David Crosby is well and truly thriving in his later years. The folk star, who recently turned 80, has overcome just about every obstacle in his path so far, from hard drug addiction and subsequent imprisonment through to serious health scares including a liver transplant, diabetes and three heart attacks.
But today Croz seems positive and healthy, and still enjoys impressive creative drive. He’s not resting on the laurels of a rich musical legacy, either – which would be easily done, given that he co-founded two era-defining bands in The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash in the 1960s and has had a prolific solo career. Instead, all eyes are fixed on the road ahead.
His latest studio album, ‘For Free’, features some of Crosby’s most profound and spiritual music to date. The record is a testament to the rich collaborative spirit he’s maintained throughout his career, having worked with a glimmering list of the best in the game. You could spend hours just discussing his collaborators and friends, which have included Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, and George Harrison to name just a few.
This time around, though, he’s looked closer to home, working with his son James Raymond along with members of Steely Dan and more. Crosby called NME not long after his birthday celebrations to tell us about making some of his most important work this far into his career, the Mitchell’s profound influence and his memories of 1969’s legendary Woodstock festival (but not Phoebe Bridgers).
Hi David! How are you finding life as an octogenarian?
“It feels freaking weird. It’s very strange, man. I didn’t expect to be this old. I didn’t expect to live this long… but here I am and I’m enjoying it. It’s a pretty strange adjustment to make because I’ve kind of been forcibly retired. First of all they stopped paying us for records – streaming doesn’t pay – then the pandemic comes along and they say I can’t play live. I mean, I’m still going to make a couple more records, probably, even though they don’t pay me for them, because it’s fun to do. But I have sort of been retired and wasn’t ready to do that just yet. So it’s about readjustment and I’m making it, but it’s an effort.”
‘For Free’ feels like a record made after a life lived; it’s poignant and deeply spiritual…
“I’m very proud of the album; I love the record. Me and my son James had a lot of fun writing the songs, and we had a lot of fun recording them. I have two bands: one of them is me and James – that’s the Sky Trails band – and one of them is The Lighthouse Band. This band with James – it’s so amazing to watch him grow so fast.
“The best song on this record is that last song ‘I Won’t Stay For Long’, and James wrote that. It’s a very deep track, man. I cried when I sang it. I think he understands me really brilliantly. He wrote a song that moved my heart; it made me sing one of my best vocals. He’s growing into a songwriter that is at least as good as I am, if not better. It’s an astounding thing to watch your son happen right in front of you.”
How central is that relationship to this album, then?
“It’s a very odd relationship on the record – and in life – because James is the adult and I’m the kid. I’m about 12 years old and he’s an adult. We have a lot of fun and we have a wonderful relationship. We do write a lot of really good new music. The guy is talented. I like working with other people, but I’m enormously picky about it because I’ve gotten to work with really good people, and I know how good it is – the other guy always thinks of something that you didn’t and it really does work.
“I’m surprised more people don’t do it – I think it’s because they want all the money and all the credit. Well, OK, but for me what’s most important is getting some really wonderful music happening. That’s what writing with other people has brought to me – I can’t deny that. Writing with other people [has been] central to my vision since I wrote [the 1969 song] ‘Wooden Ships’ with [Stephen] Stills and Paul [Kantner]… That was a big lesson for me. It certainly proved to me that writing with other people would be the right course of action.
How important is it for you that you’re making music at this stage of your life?
“I think making music is crucial and it’s keeping me alive. There are two centres to my life; my family and the music. That I can still at this advanced age get a chance to make more music is just a freaking miracle; it’s fucking wonderful. I didn’t think I was going to live past 30. The fact that I’ve made it this far… All the things that I’ve been through, man – all the mistakes that I’ve made; the time that I’ve wasted; the problems that I’ve had… I’m astounded that I’m here, I’m clear-headed, I’m happy and I’m working and my family is working. I’m making good records. I’m surprised and extremely pleased.”
There’s a seize-the-day mentality throughout the record. I’m thinking of tracks such as ‘River Rise’
“I think you hear that in the record, I’m not afraid to look at dark stuff or tough stuff, but me personally I’m pretty happy and you can sort of tell that. ‘Don’t let it make you fold your tents – you can still make it here.’ It’s a very encouraging song; I think the positivity is present in a bunch of the songs like ‘Boxes’, for instance.”
There has been tragedy and turmoil in your life. Would you say you owe your current wholesomeness to the time you spent incarcerated on narcotics charges?
