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David Crosby, iconoclastic rock hero, dies at 81

Croz was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of both the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, and Nash

By Andy Greene & Jon Dolan

David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, and Nash in Amsterdam in 1976 GIJSBERT HANEKROOT/REDFERNS/GETTY IMAGES

David Crosby, the singer, songwriter, and guitarist who helped shape the sound of Sixties rock and beyond, died Wednesday night at the age of 81. A source close to Crosby confirmed the musician’s death to Rolling Stone, but did not disclose a cause.

Crosby was a founding member of the Byrds, playing guitar and contributing harmony vocals to their most enduring songs, including ‘Eight Miles High,’ ‘So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,’ and ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ Shortly after being forced out of the group due to personality conflicts with frontman Roger McGuinn, he formed the supergroup Crosby, Stills, and Nash with Buffalo Springfield’s Stephen Stills and Graham Nash of the Hollies. The trio — which became a quartet in 1969 when Neil Young joined their ranks — played a major role in the development of folk rock, country rock, and the emergent “California sound” that dominated rock radio throughout the mid-Seventies. Croz wrote many of their most beloved tunes, including ‘Almost Cut My Hair,’ ‘Long Time Gone,’ and ‘Déjà Vu.’

“It is with a deep and profound sadness that I learned that my friend David Crosby has passed,” Crosby’s former bandmate Nash wrote in a statement. “I know people tend to focus on how volatile our relationship has been at times, 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.”

“He was without question a giant of a musician, and his harmonic sensibilities were nothing short of genius,” Stills remembered in a message to Rolling Stone. “The glue that held us together as our vocals soared, like Icarus, towards the sun. I am deeply saddened at his passing and shall miss him beyond measure.”

“I’m heartbroken to hear about David Crosby,” Brian Wilson wrote. “David was an unbelievable talent — such a great singer and songwriter. And a wonderful person. I just am at a loss for words.”

While Crosby’s success continued in the 1970s and into the Eighties, his personal life was marred by heavy drug use, which wreaked havoc on his career and led to a short jail sentence in 1985. Yet he recovered and continued making music and touring for another three decades. “I have no idea how I’m alive and Jimi [Hendrix] isn’t and Janis [Joplin] isn’t and all my other friends,” he told Rolling Stone in 2014, years after he’d cleaned up. “I have no idea why me, but I got lucky.”

Crosby was born in Los Angeles in 1941. His father, Floyd Crosby, was an Academy Award-winning cinematographer. David briefly attended Santa Barbara City College, but dropped out to pursue music. In 1964, he joined a band called the Jet Set, consisting of McGuinn and Gene Clark. They changed their name to the Beefeaters, and then the Byrds. Crosby’s gorgeous harmonising, heard on hits like the Bob Dylan cover ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!,’ was an essential component in the Byrds’ folk-rock sound.

By 1967, tensions within the band had mounted to a breaking point and Crosby left. “Roger and Chris [Hillman] drove up in a pair of Porsches and said that I was crazy, impossible to work with, an egomaniac,” Crosby told Rolling Stone in 1970. “All of which is partly true, I’m sure, sometimes — that I sang shitty, wrote terrible songs, made horrible sounds, and that they would do much better without me. Now, I’m sure that in the heat of the moment they probably exaggerated what they thought. But that’s what they said. I took it rather much to heart. I just say, ‘OK. Kinda wasteful, but OK.’ But it was a drag.”

Just months after he left the Byrds, Croz met up with Stills and Nash at Joni Mitchell’s house and discovered their incredible vocal blend. The first song the trio sang together was ‘You Don’t Have to Cry.‘ “They got to the end of it,” Nash recalled in 2020. “And I looked at Stephen and I said, ‘That’s an incredible song, Stephen. That’s really a beautiful song. Do me a favor and sing it one more time.’ And they looked at each other and shrugged, and they sang it one more time. They got to the end of it. And I said, ‘OK, all right, I’m English. Forget it. Do it one more time, please. One more time.’ In those three playings of that song, I had learned my harmony. I’d learned the words. I learned how Crosby was breathing. I learned Stephen’s body language about when he was going to start a line or end a line or put emphasis on particular words. When we sang that third time, my life changed.”

The trio went into the studio a few months later to record their debut LP. Crosby contributed the song ‘Long Time Gone.’ “I wrote that right after they assassinated Bobby Kennedy,” Crosby told Rolling Stone in 2008. “It was a result of losing him, of losing John Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I started to feel overwhelmed. It seemed as if it was ballot by bullet. It seemed as if it didn’t matter how good a person we could find to put up as an inspiration and a leader for the good, that somehow the other side would triumph by simply gunning them down.”

He also penned the tender love ballad ‘Guinevere.’ “That is a very unusual song, it’s in a very strange tuning with strange time signatures,” Crosby said. “It’s about three women that I loved. One of whom was Christine Hinton, the girl who got killed who was my girlfriend, and one of whom was Joni Mitchell, and the other one is somebody that I can’t tell. It might be my best song.”

