David Crosby on Solo Albums and “My Best Burst of Songs in Maybe 30 Years”
Photo by Django Crosby
Looking back on the past 50 years, there are many indelible iconic images of David Crosby that come to mind.
There’s the beaming young man in a cape with the mischievous look in his eyes who gazed with a kind of beatific innocence from the covers of those early Byrds albums. The fearless rebel in his signature fur hat who raged onstage at Monterrey, insisting there was a hidden conspiracy that killed President Kennedy. The lion-maned man in the fringed buckskin jacket sharing an abandoned coach for the album art of the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album. The defiant druggie clenching a joint wrapped in rolling papers resembling an American flag. The emaciated-looking man, ruined by the ravages of drugs, who pleaded from the pages of People Magazine, if you ever loved him or his music, please come to his rescue. The immobile, glassy-eyed singer onstage with partners Crosby and Nash. The newly shorn individual beaming on his release from prison. the snowy-haired troubadour with eyes closed, wholly immersed in harmony. The steely-eyed elder statesman who can now afford a knowing smile.
However, today on the phone, it’s a different, far less intimidating Crosby — or “Croz,” as his friends call him — who seems to beam as he shares reflections from his home in Santa Barbara on the eve of his first solo acoustic tour in, by his own estimation, some 30 years. Earnest, affable and animated, he’s so friendly and down to earth that two minutes into the conversation one abandons any obligation to refer to him as "Mr. Crosby," opting instead for just plain “Dave." Despite any preconceptions to the contrary. he’s clearly willing to share his anecdotes and reflect on a mostly joyous half century of making music.
New Times: Miami has some special memories for you, does it not?
David Crosby: It does! I lived down there for awhile, in Coconut Grove, when I was a folkie. I played the same places as Fred Neil and Vince Martin. Plus, my wife Jan is from down there. Her dad, Jim Dance, worked down there at the newspaper. He was on the editorial board.
Is this a continuation of the solo tour you did last year,?
It was a solo tour, but it was with my band. I did it to promote a record I made called Croz. The record actually did OK. It was really pretty good. I mostly work with Crosby, Stills & Nash because it’s comfortable and easy, and I make good money, and it’s no strain. But I really wanted to challenge myself, and so I’m going solo acoustic, just me and a guitar and some good songs. You have to have good songs or you’re screwed. Fortunately, I have a bunch of really good songs. That’s what it’s going to be. Me and a guitar and a whole mess of good songs.
Will you miss having other singers to help sing harmony?
When you sing harmonies, you have to sing in lockstep with the other person. When you sing by yourself, you can be much more creative. You can take much more liberty with the melody. That’s really a lot of fun.
Is it intimidating at all to be up there alone, with no one else to share the spotlight?
I’m looking forward to it very much. I started out that way, a solo folkie singing in coffee houses. As I slowly began to write, I started singing my own songs. And very often, when you start out that way, you're singing in bars. You have people drunk out of their nut and yelling, ‘Hey, do you know ‘In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida’?" It’s a hell of a school to learn in, but it was very good for me actually. I’m very glad I did it.
But still, you’re the one wholly responsible for carrying the show.
It’s more difficult, but it’s a whole lot of fun. Trust me. Part of the thing I like best about doing this is being a taleteller. I like taking the audience on a little voyage where the words of the songs come out, and it’s not about bass and drums and guitar solos and stuff. The songs really have the chance to fully flower and it allows me to take the listener on a little trip with it. I’m really good at that. It puts a different tilt to the whole thing and it’s really a pleasure, I gotta tell you.
It’s hard to believe, but wasn’t Croz your first solo album in almost thirty years? What took so long?
It was the first solo one in a really long time, yes. We’ve done Crosby, Stills & Nash and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Crosby & Nash — all of those. But I had a great time doing Croz. I’m now in the process of doing another solo album. I’ve been going through a writing surge in the midst of the longest, most sustained, most high-quality burst of songs that I’ve had in maybe 30 years or at least in a very long, long time. Song after song after song. It’s been a really wonderful experience. I’ve also been writing with other people. I just wrote a song with Michael McDonald that’s a really good ballad. He and I are both going to record it. I’ve written with a number of people and written a ton on my own. Writing songs is the most fun of all. Playing to people is fun, but the real kicker is when you’re sitting there at 11:30 at night and you’re there by yourself and sitting on the edge of your bed, and you get one and you go, "Yahoo!” [laughs] It’s really, really fun.
