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Riffin' with the Croz: David Crosby on CSNY, the Byrds, 'Serving the Song' and Reunions (Q&A)
When I meet up with David Crosby during rehearsals for his fall tour supporting his new solo album Lighthouse, he almost can’t contain himself about the amazing reviews the album had been getting.
“Have you read the Rolling Stone review?” he asks me, almost immediately after we say hello. “Woo! Uncut was a blazer, too, but Rolling Stone, man, it was a rave. It’s a great review. They loved it!”
Crosby is going it alone these days, and he’s never seemed happier. After a nasty, public falling-out with longtime musical foil Graham Nash, and cutting ties with his other musical brothers in the supergroup he’d toured and recorded with off and on with over the past 40-plus years, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Crosby released Croz in 2014, and never looked back.
As for Lighthouse, the glowing reviews are well-deserved. Produced by Snarky Puppy’s Michael League, the stripped down sound is both breathtaking and stark, with Crosby’s voice and storytelling skills, at 75, undiminished.
Rock Cellar Magazine: When we last spoke, Croz wasn’t out yet, and I remember talking to you about it and coming away feeling that you were a little bit tentative as a solo artist, like being completely solo was a truly new experience for you.
David Crosby: Leaving a major group is stepping off a cliff. Most people wouldn’t do it. The path of least resistance is to go for the big money, and I only had to sing six songs, in a night, to do that. And it’s easy. You just turn on this one machine and do your hits. And do a lot of posturing. But that became not good enough to me. So I did it, and I was scared. You were totally right. You read me correctly: I was scared.
Well, you didn’t seem scared, necessarily, just tentative.
David Crosby: Well, tentative and scared!
And you don’t seem like a tentative guy by nature.
David Crosby: Oh, so I didn’t let you know I was scared. I’m glad. But I was scared. And that’s a natural thing. I love the guys in CSNY and we did good work and I’m proud of it.
But I can’t just sit there and run on a treadmill. It’s not OK. God gave me a gift.
And if God gives you a scalpel you don’t dig weeds with it, you do surgery.
I just spent some time with your old buddy Roger McGuinn.
David Crosby: You know, we talk all the time on Twitter.
I know, I see it.
David Crosby: He is really sweet. When he saw the reviews that I got, he immediately sent me congratulations.
Well, he loves you. We talked about that. And we talked about The Byrds a lot. And when I saw him he played with Mudcrutch. It was very loose, and we got to talking. And man, you know, he said, almost identically what you said earlier about why he really loves just picking up a guitar case, and gig bag and going out on the road. Just keeping it simple, and playing what he wants to play. He said, “I don’t change it up all that much. But I can!”
David Crosby: He can! Yeah. And he doesn’t have to engage in an entire massive network of people and stuff to go out on the road. And he can remember the scene he came out of.
The 1960s folk scene.
David Crosby: Right. He’s just so good at that stuff. But I wish he would go out with me and Chris (Hillman) as The Byrds. I know exactly how to fly wingman to that guy. And I have immense respect for him. So does Chris. And the three of us could do it. But I gotta respect that you can’t legislate somebody into playing music, they have to want to.
That’s what he said exactly; almost identically.
David Crosby: I understand that pretty well. I really do. And I have a lot of respect for him, otherwise I’d be pissed. Because there’s great music to be made there, and so simple. The Byrds’ stuff is so simple. It’s so easy, and I could really dig into it now. But he’s got the same attitude I do now, and that’s thinking about the future, not the past. He’s concerned about what’s gonna happen tomorrow. How can you not respect that?
Last time we talked, we talked about Younger Than Yesterday, and we talked about 5D. When I talked to him we ended up talking about those same albums and, you know, those albums for me really define The Byrds, even more than the first two albums.
David Crosby: Younger Than Yesterday was when we came of age.
And he talked about writing with you, the sort of jazzy “Airport Song.”
David Crosby: Wow! I had to admit to somebody on Twitter a couple of days ago that I hadn’t listened to a Byrds song in 10 years.
But, you know, it’s so funny, so many people are so completely entranced with the past, and that’s where they spend their time. And they want to know the most minute detail. And I wonder, if you walk through life looking over your shoulder, don’t you like run into a wall or a tree or something?
