking weed, because I want to be able to really pay attention. If the Muse is going to stop by the house, I want the doors open and the lights on; you know what I’m saying? Currently, I’m completely sober. I probably am going to smoke (well, not smoke, but vaporize) again, you know; I live in California, so I can. But right now, no, I would rather write songs and would rather be really on top of my game when I’m doing this.

RA: Last year when we spoke, we went through a short list of some artists with whom you’ve crossed paths, and you provided some memories, opinions, and insight. I have a new short list for this year, if that’s okay.

DC. Sure!

RA: We talked about your days with The Byrds and your thoughts about bandmate Roger McGuinn, but we never got around to two others, Gene Clark and Chris Hillman.

Byrds-era David Crosby

DC:  Well, Chris and I are close friends. We like each other. Our politics are on opposite ends of the spectrum but I really respect him, and I think he’s a dedicated musician and a really good one. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard him and Herb Pedersen together? It’s stellar. If I had to pick who I like in country music, it would start with Alison Krauss and Union Station, and the very next one would be Chris and Herb. It’s that good!

RA: Recommendation taken! I will definitely seek it out.

DC: Try to see them live. They’re just amazing! Frankly, I would love to work with Chris. I would love to work with Roger (McGuinn). Roger’s very happy doing what he’s doing, a folkie. I get that, I understand that, I respect that.  You can’t legislate somebody into playing a particular kind of music. Roger and I have come to a sort of agreed upon friendship and truce about it; I don’t bother him about it. I know that he knows I would love to do it, and if he ever wants to do it, all he’s got to do is say so. But I respect him, man. The guy’s a terrific talent. He and Chris .. I understand that they’re different than me and that they’re doing what they need to do, and I kind of like of them. Gene … I miss Gene. He didn’t know the rules. He grew up completely outside of Hollywood and the music business and all that crap, and he was as talented as he was because he didn’t know. He heard The Beatles and said, “Oh, I can do that!” He did!

RA: How about Jimmy Webb?

DC: Oh, man, what a talent! What a wonderfully crazy, wonderful guy! I’ve recorded Jimmy’s songs in the past and I have great respect for him. If I was looking to write a Broadway musical, I’d hire Jimmy. He’s one of the best writers we’ve got. I think he’s right up there with Randy Newman and James Taylor and people like that. He’s been hugely influential and he’s done incredible work.

RA: James Taylor was the next on my list …

DC: James is … he’s the King James Version! He’s certainly one of the top three or four singer-songwriters of all time. He’s a fantastically talented guy; an incredible writer, incredible player, incredible player. He has this about him also: he’s a gentleman, a nice man. He’s polite, he’s well-mannered, he’s extremely intelligent, and he’s paid lots of dues.

RA: How about David Gilmour?

DC: I think Fender guitars should erect a monument (to him)! He does more with touch, and with hands, than most people could do with an entire pedal board. One of the reasons I love him so much is that he can play melody off the top of his head, not just blues licks. He can play pure melody right off the top of his head so brilliantly. He also happens to be a fantastic singer and a fantastic writer. He, again, is a gentleman and a nice, decent guy. He’s a wonderful cat to hang out with because he’s extremely well-educated and well-read and can talk to you about anything at any time on any level.

RA: The final name: The Jitters, a/k/a The Section …

DC: Ah! The Jitters and The Section overlap; they’re not quite exactly the same thing. The Section was a band in L.A. (with) Danny Kortchmar on guitar, Craig Doegre on keyboards, Leland Sklar on bass, and Russ Kunkel on drums. In the Jitters, we had Craig Doegre and Russ and Danny Kortchmar. We did not have Leland on bass, we had Tim Drummond. The Jitters was the original Crosby/Nash band, live, and it was a fantastic band.

RA: David Lindley was with you, correct?

DC: David Lindley was there as well, at the complete opposite end of the guitar world from Danny Kortchmar. And they loved each other and they played off of each other. They were completely different; as different as chocolate and cheese. They were wonderful together and it was a fantastic band.

RA:  Is there any one memory of your time spent with the Fab Four that particularly stands out?

DC: Yeah. The “Day in the Life” experience. That was a shocker. I was hanging out with them, they were making Sergeant Pepper. One of the nights that I was there at Abbey Road, they sat me down and played me “A Day in the Life”, which they had just finished, and I don’t think I’ll ever be quite the same.

At Abbey Road Studios with The Beatles

RA: It’s been more than 50 years since your creative journey began. The creative fire has been burning brighter and hotter—

DC: It’s burning extremely hot. I’ve had a couple of other points. Right when I first met James and we did CPR, that was a great writing period, and right when we were just starting Crosby, Stills, and Nash was a great writing period, and this is …. I just don’t know what to tell you. Every day is like a shocker. I found stuff last night on the guitar (that’s) good as anything I ever thought up, musically. I’m sitting here trying to figure out how I’m going to get the words!

RA: Parting thoughts?

DC:  Hopefully, we’ll be able to keep doing it for a little longer here. I thought it was really good myself. I can’t explain it to you, and I can’t take credit for it; I’m just grateful for it, I can tell you that!

© Roy Abrams 2015

No comments:

Post a Comment