“David Crosby has no hits,” I explained to a woman on the subway last January, after seeing him and his band at the City Winery in NYC. She thought the show was good, but lamented that he didn’t do “the hits.” For me, that’s the beauty of David Crosby. Oh sure, he’s scored a few FM classics like Guinevere, and the title song from the CSNY album, Deja Vu, but no real AM radio play to speak of. Even his Phil Collins co-penned and produced comeback single, Hero, in 1993, failed to crack the Top 40, stalling at #44.
His compositions have always been too far outside of the mainstream to be hit singles. His style is esoteric, with alternate tunings, dense chords and unpredictable rhythms, not exactly the stuff of Top 40 radio. He has sung on his share of hits, soaring above Roger McGuinn on Mr. Tambourine and numerous other Byrds’ songs, and again on the gold records he created with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young. But he didn’t write those songs.
In spite of that, or maybe because of that (some cynical friends might argue), I’ve always found Crosby’s songs to sit head and shoulders above those of his partners. Something in his musical voice speaks to me in a way that very few artists have. With each new CSN or Crosby/Nash album, I would immediately scan the credits to see how many David songs there were; not that I needed the credits to identify his always-unique compositions, his songs have always, for me, stood out.
For over forty years now, I’ve followed Crosby’s tumultuous career, filled with great music and successful world tours, then drug abuse, weight gain and his ultimate incarceration where he kicked his drug habit in a Texas lock-up. How the mighty had fallen. But like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, Crosby stayed clean, got a new liver, became a father again, and wrote, not one, but, two memoirs (Long Time Gone & Since Then), along with a book on musicians – like himself – who have tried to make a difference in the world through their music and their beliefs (Stand And Be Counted). He has also been more prolific than he has in decades contributing to new albums by CSN, CSNY & Crosby/Nash, along with several new solo releases, including his 2014 solo CD, Croz.
I first saw Crosby live with the legendary 1974 CSNY tour at Rich Stadium in Buffalo, NY. I remember being thrilled that I was finally seeing them all live, especially, Crosby. But imagine my disappointment when they only did four of his songs (in a 28-song set), and one of them was (for me) the forgettable, Almost Cut My Hair. Not nearly enough Crosby for my tastes.
Eleven years later in 1985, CSN played for the first time at the NY State Fair and I, of course, was there. This time, I later learned, Crosby was in the throes of junkiedom, and barely contributed. In a 21 song set, he was featured on just three songs, Guinevere, Delta and on the encore, Long Time Gone. He looked bad, but still – somehow – sounded great. His autobiography revealed that at that time, he spent more time offstage than on, smoking a crack pipe. In retrospect, the show was hardly even worth attending.
Over the next two decades, as Crosby very publicly sought to rebuild his reputation, I skipped many opportunities to see CSN, as I had no wish to sit through any more performances by Stephen Stills, who I felt had outlived his musical usefulness for me.
As luck would have it, David and Graham Nash released a brand new double CD (Crosby Nash) in 2007, and toured with a band to support it. I was able to see one of the shows in Schenectady in October 2007 and it was like a dream come true. In truly democratic fashion, half of the 22 songs were David’s, and the presentation was subtle, with plenty of room to hear and appreciate the unparalleled harmony singing of Crosby & Nash. I walked out of the show thinking it couldn’t get any better than that. I was wrong.
Last year, Crosby released his first new studio album in 19 years called, simply, Croz. The album featured some of his best songs in decades and received unanimously-positive reviews. When I heard he was doing a solo band tour, I knew I had to make every effort to attend. My purest dose of Crosby yet, I assumed. I was there for the opening night of the tour and I was not disappointed!
Backed by a very sympathetic band (featuring his extremely talented son James Raymond), and by that I mean, musicians who support the songs rather than overwhelm them, David did the entire new album live for the first set. How many other artists in their 70s have the nerve AND confidence to do that? Amazing! As the set ended, he promised to come out for the second set and play songs that the crowd would know. Which was true for crowd members like myself, but not so much for the lady I met on the subway after the show. He did open with the Byrds’ classic, Eight Miles High, but after that, pretty much no hits; just lots of uniquely-beautiful songs that only David Crosby could write. I remember thinking that it certainly couldn’t get any better than that, but again, I was wrong.
Last week I drove to Albany to see Crosby on his first ever solo acoustic tour. Just David, his guitar, and that voice, still somehow miraculously intact after all those years of illness and abuse. He sounds like a man half his age. I know of no other singer of his vintage who still sounds exactly the same as they did decades ago (OK, maybe Al Jardine, but he’s a supporting player). Every song was in a different tuning (he kept his guitar tech quite busy), and his playing was superb. His alway-outspoken onstage demeanor was more entertaining than ever, with digressions aplenty about Neil, Joni, the Byrds and, of course, politics (big surprise, he LOVES Bernie Sanders).
Crosby, at 73, is still a live wire. But also a gentle soul with a unique musical voice that easily induces goosebumps. Seeing and hearing him alone with just his guitar and that mesmerizing voice, I got my most intense dose of David Crosby yet.
Pure Croz. Only took me 40+ years to get there.