A Conversation With David Crosby

In 2020, there is a great cultural reckoning happening in America. Between elections, pandemics, unrest, polarities and more, it’s easy to feel like the whole of this country’s colorful and complex culture is being debated. Yet, the ‘frontlines’ of that debate are hard to pin down due to all of the different elements at play — in fact, pockets of this “culture crisis” can be found in every era of our history. From the echoes of Civil War songs like “John Brown’s Body” still reverberating across the nation to the resounding legacy of Woodstock still spreading dreams of peace and love from the ‘60s, all the way to today with Tweets and TikToks flying across cyberspace, the blizzard of the world seems to be marching into an increasingly-complicated web of history and cultural context. Caught right in the middle of that web is one man: David Crosby.

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Now, if you’re a reader of American Songwriter, you’re probably familiar with one of the many versions of Crosby. Maybe you know him from his prime — long, curly hair hanging down to his shoulders, big mustache on his face, singing alongside Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young at some arena somewhere in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. Or, maybe you know him as the bright-eyed, Russian-hat-clad member of The Byrds, helping introduce rock poetry to the masses via radio airwaves. Maybe you know him as the iconoclastic, counterculture icon who inspired Dennis Hopper’s character in Easy Rider and talked about dismantling oil companies on Dick Cavett’s show in 1969. Maybe you know him as the troubled addict, getting in trouble with the law and going in and out of rehab. Or, hell, maybe you know him as the Twitter influencer who tweets his thoughts on politics, culture, joint-rolling and more.

Through it all, Crosby has proven himself to be steadfast in his convictions. With politics, for example, he’s continued to be an outspoken evangelist for a progressive, altruistic future. With music, he’s continued to hone his craft, putting out some of the best records of his career just in the last six years (even though he’s making significantly less money on it now than he used to). Even in conversation, Crosby remains as witty as he was all those decades ago when he first stepped into the international limelight. 

Which leads us to the conversation that Crosby had with American Songwriter a few days ago. If you’ll indulge a little bit of journalistic fourth-wall-breaking here, ordinarily, stories work best when they’re linear… when Crosby and I spoke, it was not linear. Nonetheless, there is a certain beauty in the way Crosby’s brain works — in a way, it mirrors the aforementioned “web” that we find ourselves in. Jumping from topic to topic with informed passion, Crosby takes us on a tour across the breadth of his life’s cultural landscape. We talk about everything from politics to collaborative songwriting to Crosby’s short stint as Leonard Cohen’s producer to whether or not the hippie movement made the changes it sought to make. Looking back in retrospect, Crosby is able to offer invaluable insight into the world we live in today — albeit unintentionally, at times. 

Maybe that’s why America has been so fascinated with Crosby for so long. Despite his celebrity, he still represents an unabridged, raw and genuine American spirit. He embodies the restlessness of our nation, the contradictions, the virtues, the talents, the brilliance — it’s all wrapped up together in this beautiful, messy image. That’s what America is and that’s what Crosby is too. Read our conversation below: 

Let’s start with basics — how are you?

Well, my standard answer is: elderly and confused.

I’m doing okay, but not that great because I can’t work. That’s the plight of every ‘American songwriter,’ we can’t work. We can write, I guess… but, here’s the thing: I usually have two ways that I work. I can either make records or do concerts, those are the two ways I make money. Then, streaming came along and I don’t make money from records anymore. That’s done. Nowadays, you go in, you record, you do your job for a month and they give you a nickel. You’d be pissed… I’m pissed. Streaming doesn’t pay us squat, you couldn’t feed a squirrel on what they pay us. So, with that I lost half my income.

That’s okay. I wanted to be grateful that I could still play live shows and take care of my family, pay my rent, do my thing. Then comes along COVID and now I can’t work anymore. That put me out of business. So, I’m not doing all that great — I sold some of my publishing. I had to do that so I could have money to live on, so I could take care of my family.

Selling your publishing must’ve been difficult.

