We’ve Got A File On You: David Crosby

Anna Webber

We’ve Got A File On You: David Crosby

Anna Webber

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

David Crosby is coming up on his 80th birthday, and to celebrate he’s got a new album. For Free continues what has been a remarkably busy stretch of time for Croz. It’s his fifth album in seven years, and it kicks off the seventh decade of his career with songs that tap into his history and his recent work alike. There are fragile, reflective songs on it, but also Crosby’s trademark world-opening harmonies and moments when he lets his voice loose in a way that, given his age and the wear and tear of his life, can be shocking.

Ahead of the album’s arrival, we called Crosby to talk about the new material and how he’s tapped into such a rich vein of songwriting in his elder years. Now, if you know anything about David Crosby, you also know this man has done a lot since he first came to prominence in the ’60s, and you know he is never shy about offering his blunt, unflinching opinions about music history — or, pretty much any topic, for that matter. Over the course of an hour we jumped all around through the decades, from Crosby’s early days to teaming up with Jason Isbell and everything in between.

“River Rise” With Michael McDonald And “Rodriguez For The Night” With Donald Fagen (2021)

These are two of the singles from the new album, and you brought some friends along.

DAVID CROSBY: Michael McDonald has been my friend for a long time. He lives near me here, in Santa Barbara. He’s a dear friend and I’ve always admired him. For many years, I’ve always said I thought the two best singers in the United States were Stevie Wonder and Michael McDonald. Stevie’s getting old now, he’s not as good as he was, so I think it’s probably Mike. He’s sung on stuff for me before, and I’ve sung on stuff for him before. We only do that for friends. [Laughs] We’ve done it before and we love singing together. Our voices work together really well. When we were doing it, I just didn’t have the words for the second verse. Mike said, “Oh, give me a pencil.” He sat down and wrote the second verse and it worked perfectly. He’s a wonderful cat.

Donald Fagen, ah, man. So, to put it in perspective: Steely Dan is my favorite band. My first favorite band was the Beatles — naturally, of course. Duh. But then I heard Aja. I thought to myself, “OK, I either need to quit the business or try really hard to go there as much as I can.” I loved it. Since Aja and Gaucho, they’ve been my favorite band in the world. I did sing with them. They learned “Wooden Ships.” I never heard of them doing that, learning somebody else’s song before. They learned “Wooden Ships” and asked me to sing with them. It kinda opened up me and Donald. Then he sent me this set of words, which I was thrilled about. And of course we Steely Dan’ed them right into the middle distance.

For Free is another album in what’s been a very prolific streak.

CROSBY: This’ll make five albums in six or seven years. I can tell you what happened. It’s not a struggle for me to do it. What happened is I have people I write with. I started out as a solo writer, writing all my own stuff and jealously guarding it. A lot of people do that. They want all the credit, they want all the money. What I found out is, the other guy always thinks of something I wouldn’t think of. It’s more colors, it’s like having two palettes of colors instead of one. We paint a better picture. I love doing it. I did it with “Wooden Ships” a long time ago with [Stephen] Stills and [Paul] Kantner. Lately, my son James [Raymond], he’s such a good writer. He’s matured, on this record, to the point where he’s as good as I am if not better. The best record on For Free? He wrote. No question is it’s “I Won’t Stay For Long.” It just kills me, man.

That’s extended my life as a writer, that ability to write with other people. That, and the fact that I had a little bit of stuff from the last few years of CSN not being really good. I didn’t want to record with them, I didn’t really like them. It wasn’t working for me. I did have a little bit of stack, but I also had this ability to work with other people. When I can do it with somebody good, it’s proven to deliver really good songs. And if I have really good songs I want to record them. I’m not making any money off of them. Streaming doesn’t pay us. They’re making billions of dollars and they’re not sharing it with the artists that made the music. The streaming companies are thieves. That’s wasn’t why I started records in the first place. I started making records because it’s fun, and I’m still making records because it’s fun. I’m having a blast.

If I Could Only Remember My Name (1971)

This has been such a rich streak in your 70s, but you’ve also got this reissue in the works for If I Could Only Remember My Name‘s 50th anniversary. How has it been revisiting your very first solo album?

CROSBY: It holds up. It’s a wonderful kind of an accident that happened there, man. I was in terrible shape, emotionally. I was a wreck. I had these songs and the only safe place I had was the studio. The only thing that kept me going. I’m really glad that I had it. It came out to be — in spite of the fact that I was very sad — kind of a joyous record. I think it kept me alive.