“Yeah, I regret wasting the time that I did really stoned on hard drugs. It nearly killed me and it also wasted a whole bunch of time. That’s really the biggest crime, wasting time. My time incarcerated got me free of the drugs. It’s the shittiest possible way to do it, but it did and the result was I came out of prison straight. I’m very goddamn glad that I got free of it – it took me 24 years of sobriety to do it. Now I smoke pot and I’m fine with that – it’s more like wine and beer. But I’m really extremely happy and proud that I got free of hard drugs, because I wouldn’t be alive if I hadn’t and it was very difficult to do – no question about that. But I’m here now, and I’m in a really good place.”
After you released your solo debut album, 1971’s ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’, you were living on your schooner, the Mayan, just north of San Francisco, which you once referred to as your “great muse”. How much did that help in a particularly stormy time?
“It’s a truly wonderful thing. The ocean doesn’t really care who you are and it doesn’t relate to any of that personal stuff at all. It’s not out to get you, but if you don’t treat it respectfully, it will eat your lunch. So it’s a very good thing to have in your life because it really couldn’t care less. You can’t buy it; you can’t make it do what you want. It was a very good thing; it kept me in touch with some part of the real world through a time that was very difficult.”
On the album, you return to covering Joni Mitchell’s ‘For Free’. The song, which explores the relationship between art and commerce, is prescient in an age of pitiful streaming royalties. Last year you said streamers “stole” your income and recently sold your publishing rights for an undisclosed sum. Are these facts and the cover related?
“It’s partly just because I love the song, but it’s also partly a dig at the streamers for not paying us. The record is sort of for free because we don’t get any money for it. But it’s also because I love the song. I’ve recorded it three times and I might record it again; I just love what it says. In my opinion Joni Mitchell is the best singer-songwriter alive. I think Bob [Dylan; this interview was conducted before sexual abuse allegations emerged against the folk musician] is as good a poet as she is but nowhere near as good a musician or singer, and I think anybody would agree. I think that arguably makes her the best there is. I love her work; I don’t know any songwriters who don’t love her work. It’s magnificent how she writes, so it’s pretty hard to ignore her.”
One of your most notable Mitchell covers was ‘Woodstock’ with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Tell us about her take on that, and how she captured the essence of the event?
“She wasn’t [at Woodstock] and she did [capture it]; she’s that good a songwriter. The version that everybody heard, that’s Stills – he took her thing and turned it into a rock’n’roll song, it was absolutely him that did it. He is just a natural at that. I don’t think anybody does it better than him, and he did a fantastic job of making it into a rock’n’roll song. She should have sent him a cheque and a large ‘thank you’ note.
It was such a moment of cultural significance. Do you have a single abiding memory of Woodstock?
“I could tell you a Woodstock story that characterised the whole thing for me. When I was there, I was backstage walking around and I saw this girl walking around. She was a blonde girl walking in the mud barefoot, and she cut her foot. So she’s standing on one leg in the mud, bleeding like crazy – it was a big piece of glass in the mud that cut her pretty badly. Next to me there’s this cop, he’d just come on duty. His pants have a razor edge crease in them; he has shiny shoes on. He walks right into the mud, ruins his shoes, ruins his pants, picks the girl up gently and carries her very nicely over to his car, lays her gently down in the seat.
“Now, you’ve got to remember that cops were our enemies then, right? Now here’s a cop being really nice. So then about 14 hippies pushed the cop car out of the mud. I thought to myself, ‘Ok, this is working for me – this is how I want it to be. I want human beings trying to be nice to each other like this. That was how Woodstock felt. It was a turning point in that we realised how many of us there were.
What does the future hold for David Crosby, then?
“I think I’m done playing live. Crosby, Stills & Nash and The Byrds are done; they are history. I’m so proud of all that music. I think it’s wonderful music and I want people to enjoy it, but it is history. We’ve done good work but don’t expect to see it again. I don’t think I’ll play live anymore, but I do think that I’m going to make at least two more records. It’s very important to me. I love making music, man. It’s my favourite thing to do. I’m going to do another one with James. We’re already writing it and I’m going to do another one with The Lighthouse band – we’re already writing that, too.”
In the meantime, the important work continues, as you’ve spent lockdown rating fans’ joints on Twitter…
“It’s a kick in the head, man. I like doing it. It’s sort of a curmudgeon stream, being opinionated about everything – it’s really fun.”
You also had a bit of a spat with alt-folk hero Phoebe Bridgers earlier this year. You objected to her smashing up her guitar on Saturday Night Live, and in return she called you “a little bitch”
“Not interested, sorry! See you later – bye!” (Ends call)