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Part 13: DAVID CROSBY

The hard-living, Los Angeles-born Byrds’ co-vocalist and rhythm guitarist. He played in CSNY with Young

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It was obvious to me that Neil was a special talent right from the very first night I heard him. Chris Hillman said to me, “There’s a band you’ve gotta hear and they’re playing tonight at the Whisky. Get in my car and let’s go.” So we went down there and I was suitably impressed. The two-guitar stuff that Neil and Stephen were playing meant they were able to play duets and do lead guitar. And the songs were excellent. I loved them right away. My first impressions of Neil, when we got talking, were that he had a great sense of humour and was very smart. I liked him immediately. I think there was a certain kinship between us.

I didn’t really fully comprehend his weight and range as a songwriter until one afternoon when I was in front of either Joni or Elliott’s [Roberts, CSNY’s manager] house in Laurel Canyon. I was sitting there in my car in the driveway waiting for whichever one of those it was to show up, when Neil pulled in. I’d never actually sat down with him and had a conversation with him before, so we started talking. Then he said [affects trembly voice]: “Do you wanna hear a new song?” And I said “Fuck, yeah!” So we both sat down on the trunk of the car, he pulled out a guitar and sang probably four of the best songs I’d ever heard. I just thought ‘Oh Jesus, this guy’s good’. One of them was “Helpless”. And right there and then I said “I wanna work with this guy.” And that experience absolutely fed into CSNY.

The original thinking was that when Stephen asked how we’d feel about bringing Neil into the band, Graham [Nash] and I thought “Well, we’ve got the Number One record as we stand, so why do we need him?” But after I’d listened to him singing his songs there, I said “Y’know, this guy’s one of the best writers in the world and we want him in the band because he’s that good.” Fuck all the normal precepts of how you put things together and fuck the idea that we didn’t need him. Whether we needed him or not, the thing was we wanted him. It was like having more colours on your palette, you can make a wilder painting. He widened the scope. The very fact that all four of us wrote so differently is what made Déjà Vu and the other records as strong as they were. And on the road it meant we had another guitar player, which enabled Stephen to go play keyboards when he wanted. On songs like “Wooden Ships”, Stephen could play Hammond B3, as he’d done on the record, while Neil could play lead. Or we could trade off: Nash could play organ and we’d have two guitarists. So it gave us flexibility. But I think the main thing was that you heard those songs of Neil’s and you wanted a piece of them. And as for Neil’s voice, can you think of another one that tells the tale better? Maybe Randy Newman. It’s that tough. Neil certainly isn’t operatic, and he’ll never be a blues singer like Stephen, but he can tell the tale exquisitely and take you on the trip. He’s got it fucking down.

I watched Neil write “Ohio”, so I’m the first person who ever heard it. It was in a friend of ours’ house in Butano Canyon up in Northern Central California. Neil and I were sat out on the porch and our friend had just come back from the grocery store, where he’d gone to get breakfast, And he had that Life magazine with the picture of the girl and the other kid in a puddle of blood and the question “Why?” written all over her face. Neil and I both looked at it and realised we were now in a country that was shooting its children. It was a shocker for the both of us. The guitar happened to be on the other side of me and he said “Hand me that”, so I gave it to him. And Neil sat there right in front of me and wrote it. It took him maybe ten minutes to write that song, then I got on the phone to Nash and said “Get a studio, right now! And find Stephen and get him there too. We’re coming to Los Angeles now.” And within 24 hours of Neil writing it, we had it recorded.

Then we put “Find The Cost Of Freedom” on the other side, which was about as appropriate as we could get. As we were finishing it in the studio, [Atlantic Records boss] Ahmet Ertegun came in and we gave him the tape. And here’s a thing most people don’t know: at that time, “Teach Your Children” was headed for Number One but Nash told Ahmet “Pull it. Put this out instead.” Nash pulled his own tune to put “Ohio” out. And it was out within a week. Ahmet pulled out all the stops, man. He got on a redeye that night, flew back to New York and pulled people’s hair out: “This record’s going out now. I don’t care what you fucking have to do.” And it was out in days.

That record was what it was, it pointed the finger. It was very powerful because it was so direct. It named Nixon and said what he was doing. Part of our job is just to rock and entertain you, but another part is to be the troubadour, the town crier. You know, it’s midnight and all is fucking well not OK. And we did our job there on “Ohio”, probably did our job the best we ever did it. The urgency of it seemed self-evident. I mean, a country’s got a problem when it starts shooting its own kids.

When Neil started out with Crazy Horse, I didn’t understand it at all. It seemed very simple. But after I’d listened to the music, I realised he was giving himself the room to be the guitar player that he is. It was very honest and simple and allowed him to expand as a guitarist tenfold, in a way that he couldn’t do with all of us onstage. With CSNY, there wouldn’t have been the room to do that. It took me a long time to wrap my head around it, because I wanted Neil to play with us, not them. I didn’t get it for a long time, but after I listened to it enough I realised what he was doing and why. And they were good. They did exactly what he needed for him to be able to go there. They were experimental and big. I mean, they’re big guitars. That’s what he needed to achieve the kind of playing he can do now.

Did I warn Neil off drugs? I might have. And if I didn’t do it verbally, I certainly did it by example. What happened to me, with coke and heroin, should have warned anybody with half a brain in their head not to go anywhere near it. I think seeing him watch how it brought me down firmed his resolve not to go there. I was a terrible example of what can happen when you do that shit. I’m still alive twenty years later, but it was a very near-run thing.

Is there an episode which sums up everything about Neil? I can think of one but I can’t tell it. It’s all very personal. He did me a solid of incredible proportions one time, at a time when I didn’t think he would be paying attention to anything else except his own life. And I will not forget it.

INTERVIEW BY ROB HUGHES