In the wake of Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, that record was not necessarily well-received at the time. But over the years, it’s become this cult favorite, recognized as being very influential on freak-folk or psych-folk. Have you had younger musicians come up to you and talk about that?

CROSBY: Thank you. Yes, I have. People tell me repeatedly. It’s the songs, man. They’re good songs. That’s the key to the whole deal. Show business doesn’t mean shit.

Early Days In Greenwich Village, The Byrds (Early-Mid ’60s)

When you and I recently spoke about Bob Dylan, you told me about seeing him in the Village when you were also a young folkie. I didn’t know much about that part of your career. So you moved to New York, and you were going to be a solo folk singer?

CROSBY: Well, I didn’t move to New York. I drove to New York in somebody else’s ’57 Ford with a girl who I think turned out to be a hooker. I don’t know, she didn’t do it for me, so I don’t know. I started in Scottsdale, Arizona, went and sang in a club there. Then I went to Colorado and I spent most of the winter singing in a coffeehouse in Colorado right opposite the college, up on the hill. Then I drove to New York and I started singing in the Village at a place called the Rafio. It was a basket house, where you pass the basket. I did that for quite a while, probably a year. That was all me learning how to be a folk singer. It was all inspiring at the basket house, because if you didn’t do a good job, you didn’t eat. [Laughs] Very, very good lesson in show biz.

I didn’t think about doing anything else until I heard Roger [McGuinn] and Gene [Clark] singing in the Troubadour. I went back to LA to do something and I went there and here were these guys singing this stuff, very Beatles-esque stuff that Gene was writing and Roger knew how to convert it into real songs. As soon as I heard them doing it I went over and started singing harmony. They looked at me like I was a fish from Mars but they liked the harmony. It worked out to be the Byrds, and that’s when I stopped being a folkie.

Soon the Byrds had songs like “Eight Miles High” that really helped define the iconography of the era. Obviously people have asked you about this ever since. When you look back on those times — and songs like these that came out of the Byrds — from the perspective of 2021, are there still lessons you carry forward from those days that you would want to pass on to people?

CROSBY: Hmm, lessons. Oddly enough I think it’s the same thing I was just saying. The lesson for me was the songs were where the whole meat of the matter is. The personalities and the bickering and the competition and the silliness don’t really mean a damn thing. Fame and celebrity and all that stuff don’t mean anything. The only thing that matters is the songs.

I’m 30, so I was raised on this stuff, and we’re sort of passed on this mythologized version of the ’60s. From my perspective, it’s always kind of mind-boggling how quickly the ’60s changed — to go from that early ’60s Village folkie thing to only a few years later having psychedelic pop music on the radio. Do you remember there being a turning point for you where you realized, something’s really going on here?

CROSBY: Sure, yeah. The obvious place, when you saw how may people came to Woodstock. That was the first time we knew how many of us there were and that it was across the whole country. That there was a definite new set of ethics and morals and values being proposed, and that there was something else going on. It was gigantic. You couldn’t quite cope with it when you were faced with it right here. Because your mind goes “One, two, three, four, five, many.” It trips out. But that’s when we knew. The exact point.

A Small Role In Hook (1991) And Cameos On The Simpsons (1993)

In the ’90s, you had some quirky forays into acting. You had a tiny role as a pirate named Tickles in Hook.

CROSBY: [Laughs] I forgot who told me about it, but I tried out for it.

Were you looking to try your hand at that in the ’90s?

CROSBY: I did a couple bit parts in a couple movies, just to see how it works — if I liked it or anything. I’m sort of from that end of things, in the first place. My dad made films. He was a cinematographer. Did you ever see High Noon? My dad shot it. I was interested. I didn’t think it was going to be my career or anything, I don’t think I’m good-looking enough or a good enough actor. But, it was fun.

So you enjoyed getting to dress up like a pirate.

CROSBY: [Laughs] Yeah, fuck yeah. It was a fun set, man. Spielberg’s a fun guy in the first place.

The Simpsons was newer, but it’s now been around for decades and they’ve had a lot of moments when they had musicians guest star or be depicted. You were on there twice back then.

CROSBY: Somebody said, “Hey they want you on The Simpsons,” and I love it so of course I did it.

Being A Panelist On Hollywood Squares (1998)

Another TV thing is you also had a stint being a panelist on Hollywood Squares.

CROSBY: No, really, did I? That’s shameful. Oh God. Hide that shit. Don’t ever put that out. God, that’s awful.

It’s charming when you watch it.

CROSBY: It’s not charming, it’s terrible. Please don’t tell anybody. [Laughs] My god, that’s awful. Keep going, what’s your next thing?

