David Crosby on love, music and rancour: ‘Neil Young is probably the most selfish person I know’

At 80, the superstar musician has survived heroin addiction, illness and tragedy to hit an unprecedented run of musical form. He discusses the joy of fatherhood, the pain of falling out with bandmates – and why Joni Mitchell is still the greatest

David Crosby has just turned 80. Congratulations, I say. “Thank you, man!” says the great singer-songwriter, trailblazer and trouble-maker. How did he celebrate? “Eighty years old is something you mourn, not celebrate,” he says.

But that, it turns out, is not quite true. Crosby admits he did celebrate. “We had a great time, man! My son and my wife made me a cake, then my son barbecued some steaks. We baked potatoes, made salads and feasted.”

I bet your birthday celebrations were different half a century ago, I say. “Oh yep. Those would have involved sex.” Well, if he’d had the energy. Back then, and for many years afterwards, Crosby was addicted to alcohol, cocaine and heroin. As he has often pointed out, it’s a miracle that he’s alive. “I expected to be dead when I was about 30. Hehehehe!” His high-pitched giggle is surprising – as is so much about him.

Crosby’s life story would make an incredible, if possibly unbelievable, movie. He grew up in Los Angeles, the privileged son of the Oscar-winning cinematographer Floyd Crosby. His mother doted on him, his father was as cold as he was brilliant. He flunked school, briefly studied drama then pursued a career in music. Crosby had huge success with two seminal bands. The Byrds pretty much invented folk rock in the 1960s with their jingly-jangly pop (covers of Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man and Pete Seeger’s Turn! Turn! Turn! were No 1 hits). After Crosby was sacked from the Byrds, he joined forces with Graham Nash from the Hollies and Stephen Stills from Buffalo Springfield to form Crosby, Stills & Nash (CSN), one of the first supergroups.

With Neil Young, they became a super-supergroup. All four were exceptional singer-songwriters, their harmonies as gorgeous as they were intricate, and, when they wanted to, they could rock with the best of them. Their first two albums, the eponymous debut and (with Young) Déjà Vu, sold millions and produced any number of classic songs including Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, Our House, Helpless, Marrakesh Express, Guinnevere, Long Time Gone and Almost Cut My Hair (the last three written by Crosby). Both the Byrds and CSN have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at Wembley Stadium in 1974. (From left) Stills, Crosby, Nash, Young.
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at Wembley Stadium in 1974. (From left) Stills, Crosby, Nash, Young. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty Images

Even more remarkable than the music has been Crosby’s life. Everything about it has been on a biblical scale – the addictions, the love affairs, the tragedies, the fallouts, the miracles. And perhaps the biggest miracle is that at 80, after epic barren periods, he is more prolific than he has ever been. In 1971, Crosby released his first solo album, If I Could Only Remember My Name, rubbished at the time by many critics but subsequently reappraised – it was gnomically named in 2010 by the Vatican City State newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, as the second best album ever (after the Beatles’ Revolver). Over the next 22 years he released two solo albums, then nothing for another 21 years. Now he has made five albums in the past seven years. What’s more, they are extremely good.

And still we’re not finished with the miracles. His latest album, For Free (named after the Joni Mitchell song he covers beautifully), is produced and co-written with James Raymond, the son he didn’t know existed for the first 30 years of Raymond’s life. This is the third album they have made together in this seven-year creative surge – the other two have been with a group of young musicians known as the Lighthouse Band.

Crosby does a passable impression of Old Father Time. His hair is white and wispy as a passing cloud, his face profoundly contoured, his arms a patchwork of pink and purple. “My skin is like tissue paper, man. It tears or bruises. It’s just part of being old,” he says. And yet his voice when he sings and talks remains as boyish as ever – high-pitched, honeyed, usually enthusiastic, often giggly, sometimes querulous and boastful. Look at him and he could be 100, listen to him and he could be on the brink of manhood. “The only peculiar thing about my relationship with James is he’s the resident adult and I’m the kid,” he says. “I just never grew up.”

Crosby was in his early 20s when Raymond’s mother became pregnant. “She gave him up for adoption and didn’t tell me he existed,” he says. When Raymond and his partner were about to have their first child, his adoptive parents suggested he might want to track down his biological parents. “So he went to check and he sees my name there and he thinks: ‘Nah, couldn’t be.’ So he checks first names and middle names [Van Cortlandt] and realises, yeah, it is me. He’d already been a musician for 20 years when we met up so anybody who tells you it’s not genetic, you tell them come talk to me.”

Crosby performing with his son James Raymond.
Crosby performing with his son James Raymond. Photograph: Evan Hurd Photography/Sygma/Getty Images

So often, Crosby says, such reunions end up in animosity. “But James did a wonderful thing, man. He gave me a chance to earn my way into his life.” How did he do that? “By making music with him. And we write spectacularly well together.” He says the final song on For Free, the melancholy I Won’t Stay For Long, which was written by Raymond, is his favourite. “Imagine how I feel about my son being that good a writer. I wear it like a garland of flowers on my head. It’s just fucking wonderful.”

