David Crosby helped define and further the sound of rock’n’roll as we know it. He was a founding member of the Byrds, produced Joni Mitchell’s first record, recorded iconic protest songs, rose to greater fame with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and played at now-iconic countercultural festivals such as Woodstock, Monterey Pop, and Altamont. To hear him tell it, he even inspired Dylan to go electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. That artistic resume is impressive enough, but in the following years it would be surpassed by his spiraling addictions and other dangerous high jinks, which featured two arrests on drug and weapons charges, and a near-year-long jail sentence in Texas.
Today, Crosby is decades-removed from his hard drug use, but busy becoming infamous all over again—this time for his prolific, crotchety, and often-hilarious Twitter account. Among so many other things, the David Crosby of @thedavidcrosby starts feuds with Ted Nugent and professional wrestlers, drags contemporary artists he is unimpressed by (from Fleet Foxes to Kanye West), compliments those he admires (from “talented cat” Jason Mraz to Lin-Manuel Miranda), and offers honest reviews of random songs his fans send him. If his Twitter presence, which is formidable enough to earn him a cameo in a commercial for the platform, has proven anything definitively, it’s that Crosby, once one of rock’n’roll’s most notorious hedonists, is easily transforming into one of its greatest resident curmudgeons.
The prickly social-media Crosby-aissance, luckily, has been paralleled by a musical one. After 1993’s Thousand Rounds, Crosby took an extensive break from recording solo music, during which he indulged in sporadic Crosby, Stills and Nash activity and struggled to avoid the addictions that plagued him. In 2014, he returned with a collection of stripped-down, jazz-inflected rock songs called Croz, recorded in collaboration with his son, producer and co-songwriter James Raymond. The two began playing together in the fusion-tinged side project Crosby, Pevar & Raymond in the late-’90s and early 2000s, as well as in a reformed CSN. The first song they wrote together was “Morrison,” a response to the portrayal of Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie The Doors: “I’ve seen that movie and it wasn’t like that/He was mad and lonely/And blind as a bat,” they sang in harmony.
The sentiments in that song are now recognizable from Crosby’s social media posts, where Morrison has become among the most frequent objects of his ire. Throughout his career, Crosby’s music has often focused on his general disaffection with society and the proverbial powers-that-be. On his first album–1971’s orgiastic, all-star jam session If I Could Only Remember My Name–he sang somberly: “I wonder who they are / the men who really run this land / and I wonder why they run it / with such a thoughtless hand / What are their names? / and on what streets do they live?”
Almost 50 years after he recorded the revered Kent State protest song “Ohio” with CSNY, Crosby still feels an urge to voice his political concerns. On Croz’s “Morning Falling,” he recorded a somber indictment of drone warfare. On his musically sophisticated new album Sky Trails, Crosby addresses the Congress of the Trump era on “Capitol”: “And the votes are just pieces of paper/And they sneer at the people who voted/And they laugh as the votes were not counted.” Here, Crosby teams with Raymond and an array of other co-writers–Michael McDonald included–to develop what may be his most stylistically diverse and sonically lush solo album. SPIN talked to David Crosby, by phone from his home in Santa Barbara, about Sky Trails, his career trajectory, the possibility of a CSNY reunion, and his laundry list of musical heroes and villains.
The last few years have been a really prolific and creative time for you. How was Sky Trails a unique project for you, in terms of creative process and concept?
Well, okay, let’s look at these three records in a row. When I got out of CSN and started working on my own, I had a rush of feeling good. I made three records in a row. One, with my son, James Raymond, producing–that was Croz—and it was a really good record that I’m extremely proud of. Then the next thing that happened was I met Michael League, the composer and bass player and band leader for Snarky Puppy. They’re a big, funky, romping, muscular jazz band, and he’s an incredible musician. He and I put together Lighthouse. We cowrote it, and it’s a high point in my life. I absolutely loved it. We did it consciously going for an acoustic record as much as we could.
