In memory of David Crosby, who passed away aged 81, we revisit our final interview with the singer-songwriter from Uncut Take 293, October 2021
“I’ve been having a fairly good time, man,” admits David Crosby, logging into Zoom from his home in the “stunningly beautiful” countryside near Santa Barbara. It certainly sounds like there are worse places to be locked down. “I’m looking out through a bunch of trees at some cow pasture. It’s a sunny day, absolutely lovely – California at its best!”
He has his dogs to walk, a pool to swim in and a garden where he and his wife grow vegetables – and pot, naturally. “But I have also been working on records at long distance with my son James and with my other writing partners. It’s not as much fun as doing it live and in person, but we have been able to make pretty good music, in spite of the fact that we couldn’t get in the same room. So that’s been life! I’m feeling pretty happy and I’m really loving making music.”
Thanks to social media, Croz has also gained a reputation for generously sharing his findings from 79 years spent on this planet. Does he enjoy being a wise old oracle now? “I dunno, man, I made so many mistakes that I can’t claim to be wise! But I’m kinda happy with my role right now. There’s a bit of curmudgeon in there. Some of it’s gonna piss people off, I’m sure. But that’s not my aim. My aim is to be funny if I can, and insightful if I can.” Then again, “There’s some people I might want to piss off!”
Your songs are flowing faster than at any time since the ’60s. What do you attribute that to?
Jacob Tanner, Shrewsbury
Well, that’s easy. I learned a long time ago, when I wrote “Wooden Ships” with Paul Kantner and Stephen Stills, that you can write really good songs with other people. Most of my compatriots in this business want all of the credit and all of the money, and so they don’t do that. I’ve found that it’s really fun and it generates good art. I didn’t come for the money and I don’t care about the credit, but I do really care about the songs. My son James is a perfect example; he’s grown into, if anything, an even better writer than I am. He wrote the best song on this record, “I Won’t Stay For Long”. The other people that I write with – Michael League, Michelle Willis, Becca Stevens, Michael McDonald, Donald Fagen – these are all people that I picked because they’re all incredible writers, they’re a joy to write with. And it’s extended my useful life as a writer by 10 or 20 years. I think I would have petered out a while ago without it.
What was it like to write a song with Donald Fagen and how does that work in practice?
Besty, via email
Donald’s not a wide open sort of person, he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve. He knew going in that Steely Dan was my favourite band. But it’s taken a while for him to trust me enough [to collaborate]. My son wrote the music, I contributed something to the melody. [Fagen] just sent the words and stood back to see what would happen. He knew what our taste was and he knew what we would probably try to do. He’s an extremely intelligent guy and I think he knew
what would happen. We know his playbook pretty well, so we deliberately went there – complex chords, complex melodies. We Steely Danned him right into the middle of this as far as we could! And fortunately Donald liked it, so I couldn’t be more grateful. I feel like one of the luckiest guys in the world, truthfully.
Do you have any memories of going on film sets with your father, cinematographer Floyd Crosby?
Lyle Bartlett, via email
Yeah, I do. He’d be shooting at a little fake Western town out in the valley someplace, and I’d get to run around. It was something he was a little reticent to do, ’cos I was kinda a wild kid and he was a very serious guy. My dad was not a fun guy – he was a not a good dad, either. But he was really good at his job. What films did I get to see being made? High Noon. The motion picture that he shot was really quite beautiful, but it had crappy music which screwed it up for me.
Are you still miffed about McGuinn and Hillman’s rewriting of “Draft Morning” [from The Notorious Byrd Brothers]?
Cosmic Andy, Edinburgh
Lord, no! It’s all fine. I don’t really remember [what happened], man. I think I had it one way and they changed it, that must’ve been it. It’s ancient history and I don’t really do ancient history that much. Could I have done more with The Byrds? Yeah, sure. But human lives do not go on parallel paths and we’re all always getting closer or further away from the people around us. What happened is that I encountered Stephen Stills and he swung really hard. He could play a kind of music that The Byrds couldn’t play and it appealed to me tremendously. I wanted that, and I really didn’t want to go in the direction that Chris and Roger wanted to go in, of becoming more country. I’m glad they did go there because they kinda invented that country-rock stuff, and they did a really good job. But it wasn’t where I wanted to go.
Have you ever considered a tour where you play If I Could Only Remember My Name in its entirety?
Roger Way, via email
I have. But Garcia’s dead, and that puts quite a crimp in it. Nobody else plays the way he did. And there’s no point trying to duplicate what happened there without him, ’cos he’s all over it. There was a certain magic that happened every time he and I picked up two guitars. If you listen to the beginning of [album outtake] “Kids And Dogs”, we’re playing a game with each other where we’d count: one, two, three, play! Each time we’d play a note, and neither of us knows what note the other guy’s gonna play. So it’s really random and it can go really wrong! Or it can go really right. And if you hear us, we’re doing that game, playing with each other, and then we hit a chord that’s so good that Garcia starts laughing, and you can hear him laughing on the tape. That’s what used to happen every time.
Is it true that Miles Davis kicked you out of his house when he played you his version of “Guinnevere” and you didn’t hear any resemblance to your song? Mike L, Southend
That’s a little more extreme than what actually happened. I didn’t really get it, the first time that I heard it. It was actually a really good record that he’d made, and I loved it in hindsight. But we just didn’t hit it off at first contact. And it’s a shame, because he was very kind to me and he had done a lot of good things for me – he liked my music or he would not have recorded it, it’s that simple. He’s also one of the main reasons The Byrds got a contract with Columbia. When we sent our tape in, he was a hero at that point – jazz was big – and he was on Columbia. So they went to him and said, ‘Hey Miles, whadda we do with this?’ And he said, ‘Sign ’em!’ And that’s why we were on Columbia. The guys who ran the company didn’t have any clue. Miles was a prickly guy and he didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, but I love him. He was a fine cat, and brave. And I’m totally honoured that he cut my tune.
How did you feel about selling your publishing? What is the first thing you bought with the money?
Josip Radić, Zagreb, Croatia
I was not happy about doing it, but I was glad that I could do it. It wasn’t what I would have chosen to do, but since I lost both of my income streams, I didn’t have a choice. They don’t pay you for records any more and we can’t tour because of Covid, so what do you expect us to do? They’re starting the tours back up again but now I’m too old to do it. I can’t do bus tours any more, it just beats the crap outta me. I’m turning 80. I mean, never say never… I might do a residency – a week in New York, a week in LA, that kind of thing. But I don’t see me going on the road again. What I did with the money was pay off the house. And if you saw the smile on my wife’s face when I told her the house was paid off, you’d know why I did it!
What is the most memorable encounter you’ve ever had with another musician?
Jerry McGuire, via email
One time, Stills and Hendrix and I played for a while, at Stills’ beach house. That was pretty good. But probably the best was visiting The Beatles when they were making Sgt Pepper. I came in and I was very high. They sat me down on a stool in the middle of the studio and rolled up two six-foot tall speakers on either side of me. Then, laughing, they climbed the stairs back to the control room and left me there. And then they played “A Day In The Life”… At the end of that last chord, my brains just ran out my nose onto the floor in a puddle. I didn’t know what to do, I was just stupefied.
Who was the inspiration for the famous David Crosby moustache?
Zoran Tučkar, via email
Ah, it just grew there! I didn’t have any mentors or heroes that had moustaches that I can think of. It just happened on my lip and I didn’t wanna cut it.