Friday, July 19, 2019

One Man's Sunset is Another Man's Sunrise: The Continuing Adventures of David Crosby

David Crosby
Image by Anna Webber

David Crosby looks fearlessly into the waning light of his life, embracing the time remaining to him with all the energy and enthusiasm of a child waking up to a sunny summertime morning. CSN and CSNY are now things of the past, but all is well in Crosby’s world. The fire still burns, the muse still beckons, and the voice still soars. Moving gracefully into his 79th year, “the Croz” has entered what he stoically knows is the home stretch of his mortal journey, but this outspoken troubadour, the delightfully eccentric wizard responsible for writing some of the best self-proclaimed “weird shit” of this or any other time, continues to exude the energy of eternal youth. It’s in his voice, it’s in his attitude, and it’s fueled by the musical company he keeps these days. 

Since 2014, Crosby has entered a true Golden Age of creativity, recording and releasing four critically and commercially acclaimed albums within a five year span. He has toured America and Europe with two markedly different bands: the Lighthouse Band, an acoustic-based affair consisting of Crosby, Snarky Puppy’s Michael League, and singer-songwriters Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis, and the Sky Trails Band, an electric, jazz-infused rock conglomerate featuring Crosby, his son James Raymond, Jeff Pevar, Steve DiStanislao, Mai Leisz, and Michelle Willis. The shows have left audiences exhilarated and rapturous from the sheer musical magnificence that emanates from the stage, night after night. 

Shortly before the first leg of Crosby’s Spring-Summer tour with his Sky Trails Band gets underway, I am sitting in my home office, waiting for the phone to ring and resume a conversation that began nearly thirty years ago. I watch the clock and glance at my list of questions. A few minutes before the scheduled start time, the call comes through, and we get underway …

Roy Abrams: On July 19th, Sony Pictures will premiere the highly-anticipated documentary, David Crosby: Remember My Name in select theaters in New York City and Los Angeles, with a general release to follow shortly thereafter. The documentary was directed by A. J. Eaton and produced by the veteran music journalist Cameron Crowe. Am I correct in assuming that you met A. J. Eaton through his brother Marcus, with whom you have recorded and toured in the past?
David Crosby: The two brothers have been friends of mine for several years now. They’re really good guys.

RA: I know you have a long standing friendship with Cameron Crowe as well.
DC: Yeah. Cameron and I have been friends ever since he was 17 years old. You ever see Almost Famous?

RA: Yeah.
DC: Well, he was the kid in the film. Led Zeppelin and us (CSNY) were his experiences in coming of age. [Chuckles]

RA: Okay!
DC: Yeah, we introduced him to girls, and his mom definitely wanted to have us all shot.

RA: I was watching the trailer for the documentary where you described A. J. and Cameron, saying, “They’re both friends of mine. They’re both merciless,” in that they gave you no place to hide. You followed that up by saying you were asked the single hardest question that you were ever asked by anyone, anywhere, at any time. I would never presume to ask you for the answer to the question, but is that a question you could share now?
DC: I suppose I could. It’s a painful one. He asked me if I hurt any of the women that I loved and I was with, and I had to say yes. Not physically, but certainly emotionally.

Image by Anna Webber

RA: You said that the experience was paradoxical in the sense that it brought you pain, but that it also brought you much joy, that it was a cathartic experience.
DC: Absolutely! It really depends on how you look at it, man. If you’ve making a documentary, normally, it’s very shallow. They go around and get anybody famous that you’ve ever met; they stick a mic in front of their face, and ask, “Isn’t he great? Isn’t he wonderful?” This one, we wanted to give you an honest picture of a guy, and how he accomplished the good things he did and why he did the stupid things he did, and who he was. You don’t want to just prettify the picture; you want to find out who the person is. That’s how all three of us looked at it. There was a unity of purpose; we definitely felt that we knew what we wanted to do and we did it, and it was very honest.

