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A Conversation with David Crosby Print-ready version

by Wally Breese
March 15, 1997

David Crosby Photo by Leslie Mixon

David Crosby was born in L.A. on August 14, 1941. His father, Floyd, was an Academy Award winning cinematographer. As a child, he was encouraged to play musical instruments, and along with his father and his brother Ethan, they would perform family concerts. Growing up, his musical love was not early rock and roll like the other kids around him, but jazz and classical music.

In his early 20's, he developed an interest in folk music and joined a Kingston Trio-like group called Les Baxter's Balladeers. While traveling with this group he met Cass Elliot, later of The Mamas & The Papas, who at that time was a member of a group called The Big Three. Cass would introduce him to a significant figure in his future, Graham Nash of the British group The Hollies. Nash, of course, would join with David and Stephen Stills in 1969 to form the legendary group Crosby, Stills & Nash.

In 1964 Crosby formed the folk-rock group The Byrds with Jim (later changed to Roger) McGuinn, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke. They became the premiere folk-rock group when their version of Bob Dylan's song "Mr Tambourine Man" became the summer hit of 1965.

David's association with the Byrds ended during the recording of their sixth album in August 1967, when escalating tensions drove him from the group and he sought refuge in Florida. One evening he went to a local club, "The Gaslight South," and saw a beautiful, unique-sounding singer-songwriter. He immediately became infatuated with both the woman and her music. That singer was Joni Mitchell.

David told me:

David: I went looking for a sailboat to live on. I wanted to do something else. Find another way to be. I was pretty disillusioned. I walked into a coffee house and was just completely smitten. She was standing there singing all those songs ... "Michael from Mountains," "Both Sides Now," and I was just floored. I couldn't believe that there was anybody that good. And I also fell ... I loved her, as it were.

Wally: So you introduced yourself to her that first night. She knew who you were, of course?

David: Yeah, sure. We became fairly fast friends, you might say. I was extremely fascinated with the quality of the music and the quality of the girl. She was such an unusual, passionate and powerful woman. I was fascinated by her tunings because I had started working in tunings, and I was writing things like "Guinevere." So things like that made me very, very attracted to her.

Wally: Did you share alternate tunings?

David: Oh, I'm sure we learned things off each other. We used to play songs to each other all the time. But I think she just outgrew me.

Wally: So you were both experimenting with alternate tunings?

David: Yes, but she has since gone further with it than I have. I think she's gone further with it than anyone.

Wally: She's developed over 50 tunings over the years, which is truly incredible.

David: Well, it's either her or Michael Hedges, I think they're the two reigning kings of tunings.

Wally: He's from the San Francisco Bay Area. Are you a friend of his?

David: Yes.

Wally: He's a wonderful guitarist. I was introduced to his music a few years ago by my best friend, Jim, who is also a guitarist. Someone told me that Hedges was influenced by Joni.

David: I'm sure he was. I don't know of any singer/songwriter who wasn't. How could you not be?

Wally: That's true, she's definitely the best lyricist, and her melodies are so distinctive. I think she's incredible! Of course, that's why I started the Joni Mitchell Homepage. I didn't think she was getting the recognition she deserved. There wasn't anything out there on the web about her, so I figured if her record company wasn't going to promote her this way, then I'd better do it.

David: Well, the record companies never know what they've got, especially not when it comes to a singer/songwriter. They wouldn't know songs if they flew up their nose and died. They haven't yet got a clue what or who Joni is. In a hundred years when they look back and say, "Who was the best?" - it's going to be her.

Wally: I agree. Probably her and Dylan.

David: It's going to be her. She's a better poet than Dylan and without question a far better musician. I don't think there's anybody who can touch her. James Taylor comes close, but I think it's her, and I don't think the record companies ever realized that or have known what the story was.

Wally: Well, she's rarely been a big seller, and the record companies are about making more money.

David: Yes, I've noticed.

When David returned to Los Angeles in late 1967, Joni came along and moved into his Hollywood house. He enthusiastically presented her to his musician friends, and to influential people in the music business. She was soon noticed by the media, including well-known radio personality B. Mitchell Reed, who wrote and spoke of her talent. She played the Troubadour club during this period, and faced packed houses for three nights in a row.

David related the following:

David: We came back to LA together and yeah, I did bring her around to everyone I knew ... my favorite trick at the time was to invite everyone over, get a joint of dope that was stronger than they could possibly smoke and get her to play and they would walk out stupefied. They'd never heard anything like her and it was a lot of fun. It only stopped being fun when I started producing her first record. Joni is not a person that you stay in a relationship with. It always goes awry, no matter who you are. It's an inevitable thing. We were starting to have friction and at the same time I was starting to produce her record and I didn't really know how.

