The last time I spoke with David Crosby was a year and a half ago. He was an incredibly busy guy. The then 80-year-old Laurel Canyon legend had just released his fifth solo album in seven years – Free – but his mind remained obsessed with dozens of other projects and ideas that he just couldn’t shake.
At the time, Croz was editing and polishing a live album he recorded on the road with the band he recorded with. Headlight. Additionally, he was working to launch a cannabis line while closing a multi-million dollar sale for the rights to his massive publishing catalog. In the meantime, we’ve found time to chat about UFOs, sci-fi novels, parasitic music streaming services, and his all-time favorite band, Steely Dan.
He is a Gaucho man, for what it’s worth.
Until his last breath, David Crosby remained a singularly restless spirit. He was someone who adamantly refused to rest on his laurels, which is probably why he enjoyed the amazing second, third, fourth and fifth acts of American life that pretty much elude everyone. It is this very fact that makes his unexpected death last week so infuriating. Despite everything he managed to do and achieve throughout his unlikely life, Crosby wasn’t done creating. The man had his hands on a thousand different projects while forging his way through a truly unprecedented late-career renaissance.
Crosby was already thinking about the next song. The next album. The next tour. The next group. As the rest of his baby boomer cohorts settled into stable, profitable comfort – “Turn on the lights and the smoke machine, get out there and play the hits,” he sneered disdainfully. Crosby never stopped going out into the world to meet new people and see where the action was. He just couldn’t help it.
This fact became overwhelmingly clear to me on a cold September evening in 2014. I was in an outdoor cave just north of Seattle rewatching a Crosby, Stills & Nash concert. I had never seen them before and was extremely excited. It turned out to be a fantastic show brimming with incredible vocal harmonies, epic guitar solos and some real good vibes. The seat next to me remained open for the entire performance, so I sat next to someone’s service dog for the two and a half hours. A demur, black schnauzer. Zero complaints.
The trio played all of their signature hits – ‘Wooden Ships’, ‘Déjà vu’, ‘Almost Cut My Hair’, ‘Carry On’ – but halfway through, Crosby was singled out and played a song. that I had never heard before. It was just him, alone on an acoustic guitar, picking out notes in a weird chord that I couldn’t decipher. Instantly, I loved it.
I tried to find the song online after the concert, but it turned out he hadn’t posted it. I tried to remember the last time I saw an unfinished first track by a classic rock band at a mundane mid-show, but I couldn’t find anything. “Pretty cheeky,” I thought. The song was called “What Makes It So” and it stuck in my head for months. It was like an itch that I couldn’t scratch, slowly driving me crazy.
A little over a year later, CSN was finished. The band played their final show together at the annual White House tree lighting ceremony in front of then-President Barack Obama. The whole thing was a disaster on many levels. When it was over, the CSN parted as acrimoniously as it had done so many times in the past.
I was disgusted at first, but also excited. CSN had tried and failed several times to make a new record together about a decade ago, but failed to do so. A proposed cover project produced by Rick Rubin nearly got started, but then reportedly fell through over a disagreement over how many Beatles tracks to include. I knew David Crosby had at least one good song in him, because I had heard it myself. And I really, really wanted to hear it again.
Headlight, Crosby’s next solo record, dropped in 2016 and I finally got my wish. Remarkably, “What Makes it So” wasn’t even the band’s best song. That honor went to “By the Light of the Common Day”, the album’s closing track. It was a duet – Crosby’s voice was always at its best when expertly mixed with others – sung with a pair of extraordinarily talented young singers named Michelle Willis and Becca Stevens. Just amazing stuff. Michael League, the frontman of the jazz band Snarky Puppy, served as a producer, arranger and instrumentalist and largely kept things stripped down to emphasize just how stunning Crosby’s voice has remained astounding despite several decades of a difficult life.
Stevens and Willis sang with Crosby again on his next album, sky trails, just a year later. Musically, it was even better than its predecessor. The title track in particular will tear your guts out on a silent night when the moon is full. sky trails was produced by James Raymond, Crosby’s long-lost son and close collaborator in the late years. Raymond was placed for adoption in 1962, when Crosby was 21. Father and son reunited in the 90s, just before Crosby went under the knife for an emergency liver transplant. The operation is a success and they are therefore collaborators of the studio.
The league returned for Here if you listen in 2018 – “Buddha on a Hill” is the gem to hear – before Croz reunites with Raymond again to release his latest record, Free, just after COVID lockdowns began to decline. There Crosby was finally able to get his lifelong wish to record a Steely Dan track when Donald Fagen offered him the lyrics to a song called “Rodriguez for a Night”. Dan’s vibes extended to “River Rise” thanks to a little vocal assist from rock yacht captain Michael McDonald.
As an outside observer over Crosby’s last decade, I was struck not just by the quality of the music, but by everything that seemed to come out of the guy. This was the territory of the rapper SoundCloud. A septuagenarian with a release schedule that could almost raise eyebrows in Future. It wasn’t just that Crosby had been seemingly suffocated for so long within the confines of the CSN machinery – he really, truly had a lot to say. More importantly, he found the perfect group of people to help him get it all out.
There are many artists who claim to talk about The Music. And many start like that! But then the machine digs into you. Hit. Failure. Fame. Money. Life. Death. It all gets so heavy. It becomes difficult to talk about music forever. To find non-cynical inspiration. It becomes hard to remember why you got into all of this in the first place.
David Crosby forgot this passion many times throughout his life. But he always came back. No matter how many times he’s been counted out, Crosby has always risen, and usually with a batch of new songs to show you too. In the end, what really matters are the people you love, the art you create, and the people who inspire you.
As Crosby told me, “Celebrity doesn’t mean bullshit. Fame does not mean bullshit. Money, truth be told, aside from the fact that you need it to take care of your family, doesn’t mean shit. What matters to me are the songs. It’s a place where you can talk to people. You can communicate – really, really communicate at a very high level. Very multilevel, textured, strange, beautiful level. I love it. I love being able to do that. And I’m grateful for that. »
Rest easy Croz, and thank you for the inspiration. No one will soon forget your name.
To see our list of the 100 greatest rock stars of all time, click here.
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