Interview by Sylvie Simmons – Portrait by Piper Ferguson – Courtesy of MOJO
The voice of cosmic America has lived the hippy dream and drunk from the well of seIf-destruction. His first solo album for 20 years sees him looking back while moving forward. “I want the magic!”
He’s still recognizable as the man on the front porch on the cover of the 1969 Crosby, Stills & Nash album. His long hair is silver and wispy now but still qualifies as a mane and frames a moon face with laugh lines, sideburns, bushy brows and a thick, white, groomed mustache. (“If you keep it clean, he recently told an American men’s magazine, “girls love it.”) There’s something of the sultan about David Crosby, even when wearing a checked flannel shirt — in tribute, perhaps, to Seattle, where CSN have come to be feted with a Founders Award gala at the EMP Museum of Music, Sci Fi and Pop Culture. He’s an imposing man though there’s four stone less of him than the last time we talked.
“I go to the gym three days a week and work out, and I feel terrific but, you know, it’s a very odd situation to be in. I’m 72 and I have three fatal diseases. Hep C, which there’s no cure for and which is currently dormant — I had the transplant (a liver in 1994) and it saved my life. Heart disease — I’ve had two heart attacks and I have five stents in my heart. And diabetes, which is a real killer, and a disease of paying attention, which is very difficult for someone as scatterbrained as me. But,” he says, his eyes twinkling, “I’m managing to stay alive. The truth is I’ll probably have several more years of being able to make music and having a strong enough voice to sing it.”
As if proof were required, Crosby recently completed a European tour with Crosby, Stills & Nash, and is now also set to release his first solo album in 20 years. Simply titled CROZ, it will see him take to the road once again and draw on what has been a lifetime of remarkable music and sanguine experiences. Saving his period in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young for a later date, it is Crosby’s personal story that we focus on during what is an engaging and typically candid conversion. . .
You were born in Los Angeles in 1941. With a cinematographer as a father, were you more into movies than music as a kid?
Film was fascinating to me. I went with my dad to the set a number of times and I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to be an actor. But there was a lot of music in the house.
What are your earliest musical memories?
Classical first, then folk. There was a Philharmonic radio show that was on every Sunday morning of my life, and they had records, albums – l’m talking big, thick books of 78s. Then when LP records, which were 1O-inch then, came out, I encountered folk music: The Weavers, Josh White, Odetta. My brother [Ethan], four years older, was a musician and, when I was around 16, he gave me my first guitar – his old guitar, when he got a better one. And that’s what started me off playing and singing. Folk songs first. I would learn two chords and go back and forth between them. What took it to the next level was my brother started listening to 1950s jazz – Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, people like that. That caught my ear pretty strongly; listening to jazz really widens your world. I didn’t really like any of the pop music on the radio until The Everly Brothers, and they were fantastically good.
Was there an epiphany that made you choose music over acting?
Yes, and it had to do with the other haIf of the species. Movies took a very long time to come out, and in order to get the attention of a girl by being in a movie, you had to have actually been in a movie which the girl in question had actually seen. So it was a very long and iffy process to winding up with what you had in mind. Whereas if you went down to the coffee house and sang really well, it could happen tonight, and that was very appealing to me! (Laughs) But as soon as I started being able to sing a song to somebody and have it affect them, that was it. I knew exactly what I was supposed to be doing. There was never any maybe or any “Should I have a real job?”, it was directly to music. I always felt bad that my brother, his whole life, never did find his path, not as a musician and not in life. I always felt a little guilty for having it fall so completely dead-center on me. (Ethan Crosby committed suicide in 1997.)
Did you perform with your brother?
Yes, for a long time – he played bass, I played guitar and we both sang. But you know how it is with brothers. I wound up off on my own very quickly – from Los Angeles to Phoenix to Colorado to Florida to New York, the Village – anywhere there were coffee houses, which meant I could get a job and eat, and eating is good. Then I went back to Los Angeles where I encountered Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark.
What were your first songs like?
