On 'Sky Trails,' David Crosby Recounts His Regrets And Revelations

Sep 22, 2017
Originally published on September 22, 2017 9:28 am

These days, David Crosby — one of the world's most recognizable rock stars — lives and works quietly in a ranch near Santa Barbara, Calif. with his three dogs—sometimes, he jokes, all named Fang.

Crosby's hair — a feature that has defined his image for a long time — is, well, a little more sparse. The walrus-y mustache is full-on grey. But it's still recognizably him.

In the '60s and '70s, Crosby was known as a collaborator with some of the biggest bands of the time. He was a founding member of The Byrds and is perhaps most known for his involvement in the folk-rock supergroup Crosby, Stills and Nash. Now, he's going through a creative rebirth as a solo artist. Sky Trails, his latest album, will be his third in less than four years.

It was at his Santa Barbara home — a quiet house overlooking a pool and the mountains — where this new record came together, starting off as ideas jotted on notebook paper.

Crosby says his habit of writing anything and everything down came from a lesson Joni Mitchell taught him.

"I said something to her and she said, 'Write that down,'" he recounts. "I said, 'Huh?' She said, 'Write that down!' I said, 'Why?' 'Because it was good! If you don't write it down, it didn't happen.'"

It seemed like such basic advice, but became an important part of Crosby's creative process.

In fact, he put Mitchell's lesson to use in a song called "Sell Me A Diamond." Its hook includes the lyric, "You said it was conflict free / Such a beautiful concept, that such a thing could be," which came from a phrase he heard that caught his ear.

"I had been smitten with the phrase: 'conflict free,' 'conflict free diamonds,'" he says. "So I hear this phrase ... and it really appeals to me, because we're in conflict all the time. We've been at war someplace on planet Earth my whole life."

Crosby's got a knack for writing about issues without writing about them too directly. It shows in this song, where he finds a way to oppose the evil of the world without having it become too peacenik, filled with hippy clichés.

"If you want to talk about something you can't go straight at it," he says. "It doesn't work that way. If you want to write about the Eiffel Tower you don't say, 'It's big and it's tall and it's made out of iron!' You don't. You look at the Eiffel Tower through somebody's eyes who's watching it in the mist over their lover's head. In Paris. On a quiet night. And then, you see the Eiffel Tower."

For a man who sings about "conflict free," Crosby has been anything but. Crosby, Stills and Nash, a group he'd been part of for roughly 50 years, no longer makes music together — largely because of internal squabbles that, Crosby admits, he was no small part of.

"Bands go through an evolution," Crosby says. "You start out and you're kind of in love with each other and it's all pretty exciting, and you like each other's music. Forty years later, when it's devolved to turn on the smoke machine and play your hits and you don't like each other, it can really spoil the gift that you had in the first place, which was the music. So quitting it was like jumping off a cliff. What's happened since, these records, is like growing wings halfway down the cliff. It has felt unbelievably great."

So, is Crosby totally at peace now?

Thanks to the current political climate, not quite. In 2006, Crosby, Stills and Nash, along with Neil Young, came out calling for President George W. Bush to go. They were cheered — and they were booed. But Crosby likes the role the band played then, and believes the protest movement wants him today.

"We need to come out and be that voice for those people," he says. "I get an email about once every two or three hours saying, 'Please, will you guys get over it and come back and be the voice?'"

And while talking about the potential to join the protest movement, Crosby sounds like he wants to be back out there with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash.

But he doesn't see it happening. And in his solo music, there is a feeling of loneliness that comes through as he reflects on how he damaged relationships in his career and his life.

In "Here It's Almost Sunset" he sings, "This is probably all my fault, this is the life I chose / For better or for worse."

Crosby says that lyric is meant to describe hurt he caused himself and others.

