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David Crosby: The Rolling Stone Interview

Former Byrd flies high with Crosby, Stills and Nash

David Crosby

David Crosby of Crosby Stills Nash and Young performs during rehearsals on the premiere episode of the television show Music Scene in Los Angeles, California, on September 22nd, 1969.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

In his third year as a Byrd, David Crosby was kicked out of the band. There were a number of reasons, none of them made public, but several of them easy enough to guess. Crosby, rhythm guitarist, singer, and composer, was continually at odds with Roger McGuinn, acknowledged leader of the group. While McGuinn steered the band’s uneasy course from “folk-rock” through space-rock to country, Crosby, equally energetic, equally opinionated, equally brilliant, kept tampering with the wheel. Crosby worked out and executed the intricate harmonies for the group’s three-part vocal lines, but he went beyond “folk-rock” early in the game. He wrote “Mind Gardens,” “Eight Miles High,” “Everybody’s Been Burned,” “Why,” and “What’s Happening?!?!” He called Byrd music “folk, bossa nova, jazz, Afro.”

Away from music, but still on stage, Crosby insisted on speaking out on politics, and he did it articulately and abrasively. At the Monterey Pop Festival in June, 1967, he delivered a rap challenging the credibility of the Warren Report. Four months later, he was no longer a Byrd.

Crosby hasn’t changed much. If anything, he’s younger than yesterday, freer with his music and with his iconoclastic ideas. Since leaving the Byrds, he produced Joni Mitchell’s first album; Jefferson Airplane recorded a love song of his that the Byrds couldn’t take: “Triad.” And now he is the proudest, loudest member of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Onstage, it is David, Leo/lion round face fronting a neat mane of wild hair, with freak fringes flying from his old Byrd jacket, who dominates the between-song raps. It’s like the man can’t stand dead air.

Where Steven Stills is the restrained Capricorn virtuoso boy wonder; where Neil Young is the earthy balance to the other three’s often – angelic approaches, and where Graham “Willie” Nash is the boyish, stretched-out Englishman, Crosby is the most obvious catalyst, working hardest to keep four adamant individualists together. He does it with looks, grins, vibrancy bouncing off the balls of his feet, and, most of all, with raps.

Introducing a Neil Young tune called “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” Crosby rumbles: “Here’s a song about President Johnson, Spiro T. Agnew, Richard Nixon/Ronnie Reagan/Vietnam/Cambodia/the moon and refuse”… pause … “but it’s not a bummer!” Talking about “Guinnevere,” a song he’d written for his lady Christine before she was killed last summer, he now says: “This is a place that Tricia Nixon doesn’t get to go.” At the Oakland Coliseum last week, Nash come-nowed: “She might be groovy,” to which Crosby replied, slowly: “The odds are stupendously high against it.” Then the irreverent capper: “She’s the kind of girl that’d give bad head.” Nash choked, turned away, and laughed. McGuinn would’ve kicked him off stage.

“Yeah, sometimes I rap too much,” he admits. But you gotta understand: Crosby has had a lot of past, and it all stays with him, and he builds on it. All that music, dating back ten years when he started at 19 and made the folkie Troubador/Gate of Horn/Bitter End circuit. All the reading —science-fiction books; books on sea life and survival methods; titles like Ice Station Zebra and True Experiences in Telepathy. All the women who inspire him to weave sex into raps everywhere and anywhere. All the love for the sea, for his 60-foot schooner “The Mayan.” And of course, all the months of personal crystallization as a person, as a Byrd.

Crosby was an easy interview; he’d become a friend through past meetings for different stories. He said he’d found a journalist he thought he could trust. I’d found a musician/spokesman I knew I could believe. When the tape machine wasn’t running, we spent time on the deck of the Mayan, docked at Marina del Rey, and talked about London, about women, and about trips he had made in the waters and the winds while he planed and sanded down hatch doors and revarnished various pieces of the boat’s woodwork. Downstairs, whenever we talked, friends would invariably gather to listen. At dinner at Steven Stills’ house in Laurel Canyon, he made pitches for the rest of the band to support campaigns being waged by Jess Unruh, Jane Fonda, and Dr. Benjamin Spock. He taunted and debated Steven and Graham about “Yo-Yo Lennon,” and about the impossibility of carving out a perfect male-female relationship. But he conceded that Yo-Yo and John might have one worked out.

