David Crosby was happy to give credit for almost everything that happened in the 1960s.
Last year he told Mojo magazine he introduced George Harrison to Ravi Shankar, who introduced Harrison to the sitar, leaving Crosby’s fingerprints on the Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver.
In classic Crosby form, it was a self-mythologizing boast—and basically true.
A cultural lion who was loved and criticized in roughly equal measure, Crosby defined the contradictions of his time. A voice of his generation’s most cherished ideals and their most astute caricature, he was the man who wrote the willowy folk classic Guinnevere and a smug boaster whose excesses required two memoirs to digest fully.
Crosby’s death on Wednesday at the age of 81 leaves a larger than life void in culture. As Lynn Goldsmith, the rock photographer, put it on Instagram: “Even though David was an abstract presence in your life, it’s like a lighthouse in the distance suddenly goes dark. We have one less point of reference that we have to use as a guide.”
Ever since his breakthrough with the Byrds in 1965, when he added slick folk harmonies to ringing rock ‘n’ roll, Crosby has ridden the foaming edge of the countercultural wave like few others and defined the sun-drenched hippieness of 1960s California. He played at Jane Fonda’s 1965 birthday party, took acid with the Beatles, performed at Woodstock, did the cover of Rolling Stone and allied with the Hells Angels, his hippie rebel image wearing a fringed jacket inspired Dennis Hopper’s character in Easy Rider . ”
The son of a successful Hollywood cinematographer, he was famously kicked out of the Byrds for supporting a conspiracy to assassinate JFK at the Monterey Pop Festival, starting a trend that would last for decades. His forbearance, testy opinions and unfiltered ego always threatened to eclipse his talent – which ironically centered on his uncanny ability to melt into angelic harmonies with Graham Nash, Stephen Stills and Neil Young. As recently as last year, he stirred up public feuds with the men with whom he sang “Teach Your Children” in 1970. As he told me a few years ago, the 1971 CSNY album “4 Way Street” was “the most apt album title in history.”
Despite a history of self-sabotage, Crosby wanted to be judged primarily on his music. Paul Simon, he said, has a “Napoleon complex” and an “odd weird Bob.” [Dylan]’ is ‘crazy as a fruit fly’, but ‘you look at an artist and you have to look at their art. Their art speaks for them better than themselves. There you see who they are. Not her bad boy behavior. Not that I’m trying to get laid until I’ve worn out my D—. You know, ‘How many girls can I get in this bed?’ None of that stuff. That is not important.”
In the next breath, of course, Crosby loved to recount chapters and verses about his storied sex life, always referencing his famous ode to a threesome, “Triad.” He just couldn’t help it.
It was of course his art that built the building for his soap box. Bob Dylan called him an “architect of harmony” (as well as a “colorful and unpredictable character”). Crosby’s vocal arrangements on the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” which he co-wrote, or CSNY’s “Helpless Hoping” and “Find the Cost of Freedom” rivaled in size and beauty that of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson.
When Crosby finally fell on the Shallows in 1970 and became addicted to heroin after the death of his girlfriend in a tragic car accident, he also made what is now considered his best album, If I Could Only Remember My Name. The record was savaged by major critics such as Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau, the latter calling it a “disgraceful achievement”. But the album, starring Joni Mitchell and members of the Grateful Dead, proved enduring, and has been hailed by subsequent generations of critics as a touchstone for experimental folk and psychedelia. On songs like “Laughing” and “Cowboy Movie,” Crosby plied a fragile alchemy of complex vocal arrangements atop shambolic jamming that coalesced into an eerily private reverie. It’s one of the best albums of its time.
It also marked the beginning of a decade and a half of public and private degeneration that finally found Crosby in 1986 on crack cocaine, financially ruined and hanged in prison.
I first met Crosby in 1990 when I recognized him on a street in Freeport, Maine (he was shopping at LL Bean with his wife, Jan Dance). I’d seen him a few months ago on his mandatory anti-drug college tour after his stint in a Texas prison. He was funny and accommodating, showing off his Harley Davidson (which he later crashed) and reassuring me that despite his public anti-drug stance, it’s worth taking psychedelics and that he and Jan took LSD once a year on a beach vacation .
The dream of the 60’s was alive and well.
Over the years, Crosby adopted an endearing, walrus-like demeanor and added a dose of eyewitness credibility (and eye-rolling self-respect) to numerous rock documentaries. Few can match his mischievous enthusiasm: His story of meeting John Coltrane in a mid-’60s bathroom in the surprisingly honest documentary David Crosby: Remember My Name is almost as visceral a taste of what it was like as this one To experience John Coltrane as listening to John Coltrane.
I next saw Crosby in 2014 at his Santa Ynez ranch to interview him for my biography of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner. Even 50 years later, the criticism his solo album had endured still pained him: “My first solo record, which sells to this day and is a legendary F-record – they said it was ‘a mediocre piece of work’. ‘”
When I emailed him next week to say I consider the album his greatest achievement, Crosby shot back, “I’ve got as good or even better stuff up my sleeve right now. But thanks.”
His 2014 album Croz sparked a late renaissance that led to a string of surprisingly inspired albums, with his voice still supple and feathery after years of abuse. Crosby’s new output (five new albums in eight years, including last year’s For Free) fell squarely under critic Edward Said’s concept of “Late Style,” the time when an aging artist (to quote philosopher Theodor Adorno) ” gives up communication with the established social order to which he belongs and enters into a contradictory, alienated relationship with it.”
Phoebe Bridgers would certainly agree.
Few were as done for Twitter as David Crosby, who streaked onto the platform in 2011 and began posting harsh opinions about Kanye West (“my dog could beat him at chess”), the Doors (“Crap”) and Joni Mitchell (“the greatest living songwriters”). He also rated images of hand-rolled joints for style and functionality. When Bridgers, a young indie songwriter, smashed her guitar onstage during a performance on “Saturday Night Live,” Crosby tweeted that it was “pathetic” and “stupid,” a distraction from her songwriting, which he felt was second-rate . A flaming war ensued. Bridgers called Crosby a “little slut,” and the public sided with Bridgers.
But if Crosby was acting like a guy whose place in history made him too big to cancel, maybe he was right. His music remains unavoidable despite the man. Case in point: Phoebe Bridger’s latest work is a supergroup called Boygenius, featuring two other singer-songwriters, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, and featuring layered and interwoven harmonies attuned to indie rock.
Intentional or not, it echoes and pays homage to the influence and legacy of David Crosby.
Joe Hagan is a special correspondent for Vanity Fair.