Profile: David Crosby

By Matthew Greenwald 05/11/15

He has cheated death countless times, come back from a debilitating drug habit, and survived several major, life-threatening surgeries. Still, the man survives, and continues to inspire.

David Crosby

David Crosby is a true original, a singer/songwriter of immense depth and talent, an outspoken proponent of civil rights, freedom and individuality, and one of the best singers that America has produced in the 20th century. Aside from all of these things, his life has been incredibly dramatic, as he has cheated death countless times, come back from a debilitating drug habit, and survived several major, life-threatening surgeries. Still, the man survives, and continues to inspire countless people through his music and life.

David was born in Los Angeles in 1941, the son of award-winning Hollywood cinematographer Floyd Crosby. He grew up in a fairly privileged world, attended several private schools, and was often expelled for various rebellious activities. Despite his family’s fairly affluent background, he also seemed to have a taste for the criminal life, occasionally supporting himself as a cat burglar. But aside from this activity, Crosby developed a great sense of musicality, particularly in the area of harmony singing and songwriting.

After several years traveling the solo folk circuit in America, Crosby formed The Byrds in 1964 with Gene Clark and Jim (later Roger) McGuinn. The band’s first single, a revolutionary, electrified version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” was a world-wide hit record. This was followed by several other hits such as “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Eight Miles High,” which was co-written by Crosby. As a musician, he was a trailblazer, introducing Indian and other modal-based music to the general public. His songwriting was also developing at a phenomenal rate during The Byrds, with several compositions such as “Everybody’s Been Burned” and “Lady Friend” being the most exploratory and progressive music of the group's catalog.

During this period, Crosby also publicly endorsed drugs such as pot and LSD, and was known as one of the counterculture’s true spokesmen. Crosby’s drug intake was primarily softer drugs during The Byrds era, although by autumn of 1967, when he was fired from the band, he had developed a taste for cocaine and heroin, which were just coming on the LA rock music scene. 

In 1968, he teamed with Stephen Stills, formerly of Buffalo Springfield and Graham Nash of the Hollies, to form Crosby, Stills & Nash. The band’s 1969 debut album was one of the biggest of the year, and soon they were joined by Neil Young as CSN&Y. They were considered “The American Beatles.” Several of Crosby’s songs were highlights of their records, and cuts such as “Wooden Ships” and “Long Time Gone” were considered anthems. Crosby’s newfound wealth certainly contributed to his escalating drug intake, and the band were known for their prodigious use of cocaine.

In October of 1969, when the band were at their peak, Crosby’s girlfriend, Christine Hinton was killed in an automobile accident, and following this, his use of cocaine—and increasingly heroin—escalated to epic proportions. Crosby later commented that the death of his girlfriend contributed to his growing addiction. 

Through the 1970s, Crosby had continued massive success with CSN&Y in various combinations, and also as a solo artist. His 1970 solo debut, If I Could Only Remember My Name, in particular, is considered a masterpiece. But drugs definitely had a grip on the musician, and his use skyrocketed. In 1977, CSN re-grouped for a new, very fine and very successful album and tour. Unfortunately, during the recording of the album in Florida, Crosby was introduced to the process of freebasing cocaine. Crosby's addiction—if it hadn’t been serious already—now knew no bounds.

This all led to one of the darkest chapters of his life. The period of 1979 through 1985 saw Crosby as a freebasing train-wreck, and he was arrested several times. After several half-hearted attempts at rehab, Crosby was ultimately jailed for a year in Texas for weapons and drug charges. In the end, it probably saved his life. He returned from jail in 1986 truly clean for the first time in his career, and openly championed 12-step programs and a clean, drug-free lifestyle. It was truly a miracle. 

During this period, David Crosby’s music came back. His contributions to CSN (&Y) records, as well as solo work, and projects with Graham Nash showed that the newly-sober musician still had a lot to offer, and the music certainly reflected this. On the 1999 CSN&Y album Looking Forward, his composition “Stand And Be Counted” was easily the highlight of the record. 

But the drama surrounding David Crosby’s life wasn’t over. Crosby was the recipient of a highly publicized liver transplant in 1994, which had stemmed from liver problems and a long run with hepatitis C. Due to his age and physical condition (he was severely overweight), his chances of survival were not good, but he obviously bucked the odds, and with the help of medication and a clean lifestyle, has indeed survived. In February 2014, at the urging of his doctor, Crosby postponed the final dates of his solo tour in order to undergo a cardiac catheterization and angiogram, based on the results of routine cardiac stress tests. At present day, he seems to have recovered well from these procedures. 

Through all of this, David has remained an outspoken supporter of various civil rights issues. To this end, his book about the oral history of civil rights, Stand and Be Counted is considered one of the greatest collections of quotes on the subject.

On March 7, 2004, Crosby had another brush with the law when he was charged with criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree, illegal possession of a hunting knife, illegal possession of ammunition, and illegal possession of about one ounce of marijuana. Apparently, the items were left behind in his Las Vegas hotel room. After spending 12 hours in jail, he was released on $3,500 bail. On July 4, 2004, he pleaded guilty to attempted criminal possession of a weapon, was fined $5,000 and given no jail time. Prosecutors did not seek a more severe penalty on the weapons' charge because the pistol was registered in California and was safely stored in his luggage when it was found. A charge of unlawful possession of marijuana was dismissed. Crosby was discharged by the court on condition that he pay his fine and not get arrested again...

In the end, David Crosby has certainly led one of the more interesting lives of last century, and his heroism, dedication to humanity and sheer ability to survive—and thrive—are great examples to everyone. 

Matthew Greenwald is a Los Angeles-based musician and writer. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Mojo/U.K., Analog Planet, Record Collectors/Japan and other outlets, both print and web. He currently writes and records music in duo with Greg Berg called The Holy Smokes, based out of San Clemente, California. He last interviewed Grace Slick and her daughter China Isler.

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