Then comes the third one, which is the one we’re talking about–that’s called Sky Trails. That’s again my son James Raymond producing. He’s a very good producer, man. I think there should be a line of people down the block in front of his house saying, “Please, would you produce my record?” He’s better at it with me than he is with anybody else because he writes with me, and he’s a brilliant–I mean brilliant–writer. This record is a full band record. There’s no, like, theme, or, “Well, we were gonna do it all in blue.” It’s all just us trying to serve the songs, which is what I really believe our job is.
I think we try to write really good songs that are about something and to communicate it to you successfully so that it entangles you in its web and takes you on a little emotional voyage. You build from the really quiet song at the end of the record, “Home Free,” or the Joni Mitchell song which I love [“Amelia”], and you compare those with “Sell Me a Diamond” or “She’s Got to Be Somewhere,” and this record’s got a pretty wide spread to it. But I like that.
You work with a number of different cowriters on the album, including Michael McDonald. How did that come about?
Mike and I have been friends for a long time, and I personally think he is one of the two greatest male living singers on the planet. I think he’s just an astounding talent. He lives near here, and we get together every once in awhile, have dinner and stuff. I gave him a set of words that he liked, and he wrote the music to it and some more words for it. I think we legitimately wrote a jazz song [laughs]. I don’t usually try to categorize them but I think that’s what it is, and I’m very proud of it. I’m trying to con Michael into writing another song with me as soon as possible.
The sound of these records sound closer to the sensibility of late-’70s Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan than anything I’ve heard from you before.
I think Joni’s probably the best living singer-songwriter, and I love and have always loved Steely Dan. Their writing is incredibly good, and then they execute the songs as well as anybody has even done it. I love them.
Can you talk about your own experience with Walter Becker–your memories of hearing Steely Dan for the first time?
My contact with him has always been with Donald [Fagen]–I never got a chance to know Walter at all. I do like and talk to Donald, and I did tell him how sad it made me, and I’ve talked to him several times about it. I think those guys did as good a work as anybody’s done in pop music, ever. I don’t think anybody touches it.
The ways you tell stories on Sky Trails seems similar to the Dan as well. You allude to stories and characters very cryptically–sometimes unsettlingly. Obviously there’s also some explicitly political stuff here. Do you notice any themes running through the record after the fact?
No, not really. I think I range around quite a bit. Yes, “Capitol” is overtly political, there’s no question about it. Our Congress is–well, it’s got the lowest approval rating a Congress has ever had, and I think it richly deserves that. What a terrible bunch of people, only exceeded by our president, who is much worse. I couldn’t help writing that song, because I think it’s part of our job. Most of our job is to make you boogie and take you on these emotional voyages. That’s mostly what we’re supposed to do, our heritage as being the troubadours or the town criers. You know, if you see something awful in front of you, every once in awhile, you simply have to take note. That’s what “Ohio” was.
I think we can’t do that all the time, ’cause I don’t think it’s our job to be preachers. I think when we wanna communicate how we think things should be, we best do it by setting an example, not preaching. We write, though, about everything. There isn’t anything that James and I haven’t written about [laughs]. We write the craziest shit. There’s a song on there, “Curved Air.” That’s about a guy getting blown up, I’ll bet you didn’t know that?
No, I did not.
Yeah! And I’ll say something even wilder about it. That flamenco guitar on there? That’s actually my son James on the keyboard. I think he did an incredible job with the music on that song–incredible.
Some of those tones on those song–the phased acoustic guitar, the soprano sax–seem really reminiscent of fusion. This seems like one of the most explicitly jazz-influenced records you’ve made.
It goes both ways. They’ve affected us most certainly. Look at the effect that John Coltrane had on the Byrds in “Eight Miles High,” and then there’s Miles Davis cutting “Guinevere.” So they’re affected by us, too. I do think that Joni and I and Steely Dan and a number of other people have been more overtly affected by jazz than most, but you can’t really help it. Best that we like intricate melodies, we like complex chords, we like that stuff. It’s fun.
