David Crosby on Live Music's Uncertain Future, Not Giving Up on CSNY - Rolling Stone
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David Crosby on Live Music’s Uncertain Future — and Why He Hasn’t Given Up on Reuniting CSNY

The singer details the difficulty for musicians out of work right now, and a passionate email he recently wrote to Neil Young

david crosby

Anna Webber*

David Crosby had a busy 2020 lined up, with three separate tours, major shows with Phil Lesh, Joe Walsh, and Jason Isbell, and a lot of new music to make. At the moment, Crosby has no idea if any of that is going to happen. “I don’t want to be sitting at home, man,” Crosby says on the phone from his Santa Ynez, California, home. “I’m 78. I only got a few years left. You know that. I don’t want to spend them sitting on my butt. I got a lot of music in me still.”

Crosby is doing his best to make the most of his hiatus from the road. He’s cleaned out three lockers. He made a “first-class breakfast,” and caught up on music ranging from Miles Davis to Bulgarian folk. Crosby is hurting financially right now, but he acknowledges it’s nothing compared with young artists. “For musicians, it’s a fucking nightmare,” he says.

Right before he started self-isolating, Crosby sent off an email to Neil Young, making the case for a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young reunion. The group hasn’t toured since 2006, and the reasons why are examined in the 2019 documentary Remember My Name. Here, Crosby talks about the possibility of the band playing again, the difficulty of being a musician during the pandemic, creativity, and why he hasn’t given up on our country yet.

Is it a particularly creative time right now?
I want it to be, but you can’t legislate it. When it happens, it’s some sort of internal chemistry that’s unpredictable. The minute you do have an idea, though, you have to go for it. Don’t go out to lunch or something. My son James is on an absolute tear. He’s been writing like a maniac the last month. Just hotter than shit. You don’t know how the stress will affect people. But a lot of us see it as a challenge, to surf it, to get on top of it, and control our destiny. But it’s difficult, man, these are hard times for everybody.  

Does this chapter remind you of anything else you’ve lived through?
It reminds me of a couple of different periods. It reminds me of the Vietnam War, trying to get people to pay attention to us and saying we shouldn’t be there. It reminds me of the civil-rights era, and how frustrated we were with people being racist. And it reminds me, sadly, of Kent State. There are guys at the top of our government right now who would dearly love it to be a police state, and they admire it. Our president, those are the only guys he likes — dictators. The situation is very bad. We have an absolute idiot running the country, and now we have run into a real serious problem. And he’s not capable. He’s not capable of dealing with breakfast, let alone the problems of the country. So that’s all very tough. I think it’s real hard times, man. I have two real-positive, happy songs I want to put out right now, and I’m trying to convince the record company people to let me do it, because I think these are really down times.

The livestreams seem to be really changing music.
People sitting in their living rooms on an iPhone, playing you songs — it’s so fucking real. I like all my friends who are doing it, particularly Jason Isbell. I like how he’s doing it really well. Benmont Tench did a really nice one.

Have you seen any of Neil’s? They’re incredible.
No, I didn’t. Well, he’s usually really good. What can I say? I haven’t liked his writing lately so much. I keep waiting for a song that really makes me feel something. He set  the bar very high, man: “Helpless”; “Country Girl”; “Old Man”; “A Man Needs a Maid”; “Cortez.” It’s Neil. He wrote a lot of great songs. So it’s tough for him. Everybody is always going to compare his work now to his work in the past. Same thing everybody does to all of us. And it’s hard to maintain a very high level. I’ve been very fortunate — I’m working with other people who are immensely talented.

Your last few albums have been great.
I think so. And I’m halfway through another one. I don’t know why I’m bothering; they don’t pay me for them. Part of the dynamic that’s going on now with musicians is that we came into it having already lost half of our income. They don’t pay us for records anymore, no matter what anybody tells you. It’s like you did your job at Rolling Stone for a month and they paid you nickel. It’s not only not paying you, it’s insulting you at the same time. And they’re making billions of dollars. When you talk to people in the record business, [they say], “Wow, the regular business is booming!” Yeah, that’s why.

I don’t know if you know this, man, but what happened is, the guys who invented the technology went to the main record companies and they said, “Hey, imagine a world where there’s no physical object. No records, no CDs, no covers, no packages, no shipping, no distribution companies, no cover, no lyrics, no nothing. You press a button, you send it, and you collect the money.” And the record companies went, “Holy shit. What do we have to do to get that?” And the guys who invented the technology said, “All you have to do is change the pay structure. Instead of paying the artists so much money that they’re all rich rock stars, pay us that money.” And the record company said, “Yeah, we could do that.” And this is the kicker: “Give us a piece of your company.” And they did. I don’t know if this is true, man, but here’s what I heard: Those three main record companies are currently splitting a take off of the streaming companies that is like $17 million or $19 million a day. I’d love to know if it’s true. And the money goes right around the artists, we don’t get any of it. 

