Remembering David Crosby, counter-culture icon with Crosby, Still & Nash and the Byrds

In many ways, singer-songwriter David Crosby, a cofounder of two iconic bands, the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash, seemed to know he was living on borrowed time in recent years.

Crosby, who died Thursday at 81, always insisted he was fine with that after a lifetime of making a lot of beautiful music – as well as some bad decisions.

When we spoke in March 2016, not long after the deaths of David Bowie and the Eagles’ Glenn Frey, Crosby was sanguine about his own chances; this was two decades after a liver transplant saved his life and even longer since the worst of his drug and alcohol excesses.

“At this stage of your life, you do lose people,” Crosby said, sounding at peace with whatever might come. “It’s just a part of life. They come and they go.”

Now Crosby, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of both the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash, is gone, according to a statement from his wife Jan on Thursday afternoon.

“It is with great sadness after a long illness, that our beloved David (Croz) Crosby has passed away,” she wrote. “He was lovingly surrounded by his wife and soulmate Jan and son Django.

“Although he is no longer here with us, his humanity and kind soul will continue to guide and inspire us,” she continued. “His legacy will continue to live on through his legendary music. Peace, love, and harmony to all who knew David and those he touched. We will miss him dearly.”

Accolades and condolences soon filled social media from former bandmates, friends, fans, and a good number of people who’d encountered him on Twitter – where he never held back from saying exactly what he thought.

“It is with a deep and profound sadness that I learned that my friend David Crosby has passed,” wrote Graham Nash, who cofounded Crosby, Stills & Nash with Crosby and Stephen Stills, on Facebook.

“I know people tend to focus on how volatile our relationship has been at times, but what has always mattered to David and me more than anything was the pure joy of the music we created together, the sound we discovered with one another, and the deep friendship we shared over all these many long years,” Nash continued.

“I don’t know what to say other than I’m heartbroken to hear about David Crosby,” tweeted Beach Boy Brian Wilson. “David was an unbelievable talent – such a great singer and songwriter. And a wonderful person. I just am at a loss for words. Love & Mercy to David’s family and friends. Love, Brian.”

Crosby famously helped singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge and her ex-wife Julie Cypher have a pair of children, Bailey and the late Beckett, via sperm donation. Etheridge took to Twitter to share her feelings soon after the news of his death broke.

“I am grieving the loss of my friend and Bailey’s biological father, David,” Etheridge wrote. “He gave me the gift of family. I will forever be grateful to him, Django, and Jan. His music and legacy will inspire many generations to come. A true treasure.”

As a musician, Crosby was acclaimed for his gorgeous harmonies and unique style of phrasing. Unlike many of his peers in the California folk-rock scene and the Laurel Canyon sound, Crosby was a Los Angeles native, his father an Academy Award-winning cinematographer, his mother from New York City high society.

After leaving school and setting out to make his mark in the new folk scene of the early ’60s, Crosby eventually met Jim McGuinn, who later changed his name to Roger, and Gene Clark and they agreed to form a group. With the addition of Michael Clark and Chris Hillman, the original lineup for the Byrds was set.

Based in Los Angeles, where a long residency at Ciro’s on the Sunset Strip ignited their fame, the Byrds blended folk traditions with the new rock sounds and are often credited as among the very first creators of the folk-rock genre.

Crosby quickly became a key voice in the Byrds music, though what he had to say outside the music often rubbed his bandmates the wrong way. During sessions for the Byrds’ fifth album, “The Notorious Byrd Brothers,” he was often arguing over which songs to include.

When the band played the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, he annoyed the rest of the group with his between-song speechifying and by sitting in with Buffalo Springfield the night after the Byrds performed.

In October 1967, he was fired from the group, though Hillman told us in a 2020 interview that their friendship never ended.

“I still love David,” Hillman said. “I talk to him once a month usually. But it wasn’t working. He wasn’t involved. He wasn’t into the group.”

Crosby quickly landed on his feet with Crosby, Stills & Nash, which included Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield and Graham Nash of the Hollies. Neil Young, also formerly of Buffalo Springfield, joined them as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young not long after (and would drop out of it as well over the years).

Here Crosby had even more success as the band, which made a splash at Woodstock in 1969, found critical and commercial success, with Crosby’s contributions including such songs as “Guinevere,” “Almost Cut My Hair,” and “Wooden Ships.”

Again, though, his erratic ways as a bandmate led to dissension. The group broke up, but got together again at times in the decades that followed, until recent years when Nash, in particular, refused to work with Crosby again.

“I talk to Stephen every week. I talk to Neil every couple of weeks,” Nash said in October. “Um, and I haven’t spoken to David in nearly three years.”

In 2019, writer-director Cameron Crowe, who first met Crosby as a 16-year-old on assignment for a rock magazine in the early ’70s, produced the documentary “David Crosby: Remember My Name.” In it, Crowe interviewed Crosby for hours, getting him to open up about all facets of his life, including the hard stuff that existed between him and his former bandmates and friends.

“I think the lesson of talking to Crosby for all this time is you don’t magically reach a place where it’s like, ‘I’m 70, I’m a hallowed figure,’” Crowe said then. “You don’t. You still have people pissed off at you. You still have Neil Young saying, ‘No, that’s not cool what you said, and there’s no future for us.’”

In talking to Crosby about the film, he accepted his share of the blame but said he didn’t plan to be the one to call and mend fences.

“It’s really useful to not sit there and kind of spend a great deal of time looking at your past,” he said at the time. “But you do have to look at it long enough to learn from it.”

In the last decade, Crosby found a second home on Twitter, where followers delighted in his unvarnished opinions on all manner of topics or share photos of his joint du jour, marijuana being a habit he never chose to quit.

After a tweet bashing the Doors as a terrible band, a fan tweeted back her support of Doors’ keyboardist Ray Manzarek, saying, “You’ll never play like Ray, David!” Crosby replied: “God I hope not!”

When Phoebe Bridgers, whose music Crosby said he admired, smashed her guitar on “Saturday Night Live,” he called it “pathetic.” She replied calling him a “little (bleep),” possibly with tongue in cheek.

And he was tweeting until Wednesday, the day before he died, retweeting a photograph of climate advocate Greta Thunberg getting arrested at a protest in Germany and answering another post soliciting the best Beatles song for a rainy day with his pick: “Eleanor Rigby.”

In his last decade, Crosby surfed new waves of inspiration. After a pause of 21 years, he released five new solo albums between 2014 and 2021 and toured steadily playing new material mixed with songs from the Byrds and CSN.

In our 2019 interview about the documentary film, Crosby talked about how much life – and music – he wanted to squeeze out of whatever time he had left.

“When you’re at this stage of your life, you don’t know if you’ve got two weeks or 10 years,” he said from his home in Santa Ynez that day. “So really what matters is what you do with whatever time you have, right?

“And the only thing I can do that’s going to make anything better anywhere for anybody is to play some music. So I’m doing that to the best of my ability as much as I possibly can.”

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