David Crosby just might be the luckiest man alive.
The legendary two-time Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee — co-founder of both The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash, and often called the most brilliant vocalist and lyricist of our time — survived a 20-plus-year cocaine-and-alcohol addiction so extreme that it landed him both in prison and days away from death due to liver failure.
In the early ’60s, Crosby was a young folkie from Santa Barbara, playing guitar and singing solo in area coffee houses. Combining jazz and classical influences and an unparalleled ear for harmony, Crosby soon hooked up with Roger McGuinn and company to form The Byrds, a band that revolutionized American pop music — blending folk with British pop and filtering the whole sound through electric amps. He went on to produce Joni Mitchell’s debut album and began what was at first a casual collaboration with Stephen Stills (then with Buffalo Springfield) and Graham Nash (then with the Hollies). Neil Young eventually joined the threesome. Crosby, Stills and Nash made their first public appearance with Young at Woodstock — and the rest, as they say, is rock ‘n’ roll history.
Crosby embarked on an intense love affair with former record producer Jan Dance in the late ’70s (the two later married), and together, the couple began a slow decline: With fame and fortune came unbelievable excess. Jan Crosby managed to kick her cocaine habit, but, by the early ’80s, Crosby was deep in the throes of an addiction so extreme that constant paranoia had set in. The singer who’d always preached peace and love was now heavily armed most of the time.
In 1985, Crosby entered the Texas State Prison in Huntsville to begin serving what turned out to be a year for drug and weapons violations. Prison, however, saved Crosby’s life — at least for a time. He was forced to go off drugs, and the new sobriety “took.”
But despite being clean, sober and expecting a child with Jan (their now 3-year-old son, Django), Crosby, in the mid-’90s, wasn’t feeling so well. Diagnosed with terminal liver failure caused by decades of substance abuse, he was given literally days to live. Miraculously, a liver donor came through just in time.
Crosby’s failing health produced another miracle, as well: meeting son James Raymond, the product of a casual sexual liaison Crosby had had in the early ’60s, for the first time. Raymond, with the blessing of his adoptive parents, had set out to track down his birth father, and was astounded to find out his real father was the David Crosby. Raymond is a musician himself — a jazz- and R&B-influenced keyboardist who formerly played with Tom Scott, Oleta Adams, Chaka Khan and more. He also served as the music director for Nickelodeon’s award-winning series, Roundhouse.
The two met for the first time in the cafeteria of the UCLA Medical Center, where Crosby had gone for postoperative treatment. A deep and instant bond formed.
Now, Raymond is part of Crosby’s new band, CPR — which also features guitarist Jeff Pevar (who’s played with Ray Charles, James Taylor, Rickie Lee Jones, Joe Cocker, Carly Simon and others). The group’s debut CD, CPR, which hits record stores on June 23, is marked by Crosby’s signature, lyrical songwriting style; heavy CSN-like harmonies; and a distinctly jazzy edge.
Crosby, now 56, talked with me from his home near Santa Barbara about the long road to health, happiness and peace of mind.
MX: I wanted to start out by asking you if you feel like the luckiest man alive, with everything you’ve been through and survived. It seems like things are going great for you now.
DC: Yeah, I think I’m probably one of the luckiest people in the world. First off, I’m alive, which is always a very good start. And I woke up this morning to my little 3-year-old boy saying, ‘Daddy, I’m so glad to see you.’ And then, my wife of 21 years, that I’m dearly, madly in love with, made a great breakfast. And then I remembered how well I landed the Cesna yesterday when I flew myself home.
MX: You flew yourself home yesterday?
DC: Sure. And then I thought how good the show was I did in San Antonio. Maybe the best show — probably one of the top three shows of my life. Just amazing.
MX: Of your life? That’s saying a lot.
DC: Yeah. It was unbelievable.
MX: Considering your wild history, could you ever have imagined that you’d be enjoying such domestic bliss these days?
DC: [Laughs a long time] No. I never imagined any of this.
MX: Tell me why the show in San Antonio was so great. Was it crowd response, the band really clicking? What was it?
