Crosby, Stills & Nash were the sum of their parts, but the man whose name came first was arguably the torchbearer, not just for the band but for the hippie generation's entire folk scene. He dated Joni Mitchell, helped launch Jackson Browne's career, and in his free time, he jammed with Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh under the moniker, David & the Dorks. Crosby received a liver transplant in 1994, and he even did nine months in a Texas pen for drug charges, a true product — and survivor — of the free-loving but hard-living culture he emerged from the heart of.
When Crosby released his first solo album, 1971's If I Could Only Remember My Name, the list of contributors played like a who's who of West Coast musical luminaries, from Santana and Jefferson Airplane to Neil Young, Garcia, and Mitchell. The album's leadoff track, "Music is Love," closes with the lines, "Put on your colors and run come see; Everybody says that music's for free," a verse that's now at odds with his vocal position as a Spotify and music-streaming critic.
Today, with CSN claiming they've wrapped their final tour, Crosby's attention is fully focused on his solo career, amidst a prolific period of late-life songwriting. 2014's Croz kicked off a trio of albums, including 2016's Lighthouse, a stripped-down, ethereal folk record, and the forthcoming Sky Trails, a brassy full-band collection that he's featuring on his current tour. Always the musician/activist, he still subscribes to the idea of the songwriter as the town crier, relaying the state of the world to his audience.
City Paper caught up with Crosby before he hit the road to get the scoop on what motivates him to keep recording and performing at age 75.
City Paper: Déjà Vu [CSNY's 1970 landmark album] has a song called "4+20," and here we are talking on April 20.
David Crosby: It is 4/20, isn't it? I think we're probably going to have to partake at some point today — definitely going to celebrate.
CP: Why do you still do interviews with small papers like this?
DC: I talk to radio stations and print outlets for a specific purpose: I'm trying to sell tickets to these concerts. The thing is, the music business has changed. Streaming has killed us. We don't sell records anymore, and the streaming services pay us like .0004 cents a play. If you played Déjà Vu 10,000 times, I could maybe buy you breakfast. Maybe.
CP: You really participate at a fan level on Twitter as well. You seem to answer most of the questions that people ask you.
DC: I didn't know that nobody else did that, so I started having fun with it. I sometimes get in trouble with it, like when I said Kanye West wasn't a talented guy and that he couldn't sing or play. His fans came after me. I got in even more trouble when I called Trump "a walking intelligence-free zone."
CP: At least you seem to have won your spar with Bill O'Reilly.
DC: I really don't like that guy. He was using my song "Long Time Gone" on his program, and I found out about it. Then he came to a CSN show out on Long Island, and he was like, "I'm a big fan," and I said, "Listen, man, would you stop using my song?" He got all huffy and said, "Why don't you come on my program and talk to me about it?" And I said, "No, I'm not coming on your fucking program. Just stop using my goddamn song."
Sorry, you're going to have to bleep me there.
CP: It's OK. We're an alt-weekly.
DC: He deserves what he got. The guy is a jerk. He definitely should not be allowed to behave like that and get away with it.
CP: Your albums not making money hasn't seemed to slow you down from recording them. But is that part of why you've only been selling Sky Trails at concerts so far and it's not available online?
DC: It's still our life's work. It's the stuff that's going to last. These songs will be around long after I'm gone, so we can't help wanting to make records. It's our art form. It's just a rough deal that they're taking our music and not paying for it, and it's particularly hard on young people. Now it's like, drive 200 miles in a van to play to another 38 people. It's made getting started as a musician much harder.
CP: You did release one song on Sky Trails as a free stream, "Capitol."
DC: I just put it out ahead of time because I thought it was appropriate. Our Congress has the lowest approval rating ever, I guess, and they're just a spectacularly dumb bunch of people. It's on the record, which is produced by my son, James Raymond. It's a pretty wonderful record. I'm proud of it.
CP: James is on tour with you, right? And your other son, Django, is the tour manager? Does their presence give you energy to keep touring?
DC: James is our keyboard player. He's one of them — we have two. And Django is the road manager. I love them both. I love being able to hang out with them. It's a joy. It couldn't be better.
CP: Last year you toured with Michael League of Snarky Puppy, who produced Lighthouse. Do you think you'll work with him again in the future?
DC: I can't tell you how I really feel about Michael, because it'll sound like I have a crush on him. He's just a terrific guy and a terrific musician and writer. It's so great having the two bands — the Lighthouse band is definitely acoustic and can do four-part harmonies for real, which is very, very rare. The Sky Trails band I'm out with now is fully electric and romping and stomping. Being able to do both is great because, man, it really stretches me and makes me work harder and paddle faster to keep up — and at this point in my life, that's a great thing.
CP: Are you doing any of your slower, Lighthouse-style songs solo, without the band?
DC: I've already got too many songs to sing this way. We're doing an entirely different body of material. We're doing a lot of Crosby, Pevar & Raymond (CPR) stuff because the three of us are back together in this band, and it's some of the best stuff I ever wrote. And we're doing a lot of CSN, CSNY, and songs from my solo records.
CP: Are you still using a lot of alternate tunings when you play with the full band?
DC: I'm way off the deep end on tunings. I have to have five or six guitars because I use so many tunings during one show. Even with a guitar tech, you can't keep changing the tunings because they go out of tune, so you need to have them in the tunings you're going to use and leave them there to be stable. So you need a small array of guitars.
CP: Your late-career renaissance reminds me a bit of Phil Lesh's, who opened Terrapin Crossroads [his Bay Area music venue] and still toured heavily after a liver transplant.
DC: We're still friends. I like him a lot. We've talked about that, and about probably everything at one point or another.
CP: Last question: When's the last time you shaved your mustache?
DC: In prison. They made me shave my mustache and cut my hair. I really looked bad, man.
CP: Were you like, "C'mon guys, I wrote a song about this?" ["Almost Cut My Hair" from Déjà Vu]
DC: Those guys weren't ready to listen to that.
CP: Any fond memories of Charleston to share before you go?
DC: I like that place. It's a good place. Not only is it a good place, but you've got good food, too. I'm looking forward to coming back.