Listening to…..David Crosby

 So, why bother with Crosby?  The guy clearly has an ego the size of a planet.  Over the years his recorded output has been distinctly spotty and yet…and yet….

 It probably helps if you were there at the beginning and I was…can still remember hearing ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ on the radio and just being knocked sideways by that electric 12-string and those harmonies.  But really, it was hard to keep up with what The Byrds were doing – they were ‘over there’ and you’d just about have forgotten about them when a new single would come out – ‘Turn Turn Turn’, ‘All I really want to do’, ‘Eight Miles High’ – and they were all great. 

 I was taking a much more active interest in music by the time Crosby got fired from The Byrds.  No-one really knew why it had happened, but there were a few stories floating around suggesting that he could be a bit ‘difficult’.  At this stage, no-one in the UK really knew anything about the controversy over ‘Triad’ or how he depped for Neil Young with Buffalo Springfield at Monterey and how that went down with the rest of the guys.

 As for me, I’d just bought my first Byrds album – ‘Younger than Yesterday’ – and I was amazed – initially by what poor value it was; all Byrds albums in their original form up to about 1968  clock in at around or under 30 minutes.  Having said that, what the album did contain was electrifying and Crosby was right there at the heart of it with that voice (I’d learned to recognise it by now) and those songs – ‘Renaissance Fair’ said more about what we thought was happening on the West Coast in less than 2 minutes than any number of press articles.  And then there was ‘Everybody’s been burned’, probably still my favourite David Crosby song.  What I know about minor chords could be written on the back of a postage stamp, but it was obvious that this was neither your average pop song nor indeed your average love song.  Here was passion and pain and resignation, all bundled together and embellished by Roger McGuinn’s extraordinary ‘weeping’ guitar solo.  Perhaps most intriguingly of all for a Byrds song, there was just Crosby’s voice ringing out and no harmonies at all.

 

 ‘Younger than Yesterday’, 1967

 As 1967 slid into 1968, I was sort of aware that Crosby, despite quite clearly appearing on at least some of the next Byrds album (‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’), had actually left the band.  There were rumours that he was working on a project with The Beatles and that he was taking a sabbatical to sail round the world on his new boat, the Mayan.  The next confirmed sighting was when someone played me the first Joni Mitchell album and Crosby was down as its producer, though he didn’t participate musically.  He had, however, enlisted Stephen Stills to play bass on the album and as the year progressed, there were intermittent rumours that they were working on a project together with ex-Hollie Graham Nash, that they were signing to The Beatles’ label, Apple and that Steve Winwood was  leaving Traffic to join them.  Of these rumours only the first ever amounted to anything, though there were apparently grains of truth in both the other stories.  I find myself speculating how different (and how much better) things might have been had Winwood rather than Neil Young turned out to be the fourth member of the band.  Oh well….

 

 Joni and DC, circa 1967

 Into 1969, and suddenly there was news of a new band – Crosby Stills & Nash. An interesting aspect of the band was their name; rather than calling themselves The Dingbats or something equally anonymous, the choice of ‘Crosby Stills & Nash signified two things – one;  that the band could only record or tour when all three were present and two;  that they weren’t going to allow themselves to be trapped in the way that Crosby had been as a Byrd or Nash had been as a Hollie.  CSN was formed on the assumption that there would be solo, as well as group, projects.

 As for the first of those projects, the release of the first Crosby Stills & Nash album, we didn’t have long to wait..  So, let’s not mince words……One of the finest debut albums ever, anywhere…..One of the finest albums of the late 1960’s, for sure.  The chemistry between the three principals was just phenomenal; the backing musicians were sympathetic and skilled when called upon, the songs dovetailed beautifully and the whole thing was marvellously recorded and produced. 

 So, the question I have to ask is this: why, oh why did they invite Neil Young to join the band?  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, guys…..

 Well, of course, they had to get someone in to help Stills out, with the band now looking to tour.  Stills had been the principal musical force on the first album, playing multiple guitars and organ and he was going to need some help on the road.  Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic suggested Neil Young and despite reservations on the part of both Stills & Nash, Young was invited to join as a full-time member, instead of the more sensible option of just hiring in more musicians as they had with their rhythm section of Greg Reeves and Dallas Taylor.

