David Crosby Never Won Mr. Congeniality, But He Sure Could Sing and Play

David Crosby died Wednesday at the age of 81, which isn’t bad when you spent the second half of your life playing with house money.

In the 1980s, when he did five months in a Texas prison and seemed to get arrested every other week for guns or drugs, not to mention being in mortal need of a liver transplant, David Crosby was neck and neck with Keith Richards at the top of the “how is he still alive?” list.

David Crosby in 2018.

But like Keith, Crosby survived, allowing him to savor a rich musical legacy as an original member of the Byrds and a cofounder of Crosby, Stills, Nash and sometimes Young.

He could be cranky and irritable and off-stage he did not always play well with others, he told producer/interviewer Cameron Crowe in the often stark 2019 documentary David Crosby: Remember My Name. He lamented that he had burned pretty much every musical friendship bridge he had once built, including those with Stills, Nash, Young and Byrds founder Roger McGuinn.

He tempered the harsh judgment on his relationship skills with a more positive assessment of the music those relationships produced. From the Byrds’s groundbreaking interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” to harmony-driven Crosby, Still and Nash tunes like his own “Wooden Ships,” he mused, he had made music that would outlive him and that made his life, for all is ragged edge, a success.

He also acknowledged that for a relationship to end badly, it had to have had good times before.

In October 1991, a few years after he had apparently beaten both his cocaine habit and the expectations of his imminent demise, he sat with Stills and Nash in a New York hotel room, bantering easily as he and they promoted a reunion tour.

Crosby, Stills, Nash.

“We’ve done enough f — -ing arguing,” said Nash.

“When we got back together,” said Stills, “we had differences immediately.”

“I started it,” said Crosby.

But seriously, he said, they agreed they wanted to make good songs sound good again.

“Mick Jagger said he didn’t want to be singing ‘Satisfaction’ at 40,” said Crosby, who had turned 40 two months earlier. “But you look at Segovia. Or Chuck Berry. He’s 65. It’s about the music. If we had to be out there with tight pants and bulging crotches, it would be one thing. We don’t. Let the kids do that. What we do, we can keep doing for a while.”

Still, when Nash mused that CSN audiences knew “we’re not sex symbols,” Crosby cut in to correct him. “You guys aren’t,” he joked. “I am.”

Crosby’s most famous song, in fact, was about sex: “Triad” a ménage-a-trois drama he wrote for the Byrds. After they recorded it, McGuinn refused to include it on the next album, one of several reasons Crosby left the Byrds in 1967 and a year later formed CSN.

The Byrds’s version of “Triad” was eventually released, as were versions by Jefferson Airplane and CSN. Over those years, Crosby allowed, it came to sound a lot less racy than it did in 1967.

“I was so delicate with ‘Triad’,” he said in 1991. “It was so hippie-like. Today you have guys going, ‘Let me — — you, b — — .’ It makes me sound like Casper the Milquetoast Pervert.”

Crosby was not primarily known as a songwriter, though he co-wrote “Eight Miles High” with Gene Clark and McGuinn, and contributed “Guinnevere,” “Déjà Vu,” “Almost Cut My Hair” and “Long Time Gone,” among others, to CSN.

Crosby, second from right.

He was a musical innovator, however, credited alongside McGuinn with helping shape the Byrds’s early folk-rock style and instrumental in arranging the Crosby, Still and Nash harmonies. He produced, among other albums, the Byrds’s 1973 reunion session.

He bounced in and out of multiple ensembles, and while he worked most frequently with Nash, he joked in 1991 that whenever he reunited with former colleagues, they never did much pre-planning “because we have such a hard time even getting into the same room.”

He was well respected among musicians, performing with the likes of Elton John, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Lucinda Williams, Carol King, David Gilmour and Phil Collins.

Crosby grew up in an affluent family and allowed that he disappointed them when he decided to become a vagabond musician. He started out in a folk group, Les Baxter’s Balladeers, before joining McGuinn, a fellow folk veteran, in a group that was briefly the unsuccessful Beefeaters before becoming the very successful Byrds.

Back when he did cut his hair.

His folk stint sharpened his appreciation for the kind of vocal harmony that distinguished both the Byrds and CSN. One of his big disappointments with many later artists, he said in 1991, was that technology compromised real harmony.

“I’m really shocked and p — -ed off,” he said, “that people come out now and do a show to a tape while they’re pretending they’re singers. If the tape stopped for New Kids On The Block, that would be it, show over, end of story. Janet Jackson, Milli Vanilli. I’m glad there’s a backlash to it. In some places now it’s illegal to do that unless you put it on the ticket. I guess there will always be kids who don’t care, but I’m glad we do it live. There are people who still like music.”

David Crosby marched and sometimes stumbled to his own muse. He hated the Vietnam war, liked gun rights and didn’t believe we were ever told the truth about the Kennedy assassination. In his later years he became an obsessive tweeter, sometimes about music and sometimes about politics. A day before he died, he tweeted about Matt Gaetz (thumbs down) “Eleanor Rigby” (thumbs up) and climate activist Greta Thunberg, whom he called “brave.”

In Remember My Name, Nash says one of Crosby’s personal watershed moments came in 1969, when he was 28 and his girlfriend Christine Hinton was killed in a car crash. After he identified her body he was never the same, Nash says, and Crosby agrees, adding that Hinton was the only girl he ever really loved.

This was 32 years after he married Jan Dance, to whom he remained married until his death.

Nash, who wrote in 2016 that CSN could never work together again because of his irrevocably broken relationship with Crosby, suggests that Crosby’s world simply wasn’t neat and tidy.

“I know people tend to focus on how volatile our relationship has been at times,” Nash wrote after Crosby’s death. “But what has always mattered to David and me more than anything was the pure joy of the music we created together, the sound we discovered with one another, and the deep friendship we shared over all these many long years.”

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David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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David Hinckley

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”