The first one was called Across The Plains – l’ve always been fascinated with wagon trains and the movement of people west. It wasn’t a very good song. I think the first song I wrote that was any good was Everybody’s Been Burned, which I did when l was with The Byrds (and was released on 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday).
What’s the most important thing you took with you from Greenwich Village?
The Village was rich territory. There were two really good mentors, Bob Gibson and Fred Neil. Freddy taught me a very great deal – among other things that there was music all around me and I had to widen my perception of it. You could be in an old elevator car and the cables would be going “bomchicka-chicka-chika- ching-ching” and he’d whisper, “See man, music.” Yes, we were herbally enhanced. One time in Florida we were sitting outside smoking one and listening to a bamboo thicket singing in the wind. He made me conscious of that, and he taught me things about how to play the guitar and how to sing. He was a great singer. A hero.
Did you meet Bob Dylan then?
I didn’t get to meet him until much later, but he changed my head the way he changed everybody’s head, because he elevated the dialogue. lt wasn’t, “Ooh baby”, it was, “It’s all right ma, l’m only bleeding”. It was the important stuff, and that stuck with me. When we had a chance to do Mr.Tambourine Man later (with The Byrds), I was all for it.
Was Dylan all for it?
When Dylan came to the studio in LA to hear what we were doing with his song, he heard that there was something going on. When he listened to it you could hear the gears whirring in there. He was strongly impressed. I mean, Roger McGuinn is enormously talented; he took Mr. Tambourine Man and turned it into a great record. I did a good harmony but he’s the one that made that record what it was. And it was the first time that I know about that anybody put good poetry on the radio. Shortly thereafter, possibly within days, Bob had an electric band and was offending people at the Newport Folk Festival. He knew exactly what he’d heard and I think he was pleased by it and I think his reaction was, “Give me an electric guitar.”
The Byrds were also big Beatles fans.
I remember Roger and Gene (Clark) and I going to see A Hard Day’s Night – that was our first time seeing them – and, man, we came out of that movie completely gobsmacked. We didn’t know what to think. We knew one thing: that we wanted to be them. They blew us right out of the water. They changed everything.
You’ve told MOJO about several escapades with The Beatles in the past. Are there any untold stories that you’ve hidden from us?
(Rubs his chin and hesitates) Hmm… I used to go to the press conferences to watch how they did it. There’s actually footage of me doing it. John [Lennon] particularly got really put off by stardom and the press, but they made an attitude up to deal with the idiots. I did that with Dylan too, to watch how he dealt with the dumb questions… And I also remember a night at George Harrison’s house where everyone had dinner and Ali Akbar Khan played. He blew our minds. George told somebody, l’m not sure who, that l’d turned him onto Ravi Shankar. I know lwas carrying one of [Ravi’s] albums around and turning people onto him whatever chance I got. “You ain’t heard nothing, try this.” The only person I heard that could move a melody around as well as Ravi Shankar was John Coltrane.
On the road with The Byrds in the summer of ’65, you’d be rolling big ones and playing Coltrane and Shankar cassettes.
Yes, and another album: the first album of the Bulgarian National Folk Choir under the direction of Philip Koutev. These little Bulgarian women could sing better than anybody I d ever heard. lt affected me in terms of harmony because they did things that were so daring I couldn’t believe it, working with dissonance in a way that was musically advanced. lt was like listening to Bach and then encountering Stravinsky. All of a sudden the chords got a bit more dense.
In October 1962 the tension within The Byrds came to a head. Was it a blow when Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman fired you?
My strongest feeling was, “You guys are going to regret this.” I wasn’t happy about it but I didn’t feel like my life was over, not at all. I was already singing with Stephen Stills and I was already writing my own songs. And I went off and got a sailboat and started sailing, and that was a joy. I was a young, egotistical, talented but feisty guy. I can understand why they did that! They were advised to do so by a manager I had brought to the party, and they were tired of me. I was not easy to deal with. I wanted a bigger piece of the pie. I wanted to be one of the people writing the songs, I wanted to sing lead on something, because I was a pretty good singer.