On Twitter, you talk a lot about your sense of music history: who your heroes are and who you’re inspired by, and on the flip side, everyone that you think is a total hack. I’m talking about Jim Morrison, Mike Love, Kanye, and a lot of punk rock artists and rappers. If, say, Joni is one of the greatest heroes of Western popular music, who is its worst villain?
There are lots of people that I think are lame. The reason Kanye West got on that list is pretty simple. He did Glastonbury–I don’t know if you ever saw the tape, but he did a Queen song, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” You can say what you want about Freddie Mercury, he was certainly queer as a three dollar bill, but he could sing. Kanye West gets up here, tries to sing the song and does it so badly that afterwards, people were putting the two up next to each other and laughing. And then he comes out and he says he’s the greatest living rockstar.
So I said, “Would somebody please drive him over to Stevie Wonder’s house so he knows what the greatest living rockstar looks like?” And I said, “Would somebody buy him Ray Charles’ records so that he can learn how to sing?” ‘Cause I think he’s a complete poser. I don’t seek people out, you know, to take a shot at, and I didn’t seek him out. I just was really offended by him thinking he’s a musician at all, let alone the greatest living rockstar when Stevie Wonder’s still alive [laughs]. He will never be in Stevie Wonder’s league.
Do you remember the first time you heard hip-hop and what you thought of it?
My first experience doesn’t really count. Rap is like almost any other art form, there’s good and bad in there. My son turned me on to a guy named Macklemore and a rap called “Same Love,” which is the first time I encountered really pretty good words. He said, “Here, look at the words. Don’t listen to the record, look at what the guy wrote.” And it was pretty damn good. Then of course, all of us encountered Lin-Manuel [Miranda], and that’s a whole other–at that level, rap becomes high art. There’s no question. If you go to Hamilton, you will see it elevated to higher art. There’s no way around it. I can’t deny it. I don’t really like that art form, I’m not generally in favor of it–I like melody and harmony and all that stuff–but you watch Hamilton, and it’s undeniable. What are you gonna say? It’s brilliant.
Is there a specific moment from your past, before this latest huge burst of creativity, that you look back on and think, “I never want to get back to that point”?
There’s a whole period of time when I was seriously downhill. It wasn’t one particular moment. I mean, you know as well as I do, I was a junkie. I went all the way downhill and then spent a year in prison. And then I came back from it. I woke up there, got sober, stayed sober for a long time–I think I stayed sober for, oh, 15 years? 14 and a half years? And in that time, it came back. So there was a low point in my life, there’s no question about it. But the result was I’m here now and I’m happy, and I’m free of that. I don’t do any hard drugs at all–probably never will. And I’m pretty happy about that too. But I’m mostly happy about my family and about the music. This surge of music, these three records, is one of the happiest circumstances of my life.
Are there other moments that you’re most proud of?
I really love my first solo record, the If Only I Could Remember My Name record.
Yeah, I do too. I was hoping to ask you a little bit about that album.
That was a high point for me. It was a very tough time in my life, but [Jerry] Garcia was there just about every night and the other guys from those bands. [Phil] Lesh, [Jack] Casady, [Paul] Kantner, [Jorma] Kaukonen, Grace Slick especially, all my friends from San Francisco–David Freiberg, a lot of really good people, really good chemistry, really open and innocent, good record. I loved that record.
Was there a particular moment of the recording of that session that stands out to you as particularly wild or inspirational?
So many! I couldn’t pick one. I would pick Jerry as being the outstanding point. He knew that I was hurting and he was extremely kind to me, he came over and over and over and over and over again and was very generous with incredible music. He’s all over that record.
I know that there are multiple disagreements going on within the ranks of CSN and CSNY now. I’ve read you saying several times that, if that group of people was going to work together again, it’d be all up to Neil.
It’s always been up to Neil, and it still is. He’s pissed with me, so I don’t think it’s gonna happen. But I certainly would love it if it did. I would do it. It’s pretty exciting. Working with Neil is pretty exciting. He’s always trying to edge it forward, he’s always trying to push the envelope, and I love that. I eat that for breakfast. So if he wanted to do it, I would do it happily.