RA: I know you’re working on another new album with the Sky Trails Band.
DC: The Sky Trails Band came out of CPR (Crosby, Pevar, and Raymond). My son James Raymond is the producer and keyboard player (and) he’s doing half of the writing. It’s probably the most successful writing partnership in my life. Jeff Pevar, our guitar player, is a spectacular guitar player; Stevie DiStanislao, our drummer, has been with me and James right from the beginning. He’s also (David) Gilmour’s drummer, as well as ours. Mai Leisz, our bassist, has her own jazz band in Scandinavia. She’s from Estonia, of all places. And then there’s Michelle Willis, who’s in both of my bands … a glorious fuckin’ keyboard player … just wonderful.

RA: Thanks to you, between Michelle and Becca Stevens (from the Lighthouse Band), I just can’t get enough!
DC: They’re two of the best singer-songwriters I’ve ever found in my life, ever, anywhere.

RA: For the new album, do you have a working title, and is there a tentative release date?
DC: No, we’re just going song by song, going right down in the trenches, taking each song as we get it, and serve that song. Then we’ll figure out that stuff later on, as we go along. I don’t know why I’m making the albums one after the other … well, I do. That’s a lie. I do know why. It doesn’t make sense, because they’re not paying me for them. Streaming just really killed it, man.  Streaming’s the reason I had to sell my boat. It took away half my income, because they just don’t pay us. Streaming is like if you worked for three weeks and they paid you a nickel. It’s not okay. They’re making billions—with a “b”—of dollars, and they’re not paying us, and it’s our music. I’m very resentful about that one. It left me pretty broke. The only way I can make any money at all is by my performances. I’m not in a big band; I’m a leftover from a big band, so it’s been very difficult that way. But I do think I’m making really good music.  This new song I’m doing with James might be better than all the others put together.

RA: Will any of the new material be premiered on the upcoming tour?
DC: I guarantee it. We’ve put two of them in the set already.

RA: I have so many more questions, but you just said something that I need to go back to. You just described yourself as a “leftover” and I have to respectfully disagree. You and I have been speaking to each other for 27 years. I’m 58; I’ve been listening to you since I’m 15. This might be an almost heretical thing for me to say, as a lifelong CSN and CSNY fan and all the permutations thereof, but it seems that all that was laying the groundwork for what you’ve done for the past five years. I don’t look at you as a leftover at all! I look at you as someone who’s this musical/historical figure, but you’ve given me the joy of discovering you as a new artist, and I’ve been listening to you all my life.
DC: Well, I love you for saying that. That’s how I feel too, man. The truth is that I can’t explain this resurgence but it’s there. I can’t explain how I can sing like this, man. I’m singing better than I ever have in my whole fuckin’ life, and it doesn’t make any sense at all. What can I do? All I can do is be grateful. I can’t take credit for it, because I have no fuckin’ idea how I do it. It’s not like I thought it up and was doing something clever; it just happened. The only smart thing I’m doing is recognizing it and working as hard as I can. If I’m going to be allowed to be a good writer at this stage of my life, and given a voice to sing really well, I am going to write and sing constantly. And, praise the Lord, in between! [Laughs]. It’s fantastic for me, man! I don’t want to slag my previous partners, man. I like ‘em all, they’re all good guys, and they’ve all done really good work. But I don’t want to go back there. I think it would be a step backwards.

RA: I agree with you in boldfaced italics.
DC: I really love what I’m doing. I love both of these bands. Both of the producers are extremely good. You know, I don’t know how much longer I’ve got. I don’t know if I’ve got two weeks or ten years. But here’s the thing. The question is now how long you have, it’s what do you do with the time? And I’m making the best music I can come up with, as fast as I can, because that’s what I think I ought to do.