A few weeks later, Nixon and the National Guard in Ohio did their numbers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young fell apart, and David called up to tell about it, to say he thought it’d be together again soon. Days later, Neil Young had written “Ohio,” and Crosby’s prediction had come true, the band was back on the road. We met again and talked some more, over breakfast at a restaurant in Hollywood, after the waitress had finished hounding him for concert tickets for her kids — —promising an incredible blow job in the restroom (“And I’ve got false teeth,” she said).

He spoke, not too specifically or certainly, about the band, and it sounded like maybe Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young might be staying together just long enough to save their legal necks on the concert tour. Young and Stills were at it again. Broken arrows.

But last week, speaking after the Oakland concert, Crosby, the catalyst, sounded very certain: “The music has been so good,” he said, “that as far as I can see, we’ll do one tour and one LP a year for the next ten years. Steve and Neil were fuckin’ hugging and shaking hands after shows. And if me and Willie and the others can get those two cats up and keep ’em up … Well, we can work it out.” And meanwhile, he and Nash will do a joint LP this summer, and Stills will have a solo album out, and CSN&Y have six Fillmore sets recorded for a possible live album this fall, and so David Crosby has a lot to talk about, indeed. —

You were talking, when we first met, about what you hoped Crosby, Stills, and Nash would be. And you were saying something about what a joy it was to be able to not have to just sing three-part harmony, to be able to find your voice. You were hinting at limitations as a Byrd and the whole range of things you went through as a Byrd.
Man, there’s limitations inherent in anything, I suppose. The thing you gotta do in a group is fill whatever needs to be filled that you can fill and try not to be too specific about it. No, the limitations worked out usually in the areas of there being nobody else to sing harmony.

The way we did the first three Byrd albums, I guess, was Gene and McGuinn would sing the melody together and then I would sing the harmony parts and then finally we got Christopher to start singin’ and along about then Gene dropped out. Then we got to singin’ parts more. But for most of it, it wound up bein’ me singin’ harmony because I could sing that high and I could stay in tune, and that’s about it. And also I really love singin’ harmony and I love thinkin’ up weird ones, and they used to enjoy the weird ones. So I wound up never singin’ lead. Now, I’m not a great lead singer. But there are songs that I like to sing; and then they could all sing it. So … he used to want to, and it used to be a matter of habit within the group to try and keep everybody in roles, you know what I mean? When we started out makin’ groups the first time around, we thought it was sorta like Hard Day’s Night, and we thought everybody had to have a role.

It got to be a matter of habit that I would do that and this would be that and that … and it’s hard to break habit, man. Habit’s even harder to break than some kind of deliberate plot, ’cause it’s not maliciousness on anybody’s part. There wasn’t anybody in that group trying to hold me back. There was no real maliciousness in that group until right near the end, y’know? Along around “Eight Miles High” and Monterey Pop Festival, y’know? They used to get uptight that I was playin’ with Stephen and Buffalo Springfield. They got uptight behind Monterey, me sayin’ that shit about Kennedy and the Warren Report.

What exactly did you say? 
“Who killed the President?” basically. It was a standard introduction. We used to do it— — you saw us do it a hundred times. We used to do it every single time we did “He Was a Friend of Mine.” The introduction for a year solid was: “We’d like to do a song about this guy who was a friend of ours. And just by way of mentionin’ it, he was shot down in the street. And as a matter of strict fact he was shot down in the street by a very professional kind of outfit. Don’t it make you sort of wonder? The Warren Report ain’t the truth, that’s plain to anybody. And it happened in your country. Don’t you wonder why? Don’t you wonder?”

And then we would sing the song. Now, admittedly that’s a little extreme for an artist to get into those areas at all. Got no right talkin’ about that. But I was pissed about it, and I’m still pissed about it! I guess I overstepped my bounds as an artist. By rights I shouldn’t get into that area at all. I’m sure no political genius. I don’t fuckin’ know what to do. I sure am sure I was tellin’ the truth. But I sure am sure that it didn’t fuckin’ do no good. I mean he isn’t alive, he’s dead, and nobody still knows why. Or how or who. And everybody’s guessin’ and everybody’s scared. So I guess it didn’t do a hell of a lot of good for me to mouth off.

You say “overstepping your bounds.” It sounds like at first, the whole band was with you. They knew just what you were saying. 
They all believed the same thing, but I don’t think any of them would’ve said it … well, they didn’t say it.

Did they feel it was improper for Monterey? 
Probably. Maybe they thought the focus was there. I know that everybody was conscious of the cameras because it was the first time anybody was filmin’ rock & roll, y’know. We were all very camera-shy. I was camera-shy to an extreme degree.

Stephen Stills: Being convinced that you were ugly.