Reprise Records was interested in signing Joni but they wanted to have her album produced by someone who would give her the folk-rock sound that was the rage at that time. However, both David and Joni were intent on presenting her music as it was performed - simply, mostly just guitar and vocal. David told Reprise that he would take the production reins on Joni's first record, and the company agreed. They presumably thought "Who better to get the current sound than a former member of the group that started it?" By the time the company heard the session tapes, it was too late to go back and re-record. I think that this is a great debt that Joni owes to David. As she has stated in the past, the manner in which an artist is initially presented heavily influences the way they're perceived from then on.

I asked David about the sessions for the first album:

Wally: Did you spend a long time on Joni's first album or was it done in just a few quick weeks?

David: It was a fairly long process, as I remember.

Wally: By the way, do you call the first album "Song to a Seagull" or "Joni Mitchell?"

David: She originally called it "Song to a Seagull," which some people think is what she called it when she was still in love with me. I don't know. There are references to me on the album ... like "Dawntreader."

Wally: Oh, "Dawntreader" is definitely about you, I would think, with its references to sailing ships and seabirds.

David: But I think most people referred to the album as "Joni Mitchell."

Wally: In addition to the ten songs that made it onto the first album, were other songs also recorded? As an archivist, I know that there are a number of songs that never made it to any of Joni's albums. "Urge for Going," for example. Was that from the sessions for the first album?

David: No, I think that came later, but I'm sure there were more songs than we ended up putting on the record.

Wally: Do you remember any of those songs, like "Eastern Rain," "Carnival in Kenora," or "Just Like Me?"

David: I don't, man, it's been so long.

Wally: There are existing tapes of some of these songs from WDAS and WHAT, two Philadelphia FM stations popular in the late 1960's. They taped a bunch of shows with Joni at a club called the Second Fret, and also a few in-station appearances. Another Philly station, WMMR, rebroadcast them a few times in the '70's. For collectors like me, these unavailable-on-album songs are almost as familiar as the officially released songs.

David: Yeah, she wrote some beautiful things back then.

Wally: Yes, I've read that she was just bursting with creativity then, writing 5 or 6 songs a week sometimes. When she was with you was it like that?

David: Yes, it was very difficult for me. I'd sit there and struggle over one song, like "Guinevere" for a month, and she would have written 5 songs that week.

Wally: After you and Joni stopped being a couple, she moved in with Graham (Nash), and they wrote all those songs about their relationship like "Our House," "Willie," etc. It seemed as if you all were writing about and to each other.

David: You know, we did write a lot to each other back then. She was one of the three women I wrote "Guinevere" about.

Wally: I guess another was Christine Hinton? (Christine was David's lover who was tragically killed in an auto accident in 1969).

David: Uh-huh.

Wally: And who would the third one be?

David: Oh, someone that nobody knows.

Wally: Keeping that fact to yourself, David?

David: Yeah.

Although David was happy with the conception and performance on Joni's first album, he was dissatisfied with some technical aspects of the recording, and the resulting lack of clarity.

David commented on the sound quality of the album:

Wally: Can we talk a little bit more about Joni's first album? I've read that there was some kind of a problem with the master tape. It had a buzz or high-pitched hum or somesuch on it?

David: Yeah, I hadn't recorded it well enough. I had allowed too much noise - too much signal-to-noise ratio - too much hiss.

Wally: Was that because, as I understand, you miked the piano strings as well as her vocals?

David: Yes. I wanted to try and get the overtones that happen from the resonating of the piano and, of course, it recorded at way too low a level. If you use those mikes at all you get a hiss, so we had to go in and take those things out. It was just an idea and it didn't work. It shows you that I really didn't know enough to do it.

Wally: So how did you take out the hiss? Did you just turn it down?

David: We went back in and remixed it without all those tracks.

Wally: I understand that now there are better processes available for remastering the tapes. When they reissue the album, which Reprise is planning to do, it shouldn't sound so much like it's "under a bell jar" as it's been referred to.

David: Yeah, I'm sure they can make it better now. Like I said, I didn't know enough to know what I was doing but we did get the actual songs down without a bunch of other crud on it and that made me happy.

Wally: Well, it's a wonderful album, and a very intimate experience. I think the production served the material well.

David: It could have served it better. But it's what happened.

Wally: The greatest thing about you producing her is that it allowed you both to do exactly what you wanted to do, which was to present Joni's music just as it was performed live.

David: That's the thing I'm proudest of. With the exception of the one song that Stephen (Stills) played bass on. That's the only track anybody else played on.

Wally: That would be "Night in the City."

The Byrds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in January 1991. This May's ceremony will be David's second induction into the Hall. This time, he goes in as a member of Crosby, Stills and Nash. The very short list of two-time inductees also includes John Lennon and Eric Clapton.

I asked David about his upcoming induction:

Wally: You're already in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for the Byrds. Are you the first person inducted for a second time?

