David Crosby didn’t try to sugar-coat his ‘bad stuff’ – and that’s what made him special

Music legend David Crosby has died at the age of 81 - Scott Dudelson
Music legend David Crosby has died at the age of 81 - Scott Dudelson

David Crosby lived one of the wildest lives in rock and roll, flying the freak flag high through decades of global fame and several fortunes won and lost, a white knuckle outlaw ride crammed with drugs, sex, death and a long stint in prison.

But that’s not why we celebrate him or mourn his passing. Because he also participated in some of the most beautiful music heard in our times, writing gorgeous, complex songs of cosmic folk jazz, gilding the air with blissful harmonies and playing impossibly complex chords he seemed to pluck out of the ether.

With his walrus moustache and a perpetual twinkle in his eye, he was a fantastic musician and a richly complex human being whose spirit became infused in the rock culture of the 1960s, seventies and beyond. He was one of the great hippies, one of the great band members in a couple of the greatest bands, and just really one of the greats.

The Croz - as he was known to friends and fans – is no more, dead at the age of 81. Which would come as no surprise to him, or anyone who knew him.

“You really don’t know how much time you’ve got,” he told me when I spoke to him in 2021.

“What counts is how you live that time. So what I’m trying to do is fill my life with my family, with love, with music that I make, as much as I possibly can. Because I know this sounds corny, but I believe in music. It’s a lifting force, it makes things better.”

David Crosby passed away at his California home following a 'long illness' - Mike Windle
David Crosby passed away at his California home following a 'long illness' - Mike Windle

And when you look at the music Crosby contribute to the world – especially with The Byrds and with Crosby Stills Nash & (sometimes) Young – it is hard to argue with that.

Born in Los Angeles in 1941, Crosby always said music came easily to him. He was a founding member of The Byrds with Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark, whose bold blend of the Beatles with Bob Dylan ushered folk rock into the world in 1965.

“We went absolutely crazy,” he told me of that period of pop fame. “We all bought Porches and screwed our brains out.”

They also made some fantastic records that still ring out for their shimmering guitars and ethereal harmonies, including psychedelic masterpiece Eight Miles High and their seminal version of Mr Tambourine Man, which helped convince Dylan himself it was time to go electric.

But Crosby yearned for greater musical adventures. He discovered Joni Mitchell, which would be enough to seal anyone’s immortality. They were briefly lovers, and Crosby produced her debut album, 1968’s Songs to A Seagull.

“She’s the best singer-songwriter we’ve ever had,” remained his opinion decades later.

David Crosby (2nd from R) while posing for a photo with once and future bandmates Stephen Stills (R), Graham Nash (2nd from L) and Neil Young in 1999 - AFP
David Crosby (2nd from R) while posing for a photo with once and future bandmates Stephen Stills (R), Graham Nash (2nd from L) and Neil Young in 1999 - AFP

His next group sprang from jamming sessions at house parties in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles with Graham Nash of the Hollies and Stephen Stills from Buffalo Springfield.

Their 1969 debut, Crosby Stills & Nash, became a classic of the flower power era, its harmonic beauty presaging the mature soft rock of the 1970s. It contains songs that would come to define Crosby, including the utterly gorgeous Guinevere, the soulful Long Time Gone and hippy anthem Almost Cut My Hair, a joyous defiance of convention on which he coined the phrase “I feel like letting my freak flag fly.”

When the great Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young joined their ranks, they became known as CSNY, their multi-million selling second album, Déjà Vu (1970) affirming them as one of the most popular bands in the world.

But by the time it came out, Crosby’s girlfriend had died in a car accident, and a grieving Crosby was on a self-destructive spiral of heavy drug abuse. That only came to an end following his arrest in a nightclub in Dallas in 1982 for freebasing cocaine, which led to nine months in a Texas State prison.

Crosby frankly acknowledged an enduring reputation as a “selfish and wacko guy”, a rampant drug user and hedonistic womaniser (who slept with “hundreds of women”). In his defence, he pointed out that he had been faithfully married to the same woman, Jan Dance, since achieving sobriety in 1987.

