David Crosby felt like letting his freak flag fly.
From the mid-’60s up until his death this week, Crosby flew his revolutionary flag at full mast. Too often that meant clashing with authority in moronic ways – drug busts, weapons charges and time in prison often crowded out his messages and music. Crosby was keenly aware that his troubled personal life took up a lot of space. But he also seemed to understand that his songs – those revelatory little masterpieces – were treasures.
“I was tremendously lucky, surviving injury, illness and stupidity,” Crosby wrote in his second autobiography, “Since Then: How I Survived Everything and Lived to Tell About It.” “As for the music, I was blessed early and often, from the Byrds to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, singing with Graham, meeting my son and creating (Crosby, Pevar & Raymond), having the most astounding music come out of that.”
Crosby began as the “minor” talent in the Byrds – a group of ’60s folk-rock pioneers so loaded with aces Crosby barely registered next to Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark. But as the folk gave way to freakiness, Crosby learned to write strange, astral tunes somewhere between “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
On the Byrds’ 1967 LP, “Younger Than Yesterday,” Crosby fronted the band for “Mind Gardens” – a fever dream of noise and drone (that McGuinn reportedly hated). Crosby outgrew the Byrds as he grew into his own aesthetic.
Crosby fell in with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash – fellow ex-folkies who wanted to get weird. In CSN, Crosby had the freedom to explore odd guitar tunings, surprising time signatures, jazz influences and furious protest music. The trio’s debut – 1969’s “Crosby, Stills & Nash” – included three tracks from Crosby, none of which treaded much of the same ground.
“Guinevere” rang out like a tender, holy labyrinth constructed of vocal harmonies and guitar vamping. Written with Stills and Paul Kantner, “Wooden Ships” blended psychedelia, soul and jazz rock with fierce freshness. “Long Time Gone” practically defined the sound of the era, full of pretty voices, heavy guitar and angry words: “You got to speak out against the madness/You got to speak your mind if you dare/But don’t, no don’t, no, try to get yourself elected/ If you do, you had better cut your hair.”
Of course, Crosby wouldn’t be cutting his hair – metaphorically or literally. A year later, on 1970’s “Deja Vu,” this time with Neil Young, the group became even more dynamic. Much of this came from Crosby’s two contributions. The bold and blistering rant of “Almost Cut My Hair” was an anthem. The title track, a song that took 100 hours to arrange and record, was more labyrinthine than “Guinevere.”
Sometimes maybe he should have waved the white flag (or at least given up his weapons collection and hard drugs). But thankfully he never surrendered when it came to his art. He pushed rock to radically expand his boundaries, he made it more intricate and delicate, freakish and sublime.