So I just don’t (look back). I can’t do that. I don’t give a shit about what’s done. I’m happy that I did the work that I did in Byrds and CSN, and in CSNY. I’m happy with all of it, and I’m proud of it. But I can’t just stand still, that’s not gonna work for me.
When we last talked, the piece I was writing was around the live box you did with CSNY.
David Crosby: It’s good.
But here’s the thing, because I talked to you, I talked to Stills and I talked to Nash, and Nash was really neck deep into that thing. I mean, he really worked hard.
David Crosby: That really big ‘74 box? I think he really did a great job. He and I are loggerheads but I gotta tell you, man, he did a great job. Credit where it’s due.
Well, this is the thing, I know there’s a lot of personal stuff going on between you two and we don’t have to get into that. But from an artistic standpoint, he seems happy to be playing those same songs every night, and not doing something new.
David Crosby: That’s because he comes from a different place, man. He was in a pop band, so that’s really where his orientation is: To be a successful, important world pop star.
I love that guy, but his book is where things went awry. It was a remarkably dishonest book. He made himself out to look fantastic, but whenever he needed something…
David Crosby: Or naughty. But salacious is a good word. But whenever he needed something wild (to move the story forward) he used my stories. It wasn’t cool. It just wasn’t okay; and all that stuff is already known, anyway. But he did it from a different point of view, where he added everything to make him look terrific and me look bad and I thought it was a dishonest book.
Well, it was a less interesting book in the long run, certainly less so than yours. You might get a bump in sales in the beginning by going the “Hey, I’m going to tell you about David Crosby’s wild times” route, but the reality is…
David Crosby: But it was all stuff I had already written about and talked about many times.
Your book, which we talked about at length last time I saw you, now that is a fucking book, man.
David Crosby: Oh yeah. Carl Gottleib is one of my oldest friends. We’ve known each other for 50 years. And it’s a really honest book. We went to great lengths to make it honest.
Well, and the passage of time wasn’t so great. You were closer to the things you were writing about.
David Crosby: Yeah, but we did a thing including other people’s perspectives, so you got my view and the point of view of several other people who were there at the time, and I think in retrospect it’s probably a pretty accurate book, or it’s at least trying to be honest. Because if you get seven people telling a story, in the middle of those seven perspectives…
You’re going to get close to the truth there.
David Crosby: In the middle of those seven viewpoints you’ll know what happened. You get a clear, 3D picture. That’s a different approach and I was very proud of it and I’m still very proud of it. So that’s still how I think you should do it.
Let’s talk about the new record. We’re sitting here in a recording studio in Brooklyn, owned by Snarky Puppy’s Michael League, and there are people buzzing around, and you’re about to go into the final day of rehearsals for a tour, so how is it going?
David Crosby: For people who have never sung together, learning an entire record’s worth of brand-new shit that I’ve never sung and played, it’s just amazing.
Lighthouse is a dense record, and not just because it’s an ambitious record. I think the difference to me, and to all those reviewers we were talking about earlier, is that as fans we expect a good record from you. At this point in your career you know how to make a record. You’re not like a neophyte. But that being said, I like your last record, Croz.
David Crosby: Oh, Croz is a good record. Great producer.
But Lighthouse sounds like – only a year and a half or so later – is a huge artistic leap forward, as a statement as an artist. That was a really pleasant surprise, because we don’t have many statements from you individually over the last 50 years.
David Crosby: Because I’ve been making CSN and CSNY and Crosby/Nash albums. That’s why there haven’t been more solo records. But what happened is that I met Michael through Twitter. I was tweeting about Snarky Puppy because they’re a fantastic band. I’d discovered their stuff up on YouTube, and it’s just spectacular. And I started tweeting about them.
And his mom told him – or somebody told him – and he started reading all of my tweets and he was flabbergasted. Because I said something about them being one of the best bands I’d ever heard, and how the compositions are beautiful and it’s exciting and it’s accessible, they are accessible to the outside world. They are not incestuous and intellectual and inward turning. They include you. They communicate outwardly. And so I fell in love with them. So I went down to do their Family Dinner record, and I spent a week with Michael and said, ‘Okay, this is not like anybody I’ve ever met. This is a completely different level guy.’
