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David Crosby, the End of a Californian Dream

By Marc Zisman |

Whether it was during his time as a member of The Byrds, or alongside his friends Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil young, or even as a solo artist, the Californian songwriter—who has just died, aged 81—undoubtedly left his mark on the history of rock and, indeed, on the 60s and 70s.

David Crosby, one of the most iconic figures of the American rock scene of the late sixties and seventies, passed away on 18th January 2023. He is widely known for having led The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, two of the most famous bands during that the era, but in and of himself, he was an extraordinary person: viscerally hippy, iconoclastic, totally free, and a top drawer melody writer. He was, however, a lifelong junkie. He told Rolling Stone magazine in 2014: ‘I have no idea how I’m alive and Jimi [Hendrix] isn't and Janis [Joplin] isn't and all my other friends… I have no idea why me, but I got lucky’.

In 1941, the Californian burst onto the scene with The Byrds, a band which he formed with Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark. A highly original cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, with its sumptuous vocal harmonies and crystal clear guitars, established The Byrds as a strong challenger to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Beach Boys. Their approach to music was fascinating: they launched pop music into fresh, lesser-explored harmonic and melodic spaces, pioneering the genre of folk rock ('Mr. Tambourine Man' and 'Turn! Turn! Turn!' in 1965); 1966 would see them drift towards more psychedelic flavours (Fifth Dimension, and its boisterous single ‘Eight Miles High!’); and in a surprising turn of events, they would then invent country rock, hooking up with Gram Parsons for 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo', in 1968.

In 1967, ego wars, disagreements and copious amounts of drugs would scupper The Byrds’ eclectic adventures mid-flight, with Crosby embarking on a new journey alongside two other fellow musicians, already well-known in their own right: Stephen Stills (Buffalo Springfield) and Graham Nash (The Hollies). The supergroup grew from a trio (CS&N) into a quartet (CSN&Y) with the arrival of a certain Neil Young… It was an era which formed a distinct Californian sound, mixing pop, folk rock and country; a period of intense creation, soundtracked by many of Crosby’s songs: ‘Almost Cut My Hair’, ‘Long Time Gone’ (written the day after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination), ‘Déjà Vu’, and ‘Guinnevere’—the latter in particular, considered to be one his best, channeling the emotions of past conquests (Joni Mitchell being one of them). The history books will forever remember the sublime combination of these charismatic musicians: truly timeless vocal harmonies.

1979 saw the release of Déjà Vu (which sold over seven million copies) and was undoubtedly the peak of this era. It was the go-to album of the Woodstock generation, the pinnacle of country rock—the godfather of Americana—and another masterclass in vocal harmonies. Each of them brought something different to the table. One minute it would be acoustic and ethereal, and the next, edgy and more rock oriented. Déjà Vu is more so a blend of four equally strong personalities than a group endeavor. With Neil Young entering the fold, CS&N significantly broadened the sound palette which they had offered up in their 1969 opus. The product is from another planet entirely. Nash masters the sweet, dainty countryside folk song in ‘Teach Your Children’ and ‘Our House’, while Stills orchestrates a wonderful blend of acoustic and electric guitars on ‘Carry On’ - the opener of this masterpiece. As for Neil the Loner, his writing skills are breathtaking on the melancholic ‘Helpless’. Above all, CSN&Y’s kaleidoscopic harmony throughout the work radiates American roots music. That magic wouldn’t last forever though. In Long Time Gone, his 1989 autobiography, Crosby wrote: ‘Stephen always felt that Nash and I were resentful or tried to get in the way. Nash and I always felt that Stephen was bossy. I felt he didn't give us credit where credit was due’.

But Crosby would eventually find the time to make his first solo album—(almost) all alone. If I Could Only Remember My Name (February 1971) is THE masterpiece of the Los Angeles walrus. An ultra-hippy, ‘made in California’ affair, which features some of the very best artists within the genre: members of Jefferson Airplane (Grace Slick, David Freiberg, Paul Kantner), Hot Tuna (Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady) and the Grateful Dead (Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart). Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Graham Nash also make an appearance. With its sublime compositions, marvelous harmonies and instrumental virtuosity, the album only gets better as the years go on, and is perfectly epitomised by its cover: a Californian sunset.

Drugs would continually come back to mire Crosby’s career. In 1977, Crosby, Stills & Nash would hit the jackpot with their fifth album, CSN, and other recordings and concerts would follow sporadically. They would also feature on some of their friends’ records, namely those of Grace Slick, Hot Tuna, Phil Collins and the Indigo Girls. But inevitably in 1985, the Californian walrus was sent to prison for nine months, charged for possession of cocaine and carrying a weapon… The years to follow would see a mixture of solo records (including a few with his son, Raymond), CS&N rehashes and health concerns (namely a liver transplant in 1994). David Crosby was the cliché, carefree flower child: often brilliant, often clueless. Often very funny, too, and an icon for many. So much so, indeed, that he appeared in two episodes of The Simpsons.