The last time I spoke to David Crosby was a year and a half ago. He was an amazingly busy guy. The then 80-year-old Laurel Canyon legend had recently released his fifth solo album in seven years— Free of charge – but his mind remained fixated on dozens of other projects and ideas that he just couldn’t shake.
At the time, Croz was editing and polishing a live album he had recorded on the road with the band he was recording with Lighthouse. Additionally, he worked on getting a cannabis line off the ground while closing a multi-million dollar sale for the rights to his extensive catalog of releases. In between, we found time to chat about UFOs, science fiction novels, parasitic music streaming services, and his all-time favorite band, Steely Dan.
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Right up until his last breath, David Crosby remained a singularly restless spirit. He was someone who categorically refused to rest on his laurels, which is probably why he enjoyed the astonishing second, third, fourth and fifth acts of American life that elude almost everyone else. That very fact is what makes his unexpected death last week so damn annoying. Despite all that he managed to do and achieve throughout his improbable life, Crosby was not done creating. The man had his hands in a thousand different projects as he charted his way through a truly unprecedented late-career renaissance.
Crosby was already thinking about the next song. The next album. The next trip. The next band. While the rest of his baby-boomer cohorts settled into steady, money-making comfort—”kick the lights and smoke the machine, go out there and play the hits,” he would sneer. Crosby never stopped going out into the world to meet new people and see where the action was. He just couldn’t help himself.
That fact became extremely clear to me on a chilly September evening in 2014. I was at an outdoor winery just north of Seattle, reviewing a Crosby, Stills & Nash concert. I had somehow never seen them before and was very excited. It turned out to be a great show filled with amazing vocal harmonies, epic guitar solos and real good vibes. The seat next to me remained open for the entire performance, and then I sat next to someone’s service dog for a full two and a half hours. A brave, black schnauzer. No complaints.
The trio played all of their iconic hits — “Wooden Ships,” “Déjà vu,” “Almost Cut My Hair,” “Carry On” — but midway through, Crosby got a solo spotlight and played a song I’d never heard before. It was just him, alone on an acoustic guitar, plucking notes in some strange mood that I couldn’t decipher. Instantly I loved it.
I tried to find the song online after the concert, but it turns out he hadn’t released it. I tried to remember the last time I saw any kind of classic rock act debut unfinished material during a perfectly normal mid-tour show, but I came up blank. “Pretty ballsy,” I thought. The song was called “What Makes It So” and it was stuck in my head for months. It was like an itch I couldn’t scratch and it was slowly driving me crazy.
A little over a year later, CSN was finished. The group played their last show together at the annual White House tree lighting ceremony in front of then-President Barack Obama. The whole thing was a disaster on several levels. When it was over, CSN broke up as hard as it had done so many times before.
I was sad at first, but also excited. CSN had tried and failed several times to make a new record together about a decade back, but couldn’t get it together. A proposed covers project produced by Rick Rubin almost got off the ground, but then reportedly fell apart over a disagreement over how many Beatles songs to include. I knew David Crosby had at least one good song left in him because I had heard it myself. And I really wanted to hear it again.
Lighthouse, Crosby’s next solo record, dropped in 2016 and I finally got my wish. Remarkably, “What Makes it So” wasn’t even the best song of the bunch. That honor went to “By the Light of the Common Day,” the album’s closing track. It was a duet—Crosby’s voice was always at its best when mixed with others—sung with a pair of extraordinarily talented young singers named Michelle Willis and Becca Stevens. Just amazing stuff. Michael League, the leader of jazz outfit Snarky Puppy, served as producer, arranger and instrumentalist, largely keeping things stripped down to highlight how smashing Crosby’s voice remained despite decades of hard life.
Stevens and Willis sang with Crosby again on his next full-length record, Heavenly Paths, just one year later. Musically, it was even better than its predecessor. Specifically, the title track will rip your guts out on a quiet night when the moon is full. Heavenly Paths was produced by James Raymond, Crosby’s long-lost son and close collaborator. Raymond was adopted in 1962 when Crosby was 21. Father and son were reunited in the 90s, just before Crosby went under the knife for an emergency liver transplant. The operation was a success and they were collaborators in the studio from then on.
League returned for Here if you’re listening in 2018 – “Buddha on a Hill” is the gem to hear – before Croz reunited with Raymond again to release his last record, Free of charge, just after the COVID lockdowns began to ease. There, Crosby finally got to live out his lifelong desire to record a Steely Dan number when Donald Fagen gave him the lyrics to a song called “Rodriguez for a Night.” The Dan vibes extended into “River Rise” thanks to a little vocal help from yacht rock’s silver captain, Michael McDonald.
As an outside observer of Crosby’s last decade, I was struck not just by the quality of the music, but how much seemed to pour out of the guy. This was the SoundCloud rapper’s territory. A septuagenarian with a release schedule that could almost make Future raise an eyebrow. It wasn’t just that Crosby had seemingly been suffocated for so long within the confines of the CSN machinery—he really, really had a lot to say. More importantly, he found the perfect group of people to help him pull it all off.
There are many artists out there who claim to be about The Music. And many start like that! But then the machine digs into you. Success. Failure. Fame. Money. Life. Death. It all gets so heavy. It will be hard to make it about the music forever. Finding non-cynical inspiration. It will be hard to remember why you got into all this in the first place.
David Crosby forgot that passion many times during his life. But he always came back. No matter how many times he was counted out, Crosby always got back up, and usually with a bunch of new songs to show you too. At the end of the day, what really matters are the people you love, the art you create, and the people who keep you inspired.
As Crosby told me, “Fame doesn’t mean shit. Fame doesn’t mean shit. Money, other than the fact that you need it to take care of your family, doesn’t mean shit. What matters to me , are the songs. They’re a place where you can talk to people. You can communicate—really, actually communicate on a very high level. Very multilevel, textured, weird, beautiful level. I love it. I love being able to do that . And I’m grateful for that.”
Relax Croz, and thanks for the inspiration. No one will forget your name right now.
To see our running list of the 100 Greatest Rock Stars of All Time, click here.
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