I miss (that band) now. It’s not until much later that you realize the value of some things in your life. I would do a Byrds tour or a Byrds record in a minute, and l’ve tried to convince Roger over and over to do it but he’s not interested, and music isn’t something you can legislate into being. When they were walking out the door they said to me, “We’ll do better without you” – which is an unfortunate line, I think more for them than me. I think that may still be stuck in his craw a little bit.
On Henry Diltz’s 1969 cover photo of Crosby, Stills & Nash you looked like the archetypal hippy, living the dream.
I was. Being a hippy was the most natural thing in the world for me. I liked having long hair. I liked smoking pot, and hippies treasured music, so that put me in a good place. And it was fun. It was not the ’50s, Pat Boone and [radio/TV drama] Father Knows Best, it was a new place to go. But it had a precursor, the beatniks. I had already read Kerouac and Ginsberg and encountered thought- streams that were breaking new ground and looking at things a different way.
CSN and CSNY remained engaged with counterculture politics, much more so than many of your peers.
Yes. That sort of happened along the way. It’s not that we started out being political, they politicized us; it smacked us in the face. We didn’t like it that they shot Kennedy and we really didn’t like it when they went into Vietnam, and that the black people in the South could not vote in their own country. Dr Martin Luther King – man, if you encountered his words you were not the same human being. He would change your life. And we certainly didn’t trust the government. The old line was never trust anybody over 30. We thought we’d never be over 30.
By the end of the ’60s you’d found all sorts of ways to threaten your life. How did having an arsenal of guns and being coked out of your brain gel with being a hippy?
It’s a fair question. And it’s two separate things, not really connected, until later. When I was , growing up, we had a house in Carpinteria where we were growing lemons and avocados and my dad would go down to Hollywood to work, and out in the country, when you’re 12, it’s just part of the deal: you get a .22 – a very small calibre rifle – and you learn to shoot. So I’d encountered guns before and I didn’t really have any interest in them until later when these horrific murders took place at our producer Terry Melcher’s house. (The Manson murders of August 9, 1969, which occurred at Melcher’s former home on Cielo Drive.)
I thought about that and went out and got a 12-gauge, which is a shotgun, the biggest home defense weapon. So I don’t feel the same as most of my compatriots. I do shoot, I maintain a level of competency at it and I try to be responsible about it. I don’t think the problem’s in the gun, I think it’s in the people.
But guns and cocaine?
Terrible mix. Again, I never shot anybody though, even when I was really, really on cocaine. Cocaine, separate issue. When we encountered cocaine, the people who brought it around – we had to go to a criminal to get our weed – said, with a straight face, “Here, try this. It’s not addictive.” We didn’t know it would destroy you. We knew heroin was big daddy evil. All we knew is it gave you energy for days and made you feel like you were on top of the world. lt was a very seductive drug, easy to get and very easy to get strung out on very fast. That was a very destructive thing in my life. When I encountered it, which was towards the end of The Byrds and the beginning of the CSN era, I misused it massively and it really got its hooks into me. Seriously; 20 years. It’s probably the most evil drug on the planet and worse if you’re freebasing, which I got into later on.
Coke is notorious for its adverse effect on music, and yet in the wake of CSNY’s debut Deja Vu you released an exquisite album, your solo debut, If I Could Only Remember My Name in 1971.
I wasn’t doing much coke; that’s when I started doing heroin. I was in a very strange state, I had songs, good songs, and we had just finished Deja Vu, and my girIfriend [Christine Hinton] had been killed. I didn’t have an instruction booklet on how to deal with that one, and heroin, of course, is an anaesthetic. lt doesn’t really do anything but make you suppress the pain and you don’t really deal with it, which of course is not a good idea. If you stuff it, and I stuffed it, you stay there for longer.
