Thankful … David Crosby. Photograph: Henny Ray Abrams/AP
Hello David, how are you?
I'm fine (1). I'm in California right now, out in the country, in a place called Santa Barbara.
How was your recent solo gig?
Great. I was very nervous because the first set was the new album (2) and you just don't do that - nobody takes that kind of chance. Amazingly, it worked.
On Croz you sing about "antithesis", "cognitive dissonance", "consciousness". Have you been raiding the Scrabble box?
I do play Scrabble, but no, I just use words I feel like and don't worry if they go over people's heads.
Everyone knows you took a lot of drugs (3). Did they have any beneficial effects?
When we started out we were just smoking pot, and we thought that was a great way to blow ourselves loose from the 50s. Of course, because it was illegal we had to go to criminals to get it, and as soon as there was another drug that the criminals could sell us, they did. And the dealers turned us onto cocaine. They said: "Don't worry, it isn't addictive." [He laughs.] As soon as we started doing that stuff it seriously had a bad effect on our writing. We thought drugs would open our heads up but the writing went to hell. I don't think there were any positive effects at all.
Wasn't If I Could Only Remember My Name (4), now regarded as a cult classic, created under the influence of heroin?
Yeah, but I wasn't doing it when I was working on the record.
Did Janis Joplin really pick up a bottle of Jim Beam and smash it over Jim Morrison's head at a party after you suggested Morrison question her abilities as a blues singer?
Yes. I didn't see it first-hand, but I know that it did happen. It wasn't Jim Beam, though, it was Southern Comfort.
Was Morrison cross with you?
With me? I don't know. I don't think he liked me. I know I didn't like him. And I didn't like the Doors at all. They couldn't swing if their lives depended on it.
Did you find Morrison pretentious?
Yeah. He had some talent, but you've got to understand, I was around people who set the bar pretty high: the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan ... He didn't match up to them. To me, he was a poser.
Have you ever wondered what Janis - or Jimi Hendrix - might be doing today?
Yes, I do. I wonder what Janis would be singing like. I'm very sad about the people we lost.
It's hardly a fair swap, but at least they were immortalised at their peak and never had to suffer criticism for inferior later work.
That's romantic bullshit. Had they been healthy and lived longer they would have made more music. That's what they were put here to do, and that's what should have happened.
Do you keep up with culture online?
I do see things that are funny on the net. I Googled myself the other day and found out that I was worth $250m, and that I was the highest-paid guy in showbusiness! I wish so hard it was true. It is, of course, the complete opposite. I'm neither rich nor do I make a lot of money.
You're not broke, are you?
Yeaaaah ... pretty close.
How does a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and the Byrds lose all their money?
I could give you a list, but it wouldn't be a pleasant one. Some of it's my fault, some of it's people taking advantage of me. But it's past.
Do you have nightmares about your massive squandering?
I think I'm more concerned with the squandering of time. Time is more valuable than money. This is my first solo album for 20 years - I should have been making a record every two years. It's frustrating.
Is it true you smoked a joint in the Oval Office during Jimmy Carter's tenure?
No. What I did was crush one into the hand of a guy who used to manage us, who then tried to light it, thinking no one was watching. As soon as he started to light it, I clamped his hand with the lit joint and wouldn't let go. I told him that if he wouldn't be absolutely quiet I was going to kill him. Or at least beat the crap out of him. What a freakin' idiot.
How many presidents have you known?
Carter was exemplary - he tried hard to do good in the world. I've met Bill Clinton, Obama a couple of times ... I certainly didn't meet George Bush, and wouldn't want to.
Have you ever given a president advice?
Oh, advice! Not that they could hear.
That would be fun - influencing White House policy.
We definitely influenced the course of the nation in terms of civil rights. There were black people who couldn't vote in the country and now they can. I think we won that one. And I think we influenced [the US] decision to get out of Vietnam. I didn't think war was right. War is an awful way to solve problems.
You've taken a lot of stick for being anti-war while also possessing firearms. (5)
Yeah, I have taken a lot of criticism for it but I grew up in a place out in the country where, at the age of 12, you got a .22 [gun]. That's just regular American life. I still don't think war is right.
Have you ever had your phone tapped by the FBI?
Oh, probably, yeah. I couldn't care less. They can tap my phone, read my mail, do anything they want. I don't have any secrets.
Who would you be more nervous of: the FBI or Hell's Angels?
The FBI, definitely. Hell's Angels you can reason with.