It was hard. I saved my publishing all this time. I didn’t even sell my publishing when I was a goddamn junkie and a junkie would sell their mother! So, it was really hard to do, but I’m grateful that it was an option I had. That’s the only way that I can continue to take care of my family and live in my home.

Well, you’re at least staying active. On Twitter you mentioned that you’re working on a new record? 

Yeah, we’re not ‘working on it,’ it’s done. It’s getting mastered this week. Five records in six years, which makes me very happy. I don’t know anyone else who’s done that. I’m really proud of them because they’re fucking good records.

This new one is really phenomenal. It took me four years to do it, but I finally got Donald Fagen to send me a set of words — we Steely Dan’ed that into a great tune called “Rodriguez Tonight.” We really did the shit out of that one. Then, there’s another one that my son James wrote. I had been begging him for years to write a single and he finally did — it’s called “River Rising” and it’s got Michael McDonald singing on it. It’s killer. But, my favorite on the record is one that James wrote called “I Won’t Stay For Long.” If that song doesn’t break your heart, then you don’t have a heart.

I’m very proud of this whole record. One of the requirements for being my friend is that you can’t butter my toast and tell me “Oh Dave, everything’s fine” when it isn’t. I need them to tell me what they actually think. If there’s something to criticize, my friends tell me, they don’t hesitate. Well, all my friends who are musicians said “Wow, holy shit that’s a great record.” So, I’m very happy with it.

Getting validation from your friends is a great feeling. I’m sure it’s an even better feeling when your friends are world-class musicians. 

Yeah. Respect from your peers is a big deal. They’re the ones who know what you’re doing because they’re doing it too. If James Taylor tells me that I made a great record, then I made a great record. Or, if Joe Walsh or Jason Isbell say that it’s a great record — which they did — then it is. 

So, the truth is that I’m pissed off at streamers and I’m bummed at our luck with COVID shutting down live performances. I can still make music, I just can’t make money off of it. But, when I started making music, I didn’t start to make money in the first place. I started to do it because I love music. 

Many artists tend to fade quality-wise as they grow older, but your records have remained formidable exhibitions of your enduring talent. Would you cite that love of music as your secret?

Yeah, I think it’s the love of music. I really do love it. I’m a good singer and I love singing. I’m an okay writer and I like writing. I love it all. That’s what keeps me going. 

But, I don’t think that it’s fair that the streaming companies are making billions of dollars. It’s the record labels that own the streaming companies, that’s how it happens. People invented this technology and then went to the big record companies that run the business and said “Hey, imagine no physical objects.” The record companies weren’t stupid and thought “Hmm, no shipping, no covers, no print, no returns, no physical object… holy shit!” Now they’re making billions of dollars off of it. 

Have you been following Kanye West’s campaign to reshape the conversation over contracts?

It’s a joke. Kanye’s a joke. That campaign’s a joke. Kanye equates getting attention with being significant. Kanye’s not significant. He’s a bad joke. Even with the contract law stuff, he’s just following smarter people with it. There are people who have actually been working on stuff like that for a long time — he just talks about it without actually doing anything. 

The streamers and the companies that own a piece of them are making billions of dollars. That’s why the record business is still doing so well. They’re making that money and they’re not paying the folks who make the music. If you’re Taylor Swift, you can renegotiate that. She got them to negotiate and they did, now she gets a whole different rate. The rest of us get paid a tiny number. That’s bullshit, and they’re making themselves very rich doing it. 

But, it’s not so bad for me. I mean, it is bad for me, it cut my income in half. But, it’s worse for the young people who are trying to become songwriters. They’re having to sleep on their mom’s couch. They can’t work because they can’t perform. They’re out of business. Really good songwriters are out there and they’re completely broke. They can’t get a leg up — they can’t play live for shit and they can’t get paid for their songs. They’re not getting paid off of streaming at all. It’s not fair and it’s really bad for the future of music. They’re not encouraging the good writers who are coming up, but that’s where the good music is going to come from. 

This fight against big business feels reminiscent of things you’ve been saying since the ‘60s about everything from the music industry to corrupt oil companies — are you exhausted by fighting for progressive change for all of these decades?

