Recall, if you will, the image of the classic 1960s hippie.
If you’re into the music of that period, you might think of the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock or even Altamont, when the bad vibes grew murderous.
A movie fan might recall the rambling, longhaired biker Billy from “Easy Rider,” memorably played by Dennis Hopper.
Or you could just roll all those hippie memories together into musician David Crosby, twist the ends, give him a lick (or not) and light up.
Crosby played all those music festivals, man. He was at Monterey Pop with the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, while the second gig for his supergroup, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, took place at Woodstock before nearly a half million people. And the same band played just before the Rolling Stones’ tragic headlining set at Altamont.
Hopper based his mustachioed character in that seminal 1969 film on Crosby, a mischievous hippie known not only for his sweet harmony singing but also his egomania, political conspiracy rambling and insatiable appetites for drugs and women.
Then came the 1980s comedown, man. On the run from the FBI, a paranoid Crosby bottomed out on cocaine and heroin, going to prison for nine months on drugs and weapons charges, where he got clean and rocked the jailhouse band. This was the start of his second act, which included losing his liver to hepatitis and a decade plus worth of reunion tours with his former bandmates before eventually alienating all of them (Stills, Nash and Young no longer speak to him, he says.) And he donated sperm to Melissa Etheridge and her partner, resulting in two children.
Now at 77, he’s embarked on his third and final act, having released four acclaimed solo albums in five years after suffering from severe diabetes and three heart attacks, with eight stents in his heart. He's also got a fairly rabid Twitter account known for bashing the Doors, two new bands featuring members of Snarky Puppy, as well as a new documentary, “Remember My Name,” produced by his old friend, Cameron Crowe. And he's prominently featured in another upcoming doc, “Echo in the Canyon,” which explores the golden age of the Laurel Canyon music scene via a tribute concert from Jakob Dylan, Beck and Cat Power. Both are worth watching, the latter especially for the interviews with Tom Petty about “the California sound.”
When Crosby calls Style Weekly on the phone, and before the “mans” really start flowing, I break the ice by telling him that the day before, while learning one of his signature tunes “Guinnevere” on guitar, a whole litter of baby foxes emerged in my back yard and played in broad daylight. A friend online thought he might like that.
“Seven foxes? Holy shit, that’s magic,” Crosby says. “I do love it. Boy, that’s rare. But yeah, you got ’em in Richmond. … All I really remember about Virginia is Bruce Hornsby lives there, and that beautiful, what do you call it, Blue Ridge Highway.”
One can forgive Crosby for not remembering much. Before his recent streak of musical activity, the singer had only released one solo album, 1971’s “If I Could Only Remember My Name,” featuring one of his best songs, “Laughing,” (with Jerry Garcia on pedal steel), a song he tells me he wrote to George Harrison of the Beatles. Regarding his late-career outburst of creativity, he thinks he’s narrowed down the reasons.
“The last ten years of CSN, we weren’t friends. We were not happy with each other. I did not feel I could take my songs there, so I had some saved up,” he says. “But the main thing: When I write with other people, it always broadens the possibilities. It’s like two painters with different palettes and different colors. When you paint together, you make a better painting. But I’m very picky about who I do it with [laughs].”
These days Crosby only sees the insides of venues and hotels while touring, he says, which at his age is still necessary to pay the mortgage on his sprawling home in the Santa Ynez Valley of Southern California. Watching the candid and often poignant new documentary, “Remember My Name,” one gets a portrait of a fortunate and humbled guy who’s come a long way toward self-acceptance.
“I’m happy about it, man. I think it’s very, very unusually honest. Most docs are self-serving and dishonest,” Crosby says. “Cameron and I, and [director] A.J. [Eaton], went into it with a serious commitment to each other that we weren’t going to do a shine job. My whole contribution was to not lie.”
In the movie, he admits that he will probably die in the next couple years due to his poor health, and that while he’s fearful, he doesn’t want to live if he can’t continue to make music: “It’s the only thing I got to offer, really,” he says.