And he is… I don’t use the G word. But he is one. He’s really, really much smarter than me…
Whoa, David Crosby…
David Crosby: I’m telling you the truth! I’m just telling you the truth. He is. And he’s a fantastic musician and a completely genuine human being. And he has a plan. All he cares about is music. When I met him, he didn’t even have a place to live. He was living out of a suitcase and working 365 days a year. He didn’t even need to take time off. And he does it out of love. It’s his choice. He could get any gig he wants. So I fell in love with him.
He’s a terrific cat. And I asked him to come to my house and write with me. The first day my wife taught him how to swim. The second day we wrote a song. The third day we wrote a song. Fourth day? We wrote a song! Just like that. Really brilliant. I had already asked him if he would produce a record for me, and I already had committed to doing another record like Croz, Which is here, already, right in here (points to his Mac).
But I envisioned working with him to be like hiring a master carpenter with a gigantic toolbox. So I said, “Okay, is that what we’re doing?” And he said, “No, I don’t think so. I’ll do what you want, but you know I really loved your first solo record, everybody did, so I really think big vocal stacks and acoustic guitar and that’s it.” And I said, “Shit, that’s right in my wheelhouse!” He didn’t have to convince me. I live there!
And then we started writing new songs. So now I’m the biggest fan in the world of this guy. You should see what it’s like working with him. It’s so easy. And low key. You can’t believe how good that guy is. And Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis (from Crosby’s touring band). Genius fucking singers. They’re better than me. Way better. And I’m not kidding you! They are. They’re really way better than me. Both of them can sing rings around me, I promise you, and they’re great instrumentalists, too. Michelle is a great keyboard player and Becca can play anything. And what happens here is that I said, “I wish I could tour this record.” And he said, “We can. We’re gonna. With Becca and Michelle.”
And it’s just amazing how good it sounds.
So what do you carry with you from say, The Byrds, or CSN, or CSNY or even working with Graham alone, today, especially since you seem as though you feel so liberated cutting ties with those people over the last few years, and especially since that seemed to help you artistically to make this record? Because you are in a different place artistically than you were 18 months ago when we met to talk about Croz and the CSNY live box.
David Crosby: Yes, I am. That’s because I’m still growing.
And I know I’m older than dirt. But the fact is I’m not dead, and I am growing every day, and if that’s the case, I’m fucking well going to do it. And if I’m gonna run it till the wheels come off. If music that good is gonna come out of me I’m gonna pay attention. I have to respect that.
What was the first track you did when you went, “Wow, there’s really something special here?” Was it when you were working on the demos or were you actually cutting the record?
David Crosby: “Things We Do For Love.” It was such a total success that I knew I wanted to do more. I don’t feel authorship of the choice. I think the choice was laid in front of me and that there wasn’t any way I could choose to turn around and go backwards. It was just so good.
Sure you could have. We talked about this earlier: It’s easiest to take the path of least resistance.
David Crosby: I think so too, it’s easy to take the path of least resistance, but this shit was laying in front of me. So no contest. No contest at all.
It’s still a bold move, for someone at your age, and at your level.
David Crosby: Oh no, it’s like jumping off a cliff and hoping the parachute will work.
At this point in your career, it’s like a David Bowie or a Bob Dylan move, to just say, “Fuck it! This is what I’m going to do. Fuck you all.”
David Crosby: Well, both of those guys have done that. And are still doing it. But I don’t think there was any choice to be made. I saw it there and I felt like I had been gifted. I didn’t think this up, man. It’s not like I invented this whole thing. It was laid upon me, right there and I would’ve had to have been deaf, dumb and blind and ignorant to not see the quality. If there’s one thing I have always been it’s totally focused on the song.
Our job is to serve the song. And you only do that, you only give that to your work, if you’re thrilled by the fucking song. The song has to be really there; it has to be really good. And with the quality of the songs that were coming I just couldn’t have done anything else.