I can’t be exhausted. I gotta still stand up. I’ve got children. If you have children, you can’t abandon the fight. You have to fight until you go down. That’s why we can’t stop fighting against global warming and climate change. We have to because your children’s children’s children won’t have a place to live if we don’t. It’s that simple. You have an obligation to your children. I have an obligation to my children and I will fight until I can’t fight anymore.

Many young people today feel like they also have a lifetime of ‘fighting’ ahead of them — what advice do you have for them?

Believe in democracy. It’s hard to believe in democracy right now because we’ve got a broken one right in front of us. It isn’t working, right now, because they’re abusing it. The greed for power has broken our democracy. That’s what you see. It’s hard to tell all the young people “Well, democracy does work if you participate in it.”

Here’s the thing: it isn’t perfect. Nobody said it was. It’s just better than any other way we could try. We’ve tried hunters and gatherers, we’ve tried dictators of every shape and sort, we’ve tried military control, we’ve tried kings and queens and princes, we’ve tried all kinds of things and none of them work. Why? Because there’s no shot in it for the little guy. There’s a line in “Third World Man” — “When the sidewalks are safe/ For the little guy.” None of the other ways of doing it give a shot to the little guy. Democracy does.

So, democracy’s the one. Now, the parliamentary route of democracy — like how it is in Western Europe and Canada — has many parties and that seems to work much better than just two. The power structure here is too solidified, it’s too invested in the two different camps. They just want power. The Republican Party is doing just horrendous things right now. They’re doing it for power. They’re doing it because they get to control the single largest economy in the world and rip off a whole lot of money from it in the process. That’s what they’re doing and it’s disgusting. It’s also really bad for us.

But, we gotta change it so we can deal with global warming. Global warming is a real thing and we can’t deal with it with idiots like the president and Mitch McConnell only counting the dollars that go into their pocket. So, we have to be political. The most underrepresented group of people in voting is 18 – 25. One of the things that I have been concentrating on is trying to increase that vote because it will shift the whole map. If young people vote, we get the senate back and we get the presidency back. Then, we can begin to address environmental degradation, which we must do. We must do that. So, this election is absolutely crucial, yes, but all elections are.

So, my advice to young people is: participate, please. Wait in line, vote. Please. What they want is to keep young people from voting because they know that they don’t represent the majority of the country. They have control of the power and money right now and they’re going to do whatever they can to keep it. They’re going to cheat. They already have cheated, even with mailboxes and attacking the Postal Service. They’re trying every type of cheat they can. It’s bad.

It’s a tough country to be a songwriter in. We want a more idealistic society. We want socialized medicine, we want all kinds of things that the rest of the developed world already has. We need to understand that if we participate, we can be a part of it. We can change the situation. 

Do you think that your generation played as strong of a role in democracy as they should’ve? Do you think that if that rhetoric was around back in the ‘60s, the hippie movement wouldn’t have ended up as a semi-finished cultural revolution? 

Well, I think we tried. We tried on civil rights, we tried on reducing the size and power of corporations, we tried on healthcare, we tried on a lot of stuff. But, we haven’t succeeded. “They” succeeded. This has been a huge defeat for us and democracy. We need to reverse it. We have to retake control of the country in order to deal with the situation. That’s going to require the participation of young people of this country. They have to look at what’s going on, they have to understand it and they have to vote. Otherwise, we’re going to fail. Democracy is going to fail. It’s going to become just another dictatorship.

How do you feel going into election day?

I’m scared. Here’s the deal: each state gets two electors for the electoral college and they’re who actually determines who the president is going to be. So, if you win the state, you get two electors. That’s how we’ve always done it. But… it’s not written down. It’s not a law. If they control a state, they can say “Well, even though you won the popular vote, we don’t think it represents the state so we’re going to send two other guys and they’re going to vote this way.” They can get away with that — there’s no law requiring them to respond to the vote. Okay, so there’s 50 states and it would take 26 states of them doing that for them to steal the election no matter what the vote was. They control 26 states right now. Put that together in your mind. They’re going to try to cheat — this is the most powerful economy in the world, they’re in control of it and they’re making money. They love it. They’re going to defend themselves any way they can and it’s going to be a mess. It’s going to be the dirtiest fight you’ve ever seen. 