The album was an enormous success, and they added Neil Young into the mix when they took it on tour in the summer of 1969.  The quartet played their second gig at Woodstock, in front of nearly 500,000 fans. “It’s significant to remember that amazing feeling that prevailed, a very encouraging thing about human beings,” Crosby wrote in his revealing 1990 memoir, Long Time Gone. “We haven’t managed to do it before or since, but for that one moment we did something that tells you what’s possible with human beings. For three days there was a very good feeling among half a million people.… Woodstock was a time where there was a prevailing feeling of harmony.”

The harmony continued in 1970 when CSNY released Déjà Vu, which sold 7 million copies and produced the hit singles ‘Woodstock,’ ‘Teach Your Children,’ and ‘Our House.’ Crosby later said, “I think when the Beatles bomb blew apart, we were the best band in the world.”

The good times wouldn’t last long. In the summer of 1970, near the pinnacle of their popularity, the group went on indefinite hiatus. “Stephen always felt that Nash and I were resentful or trying to obstruct him,” Crosby wrote in Long Time Gone. “Nash and I always felt that Stephen was overbearing. I felt that he didn’t give us credit where it was due.”

Crosby recorded his solo debut, If I Could Only Remember My Name, in 1971, backed by Nash, members of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, and Joni Mitchell (who he was romantically involved with for a time, and who famously compared Crosby’s walrus-mustache look to Yosemite Sam). Though critically savaged at the time, the languid, meditative album later gained a cult following, with its influence heard in the contemporary neo-folk of Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear. In 1977, Crosby, Stills, and Nash regrouped for the quadruple-platinum CSN. In 1979, they performed at the anti-nuclear benefit concerts sponsored by Musicians United for Safe Energy. 

Daylight Again was another success, in 1982, producing the hits ‘Wasted on the Way’ and ‘Southern Cross.’ During these years, Crosby was a frequent voice on records by Grace Slick and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Starship, Hot Tuna, and Phil Collins (including the hit ‘Another Day in Paradise’).

By the early Eighties, though, his drug abuse was having a ruinous impact. In 1985, he was sentenced to prison for nine months after leaving the drug rehabilitation program he was allowed to enter instead of serving a five-year prison sentence for possessing cocaine and carrying a gun. He appeared with Stills, Nash, and Young at Live Aid while out on appeal bond. Crosby emerged from prison in 1986 newly clean, and married his longtime girlfriend, Jan Dance, in 1987.

He received a liver transplant in 1994, and recorded another album with CSN, the commercially unsuccessful After the Storm. During the Nineties, Crosby gained more attention for a unique act of celebrity generosity when he became the sperm donor for Melissa Etheridge and Julie Cypher. “I am grieving the loss of my friend and Bailey’s biological father, David,” Etheridge wrote on Thursday. “He gave me the gift of family. I will forever be grateful to him, Django, and Jan. His music and legacy will inspire many generations to come. A true treasure.”

In 1995, he reunited with his son Raymond, who he’d given up for adoption in the Sixties, and they recorded three albums together as CPR. (Crosby’s survivors include three other children, two daughters [Erika and Donovan] and son Django, the only child of his marriage with Dance.)

Crosby maintained a sense of humor about his troubled past. When he angered the recovery community by admitting he smoked pot, he joked, “Our big crime is that we eat ice cream, let’s face the truth.” He also embraced his rep as the archetypal “Wasted Sixties Guy,” especially in his emerging acting career. He was a hippie in 1991’s Backdraft, a bartender in 1992’s Thunderheart, and an AA sponsor in an episode of The John Larroquette Show. (He also occasionally appeared as himself on The Simpsons.) Though much more toned down by the 2000s, Crosby remained unapologetic in his pro-gun views. In 2004, he pleaded guilty to criminal possession of a weapon when police found a gun and a small quantity of marijuana in his hotel room the night after a concert in New York. He served no jail time.

Crosby, Stills, and Nash toured heavily after re-forming as the original trio in 1977. (Neil Young joined them on lucrative reunion tours in 1974, 2000, 2002, and 2006.) But they disbanded in 2015 after longtime friends Crosby and Nash suffered a bitter falling out. “I’m completely done with David Crosby,” Nash told The Washington Times in 2016. “I will never talk with David Crosby again.” He never explained the discord in any significant detail. “That’s between David and I,” Nash said. “I won’t tell anyone about that. But I will say that the damage between us is irreparable.”

The end of CSN gave Crosby the opportunity to focus on his solo career. This new period began with 2014’s Croz, featuring Raymond among the guest musicians, and a cover photo taken by Django. “Most guys my age would have done a covers record or duets on old material,” he told Rolling Stone at the time. “This won’t be a huge hit. It’ll probably sell 19 copies. I don’t think kids are gonna dig it, but I’m not making it for them. I’m making it for me. I have this stuff that I need to get off my chest.”

He followed it up with four more solo albums between 2016 and 2021. “I’m fuckin’ lucky,” he told Rolling Stone in 2021. “I don’t know if I have two weeks left of life or 10 years, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is what you do with the time. If you sit there on your butt and worry about dying, then you fucking wasted it. I haven’t been wasting it. I’m having a really good time, and feeling wonderfully about it. Sooner or later, something is going to break. Right now, my life is pretty great.”

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