Well, just to play Devil’s Advocate here, you have to like your soapbox. You must want a lot of people to hear your music, and not just a few.
David Crosby: I do! I love being big. It was fun for a while. But what rings my bell inside is delivering a really fine song that takes you somewhere, makes you feel something and, although there were really good songs in there, there just weren’t in the last 10 years. And I went as far down the “turn on the smoke machine and play your hits road” as I could go, and even a little further.
And that fabled Rick Rubin-produced CSN album, are we ever gonna hear that? Did that just not happen for you?
David Crosby: Okay, I’m gonna get myself in trouble again and its your fault! In my opinion…I’ll frame it like this: Rick Rubin’s a poser and I don’t think he knows shit about producing. I don’t think he’s any good at all. And he made some serious mistakes. We had a Beatles song that we liked, and I said, “Well this one is also very appealing.” And he said, “There’s only going to be one Beatles song on this record!” Alarm, alarm! He’s not a player or a singer or a song guy. He’s a guy who talked his way into being highly thought of a producer. I don’t think he’s that good.
Well, Tom Petty loved what he did during Wildflowers, I’m pretty sure.
David Crosby: I understand that. So did a lot of other people. But ask Tom if he’d work with him again. And then ask him why. You know if you print this… You know, it’s okay if you do. He knows how I feel. I don’t think he’s a bad guy. I just don’t think he’s a great producer.
Anyway, what I was trying to get at was, when you perform these new songs, and certainly the older ones in your live set, I hear Gene Clark in there. I hear Steven Stills. But when you’re performing the songs, what do you carry from those days with you as a performer, when you’re in the moment?
David Crosby: I don’t carry any of the history. I carry the love of the song. I have been gifted to be able to work with some very good people, doing some very good songs. I recorded “Ohio” with Neil Young. Give me a fucking break! You know? I recorded “Suite: Juudy Blue” with Steven Stills. How much more do you want?
I recorded “Eight Miles High” with Roger McGuinn man, with The Byrds. And I recorded a dozen Gene Clark songs. Two dozen Gene Clark songs. Gene was this guy from Missouri with thirteen kids and no idea what the rules were, so he just did what he felt good and it did feel good. And Roger, cause he’s really smart, knew how to translate that into a record, which is what he did to “Tambourine Man.” I’ll tell you a story, when we were in the studio Bob heard we were doing “Tambourine Man” and he came and he listened to us do it electric, and you could almost hear the gears working. He went right out and got an electric band, the next day. There’s no question about what happened there. And I came out of all that experience with respect for those people, but with a deep, dyed in the wool love for the song and that’s still there.
Good songwriters slay me. They knock me end over end. But here I am, the happiest I’ve ever been. And making good art. And I know it’s not being modest to say, but it is good art. It’s what they put me here to do, I’m certain of it. I’m so grateful and happy about it that I sound totally like an idiot if I try to explain it. But it’s how it is.
As an artist, though, it’s a bold move to jettison that big machine. To take that leap, and to go, “Okay, well I’m playing to 7,000 people.” And then suddenly it’s 2,000 people, and it affects your bottom line, and then it affects your mood and it affects you artistically. Forget if you’re playing stuff you love, it’s hard to do that.
David Crosby: It gets worse. It gets a lot worse.
That’s your advice to an artist reading this, “It’s gonna get worse!”
David Crosby: Well, it’s true! And when that’s the case you have to make the choice and move on. Serve. The. Song. When you’re faced with that choice – when you’re faced with an artistic choice – serve the song.
And you never had any interest in going the all-star band route? You know, going out with Joe Walsh, and Jackson Browne, and whomever? Because you could do that, you know? You could put together CSNY 2.
David Crosby: But that’s not where I’m at.
I get that, but a lot of people would hear your music and there’s a lot of money in that.
David Crosby: I know, but I have a bunch of money. Money… here’s money: Money is a good servant but a terrible master. It’s a great tool – you can help people – but it can’t be the reason you do things, not if you wanna go for the high ground. You’ve got to go for the art, and you have to go for the people and you have to go for the love. You don’t go for the money.