Crosby: Well, there are mirrors in this world. For god’s sake, man. I mean, Lord. The truth hurts!

So you’re up to Monterey and the uptightness begins. Was Stephen really a big part of it? 
Stephen has been a big part of my life, man, for the last three years. The cat came over to my house and played one evening with me, and it was very clear to me that he was a stoned goddamn genius. And I don’t know whether anybody else knew it then, but I was firmly convinced of it. He plays rings around everybody. Everybody! He plays everything better than anybody. So, I wanted to hang out with him.

How’d you meet him? 
How the fuck’d I meet you, man? I guess I came and heard you.

Stills: You guys paid us $125 for our first gig.

Crosby: First gig? Were you paid on those Byrds concerts?

Stills: Yes, you …

Crosby: No wonder you guys were really loose. I wondered why you were loose. [The Byrds’ producer, Jim] Dickson didn’t tell us that. That’s groovy. You sang really good. You put me uptight, as a matter of fact. I felt competitive.

Stills: I know. We watched. We laughed a lot.

Crosby: Oh, you mean guys. Kicked our plug out, too … I caught you, bastard! Yeah, so, but they were good, man. That was early Springfield. I didn’t really know what he was, man, until he came over to my house one time and we played acoustic guitars. And then I knew what he was. I wanted to obviously do some of that, ’cause it’s groovy. Like, I don’t know, we like music, we like a lot of music. At that point, see, my band was turned off to playing. Everybody goes through that stage some time or another, I guess. Right then they were all really turned off to playing. I mean Roger would stop in the middle of a song to look at his watch and see how much more time he had to do in the set. And I’m not kidding you, he’ll tell you it’s the truth. He’s seen him do it. Maybe you haven’t seen him do it. I’ve seen him do it.

Stills: I watched Chris, though, right in the middle of a song stop playing and turn around and take a draw on a cigarette and then start playing about six bars later. Seven and a half.

Crosby: Twenty to one it was one of my songs.

Stills: As a matter of fact, it was.

Crosby: Okay, so now, anyway, it got to be to a point where one time I was tryin’ to sing a song where my energy level was so dissimilar from theirs that Christopher turned around to me and said “Ah, the David Crosby Show.” And it pissed me off so hard that I got frozen up like they were. I mean there was a real disparity between how we wanted to get it on in music.

Now I saw this cat, man, I mean he loves to play. He will play 25 hours a day. Now, didn’t I just want to hang out with somebody that loved to play? I love to play, man. And, fuck, we would get it on. We would have a good time playin’. And I was fuckin’ starved for that. I mean I was going on a stage, man, with a band that was a burn. It was like goin’ out and selling parsley on the street and havin’ to meet the people the next day. Byrdshit! It wasn’t the Byrds; it was the fucking canaries.

It was a burn, but it didn’t start out to be, so it really was a turn-off to watch it go that way, you know? So I had a very negative scene on one hand that was rapidly turning into a worse and worse psychodrama because I had made a terrible mistake and led everybody into a cat who was taking us to the cleaners. Manager cat. Pure poison. Ruined a lot of people and I led them all in. The only thing that I can also say is that I tried to lead them all back out again.

How did he ruin people?
Stole their money. He was a very direct fellow. Wasn’t subtle or anything. He would steal. That was his trip. Anyway, so I had an intensely bad scene on one side, and then I had Stephen on the other side; Springfield was falling apart, too. Neither Stephen nor I could wash the taste of bein’ in a bad group out of our minds. For us, you gotta remember, those two groups — and they were not bad groups — for us they were intensely painful psychodramas at the time. A mismatching of purposes, of motivations. Everybody was windin’ up doin’ it for different reasons. Well, Stephen and I hung out, and hung out, and we made some demo tapes and played ’em for Atlantic and Atlantic said “Sure, kid. I’ll buy that.” And I was shoppin’ around. Capitol offered me a better deal. I was gonna sign with Capitol as a single. And when Graham came to the United States …

And a twinkle lights up your eye …
Yes indeed. At that point it started to get good. Now Graham Nash — this is gonna sound like a hype — Graham Nash is one of the most highly evolved people on the planet. He is my teacher and he’s certainly the finest cat I know. Excuse me for usin’ that word, because I know a lot of really fine cats. He is just an incredible human being! And don’t just trust me. Ask anybody that knows him and they will tell you that he is just one of the major joys in their life. And he started bringing my spirits up.

