David Crosby's troubled life has overshadowed his brilliant art. Back when Melissa Etheridge and then-partner Julie Cypher picked Crosby to be their sperm donor, my friends would make dumb jokes about it or question why anyone would want their child to have the genes of an obese ex-con ex-crack addict, I would answer along the lines of "he's the best musician in one of the most successful bands of all time," by which I meant Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
Not the best guitar player, granted, but the best singer with the deepest knowledge of harmony and the broadest range of musical knowledge. He is, perhaps, too much of a musician to be appreciated by the masses. For all his great songs with the Byrds and various permutations of CNSY, and in his solo career, surprisingly none of them were hits (Crosby has never had a Top 40 single either solo or with any group on a song where he was the lead singer or the primary writer). Of course, some people did appreciate him, including Miles Davis, who covered Crosby's "Guinnevere." Crosby's love of modal jazz and its influence on his sense of harmony meant that his songs were far more compatible with Davis's style (which influenced Crosby) than those of most of Crosby's rock peers, but that also means that instead of writing simple pop songs like Nash, or simple rockers like Young, which connected with a huge mainstream audience, Crosby wrote quirky songs, often brooding and elliptical, that were of no interest to Top 40 programmers. Can't be too hard on those unappreciative masses or radio programmers, though, because Crosby wasn't even fully appreciated by the other members of the Byrds or their management; he left because they weren't interested in issuing what he thought were some of his best songs.
Last year, Rhino/Atlantic issued the three-CD set Voyage, covering most of his career, including his time in the Byrds (on the Columbia label). The first two discs, Essential vols. 1-2, provide an in-depth overview; the third CD, Buried Treasure, offers previously unreleased outtakes, demos, and alternate takes. Bandmate/pal Graham Nash and CSNY manager Joel Bernstein put Voyage together, which perhaps makes it foolhardy to criticize the programming. But I will anyway, a little.
Crosby's pre-Byrds recordings from early 1964, unreleased at the time, would have been an interesting place to start. Instead, the first disc kicks off with "Eight Miles High." Its inclusion is justified by Crosby's writing credit, earned through his contribution of one line to the lyrics ("rain gray town, known for its sound") and the contrary motion vocal harmony -- and this does give him a claim to a chart hit (#14 in 1966). It also provides an example of his important role as a catalyst, in this case influencing Jim McGuinn by playing John Coltrane's Africa/Brass LP (specifically the track "India") in the band's Winnebago while on tour; McGuinn's scrabbling guitar solo is his attempt at a Coltrane imitation. (Other examples of Crosby as catalyst: He played Ravi Shankar for George Harrison; he pushed Neil Young to write "Ohio" in the wake of the Kent State shootings.) But it comes at the cost of omitting either one of those '64 recordings or a Byrds track penned entirely by Crosby, such as the beautiful "Why" or the notorious outtake "Lady Friend," one of those tracks the Byrds wouldn't put on an LP. However, with "Renaissance Fair" and "Everybody's Been Burned," listeners do get a fine taste of the eerily unsettling Crosby material that did make its way onto Byrds LPs.
After that we're into the beginnings of Crosby, Stills & Nash with the quietly scary post-apocalyptic "Wooden Ships," co-written with Stills and Jefferson Airplane's Paul Kantner; the aforementioned "Guinnevere," really a duo with Nash; and "Long Time Gone," an angry, threatening lament in the wake of the JFK, MLK, and RFK assassinations. That's all three of Crosby's songs on CSN's 1969 debut, and both of his songs from 1970's Deja vu follow, the darkly modal title track and the howling "Almost Cut My Hair," cited as Young's favorite track on Deja vu.
Then come six of the nine songs from Crosby's 1971 debut solo release, If I Could Only Remember My Name.... It can't really be said that this LP, which made it to #12 on the Billboard album chart, was ever lost or forgotten, but certainly it has been the object of critical derision (Robert Christgau graded it D- and called it a "disgraceful performance") and often gets overlooked. It's not considered iconic except by a small cult; on the other hand, Crosby's too well known for it to be one of those rarities whose obscurity earns it cachet. It has, however, found new respect in recent years as the idea of "freak folk" has taken hold in our current counterculture and psychedelic artifacts are reevaluated.