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young - Neil Young, David Crosby, Graham Nash and Stephen StillsVARIOUS - 1970S

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in the 1970s.

Ray Stevenson/Shutterstock

I don’t mean to rant about it, but the real crime is what it’s doing to the young people who are trying to earn their way into the business.  I know a bunch of them who are monstrously talented, and they can’t fucking earn a living. They can’t make any money off of CDs. And then they shut down live performance. 

What performances have you lost?
Well, it’s grim, man. I lost Phil Lesh’s birthday, right? I was really looking forward to that. I was looking forward to playing with him, and we had plans on doing “Laughing” and “Cowboy Movie” and things that we cut together. It was a pretty exciting weekend looking like a real thrill, a bunch of really great players coming in that respect Phil and think he’s a really great musician. That’s gone.

I have always felt very strongly about Kent State in Ohio. And Joe Walsh was there then. Joe wanted to play a benefit for them. And I volunteered to open for him. And he said he’d love it, because he knew that we would be singing “Ohio” together at the end of the show.  That’s canceled. And then you have dates coming up right after that. I got three tours this year because it’s the only time I can make my living, support my family, keep my home. I had three tours. I just lost the first one. Then I got one in August-September and then I got another one in November-December. The one in November-December is really killer. Marc Cohn, who is a dear friend of mine and one of the best singer-songwriters in the country, called me up and said he and Shawn Colvin want to do a tour with me.

I love both of them to pieces. I think they’re two of the best singer-songwriters alive. So we’re gonna do a really fun thing. We’re gonna do a Nashville song circle, where we go out and all three of us stay out there the whole night and trade songs. It should be fucking wonderful because, man, they can really lay it down. I’m looking forward to it, but I might lose that, too. If I lose all three of them, well, then I’m going to lose my home. I don’t have any savings. I won’t be able to make the rent. I won’t be able to make the mortgage. So I got to tell you, for musicians, it’s a fucking nightmare. 

Would you want to go back on the road if you could?
Fuck no! Right? I’m wondering how that’s gonna work until there’s a cure. What [I think] is gonna happen is this: We’ll be able to tell you in each region when it’s peaking. And when it starts to peak, then people are going to start figuring out what to do afterwards, and then they will start rebooking all of us work, and then we will go back to work, and then the world will go back to roughly normal, except we have an idiot for a president. 

It’s scary to imagine all the baby-boomer artists going back on the road.
I’m a textbook case, man, I’m 78 years old. I’m a transplant, so I have a suppressed immune system. I’m a diabetic, type 2, for 30 years. I’m absolutely the center of the demographic. I worry about it.

What music have you been turning to?
I’m listening to stuff that’s really more meditative. If you turn on the TV, it’s all frantic, everything’s frantic, and they’re doing that on purpose because it sells products. I listen to, well, Michael Hedges. Miles Davis, particularly Sketches [of Spain]. I listen to Snarky Puppy, a really good jazz band. I listen to Weather Report. Heavy Weather is still one of my favorite records on earth. I’ve been listening to the new Sarah Jarosz record, which is stunningly fucking good, and which follows on the heels of I’m With Her doing stunningly good stuff. I still listen to Joni a lot because I think she was the best of us. I listen to [jazz guitarist] David Gilmore. The first record by the Bulgarian National Radio Folk Orchestra, called Music From Bulgaria. I still listen to that record. It changed my life. The best vocal work I’ve ever heard anybody do.

I’ll tell you what I’ve been listening to this morning, man. Somebody in Italy got hundreds of people to sing “Helplessly Hoping,” and aggregated them together. It’s so emotional. Look it up on the net, man. I actually teared up. That’s what I’ve been listening to this morning.

What do you do at home?
We emptied three lockers. I do normal stuff. I got up this morning about dawn. I decided I was going to figure out if I could make hash browns or not. So I took a potato and I washed it and I grated it, and then I put it in the pan with some butter and I made hash browns. And then I made some bacon and some eggs and some coffee and some toast. Made myself a first-class breakfast.

And then I try to write, but writing isn’t a thing that you can do on demand. I know that Bob [Dylan] used to get up every morning, eat breakfast, sit down at the typewriter with a cup of coffee, and write. It was like it was his job to sit down at the typewriter and write some more lyrics. 

“I got up this morning about dawn and decided I was going to figure out if I could make hash browns or not. I made myself a first-class breakfast.”

Is there anything else you want to say to your fans right now?
Have faith in democracy. It is the best way for people to live together under the rule of law. It’s hard to tell that to your kids, right? It’s still the best idea. Do not lose faith. Do not give up on the idea of democracy because you see people abusing it in front of you.