How has his voice stayed so young? Crosby laughs giddily. “That really mystifies me. I did everything wrong.” He pauses. “Well, no, I didn’t do everything wrong. I didn’t smoke cigarettes, and maybe that’s the key.”

Crosby is Zooming from central California, where he lives with his wife, Jan Dance, and their 26-year-old son, Django. I tell him I’ve been listening to lots of his music and it has put me in a good headspace. “Thank you, man. That was the designed purpose.” What does he prefer – the music he made with the Byrds or CSN/Y? “No contest. Both CSN and CSNY are more sophisticated bands than the Byrds and went way further.”

In the past he has said he felt pressure because he didn’t write the CSNY hits. Does he feel he was as good a songwriter as the others? “Yep. I thought I was as good or better.”

Crosby doesn’t do false modesty. In 2019, a fine documentary, Remember My Name, was made about him. People were damning about Crosby, and nobody more so than Crosby himself. He said that none of his former bandmates wanted to work with him again, and pondered on why that was – it had to be a character flaw in him, he said poignantly.

I tell Crosby the documentary was brutally honest. “Thank you, man. I think so, too. Most documentaries are as deep as a bird bath … just bullshit jerkoffs. Fuck that shit! If I saw a documentary about you, I’d want to know what you care about, what you’re afraid of, who you love, what moves you, man.”

In the film, fellow Byrd Roger McGuinn said Crosby became “insufferable” towards the end of his time with the Byrds – indulging in political rants mid-gig while the others were just being pop stars. Another fellow Byrd, Chris Hillman, has said he had a superiority complex. Is that true? “No. Chris was very competitive with me. He’s always wanted to be me.” Why? “Well, because I’m a good singer. He wanted to be a singer and he was jealous. Now he’s fronted lots of good bands of his own, and he’s feeling much better.” His answer suggests Hillman had a point.

The Byrds ... (from left) Chris Hillman, Crosby, Mike Clark, Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark.
The Byrds in 1965 ... (from left) Chris Hillman, Crosby, Mike Clark, Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark. Photograph: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis/Getty Images

After the Byrds, Crosby bought himself a huge schooner and took to the ocean. He loved the solitude of it. In 1967, he discovered Joni Mitchell playing in a club in Florida, brought her to California, helped her get a record deal and produced her first album, Song to a Seagull. He split up with his girlfriend, Christine Hinton, and began a relationship with Mitchell, but was still seeing Hinton behind her back. One night, at a party held at the home of the Monkees’ Peter Tork, Mitchell announced that she had written a new song, That Song About the Midway, which is the story of the cheating lover she “followed with the sideshows to another town”. After finishing the song, she sang it again. “It was definitely goodbye David,” he says. “Did he deserve it? “Well, I’d fallen in love with Christine Hinton, and I wasn’t in love with Joni.”

He and Mitchell, who suffered an aneuryism in 2015, recovered their friendship. “I saw her a while ago and had dinner with her in her house, and I love her. She has taken a really bad hit, man. She’s having trouble walking and talking, and she’s having to relearn how to do those things.” He is still in awe of Mitchell. “I don’t think there’s any question, she was the best singer-songwriter by a long way. I still don’t think anybody comes close. She’s as good a poet as Bob [Dylan] and she’s a much better singer and musician.”

Excluding himself, who does he think is the best songwriter in CSNY? “Stills, no contest. He’s the best guitar player, the best singer and the best writer. I really admire Stephen tremendously.” As it happens, Stills is the only band member Crosby talks to. CSN last toured in 2015, while CSNY’s last concert was in 2013. Despite their sublime harmonies, relationships couldn’t have been more discordant. While rivalry may have brought the best out of them, it was also their ruin.

Crosby with Joni Mitchell during the recording of her debut LP, Song to a Seagull.
Crosby with Joni Mitchell during the recording of her debut LP, Song to a Seagull. Photograph: Sulfiati Magnuson

Has there been any reconciliation? “No, and I don’t expect there to be – the petty-assed bullshit that goes on between us as people.” He comes to a stop. “Neil has got a genuine beef,” he admits. “I did say something bad about his girlfriend [the actor Daryl Hannah, now Young’s wife]. I said I thought she was a predator. OK, he can be mad at me. That’s all right. Graham just changed from the guy I thought was my best friend to being a guy that is definitely my enemy, so I don’t see any future there at all.”

Crosby is not known for holding back. Having said he is partly to blame for Young’s alienation, I expect him to say something conciliatory. But he’s on a roll now. At least, he, Stills and Nash were roughly in agreement politically, he says. “I’m a very liberal guy and a modern thinker in terms of politics. Neil doesn’t really do politics. He does Neil.” What does that mean? “Well he’s probably the most self-centred, self-obsessed, selfish person I know. He only thinks about Neil, period. That’s the only person he’ll consider. Ever!” Would Young agree with that? “Probably. He knows himself pretty well.”

