Saturday, October 11, 2014

Concert Review: Is David Crosby God?

 David Crosby performing in San Diego - Photo by Jamie Reno
On a cool, breezy evening in downtown San Diego last week, I saw God. Well, not God, exactly. But something comfortingly similar to what you might imagine God looks and sounds like. Watching 73-year-old rock legend and survivor David Crosby perform a high-energy set with his old mates Stephen Stills and Graham Nash was an almost spiritual experience. 

A grandfatherly figure now with a glowing silver mane and trimmer physique, Crosby has a calming presence about him, a wisdom. And a likability. It was uplifting to hear him chat it up so warmly, eloquently and hilariously with the adoring crowd between songs. 

Crosby, who given his documented life of excess really should be a ghost by now, was once considered too arrogant and too toxic to work with. But the old sailor has acquired a boatload of zen and goodwill. He had the audience, including me, in the palm of his hands.

Even Crosby probably wonders how the hell he made it through so many self-destructive episodes when so many of his rock & roll friends didn't. He's clearly enjoying his lucky long ride. But not in an obnoxious or narcissistic way. He's just thankful for his life. 

It's hard to believe this is the same guy who used to piss off just about everyone in his path. The same guy who was fired from The Byrds. But that's what happens when you combine a large dose of natural hubris, which Crosby owns, still, with unnatural things such as drugs, money and fame. 

Towards the end of the so-called Summer of Love in 1967, most young California musicians were still strumming their acoustics, tripping on 'shrooms and waving peace signs around. But that summer became a full-on bummer for Crosby when his fellow Byrds kicked him out of the nest. 

Crosby was canned from the pioneering and popular country-rock outfit mostly because of his mouth. He just never knew when to shut it. He was at times abrasive and relished controversy. He seemed to like making people feel uncomfortable. It was his way or the highway. That, too, is rather God-like, come to think of it.

Stills (left), Nash and Crosby rocking San Diego - Photo by Jamie Reno
Crosby wasn't evil, but by many accounts he was insufferable. An in-your-face cat, especially when it came to music, or politics, he was egomaniacal and relentless. He alienated many people who came into contact with him, even his erstwhile allies. 

At one point Nash was just about the only person who'd even speak to Crosby, who admits now that he used to treat women terribly. He once bailed in the middle of a recording session with Nash when his hash pipe broke. Crosby was a hardcore junkie who burned most of his bridges. No one denied his musical genius, or even his charm, when he summoned it, but he was on a downward spiral from which virtually no one thought he'd escape. And sadly many didn't care.

But Crosby did escape. He enjoyed the last laugh, both professionally and personally. People love him now. And while the influential Byrds are deservedly in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, their impact on the world hasn't been nearly as profound as the band Crosby would subsequently co-found.

You may already know the story behind the genesis of Crosby, Stills & Nash. After Crosby was fired by Byrds' frontman Roger McGuinn, he drifted for a bit, producing Joni Mitchell's first album and writing a love song for Jefferson Airplane. 

Stephen Stills (left) and Graham Nash jamming - Photo by Jamie Reno
But then he met up with brilliant singer-songwriter-guitarist Stephen Stills (left), fresh out of Buffalo Springfield, and they jammed together on Crosby's boat and came up with the timeless classic "Wooden Ships." 

Crosby then connected with equally gifted British singer-songwriter Graham Nash (left), who subsequently quit The Hollies, and the three of them formed a super group that actually lived up to that overused epithet. Their first jam together was in Joni Mitchell's house in Laurel Canyon. Their second was at Woodstock, where Stills told the enormous crowd that the band was "scared shitless." It didn't show.

CSN's music, mystique and enduring popularity have eclipsed those of any other band from the Woodstock generation. Neil Young would join up for the Woodstock performance and the band's second album, "Deja Vu," and weave in and out of the band for the subsequent four-plus decades. But the template, the core group, is CSN, of which Crosby has always been the most interesting member. Not always for good reasons. But always.

Maybe it's the music that has kept him alive. Crosby's songwriting is intensely personal, unique and melodic. His ambitious compositions, from "Deja Vu" to "Cowboy Movie" to "Laughing," are simultaneously ethereal and majestic. His songs can at once be pensive and kick-ass. It's a delicate balance few songwriters have attained.

In the sold-out concert, which took place at the plush, old-school San Diego Civic Theater, David, Stephen and Graham and their excellent backup band were all in peak form. The crowd was wildly enthusiastic. Everyone on the stage was stellar. But Crosby stole the show. 

David, whose sublime 1971 solo album "If I Could Only Remember My Name" is one of my favorite atmospheric, chill-out records ever, can just stand on the stage under a spotlight, silently if he wants, and crowds go nuts.

Kicking off with one of the group's best rockers, "Carry On," CSN had the mostly baby-boomer crowd on their aging feet. Stills' guitar work remains extraordinary and his increasingly raspy voice still manages to find itself, especially on the rockers. Graham's voice is still pristine.