Crosby, Stills, & Nash At Woodstock ’94

Around those same years, you got back with Crosby, Stills, And Nash and played Woodstock again for the anniversary.

CROSBY: It was awful. Absolutely fucking awful. Man, are you kidding? We went on after Nine Inch Nails. Does that give you a clue? Can you imagine us singing “Heeeelplessly hooooping” to a mosh pit? OK? Are we getting it? Is the picture coming in clear?

Certainly.

CROSBY: It was about as inappropriate and as bad a setting as you could possibly think of for us. And it was a very bad scene anyway. Everyone was trying to capitalize on it. A bottle of water was five dollars or some shit. It was not funny, not good. I didn’t like any part of it at all. And then a high power cable, a power line fell on our bus. If you touch that you died. Cute, fun. It was a bad experience. It proves you can’t really try to duplicate something like that and have it work. Everybody tried to take advantage of it and they screwed it up.

That was a big thing I was wondering about, the disconnect of having the younger generation and new bands, vs. the idea of the dream being corrupted.

CROSBY: It was a descendent of Altamont, not a descendent of Woodstock. It was shitty.

Then a few years ago they were trying to do that 50th anniversary one.

CROSBY: I know who was trying to do it and I know he’s a scammer. I said, “Sure, show me the money.” And of course it didn’t show.

Déjà Vu And “Ohio” (1970)

Like many people, I’m a huge fan of this era. I was watching a video of you singing “Ohio” with Jason Isbell from a few years ago. I was curious, when you have songs like that that are so of their era, and then you see what’s been going on in the world in our times, does it feel like the same potency to you? Does the political climate feel as bad as it did to you back then?

CROSBY: The situation is very, very tricky in the United States right now. It’s not good at all. So, yeah, those songs resonate. Heavily. Still. Jason Isbell, there’s a nice thing. What a good guy, and what a good writer. Have you heard “If We Were Vampires”?

Oh, yeah, of course.

CROSBY: Holy shit, what a great song. He was so moved by “Ohio,” he started doing it. I heard he was doing it, I sent him a message on Twitter, “Good on you for singing that song,” he sent me back a message saying “I need to talk.” I sent him my number and he says, “Listen, come sing it with me.” I said, “Yeah, sure.” He says, “No, I mean it, come to Newport Folk Festival and sing ‘Ohio’ with me.” I said, “Sure, I’d be glad to.” I did. We did “Ohio” and “Wooden Ships” and we nearly did structural damage to the whole village. That audience just went batshit. It was a wonderful chemistry. He and Amanda are extremely good people, I love ‘em. But to return to “Ohio” and songs like that — I think they are still relevant and I think the situation in this country is bringing up the need for songs like that to lift your spirits and point the direction.

When we talked in 2016, you said something to me: You felt like the primary role of a musician is to take people on emotional voyages. Does your opinion shift when we go through something like the last five years, having been through the Nixon years before?

CROSBY: It’s both things, we’re supposed to do both. It’s not one or the other. I write mostly about love. But I wrote “Almost Cut My Hair” and “Long Time Gone” and I’ve written a lot of protest music, because it’s part of what you do. It’s part of our job. Our job mainly is to take you on those emotional voyages. And to make you boogie. Play something so you can’t stand still. That’s part of our job, it makes you happy. But part of our job is to reflect our times and be honest about it. To be the one honest voice, the one that doesn’t cringe back and lie.

We over and over again have been the ones willing to do that job. We’ve got a lot of examples. We’ve got Pete Seeger, we’ve got Woody Guthrie. We’ve got people to look up to, who set an example of selflessness and intelligence and immense courage. It’s hard for us to not to want to be like that. That’s the ethos we admire, and it’s hard for us to not want to stand up next to it.

When you were singing a song like “Ohio” in the early ‘70s vs. when you are singing it now, or you are singing a new song addressing the times, do you feel more or less optimistic or more or less fearful than you did back then, or in other decades in between?

CROSBY: Truthfully, I’m pretty worried. I was very worried back then but I’m very worried now. We’ve got a country that’s really in two states of minds, and there are people actively contributing to the problem because they’re making a profit off of it. The people on Fox don’t believe what they’re goddamn saying. They like selling the idea, because it’s selling cheese and chicken off their network. This country is in some serious trouble. I’m not sure how it’s gonna work out. I’m not even sure it’s gonna stay one country.

And you never felt that way before?

