August 1, 2020

FTV: David Crosby


     A while back, we covered how the ups and downs of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (FTV:  1974 – 12-25-19) led to the normalization of huge venue concerts.  These mega-events were quite common up until the COVID-19 pandemic pulled the rug out from under the music industry.  At that time, I promised to take a more intimate look at the individual members of CSNY.  A few short months later, the book Long Time Gone – The Autobiography of David Crosby (1988 – Doubleday Books by David Crosby and Carl Gottlieb) caught my attention at the Ontonagon Township Library.  I realized that the book had been published after Crosby sobered up.  I surmised that it would be a pretty unvarnished take on his life in music because one of Crosby’s fundamental character traits (or flaws if you rather) is brutal honesty (most of the time).  There has been plenty of ink spent on the negative image Crosby forged when he was drugging away a fortune during his wild and wooly career.  Crosby has been described as loud, opinionated, brash, egotistical, arrogant, and a host of other less than flattering things (even by those who like him).  Those who aren’t fans of the Cros’s personality flaws do not let their feelings eclipse how they feel about his tremendous talents as a singer/songwriter.  I was looking forward to hearing Crosby himself explain how he landed in and out of two of the biggest bands of the era.  The logical place to begin would be with his first wildly popular band, The Byrds.

     In the early 1960s, the area of Los Angeles widely known as The Strip could be described as a combination of the wild west and Las Vegas.  As had happened in other major cities, the seedy clubs on the Sunset Boulevard (sandwiched between Old Hollywood, the Hollywood Hills, Beverly Hills, and the Wilshire District) became the gathering places for folkies, beats, and jazz heads.  One of the original clubs in this then unincorporated area of Los Angeles County was The Troubadour and like most folk clubs of the time, they would host a Hootenanny Night.  It was at one of these ‘hoot’ nights that the core of The Byrds came together, but it wasn’t quite as simple as it sounds.  Fasten your seatbelt and let me try to pull the pieces together.

     Jim McGuinn had landed in L.A. after stints touring with The Chad Mitchell Trio and The Limelighters.  Jim joined a religious sect that expected members to change their name, thus he became Roger McGuinn.  Gene Clark had recently come to Los Angeles after touring Canada with one of the New Christy Minstrels groups (there were several different NCM units touring under the same name to capitalize on their one hit record).  Clark had heard the first Beatles hits in Canada and was drawn to McGuinn when he heard him singing Beatles songs at The Troubadour.  Their original plan was to form a Peter and Gordon type duo, but their voices were too similar in range to make it the right blend.  When Clark heard David Crosby singing at another Troubadour hoot, he was blown away.  He told McGuinn, “Man, is he good!  That’s it.  You can’t ask for any better than that.”  McGuinn wouldn’t explain the details, but he told Clark, “No, man.  I know David.  We tried to work together.  It’s impossible.  It’ll never work.”

     Crosby lived a vagabond life sleeping on whatever couch, mattress, or floor he could find.  This couch-camping network worked as long as none of these temporary flophouses let him unpack for a longer stay.  As a result, Crosby stashed his suitcase in Jim Dickson’s garage.  David knew Dickson because one of the Cros’s old roomies, Dino Valenti, had sold Dickson the rights for a song he wrote called Get Together for a hundred bucks.  Valenti needed the money to keep his car from being repossessed and no one foresaw the song becoming a hit three times (for the We Five in 1965 and for The Youngbloods in 1967 and 1969).  The triple hit brought in bundles of cash for Dickson’s Tickson Music publishing company but none of that filtered back to Valenti. 

       One night when McGuinn and Clark were performing on stage at The Troubadour, Crosby came up and started to sing with them.  Their blended voices were exactly what McGuinn and Clark needed in their music.  Clark recalled, “David was saying, ‘Hey, I’d really like to sing with you guys.  I’d really like to be in your group.’  Eventually, David came to us with a proposition:  he knew a guy named Dickson who had a studio.  He would take us there and get something accomplished.  We agreed it would be a good approach.”