The three of them continue to create a vocal and emotional magic on stage that few other bands can. It's still the perfect blend of three voices. No band in the rock era can boast three lead voices that mix and match so wonderfully. Of course the magic also comes from all those brilliantly crafted songs. But it's even more than that now. 

CSN tours have evolved into poignant, bittersweet, rocking revivals. There is a heap of nostalgia, naturally, but they don't seem like oldies shows. Each member brings new songs, good ones, and each guy talks to the audience about what's happening today as well as what happened back in the 60s. But a CSN concert in 2014 is an undeniably happy reminder of what this music and what the 60s really meant to people, especially boomers. 

I was only eight when CSN's first album came out, but I listened to it incessantly. I was a young musician and had hip, music-loving parents and older sibs who made sure I heard all the good music of the era. As I watched David perform his epic "Long Time Gone," which he sang with such fervor, I wondered how many of the people in the crowd that night must have listened to this song in their dorm rooms, attended anti-war protests on campus, graduated from college, grew up, settled down and then just sort of lost touch with the lofty ideals of their youth.

When Crosby and Nash teamed up for "Guinevere," the masterpiece of two-part harmony that Crosby wrote in 1969, I was mesmerized. The song is stunning. It is musical perfection. And they still nail it.

Crosby told Rolling Stone years ago that the song was about "three women that I loved. One of who was Christine Hinton, the girl who got killed who was my girlfriend, and one of who was Joni Mitchell and the other one is somebody that I can't tell. It might be my best song."  

Yes, it might be. Crosby also introduced a newer song, "What Makes it So," and it was a highlight, especially for how cool and strange some of the chord progressions are. I know of very few other songwriting guitarists other than maybe John Mayer who throw more bizarre, even unrecognizable chords into his compositions than Crosby. 

It was nice to see David and Stephen smiling broadly while jamming together on guitars at one point. The two of them have had more than their share of head-butting battles over the years. They've made peace. They probably don't even remember what most of the arguments were about. Except, perhaps, the ones over women.

David Crosby solo performance in San Diego, 1986
Crosby's life has obviously been volatile and crazy even for rock-star standards. He's consumed a ton of drugs and booze, he had a liver transplant, and he went to prison in Texas for nearly a year on drug and gun offenses. He's been arrested a bunch of times for drugs and guns. 

I saw David right after he got out of prison in a sold-out solo show in 1986 at a small club in San Diego (that's where the black and white picture above was taken). He was funny that night, but still defiant about the jail time and about his need for weapons. David isn't always the knee-jerk, politically correct liberal some think. He's a gun enthusiast and has also been openly critical of Muslims and Arabs.

A diabetic who has had heart problems and fought a long battle with Hepatitis C, Crosby has repeatedly cheated death. Yet, impossibly, he's singing better than ever. Crosby is so well known for writing soft, trippy songs that he's never gotten enough credit for the power of his voice. He's a phenomenal singer. When he sang "Almost Cut My Hair," his bluesy hippie-rebel anthem, he brought the freaking house down. 

Mind you, Crosby is still outspoken, politically and otherwise. He still gets pissed off when he encounters injustice. He will never be a wallflower. But he's clean, mostly sober (he still smokes pot now and then), and obviously happy. He's come to terms with his demons and has apologized to as many people as he can find who he may have mistreated back in the day. 

Even former enemy McGuinn and Crosby have buried the hatchet. But the mercurial McGuinn stubbornly tells Crosby over and over that he has no interest in a Byrds' reunion -- even though this year is the 50-year anniversary of that band. Crosby has said that he's all in if McGuinn ever agreed. But he won't.

Suffice to say, David Crosby beat the odds. He was given a second act, and it's a hit. I wish it could last forever. Maybe it will. Crosby is evidently indestructible. Maybe he really is God. He told Rolling Stone recently, "I don't know why I'm alive and Jimi and Janis isn't and Mama Cass isn't and all my other friends. I have no idea why me, but I got lucky."

Yes, David, you got lucky. Very lucky. And so did we. 


  1. Jamie, I am nowhere near the writer you are and I wanted to say how much I enjoyed this piece. Saw CSN recently and "what you said." My bonus was sitting among some really fervid fans. They - and the great music - made for a fantastic musicial night. I was tripping!

    1. chuck, thanks so much for the kind words. glad you guys had a great time!

  2. Great article and couldn't agree more! I saw CSN in Santa Barbara - September 2014 which I think was the same tour. They were spot on, each one perfection in my book, which makes for great night and great memories! Someday would love hear Stills do "Treetop Flyer" - great song! They have been with me on every road trip, kept me going through college and beyond. While they could each be God, I think God has kept them here and together for a reason - keep playin CSN - you keep it real! Thanks for the article!

    1. thanks Jwhit for the kind words. I would love to see the band again at the County Bowl in Santa Barbara, one of my favorite venues. I went to college up there. Thanks for reading our news blog!