David Crosby, a pioneer of the alternative Laurel Canyon music scene in the ’70s and a member of the groundbreaking folk-rock bands The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash, has passed away at the age of 81. His publicist verified the news of the artist’s passing to NPR; at this point, the cause of death remains unknown.
Crosby underwent a liver transplant in 1994 after suffering from hepatitis C, diabetes, and recurrent heart attacks. That didn’t stop the experienced artist from having a creative streak in recent years, though.
From 2014 to 2021, he released five solo albums and frequently toured with two groups: the Lighthouse Band (which featured Snarky Puppy maestro Michael League) and the Sky Trails Band (which featured his son, James Raymond, on keyboards).
Even in his early days as a professional, when he was a wandering folk artist polishing his performing talents on the road, Crosby maintained a dedication to touring. At first, Crosby played in Santa Barbara, California coffeehouses, but by the late ’50s, he was touring the country, making stops in places like southern Florida, Chicago, and Boulder, Colorado.
Crosby also spent some formative time in Greenwich Village, when he and Chicago musician Terry Callier played together at the brand-new Bitter End.
In spite of his lengthy and fruitful solo career, Crosby was at his creative best when working with others, a fact he learned as a boy after being captivated by a symphony orchestra. According to his book from 1988, Long Time Gone, “the idea of united effort to build something bigger than any one individual could ever do” resonated with him.
That’s why I enjoy being a part of a group so much and why I enjoy singing harmony.
Crosby first achieved widespread acclaim as a pioneering member of the groundbreaking California country-folk band The Byrds. During his stay, the group had its commercial zenith, with three Top 20 singles, including two No. 1s (covers of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”) and one Top 10 success (the stormy classic “Eight Miles High”). The latter song was co-written by Crosby, who also authored the jangly and melodic “Lady Friend” by the Byrds.
He is widely credited with introducing bandmate Roger McGuinn to the music of John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar, two artists whose work greatly influenced the group’s harmony-rich vocal style and kaleidoscope sound, which blended psychedelic rock, jazz, and twangy folk.
Crosby was dismissed from the Byrds in 1967 because of developing personality and creative issues (although he eventually returned to produce and play on 1973’s Byrds). He borrowed $25,000 from Peter Tork of The Monkees so he could pursue his early interest in sailing and buy a schooner. For decades, the boat would be his refuge and creative haven, inspiring songs like “Wooden Ships,” “The Lee Shore,” and “Page 43.”
Crosby was born on August 14, 1941, and he was raised in Southern California. Floyd Crosby Sr. was a cinematographer, and he received an Oscar for 1931’s Tabu: A Story of the South Seas and a Golden Globe in 1952’s High Noon. Crosby would go on to have an impact in other areas of Hollywood as well; he often said that Dennis Hopper modelled his appearance and demeanour in Easy Rider (1969) after his own.
Crosby’s early love for The Everly Brothers sparked a lifelong interest in close harmony, which was reinforced by frequent family sing-alongs. His older brother Ethan was the one who first got him interested in jazz, and he continued to dabble in it throughout his career, both with the band CPR in the late ’90s and early ’00s and on his reflective 2017 solo album, Sky Trails.
In his later work with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, as he experimented with new forms of harmonic expression, Crosby’s formative influences became more apparent. Noting that the trio sung “nonparallel things” influenced by classical music, late ’50s/early ’60s jazz, and the Everlys, he dissects their distinctive vocal technique with his trademark brevity in Long Time Gone.
Subtly shifting the “middle portion” in “internal shifts that kept it happening” was where he performed “some of my very greatest work,” he wrote. Especially on his own “Guinnevere,” Crosby’s crystal-clear tenor blended beautifully with the subdued and mournful vocals of Stills and Nash.
His lyrical contributions, especially the rhythmic cadences of “Déjà Vu” and the loose arrangements and boho instrumental tone of “Wooden Ships,” propelled the band in novel directions.
Crosby, Stills, and Nash were a critically and commercially successful group. In 1969, the band released its self-titled debut, which led to a performance at Woodstock and a Grammy for best new artist. Two years later, in 1970, with Neil Young now a member of the band, the group released Déjà Vu, which explored themes of nostalgia for the familiar as well as the seismic generational shifts of the time.
After the May 1970 shooting of four students at Kent State University, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young became a prominent voice in the national anti-war movement by recording Neil Young’s “Ohio.”
Over the years, Crosby, a two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee (with The Byrds and CSN respectively), kept performing with a wide range of musicians, but Nash remained his most consistent partner up until the middle of the 2010s. He had strong views and was always unflinchingly honest about how he felt about himself and others.
His straightforward nature, while charming to fans, made him difficult to work with as a bandmate (CSNY’s internal disputes were notorious). However, this trait ultimately made him perfect for the 140-character limit and witty tone of Twitter. Crosby discussed a variety of topics, from politics to music, and answered questions from his fans.
One person asked if it was true that Crosby was supposed to have worked on Leonard Cohen’s second album; Crosby responded by saying, “I was not the right guy for the job.” Another asked, “Was Jerry Garcia a tenor?” Your best bet is a tenor or baritone. Because of his endearingly blunt manner, he was given his own advice column in Rolling Stone.
Many starts again and opportunities for improvement characterise Crosby’s career. Many of his relationships in and out of the music industry were rocky, and he spent nine months in a Texas prison in the ’80s after being arrested multiple times for drug use.
As Crosby tells Cameron Crowe in the 2019 documentary David Crosby: Remember My Name, he finds it strange that his voice has remained strong and unweathered throughout his life. But there was also a healthy dose of modesty in the film, which depicted a musician coming to terms with his own mortality through avoiding regret.
Crosby admitted, “I’ve damaged a lot of people,” on the 2019 edition of NPR and WBUR’s Here & Now. “I’ve been of much greater assistance. What’s important is that I can take a look at it, figure it out, and take something away from it. Not one bit of it is making me feel bad about myself. I like the man I’ve become quite a bit, to be honest. I’m doing my best to be a good person. Plus, I enjoy it.”