DC: You know, it’s hard to describe. There’s chemistry taking place. My son [James Raymond] is [long pause] oh, God, he’s just an amazing musician, OK? It’s amazing enough that I found him, or that he found me. But that he turned out to be a musician, too, is just unreal.
MX: Can you talk a little bit about the first time you played music with James and what that was like?
DC: Yeah. What happened was, I gave him a set of words and he wrote the most astounding music to it [“Morrison,” from CPR]. And that was when I first realized how good he was. And then we started playing together and singing together and we wound up just linked. Totally. And he and I and the rest of this band — Jeff Pevar, my favorite guitar player, and these other two guys [bassist Adam Ford and drummer Steve DiStanislao] — have gotten this chemistry going, and it’s explosive. I’ve had this happen to me a couple of times before, and I know what it is.
MX: Well, I probably don’t need to ask you this question now, but I was planning to ask you if you sort of feel the same sense of freshness, or that sense that something really big is about to happen, with this band as you did when you first got together with The Byrds and CSN.
DC: Yeah, I do. I can’t deny it.
MX: How much of yourself do you see in James — musically and otherwise? Has he taken his own musical path, or do you see parallels with the stuff that you’ve done?
DC: We’ve listened to a lot of the same music, and it just really came together with him. We — I don’t know how to say this. He listened to an awful lot of jazz and an awful lot of classical music, same as I did, and we wound up liking a lot of the very same things. And it’s just amazing.
MX: As far as your debut CD with CPR, I literally just got it in the mail five minutes before you called, so I haven’t listened to it. But did the three of you write or co-write all the songs on the CD, and how does the sound compare with stuff you did with CSN?
DC: Yeah, in one combination or another, we did write all the songs. … As far as comparisons with CSN, there are a lot of harmonies, but they’re a little bit denser. The tracks are quite different from CSN tracks, for the most part, although there are some similarities. But it really is its own thing, and I don’t know how to describe it.
MX: Are you guys covering any Crosby, Stills & Nash songs on the tour? I mean, do people scream out CSN song titles and do you feel pressured to play those songs, or do you think audiences are accepting you as something new?
DC: They ask for stuff they’ve heard, sure. But the last review I got was very specific about it. It said, “Yes, [audiences] like the completely rearranged versions of the old stuff, but they saved their loudest applause for CPR material that they’d never heard before.”
MX: You were just mentioning harmonies, something CSN obviously perfected and took to unbelievable heights. What do you think of the serious lack of people singing harmonies these days? It seems to me that there aren’t that many groups out there doing it.
DC: No, there are only a few. But some of them are very good. Boyz II Men are very good. A harmony group that nobody knows about out of L.A., called Venice …
MX: Oh, yeah. I know them. They actually came to Asheville recently.
DC: They’re the best vocal group in the United States right now.
MX: How do you feel about all the really discordant kind of stuff that a lot of young bands are doing?
DC: I don’t like it much, naturally.
MX: What kind of music do you listen to for pleasure, just sitting around the house?
DC: I listen to Jackson [Brown] and Joni [Mitchell] and Mark Cohen, in particular. And I listen to a lot of Michael Hedges. I miss him terribly. I listen to a lot of classical music and jazz. I listen to, let’s see, I listen to Venice. I listen to a lot of Shawn Colvin. She’s great.
MX: It sounds like your musical tastes haven’t changed that much over the years.
DC: Not that much.
MX: I’m not going to dwell on Crosby, Stills & Nash that much, because I know you’ve talked about them ad nauseam for many years, but do you think that your drug use caused that first big split, or was it kind of time to go your separate ways?
DC: Well, we’re actually still together. We did 70 or 80 concerts last year. We’re still totally together, and we’re halfway through a new album. The rumors of that complete breakup were greatly exaggerated. I mean, we broke up a dozen times, but we love each other too much. The new CSN album will come out next year.
MX: OK, you talked a little about playing music with your son for the first time, but what was it like meeting him for the first time? And how has getting to know him colored your life or changed your life? You became an instant grandfather, I understand.