Much of the film’s sadness emanates from the regret he feels toward those he damaged over the years – from girlfriends he hooked on drugs, to angry children and fed-up bandmates. During a short segment on his childhood, Crosby claims that his father, an Oscar-winning cinematographer, never expressed any love for him. This may be partly why the singer spent his entire life seeking love and validation from the masses, with his hard drug use accelerating after his first love was killed at 21 in a car accident while taking their cat to the vet. But dig a little deeper with a question, like what his parents would’ve thought about the film, and his jovial voice flashes a sharp edge.
“I might’ve thought about that, yeah.” Long pause. Next question.
Critics have noted that Crosby was always a jazz fan. Artists such as John Coltrane and even Ravi Shankar inspired him early on during the co-writing of the classic Byrds song “Eight Miles High,” which some consider the first psychedelic song. But you can really hear the influence of jazz phrasing on his latest album, “Sky Trails.”
“Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, affected me,” he says. “You have to include Ray Charles because he did every kind of vocal. He’s one of my main hero vocalists. But I’ve learned from a whole ton of people, man. The Everly Brothers were a huge influence.”
Crosby’s newer albums sound at times like Steely Dan light, with highly polished studio production and tight, jazz-infused R&B grooves. Pleased with the re-emergence of vinyl, the singer appreciates both digital and analog recording methods.
“Digital can be as good as analog or better, but it’s defined by how finely you slice it,” he says. “The best of digital is the best there is … [but] all the kids today are being raised up on shitty quality, listening to ear buds, not paying for much. That ends up with musicians going out of business.” Don’t even get him started on Spotify. That topic only leads to heavy scoffing and him saying things like “Fuck, man. Look it up, they’re making billions. They’re never gonna stop.”
As Crosby’s Twitter account has blown up, thanks largely to his cantankerous, get-out-of-my-yard, old man grousing, Rolling Stone has pegged him to become an official advice columnist. Asked how that is going, he bursts into wild laughter.
“Is that a funny idea or what? Why would anybody in their right mind ask me for advice? I think it’s a hysterical idea,” he says, noting that someone at Rolling Stone came up with 20 questions and filmed him answering them off the cuff. “Jann [Wenner] was there and he liked it, and everybody else liked it. If it’s funny enough, I think people will like it. It’s also a perfect opportunity for me to get in trouble.”
Lately he’s trying to write a song with former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell “as soon as we can get together,” Crosby says. “I really, really like him. We’re playing Red Rocks this summer and that’s gonna be a hell of a gig, man. I promise.” On the topic of the recent cancelation of Woodstock’s 50th anniversary concert, which he was set to play, he’s more cryptic: “I think it’s definitely canceled. And I think I know exactly why, but I can’t say.”
Regarding political music, one of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s songs, “Ohio,” was written by Neil Young in the immediate aftermath of the Kent State shootings and remains one of rock music’s most memorable protest songs. But with the impending chaos of climate change and Donald Trump in office, Crosby thinks today is worse than the 1960s.
“We’re in a tough situation. We’ve got people running things who shouldn’t be running things and don’t have the intelligence to deal with it,” he says. “I’ve been asking the whole world on Twitter to try to write a song like ‘Ohio’ or ‘We Shall Overcome.’ We need a fight song. I’m trying to write one, but I’m perfectly open to anyone else being the one who writes it. And I hope they do.”
For now, he’s content to keep performing his new jams until he drops. And he won’t speculate as to what his much younger bandmates are learning from him.
“I don’t want to wind up standing up there and thinking, ‘Gosh, I’m so important,’” he says. “My nature is to look at now, what I gotta do today, what I want to do tomorrow. My focus is all out in front of me. I don’t spend any time looking back.”
Well, except for two feature-length documentaries, man.
So might he ever get back onstage with his old friend Graham Nash, maybe to perform an Everly Brothers classic like “So Sad”?
“I don’t think you’re ever gonna see that, man ” he says.
David Crosby and the Sky Trails Band perform at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts in Virginia Beach on Wednesday, May 29, and at the Birchmere in Alexandria on Tuesday, June 4.