 Neil Young had been hanging around the CSN camp from more or less the start and had appeared with the band on stage on numerous occasions.  However, he’d also signed a solo contract with Reprise and recorded an eponymous solo album.  Stills would, in addition, have been aware from the Springfield era that Young had problems when it came to commitment to the cause and was as likely as not just to cut and run – as he had prior to the Monterey Festival and on several other occasions.  Like Dave Mason in Traffic, Neil Young was in and out like the proverbial fiddler’s elbow, so again I ask, why, oh why did they ask him to join?

 Whatever their reasons, it was of course a huge mistake, something that became clear when the first CSNY album, ‘Déjà vu’ was issued in 1970.  Instead of the marvellously harmonious totality of the ‘Crosby, Stills & Nash’ album, what we got was what sounded like extracts from 4 solo albums.

 Of course, it still had its moments; Stills’ ‘Carry On’, Crosby’s title track and (for some) Nash’s preachy ‘Teach your children’, but it lacked any coherence as an album and in a year filled with great releases (‘John Barleycorn must die’, ‘Fotheringay’, ‘Layla’, Free’s ‘Highway’, ‘Moondance’, ‘Ladies of the Canyon’, The Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus’, ‘Abraxas’, Led Zeppelin ‘3’, The Byrds’ ‘Untitled’, ‘Morrison Hotel’, ‘American Beauty’, ‘Gasoline Alley and –ironically – Neil Young’s own ‘Everybody knows this is nowhere’’…….what a year!)

‘Déjà vu’ quickly got lost in the pack, even though it sold like hotcakes……..

 For the next 18 months, CSNY immersed themselves in a series of huge money-spinning tours across America.  The shows were split into an acoustic set, where everyone pitched in and an electric set where Young & Stills traded interminable guitar riffs and Nash & Crosby stood round looking bored.  The stress of the road and the imbalances within the band led to a break from which neither CSN or CSNY have ever recovered.  There was a final, poorly produced and overblown double live album (‘Four Way Street’), notable only for Crosby’s unreleased ‘The Lee Shore’, but by then the four principals had gone their separate ways. 

 

CSNY on the road, 1970 tour.

 If you read interviews with Crosby, Stills or Nash – but significantly not Young, one thing that comes through strongly is how important the whole CSN(Y) construct has always been to them, even when they’ve not been speaking to one another. However, what has to be said that is that despite some good live shows over the years, the recorded legacy of CSN(Y) since the first CSN album is pretty thin.  For me, their last meaningful act was to record Young’s ‘Ohio’ as a response to the horrors of Kent State in 1970.  Since then, most of the good things they have done have been away from the CSN ‘mothership’.

 So, as the CSNY squabbles continued and the years rolled by, each of the participants has produced solo work of greater or lesser worth.  Like Nash, Crosby had by 1970 relocated to the Bay Area from his native Los Angeles and was struggling to overcome the loss of girlfriend Christine Hinton in a car crash.  He had already established strong links with a wide variety of musicians in the Bay Area, most notably with Jerry Garcia and other members of the Grateful Dead and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane. 

 CSN(Y)’s position was at this stage somewhat ironic; they had effectively ceased to exist as a working unit yet in terms of record sales were still one of the hottest bands around.  Atlantic Records, having already had a lot of success with the first Stills solo album and noting how well Reprise were doing with Neil Young’s solo albums, pressured both Crosby & Nash for similar work.

 Having never been the most prolific of songwriters, this was clearly going to challenge Crosby in particular, but undeterred, he booked studio time at Wally Heider’s in San Francisco during the autumn/winter of 1970/1971 and invited some of his new Bay Area buddies to show up – which they did in droves – Kantner, Slick, Kaukonen & Casady from the Airplane, Garcia, Lesh, Hart and Kreuzman from the Dead plus David Freiberg from Quicksilver and, of course, Graham Nash.  Later sessions also saw Joni Mitchell, Michael Shrieve & Gregg Rolie (from Santana) and even Neil Young join the throng. This was a Bay Area supergroup made in heaven – except of course they all recorded for different labels, so the legal problems were always likely to be huge.  It was allegedly Paul Kantner who dubbed this assemblage of talent the Planet Earth Rock& Roll Orchestra or PERRO for short.