He freely admitted that his behaviour broke up CSNY and contributed to a tumultuous on and off career in which they would get together in various combinations only to separate again, often in rancour. By the end of his life, he had fallen out badly with Neil Young and Graham Nash but said Stephen Stills was “still taking my calls.”

He took a philosophical approach to all of it. “I’m proud of myself,” he told me. “I’ve made a lot of music, and the work is good. I’m not gonna sugar coat it. I got really off the rails, bad stuff happened. But I’m trying to be a good human, and I like that.”

Singer David Crosby and wife Jan Dance pose at the 2014 MusiCares Person of the Year gala - Reuters
Singer David Crosby and wife Jan Dance pose at the 2014 MusiCares Person of the Year gala - Reuters

Crosby was an inveterate dope smoker, and practically the poster icon for marijuana, the one drug he never got round to giving up. He and Jan grew it on his ranch in Santa Ynez, California, and smoked every day. He campaigned for its legalisation, and had planned to launch his own brand, The Mighty Croz, although it never came to pass.

Given the millions of records sold with his name on, Crosby should have been fabulously rich, but by his own admission recklessly squandered most of it. He filed for bankruptcy in 1985, and effectively survived from tour to tour.

In 2021, he somewhat reluctantly sold all his recorded music and publishing rights to his friend, the entertainment mogul Irving Azoff’s Iconic Artists Group, so that he could pay off the mortgage on his ranch and live out his last years in some comfort and affluence.

His health had been poor for decades, with ailments including Hepatitis C and Type 2 diabetes. He had had a liver transplant in 1994 and major cardiac surgery in 2014 that left eight stents in his heart, the maximum number. He often said the next heart attack would kill him.

Despite all that, Crosby was always great to talk to, or to listen to in concert, whilst his recordings remained transcendentally gorgeous, every bit as good at the end of his days as they were in the beginning.

Of the eight solo albums he released, five appeared in the last 10 years. His final album. For Free, is a thing of jazzy beauty, although Voyage - The David Crosby Box is the best collection of his music, solo and with all his various groups.

His love of melody, harmony and delicate guitar picking was inescapable, embedded in everything he did. I was lucky enough to see him play several times in various set ups, and to speak with him on a couple of very entertaining occasions.

He had strong opinions on politics, art and, well, pretty much everything. “I am very outspoken,” he acknowledged. “I don’t censor myself well at all. And that offends some people. But there it is. That’s who I am.”

Crosby came across as very forthright, his emotions visibly shifting from joy to anger to sorrow as he spoke. “I’m fairly complex but I’m not disguised,” he insisted. “Nobody’s perfect, right? We all have flaws, we all do bad stuff sometimes. But I’m trying to be a decent human being, to be kind to people, and have compassion.”

In his later years, Crosby had been making solo music at a prodigious rate, almost as if determined to make up for the years he squandered to drugs and band arguments.

Some of this could be ascribed to his late flowering relationship with his pianist and producer son, James Raymond, who was given up for adoption in 1961, but was reunited with his birth father in 1995 and collaborated on all his recent releases.

Crosby had three other adult children and was sperm donor for two children by singer-songwriter Melissa Ethridge and her partner Julie Cypher. Their eldest son, Beckett Cypher, died in May 2021, aged 21, from a drug overdose, which took its toll. “Its never gonna get easy,” he told me in a voice heavy with grief. “You lose somebody you love and it hurts, that’s how it is.”

As our last interview came to an end, I asked Croz what his plans were for the rest of the day. He was staring out of my computer screen via Zoom. It was midday in California, the sun was shining, tall trees cast shade, the blue water of a swimming pool glinted in the distance, and with his flowing white hair and long white moustache, he looked like some ancient sage.

He told me he was looking forward to taking a dip in his pool and his dogs for a walk. Then he would “do what I’ve always done - smoke pot and take my guitar off the wall and get hung up playing and writing words and music.”

That has come to an end now. But the words and the music linger, and that freak flag will always be flying somewhere.