CROSBY: No, I didn’t. Twenty or 30 percent of people are too dumb to really know what a democracy is or how it works. OK, I get that. Then there’s another 30 percent in the middle who are not stupid, but are ignorant because the education they got didn’t teach them to have a critical mind or read, even. They are being misinformed for profit. That takes half the country in the wrong direction. There aren’t enough of the rest of us who think and read to keep the thing heading in the direction it needs to go, and deal with global warming, which we have to or we will not have a place to live. That’s all pretty grim stuff.

To go back to Déjà Vu for one moment — I recently wrote an article about lost albums from the past. There’s this legendary followup to Déjà Vu called Human Highway that never happened.

CROSBY: It was a real thing. We had the songs. We went to Hawaii. I had sailed over there and had my boat over there, so I was living on it and they all got places. We put a record together. We had an album cover. I’m looking at it right now, it’s on my wall. Some kind of bickering went on, and it failed. Neil decided he wanted to do something else. He does that, you know.

I know a lot of the songs that were intended for that album then wound up on your various solo albums.

CROSBY: I suggested to the people who just bought my catalog that they try to get the various record companies involved to put together that record out of the tracks elsewhere.

I was wondering if that would ever happen. I know there were other CSNY albums later. Do you feel like when the four of you got back together in later decades that you were still able to tap into that thing, or would Human Highway still be representative of something else?

CROSBY: I don’t know. There’s no way to know. It was good chemistry, and it’s done. You won’t see it again. It’s a nice piece of history and I’m proud of it.

Jason Isbell’s “What’ve I Done To Help” (2020)

I actually wanted to talk about Isbell a bit more. I did this same kind of interview with him last year when we were locked down– 

CROSBY: Nice cat, isn’t he?

Oh, he’s great. We had a long talk, and we did talk about that performance with you at Newport.

CROSBY: What’d he say? What’d he say? What’d he say?

He told me about meeting you and I remarked about the video, and coming from some of your mellow latter day stuff– 

CROSBY: What did he say?

Well, I said something about your voice and he said “It’s unbelievable how his voice still is.”

CROSBY: {Chuckles]

You like hearing that huh?

CROSBY: Sure! Of course I do.

I said, I didn’t realize you could still sing those songs that way and then he gave me this quote I really liked, where you told him, “I’ve tried everything I could do to kill it, but it just won’t die.”

CROSBY: Yup. I did everything wrong. And I don’t deserve to have the voice I have, but it’s there.

So we already talked a bit about that performance, but then last year you also collaborated with him on his song “What’ve I Done To Help,” which feels like one of those contemporary protest or social conscience songs.

CROSBY: Oh, right yeah. He called me and said he wanted me to sing on something. I said, “What time’s the bus leave?” I’m eager. I flew down to Nashville and sang with him and Amanda and had a blast. They’re just good people, man. They got their heads screwed on right. I like ‘em a lot.

Out of all of Jason’s stuff, that song’s kinda different and to me it was almost reminiscent of some of the eras of the past we’re talking about. Did you feel some kindred spirit vibes there?

CROSBY: Yes. He’s good man. He’s trying, personally, to drag country into this century by being a superior writer. Country music writing has always been about stories, so that’s good. But it had gotten to the point where there was sort of a formula. [Mimics country singing] “My truck’s broke/ My honey don’t love me no more.” To hear someone come with such a fresh approach and fresh imagery and fresh poetry, really good writing — that’s what separates the men from the boys. That guy, Jason, he’s got the shit.

No Nukes Concerts (1979)

CROSBY: I thought our stuff was good. I thought it was a really wonderful concert, really well done, and a very good cause. I’m a science-based guy, so I understand how nuclear power works, and I wish it could work better. I wish we could get fusion going, because then we wouldn’t have the radioactive material. The problem with nuclear, of course, is we have no place to put the waste. It’s frightfully, hideously dangerous if it melts down. I was really happy about No Nukes, I thought it was spectacular.

This was a cause that was otherwise important to you right?

CROSBY: 
Of course, it’s terribly fucking dangerous in its present form.

When we’re talking about something like this or Woodstock, it seems you’ve maintained a lot of the ideals or the attention that people were preaching back in the counterculture. Do you see that in any of your peers, or do you think others lost sight of it along the way?

CROSBY: Back then we were mostly socially worried. Now we’re physically worried for the life of our planet. It’s a little more drastic, even, than it was back then. Now we’re not sure if our country is gonna survive, and beyond that we’re not sure if our planet is gonna survive. We’ve got a whole bunch of people who don’t understand that who are actively trying to get in the way.

Twitter Commercial With Chance The Rapper 2017

I missed this when it came out but a couple years ago you were in a Twitter commercial with Chance The Rapper.

CROSBY: Yeah, it was good!