I imagine this is hard for older artists especially, because time is so precious for them.
Yeah, I don’t want to be sitting at home, man. I’m 78. I only got a few years left. You know that. I don’t want to spend them sitting on my butt. I got a lot of music in me still, and I’m trying really hard to make music every minute I fucking can, because it’s the one place I can contribute. [But] I’m sitting here, watching the last bits of cash that I’ve got dribble out, and I don’t have any savings. So it’s not looking good.

If it comes to that, what’s your plan?
Well, first you sell the guitars. That’s the only stuff I got. I got some D-45 Martins from 1969. I’m going to do that. I have to do it anyway, because my hands are gone. I got tendinitis in both hands, [my] trigger fingers, and it’s not going to get better. So in the long run, they’re going to have to get sold. Then once the guitars are gone, we lose the house. I’ve lived here for 21, 22 years. It’s not big and impressive. It’s just a small, really sweet, adobe house, tile roof, in the middle of cattle country. It’s really wide open here. It’s a wonderful place to live. I want to die here. I don’t want to have to leave. 

I’ve just been listening to a lot of you, and a lot of Neil, and thinking, “I really want them to sing together again.” Do you think that, after an event like this, that could finally happen, with everything put in perspective?
No, I really don’t. I got as out-front with it as I could. I sent an email to Neil, saying, ”Listen, I know you’re pissed at me because I slagged your girlfriend. And I’m sorry.” I’ve apologized a couple of times publicly, but that’s not really relevant to what’s going on in the country. I said, “What we’re faced with, and now that you’re an American too, you got to pay attention to this: Our country’s broken. We’ve got an idiot, an imbecile running the country,  and taking apart good stuff left and right as fast as he can, and putting us in a very bad situation. We could have a strong voice, and we could do some real good for whoever the nominee is going to be.” I voted for Bernie, and I support him, and I would gladly do it for Biden. But I said, “Whoever it’s going to be, we’ve got to do something, because we can’t have another four years of this guy, because we can’t address global warming until we get rid of him. You give it another four years to get worse before we even start fixing it?”

I said, “We’re faced with a horrible situation and we have a big voice, we could probably sway the outcome.” And I said, “I’m really sorry I shot my mouth off about your girlfriend. I really am. But we’ve all been horrible to each other over the years.” Neil left Stephen in the middle of a tour, twice! Twice! It was a really good email, man. It was very sincere, very straightforward. I’m not buttering his toast, trying to suck his dick. I’m just telling them what the real truth is. We’re faced with a situation where we could make a huge difference. I would love to do it. I know Stephen would love to do it, because Stephen is a very political guy and has been working with the Democratic Party his whole life. He’s very savvy about politics. Nash?  I don’t know. Nash, I haven’t talked to in a long time. And he has been, in the past anyway, a ball of anger, and not somebody fun to have anything to do with. But he’s good at what he does, and he’s a pro. We all are. We know how to do it. So I would gladly do it. And I sent that message to Neil and it was totally sincere. And I got a large, empty, echoing silence back. 

“Nash, I haven’t talked to in a long time. And he has been, in the past, a ball of anger, and not somebody fun to have anything to do with.”

Well, I hope that changes. I’d love to see you guys together again.
Everybody in the country would, man. There’s only one person who doesn’t want it. No, there’s two people who don’t want it.That’s Neil and the lady in question.

If we had done it for Bernie, I think the outcome might have been different. As it stands now, we got a guy who’s a numbnuts. Biden is not the best possible candidate. He’s nowhere close to capable of dealing with what’s going to happen. What’s going to happen is this, man, and you can quote me: The human race’s survival depends on our ability to get off of coal and oil. It’s that fucking simple. Now, the oil companies aren’t going to give it up without a fight. They’re gonna fight you right down to the wire. They’re never going to surrender. They’re never going to admit that they’re doing the wrong thing. So it’s going to be a hard-fought battle to get off of coal and oil. We’re getting off of coal. Coal is dying right in front of us. And that’s good. It’s a very good thing. The oil companies, man, they’re huge and rich and they’re gonna fight like fucking crazy. They don’t agree. So that’s gonna be a really tough one. And if we don’t do it, your great grandkids won’t have a world to live in. Kids, young people in the United States of America, and maybe in the rest of the world, are not starting families or careers because they don’t think we’re gonna make it! So where’s the fucking headlines on that?

It’s the truth. My own son says to me, “Dad, you’re not wrong, and you can probably do it in Sweden. You might even do it in the United States after you kill everyone running the oil companies, because they are not going to do it, short of that.” He says, “But what about Nigeria? What about the Philippines? What about India, where half the people are still cooking on wood fires?” He said, “Nigeria ain’t gonna do it, they’re not going to shut off that gas-powered generator.” I said, “We can do it, man. Exemplary human beings, technology — we can do it. We can make it.”  He said, “Pop, I love you, but it ain’t gonna happen.” How would you feel if your kid said that to you? 

This has been a great interview. Thank you, David.
It’s OK, man. I’m gonna get in trouble for some of it, but I don’t give a fuck. 

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