David Crosby’s rise to fame was plagued by drug and alcohol use and a fiery temperament that burned a lot of bridges. A new documentary, David Crosby: Remember My Name, opening in theaters in July, takes us through his incredible triumphs and low, low points, from The Byrds to Crosby, Stills, and Nash and beyond. Now, after overcoming the addictions that nearly killed him, a liver transplant, and multiple heart surgeries, the 77-year-old is on the road again and happy. “It’s really strange to have the best part of your life near the end,” he says. “I’m glad [producer] Cameron Crowe gave me no place to hide in the film. We wanted to do an honest portrayal of a human being not a shine job.”
He believes music can change minds. At every show, he performs “What Are Their Names,” which includes the following lyrics:
I wonder who they are
The men who really run this land
And I wonder why they run it
With such a thoughtless hand
What are their names
And on what streets do they live
I’d like to ride right over
This afternoon and give
Them a piece of my mind
About peace for mankind
Peace is not an awful lot to ask
Jeanne Wolf: People call you a survivor. I like to think of you as an unstoppable artist-adventurer.
David Crosby: I’m not exactly unstoppable, but the truth is, I think I must be the luckiest guy I know. I was supposed to be dead 20 years ago, and here I am just having a blast. I’ve done four records in four years and I’m halfway through a fifth one. I didn’t do it to prove anything. I just did it because I had the songs and it was fun. I think it has to do with your attitude about life. If your whole concern is your physical exterior, getting old is kind of hard. If you’re concerned with your heart, your mind, and your soul, it is pretty much fun.
When I’m on stage, I’m the happiest guy in the world. I never sing anything exactly the same. I’m always winging it. It’s like having your own rocket ship. You can feel this total freedom and the joy of the connection that you have with the other musicians. This magic that you’re making together is freakin’ wonderful.
Then you eat a piece of pizza and try to sleep on a bus.
Looking back, we went through some tough times inside Crosby, Stills, and Nash. We were all competing with each other. The result was some really good music, but there was never the kind of joy making it that collaborative effort has. If you’re working with somebody for the same aim, it’s a joy, but not if you’re going, “I’m better than you are.”
Now my son, James Raymond, produces my records and plays with me in all my gigs. He’s the keyboard player and my best writing partner. So it’s really pretty wonderful. His mom put him up for adoption when he was born. I knew he existed but I didn’t know how to find him. Then when he was 30 he found me. He got ahold of me and he was so nice. You know those meet-ups usually go badly, but he gave me a clean slate, gave me a chance to earn my way into his life.
JW: People are still curious about your years of self-destruction and addiction. Do you get weary of talking about it?
DC: I learned to be able to tell my story because it can help other people who are trying to deal with addiction. You start in the meetings. Then, people come to you and say, “My brother or my son or my wife or my lover is in such deep trouble — what can I do?” I can usually help, but the truth is, you can only do it yourself, even if people are sympathetic and supportive. Sometimes they lock you up and that’s the only way you get straight. You have no choice if you’re in prison. That’s what finally happened to me. But when you get out, good luck if you haven’t figured things out for yourself.
I do think that the hard things that you go through shape you and, in many cases, make you better. I don’t know anybody I like that isn’t covered with scars. I think that after you’ve gone through something really tough, then when you see somebody else going through something tough, you have compassion.
JW: Your songs have been anthems for change. Can lyrics really make a difference?
DC: Music is a really wonderful thing for transmitting ideas, and ideas are the most powerful stuff on the planet. People like me come from the troubadours in the Middle Ages in Europe carrying the news from town to town. Right? And the town criers. “It’s twelve o’clock and all is well!” or “It’s twelve o’clock and you elected that guy to be president!” Most of our job is to take you on emotional journeys and make you boogie. But if your government starts shooting down your children when they’re at college protesting legally and unarmed, as they did at Kent State, you have to sing about it. And we did. That’s the witness part. Short of that, I think you have to be really careful about how you do it because I don’t like the people who just adopt the cause of the week.
Most of my songs come to me at night at home. We always have dinner together as a family, and then I go to build a fire and I smoke some pot. I take a guitar off the wall and I play and I see where it goes. Very often, I will find a new piece of music. The other way that happens is, I get a flash of some words that I like. That’s the thing I learned from Joni Mitchell, who told me, “Write everything down, otherwise it didn’t happen.”
This article is featured in the July/August 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Feature image: Courtesy David Crosby: Remember My Name