David Crosby soundtracked America’s post-Woodstock comedown

As a cantankerous bon vivant who mainlined jazz and cocaine to sing lullabies like a cherub in a Tiepolo picture, David Crosby was a no-brainer. He played extremely delicate harmonies while living a reckless life, his hedonism, his doubts, his arrogance and his arrogance all coming together in a shrug of self-awareness. On the first page of his 1988 memoir, Crosby wrote, “I know I have an ego – there are differing opinions as to its health, size and value.”

However, there is a much stronger consensus about the era-defining music that Crosby helped create – first in the mid-1960s with the Byrds, then into the 1970s and later in Crosby, Stills & Nash – in that the songs were often larger than life. , and way more than that. The California-born singer, who died on Wednesday at the age of 81, was one of the most rugged individuals to emerge from a generation of rock stars who made their fortunes in pursuit of peace and love towards a state of consciousness. And there was Crosby, shooting his drugs and shooting his guns, singing these country ballads that sounded like they fell into Laurel Canyon from somewhere better than heaven.

Crosby wasn’t the leader of the Byrds, but he gave the band an ethereal charge. His fluency in the melodies of John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar helped shape the spectral vocal harmonies of “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season),” as well as the timeless psychedelic jazz “Eight Mile High.” When the Byrds hear Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which topped the pop charts in the warmer months of 1965 , Crosby bought himself a green Porsche and realized that “the sixties were going to be pretty interesting.”

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Fast times, too. His mercurial mouth kicked him out of the Byrds in 1967, but he promptly regrouped with Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield and Graham Nash of the Hollies and began penning (“Wooden Ships,” “Guinnevere”) and singing (“Suite : Judy Blue Eyes ,” “Helplessly Hoping”) ballads of great intimacy and persistence. Sounds have meanings, and the metaphorical power of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s silky smoothness feels as clear as justice always does – the sound of people coming together to smooth out the never-ending roughness of life.

When Crosby, Stills and Nash played their second public show at Woodstock in the summer of 1969, they were unwittingly suggesting a counterpoint to the screeching guitars of Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix, revealing the gentle warmth of the human voice and testing its communicative capacity. mass feeding. Crosby seemed rightly proud of making history that weekend, but refrained from any flower power woo-woo associated with it. “Many people managed to call up the best in themselves,” he wrote of Woodstock in “Long Time Gone,” his aforementioned midlife memoir. “Was it really the ‘Water Festival of Peace and Love and Music’? Hard to answer because I didn’t give a damn about this Aquarian or that Aquarius. I think astrology is total bulls–, especially since I found out the Reagans like it.”

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This does not mean that his music lacked spirituality or cosmic depth. With his great solo album from 1971, “If I Could Only Remember My Name”, it remains unclear whether the title refers to a state of selflessness, being zooted, or both. But it seems Crosby had to go into that wilderness to do his most beautiful singing. Along with “Laughing,” the album’s centerpiece and Zen masterpiece, the back of the album includes some paralyzingly beautiful a cappella moments — during “Orleans” and “I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here,” in particular — that refuse to turn into perfume. Listen hard, and you can hear a sweet voice attached to an angry heart.

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By the time the 1980s rolled around, Crosby’s personal problems had taken a toll on his singing, making him the poster boy for the hippie utopia deferred. (In 1985, he spent nine months in a Texas prison, was convicted of drug and gun offenses, and was arrested again later that year after a hit-and-run accident while driving drunk.) Should our species be headed? measured by the neurochemistry of a rock star alone, Crosby probably wasn’t surprised by how America’s fate turned out. Way back in 1970, he told Rolling Stone’s Ben Fong-Torres that he felt his generation pushing toward a more humane and compassionate tomorrow—but he wasn’t sure they would quite reach him. “I see, for me, a new humanity very clearly, I mean a lot of people who are concerned about being human,” Crosby said. “I also think I can see it getting worse before it gets better.”

Is it getting any worse? Crosby released his eighth solo album in 2021, and the catchiest lyric couldn’t feel more true: “It’s out of my hands.”


A previous version of this article said Crosby died Thursday. He died on Wednesday. The year he left the Byrds has also been corrected.


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