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David Crosby flew high, but his musical career also saw drugs and ...

David Crosby's life was defined by crushing lows — from personal and professional break-ups to drug addiction and jail time. But it is the soaring musical highs that he will be remembered for, writes Mark Bannerman.  

In 2019 when asked if he would give up his life in music in exchange for extreme joy with a home life and family, David Crosby paused.

"Me, no music? No music? No, it's the only thing I can contribute, man."

Given Crosby's remarkable life both on and off stage, where towards the end even his best friends would not talk to him, there's little wonder he paused.

A life blessed, and cursed

David Crosby lived a life that was both blessed and cursed.

Here was a man who had been to the very top of the musical tree as a founding member of The Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash.

The same man had also been to the bottom of the pit, addicted to heroin and cocaine, overdosing several times and being brought back to life as well as spending time in jail, for serious drug-related offences.

Along the way he had a liver transplant when his own gave out thanks to his use and abuse of drugs. The transplant, paid for by rock star Phil Collins, became a controversy in itself thanks to his celebrity.

Interviewed by rock writer Cameron Crowe he was asked how are you still alive. His answer? "I don't know. I have no idea."

He went on to say: "People ask me have I got regrets. I have huge regrets, I have huge regrets about the time I wasted being smashed."

Black and white image of four musicians on stage.
David Crosby, second left, was a founding member of the band Crosby, Stills and Nash. Neil Young, left, joined the band as a fourth member in the late 1960s.(Supplied: CMA-Creative Management Associates/Atlantic Records)
A remarkable voice and a gift for jazz

A precocious child, David Crosby grew up in Los Angeles. He was the son of Academy Award-winning cinematographer Floyd Crosby, who was often away on location. His mother Aliph by contrast doted on him. Crosby always maintained that his father never told him he loved him.

The impact on his psychology is hard to be sure about but what emerged was an outspoken young man with the ability to both charm and hurt people, in equal measure.

What his up-bringing offered him though was the chance to see the possibilities the world held as the '50s became the '60s.

Blessed with a remarkable singing voice and a gift for jazz-inflected melodies, Crosby found his way into the burgeoning musical scene in Los Angeles.

In the wake of The Beatles' appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, like so many others, he formed a band. Combining with Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke they called themselves The Byrds.

As he told the ABC's 7.30, they loved The Beatles because of the licence this music gave anyone who wanted to form a band. Their first song was Mr Tambourine Man written by Bob Dylan.

As it happened Crosby didn't like the song. Roger McGuinn forced the issue, trimming the length of the song and changing its time signature. To add the icing, the band married the music and words to the chiming sound of McGuinn's electric 12-string with their three-part harmonies.

It was a creation that would soon be called folk rock.

Very quickly The Byrds would become America's version of The Beatles.

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It wasn't easy at the top

Life at the top though is never easy and that's even more true when David Crosby is your band-mate.

Crosby, never one to hold back, began undermining his fellow Byrd and the band's chief songwriter, Gene Clark.

David Crosby was a fearless musical maverick – these 5 songs show him at his best

Alone this was a worrying sign but increasingly Crosby saw his role not just as an entertainer but an activist.

At the 1967 Monterey Pop festival he told the audience that former president John Kennedy had been killed by more than one man and that there had been a conspiracy to stop the truth emerging. It was all too much for his band-mates.

Less than three years into his life as a Byrd, Crosby found himself being told by the other band members he was out. They didn't want to work with him. More than that, he says they told him this would be the end of his musical career.

For a time the prophesy looked like it was coming true. Licking his wounds he bought a schooner and spent his time sailing it around America's Florida coast.

Then Crosby walked into a bar

As luck would have it Crosby walked into a coffee bar and watched, with increasing interest, as a young singer-songwriter began her set.

By the time she finished playing he was a sure he had found an astonishing talent.

Her name was Joni Mitchell. Forming a romantic relationship with her, he introduced her to the Los Angeles music world and produced her first album.

A blue, close up photo of Joni Mitchell with her eyes closed.
David Crosby produced Joni Mitchell's first album and she went on to record her breakthrough album Blue a few years later.(Photographer: Tim Considine)

In some measure she returned the favour when she invited Graham Nash and Stephen Stills to her home and the three sang together. The meeting would lead to a new super-group, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and propel his own musical career into the stratosphere.

Within the group known as CSN, David Crosby found the perfect situation. If you listen to his demos of songs you quickly realise that working with Stephen Stills he found the perfect partner with a gift for arrangement and an incredible musical ear.

Crosby, for his part, not only brought songs but a singing voice that could move between the harmonic lines of his singing partners, to the point where many critics believed was one of the greatest harmony singers ever.

Success came quickly but life was rarely stable

Christened America's "new Beatles" in terms of their selling power, the group was almost too successful, too quickly. In 1969 with success, came the addition of Neil Young to the group. The band played Woodstock and began work on its next album.

Tragedy though was in the wings. Given David's addictive personality and hair-trigger temper, life was rarely stable, but what happened next would test the strongest of personalities.

His new girlfriend Christine Hinton was killed in a horrific car crash not far from the home where they lived in the hills of Los Angeles. The episode left Crosby further adrift.

Amidst the horror of his loss he crafted a remarkable record at Waller Heider's studios in San Francisco. It was called If Only I Could Remember My Name. It remains a stunning piece of work, with contributions from many of the era's best musicians.

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Duration: 38 seconds38s
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Memorable moments from David Crosby's life

Around this time Crosby recalls he took his first hit of heroin. As he put it, "just great, only the first time. After that you're just trying to catch up, you never get back, never".

With his ever-loyal partner Graham Nash by his side his career appeared to prosper and he released two wonderful albums.

Using cocaine and heroin in tandem to focus and then to lose himself, he was still convinced he was in control. Not so. As the '70s continued, Crosby began to fall apart.

The final straw came in 1985 when he was arrested for the possession of drugs and a weapon.

In all he would spend nearly a year behind bars but he contends that time saved his life and set him on a course to something approaching normality.

Crosby had to rebuild his life but there were setbacks

Drug-free David Crosby painstakingly rebuilt his career and his life. The singer had fathered a child, James Raymond, in the 1960s. The two were re-united in the 1990s.

Better still, he discovered that his son played music. Soon they began playing and recording together. Albums followed and remarkably Crosby began an astonishing comeback, impacted only slightly by health problems.

As Rolling Stone rock writer David Fricke put it: "The renaissance of David Crosby is one of the most curious and surprising events in music."

For David Crosby it seemed as if finally things had come together. Unfortunately there was yet another bend in the highway. Put simply Crosby could not keep his emotions in check nor his thoughts to himself.

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In 2014 hearing that Neil Young had left his wife of four decades and taken up with Daryl Hannah, Crosby turned spiteful, calling Hannah, "a purely poisonous predator".

He went on to apologise for the remarks but then added fuel to the fire by saying Young himself was "probably the most self-centred, self-obsessed, selfish person I know". 

To make matters worse Crosby then went on to accuse his long-time friend Graham Nash of supporting him simply to keep a stream of money flowing in.

"Graham just changed from the guy I thought was my best friend to being a guy that is definitely my enemy," he said.

It was a curious way to conduct the later part of his career. Still on the road he played to adoring audiences. Off the road as he explains in the remarkably candid documentary on his life, Remember My Name, was a different story.

"All the guys that I made music with won't even talk to me."

It was a sad situation for a man who so often espoused the principles of the peace and love generation. Even more so for a man who believed music could and did change the world for the better.

And that perhaps is the lesson of David Crosby's life: it's one thing to believe we can change the world but often far harder to change ourselves.

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