If I Could Only Remember My Name... was also reissued last year in a deluxe edition that adds the previously unreleased outtake "Kids and Dogs." That song is also included on the Buried Treasure disc of the set, which means fans who already have If... on CD don't have to get both it and Voyage. That's an especially good thing considering that the refurbished If... is one of those annoying CD/DVD packages where the buyer pays for multiple audio versions of the album and "extras" of just one-time interest: a few uncaptioned photos and an interview with engineer Stephen Barncard (not to denigrate his considerable sonic contributions). To carp a bit more, in contrast to the fine notes of Voyage, the booklet essay is undistinguished. The author will make a point and cite names; then there will be a Crosby quote making the same point and citing many of the same names. The track-by-track commentary is better, all quotes from Crosby and Barncard (some of it repeated, occasionally in abridged form, in the Voyage booklet). In an incredibly poor decision, there are no track-by-track musician credits here, neither in the booklet nor on the DVD (though all the tracks on Voyage have complete credits in that booklet).
The music, though, remains thoroughly captivating. Crosby went north to San Francisco to make the album and spent lots of time jamming with his Bay Area friends from Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, etc. along with Stills, Nash, Young, Joni Mitchell, and more. The word that's frequently used to describe the album is "organic," because these songs evolved through experimental, anything-goes jams. The opening "Music Is Love" was improvised on the spur of the moment with Nash and Young, who overdubbed additional instruments to complete the track. "Cowboy Movie," a rocking extended metaphor about the soap opera of CSNY's tortured fragmentation, has Jerry Garcia joining Crosby on electric guitars, underpinned by the Dead rhythm of bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Mickey Hart, with Crosby yowling the story. (A longer alternate take on Voyage includes Young.)
"Tamalpais High (At About 3)" is one of several tracks on If tinged by Crosby's overwhelming sadness in the wake of the death of his main girlfriend, Christine Hinton, in a car crash. It's also the first of Crosby's wordless vocals -- as he puts it, "using vocals as horn stacks." Garcia and Crosby are joined on electric guitars by the Airplane's Jorma Kaukonen, with Lesh and the Dead's other drummer, Bill Kreutzmann. The Dead are also prominent on "Laughing," a mellow, wry meditation on the ineffable, with Garcia playing gorgeous pedal steel lines. Lesh and Kreutzmann provide the underpinning, while Joni Mitchell adds vocal harmonies. This and the following "What Are Their Names" are the high points of the album. "What Are Their Names" is another jam track: Crosby, Garcia, Young, Lesh, and Santana drummer Michael Shrieve. Smack in the middle is a political rumination on the anonymity of the truly powerful, with the singers including many of the aforementioned plus the Airplane's Grace Slick and David Frieberg (Quicksilver Messenger Service, later Jefferson Starship). "Traction in the Rain" mellows out, with Crosby and Nash on acoustic guitars joined only by Laura Allen on autoharp.
The wordless vocals format is returned to on "Song with No Words (Tree with No Leaves)," with Crosby overdubbing vocal harmonies. He importantly states, "The object of pieces of art that are musical is to make you feel something. They don't need words to do it." He creates profound moods that, perhaps, words would only interfere with. Another all-star cast backs him in a gentle groove: Garcia, Kaukonen, Gregg Rolie (Santana pianist), Airplane bassist Jack Casady, and Shrieve. The next track, "Orleans," might as well be wordless; it'san ancient French song listing cathedrals, with Crosby totally solo stacking up layers of vocals and acoustic guitars. The original LP closed with the otherworldly vocalise "I'd Swear There Was Somebody Here," six-part harmonies run through an echo chamber, with no instruments. It spotlights Crosby's unique approach to music and his sense of rich harmonic textures. The new final track is a Crosby/Garcia duet that now ends the album in more upbeat -- but still wordless -- fashion.
Anyone with the slightest love for psych-folk should own this album. Including alternate takes (one, "Traction in the Rain," by Crosby and Nash in concert), every song is included on Voyage except "Orleans," and it's completely justified.
Returning to Voyage, it picks up the story with the Crosby-Nash band. After CSNY fell apart, everyone made solo albums, but C and N had to keep working together, their musical and personal bonds were so strong. After touring together, the duo's first album came out in 1972. Two of Crosby's four songs on it are here, polar opposites: the questioning, hesitant "Where Will I Be?" and its optimistic answer, "Page 43." The 1975 follow-up, Wind on the Water, was the duo's studio high point and is rightly represented by many of Crosby's contributions."Critical Mass" is another short, instrumentless, wordless vocal, this time with an archaic feel. The incredibly moving "Carry Me" finds David musing on mutual support and people lost, but in an uplifting manner. "Bittersweet" fits its title; "Naked in the Rain" was co-written with Nash. On the Treasure volume there's a version of "Homeward through the Haze," left over from an aborted 1974 attempt at a new CSNY LP; this song also ended up, in a different recording, on Wind. The duo's last '70s LP, Whistling down the Wire, is somewhat lackluster (the production starts to become too slick), but it would have been better represented by Crosby's self-indictment "Foolish Man" than it is by "Dancer," another wordless song that's overly repetitious and below the level of his other such efforts. In fact, the duo's Live, with some of L.A.'s hottest sessionmen going on the road with C&N, would have been a better point to close out the duo's '70s adventures, with its ferocious version of "Foolish Man."
