Q&A

David Crosby

Classic Rock - - Contents - In­ter­view: Ian Fort­nam

The po­lit­i­cal and out­spo­ken former Byrd on protests, life and death and the Pope pos­si­bly be­ing a big fan.

With Crosby, Stills & Nash on per­ma­nent hia­tus, David Crosby is en­joy­ing some­thing of a solo ca­reer re­nais­sance. Ob­vi­ously, a for­mi­da­ble rep­u­ta­tion pre­cedes him, so it shouldn’t re­ally come as any sur­prise that this co-founder of The Byrds, who ei­ther wrote or co-wrote Eight Miles High, Wooden Ships, Teach Your Chil­dren, Al­most Cut My

Hair and many more is still ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing ex­cep­tional work, es­pe­cially in to­day’s early-60se­cho­ing trou­bled times.

Nev­er­the­less, it’s im­pres­sive that his three most re­cent record­ings, made in close col­lab­o­ra­tion with his son James Ray­mond (2014’s Croz, last year’s acous­tic Light­house and his lat­est Sky Trails al­bum), sit com­fort­ably along­side his very best.

Kick­ing back in his Cal­i­for­nia home, Crosby laughs loud and long when I ob­serve that he re­tains pos­ses­sion of a voice of such clar­ity that women ap­pear to find it im­pos­si­ble to re­sist, splut­ter­ing: “Let that be the head­line for the piece, you sil­ver-tongued devil. I want that one out there!”

The Sky Trails song Capi­tol is laced with a cyn­i­cism that seems to ex­tend to politi­cians of all po­lit­i­cal lean­ings. Is cor­rup­tion an es­sen­tial el­e­ment within all those who seek po­lit­i­cal of­fice, or only those who at­tain it? Cor­rup­tion’s en­demic in pol­i­tics. There are ex­cep­tions. The law of av­er­ages – the law

I re­spect the most – tells me there are oc­ca­sional politi­cians who are hon­est and try­ing to serve the peo­ple that elected them, but most are bla­tantly cor­rupt. They’re pretty scummy peo­ple.

In the United States right now it’s as if we’re a failed coun­try. We’ve stopped be­ing any­thing other than a bad joke. If I come to Europe I’m go­ing to sew a maple leaf on my shoul­der! What do you make of the rise of the po­lit­i­cal right in the wake of Don­ald Trump’s as­cen­dancy into pres­i­den­tial of­fice?

It’s scary be­cause it’s hap­pen­ing in a lot of places. It’s hap­pen­ing in Poland, they tried to drag the UK to the right, they tried it in France and Hol­land with­out suc­cess. You see it a lot and it’s been en­cour­aged by the rise of right-wing fa­nati­cism in this coun­try, which has been un­ques­tion­ably en­cour­aged by this ass­hole we have for a Pres­i­dent. Please quote me!

Many of the songs with which you were in­volved dur­ing the first decade of your ca­reer are evoca­tive of a time when change was swift, protest achieved much in the field of civil rights, the anti-war move­ment short­ened the Viet­nam war and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns were be­ing voiced. The fu­ture looked in­cred­i­bly bright. So what went wrong?

The Demo­cratic Party failed us. The Repub­li­can Party stooped to lev­els even we, who felt them ca­pa­ble of re­ally aw­ful stuff, couldn’t be­lieve. The prob­lem in the United States al­ways goes back to money. Cor­po­ra­tions spend bil­lions of dol­lars buy­ing elec­tions and own the peo­ple they gave the money to. Then they call up and say: “Quar­terly re­port’s down, we need a nice lit­tle war. Why don’t you send some peo­ple back to Afghanistan?” And that’s a very bad sit­u­a­tion. The United States is, at best, in a lot of trou­ble.

Do these trou­bled times add fuel to your fire? Do you find that you’re writ­ing more?

I’m cer­tainly try­ing to. I’ve been say­ing for a while that we need a song for our times. A song as strong as Ohio or We Shall Over­come. A song for our peo­ple out there in the street. And we don’t have it yet. I’m try­ing to write it my­self, and try­ing to get any­body else to write it. I don’t care where it comes from, I just care that there is one. Do you think the op­ti­mism of the 1960s has a place in to­day’s cyn­i­cal so­ci­ety?

