The great Croz tells us who the greatest songwriter of our time is. (Hint, her name starts with Joni).
August 14, 2021.
David Crosby, aka Croz to his pals and others, is 80 today.
80! That is a half century past when we were told, back in the day, to stop trusting him, or any human older than 30. Now those happy high hippies who invented that equation are the most senior of citizens. Or they’re a long time gone.
Whereas Croz abides.
I’ve had the distinct joy of interviewing Crosby several times. The first time was at his then-home up in the hills above Encino, quite close to Graham Nash, Tom Petty and others.
I arrived with my dear pal and photographer Henry Diltz, who is also a close friend of Crosby and the photographer of the first iconic CSN album cover and countless other great pictures of David and the gang.
Arriving with Henry was always great, because not only would I know great photos would be captured – always way too many to use, which is a good problem – but because Henry’s presence inevitably made everyone happy. Soon as Croz saw Henry he lit up, and their old happy Laurel Canyon scuffling days hippie joy was ignited. It was a great interview – as were the subsequent ones – infused by David’s keen intelligence, candor and constant humor.
For example, when discussing the decades of great and now-historic photographs Henry too of CSN, he said, “You know Henry wasn’t there to take our photos, don’t you?”
“No, he was taking pictures of our girlfriends swimming!” he said. Henry just laughed.
He also amended the main reason he’s offered through the years about why he had to leave The Byrds. In the past it was an artistic difference, as they objected to songs like “Triad,” about a love affair between three people.
“It was also because I was an asshole!” he said.
My most memorable time talking to Croz was in 2008 in Aspen, Colorado. It was part of a series I hosted for the Aspen Writer’s Association’s called Lyrically Speaking. It was live on radio and filmed in front of a live audience at the beautiful Belly Up Club, where I conducted a live interview with him in front of a live audience.
I did many of these there with songwriters, though none quite as fun as with Croz. I called to see if he would consider it, and he said he’d love to, because it would be a great chance to bring his son Django, and his wife Jan, who was about 13 then, for a little ski trip.”
Hooray! I was delighted. Then he added: “But only if you can get me a private jet. I don’t fly commercial.”
Oh. I knew this was seeming too easy. Presuming this was a request which would be impossible to fulfill, I called the Aspen folks to explain. They said, “Great! We have a friend who can do it. No problem.”
This made everything even more exciting, as I had never flown on a private jet, and didn’t want to miss out. Especially one with David Crosby on it. He and his fam lived up near Santa Barbara then, so we scheduled the plane to depart from there. I took the train to Santa Barbara and David, Jan and Django. We four flew to Aspen together. Flying private, I discovered, was like the difference between a limousine and a Greyhound bus. Which is a big difference.
We were supposed to be in Aspen for three days, but we got snowed in. Literally. This is not drug code. The snow was so massive that the airport was closed for days. We ended up staying for a week, which was great. After that, we drove to Rifle, Colorado, the closest operational airport, and went home from there.
I did many of these live interviews in Aspen, and so as to loosen up the guest, and also signal to the audience that this would be fun, I’d start with a somewhat whimsical question. For this one, I asked why it was that, with Crosby, Stills & Nash, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and also Crosby-Nash, he always got top billing?
He laughed a big hearty laugh, and explained. Just as in songwriting, it was all about the phrasing. It just sounded best. And we went from there.
At one point we got onto the subject of great songwriters – and the greatest. Who did he consider the greatest of all?
“Joni,” he said. “Dylan always gets that because he is a man. But what Joni did musically and lyrically is beyond all other songwriters. “
Joni’s greatness was something he recognized before the world knew her; he was her champion. He heard her perform in Florida, knew she was very great, brought her to L.A. and helped get her a record deal. He even produced her debut album. Though, as he says, he did very little but get out of her way and let Joni be Joni.
He also introduced her to the tribe, the Laurel Canyon gang of musicians. It was at Mama Cass’ home – often the setting for these momentous musical meetings – where everyone first met and marveled at Joni. Henry Diltz (who else?) took the famous photo of Joni on the lawn playing in her open tunings, as Croz smiled knowingly, while Eric Clapton stared at her hands, trying to figure out what she was doing.
Harmonically, Croz is somewhat a genius. He almost always sang the middle part in the three-part CSN harmony, which is the hardest to sing as it is the glue which connects the other two voices.
He always loved singing harmony and excelled at it. First in Les Baxter’s Balladeers, and then with The Byrds. Joining Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, Michael Clarke and Chris Hillman, they defined the era of electric folk-rock by recording Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which they enriched with glorious harmonies and McGuinn’s old folk finger-picking on an electirc Rickenbacker 12-string.
They also stayed true to the old songwriting axiom: “Don’t bore us, get to chorus.” They started with the chorus, and then sang only one of the four verses, the second one:
When I asked Crosby why they cut out so many verses, he said, “Because it was too long.”
Good call. The record became a number one hit, and one of the most impactful records of that moment. Their sound: beautiful harmonies, rock and roll drums and bass, electric guitar finger-picked – changed the sound of pop music. Released in 1965, it echoed through pop music from Simon & Garfunkel to Tom Petty. Simon & Garfunkel’s previously released acoustic version of “The Sound of Silence,” which received little attention upon release, was altered to add some rock to their folk. Electric 12-string was added for that jingle-jangle guitar sound, as was bass and drums.
“Mr. Tambourine Man”
By Bob Dylan
Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship
My senses have been stripped
My hands can’t feel to grip
My toes too numb to step
Wait only for my boot heels to be wandering
I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade
Into my own parade
Cast your dancing spell my way, I promise to go under it
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you
From”Mr. Tambourine Man,” by Bob Dylan.