Okay, but for people and especially musicians reading this, they’re surely thinking, “Easy for you to say, having a lot of it, than for me.” You know, musicians on the B-level, just trying to make ends meet, with kids and college to pay for; stuff like that.
David Crosby: I totally get that. But when it comes down to your life’s work and your own heart, don’t go for the dollars. It’s not a good reason for doing things. It’s a tool you use and you use it to do good.
So a Byrds reunion, for you, with McGuinn and Hilman, it’s not about the money?
David Crosby: Hell no!
You’ve said this to me before, but I get that you would like to play those songs with those guys?
David Crosby: Are you fuckin’ kidding, wouldn’t you? It’s good music, man! The thing about The Byrds’ stuff is that it’s very genuine music. We were not sophisticated but we loved what we were doing and you can feel it. We we’re trying the best we could to make great music the best we knew how, and you can feel that in the music. There’s joy in there and pride and willingness to push the envelope.
God, if there’s anything I love about Roger and Christopher, they were willing to let me push the envelope. So would I love it? Yes. And yet, am I still fine with not doing it. But I’d do it in a second. And I’d have a blast, because I’m a much better musician now. I could help, and it would be good. And I guarantee you if the three of us got together we would make very good music.
But getting back to the here and now? Dude, I’m happy! The key to the whole thing: I was miserable and now I’m happy. This is what happens when I’m happy. I can’t ignore that. I’d be a fucking idiot to ignore it.
You made some great records as a miserable guy though, didn’t you?
David Crosby: No.
Yeah, you did.
David Crosby: No, I made some okay records and before that, when I was happy with those bands, I made some great records. But it petered out. What’s the last CSN record, you think it was great? But I made some great music. I’m proud of it.
And in the early-70s? You weren’t so happy then.
David Crosby: I was happy. I was just misguided. I was stoned out of my gourd.
And self-medicating; you had a lot of pain.
David Crosby: You know what the deal was? I was strung out. And so I had my priorities misaligned. But I think I’ve lucked out. Now I am going to keep two things going, two streams. I’m going to continue working with Michael, which is pretty acoustic focused and vocals focused. And I’m going to do more music like Croz, which will eventually come out as a record called Skytrails. In fact, it was finished, but I just wrote another song and it has to go on it, with this wonderful bass player from Estonia; she’s just a fantastic musician.
So it’s not done. And James (Raymond) has written some stuff for that record that you simply will not believe. He’s incredibly talented. So I’m going to keep both streams going. But I don’t think it should stop there. I think the next thing I plan to do is, if this chemistry keeps working, is to do more with Michael and Becca and Michelle, cause they’re so fantastic. The key factor about my life right now is that I’m very happy. I’m very happy with my family, I’m very happy with my marriage, and I’m very happy with how my music is going.
It’s very interesting to me, though, relative to our last conversation, if Roger called, you’d do that…
David Crosby: In a minute!
But if Graham or Neil called, you probably wouldn’t?
David Crosby: Probably not… If Neil…
There are a lot of fans that will be hurt, or upset by that.
David Crosby: Real world? If Neil comes and says, “10 million dollars a guy, I need 2 months.” Fine. I can pay my house off. I’ll do it. I’m a grown up. I understand what’s at stake. But… No joy there. No joy.
Well, and there’s only so many more rodeos to go to at this point, too. Did you see Neil at Desert Trip? He seems to be feeding off Promise of the Real amazingly well.
David Crosby: Crazy Horse? Boom-boom-crack. Promise of the Real are much better. You know, I saw a clip, or I heard a clip of them and Neil playing “Cortez,” and it was some of the best music I’ve heard in my life. And I’ve been on stage with that guy a thousand times. But I don’t know if I’ve ever heard any better than that.
He was killing it. Absolutely ripping that guitar up. I just was immensely proud of him. Cause you know he’s got the same problem that the rest of us do: He’s trying to keep it alive. He sees what’s going on. But he’s always been trying to keep forward motion.
But he’s not the problem. But, yeah, I would probably do it. Never say never. But right now I can’t believe how happy I am and how great the music I’m making is. There’s really no better feeling.
May 6, 2021
May 5, 2021