|David Crosby - image by Anna Webber|
The March 16 email from Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center was brief, to the point, and not entirely unexpected: “David Crosby has made the decision not to tour in the foreseeable future and has cancelled his rescheduled date of June 20, 2021.” The original concert, booked for June 21, 2020, was among the thousands of live gigs scrapped during the initial months of the pandemic, and while fans were of course disappointed, everyone understood. Here we are, more than a year later, and while live music may be slowly returning to smaller indoor and outdoor dining venues, the prospect of larger-venue musical performances is not quite yet on the immediate horizon.
David Crosby, a man for whom live performance has always been an essential part of his being, found himself at home, to ponder an uncertain future. The pandemic may have put his live performance plans on indefinite hold, but the music has never stopped. Fortified by his family, and by the reassuringly constant presence of the Muse, Crosby has forged ahead, recording his fifth album apart from CSN/CSNY since 2014, and is already getting ready to begin work on the next album. His “Ask Croz” feature with Rolling Stone continues, much to his fans’ delight, and he has once again recently been in the news, joining the ranks of many notable artists who are selling off their songwriting catalogs to achieve both financial security and legacy management of their life’s work. Crosby sold his publishing and recorded music rights, including his solo work, as well as his work with the Byrds; Crosby & Nash; Crosby, Stills & Nash; and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, to Irving Azoff’s Iconic Artists Group. He calls the deal “a blessing for me and my family” and refers to Azoff’s company as “the best people to do it with.”
Regular readers of Island Zone Update know that conversations with David Crosby appear on a regular basis and have done so for years. (2017 and 2018 saw two interviews per year!). 2020 would normally have included an interview prior to his Westhampton Beach concert, and the break in continuity was, on this end, deeply missed. So, it was with great anticipation that I sat in my home office on Tuesday, March 23, waiting for Crosby’s call. Then, at 2:00 pm EDT, right on schedule, the phone rang. Picking it up, I read the now-familiar phone number that appeared on the screen. Answering it, I heard the unmistakable voice, signaling the resumption of a conversation that began nearly thirty years ago … it has, indeed, been a long time gone.
Roy Abrams: David!! It’s so good to hear your voice! How are you?
David Crosby: Ah! I am … [chuckles] My normal answer is “elderly and confused,” but I’m actually pretty good today!
RA: Congratulations on finishing yet another new record! I understand it’s called For Free, inspired by a Joni Mitchell song that you’ve performed live in the past. Let’s talk about the songs, the personnel, any songwriting collaborations that took place, where and when it was recorded, and when it’s due for release.
DC: The release date was supposed to be May but I’m being told it’s July because they have a bottleneck on producing vinyl. Apparently, making the vinyl was slowed up by COVID, I don’t know how, so now they’re saying July. Like all of my records in the last ten years, it’s a very cooperative effort. It’s me and James (Raymond); it’s the Sky Trails band, but it’s really just me and James. We used people from all over. We used all kinds of jazz musicians and rock musicians to make the record. Number one, the touring band, the Sky Trails band, that’s pretty fixed. The people who made the record, well, this one was pretty astounding, man. I’ve been friends with Donald Fagen for a while and I finally convinced him to give me a set of words, so we took that set of words and James and I “Steely-Dan’ed” it into the middle distance, that’s one of the songs. We wrote another one with Michael McDonald called “River Rise”──mostly James wrote it. I’ve been bugging James to write us a single forever, (telling him) “C’mon, man, we need to pay the rent here!” And he did it, it’s a single! Michael McDonald sang on it with us and helped write it, actually. It’s always a cooperative effort with me and James. James is maturing as a writer to where he’s as good as I am if not better. He wrote what I think is the best song on the record, called “I Won’t Stay For Long,” that’s one of the best songs I’ve ever sung. I absolutely freakin’ loved it and I killed it. I sang the shit out of it. There’s a lot of my favorite thing, which is cooperative effort, all over the place. We are doing it, and it’s good! I love it that we can do it, but I’m frustrated as hell that they don’t pay us for it. I can’t stop saying that because it’s just not right that they’re making billions of dollars and not paying the artists who are making the music. I don’t like streaming and I don’t think it’s right; I think it’s theft. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make up music, so we are still doing that. [Laughs] We got this one mastered, and we started writing for another one. We don’t know what else to do!