Yes. You need to have op­ti­mism and hope in or­der to func­tion. I have to, any­way. Okay, this guy’s a ter­ri­ble pres­i­dent and we’ve got ter­ri­ble peo­ple show­ing up do­ing aw­ful things, but it’s mak­ing us look at them. Racism was al­ways here in the United States of Amer­ica. We just weren’t look­ing at it. Now they are march­ing down the street with torches in their hands, and it’s real. It’s ugly and it’s not fun, but Amer­ica needs to look at this so we can deal with it. We can’t deal with it if we pre­tend it isn’t there.

Dur­ing the early eight­ies you were in the grip of a de­bil­i­tat­ing co­caine ad­dic­tion. At that point, free­bas­ing seemed to have reached epi­demic pro­por­tions. Did its preva­lence within the rock com­mu­nity come in the wake of the ap­par­ent death of six­ties ide­al­ism?

I don’t know if they were linked, but cer­tainly the ad­vance of the drug cul­ture and the de­bauch

“The three hours I’m on stage is heaven to me. It’s the other twenty-one hours

a day that beat the crap out of me.”

of ide­al­ism hap­pened at roughly the same pace and would seem to be con­nected. I don’t know if you can prove the causal­ity, but they’re def­i­nitely con­nected. We didn’t know the drugs were go­ing to get us ad­dicted, sap our will, ruin our lives, pick up our fam­i­lies and de­stroy us, but it’s ex­actly what they did. It hap­pened at the same time our lead­ers were get­ting shot – King, Kennedy. There were a lot of fac­tors in los­ing, or dam­ag­ing, that ide­al­ism, and drugs was only one of them.

Drugs messed us up and did great harm, and we lost a lot of peo­ple to them, but I don’t think it’s as sim­ple as the one caused the other. There are a whole mul­ti­plic­ity of vari­ables there af­fect­ing it.

One event that’s em­blem­atic of those chang­ing times was the as­sas­si­na­tion of

John Len­non, which com­pelled you to arm your­self for self-preser­va­tion. It was a de­ci­sion that saw you fall foul of the law more than once. Where do you stand now on the right to bear arms? I grew up in a dif­fer­ent time. Where I grew up we raised lemons and av­o­ca­dos, and when you turned twelve years old you got a two-two [ri­fle], and shoot­ing ri­fles was just a part of how ev­ery­body lived. It’s a com­pletely dif­fer­ent thing to the gang-fu­elled, ‘au­to­matic weapons in their back pock­ets’ ap­proach to guns. The gun it­self isn’t the prob­lem, the prob­lem is in the op­er­a­tor.

Talk­ing about try­ing to re­duce gun own­er­ship in the United States, as they did in Aus­tralia, is just non­sense, man, be­cause two-thirds of house­holds in Amer­ica have got guns and no­body’s gonna give them back. You’re never go­ing to get rid of them. It doesn’t mean I ap­prove of them. I’d love to live in a world where we didn’t have to have them.

What did you dis­cover about your fel­low man dur­ing the time you were in­car­cer­ated in 1983 for pos­sess­ing drugs and a firearm?

I learned about racism. I’d met and worked with black mu­si­cians who were some of the great­est peo­ple on the planet. Odetta and Josh White were my men­tors, peo­ple I learnt how to be a folk singer from. So I had this great pic­ture of who black peo­ple were.

Then I was sud­denly in prison with peo­ple who couldn’t read a comic book and had noth­ing left but at­ti­tude. They were the bot­tom end of the Texan prison sys­tem and not a good ad­ver­tise­ment for peo­ple of colour in this coun­try. So I had to wade through that and re­alise that, no, though some peo­ple were pretty ter­ri­ble, the full range of peo­ple was also there. There were an­gels and demons, and in any group of peo­ple big­ger than a hun­dred I was al­ways go­ing to find both. That was a big les­son.

Five years for a quar­ter of a gram of pipe residue seems like an aw­ful lot of jail time. Do you feel that the var­i­ous agen­cies of law en­force­ment al­ready had their eye on you as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the coun­ter­cul­ture and that your po­si­tion was re­flected in the sever­ity of your sen­tence?

David Crosby: en­joy­ing a late-ca­reer pur­ple patch.

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