Have you heard [Young’s] Hitchhiker album? Do you remember that time period at all?
I haven’t listened to the album, but I heard all of those cuts when he did ‘em. Those are the songs that I fell in love with in the first place, the reason that I wanted to sing with him. So of course I love this record.
Going forward, are there some dream projects you’re hoping to do–people you’d like to work with that you haven’t before?
I have some projects I would like to do. These songs of mine that don’t have words—I’d like to take those songs, and what I did on those things is basically just make a horn stack out of vocals. So I’d like to take it and translate it back the other way and convert it to horn stacks with a really big jazz band, and do those songs as a jazz record. I’m really trying to get that to happen.
Who would be your touchstones for that–people that you think are the greats in that genre?
I was a big fan of Weather Report, I really loved ‘em, I’m a big fan of Herbie’s, big fan of Snarky Puppy. There’s a lot, there’s a lot of good music.
Do you recall a moment when you met someone in the jazz world who you really looked up to?
Yeah, absolutely. There was a stunner. I’m standing outside the Village Gate in the Village in New York and up comes this rather small guy, says, “You Crosby?” Actually, he said, [raspy voice] “You Crosby?” I said, “Yes sir, I am,” and he said, [raspy voice] “I’m Miles.” I said, “Yes sir, I know. I know that that’s who you are.” And he said, [raspy voice] “I cut [murmurs inaudibly].” And I said, “What did you say?”, and he said, [raspy voice] “I cut one of your tunes.” I said “You cut one of my–oh my God.” I said, “W-w-w-w-w-w-which tune?.” He says, “‘Guinevere’…You wanna hear it?” And I said, “Oh, God, yes.” He’s a hero of mine. I’ve listened to every record he’s ever made, and many of them hundreds of times.
I followed him, he says, “Follow that car,” I follow this Ferrari with this girl with legs up to her neck, and he drives up to Midtown. There’s this house, we get out, we go in, and he puts it on, reel-to-reel, this tape. And then he and the girl go in the bedroom, and I listen to this song…and there’s not one bit of “Guinevere” on this song. Nothing! Nothing that relates to it at all–no chord changes, no times changes, no melody, no nothing from that. And I’m really pissed, because I came in thinking I was gonna hear my song recognizably done by this freaking genius of a guy..and nothing, no no, nuh uh. I said, “Well, you know, you could just change the name and then you’d get the publishing.” He threw me out.
So of course, later on, I calmed down and realized that I had been honored massively, that he took my song and used it as the starting point for what he did. I’m honored. He was a wonderful guy to us. I’ll tell you a secret that most people don’t know. Miles Davis is the reason that The Byrds were on Columbia, when we made a tape and gave it to Columbia. Columbia was run by a bunch of guys who were shoe salesmen, absolutely didn’t know a song if it bit ‘em in the nose. So they went to Miles who was on Columbia at the time, and a hero, and they said, “What do we do with this, Miles? What is it? What is this?” He said, “Sign ‘em.”
You are so busy making music these days, but you somehow have time to be on Twitter all the time. What draws you to interacting with people on there, and sharing opinions and stories almost every day?
I like communicating. I think people are fascinating, and yeah, some of it’s dumb, and yeah, the nineteenth time that they ask you, “What was it really like at Woodstock?” is kinda dumb. But I do run into very interesting stuff on there, since people have found out that I will listen to their brother’s band or their new song or their attempt at a new song. I’m a little brutal. I try not to tell them anything if it’s really terrible; I just kinda pass and don’t say anything, move on. But if it’s good, I tell them.
I’ve actually discovered some wonderful people for myself from people putting up links. I didn’t know about Jason Isbell, and he’s really good–I mean, really good! I didn’t know about these girls called The Staves, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them, but they can really sing. I found other people on there, and I think that’s a lot of fun. I think it’s basically that I love communicating, though.