David Crosby liked to take credit for just about everything that happened in the 1960s.
Last year, he told Mojo magazine that he introduced George Harrison to Ravi Shankar, who introduced Harrison to the sitar, who actually put Crosby’s fingerprints on the Beatles’ 1966 album “Revolver.”
In classic Crosby fashion, it was a boast of self-mythologizing – and basically true.
A beloved and criticized cultural lion in equal measure, Crosby defined the contradictions of his times. He was the voice of his generation’s most cherished ideals and its most poignant caricature, the man who wrote the lean popular classic “Guinnevere” and a sybaritic braggart whose excesses took two memoirs to fully digest.
With his death on Wednesday at age 81, Crosby leaves a larger-than-life hole in the culture. As Lynn Goldsmith, the rock photographer, put it on Instagram: “Even though David is an abstract presence in your life, it’s like a distant lighthouse suddenly goes dark. We have one less landmark to navigate.”
From the moment he broke away from the Byrds in 1965, adding sophisticated folk harmonies to vibrant rock ‘n’ roll, Crosby rode the frothy edge of the countercultural wave like few others, defining California’s sunburst hippiedom of the 1960s. Jane Fonda’s 1965 birthday, took LSD with the Beatles, performed at Woodstock, graced the cover of Rolling Stone and joined the Hells Angels, her fringe-jacketed hippie-rebel image inspiring Dennis Hopper’s character in “Easy Rider . ”
The son of a successful Hollywood cinematographer, he was kicked out of the Byrds for advocating a conspiracy to assassinate JFK at the Monterey Pop Festival, setting a trend that was destined to last for decades. His indulgences, prickly opinions and unfiltered ego always threatened to eclipse his talent – which, ironically, centered on his incredible ability to disappear into angelic harmonies with Graham Nash, Stephen Stills and Neil Young. Last year, he was still stoking public feuds with the men he sang “Teach Your Children” with in 1970. As he told me a few years ago, the 1971 CSNY album “4 Way Street” “was the most accurate album title in history.”
Despite a history of self-sabotage, Crosby wanted above all to be judged on his music. Paul Simon, he said, had a “Napoleon complex” and “weird old Bob [Dylan]” is “crazy as a fruit fly”, but “you look at an artist and you have to look at his art. Their art speaks for them better than they do. That’s where you see who they are. Not your bad boy behavior. Not me trying to get laid until I used my d-out. You know, ‘How many girls can I fit in this bed?’ That’s not it. This is not important.”
In the next breath, of course, Crosby was happy to go into chapter after verse about his legendary sex life, invariably referencing his famous ode to a trio, “Triad.” He just couldn’t contain himself.
It was his art, of course, that built the building for his soapbox. Bob Dylan called him an “architect of harmony” (as well as a “colorful, unpredictable character”). Crosby’s vocal arrangements, on the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High”, which he co-wrote, or CSNY’s “Helplessly Hoping” and “Find the Cost of Freedom”, rivaled those of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys in grandeur and beauty. .
When Crosby finally fell into the 1970s, becoming addicted to heroin following 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 panned by major critics such as Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau, the latter calling it a “disgraceful performance”. But the album, featuring Joni Mitchell and members of the Grateful Dead, proved to be an enduring one, hailed by subsequent generations of critics as a landmark of experimental folk and psychedelia. On songs like “Laughing” and “Cowboy Movie,” Crosby executed a fragile alchemy of complex vocal arrangements on top of chaotic improvisation that melded into an eerily private reverie. It is one of the best albums of its time.
It also marked the beginning of a decade and a half of public and private degeneracy that finally found Crosby addicted to crack, financially ruined and in prison in 1986.
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 had seen him a few months earlier on his obligatory college drug tour after his stint in a Texas penitentiary. He was funny and helpful, showing off his Harley Davidson (which he later crashed) and assuring me that, despite his public anti-drug stance, psychedelics were worth taking and that he and Jan took LSD once a year on their beach vacation.
The ’60s dream was alive and well.
Over the years, Crosby has taken on an amiable walrus-like appearance, adding a dose of eyewitness credibility (and self-esteem) to various rock documentaries. Few could match his mischievous enthusiasm: his story of meeting John Coltrane in a bathroom in the mid-’60s, in the surprisingly candid documentary “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” is an almost as visceral impression of what it was like to experience John Coltrane listening to John Coltrane. .
The next time I saw Crosby was at his ranch in Santa Ynez in 2014 to interview him for my biography of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner. Even 50 years later, he suffered from the criticism his solo album had received: “My first solo record, which is still selling and is a legendary record – they said it was ‘a mediocre work’. ‘”
When I emailed him the following week to say I considered the album his crowning achievement, Crosby responded, “I have stuff in the can right now as good or even better. But thanks.
His 2014 album “Croz” sparked a late-life renaissance that led to a series of surprisingly inspired albums, his voice still lithe and smooth 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 period when an aging artist (quoting philosopher Theodor Adorno ) “abandons communication with the established social order of which he is a part and establishes a contradictory and alienated relationship with it”.
Surely Phoebe Bridgers would agree.
Few were as Twitter-ready as David Crosby, who joined the platform in 2011 and began spewing acidic opinions about Kanye West (“my dog could beat you at chess”), The Doors (“shit”) and Joni Mitchell ( “the greatest living composer”). He also evaluated images of hand-rolled knuckles for style and functionality. When Bridgers, a young independent songwriter, broke her guitar onstage during a performance on “Saturday Night Live,” Crosby tweeted that it was “pathetic” and “stupid,” a distraction from his songwriting, which he considered second-rate. A flame war ensued. Bridgers called Crosby a “little bitch,” and the audience sided with Bridgers.
But if Crosby acted like a guy whose place in history made him too big to cancel, maybe he had a point. His music, despite the man, remains unavoidable. Case in point: Phoebe Bridgers’ latest effort is a supergroup called Boygenius featuring two other singer-songwriters, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, and featuring layered and interwoven harmonies defined for indie rock.
Intentionally or not, it is an echo and tribute to David Crosby’s influence and legacy.
Joe Hagan is a special correspondent for Vanity Fair.