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Interview: David Crosby on free love, drugs, and why America might be doomed

David Crosby
(Image credit: Anna Webber)

David Crosby’s name is woven through the very fabric of rock’n’roll and its attendant counterculture. After low-key beginnings on the Chicago and Greenwich Village coffee house scene Crosby was a founder member of The Byrds in 1964. 

With The Byrds having introduced both Bob Dylan and psychedelia into the mainstream via the global hit singles Mr Tambourine Man and Eight Miles High, Crosby departed from the group to form Crosby, Stills & Nash in ’69. The following year Neil Young joined the trio, just in time to record their timeless masterpiece album Deja Vu

Crosby’s solo career found its genesis in 1971’s If I Could Only Remember My Name and continues to astound, most especially since a 2014 re-emergence with Croz, a return-to-form album recorded with his son James Raymond in the role of co-producer, co-writer and stalwart sideman. 

With new album For Free out now, Crosby is still active as he approaches his 80th birthday, as both solo entity and focal point of the Lighthouse Band (with Michael League, Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis). And he clearly has absolutely no intention whatsoever of resting on his laurels. 

Deja Vu? That’s old stuff. History. I’m proud of it, I’m glad we did it, but I don’t keep my head there. I keep my head in next week… Next year.”

Alt

Blood is thicker than water

“I’ve never enjoyed a more fulfilling working relationship with anyone other than my son, James, but I’ve come close. The relationship I have with Michael League is very good. When he produces my other band, the Lighthouse Band, the chemistry’s really excellent. And I’ve obviously had good chemistry with other people in the past: Roger [McGuinn], Chris [Hillman], Gene [Clark] and Michael [Clarke] in The Byrds; CSN and CSNY, great chemistry, really good. 

"[Graham] Nash and I don’t get along now, but credit where it’s due, man, he’s a great harmony singer and we did a lot of really good work. Some of the four-part things I’ve done recently with Becca [Stevens], Michelle [Willis] and Michael League in the Lighthouse Band are really incredible, but I don’t think I’ve ever had better chemistry than with James, and frankly, man, he’s matured. I thought he was terrific when I met him, but on this record [For Free], I think he’s as good a writer as I am, if not better.”


Harmony breeds harmony

“When James and I harmonise there is a certain amount of familial magic there, a kind of genetic symbiosis. The notes that he chooses to put into the harmonies and the stacks are affected by the same people I am. He’s a jazzer too, he loves jazz, so he likes big, complex chords, not just simple triads, and he’s a great musician. There’s no way for you to know it if you haven’t played with him, but he’s a stunning musician.

“Having a good personal relationship outside of the studio does affect how voices work together when sharing a microphone, but a great vocal performance has a lot more to do with art than it has to do with technique. It has to do with what kind of singer you are, and it has to do – very definitely, man – with what kind of person you are. I don’t sing with people I don’t like, period. You can’t pay me enough money. I just won’t do it.”


Father doesn't necessarily know best

“Looking back, I’m not really sure that my father actually had any intrinsic beliefs. Mine are similar to those of my mother, who was a very liberal person, very anti-racist, very strongly in favour of the arts and a wonderful human being. So my beliefs are probably very similar to hers. I wish she were still around so that I could talk to her about them. 

“I didn’t just rebel against my parents’ values, I rebelled against the whole society’s values. Come on, man, it was a square society, it was the fifties. Did I want to be a part of that Pat Boone, white bucks, [American sitcom] Father Knows Best society? Not only no, but hell no! 

"And then along came The Beatles and Bob Dylan, opened my head with a can opener. And I liked our set of values better, that love is better than hatred and peace is better than war. And the hippies, forming their own support groups, I still agree that that’s important.” 


Genius cannot be contrived, it just happens

“When I took Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane tapes on to The Byrds’ tour bus, it wasn’t my intention to expand the band’s horizons or in the hope we’d incorporate elements of ragas or jazz into future compositions. I wasn’t anything like as organised as that, man. I was just playing that stuff because I loved it. I’ve never had a plan, and I didn’t plan for Eight Miles High to happen or any of that, the music was just so good that you couldn’t deny it.”