     Dickson completes the story:  “David comes in and says, ‘I’ve found these two guys I want to sing with and if you get involved I can do it.’  He was putting the pieces together.  He brought them into World-Pacific [studios] and made the very first audition tape I ever made of the three of them singing together.  Because of the British Invasion thing that was happening, they’re singing with these English accents.  It’s marvelous, really, and funny.  But they had a sound.  There’s no question about it.  The Byrds.”  Dickson knew a lot of people in Hollywood and a lot more about the music business than did Crosby et al (“We knew nothing.  Zip.  Zero.  Nada,”  according to Cros).  Dickson had the essential elements the new band needed to get to work:  A studio, connections, good weed, and the smarts to ply them with free cheeseburgers after recording sessions.  That Dickson had some unreleased Dylan tracks on hand would also loom large in their story.  One was for a song called Mr. Tambourine Man.

     The Byrds were at the right place to transition from folk music to Top Forty pop in a large part because of Beatlemania.  Crosby had been near the end of a grueling Jack Linkletter Folk Caravan tour that included several groups, one of which was The Big Three with future Mamas and the Papas singer Cass Elliot.  They had a couple of dates left in NewYork and New Jersey when President Kennedy was assassinated.  One date was cancelled but they still had a two night stand to fill.  The four shows attracted a total of no more than sixty people, most of whom were friends of the musicians.  The tour ended with a whimper and Crosby went back to the L.A. folk circuit.  The Billboard charts were dominated with hits by Bobby Vinton (There I’ve Said It Again), Leslie Gore (You Don’t Own Me), and the Kingsmen (Louie Louie).  The Beatles’ fourteen week stretch topping the charts (I Want to Hold Your Hand, She Loves You, and Can’t Buy Me Love) was finally interrupted in May by Louis Armstrong’s rendition of Hello Dolly (really!).  The seed for The Byrds had been planted and watered by The Beatles.  When they went to see A Hard Day’s Night, Crosby said he knew what his future would bring:  “I can remember coming out of that movie so jazzed that I was swinging around stop sign poles at arm’s length.  I knew right then what my life was going to be.  I wanted to do that.  That was it.  They were cool and we said, ‘Yeah, that’s it,  We have to be a band.  Who can we get to play drums?’”       

     The original thought was to have Crosby play bass and sing, but he couldn’t do it:  “Playing bass and singing at the same time is like being able to dial two telephones at once with both hands.  All credit to Paul McCartney, I can’t do it.  I could, however, play rhythm guitar pretty well and sing.  Dickson knew Chris Hillman who was a mandolin player when we found him with his own bluegrass band called The Hillman, and he was looking to find some way to grow.”  As for the drummer slot, Crosby had met a conga drum toting hippie from Big Sur named Michael Clarke while hitchhiking a few years earlier.  They couldn’t afford equipment yet so Clarke played on cardboard boxes.  Dickson convinced a wealthy backer to front the band $5000 for new gear and the investment was repaided twenty times over when they blew up.  Dickson was an integral part of their rapid rise to fame.  By using Dickson’s studio, they were able to instantly review tapes of the sessions and make immediate improvements.  Most bands require years of woodshedding and bar gigs to become tight units.  Dickson helped the band whittle their formative period from ‘years’ to ‘months’.

     This version of The Byrds would soon be making waves in Top 40 AM radio.  They became vanguards of the new west coast music and cultural ‘cool’.  The publicity shots taken with their new instruments portrayed them as the American version of The Beatles sporting Ludwig drums, Rickenbacker twelve string guitars, and Gretch six stringers.  Aping The Beatles right down to their instruments and publicity shots was a calculated step that only backfired when they first toured in Europe:  The Brits did not take well to a group being advertised as ‘the American Beatles’.  Back home, they found the public couldn’t get enough of them.  McGuinn started wearing cobalt colored granny shades and the fad spread like wildfire.

