David Crosby: The Golden Years of Rock's Unlikeliest Survivor

At home with the 72-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer

David Crosby
James Minchin III
David Crosby
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David Crosby now lives an idyllic American life. This is not taken for granted by a former junkie who once had sores covering parts of his body and pondered starting a new life in a non-extraditable foreign country. A neighbor is exercising a horse in the dying winter light when Crosby meets me in the driveway of his Santa Ynez Valley home in California. There's a gaggle of happy dogs, the distinct whiff of weed and a giant smile tilting Crosby's trademark walrus mustache upward. He looks like Yosemite Sam, as Joni Mitchell once described him, but better-adjusted.

David Crosby Returns From 20-Year Hiatus With 'Croz' - Album Premiere

His wife, Jan Dance, putters in the kitchen while their 18-year-old son, Django, buzzes a toy drone around the house. There's a quick tour with stops at a table that holds a 1931 Oscar – Crosby's father, Floyd, was a noted cinematographer in that era – and a Grammy Crosby won in 1970 with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash back when CSN, for a brief moment, rivaled the Beatles' popularity. A picture of the trio in the White House with Jimmy Carter hangs on a wall. A couple of hangers-on linger on the edge of the photo. Crosby points to one of them. "That guy wanted to light up a joint in the Oval Office," he says. "Even I thought that was a stupid idea."

Before long, I'm following Crosby's mane of silver hair into the living room, where the stereo is located. I had suggested we listen to a couple of tracks from Croz, his first solo album in more than 20 years. Crosby has other ideas. "Let's listen to the whole thing!"

Crosby spends the next hour blasting Croz's 11 songs and alternately singing along, playing air drums and strumming along with his guitar. The album is a pleasant collision of rock, jazz and star cameos – Mark Knopfler and Wynton Marsalis make appearances – and easy-does-it philosophy. But there are also classic Crosby shots at the political establishment, from the Chinese treatment of the Dalai Lama to Crosby's disappointment with President Obama. One song depicts, with a reporter's eye for detail, an Afghan shepherd's family being killed by a drone strike. "We looked at it like a movie, writing out a script," says James Raymond, who wrote or co-wrote seven of the album's songs and also happens to be Crosby's given-up-at-birth son.

The singer is releasing Croz independently and has joked that he expects it to sell 19 copies. But his clownish mood goes away when he talks about how important the album is to him. "Do I care whether you've heard it, do I care whether you understand it, do I care whether you care about it?" asks Crosby in a soft voice. "Yeah, I really do. If this album bombed, I would be a broken spirit. It would leave me on the floor. It's the best I can do."

Crosby is now 72. Like an actor in his twilight, he has played many roles. There's the man with the golden voice inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of both the Byrds and CSN. There's the political activist of the 1979 No Nukes Concert who dropped by Occupy Wall Street in 2011.

That's the Good Crosby, the one with the mischievous smile and on-loan-from-God harmonies. But then there's Crosby the Dark, an unreliable singer-satyr who abandoned women and wasn't there for his children. That Croz was disowned at times by everyone from David Geffen to Nash, who split with Crosby after he stopped a recording session because his crack pipe broke. That's the Crosby who, according to his memoir, freebased under his coat while flying first-class, gave his drug dealer a job on his management team, and spent a year in a Texas prison for gun and drug possession. (While incarcerated, he had to shave off his mustache, a hippie parody of Samson losing his locks.) An intervention by Nash and Jackson Browne failed. One day, Crosby got a call from out of the blue. He remembers it with a sad chuckle.

"'Crosby!' I said, 'Yes, who is this?' He says, 'Pete Townshend! Listen! Get the fuck off that shit. Stop fuckin' up. Get your fuckin' act together, you hear me?'"

In the end it wasn't Townshend, whom he'd never met, or rehab that saved him. It was prison. He came out clean. Remarkably, his fellow addict and now wife Jan – who was once legally ordered not to see Crosby for five years because they were such a corrosive influence on each other – also survived. Now, she's a sweet woman who anticipates the precise moment when my audio recorder will need new AAA batteries.

"I don't know why I'm alive and Jimi isn't and Janis isn't and Mama Cass isn't and all my other friends," says Crosby. "I have no idea why me, but I got lucky."

He sips chocolate milk that he has lovingly crafted in a blender. "It's made with Splenda," whispers Crosby. "I can't have sugar because of my diabetes." It's one of the three things besides drugs that haven't managed to kill Crosby, the others being multiple heart attacks, and a liver transplant in 1994.

On the new album, there's a song called "Set That Baggage Down," something Crosby did once he got straight. He sought out the people he let down, especially his ex-girlfriends. He confessed to them he'd been going out of his mind, which he now says started after the 1969 death of his girlfriend Christine Hinton in a car accident.

"I told them I was psychotic, my behavior was completely out of line, and I know I hurt you," says Crosby, his smile gone. "The guy that you're talking to now doesn't even resemble the guy who was in the Byrds. I'm a different human being, 'cause I've nearly died a couple of times." He pauses and looks toward the kitchen, where Jan and Django are hanging out. "And I've been loved."

After kicking drugs in 1986, Crosby emerged a newish man. In the 1990s he was the sperm donor for two kids parented by Melissa Etheridge and Julie Cypher. The oldest, Bailey Jean, is 16; Crosby swears she sounds like him when she sings. There were progeny from his old life, too. When he was awaiting his liver transplant, he got word that a son he had given up for adoption wanted to meet him. The man turned out to be Raymond, a talented musician who recorded three LPs with his dad under the name CPR and is the other creative force behind Croz.