David: No, I think there are a couple others, I think, maybe Clapton.

Wally: Stephen (Stills) will be going in twice this year (for Buffalo Springfield & Crosby, Stills & Nash).

David: Yes, he will be the only guy to ever get it twice in one night, I'm sure.

Wally: And of course, Neil's involved because of Buffalo Springfield, although it's only Crosby, Stills & Nash this time, not Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, right? (This year will also be Neil Young's second induction. He went in as a solo act last year and this time it's for his membership in Buffalo Springfield).

David: I don't think they will give it to CSNY separately.

Wally: Well, if they did, you could have three of them! Now that would be a record, huh?

David: I don't think they would do that.

Wally: After you met Joni in Florida, you mentioned that you took her out sailing. That must've been very romantic, I would imagine, being out there on the ocean, playing guitars together?

David: Yes, it turned out that way. We had some wonderful times together early on, when she went sailing with me. (He pauses) ...You have to understand, Wally, I still love her. She's the best, and if you quote anything from me, say that I said she was the best and I've always said that.

Wally: And what is she best at, David?

David: She's the best singer/songwriter there is, man. There isn't anybody close, I don't think.

Wally: Do you like the later material as well as the early stuff?

David: Oh, yes. I didn't enjoy some of the "Mingus"-era stuff as much as some of the others, but I don't think there's ever been a time when she's stopped being a complete master of her craft.

Wally: I agree, that's why I've been trying to give her her due on the Web, and I've worked very hard to build a quality homepage worthy of Joni's talent. The approving e-mails I receive mean a great deal to me personally, as this project is a part of my heart, you know, it's full of my love for Joni's music. She's the subject of the homepage, but there's a lot of me in it, too. My hope is that it helps to secure her the position that she deserves in music history. I mean, I'm not sure if most of the general public even knows who she is.

David: I think in the long run when they look back and say who really did it, it will be her.

Wally: Well, I agree with you on that, but I don't know how it's going to be for her in the next five, ten years or so.

David: Well, you know Shakespeare probably wasn't the most popular guy in England at the time that he was writing the stuff.

Wally: I get what you mean, David. In the summer of 1991, David contacted Joni and asked her if she'd consider producing a track on a solo album he was putting together. Joni responded that she had no interest in producing; she wasn't even sure what that term meant. David says that she then countered with "Let's write one together." So they did. Their collaboration on the song "Yvette In English" appeared on David's 1993 album "Thousand Roads." Joni's version was released a year and a half later on her 1994 album "Turbulent Indigo." I asked David about the song:

Wally: In 1991, you co-wrote "Yvette in English" with Joni.

David: I think that's the only time that's ever happened with her. Has she ever written a song with anyone else?

Wally: Let me think... There are tracks she co-wrote with drummer, John Guerin. He wrote the background track to "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" song, for example, but Joni set the lyrics and melody on top of what he did, so that's a different kind of thing than what you two did together. She also co-wrote a couple of songs from tracks written by Larry Klein, such as "Fiction" off of the album "Dog Eat Dog." But co-writing lyrics and melody, no. Did you co-write the melody as well as the lyrics?

David: Just the lyrics.

Wally: How did the process start?

David: I asked Joni if she would produce or write a song for my album "Thousand Roads" and she said "Oh ... let's write one together." So I sent her a set of lyrics that I thought she would like, and she did, oddly enough, and she pretty much took it from there. I changed the song again when she sang it back to me, in the way that I did it. I guess she changed it some in the way she did it, too. The two versions are quite different.

Wally: I do love the rhythm of your version. It's just great.

David: Yes, it lends itself to a Brazilian type of treatment, very naturally.

Wally: Joni's version is much more acoustic.

David: Yes. I'm very grateful to her for doing this with me. It was kind of her.

Wally: I thought it was wonderful to have you two working together again. It was a full circle kind of thing. For the fans, to hear you two working on something together again was very satisfying.

David: If you mention it, tell her that I'm very grateful to her for doing that.

Wally: Absolutely. I think it's a wonderful song, too. So it was your idea and she took it and then she'd would call you up and sing parts to you as she was writing it?

David: Yeah.

Wally: And I guess you got a final tape when she recorded it for you, and then you changed it from there.

David: I changed it only very slightly, just in treating the melody. Only what you would normally do in interpreting a song. I would only take credit for having written some of the words.

Wally: It's a great song, David, I really love it. Joni and you did a wonderful job.

David: Yeah, I love it too. THE "YVETTE IN ENGLISH" STORY

Crosby went through a life-saving and much-publicized liver transplant in November 1994. Joni was in England on the day he had the operation, performing a rare show for press and record folks, and she told the gathered group: "Let's all pray for Crosby. That Leo's already used up seven of his nine lives."