"I have to cop to it. This has been my choice," Crosby says. "[I've] got to take responsibility for it. I did lots of harm to myself and to other people. I've gone back to those people — it's one of the things you do when you go into that 12-step thing. You go back and you find the people that you hurt and you say, 'Look, I was crazy and I hurt you. And I'm apologizing; I'm sorry.'"

Crosby struggled with his health throughout his career, in large part due to the effects of drug addiction. In 1994, he was within days of dying before receiving a liver transplant. These experiences, too, inform his new music, especially in lyrics that reflect on his current state. "Here It's Almost Sunset" continues: "Here it's almost sunset / So why is the sun shining brighter? / How can that be? / How can I still see?"

"There's no excuse for me being alive considering what I did," he says. "Look at the people who are dead. Friends of mine: Jimi [Hendrix], Janis [Joplin] — I've lost a lot of people. Why them dead? Why me alive? I think about it. I don't have that answer. But I'm grateful. I'm grateful I'm alive; I'm really grateful I'm writing. And this is the weirdest thing: I'm really grateful I can still sing. I know a lot of people who can't, and it's probably the greatest joy in my life, getting in the singing."

Web intern Steffanee Wang contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You know, I recently visited the home of one of the world's most recognizable rock stars.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALMOST CUT MY HAIR")

CROSBY, STILLS, NASH AND YOUNG: (Singing) Almost cut my hair.

GREENE: That hair - well, the long mane is a little more sparse these days. The walrus-y (ph) mustache is full-on grey. But it was still recognizably David Crosby.

DAVID CROSBY: Good ol' Fang, attack, attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

GREENE: Those are his three dogs there. He jokingly said their names are all Fang, and he commanded them to attack us.

So here's a guy who was known as a collaborator with some of the biggest bands in the '60s and '70s - the Byrds and, of course, Crosby, Stills and Nash.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROSBY, STILLS AND NASH'S "SUITE: JUDY BLUE EYES")

GREENE: Now he is going through a creative rebirth as a solo artist. His new album will be his third in less than four years. He works quietly right here on his ranch near Santa Barbara, Calif., overlooking his pool and the mountains, jotting things down as they come to him.

Pink notebook paper for, like, writing new songs?

CROSBY: Anything - envelopes.

GREENE: So you'll be sitting at this desk and just something will come to you?

CROSBY: So lesson that Joni Mitchell taught me.

GREENE: Yeah.

CROSBY: I said something to her, and she said write that down. I said, huh (ph)? She said, write that down. I said, why? Because it was good.

GREENE: (Laughter).

CROSBY: If you don't write it down, it didn't happen.

GREENE: Seems like such basic advice but really important because if you let those moments...

CROSBY: Really important. When she said it didn't happen, I went, she's right.

GREENE: Can you tell me what it says on one of those pages? Or do I have to wait for the next album...

CROSBY: Oh, no. That's secret rock star stuff, man. You can't...

GREENE: (Laughter).

CROSBY: ...No. Not only no, but hell no.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID CROSBY'S "SELL ME A DIAMOND")

GREENE: So that lesson from Joni Mitchell, he put it to use on a new song called "Sell Me A Diamond."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SELL ME A DIAMOND")

CROSBY: (Singing) You wanted to sell me a diamond.

I had been smitten with the phrase. Somebody used the phrase when they were talking about diamonds of conflict free - conflict-free diamond.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SELL ME A DIAMOND")

CROSBY: (Singing) You said it was conflict free, such a beautiful concept that such a thing could be.

So I hear this phrase, conflict free, and it really appeals to me because we're in conflict all the time. We've been at war some place on planet earth my whole life.

GREENE: Our colleagues at NPR, who cover music, they write about that song and say that you have this way of not falling in to kind of the peacenik hippie cliches. Like, you find a way to oppose the evil of the world but making it personal. I mean, there's just some knack that you have.

CROSBY: Well, that's the job.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SELL ME A DIAMOND")

CROSBY: (Singing) Sell me a diamond. I have to know if this transaction is the key to letting go.