RA: How has the past year impacted your creativity? How does one go about keeping the muse fresh in these strange times?
DC: It’s very tough. We can’t play live. At all. And that was my most fun thing, you know. You can write music, and you can record music, but you can’t get paid for it, which is weird, so it’s been very, very odd. You know, I definitely can’t play live, and that was the last source of income that I had. I had to sell my publishing, and so it affected me very strongly, this COVID thing. Shutting us down from being able to play live completely changed everything that I was able to do. I had to reshape my plans for my life.
RA: I’ve been reading a lot about the song catalog acquisition business and it’s amazing how it has exploded.
DC: I can explain it to you if you want to know.
DC: Okay, it’s pretty simple. I had a financial wizard friend of mine explain it. If you’re going into the world with $100 million to invest in the stock market, you take $50 million of it and put it in T-bills, because you know exactly what they’re gonna pay, and they’re safe. Then you take the other $50 million and go adventuring to try and make money. Well, then you think about publishing, you have 20 years of records. You know exactly what it’s gonna pay. It has that same security. The only thing is it pays a lot better than T-bills. A lot better. They used to buy publishing by a multiple. For most of my life, ten years of your publishing’s yearly earnings was what your publishing was worth. When it got to 19, faced with the situation I was faced with, it was definitely the right thing to do, to sell it.
RA: That seems to be what drove so many others’ decision to sell their publishing: The Beach Boys, Linda Ronstadt, Dylan … I actually read that Neil ended up selling about half of his work at the beginning of the year.
DC: It’s that and also that the tax situation is more advantageous now in the leftover situation from Trump than it will be when it readjusts to a more reasonable and less permissive kind of way of doing things. So, if you were gonna take a bunch of million dollars for making one of these deals, you’d want to it under this (tax situation) and not the next one.
RA: As far as the songwriting copyrights are concerned, do you still own them?
DC: Yeah, I still own them, but they get to collect the revenue.
RA: As far as future touring is concerned, a mutual acquaintance of ours, Jacob Collier, is launching a 67-date world tour in 2022! In many of our prior conversations in recent years, you mentioned that while touring was something that you loved, it was also a financial necessity for you.
DC: Because it’s the only thing that’s paying us, man! If we can’t make money off records, that’s it!
RA: Has the song catalog deal provided you with the kind of relief that transforms any future touring plans into an artistic goal rather than an economic necessity?
DC: The deal wasn’t related to touring, it was related to being able to pay the rent.
DC: Michelle has been doing the Monday night Piano Bar online for a long time──:
RA: Yes, and there is also a newer project involving virtual private house concerts.
DC: They’re trying to find some way to make a living. This is not gaming around, this is trying to put food on the table.
RA: Has your world view changed during the past year, not solely looking outward, but inward as well, to yourself as an artist?
DC: Yes. My world has changed over the last couple of years drastically, because of all the reasons that I’ve said. I used to be able to make a living and right now, I can’t, and that’s true of all the musicians I know. Now, if you think it’s bad for me, it’s nothing for me compared to the young people who are trying to come up: Becca and Michelle, Michael League, the young, really brilliant musicians that I know. If you think it’s bad for me, imagine what it’s like for them. They can’t get a leg up at all. They can’t play live or record or make a living. They sleep on their mother’s couch.
RA: So much of what I have been reading discusses what is being viewed as a coming “Roaring ‘20s” situation, with a resurgence of live music based on long-term pent-up demand.
DC: Well, everybody would like to, but until you can get a fully vaccinated audience, it’s bullshit.
RA: Have you found any silver lining in the midst of the past year’s challenges?
DC: For me, the silver lining was spending time with my family. I love my family a whole lot, and being there when I normally would be gone, trudging around playing, has been good for my family; it’s been good for me with them. The more time you put into it, the better it gets. Frankly, it’s been very good that way, and I’m grateful for it.