There's no such thing as free love

“What the expression ‘free love’ meant was a love free of the constraints that society had placed upon it. Love and sex in the fifties were cardboard cut-outs, and we wanted a more Dionysian, pleasurable and much more fun, guilt-free and joyous sex and love life, and for a while there I think we were headed towards it.”


The drugs do work, but be careful out there

“There’s absolutely no question that taking drugs enhanced my creative process. Taking hallucinogens probably helped, in part, but obviously drugs are all different, and cocaine and heroin took me right down. I ended up in a Texas prison. There’s no way around it, it nearly killed me, destroyed my career, fucked me up bad.”


Don't believe the hype

“The Trump presidency left a legacy of smouldering unrest, and I’m not even sure we’re going to have a country for much longer because there are so many groups in the United States that don’t even understand what a democracy is. And there’s a ton of people in the United States who don’t understand global warming and are being fed bullshit. One thing I do know is that global warming is a real thing, that the United States is a key offender, and that we can’t deal with it until we get this country behaving like a grown-up, and right now it’s a struggle.”


Racism equals stupidity

“The murder of George Floyd and the consequent need for the Black Lives Matter movement shows we haven’t come very far since the desegregation of the sixties. You have a large proportion of the population who know that racism is dumb, but… 

"Look, man, here’s how it works. The human race is like snowflakes, no two human beings are alike, so any group of human beings above, say, a thousand, has got representatives of all types of people. It’s got saints and sinners, it’s got angels and axe murderers, everybody. So there’s no ‘black people are bad’. Black people are all different, just like white people are all different. 

"There are black people who are angels, there are black people who are murderers, just as there are Mexicans who are wonderful and there are Mexicans who are terrible. That’s how it works. Every ethnicity of human being is spread across all the groups. So racial prejudice is a fucking joke. It’s just stupid beyond belief. If you’re racially prejudiced it just means that you are too dumb to understand how the human race actually works. 

“Things aren’t getting any better here, because there’s a whole lot of people who are being indoctrinated into race hatred, and it’s very bad, man. This country is in deep and serious problems. I don’t know if it is going to continue as one country. The two coasts are just not on the same plane as Texas. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is.”


Facing mortality focusses the mind 

“Close encounters with death do have a tendency to focus your attention. They get you paying attention to what’s actually going on. In my case, I came very close [suffering with hepatitis-C, Crosby underwent a liver transplant in 1994]. They told me I was a week away from dying when they transplanted me. 

"After such an experience you treasure this life, you try to live more in the moment you’re in and treasure it, taste it fully, chew every bite, read every word, listen to every heartfelt note, really pay attention, don’t let it slip by, because you can’t get it back and there isn’t anywhere near as much as you think there is going to be. 

“I’m not wasting any time. I’ve probably worked just as hard in the last five years as I have at any other time in my life. I’m not getting paid for it, so I’m doing it for the right reasons. What can I tell you? I wish the streamers had a conscience, but they don’t, they’re thieves. But I’m enjoying the art of it. And it’s what we leave behind, and I’m about to leave, so I’m really working on leaving behind my best."


Time flies

“As the years go by, time does seem to move on faster. You’ll find that as you get older each year seems shorter and you seem to have less and less time. And I can tell you that from my vantage point of being almost eighty. When you reach this point in life you don’t know if you’ve got two weeks or ten years. 

"What you do know is that it’s not the amount of time that remains that’s significant, it’s what you do with that time. I’ve been trying to fill it with joyful stuff, to have fun as long as I can before something breaks and I can’t, and so I’m trying to make a contribution. 

“I’ve always been trying to make a contribution and I’m still trying to do it. The world is in a shitty shape, and music is a lifting force, man. It makes things better. So my job is to create more music, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do."


Life's most valuable lesson

"Love works."


David Crosby’s For Free is out now via BMG.

Ian Fortnam

Commissioning both album reviews and live reviews, Classic Rock reviews editor Ian has been fearlessly filtering the rock from the cock since 2003.