I don’t know… let’s talk about songwriting. 

Let’s! You’ve been working on a lot of music recently — how has your process changed? 

My practice has evolved, actually. I started writing with other people and I really like it. The other person always thinks of something you didn’t and it broadens the brush you’re painting with, which is a really good thing. Usually, when you get to a certain age, you peter out. You look at artists you enjoy, they all do that. Sometimes it takes longer — James Taylor just made a fantastic record with fantastic songs and he’s as old as I am. What happens sometimes, I suppose, is that you’re able to continue writing if you’re lucky. For me, it all has to do with writing with other people. 

A long time ago when I was going with Joni [Mithcell] — around that time that I had first heard her and I was producing her first record — I said something and she said “Write that down.” I said “Why?” She said “Because it was good. You said something really good and you phrased it well.” I said “What? What did I say?” She said “Oh, it was something really good! You do this all the time, Crosby — you say something like that and then you don’t remember it because you didn’t write it down. If you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen.” That’s when the bell went off. If you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen. So, now I write stuff down. 

So, now what I do is send myself emails. If I get even four words in a row that I like, I’ll email it to myself. Then, I look at them all later and think “Hmm, well that leads to this which leads to this…” and that’s how I start writing. I have a file with 20 pages of those email ideas in it. That’s where I start these days. Sometimes I still just write an entire song, start to finish, music and words, all without anyone else being involved. It does still happen and there are a few of those songs on the new record. But — especially since I’m not doing it to make money in the first place — I prefer to write with other people now. It’s really an adventure, you don’t know where it’s going to go. I’m enjoying the process immensely. I discovered a lot of good writers. Michael League is a great writer. So is Michelle Willis and so is Becca Stevens. Absolutely outstanding writers. My son James, who co-wrote everything since the Croz record, has really blossomed as a writer. The best song on this record is called “I Won’t Stay For Long” and he wrote it. He’s matured into an absolute freaking genius of a writer. I can’t believe how good the songs are. 

So, we’ll see how this all pays out. For me, writing really changed now that I’m having so much fun doing it with other people. It’s a blast. I just walk in with sheets of notes and they look at them and say “Oh, let’s start with this one here… oh yeah! I see what you’re trying to say here.” Then we’re off and running.

Okay, okay, this is an admittedly random question, but there are so few details out there about it that I can’t help but ask — what’s the story with you and Leonard Cohen? You were originally slated to produce his second album, but it fell through. What happened? 

It was very frustrating, man. I could see how good he was. I mean, if you read his lyrics, you’re stunned by how talented the guy was. But, when I met him he wasn’t a very good singer. Joni and him were friends and she brought him to me just after I had produced her record. I did a session with him and I just couldn’t do it. I wasn’t the right person to record him. He wasn’t the kind of singer I wanted to record, I like a different type of singer. The chemistry wasn’t there and I said “Look, I can’t do this,” so we moved on. 

I love his lyrics, I think they’re fantastic. I like his songs, I love his lyrics. And I like him, I thought that what he was portraying in this world was good. His insights were deep. But, as a singer trying to make a record… well, uh-uh. Sorry, that’s not for me. 

Well, I’ve got one last question for you and it’s kinda a cheesy one. This story will be published on election day — for the folks out there who are worried or anxious, do you have any music recommendations? 

You know, listen to stuff that’s constant, believes in itself and transmits that energy to you. Listen to James Taylor, listen to Bonnie Raitt, listen to Joni Mitchell, listen to people who are absolutely sure about what they’re doing. That’ll give you some forward-motion inertia. It’ll help you not be as afraid as I am!

At one point in the above conversation, Crosby mentions “five records in six years” — explore the four of them that are already out below:

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