 Recordings of the earlier sessions reveal an series of jams based around fragments like ‘The Mountain Song’ which never got an official release or based on songs that were not even Crosby’s; for example, ‘Loser’ appeared on the first Jerry Garcia solo album and the one coherent Crosby song from the initial PERRO sessions, ‘The Wall Song’, was held back until the first Crosby & Nash album in 1972.

 When Crosby finally got down to recording the album for real, none of the early PERRO stuff was featured.  Instead a whole new batch of songs was recorded, including several songs with wordless vocals and a couple of meandering acoustic jams.  The strongest individual cuts were probably ‘Cowboy Movie’, a 9-minute epic fuelled by Garcia’s electric lead and ‘Laughing’ a song apparently mocking the wave of new age religious gurus that were flooding California at this time, but it was the totality of the album that counted and there’s no doubt that there was a natural flow to the sequence of tracks which meant that the whole was probably greater than the sum of the parts.  Released under the very Crrosby-esque title of ‘If I could only remember my name’, the album took a pasting from many of the hip reviewers and for many years was mistakenly seen as an inferior product to anything Stills & Young were doing.

 

The counter-cultural spokesman at work….

 Crosby had committed himself to doing some live work with Nash during 1971 and the new duo soon rediscovered the spirit that had infused the first CSN sessions.  One of their gigs was recorded and eventually released (‘Another Stoney Evening’) on the Grateful Dead’s own label later in the seventies and reveals Nash & Crosby having the time of their lives, with regular doses of the ‘Lebanese flu’ reducing them to a giggling heap on stage in front of an indulgent Californian audience.

 This was followed by the first and perhaps best Crosby/Nash  studio album in 1972.  It featured some solid new songs as well as the Grateful Dead’s backing on ‘The Wall Song’ and was the first of a number of similar albums released on various labels throughout the 70’s.

 If that last paragraph seems to tail off into vagueness, that would mirror how the 1970’s ended for most of CSN(Y).  True, Neil Young produced perhaps his last great album in ‘Rust never sleeps’ (1978) but things were much quieter elsewhere. There had been an indifferent CSN reunion album in 1977,  Crosby & Nash were on hold after 1977’s ‘Live’ album, whilst  in 1978, Stills released ‘Thoroughfare Gap’, the last of a series of solid but unspectacular solo albums made for Columbia. He would not appear on record again until 1982’s CSN album, ‘Daylight Again’, which actually started life as a Stills/Nash project due to Young’s indifference and Crosby’s mounting drug problems. 

 Sessions for a 1979 Crosby/Nash project had also been abandoned due to Crosby’s growing dependence on freebase cocaine, so when Stills and Nash began working on ‘Daylight Again’, they brought in Art Garfunkel and The Eagles’ Timothy Schmit to sing what would have been Crosby’s parts.  Atlantic Records would have none of this, however, insisting on the original trio or nothing, so in the end, Crosby was invited to participate at the 11th hour, with two of his songs finding their way on to the final cut of the album.

 Despite the album performing respectably, there was nonetheless a feeling that the moment had somehow passed for CSN and nothing they have produced since would suggest otherwise.  Live, they could still draw the crowds and work up a bit of lather, but in the studio it seemed that the songs, the production and the arrangements always fell short or became too manicured.

 For David Crosby’s career, the 1980’s proved to be a lengthy trough from which it seemed that he would emerge only in his coffin.  Heavy drug use and brushes with the law, fractured friendships and prison time that probably saved his life – it’s all been well-documented elsewhere.  Musically, Crosby produced little or nothing of note until 1995 – there were 2 indifferent solo albums in 1989 and 1993 before a stunning and quite unexpected return to form with the live album whose title seemed to deliberately to mirror his first – entitled ‘It’s all coming back to me now’ (Atlantic 1995), it is a marvellous document of a man who has definitely rediscovered his ‘mojo’.  Nash’s appearance on the album seemed to confirm that Crosby had finally conquered most of his demons.

