David Crosby

A Voice for the Ages

Story by Gord Ellis, Photo by William Gross



Superior Outdoors



As rock stars go, David Crosby didn’t look much like one. He was a largish man, with a handlebar mustache and long, scraggly hair that he rarely tried to tame. Yet everything else about him was very rock and roll. Crosby battled drug addiction much of his life, shot off his mouth a lot, and even did time in jail. It was these bad behaviours that often overshadowed his talent. Yet in the history of rock and roll, David Crosby holds a unique place. His impact on modern music is undeniable and his voice remained strong into his 80s. That made his death this past January especially cruel. The Croz was still making vital music. Crosby came from a showbiz family and at one point thought he might become an actor. Yet the call of music was too strong. He ended up founding one of the seminal bands of the 1960s, The Byrds. Roger McGuinn was the primary frontman of The Byrds, and sang in a Dylanesque whine while playing a jangly 12-string Rickenbacker electric. But what set the Byrds apart from the pack were their vocal harmonies. In particular, the high harmony that David Crosby added so effortlessly. The Byrds were the first band to blend folk songs with rock music, effectively creating folk-rock, and would later go on to develop a sound that became known as psychedelia. The song “8 Miles High,” co-written by Crosby, may be the most famous of those early psychedelic anthems. In many ways, The Byrds were the first Americana band, even though that genre label didn’t exist back then. As good and as successful as The Byrds were, there was inner turmoil, with most of it centering around Crosby. He was subsequently dismissed from the band he helped form. Yet the hand of rock and roll fate was not done with Crosby. Shortly after he was canned from The Byrds, he met singer/songwriter Stephen Stills in Laurel Canyon, California. The year was 1968. The two started jamming together. They were soon joined by Graham Nash of The Hollies. At a party at Joni Mitchell’s house, the three sang together, and Crosby, Stills & Nash was born. It is hard to explain how big a band CSN was in its day. The band's songbook includes many classics including “Teach Your Children,” ”Southern Cross,” and “Wooden Ships.” The supergroup CSNY was created when Neil Young joined the band. Their album Déjà Vu (released in 1970) is widely considered one of the classic albums of the golden age of rock. Fast forward several decades to 2016: David Crosby is on a solo tour with his son in northern Ontario. The tour comes after Crosby has had some highprofile spats with his former bandmates. He said (as he later put it) “bad things,” about Neil Young’s girlfriend. Young is not amused. He is on the outs with Nash and Stills as well. So CSN is on ice. Yet Crosby is having a late period burst of musical creativity and has been releasing solo albums that are critically wellreceived. He is playing a show in Thunder Bay and I have a chance to speak with him for CBC Radio. It is a surreal moment when I pick up the phone and that familiar voice says “Hi Gord, it’s David Crosby.” Crosby is a lot friendlier and more upbeat than I expect him to be. He is quite willing to talk about things he has likely covered a thousand times before. His curmudgeonly reputation is not in evidence. But he is a pro. And he has tickets to sell. The show he later does at the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium is excellent and he is in fine vocal form. The crowd on hand knows they are in the presence of greatness. Crosby was a rare talent and will not be forgotten, as his timeless music will live on.