But… there’s a lot of joy on that record, because that’s where I needed desperately to go. Graham Nash came a lot, Jerry Garcia came even more, almost every night – he was a good friend and he liked it that I was as open to the accident of music as he was. Phil [Lesh] came very often, Jorma [Kaukonen], Grace lSlick] Paul lKantner], Joni lMitchell]. They were all friends. lt saved me. Because I could dive into making that music and spend a whole night stacking harmonies on myseIf, being the Mormon Tabernacle me, and it would elevate me out of the hole that I was in.
Fast-forwarding: in the mid’80s, in Texas, you were sentenced to five years on handgun and freebase cocaine charges. Nash read a plea to the judge saying confinement in prison will possibly kill him. I actually wrote a thank you letter to the judge saying, “You saved my life. You may not know it but you did.” I tried to quit and slipped a number of times, and it took me going to prison to make it stick.
How in hell does someone whose life personified freedom, travelling and doing whatever you wanted, cope with being locked up?
You see that (flat screen) TV? Make it about four times that big. I lived in that space for a year – nine months in prison and about three months in jail.
l’d have lost my mind.
Well I didn’t, I found it. I woke up. It’s a tough place to wake up.
Were you able to make any music while you were in there?
Yes. And it was funny, because we used to tell ourselves that getting high was where we’d get all these ideas for making great music but l, at the very end, had stopped writing completely. The last decent song I wrote was Delta, and then there was probably two years of nothing as the drug use went up.
When I was in prison I would write letters to my wife Uanl, and every once in a while I would write a line in the letter where l’d think, “That was a good line.” I started writing a song and I realized then that “No, I didn’t lose it, it’s coming back”, which was a huge boost for me. We had a band in the prison – there were guitars that had been donated – and once a week we got to go out to a little cinder-block building and play music. I was the only professional but the other guys were pretty good. The lead guitar player, Billy Jones, had shot a cop so he was never going to get out, ever, and he was a pretty good player. The drummer, a black kid, he was quite good. lt was fun and it was something to do – and something to do in there was a big deal. And when I got out I was no longer addicted and I was able, with the aid of 12-step stuff, to make it all the way out.
Do you ever have the drug-taker’s equivalent of wet dreams?
Yes. They’re called slip dreams. If you’re trying to quit from hard drugs everybody has the exact same dream where you did it, you have the pipe in your hand and you’re using again. You don’t feel the high; you wake up absolutely panic-stricken – “Oh my God, oh my God!” – because you know how close to death you came and you’re trying so hard not to slip. lt took years, literally. l’m not worried about hard drugs at all now. They haven’t been snapping at my heels for 25 years now but if you lay down a line of coke on that computer right now there’d be a David-shaped hole in the wall. l’d run that fast.
To move onto the third part of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, you had quite a reputation with the ladies. ln your song Triad you urged two of your girIfriends to share you.
I did. And I did that a number of times. It’s not actually something that you can do in real life and sustain. Somebody always feels that they’re the low man on the totem pole. lt can be the guy feeling that the girls are ganging up on him or one of the girls. But it was a good song. We’ve changed it totally now – we play it in a completely different way that’s a lot of fun.
You have a new solo album, CROZ.
Yes. I wrote it with my son.
James Raymond, with whom you had CPR?
CPR was fun and we made some good music, but it didn’t make any money so we couldn’t continue. I don’t have any money to make an album. You know, I Googled myseIf the other day and it said I was the richest guy in show business and worth $250 million. Such complete utter bullshit… l can’t even afford to buy a new car; l’ve a 2004 Ford truck.
Finally, of all the bands you’ve played in – The Byrds, CSN, CSNY, Crosby & Nash, CPR and solo – if you could work with only one of them from now on, which would it be?
I’m tempted to say solo. And singing with Graham is just a joy. It’s like two old fighter pilots who know where the other guy’s wing is and you can literally fly six feet apart, no problem, and do it all, upside down, no problem. But if I had to pick one band it would be CSNY. Because that’s the one that would push me the most to really go for the peaks. And that’s because of Neil. The thing I love about Neil is that he is never, ever satisfied. He wants the magic and I love that. I want the magic.