Right, they’re kind of playing with your Twitter persona a bit.

CROSBY: I like Twitter. It’s a place where it’s a conversation. It’s not “Post a cute pic of me,” “Do you think I’m cute.” It’s a place where you can actually converse, and sometimes you can get engaged in discourse.

You and I had talked about that before, but then we also saw, in the last few years, how warped a mechanism Twitter could be in terms of large scale social effects. Did that muddy the waters for you at all?

CROSBY: It’s such a huge subject, and I don’t think you can categorize it positive or negative in any way overall. In the first place, there’s a whole bunch of social media and they’re all different in how they approach it and how they have effects. Is TikTok the same as Twitter? No. I don’t think they’re all the same. I only post on Twitter because I can post whole sentences. [Laughs]

Your little joke in that commercial is you tweet back at Chance and say “How about any song with real instruments.” You offer up your opinions on music a lot on Twitter. Have you come around on rap at all?

CROSBY: There’s a small percentage of ‘em that can actually write. Most of them it’s very bad poetry, recited excitedly to someone else’s music. It doesn’t do it for me. I like melody and harmony and real good lyrics. Some of their tracks swing, but most of them don’t. They should listen to Motown.

”For Free” (2021)

The title track of your new album is a duet of this Joni Mitchell song, with Sarah Jarosz. You’ve talked in the past about young artists you liked, such as Snarky Puppy and the Staves. A few years later you find Isbell and Shires. Are there any other young songwriters you’ve gravitated towards in the last couple years?

CROSBY: The one that’s impressed me the most is Sarah. She’s made a record called World On The Ground that I’ve listened to probably a hundred times now. I can’t get it out of my head. The writing, it’s the songs. The songs on this record just get me very strongly. I don’t listen to records over and over and over again unless… I listened to Sgt. Pepper’s this many times, OK? This is a startlingly talented girl, Sarah Jarosz. Incredible singer, incredible instrumentalist.

I got a hold of her and I said, “Listen, I don’t know what to do or how or where to put it, but I want to sing with you.” She said, “Oh, God, let’s.” I said let’s do “For Free,” because I love singing it and it’s one of my favorite songs. I got James, God bless James, to take a new look at how to chordally and rhythmically structure that song, to cut it as a piano tune. To make it really beautiful and our own take. And he did. He came through magnificently. I sent a vocal on that to her and that’s what she sent back. I really want to do some more with her.

Not only did you choose to cover this Joni song, you named the album after it. Why did it feel like the right time to do that?

CROSBY: Well, it’s an odd circumstance. I hadn’t planned on it. I did this thing with Sarah and I hadn’t even planned on putting it on the record. It came back and I listened to it and it was good, man. I’ve recorded that song three times, because I love what it says. I’m here now, and I’m in a situation where my music is for free. We get jack shit. If it plays a million times on Spotify, I eat breakfast. I’m not doing it for that. So, For Free is really a significant title. At the same time, I love the song and I love Joni. I think she’s a wonderful writer, probably the best of us. I was so entranced with how Sarah and I sounded together. It has significance for me on a lot of levels. They’re not paying us. It has significance in the story of the song. It has really large significance in the joy of that duet.

You discovered Joni way back when. What are you early memories of seeing her, when did you know she had this talent?

CROSBY: I knew as soon as I heard her, man. I walked in the door of a coffeehouse in Florida. She was singing “Both Sides Now” or one of those. I stopped in my tracks. I know it when I hear it. I’m a singer-songwriter, it’s what I do. I have been doing it quite a while. I knew perfectly well what she was. And I fell for her. [Laughs] I told her, “You are stunningly goddamn good.” She asked if I would help her and I said I will. So I took her to California and got her a recording contract and produced her first record. It was a daunting experience. She’s an emotionally turbulent human being, and it was a little like falling into a cement mixer. Overwhelming. But good art came out of it.

Were there ways she surprised you over the years even after that initial shock?

CROSBY: Yeah, she would surprise me by coming home with three songs when I had just written one. I’d have written a song and sing it to her like, “Hey listen to what I just wrote, isn’t it terrific?” And she’d be like “Yeah, I wrote these ones,” and she’d written three better ones. That’s a daunting experience, trust me. “Oh, you’re better than me, hmmmm.”

Well, I think you’ve done pretty well for yourself over the years.

CROSBY: I was thinking about it last night, someone played me a couple tunes of mine they liked from other eras. Truthfully, if you listen to the whole body of work, there’s some good poetry in there. There’s some stuff I like. I’m proud of it.

Anna Webber

For Free is out 7/23 on BMG. Pre-order it here.

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