Image by Anna Webber

RA: Let’s talk about the songwriting partnerships. You’ve been working closely with James for about 20 years now; in recent years, Michael (League), Becca, and Michelle; with Michael McDonald for the song “Before Tomorrow Falls on Love” … and, of course, your former partners. Can you put your finger on a common thread between all of those very, very different people and you as a collaborator?
DC: They all love songs, man. They all don’t want to do it half-assed. Every single person I’m working with treasures really good songs, and every single person I’m working and writing with loves the process and feels that it’s a place where they can do something to contribute. If you look at the world right now, the world’s pretty shitty … really shitty. Our government’s tremendously shitty, the situation is really not good right now, and we need a lift. Now, music is a lifting force. It makes things better. Just the same way that a war is a drag-down force and brings out the very worst in human beings, just the same way, music lifts people, makes their lives better, opens up their heads; it’s a positive force, right? And it’s the only thing I can do to contribute! It’s the only place I can lift. It’s the only place I can make anything better. It’s the only place I can help anybody. So, I think (that) we—the people who are doing it, and doing it really well, crafting really good songs—are a lifting force. It’s like we’re doing a mitzvah to the whole world. We’re doing a good deed. I believe in that really strongly.  So, behind everything that I’m doing, and everything that I celebrate other people doing, there is that ethic.

RA: Let’s talk about harmonies. From the days of The Byrds, I associate you with a pattern of instantly identifiable sounds … CSNY, certainly CPR, and now the Lighthouse and Sky Trails Bands. Just the other night, I watched CPR’s 1999 performance of “Homeward Through the Haze” at the Montreux Jazz Festival and lost it. Of all the harmony singers you’ve worked with over the years—and there have been so many—is it even possible to rank or classify those people?
DC: I don’t see how you would, man. The ones that I would talk about are all brilliant at it. You have to look at (Graham) Nash; he’s very, very good. Gilmour is a terrific harmony singer. Nobody knows that because they’ve never heard him do it, but he’s excellent at it. Who else is really good? I think (Paul) McCartney is fantastic at it. My favorite place, for me, is with Becca, Michelle, and Michael. We sing real four-part, with four notes, that I think is probably some of the best work I’ve ever done in my life, better than CSN or CSNY, for sure. CSN and CSNY sounded really good, and we had a really good vocal sound, but I think I’ve done more exploratory and more significant stuff with Becca and Michelle.

RA: I have to agree. I’m thinking of “Vagrants of Venice,” the co-write between you and Becca.
DC: Isn’t that good? It’s a crazy song! [Chuckles]

RA: When I saw the four of you perform that song at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY last December, it was one of those moments. I mean, I’m a grown man, but music can make you cry when it hits you on that certain “joy” level. You know what I’m talking about, right?
DC: Absolutely! It can, and it does all the time with us.

RA: That’s what this music is doing to me.
DC: Thank you, man!

Image by Anna Webber

RA: Thank you! So, you’re scheduled to play Woodstock’s 50th anniversary event?
DC: Yeah! We’re gonna go try to kick everybody’s ass. We want to be just as competitive as possible. We’re going to kick ass.  We’re going to play every hit we’ve ever had.

RA: Did the organizers hit you with a “Won’t you please come to Chicago, just to sing?” kind of pitch?
DC: No, they offered us a bunch of money, and we’re so broke, we’d go anywhere for a bunch of money.
[Note: as of July 19th, the Woodstock 50th festival is in a state of limbo.]

RA: Time for a couple of non-music related questions! The Mighty Croz is a new strain of marijuana that will soon be available for purchase. What’s the back story?
DC: Well, okay, that goes back to the streaming thing. They cut my income in half, so I’ve already had to make a bunch of sacrifices, like selling my boat which I’ve had for 50 years and loved more than anything else in my life. What it is is that I need money; I’m trying to hold on to my house. I’m trying not to lose my home. I am trying to rent or lease my name and face to one of the emerging national pot companies. There are a thousand of them out there, thinking they’re going to be General Motors next week, but it’s totally crazy, and now the big guys, in the last three weeks, Marlboro, Anheuser-Busch, and Molson went into the pot business. Molson is going to make a pot-infused beer.

RA: Well, now!
DC: [Laughs] It’s a crazy thing. The same process that happened to the car companies—there used to be 40 of them, now there’s four—that same process is going to happen to these companies. They’re going to eat each other and fuck each other and fight each other, and we’re going to wind up with a few national pot companies, or international pot companies. And I try and get my face and name to be on the cover of one of those to keep (earning) money, which I need. I admit that I have a personal axe to grind in that I don’t like seeing people go to jail for pot, which they absolutely should not. It’s like beer and wine, there’s nothing wrong with it at all. I did join NORML and I do have an ethical stance about it, but it’s mostly because I need to supplement my income, and that was the best way I could think of.