     Growing up, Crosby learned quite a bit about music from his older brother Ethan.  Their cinematographer father was absent much of the time and eventually split from Crosby’s mother.  Crosby wasn’t a great student, but he wasn’t dumb, either.  When he discovered his voice in school musicals, it provided him with a creative outlet that laid the foundation of his future life.  He was never expelled from school, but his last go at private schooling ended after tenth grade when they ‘suggested’ that he probably shouldn’t come back.  By the time he completed his education in the public schools, he was ready to get out on his own.  His Junior College career was shortened by a bust for burglary.  He hit the road for Colorado when one of his numerous girl friends turned up pregnant.  Cosby loved cars, sailboats, and women with equal measure, but once he was out on his own scratching up a little cash from singing in folk clubs, he never went back home.  His ability to charm aided his career as a non-property owning couch-camper.  Crosby continued his wandering folkie musician ways, at least until The Byrds hit it big.  His network of friends were amazed that he never had any money, but a call to his mom or dad could always produce a plane ticket or a check.  As one acquaintance said, “He was the only poor folk musician I knew who flew jets.”

     It didn’t take long for The Byrds’ balloon of success to start deflating.  The strong willed Crosby began to have major disagreements with both Dickson and McGuinn.  Even as their records were climbing the charts, the band’s foundation was crumbling.  Gene Clark said he left the band first, citing a fear of flying.  Crosby thinks he was part of the reason:  “Gene was not a good guitar player.  He had a bad sense of time.  I was much better at it than him and I used to tell him that, which is not a good thing to do.”  Things came to a head when McGuinn and Hillman appeared at his front door one morning.  Roger said, “Hey man, basically we want to get you out of the band,  It’s not working real well.  You’re really difficult to work with.  We don’t dig your songs that much and we think we’ll do better without you.”  The ten grand he got for signing away his rights to The Byrds’ name went fast;   Crosby was snorting a lot of coke and dabbling in heroin, two other things that also contributed to his exit from The Byrds.

     Crosby was suddenly a musician without a band.  He had been asked to join Buffalo Springfield around the time of the Monterey Pop Festival, but they too were near the end of their road.  Less than a year after he got the boot, Crosby, Stills, and Nash came out and for too brief a time, Corsby was in another great band.  Unfortunately, the same two demons that had scuttled his time with The Byrds began to infiltrate Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young not long after Neil Young joined the band.  The four egos plus Crosby’s excessive ingestion of chemical substances took their toll.  Just when David Crosby seemed to find the emotional stability of a home and family, the love of his life was killed in a horrific car crash.  The next chapter was a long, downward spiral that only ended when he was finally paroled from the Texas State Prison in Huntsville in 1986.  How he managed to let ‘junk’ ruin his life, career, and health can be summed up in a quote from a musician friend of Crosby’s:  “It [heroine] is the only terminal illness that tells you you’re fine.”   Incarceration meant Crosby had to endure a brutal, cold turkey drug withdrawal.  While not the best period of his life, the prison term saved his life.  His equally addicted girl friend Jan Dance used their time apart to also come clean.  Reunited (with court permission) and sober, they married in May of 1987.  Crosby’s only way to get high  these days is through music.

     It is rather chilling that the prologue of Crosby’s book contains two medical reports.  Both are from different hospitals that the then 42 year old musician was admitted to back in 1983.  Reading these intake notes leaves one to believe that he was already more dead than alive.  That he was able to clean up his act and is still producing music in 2020 almost qualifies as a miracle.  He began his career with nothing but a guitar and his voice and seems to be in about the same place today.  Crosby’s life is both a testament to the ‘not how to survive being a rock star’ story (even though he did survive) and a cautionary tale about redemption.  

     The other thread of the story that made me scratch my head was the veritable harem of women who surrounded Crosby in his wildest days.  David managed multiple simultaneous relationships and interchanged his partners often.  His companions were constantly reminded that they were there for him and they shouldn’t expect him to be tied down to one woman.  I am not sure why so many of his female companions hung around as long as they did, but the aura of fame can sometimes make people make irrational choices.  David Crosby stood on the edge of the pit for a long time and, luckily, was forced to pull himself back from the brink.  I would hope his story can inspire others who feel the only direction they have left in life is down.  I am also glad that he has finally found it within himself to settle down with one woman and reunite personally (and musically) with his son Raymond from one of his earlier relationships.

Top Piece Video:  The relationship with record producer Dickson did yield gold for The Byrds  Granny  Glasses and all!