RA: Gaining more time to have uninterrupted music listening sessions proved to be among the few silver linings that appeared. Lighthouse and Here If You Listen have been in frequent rotation for the past year. (I’ve mentioned to you in the past that Lighthouse got near-daily listens for the first year after its release and has lost none of its original impact.)
DC: That’s mostly me and Michael but that’s where we started the chemistry with Becca and Michelle. I’m really happy about that record. Lighthouse was a really fun record. I like Sky Trails too, I think it was an excellent record, I thought Croz was an excellent record. I think Here If You Listen is one of the best ones I’ve made.
RA: When you released Croz in 2014, CSN still had a full year and a half to go. During the tour to promote Croz did you foresee an end of the road for CSN?
DC: Yeah. It gets a little mechanical for a while. You do it for forty years and it turns into “turn on the smoke machine and play your hits” and that’s really not good enough for me.
[Author’s note: CSN did manage to blow audiences away on what turned out to be their final tour in 2015. Their May 16, 2015 appearance at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn stands as one of the strongest performances I witnessed from the band since first seeing them live in 1977.]
RA: It sounds like you were really chomping at the bit for a while to break out …
DC: I was, yeah.
RA: What an example you set! It used to be the jazz musicians who, as they grew older, showed the rest of us that no, the muse doesn’t necessarily limit its visits, nor does the fire to create and perform music diminish. I think that you, perhaps more than anyone else of the generation of artists who came of age in the 1960s, retain what Becca described as a sense of childlike wonder, the magical pull that drew you to music in the first place. This has been a common description of you from people with whom you’ve worked in the past several years. My question is: Do you still feel like a child when you hear music that just nails you?
DC: Yeah, I do. I can’t help it; that’s actually true.
RA: Becca described your vision of the Lighthouse band as “like CSNY, but nothing like them.” Can you elaborate on that?
DC: It’s a chemistry. I love and specialize in chemistries. It is like CSN of CSNY in that it is a chemistry of several people contributing music to it, with each other, to a whole. That’s what it is. The tendency is, if you have a successful chemistry, is to ride it into the freakin’ dirt. I think we stayed with it longer than we should have. I think we should have branched out more but it is what it is. I’m here, making records that I’m really proud of, I mean, I think I’m making really good music. That’s really all I’m responsible for: making the best music I possibly can. I don’t see that happening with the other guys. They seem to be kind of stuck in place. I can’t really vouch for that.
RA: What I’ve seen since 2014 is an artist who just keeps pushing the envelope. I remember saying to you a couple of years ago that while you are undeniably a musical icon of sorts, you also come off as an exciting, refreshingly new artist──
RA: ──Because of what you bring to the table. I look at the way that Becca, Michelle, and Michael respond to you, and you can see from the look on their faces that they get it, too.
DC: Well, they’re fun, you know? They’re really brilliant musicians, at least as good as I am. The chemistry with them is really good. We are probably gonna try to make another record together. It’s difficult because Michael lives in Spain now, but I think we might just try going over there to make another one. The three of us love Michael, and he is utterly, completely necessary to that chemistry.
RA: One of the tracks on Here If You Listen, “Your Own Ride,” a song written for your song Django, contains lyrics that are at once profoundly personal to you but from a parental standpoint, universal in nature. What was Django’s reaction when he first heard it?
DC: It moved him. He’s very bright, so he understood it completely, and it moved him a great deal. It’s a very honest song from a father to a son. And Bill Laurence (of Snarky Puppy) did a beautiful job with the music.
RA: What are your biggest concerns as a parent these days?
DC: The biggest one is that an awful lot of young people do not think that we are successfully the situation that the world is in, and don’t think we’re gonna make it. They look at our task, which is to get the entire human race off coal and oil, which is what we have to do, and they think we probably can’t pull it off. The result will be that we’ll go down in flames for it.
RA: What does your gut tell you?