RA: Another non-music question concerns your “Ask Croz” column in Rolling Stone, which I love the whole concept of!
DC: Did it make you laugh when you saw it?

RA: Absolutely! How’d that happen?
DC: [Laughs] They called me up and said they wanted to do it. It was their idea.

RA: I’m guessing that your Twitter presence might have been the catalyst.
DC: Oh, I’m sure that’s what it was.  They were looking at the Twitter thing and (my following) of 130,000 people and stuff … they liked the attitude of it. They said, we’ll send you a bunch of questions, pick the ones you think you can be funniest about or that you can deal with best … it’s a great thing, because the questions (are) like them teeing the ball up for you and handing you the bat. You can take a swing at the thing and put it where you want, pretty much. So, it’s fun … it’s certainly an opportunity to get in trouble! I’m going to try not to use it to slag any of the old targets that I used to do. I used to spend a lot of time saying why I thought The Doors weren’t any good. I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m probably not going bother to waste my time pointing out what an idiot Kanye (West) is. I think I’m going to try to be funny. If I get the right questions, I think it’s going to be funny and very good.

RA: What are some of the odder Twitter questions that have been lobbed at you thus far?
DC: Oh, I can’t remember them all, man. (I’ve gotten) everything from “I think you’re my Dad” … that’s happened a number of times, because they all know about James … every possible type of question that can be asked …. I don’t have one that I can pass along to you for a good story. Watch the column and you’ll see!

Image by Anna Webber

RA: One final question, referring to a topic you brought up earlier: the current state of the Union. Are there any of the current assemblage of Democratic candidates that you favor?
DC: Yeah. I like about five of them, at least, maybe six. My favorite candidate right now is (Alexandria) Ocasio-Cortez, but she’s not running. Of the ones that are running, I like Elizabeth Warren, I like Kamala Harris, I like Beto O’Rourke, (but) I like Mayor Pete (Buttgieg) best of all. He is the most intelligent (candidate) that’s running for office, and I think he would do a wonderful job. He’s got balls the size of oranges, for going into the armed services as a gay guy, and he’s got intelligence right off the charts. I think he’s terrific (but) I don’t think the United States is grown up enough to realize that he would be the best one. I don’t think they’d let him do it because he’s gay, but I think he’s fucking wonderful. I like all of those people; I’d pick any of them. They’re all of good character, and they’re all trying really hard to do it. I’m not really happy about (Kirsten) Gillibrand. I didn’t like the way she piled onto Al Franken. I never liked Al Franken personally. He always used to try to get me to come to campaign for him, and I don’t like him as a guy; he’s just not my kind of guy. But I think he was piled on. He didn’t really do anything bad. The minute he was in the crosshairs, she piled on, and I didn’t like that. I thought it wasn’t right. But all of the other people I mentioned, I’d vote for any of them. I think they’re all really good people, really good character, really intelligent, really politically savvy. I think the two older guys, both of them I like a lot. Bernie’s fine with me. President Bernie, I’m there. I’m totally fine, I love him. I would prefer somebody younger. I‘d be happy with Vice President Biden; he’s a great guy. That’s like what, seven different people. I’d be happy with any of them. Whichever one of them becomes the candidate, I will work for, because I don’t want this son of a bitch ruining my country anymore!

RA: Amen! David, I’m going to end our conversation with another giant thank you. We’ve been speaking since 1991, and first met back in 1984 at Jones Beach. It’s been a while!
DC: Yeah, it has, man. Thank you for the help! I really appreciate it.

© Roy Abrams 2019

1 comment:

  1. Great interview I was very interested by David comment that he is singing better than any time in his life I recently had a separation at 63 years old and started playing music again my singing voice is better than it ever has been David Crosby has always been my singing Idol and I have always tried to emulate him.