From the Byrds to CPR: David Crosby’s 10 greatest recordings

The late singer-songwriter’s prolific output includes one of psychedelic rock’s greatest singles, a piano-driven dig at the Doors and a very funky Steely Dan-esque song

Legendary US musician David Crosby dies aged 81
David Crosby: a life in pictures

The Byrds – Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season) (1965)

The Byrds: Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season) – video

Crosby co-founded the Byrds, cementing his place as a major architect of the 1960s folk-rock movement. The title track of the California group’s second LP – a Pete Seeger cover with lyrics largely plucked from the Book of Ecclesiastes – pleads for peace while meditating on the sometimes bittersweet cyclical nature of life. The song also shows off Crosby’s gift for musical subtlety: He starts the song with elegiac guitar marked by precise rhythmic movements and then demonstrates an almost supernatural ability to sing with his bandmates, finding the harmonic sweet spot like a magnet clicking into place.

The Byrds – Eight Miles High (1966)

The Byrds: Eight Miles High – video

In addition to transforming rock’n’roll by incorporating country and folk music, the Byrds released one of psychedelic rock’s greatest singles, Eight Miles High. Crosby co-wrote the song with Gene Clark and Roger McGuinn; depending on who you ask, the song was either inspired by the band’s first aeroplane ride or by taking drugs. Musically, however, Eight Miles High absorbed influences from John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar, creating a fusion of smouldering guitar jangle and jazz verve that suited Crosby’s rhythmic inventiveness. The Byrds’ vocal harmonies sound like those of a haunted church choir and tap into the disorientation and paranoia simmering just below the song’s surface.

The Byrds – Lady Friend (1967)

The Byrds: Lady Friend – video

One of Crosby’s final major contributions to the Byrds was penning the standalone single Lady Friend, a sorely underrated psychedelic pop gem. A song about steeling yourself for the solitude of a painful breakup – Crosby compares it to being overcome by a wave while being far offshore – it reveals his knack for vulnerable lyrics and memorable melodies. To this simple foundation the rest of the Byrds add coppery guitar riffs, jaunty horns and a chipper tempo, transforming something plaintive and vulnerable into a resilient song about keeping a stiff upper lip.

Crosby, Stills & Nash – Wooden Ships (1969)

Crosby, Stills & Nash: Wooden Ships – video

Two significant things Crosby did after being ousted from the Byrds: bought a schooner called the Mayan and started hanging out with Stephen Stills. On one occasion, the two men and Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner were in Florida on the boat and worked up Wooden Ships. The sprawling psychedelic rocker, a pointed anti-war song, describes the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse, where survivors are attempting to figure out where to go. Crosby’s liquid tenor takes centre stage on his solo verses, as if he’s a sage-like narrator describing the scene. However, his vocal harmonies with Stills set the blueprint for the greatness of Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Crosby, Stills & Nash – Guinnevere (1969)

Crosby, Stills & Nash: Guinnevere – video

Crosby contributed this elegant folk-rock highlight of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s self-titled 1969 debut album. Written about a trio of women in his life – Joni Mitchell; his late girlfriend Christine Hinton, who died in a car crash; and a mystery woman he declined to name during a 2008 Rolling Stone interview – Guinnevere demonstrates Crosby’s evolution into a more sophisticated songwriter. Lyrically, the interlocking stories of the three women contain moments of immense beauty and bewitching mystery. Musically, Crosby treats this narration with reverence, employing a restrained vocal delivery that matches the gorgeous, chiming guitar chords and harmonies.

John Sebastian, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell and David Crosby perform during the Big Sur folk festival in September 1969.
John Sebastian, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell and David Crosby perform during the Big Sur folk festival in September 1969. Photograph: Robert Altman/Getty Images

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Ohio (1970)

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: Ohio – video

Written by Neil Young after the shootings of four Kent State University students by the Ohio National Guard, the song was a pointed, angry indictment of not just the violent event, but also the Vietnam war and those abusing positions of power. Crosby especially expressed the anger and frustration of the time, crying out “How many more?” and “Why?” as the song comes to an end. He never lost that anguished feeling: in the years leading up to the pandemic, Crosby performed Ohio as the last song of his live sets, a stark reminder that neither the tragic event nor the lives of the students should be forgotten.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Déjà Vu (1970)

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: Déjà Vu – video

The title track of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s second album is lyrically quite literal – Crosby said he wrote it after a sailing trip that felt over familiar. Déjà Vu’s music matches this disorienting thought: It’s circuitous and adventurous, with multiple movements that dabble in scat-singing, dizzying syncopation, temperate jazz, pastoral folk and psychedelia-tinged rock.

David Crosby – Laughing (1971)

David Crosby: Laughing – video

Crosby was dealing with dual traumas while making his 1971 solo album, If I Could Only Remember My Name: processing the breakup of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and navigating the grief from Hinton’s 1969 death. He wrote Laughing, however, to express gentle scepticism about George Harrison talking up the wisdom of a guru. “A child laughing in the sun knows more about God than I do,” he told Rolling Stone in 2021. The accompanying music is languid and introspective, internalising the guiding influence of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia (an integral part of the recording sessions) and a gentle psychedelic vibe.

CPR – Morrison (1998)

CPR: Morrison – video

Crosby’s career took him in all sorts of unexpected directions in the 80s and 90s, including singing backup for Indigo Girls and Phil Collins and forming the jazz trio Crosby, Pevar & Raymond. Known as CPR, the group included guitarist Jeff Pevar and Crosby’s son, the keyboardist James Raymond. The sleek, piano-driven tune Morrison isn’t about Crosby’s notorious dislike of the Doors, but the perceptive song stresses that Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie about the band didn’t match up with the Jim Morrison that Crosby knew – and serves as a sober cautionary tale about fame and legacy.

David Crosby – Rodriguez for a Night (2021)

David Crosby: Rodriguez for a Night – video

Crosby enjoyed a late-career burst of creativity, releasing multiple solo records in the 2010s and beyond that found him collaborating with Michael McDonald, the members of Snarky Puppy, and one of his avowed favourites: Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen. The latter wrote the lyrics for Rodriguez for a Night, about a man who can’t compete romantically with an impish Lothario. In turn, Crosby and his band cook up a very funky, very Steely Dan-esque song with sax, horns, stacks of keyboards and one of Croz’s smoothest, most enthusiastic vocal performances.


Annie Zaleski

The GuardianTramp

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