Disc two starts with the reconvening of CSN, just before Crosby's coke habit completely took over his life. His best and most characteristic song on CSN (1977), the wittily self-deprecating"Anything at All," is sadly not included here, but "Shadow Captain" is; yes, the lyrics are fine, but the music's by pianist Craig Doerge (a fact left oddly unaddressed by Crosby's comment on the song). No complaints about the pretty "In My Dreams."
Then Crosby slid into the abyss of freebasing. His only released recording from this period is the gorgeous "Delta," written in 1980 when a concerned Jackson Browne seized on Crosby's mention of a song idea, plopped him in front of a piano at Warren Zevon's house, and wouldn't let him stop, or smoke, until the song was done. It was recorded for an album that under the circumstances stood little chance of completion; in 1982 Stills and Nash added harmonies so Crosby could be represented on the album Daylight Again. After that, nothing but trouble for Crosby until, in prison, he wrote "Compass." For Bigtakeover.com I described its appearance on the 1988 CSNY LP American Dream: "This musically stark, deadly serious self-indictment and declaration of determination is simultaneously harrowing and uplifting."
The following year brought Crosby's renaissance, and his second solo album, Oh Yes I Can, which gets two tracks here. "Tracks in the Dust" is certainly superb, and the Michael Hedges arrangement of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" makes a point, but the song on the album that immediately catches one's ear is "Melody," perhaps the catchiest excursion into pop that Crosby's ever created, but omitted from this compilation.
It must be admitted that Crosby's days as an exciting innovator were finished by the end of the '70s. And the production, already getting slick by then, is positively saccharine on the next CSN cut, "Arrows," with Branford Marsalis on soprano sax and Hedges on acoustic guitar -- more like a Sting song! That said, the rest of disc two does a good job of bringing fans up to date on Crosby's activities, which include more solo albums, a new band called CPR (for Crosby, [guitarist Jeff] Pevar, and [keyboardist James] Raymond, a son Crosby didn't know he had until 1994), and a Crosby/Nash reunion. Less dedicated fans will welcome the introduction to this period, and while Crosby's sense of adventure has been tamed, his innate musicality continues to carry him, so the songs (sampled over the course of another eight tracks) are still enjoyable.
There are more treasures, not already discussed above, on the aptly named third disc. It opens with a 1968 Crosby/Still version of "Long Time Gone," pre-CSN and fairly different. A 1968 "Guinnevere," more stripped-down, with Jack Casady and -- surprise -- bouzouki player Cyrus Fayrar has a slightly exotic flavor. A solo acoustic 1969 demo of "Almost Cut My Hair" is much more pensive in tone. A '68 solo demo of "Games" gives us a previously unheard, but fully worthy, Crosby song. The Crosby demo of "Deja vu" with Nash also on vocals is actually the basic track of the final version before the rest of the band was added and more harmonies were overdubbed. The notorious free-love anthem "Triad," which the Byrds were downright afraid of releasing, is heard in a solo demo version from 1969; don't let the risque subject matter overwhelm the intricate music with its rich chord progression. Crosby's collaborative spirit emerges yet again on an alternate mix of "Have You Seen the Stars Tonite," co-written with Paul Kantner for his album Blows Against the Empire. "Lee Shore," Crosby's lovely ode to sailing, comes from a 1971 C&N concert at Carnegie Hall. The long-unheard "King of the Mountain," Crosby's description of Stills, finally appeared, decades after its creation, on the reissue of C&N's Live; here we're treated to its intimate 1974 demo. The solo vocal (no instruments) 1980 version of "Samurai" is short enough to not overstay its welcome. The CPR song "Climber" is heard in a 1999 CSNY studio version complete with splashy Young electric guitar, while CSNY live in 2002 reprise their '99 Crosby tune "Dream for Him," written for his son Django.
Despite my occasional complaints here and there, I'm overjoyed that with this set, Crosby's career has received the serious, extensive retrospective it deserves. With the extent of his musical achievements mostly encapsulated here, it's easy for everyone to see that his talent is greater than his headline escapades. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who last year recorded his original soundtrack to Bystander, a documentary film by John Reilly..