It's said you were freebasing $600,000 (£361,000) worth of cocaine a year in the early 80s and that the Hell's Angels took ownership of your house in exchange for covering your drug debts.
No, that's not true.
I don't want to explain it, but it doesn't involve [the Hell's Angels] at all.
Ever had any dealings with the mafia?
No, and I wouldn't know if I had. They're very polished people these days, man. It's a very sophisticated operation. If they sent someone to talk to you it would as likely be a Norwegian blond guy. I'd still rather deal with the mafia than deal with the government.
Do you think the undoing of western civilisation is the "corporate-ocracy" of the US, as you've called it, environmental collapse or war in the Middle East?
Gee, it's a toss-up, isn't it? We need to get the hell out of the Middle East. Who knows what's going to happen with the human race? We need to stop hitting each other with rocks.
You had a look that defined an era, its aesthetic sensibility and countercultural tone. Almost Cut My Hair (6), and all that ...
Surely we can find something more substantial to talk about than "my look".
It's very distinctive. Iconic, even.
Well, I don't know about that.
Did you watch Breaking Bad?
Oh, yes. Religiously. I loved it.
Did you ever think, watching it, "been there, done that"?
Ha, no. I liked it for the art. I thought they did an amazing job. The writing and acting was fantastic - the best show on television for a long time. Since then I've loved Homeland. I think that is astounding.
In prison, did it help or hinder you being a celebrity?
It cut both ways. Some people gave me some points whereas other people didn't. But it wasn't a huge deal.
Is it true that Phil Collins paid for your liver transplant in 1994?
Phil Collins did help me enormously. I'm not going to get into the specifics about how; it's nobody else's business but mine and Phil's. But he did help me tremendously, and he is a dear friend.
How do you even begin to thank somebody for something like that?
You walk up to them, shake hands with them and say thank you.
What has been your contribution?
I don't see myself like that: "Gosh, I feel significant today." I just don't look at myself that way, I really don't.
But you've always said you have a big ego.
Yeah, I do. About some things. But that doesn't make me smarter than anyone else, or tremendously influential or important. I get egotistical about things where I can do something well - for example, my singing. Most other things I don't have the wherewithal to back it up. I don't really think about whether I have or haven't [made a contribution]. I know what a bozo I really am. And it's healthier for me to look at myself as a regular human being who puts his pants on one leg at a time. A star isn't a real thing, and it doesn't help to think of yourself as bigger than life. Yeah, I'm glad that I've done good work - it's okay to look at that. But historical significance? Not my department.
Mojo called you "the voice of cosmic America". Did that make you smile or snort?
Both. It is quite nice, but it does make me laugh.
Are you more comfortable with derision, such as the Notorious Byrd Brothers sleeve where that's supposed to be you depicted as a nag? (7)
No, it is what it is. I live in a pretty real place. I'm pretty grounded in today and what I'm doing right now. This afternoon I'm rehearsing for four hours with guys who really work hard to get the music honed down to the best it can be. I'm sitting here in anticipatory glee thinking about that.
Joni is better than Dylan, you recently said. Did you get much hate mail?
There are tons of people who disagree with me, but I think Joni is a better musician than Bob. I love Bob, and I think he's changed the course of musical history. I remember when he did it - I was there. I learned from him and he changed my life. But in the long run I think Joni is the one who made the art that I'll remember even more than I'll remember Bob's songs, and there are probably 24 of Bob's songs in my head right now. I don't think you can touch Joni at her best. I don't know if I've ever heard a better singer-songwriter record than the album Blue. Twenty years from now you'll hear A Case of You and still be moved.
But you don't think about your legacy?
Finally, are you bugged by people wanting to hear your tales of Herculean excess?
Yeah. It was stupid behaviour and I don't really like looking at it. I've spent time learning from it to make sure that I don't wind up there again. But it's looking over your shoulder. And if you keep looking backwards you're going to walk right into a tree.
(1) Since this interview, Crosby had a heart operation to fix a blocked coronary artery. In a statement, he said that he is "once again a very lucky man". Back to article
(2) Croz is out now. Back to article
(3) Crosby's narcotic exploits are legendary - he is alleged to have spent $10m (£6m) on heroin and cocaine. Back to article
(4) Crosby's 1971 debut solo album. Back to article
(5) He has spent time in prison on weapons charges. Back to article
(6) A song from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's 1970 album Déjà Vu. Back to article
(7) The horse's head on the cover of the 1967 Byrds album is said to have been a dig by the remaining members at the recently departed Crosby. Back to article