 

Latter-day Crosby

 There was more to come – a best –selling autobiography (‘Long time gone’ – recommended!) had appeared in 1988 and further books on Political Activism in Music and another autobiographical volume would appear in 2000 & 2006 respectively.

 Also, Crosby had formed a musical liaison with his son James Raymond and together with guitarist Jeff Pevar, they put together Crosby Pevar Raymond, who recorded intermittently until 2004 and produced some excellent work, particularly on the ‘Live at the Wiltern’ double-CD (1999).

 Now 68. Crosby has been touring with both Crosby/Nash and CSN in recent years and as the 2005 Birmingham show revealed, he has lost neither his voice nor his sense of humour.

 It’s hard to sum up how much his music has meant to me over the years.  In quantity, his body of work may not equate to what some of his contemporaries  have put out over the same period, but I think I might appreciate some of them a bit more if they were a bit less prolific and exercised a slightly more rigorous self-editing process. 

 Through a variety of different musical settings over the last 40 years, the best of Crosby’s songs have shone out like the islands he sings of in ‘The Lee Shore’….”flung like jewels upon the sea.”

 Still, just to show that nothing lasts forever, even Crosby’s yacht ‘Mayan’ was put up for sale earlier this year….sic transit Gloria Swanson as they say….

  

Sail on, David….

 

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4 responses to “Listening to…..David Crosby

  1. Very nice piece. Thank you. I found it whilst googling ‘It’s All Coming Back Yo Me Now’ (Can’t seem to get it for a reasonable price).

    What do you think about Graham Nash’s contribution, especially to CSN? Personally I don’t like his songs or his solo voice (too whiney for me) and his talent always seemed lesser than the other two guys. But I think that without him (and his fantastic harmony voice) CSN couldn’t have existed musically nor, latterly, physically either. His motivation still holds them together.

    • Thanks for the positive comments; makes it even more worthwhile!

      As for Graham Nash, I think he was always there for his voice first and foremost, but he was (and remains) also quite a feisty character. In the end, because he is probably the only member of the CSN(Y) collective who hasn’t been seriously derailed at some point, I think he’s ended up being the conscience of the band and its senior archivist. Certainly, he was heavily involved with Stephen Barncard in archiving the PERRO recordings and was by all accounts the guiding hand behind the CSN box set of a few years back. So, even if he couldn’t still sing like a bird, they would need him to get them organised.

      As for getting hold of ‘It’s all coming back to me now’, it’s available here if you are cool with downloads from the net:

      http://anythinggoes-jazzme.blogspot.com/2009/11/david-crosby-its-all-coming-back-to-me.html

      Should keep you smiling until you can nail down a cheap copy in the sales! The Mediafire link is working fine as of tonight. Thanks to Jazzme for the upload

  2. I really enjoyed your piece.

    At some point a decade or so ago, I realized that David Crosby had become my favorite CSN(Y) member, and at times I feel like he may be my favorite musician period. Probably the change happened with “It’s all coming back to me now” which I didn’t run across until some years after it was released.

    There’s just something about his songwriting that really reaches me. Young is, of course, the more spectacularly famous poet/songwriter, and I really like much of his work as well, though I haven’t felt inclined to listen to it lately. Somehow, in the long run, Crosby’s best has come to feel more real and deep to me.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Gary.

    My own feelings about Crosby pretty much mirror your own.

    I’m afraid that I reached a point where I got sick of people telling me that Crosby was a musical nonentity compared to Neil Young.

    Personally, I think Young is hopelessly overrated, over-prolific and over-exposed whereas I think many people dismiss Crosby’s work without ever listening to it.

    I also think that Young is musically predictable whereas Crosby has never been afraid to try a different approach. Doesn’t always work, but you have to admire the guy for trying.

    I guess we’re never going to change the minds of too many people about how good Crosby is at his best, but for me it’s reassuring to know that I’m not a lone voice crying out in the wilderness!

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