Upon his passing in January, Variety magazine referred to David Crosby as having the voice of a “bruised angel.”
David Crosby, who passed away at the age of 81, left behind an incredible legacy of music – and more.
David Van Cortlandt Crosby entered the world as part of an already-successful family. His father was Academy Award-winning cinematographer Floyd Crosby, and a relative of the prominent Van Rensselaer family. His mother was the granddaughter of Bishop Cortlandt Whitehead and a member of the Van Cortlandt family. In other words, he could have stopped there and probably been just fine.
But the muse was strong. Crosby succeeded in music and drama and school, but not much else. He flunked out and started a musical career that, at first, seemed to go nowhere. Through Miriam Makeba, Crosby was introduced to multi-instrumentalist Roger McGuinn and songwriter Gene Clark, and along with Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke, they formed a group first known as the Beefeaters. Record producer Jim Dickson recorded this group in rehearsal and played back the tapes for the young musicians, a process Crosby later remembered as “acutely painful.”
However, Columbia Records – looking to, pardon the pun, beef up its roster of up-and-coming folk rockers – signed this new band, now rechristened The Byrds, and positioned them as “America’s Beatles.” However, their first successes were with songs by Bob Dylan, in particular “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Crosby was so moved by Dylan’s lyric ‘to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free’ and felt compelled to record the song. The success of this single led to many more, with the band taking on songwriting responsibilities: “It Won’t Be Wrong,” “All I Really Want to Do,” “The World Turns All Around Her,” “Why,” “Mr. Spaceman,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” “Lady Friend,” and a Crosby-penned song that gained the band unintended notoriety, “Eight Miles High.”
What set the Byrds apart, other than great songs, was McGuinn’s ringing 12-string guitar (often called ‘jangle’ by admirers) and the distinctive, Gregorian chant-styled vocal blend of the principal singers in the band, who stacked chords in moving fourths, fifths, and octaves in the style of the madrigal singers of old.
After several years of hits, friction began to enter the band’s dynamic. Gene Clark left first, then in a squabble over the recording of the song “Triad” (I won’t tell you what it’s about, but the subject matter was quite scandalous at the time), Crosby quit or was fired, depending on whose side of the story you read. (He eventually made peace with the other Byrds, though on their first album without him, they replaced him with a horse on the cover photo.)
Crosby found himself unemployed, but not for long. He discovered Joni Mitchell and secured a record deal for her, then produced her first LP. One night at her Laurel Canyon home, another recently unemployed musician, Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield, started harmonizing with Croz and Graham Nash, who was still a member of the Hollies. Sensing magic in the air, they decided to form a new group.
Their second gig was Woodstock.
Crosby later remembered how intimidating it was, since all three had emerged from hugely successful groups and the audience was so large. From the stage, he said he tried to count. “One, two, three . . . many,” he recalled, noting that 500,000 people got to hear Crosby, Stills, and Nash on what was essentially their maiden voyage. To add to the pressure, pretty much everyone in the music business whom they admired was standing in the wings, witnessing the alchemy in real time.
The first CSN album contains songs that would eventually form the backbone of classic rock radio. However, the group truly came into their own with the addition of Neil Young on the album Déjà Vu. The reddish-brown faux-leather album jacket contained a near-perfect set of songs, and some of the best ever written by any of the members individually. There’s the title track, Stills’ “4+20,” Nash’s “Teach Your Children,” Young’s “Helpless,” and Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair,” among others. Along with the standalone single “Ohio,” these guys could do no wrong – they could rock, they could play country, and they mastered a harmonic blend unlike anyone else.
In the years that followed, Crosby faced his drug demons and eventually landed in prison. He also survived a liver transplant (paid for by Atlantic Records label mate Phil Collins), heart problems, and protracted dealings with diabetes and hepatitis-C. The fact that he was still living and creating new music all the way into his eighties – and with that angelic voice still intact – was simply astounding.
In his last decade on earth, Croz wrote an advice column for Rolling Stone magazine, developed his own CBD-related product line, and put out five solo albums while appearing on five more by other artists. He seemed to have creativity to burn, and his more recent works are as good – some would say better – than music made in his 20s and 30s.
In the 1980s, when David’s bad habits addictions were raging, he wrote one of his best songs, “Delta.” The lyrics below are the best farewell to David Crosby one can give.
Waking stream of consciousness on a sleeping street of dreams
Thoughts like scattered leaves slowed in mid-fall to the streams
Of fast running rivers of choice and chance
And time stops here on the delta while they dance
I love the child who steers this riverboat but lately he's crazy for the deep
And the river seems dreamlike in the daytime
And someone keeps thinking in my sleep
Of fast running rivers of choice and chance
And it seems as if time stops here on the delta while they dance