Django was born the year after his liver transplant. Crosby's thankfulness for his second chance doesn't mean he has lost any of his irascibility. He angered the recovery community when he admitted that he resumed smoking pot: "Our big crime is that we drive slow and eat ice cream, let's face the truth." I mention that a friend raved about the quality of comedian Bill Maher's pot. Crosby sternly shakes his head. "My weed is better."

His approach to politics is equally idiosyncratic. His pro-gun views have led to multiple arrests, including one where he was asked why he was carrying and simply answered, "John Lennon." But in reality, the fear goes back further. Crosby lived about a half-mile from Byrds producer Terry Melcher's house, where Charlie Manson's gang committed the ghastly Helter Skelter murders.

"I knew the house, knew the place," says Crosby. "When that happened, I said, 'Mmm, I think I'm gonna get me a 12-gauge.' And I did. And later on I got a .45. I've always been a gunner, it's just part of my thing, but no, it's not really based on a reasonable fear. I think you're probably better off calling 911."

He sees America's involvement in the Middle East as a continuation of the Crusades and, besides, "the Israelis don't need us, they've already kicked ass on their own." But his attitude toward Arabs wouldn't be out of place on AM talk radio.

"My car runs on soybean oil from Indiana," says Crosby. "I don't want to give those fuckin' people any money, because they hate me, and I don't much like them. I don't think any group of people that treats women somewhere between people and cattle is on my good list."

On the wall in Crosby's living room is a slightly comical caricature of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, his other family. "That kinda captures us," says Crosby. "We're all crazy. All of us."

While there are no plans for any new CSNY music, 2014 should finally bring the release of a CD-DVD box set of the band's epic 1974 tour. Crosby says the delay in releasing the music has been Neil Young's insistence on upping the digital quality of the recordings. "I think we're 90 percent there," says Crosby with a sigh before turning more animated as he talks about the recordings.

"I think when the Beatles bomb blew apart, we were the best band in the world," he says. "There are versions of 'Push It Over the End' and 'Carry On'" – Crosby's face flushes red – "there's some shit on there you just fuckin' can't believe. I can't believe it! It's going to kill."

Every Crosby profile since 1970 includes a quote from him talking up CSN and saying, "If Neil wants to come around, we're ready." While Crosby clearly wishes Young would come around more often, he's grateful for Young's support when he was at his lowest.

That doesn't mean Crosby won't still share strong opinions about his Canadian friend. "He believes in doing what trips his trigger musically and in life, and you can't make him do anything," says Crosby. "He set the bar very high, he doesn't always hit it, he has made records that were a fucking joke, I'm not going to say which ones. But he's made a couple of records, man, several records that I will never forget."

Crosby, Stills and Nash still tour despite decades of discord and a botched attempt to record with Rick Rubin in 2010. There's an oft-repeated story about the day Crosby was being wheeled off for his liver transplant and Nash, long considered the sane man in CSN, begging, "Don't leave me with Stills." For decades, Crosby and Stills have battled, with Stills once dumping a bucket of water on a semicoherent Crosby when he wandered off a stage in a drug haze. Crosby links many of their battles to Stills' relationship with a dyspeptic father.

"I personally love him," says Crosby. "He and I have butted heads monumentally over and over again. But Neil taught me a great thing about Stephen. I was giving Stephen the stink eye for playing some hideous thing, and Neil said, 'That's not how you get what you want from Stephen. Tell him when he's right, praise him. Don't give him shit when he's wrong. When you do, you become his father.'"

Ironically, it is Crosby's lifelong friend and partner Nash who may be causing him current heartache. The only time Crosby goes silent is when I ask him about Nash's recent Wild Tales, a tell-all memoir where Crosby comes across as, well, the drug-addled manipulator he once was. Crosby won't talk about it, but there's a line on the new album that goes, "Even words from a friend can bring back the pain."

It's dinnertime, so Crosby gives himself one of his daily insulin shots. He's going to hit the road in late January, something he doesn't look forward to now that he's clean.

"The biggest problem is loneliness," he says. "You reached a peak at the end of a show where I would do the most drugs. It would be to keep from coming down from a show. We're talking huge quantities of drugs and staying up all night. Now I don't do that and have to deal with it. It's the real world." Raymond says he isn't worried about his erstwhile father/bandleader. "He's never been in better shape, he's at the gym and has a lot of forward momentum."

Crosby will have extra company for these shows: Django will go on tour with him and serve as his teenage road manager. The kid has already come up with one solid suggestion: Play short residencies in big cities rather than humping it to smaller towns. Crosby says he's going to play some of his less-familiar songs and won't be doing the Sixties anthem "Almost Cut My Hair," "if I can get out alive without playing it." The tour ends with a week at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, a club where Crosby first started in the mid- Sixties and, oh yeah, where Crosby, Raymond says, first met his birth mother. Somehow, miraculously, he will be playing sold-out shows there a half-century later, with Raymond on the piano and Django making sure it all runs smoothly.

Crosby stands up, and is, for a rare moment, speechless. He tries to take in the incredulity of it all. For a second, David Crosby reverts to his spaced-cowboy days and manages just one word.

"Wow."

This story is from the February 13th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1202: February 13, 2014
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