It’s such a pity you’ve fallen out with Nash, I say. For so long when you were lost to the world he looked after you. “No! He gave the impression of looking after me, but apparently that was all just trying to keep the money coming. But there you go.” Has he talked to him about it? “No, we haven’t talked for a couple of years. And I’m not going to talk to him. I don’t want to talk to him. I’m not happy with him at all. To me, that’s all ancient history, man.”

Despite the tirade, there is something likable about Crosby’s bluntness. He admits he has been an “asshole” for much of his life – he says he hurt many women, was obsessed with sex, was too wrecked to be a good lover, introduced them to hard drugs. He lost so many friends, most of them to drugs – Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Cass Elliot. In 1969, Hinton was killed in a car crash and Crosby went on a downward spiral that lasted well over a decade. Since then he has had a liver transplant and a couple of heart attacks, and has diabetes.

In 1983, he was convicted of possession of cocaine and a loaded pistol and sentenced to five years in jail. When asked why he carried the weapon, he simply answered: “John Lennon.” Crosby was released on bail, hired a single-engine jet, flew from California to Florida and became a fugitive from justice.

Crosby in jail in Florida in 1985.
Crosby in jail in Florida in 1985. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

Eventually, in December 1985, he turned himself in to the police and served only five months before being released on parole. He says he got clean the hard way. “They locked me in a box and I got off drugs, and believe me, it changes you totally. You go from not wanting to live to being very proud of living because you’re no longer killing yourself and you’re taking care of your family again, being a decent guy and making music.”

“If you see somebody who’s doing heroin, they’re in pain,” he says. “I haven’t had a hard drug near me in 35 to 40 years. I’m very glad I got past it. It’s pretty rare that people do get past it, man.”

Dance, his partner, also weaned herself off hard drugs. In 1989, they took in 14-year-old Drew Barrymore while she was battling alcohol and drug addiction after she became legally emancipated from her mother. He and Dance have now been together 46 years, and married 34 of them. “If I had not had somebody to keep me going, somebody who cared about me, somebody I loved, I think I would have ended my life many times back then,” he says. Deliberately? “Either by accident or on purpose, yes. One of the two.”

After 15 years of abstinence from hard drugs, Crosby now smokes homegrown cannabis every day. “Pot’s kinda lightweight but it works for me great.” At 80, he is also planning his first non-music business venture. “I have a company, it’s ready to go. When it is legalised under federal law I will be in the pot business in the United States of America. Yes I will, man.”

Tragedy has continued to visit him with unwelcome regularity. In the late 90s, his brother Ethan, who had taught him to play guitar, killed himself. About the same time, Crosby agreed to be a sperm donor for his friend, the singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge and her then partner Julie Cypher. In 1997, they became parents to daughter Bailey and in 1998 to son Beckett. Last year, Beckett died of a drug overdose, aged 21. “Believe me, it hurt,” Crosby says. “He was a skateboarder and he’d had a couple of crashes and he got some painkillers. They got him strung out on that then he ran into somebody who had really strong stuff and he overdosed and died. And that’s … that’s … that’s … how it normally goes.” For once, he seems lost for words.

Did he regard Beckett as a son? “Yeah, he and Bailey visited here often. I love them both. I miss him a lot. It hurts.”

He looks at me, almost pleading to change the subject. “Let’s go to the important stuff. The important stuff in my life isn’t the troubles I’ve had, it’s the magic that’s happened to me to enable me to make all this music. I can’t believe that I’ve made five really good albums in the last seven years. I don’t know anybody else who has. Not even young people. Right now, I’m enjoying life the most I have.”

But Crosby being Crosby, he does, of course, still have his bugbears – streaming means it’s almost impossible for musicians to make money from records. “Believe me, man, it’s gonna hurt the music business very badly in the long run if you shut the door on all the young people who are trying to become musicians,” he says. “The music industry is making a terrible mistake. They are stealing, and they are thieves.”

‘I don’t know if I’ve found my way, but I do know I feel happy.’
‘I don’t know if I’ve found my way, but I do know I feel happy.’ Photograph: Anna Webber

In March this year he sold his recorded music and publishing rights. “I had no choice, man. I can’t make a living. I’m not being paid for the records and I couldn’t work because of Covid.” Again, he says, he’s lucky – at least he’s got a back catalogue still to sell.

There’s a fabulously uplifting song on For Free called I Think I, in which he sings: “I think I’ve found my way.” Crosby says its optimism surprised him. He’s still not sure where it comes from. “When I wrote it I was like: ‘Hey, this is an upswinging tune, and I normally write these long, tortured ballads.’” Does he really think at 80 he has finally cracked it? “I’m in a peculiar place, man. I’m right at the end of my life. I don’t have a lot of time left. I don’t know if I’ve found my way, but I do know I feel happy. I love my family, and the music’s coming to me. So, despite the fact that the world is in a shaky spot, I feel pretty damned good.”

For Free is out now


Simon Hattenstone

The GuardianTramp

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