David Crosby was a defining voice of both hippie idealism and the world-weary realism of the classic rock era. A founding member of the Byrds and later Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, he helped invent folk rock and country rock in the 1960s and was instrumental in the sensitive singer-songwriter scene of the 1970s. His singing and guitar playing expanded the way people thought about the meaning of pop music and even helped create a culture where rock stars were encouraged to enjoy every earthly surplus available.
Crosby, who grew up in Southern California and helped define the region’s sound as much as anyone, died Wednesday at the age of 81. Here are 12 songs that summarize his life and work.
1. The Byrds, “Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965)
Crosby neither wrote the Bob Dylan tune that served as the Byrds’ debut single nor played guitar on the chart-topping hit after being replaced in the studio by the more experienced LA session pros The Wrecking Crew. But “Mr. Tambourine Man’ offers an early example of the flair of close-harmony singing that would define much of Crosby’s work for decades to come.
2. The Byrds, “Eight Miles High” (1966)
The first real psychedelic rock song? Many have spoken out in favor of this lush yet ferocious guitar jam about the lack of warmth “found among those afraid of losing their ground.” Co-written by Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark of Crosby and the Byrds – and later referenced by Don McLean in rock history no less than “American Pie” – “Eight Miles High” was later covered by the likes of the Ventures. Roxy Music, Hüsker Dü, Tom Petty and Golden Earring from the Netherlands, which stretched the song to an incredible 19 minutes.
3. The Byrds, “Everybody’s Been Burned” (1967)
An exquisite slice of romantic fatalism from Younger Than Yesterday, Crosby’s last album as a full-time Byrd (before a mediocre mid-’70s reunion). “I know all too well how to turn, how to run / How to hide behind a wall of bitter blue,” he sings against a hypnotic groove in a minor key, “but you die inside if you choose to hide / So I guess instead I’ll love you.”
4. Crosby, Stills & Nash, “Wooden Ships” (1969)
Written while Crosby was sailing the Floridian seas with Jefferson Airplane’s Stephen Stills and Paul Kantner (whose band recorded their own version that same year), Wooden Ships – Crosby, Stills & Nash’s Grammy-winning debut – draws an astonishingly cool Portrait of a Nuclear Holocaust.
5. Crosby, Stills & Nash, “Long Time Gone” (1969)
Crosby angered his Byrds bandmates at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival when he challenged the Warren Commission’s findings on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Two years later he was thinking about Kennedy’s younger brother Robert his Assassination in this soulful, slow-burning number that CSN famously performed at Woodstock.
6. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “Deja Vu” (1970)
Along with Neil Young, CSNY titled its multi-platinum 1970 hit after Crosby’s intricate multi-part psych-folk song, in which he wonders “what’s going on underground.”
7. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “Almost Cut My Hair” (1970)
“I feel like I’m about to fly my freak flag,” Crosby howls over dueling electric guitars in that beautifully raspy declaration of weirdo pride. (Spoiler alert: He didn’t pull off the haircut.)
8. “Laughter” (1971)
Critics hated Crosby’s solo debut If I Could Only Remember My Name when it was released in 1971. But in the years since, it’s become something of a shaggy hipster touchstone thanks to spacey tunes like this one with Jerry Garcia on pedal steel and Joni Mitchell on backing vocals.
9. “I’d Swear There Was Someone Here” (1971)
Crosby’s own choice for the culmination of his debut was the album’s haunting a cappella coda, which he called “probably the best piece of music I’ve dreamed up” in a 2021 interview with The Times. Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes fans can trace their favorites back here.
10. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “Triad” (1971)
Crosby wrote “Triad” about a sexual threesome — “You want to know how it will be / Me and her, or you and me,” it says — for a Byrds album, the story goes, but the band dismissed the comparatively chaste “Goin’ Back” by Gerry Goffin and Carole King. (“The French have been doing ménage à trois for centuries,” Crosby told the Times. “It’s just unusual when you’re very sexually explicit.”) 4-way street.”
11. “Clinging to Nothing” (2014)
The middle period of Crosby’s life was marked by drug problems and legal troubles. But in 2014 he returned to music with his first solo album in decades, the well-received Croz, which featured this tender meditation on aging with a classic Wynton Marsalis trumpet solo.
12. “Rodriguez for a Night” (2021)
Croz started a late career revival for Crosby, who quickly followed the album with four more LPs, on which he sounded as excited as if he were writing and recording as ever. His most recent performance, “For Free,” peaked with this slinky jazz-funk song he co-wrote with Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, who he once tweeted was his “favourite band in the world, period.”