David Crosby: Deja Vu All Over Again

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David Crosby (Photo by Anna Webber)

Well into his sixth decade as a recording and touring artist, David Crosby shows no signs of flagging; to the contrary, he has never been busier, and as he will tell you, he has never been happier. This August, the legendary singer-songwriter celebrated his 76th birthday. The two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer (as co-founder of both The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, and Nash) has just released Sky Trails, his third solo album in four years, and is touring this fall in support of the new record.

Sky Trails was produced by Crosby’s son, James Raymond, a fiercely talented songwriter and musician in his own right. The album is a jazz-inspired masterpiece, a stylistic departure from the shimmering, acoustic-based Lighthouse album of 2016, or its predecessor, the more electrified Croz from 2014. Musical guests adorn the album, from Michael McDonald and Jacob Collier to Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis. Early reviews have been laudatory, and the tour is off to a triumphant start, with both band and audience expressing unabashed glee resulting from an evening of shared sonic delight.

For those not familiar with the wonderfully individualistic streak embedded in Crosby’s extraordinary body of work, consider these words from the Croz himself, spoken back in 1991 before unveiling a brand-new song to a live audience. “It’s another one of those ‘Crosby, what the hell is going on in my mind?!?’ songs.” As the audience breaks into laughter, he adds: “You gotta understand; if you have lived my life, you would have a lot of these songs!”

If you had lived my life,” indeed! From a logical standpoint, David Crosby should have departed for the spiritual realm a long, long time ago … but miracles can and do happen. Through a journey that spanned the soaring heights of groundbreaking musical innovation in the ’60s and ’70s to the blackest depths of addiction and despair in the ’80s, from the long convalescence following a 1995 liver transplant to a warm, loving family life, Crosby has emerged fully intact, fully present; fully aware of and in charge of his creative faculties to an extent perhaps previously imagined, but never before achieved until the past few years. While he credits his many newfound collaborators with raising the bar and inspiring him to reach higher, at the end of the day it is Crosby, the golden-voiced balladeer, the patriotic town crier, the ever-questing mind and soul of the man himself responsible for a late-stage creative renaissance unparalleled in recent times.

The delight in Crosby’s voice was apparent during our recent phone conversation, held in late September as he prepared for the tour. There was much to discuss: a brand-new album, new musical collaborators, his lifelong love of discovering and promoting new musical talent, his outrage at the music streaming services for the way they have impacted the lives of artists, the state of our country, the future of our world, and yes … CSNY.

David Crosby (Photo by Anna Webber)

Crosby provided the back story for his current prolificacy: “I kind of had a head of steam built up from being in Crosby, Stills, and Nash and it being not good. It certainly wasn’t a place I could bring a song to and hope to get it on a record. We just didn’t like each other and we were sort of down to, you know, ‘turn-on-the-smoke-machine-and-play-your-hits’ kind of level. So I think this burst of stuff was just wanting to happen.”

He spoke about the urge to resurrect CSNY as a voice for today’s protest movement. I wondered, since he is headlining a show at Carnegie Hall in January with Snarky Puppy, billed as ‘An Evening of Protest Music, with Special Guests,’ if the iconic quartet might participate. Crosby was quick to reply, “No, I think that if CSNY gets together, it’ll be because Neil (Young) wants to do it. He’s the deciding factor, always has been. If he decides he wants to do it then God bless him, we will do it!”

Since his days with The Byrds, Crosby has always been fiercely political, unabashed in voicing his opinions. On the current state of our union, he was direct: “It’s pretty tough—a pretty tough situation that we could wind up with this asshole getting elected in the first place. Isn’t it terrible that we could be so asleep that the Russians could get away with what they got away with? That our system is so broken that our Congress does nothing but fight like babies in a schoolyard? The ways to fix it don’t look even possible. You’d have to publicly finance elections so that the corporations couldn’t buy the elections and thereby own the Congress, which is where the situation is right now. And of course, you’d never get that through Congress!”

David Crosby (Photo by Anna Webber)

Crosby’s followers on Twitter know him as an outspoken critic of the streaming services, outraged by how the practice has essentially killed record sales for both established artists and those just starting out. “I made these three records out of the grocery money, and the help of a friend,” he divulged. “A close friend of mine bought me a month of studio time that I couldn’t afford. Why couldn’t I afford it? Because they’re stealing my music and not paying me for it. That’s how this winds up. Young people just don’t stand a chance. It’s incredibly difficult, because there’s no payoff. They take the music and they sell it, and they make billions of dollars, and they don’t pay us; it’s that simple. Live performance is the only way we make any money. At all.”

Crosby is very supportive of aspiring artists, listening to their music online and offering them feedback. What motivates him to be so generous with his time? “Well, they’re at the stage that I remember very, very well … like driving 200 miles to go play to another 35 people, making just enough money to put gas in the rented van and maybe buy one meal. It’s insanely difficult for young people now. So, yeah, I think it’s a righteous thing to try and help them get attention and try to help them get known, if they’re talented enough. I do look for really talented people. I mean, I discovered Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, so I’m not batting too badly.”

David Crosby and friends will be at the Concert Hall at the NY Society for Ethical Culture in New York City on Nov. 25.

For the complete conversation, please visit Island Zone Update.

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