DC: Hey, you know, I’m always holding on to some kind of hope. I hold hope in exemplary human beings, the Elon Musks of this world; I hold hope in technology because of people like him who are unafraid to use it, I hold hope in the pure (tenacity) of human beings in wanting to survive. But I frankly think it’s very hard to argue that──if they won’t address it, and they certainly are not──there’s half of this country who doesn’t even believe that global warming’s real, man! They think that COVID’s a hoax! They think the government’s trying to steal their kidneys! They are brutally ignorant people. There are an unbelievable number of completely ignorant people in the United States now, because we used to be really good at educating ourselves, and now we’re not. We’re 25th or 28th in the world at educating our kids; every other developed country is doing a better job than we are. So, that gives us ignorant people──ignorant people who are wearing those little red hats running around saying, [adopts exaggerated Southern accent] “Got to make America great again!” Education is the key log in the jam, and we’ve failed it. I understand how a lot of young people that I talk to are not starting families, not starting careers, not trying to accomplish much, because frankly they don’t think we’re gonna make it.
RA: Are there any reforms to the educational system that you would like to see instituted?
DC: Here’s the deal: Education itself is the key to making it better. We are not funding it. Teachers don’t get paid enough, therefore we don’t get good enough teachers. Double the pay to teachers and all of a sudden it becomes a job that people can jump for out of college and if both of you can get a job teaching, you can actually raise children and have a house. That’s what we need to do; that will change the dynamic totally. Teachers have to get paid at least twice as much as they’re getting now, and that’s all across the board, everywhere. And then you’ve gotta stop with the tenure bullshit. “Oh, I don’t have to be competent, because I’ve been here a long time.” It’s absolutely a total joke. They stop working. They just sit there and collect the check. We need to pay better so we get better people. They need to rigorously revamp the schools into being modern and effective because, believe me, the Japanese and the Chinese and the French and the English and the Italians and everybody fuckin’ else is competing with us worldwide, and if we don’t educate our kids they will fail in that competition. That is not a good thing.
RA: I stepped away from the public school system ten years ago to focus solely on one-to-one, individualized instruction …
DC: You’re lucky you do it because that way, you can actually teach somebody! Overall, I’m glad that that is what you do, and I’m grateful you do. But the situation in the rest of the country sucks. We’re doing a lousy job of educating our kids. I think every educator I talk to is on the same page. It’s not like it’s a mystery. Every teacher I know feels the same way, they feel like we’re not doing it the way we know perfectly well we need to do it.
RA: One wonders why the teachers themselves don’t stand up and make a change …
DC: Because the teachers are never the ones in charge! It’s the goddamn politicians!
RA: That brings up the whole issue of the Common Core curriculum. Recent studies are showing that it has failed, despite all the money and other resources that have been thrown at it.
DC: Can I tell you, how predictable was that?
RA: Steering back toward music, do you foresee a possible return to live performance in 2022 or it still too early to tell?
DC: The answer to that is gonna depend on vaccination. When you say, look, to buy a ticket, you’ve got to show us a vaccination sticker. If you can show us that you’ve been vaccinated, you can buy a ticket. Okay, when they do that, if they do that, then they will have audiences that are safe and then we will have audiences … not until.
RA: In a recent article centered around the upcoming release of a special Déjà Vu repackaging that features a wealth of previously unreleased material, Stephen said of CSNY, “We were glued together with Silly Putty.” Is that a valid assessment, in your opinion?
DC: I think it’s great phrase; I don’t know exactly what he meant.
RA: In the same article, you stated that it didn’t really mean much, one way or the other, as far as the archival mindset is concerned, yet it was that archival mindset that produced your beautiful Voyage boxed set.
DC: You know, it might be mindset. Voyage was a more intelligently constructed thing, I think. I was pretty happy about Voyage.
RA: Are there any other works in the archives, whether studio-based or live, that might eventually see the light of day?
DC: There’s tons! There are rooms full of live tapes. Crosby tapes, Crosby/Nash tapes, Crosby, Stills and Nash tapes, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tapes. There’s enough CSNY tapes to fill a truck!
RA: David, on a personal note, it has been wonderful speaking with you again! It’s been many years since we began the dialogue, and I am thrilled that we got the opportunity to resume it today. Please give my best to Jan and Django, and I hope our paths cross in person again one day in the future!
DC: Thanks, man!
© Roy Abrams 2021