We started singing together and one night we were at Joni Mitchell’s — ah, there’s a story. Cass was there. Stephen was there, me, and Willie [Graham Nash], just us five hangin’ out. You know how it is this night, I mean this time of night, so we were singin’ as you would imagine. We sang a lot. What happened was we started singin’ a country song of Stephen’s called “Helplessly Hoping.” And I had already worked out the third harmony. Steven and I started singin’ it, Willie looked at the rafters for about ten seconds, listened, and started singin’ the other part like he’d been singin’ it all his life.

That’s how Willie does things. And the feeling of that, man, was like havin’ somebody give you head all of a sudden in a sound sleep. It was like waking up on acid. I couldn’t begin to tell you how that was. That was a heavy flash, ’cause that’s a nice thing. You know it was. Especially if you’re a harmony singer and you love singin’ harmony. And I am and I do and it got me off. So that’s what we were doing.

That time in Chinatown when you were having dinner, you made a comparison between yourself, and your relationship to McGuinn, and the roles adopted in the movie by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, in Easy Rider. 
Yeh, well, Dennis and Peter used to watch us a lot. Peter’s been a good friend for years, and Dennis, too, for that matter, although I don’t know him as well as I know Peter. I wouldn’t say that Dennis had me down exactly. He did grow a pretty good mustache, I’ll say that for him. And, as a matter of strict fact, although it’s a really technical detail, he got the knife right, too. Peter’s a sailor, too. Dennis — I really dig Dennis. He’s outrageous. I went to a wedding party the other day and he’s still outrageous. Michelle Phillips in a girl scout uniform. No underwear. God knows I love her …

How about the relationship between Fonda and Hopper in the movie and the relationship between you and McGuinn? 
It was frequently that. Brash extrovert that I am, and that I was even more, then. Energy source. And McGuinn, a laid-back, highly complex, good multi-evaluating, highly-trained brain.

And optimistic? 
Probably not as much as that praise would have gotten everybody to believe, but certainly intelligent about planning the odds. I think he used me as an ice-breaker more than he used his optimism. I’m naturally going and already moving. Easy enough to slide in and then try and get me to go which way he wanted. McGuinn’s really a good one for trying to figure out the least effort way to accomplish something. Me, too, for that matter.

So how did it come to be that you left the Byrds? 
Roger and Chris drove up in a pair of Porsches and said that I was crazy, impossible to work with, an egomaniac — —all of which is partly true, I’m sure, sometimes — —that I sang shitty, wrote terrible songs, made horrible sounds, and that they would do much better without me. Now, I’m sure that in the heat of the moment they probably exaggerated what they thought. But that’s what they said. I took it rather much to heart. I just say, “OK. Kinda wasteful, but OK.” But it was a drag.

In later interviews, McGuinn would say that the Byrds missed your musicianship and the kind of music you contributed. And later on he said different things again. 
Well, I don’t know. I wish he’d said it at the time … Say, it’s OK. Rog’s doin’ fine.

Compared to the Byrds, does this band offer you something closer to total freedom? 
This isn’t total freedom, no, of course not. I have to— — not only am I not free to just express myself, but that can’t even be my main concern. Not if I really want this to be a healthy group, which I really do, ’cause I really love it. And I love the cats and they can really play. That’s nice. They all also really get off playing. They’re doing it for the right reason, thank god. It’s really part of it. Why you do it really affects the flavor, man. And I do it ’cause it gets me off, every time, man, that I get stoned and put on a guitar and somebody points me at a microphone, I have — —I can’t say every time — —99 times out of a hundred— I have as good a time as most people do balling. And wouldn’t you want to do that? And wouldn’t anybody want to do all they could? I want to do it all I can, ’cause it gets me off. I love it.

I mean— — you know, I did it — —all I can say is that I’ve done it for every single reason I’ve been able to find. I’ve done it for money and I’ve done it for the glory and I’ve done it for the chicks and I’ve done it ’cause I was 19 years old and I thought I was Woody Guthrie on the road, man, and it was hip to sling my guitar over my shoulder. I’ve done it ’cause of every reason I’ve ever heard of, and doin’ it cause it’s fun really is an absolutely out of hand good trip.

Neil Young writing a song about Kent State. He surprised everybody. 
Yeah. He said, “I don’t know. I never wrote anything like this before, but …” There it is. I watched him do it. We were at … Actually we were up in Chicago. We all came back and it was really crazy and really a drag. I couldn’t get mad at anybody, make myself feel righteous, so I split. We went up to Pescadero, and I watched him do it. It wasn’t like he set out as a project to write a protest song. It’s a folk song. I’ll admit that, it is definitely a folk song. But he didn’t set out to write it, man. It’s just what came out of havin’ Huntley-Brinkley for breakfast. I mean that’s really what happens. We’ve all stopped even watching the TV news, but you read the headlines on the papers going by on the streets.

