Remembering David Crosby: The Classic Rock Crooner who beat all the odds

Photo Credit: Scott Dudelson

David Crosby, the singer, musician, and songwriter best known for being the first name in long-running rock supergroups: Crosby Stills & Nash and Crosby Still Nash & Young, died on January 18th at age eighty-one. Uniquely recognizable by his heavy frame, long hair, and wooly mustache – a look he rarely altered in fifty-five years – Crosby would become infamous for his nearly-fatal personal problems, but never enough to overshadow the music that he helped to create.

Born the son of Oscar-winning cinematographer Floyd Crosby, Los Angeles native David Crosby got his start in the early ’60s folk music scene before co-founding the Byrds in 1964. The group would have two No.1 hits (“Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”), but more importantly, fused rock with folk influences to create a sound that could still be heard decades later in artists like Tom Petty and R.E.M.(“If the Beatles legitimized rock ‘n’ roll’s form, the Byrds legitimated its content,” journalist Geoffrey Stokes wrote in 1980).

After splitting from the Byrds, Crosby teamed with Stephen Stills in 1968 (who had previously been in the Buffalo Springfield) and British singer Graham Nash (of the Hollies) to form Crosby, Stills & Nash (CSN). In virtually no time they perfected the three-part vocal harmony which would send their self-titled 1969 debut album – featuring classics like “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and “Wooden Ships” – into the U.S. Top 10 and to eventual sales of four million copies.

Photo Credit: Hulton-Deutsch Collection

Less than a year later the trio was joined by Neil Young (who had been in Springfield with Stills and had already launched his hugely successful solo career) thus making the group – what else? – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSNY). The quartet’s first album, Deja Vu, released in 1970, would be an even greater commercial success, and the combined force of the two records became a phenomenon at the time.

It wasn’t hard to understand why: the music of CSN/CSNY offered something for almost everyone but also spoke directly to a particular niche. Though even older squares could enjoy songs like “Our House” and the group’s first hit “Marrakesh Express,” the group quickly became known for being the voice of the late ’60s counterculture. Nowhere was this demonstrated better than on Crosby’s composition “Almost Cut My Hair”: between just the title, the lyrics (“But I didn’t and I wonder why // Feel like letting my freak flag fly”) and Crosby’s intense vocal delivery (for which the group temporarily sidelined the harmonies) the song perfectly encapsulated both the pride and uncertainty felt by the younger generation during the time.

Add to that “Ohio,” the blistering Neil Young-penned stand-alone single which was CSNY’s rapid response to the Kent State shootings in May 1970, and the group seemed poised to become the dominating rock entity of the coming decade. But heated discord between the group members (which would continue off-and-on for the next half century) was already tearing them apart (even the 1971 live album 4 Way Street going to No.1 seemingly didn’t help). Crosby and Nash continued as a duo, releasing three gold-selling albums in the early- and mid-’70s.

Photo Credit: Henry Diltz

CSN reunited in 1977 for what would be only their second studio album as a trio. Closely identified with the Flower Power era, one might not have expected them to prosper in the time of disco and punk rock. However, the CSN album sold four million copies and spawned the group’s first Top 10 single, “Just a Song Before I Go.” That title proved prophetic since CSN wouldn’t surface again until 1982, and even that had been unplanned. At the demand of the record company, Crosby was shoehorned into an otherwise-finished Stills and Nash album, despite the other two musicians’ objections. Daylight Again did go platinum and produce two Top 20 hits, so the label’s instance on the CSN brand name at least was probably on point.

However, anyone’s reluctance to work with Crosby at the time may also have been understandable, as his longtime drug use – which by then included freebasing in addition to heroin and crack – had now escalated to excessive levels even by rock standards. Attempts at rehab proved frivolous, as Crosby would either leave programs just days after starting or relapse immediately afterward. Many had severe doubts that Crosby would ever live through this period, Crosby himself among them. “There wasn’t anybody else I knew who did as much as I did that didn’t die,” he told VH1 Behind the Music in 1998.

Adding to the already volatile situation were Crosby’s mounting legal issues: in the early ’80s, he would be arrested multiple times on drug or weapons possession charges. Late in 1985 – the same year that CSN and CSNY both played sets at Live Aid – Crosby faced incarceration and seriously contemplated leaving the country to live out his days as a fugitive. However, he turned himself in to the FBI and spent nine months in prison, an experience to which he would later say he owed his life. At long last clean and sober, Crosby ended the decade by recording once again with CSNY and releasing his first new solo album since 1971, defiantly titled Oh Yes I Can.

Photo Credit: Henry Diltz

Despite the renewed optimism, the ’90s would be another period of ups and downs for Crosby. Two new CSN albums were commercial failures, but with some help from Phil Collins Crosby scored the biggest solo hit of his career, “Hero.” He even had some fun with public image, doing two voice cameos on The Simpsons and playing a variation of himself on The John Larroquette Show. However, the fun could have ended in 1994 when Crosby required a liver transplant and underwent surgery which he was told there was a decent chance he wouldn’t survive. But David Crosby defied the odds yet again.

In 2000 Crosby made the news when multi-platinum singer-songwriter Melissa Ethridge revealed that he had been the sperm donor for the two children bore by her then-partner Julie Cypher. Several years earlier, Crosby met for the first time an adult son whom he’d given up for adoption as an infant, and the two became musical collaborators (Crosby also fathered three other children).

In 1999 CSNY released Looking Forward, which would end up as the last album of new material from either CSN or CSNY. Given his history, one might have expected Crosby to slow down in his later years, but instead, he released four new solo albums since 2014 and even wrote a tongue-in-cheek advice column (“Ask the Croz”) for Rolling Stone. CSN also toured regularly between 2003 and 2015, until the group imploded once again for the umpteenth and ultimately final time.

Photo Credit: Anna Webber

In the lyrics to his 1994 solo hit “Hero,” Crosby expressed envy for the easy resolutions often promised by popular fiction: “The villain goes to jail // While the hero goes free // I wish it were that simple // For me.” Indeed, while Crosby’s fame and personal wealth granted him dangerous and easily abused levels of freedom, he would also experience imprisonment, both literally and generated by addiction. Crosby was unquestionably both idolized and vilified in his life and sometimes felt that he was being judged unfairly. “I’m like a guy that does everything right nine days in a row, then stumbles on the tenth day [and then] that’s all anybody wants to talk about, that tenth day,” he told Rolling Stone in 1985.

But it’s safe to say David Crosby’s enduring legacy has already shifted back towards his work as a musician, songwriter, and activist. Many have probably suggested that – all things considered – he was lucky to live as long as he did. However, the music which David Crosby helped to create, as well as the social consciousness which he encouraged so many to adopt, will far outlive any of us.

Written by: Richard John Cummins

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