If you want to talk about something, you can't go straight at it. It doesn't work that way. If you want to write about the Eiffel Tower, you don't say (singing) it's big, and it's tall, and it's made out of iron. You don't.

You look at the Eiffel Tower through somebody's eyes who's watching it in the mist over their lover's head in Paris on a quiet night. And then you see the Eiffel Tower.

GREENE: Can I be Joni Mitchell and say that you should write that down? (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID CROSBY'S "SELL ME A DIAMOND")

GREENE: For a man who sings about conflict free, he has been anything but. Crosby, Stills and Nash is no longer, largely, because of internal squabbles that David Crosby admits he was no small part of.

CROSBY: Bands go through an evolution. You start out and you're kind of in love with each other. And it's all pretty exciting. And you like each other's music. Forty years later, when it's a devolved to turn on the smoke machine and play your hits and you don't like each other, it can really spoil the gift that you had in the first place, which was the music. So quitting it was like jumping off a cliff. What's happened since, these records, is like growing wings halfway down the cliff. It's felt unbelievably great.

GREENE: So David Crosby, totally at peace or not?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S IMPEACH THE PRESIDENT")

CROSBY, STILLS, NASH AND YOUNG: (Singing) Let's impeach the president for lying.

(APPLAUSE)

GREENE: This is 2006. Crosby, Stills and Nash along with Neil Young came out calling for President George W. Bush to go. They were cheered. And they were booed. Crosby likes the role the band played then and believes the protest movement wants him today.

CROSBY: We need to come out and be that voice for those people. I get an email about once every two or three hours saying, please, will you [expletive] guys get over it and come back and be the voice?

GREENE: And could you compartmentalize enough that whatever tensions there are personally, I mean, it's...

CROSBY: Absolutely.

GREENE: It sounds like you want to be back out there with them.

CROSBY: Sure, I do. For this, [expletive] yeah.

GREENE: But he doesn't see that happening. And in his solo music, there is a feeling of loneliness that comes through reflecting on how he damaged relationships in his career and his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE IT'S ALMOST SUNSET")

CROSBY: (Singing) This is probably all my fault. This is the life I chose for better or for worse. As when we're finally, I tell you where the truth grows (ph).

GREENE: Some of the lyrics you wrote - you're - said this is probably all my fault. This is the life I chose.

CROSBY: It's what came out. I have to cop to it. This has been my choice.

GREENE: What is the, your fault? I mean, like, people you've hurt? Or things you did to yourself...

CROSBY: Yeah.

GREENE: ...Or both?

CROSBY: Yeah. You got to take responsibility for it. I did lots of harm to myself and to other people. I've gone back to those people. It's one of the things you do when you go into that 12-step thing. You go back and you find the people that you hurt. And you say, look, I was crazy. And I hurt you. And I'm apologizing. I'm sorry.

GREENE: I just think about your life. I mean, you weren't totally friendly to your body for a good while with drugs.

CROSBY: Boy, not. So totally not.

GREENE: And your liver - I mean, you were within days of dying before liver transplant. I mean, I don't say this to a lot of people. I've just - I'm kind of amazed that you're...

CROSBY: Here?

GREENE: ...Still here (laughter).

CROSBY: Me too, me too. There's no excuse for me being alive considering what I did. Look at all the people who are dead - friends of mine - Jimi, Janice. I've lost a lot of people. Why them dead? Why me alive? I think about it. I don't have that answer. But I'm grateful.

I'm grateful I'm alive. I'm really grateful I'm writing. And this is the weirdest thing. I'm really grateful I can still sing. I know a lot of people who can't. And it's probably the greatest joy in my life getting in the singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE IT'S ALMOST SUNSET")

CROSBY: (Singing) Here, it's almost sunset so why is the shining brighter? How can that be? How can I still see?

GREENE: That was David Crosby. His new album is called "Sky Trails." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.