Your songs have always carried such vivid imagery. How do these images appear in your imagination? And what inspires you to put them in song?
I’m not really sure how it works. A lot of it just comes to me. I’ve been a sailor all my life. I sailed a lot down there in Miami, actually. That has affected my songs. A lot of them are connected to the ocean. Some of the lyrics in my best songs, such as ‘Guinnevere’ were written while riding our bikes through Coconut Grove and taking out the rental boats at night. That’s part of the lyrics in that song, which is one of my best songs.
After a half century of making music and achieving such legendary and influential status, are you ever able to step outside yourself and appreciate all you’ve done?
The temptation is there because of the Byrds, and because of CSN and CSNY, but the truth is I try very hard not to look at myself the way other people do. I know secretly inside myself what a dirty person I really am. That’s a healthier place to look at it from. If you start looking at yourself from the way the press may do or your fans may do, you get a grandiose version of yourself that’s not really true to life. It’s healthier to look at myself and say, “OK, Dave, you put your pants on like everyone else, one leg at a time and you’re not made out of solid brass. You’re just a guy and you’ve been given a talent and you’re lucky, that’s what you are, and you can’t let your ego get out of hand.” Because I see all the time friends of mine who buy their own press and think they’re larger than life and it turns into being a disaster for them. So I try not to stand up there and say, “Gosh, I’m significant!” [laughs] It’s a lot healthier to sit back and think of myself as a lucky goofball. [laughs]
Still, does the music you’ve made over the years set a high bar that's sometimes intimidating when you’re mulling over something new?
That’s one of the reasons you don’t look back at your body of work. I’ve spent almost no time looking backwards at what I’ve done with my life. I put almost all of my attention on looking forward, but one of the reasons I do that is that you’re not intimidated by what you’ve done and it doesn’t overshadow what you’re doing today. My interest is in what I can do today, what I might be able to do tomorrow and what I can do next week or next month or the rest of this year. That’s where my whole focus is: 99.9 percent on looking forward to what’s possible and what I can still do. If you keep looking back over your shoulder, you’re going to end up running smack dab into a tree. It doesn’t really help to sit back and rest on your laurels.
Certainly, no one would blame you if you did.
Maybe not, but it’s not a healthy thing and it doesn’t lend itself to writing new music. That’s the thing. I put the focus forward on what I can do, what I will do. It’s a way healthier place for me.
You still seem to love making music.
It’s a thrill for me and I love it. I really have a blast when I do it. I get involved in it very fully and let myself go. I don’t know of anything else that’s that much fun that you can do with your clothes on. [laughs]
You were once considered a bit of a rascal…
I was a scoundrel! [laughs]
I didn’t want to say that. But out of curiosity, are you still harboring any of that mischievousness that you were once known for?
I’m still a mischievous person, yes. But I’m quite different from the person I was back then. I don’t do hard drugs and I don’t drink and I don’t mess around. I’ve been married 38 years and I don’t fool around at all. So I’m a lot different guy than I was back then. I had a lot of fun, but I do regret the time I wasted being stoned on hard drugs. Those things just destroyed me. But once I got free of those things, my life took a very good turn, and I’m pretty happy the way I am now. For the last few months, I haven’t even been smoking pot. I’ve been completely sober because I’ve had this writing surge and I really need to pay attention.
Some people say a little smoke can enhance creativity?
Well, I know, but it disorients me, which isn’t always so bad. It’s great for walking on the beach or making love or listening to music, but it’s not so great for working. And creative writing is work because you have to focus. So I haven’t been doing that. And it’s been 25 years since I’ve had anything else. Maybe close to 30. I’m a pretty happy guy now, and I think that’s the key to this creative surge. I have a great family, I have this great life and I’m alive. And at one point, that was a pretty iffy situation, just being alive.
David Crosby. 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 9, at Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-673-7300; fillmoremb.com. Tickets cost $45.50 to $65.50 plus fees via livenation.com.
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