He didn’t seek out his subject matter, it’s what forced its way into his consciousness, when he had defended his consciousness against it and tried strongly to keep his head in personal good trips all the time. But it’s very hard to ignore that Kent State thing. They were down there, man, ready to do it. You can see them, they’re all kneeling there, they’re all in the kneeling position and they got their slings tight and they’re ready to shoot. And there’s this kid, this long-haired kid standing there with a flag wavin’ it … I mean, I cannot be a man, and be a human, and ignore that. I don’t think. I don’t think I can. And I’m not political. I don’t dig politics. I don’t think politics is a workable system any more. I think they gotta invent something better. And man, it’s really right down to there. It’s really not happening for me to live in a country where they gun people down in the streets just for that, for saying they don’t dig it that way. You can’t do that. President Nixon, you can’t do that!

How did Graham and Stephen react to the song? 
They said, “Well, how soon can we record it?” And there was no question in anybody’s mind. We all felt the same way about it. As a matter of fact, as soon as we played it to Stephen and Graham we just all went to the studio and recorded it. We cut the whole record, both sides, in one night, and finished it the next day. We went in, we played it like that. Those extra words on the end: “Why?” “Why?” “How many?” “How many more?” … you know, that? That wasn’t even part of the song, that was just what happened when we got to the end. It was all one live take, man, of cats just reacting to our world, that’s all. I don’t see any holy word or panacea or answer in what we did, we’re just people. We live here, too, and they just kicked us in the face.

Do you think it’ll just keep getting worse? 
Well, now, the way I see it, the seeds of the better are already here. There’s the new ways for people to relate to each other and live with each other and grow up. A whole new society inherent in the way that young people are relating to each other now. And communicating with each other on levels that squares never achieve, man, it’s that simple. They do not communicate with each other that well.

The shared experience of people who’ve been high together, the multiplicity of levels that they can relate on and do relate on is not frequently found in straight people. It’s a new way, OK? It’s only a matter of degree and not really kind, but it’s really quite a change in degree of communication. I mean you and I relate to each other on an awful lot of levels. You’re reading my skin temperature, my tension, my stance, my position in the room, my tone, inflection, pitch, attack, rise, fall, tension, my blink-blink, my respiration rate, my heart rate, and in the middle of all of those you’re copying me telepathically, and I know it. Empathically, anyway, for sure. If you’re not doing that then it’s different. I see people doing that, man, I see people relating to each other in ways that haven’t happened before for people. There are huge numbers of them doin’ it. I see, for me, quite plainly a new humanity, I mean a bunch of people who are concerned with being human. I also think that I can see that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

It’s something like we have only this one plot of ground, y’know, and we’ve built a house on it and it’s an old frame house and we didn’t use redwood. And it’s rotten. And we have propped it and shored it and buttressed it and sky-hooked it and everything we can think of to keep it up, man. And I don’t think it’s happening. I think at least we’re gonna have to kind of bust it up for the lumber. And I don’t dig it, man, because I don’t dig destruction, man. I’m a builder. I’ve always been a builder.

But I’m afraid that’s what’s gonna happen, man, I’m afraid that’s what has to happen. I told that to Albert Grossman last night and he go so angry with me he wouldn’t talk to me anymore. I played “Ohio” for him last night and he got angry. He said, “What are you tryin’ to do?” And I said, “Well, actually, if you really want to know, I’m not really trying to do anything. But I think we’re gonna help tear it apart a little bit.” And he said, “Well, man, you’re just children, and you don’t understand what’s going on.” Went into that kind of rap, and I said, “Albert, you’re comin’ on hip all the time, but in truth you’re just another old man who’s really got all his marbles in this system. And the real truth of it is, man, I just scared you. You don’t want that system to go. You got every fuckin’ egg in one basket, Jack. If they burn the bank you’re screwed, Albert.”

And he got really scared. If they burn the bank I’ve still got my two hands, and I ain’t scared of it. I’ve done it, a lot. I’ve caught my own fish and ripped their own stomachs out, and cleaned them, and cooked them. And done the same for the animals. It isn’t as if I don’t dig civilization, I do, and I don’t want to blow it. But I do want to blow this political system. I had a long talk, man, with the head of the Democratic party in California. Like, there’s a cat who’s got a lot mo