During his stay at UCLA Medical Center, David received two pieces of startling but wonderful news: He found out that his wife, Jan was pregnant, and he got a letter from the adoptive father of the son that David had given up for adoption in the early 1960's.

During his recovery, David set up a meeting with this son whom he'd never met and both men felt quickly connected. They talked about music within the first few minutes of their meeting, and they're now working together as a band named CPR (Crosby, Pevar, & Raymond).

I asked David about meeting and working with his newly found son (BTW this interview took place before the word got out about Joni and her daughter, Kilauren being re-united):

Wally: You've just found out that you have a grown son.

David: Yes.

Wally: How's that for you?

David: Quite wonderful. He's a fantastic musician.

Wally: And you guys have been playing gigs together?

David: Yes. He's a keyboard player and a singer/songwriter. His name is James Raymond and he's absolutely fantastic. He and a guitar player named Jeff Pevar, who I've been working with for quite a while, and who I think is the best in the world. The three of us have been playing as Crosby, Pevar & Raymond which is CPR, naturally.

Wally: We all need a little CPR every once in a while (Laughs).

David: It's music for the heart (Laughs). Over the last 25 years, David has both recorded and performed various Joni Mitchell compositions, including a version of "For Free" which he released on the 1973 Byrds reunion album and a take on "Urge for Going" recorded with Graham Nash in 1971, which was finally released on the CSN boxset in 1991.

I asked him about his favorites:

Wally: Over the years you've recorded and featured live a few of Joni's songs. You and Nash recorded "Urge for Going," for example, and that made it to your box set. Do you like that version?

David: Yes, I do, in particular. My favorite one of hers to sing though, and I still do it all the time, is "For Free." I'm doing it now with my new band. We do a version that is probably the best ever.

Wally: With CPR?

David: Yeah.

Wally: I'll have to hear that. Are you performing right now, or are you between gigs?

David: Next time we play is at the Telluride Festival. Then in the fall we're going to go out and do about a month or two of work.

Wally: Are you writing new songs, David?

David: Mmm-hmm, a lot!

Wally: Is it true that you're generally not very prolific?

David: Well, I've been given a wonderful shot in the arm by my son, who is more prolificeth than I and kicketh my butt!

Wally: (Laughs) Have you written anything together?

David: Yeah.

Wally: Great. So will we next see a CPR album or another solo album by you?

David: Oh, no, it will be a CPR album.

Wally: I read that you're not on the Atlantic label anymore with CSN. Is that good?

David: Very!

Wally: Were they holding you guys back from doing other projects?

David: Yeah, we would've never recorded another record for them.

Wally: So CPR will be looking for another label deal then?

David: We'll be looking for something. You don't always have to have a label.

Wally: Meaning you can just do it live?

David: Meaning you can be Ani DiFranco, too.

Wally: ...and release things independently, you mean?

David: Yeah.

Wally: I've been hearing a lot of good things about her but I haven't actually heard her music yet.

David: She's very stylized and you might be offended at how stylized she is, at first. But if you listen to the poetry it will knock your socks off.

Wally: Kind of like Kate Bush?

David: No, I think this is a different bird.

Wally: Well, musicians are all different birds and that's what makes it such a rich world. I'll have to listen to Ani DiFranco sometime soon.

David: I think you'll like her.

{Note from Wally - I recently purchased Ani's live double album "Living in Clip" and she is certainly an emotional vocalist and a muscular, inventive guitarist.}

David and I talked briefly about a few other points including the 1969 and 1974 tours where Joni was the opening act for headliners CSN (David said: "Those were turbulent times but the music was very high grade"), his liver health ("From the time you get it, you are constantly in treatment to keep it working, but I feel great!"), the reasons that the Byrds split up ("It was just egos. You know, I wanted my songs in there, rather than just to be Roger's wing man, and I wanted more than I was getting. That band had pretty much used up its fun. We just weren't getting along. I was the odd man out, so they decided to toss me out.").

My conversation with David Crosby concludes with this short but satisfying exchange:

Wally: Let me ask you a bit more about how it is to have a grown son come into your life.

David: It's absolutely wonderful!

Wally: And you have a new baby boy, too?

David: Yes, his name's Django.

Wally: And how old is he?

David: 2 years old.

Wally: This must be a magical time for you.

David: Yes it is. I'm a very happy man.

Wally: Well, your music is a part of the soundtrack to so many people's lives. I was going back this week and listening to stuff I hadn't heard in years and it's just incredible the amount of wonderful music that you've made, David. I want to thank you for that.

David: It's my pleasure, man.

David Crosby - Santa Cruz, Ca., January 20,1997

My thanks to Leslie Mixon, Susan McNamara, Jim Johanson and Brian Sizelove for their assistance and friendship. Much gratitude to Henry Diltz for the photographs. Most of all, thank you to David Crosby for being kind enough to talk with me.

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Added to Library on November 10, 2005. (58052)


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