David Crosby: the early years

Have you ever experienced the feeling that the world will never be quite the same again when one of your favourite musicians shuffles off this mortal coil?

Everything feels a little strange, you feel a sense of loss and a heightened sense of your own mortality.

It was a terrible shock losing Jeff Beck and now, one of the most influential figures of the counter-culture era with a career spanning many decades, David Crosby.

For a man whose friends describe him as having a reputation for being ‘unpredictable’, David Crosby’s incessant and experimental curiosity was to cause both Nirvana and anguish throughout the course of his life; he readily admitted that he was a selfish pain in the ass and hurt a lot of people. Always saying he could have loved better and lived life to the point where he broke the edges (and himself) in the process, it’s evident that his safe place and passion lay within the music and in his latter years with his wife Jan and family.

My husband Simon and I watched his documentary: ‘David Crosby - Remember My Name’ last night. Directed by the mighty Cameron Crowe, it left me feeling deeply sad and at the same time resolutely inspired.

I had no reason to meet David in person but like many others, his music weaved its way into the soundtrack of my life.

There won’t be any time wasted here digging up the bad shit that happened. I’m sure David would want us to focus on the music which he said was the only way he knew he could help; that mystical place where he managed to get out of his own way and let the music do the talking.

“The songs are the only significant part of what we do. The celebrity is bullshit!!” - David Crosby

Los Angeles

David Van Cortlandt Crosby was born and grew up in Los Angeles. There isn’t much information about his mother Aliph except we are told she doted on her son and was the granddaughter of the Bishop of Pittsburgh Cortlandt Whitehead.

His father Floyd was a well-connected Oscar-winning Hollywood cinematographer, whose grandmother was a member of the Van Rensselaer family, known for their influence in the formation of the United States’ business, politics, and social sectors. He was by all accounts a cold and distant man. 

“I was kinda a wild kid and he was a very serious guy. My dad was not a fun guy – he was a not a good dad, either. But he was really good at his job.”

David often told the story of the moment his life changed when he went to see an orchestra aged six. He was so inspired by the beautiful big sound and collaborative movements he knew then what he wanted to do.

He was also encouraged to play musical instruments as a child, and along with his father and his older brother Ethan, they used to perform family concerts which is surprising given his Father’s emotional distance. Jazz and classical music were the sounds of his youth as opposed to rock and roll.

David didn’t have much interest in school either and started singing and playing guitar with his older brother Ethan in beatnik coffeehouses and local clubs.

Greenwich Village, NYC

In the early 1960s, the only place to be for musicians was Greenwich Village, a neighbourhood on the west side of Lower Manhattan in New York City.

Folk music first came to the Village in 1945 when a printer named George Margolin started performing near the fountain in Washington Square Park. By the early 1960s, the Village had probably the largest number of clubs, coffeehouses, bars and strip joints in North America.

The park in Washington Square acted as the perfect ‘free space’ for artistic gatherings where young students and intellectuals ventured out from jazz-filled cellars and aspiring blues and folksingers from out-of-town all mingled together.

“Jazz musicians hung out with folk and blues and players; there were no rules and no musical boundaries- living the music was the only goal.

Most clubs held a weekly hootenanny night, in which unknown, up-and-coming musicians and songwriters were given the opportunity to show their stuff onstage. At the basket houses, the 'kitty girls' passed the basket, demanding coins for the folk rookies who were going onstage.

Café Flamenco, The Commons, Gerde's Folk City, The Gaslight, Café Bizarre, Café Wha?, The Bitter End, Café Figaro or The Village Gate opened their doors to the new music. It was all happening at once, a magical time and place that would never again be duplicated.” - Toni Ruiz & Henry Llach

Can you imagine? This was a time when there was an actual ‘scene’ - somewhere you could move to and live it - and that’s exactly what Crosby did. He left Los Angeles and moved to New York in search of success.

Fred Neil

Crosby started to play basket houses and folk clubs as a duo with Chicago native Terry Callire and soon met one of the pioneers of folk rock; lush baritone singer, Brill-building songwriter Fred Neil who wrote the Grammy award-winning song ‘Everybody’s Talking’ featured in the film ‘Midnight Cowboy.’

“I learned a great deal from hanging out with Freddy… We would be in an elevator in New York in an old, crapped-out building in New York, and he would turn off the light. He would say, ‘Listen. The music’s everywhere.’ And you’d hear, tang, tang, tang, ding, ding, ding. We’d get stoned and we’d be sitting next to a bamboo thicket, and he’d say, ‘Listen, that’s music.’ It was a bamboo thicket in the wind, but it was beautiful. He was a pretty amazing guy.” - David Crosby

Rumour has it that Crosby and Stephen Stills so adored Fred’s work that they wanted to call their new supergroup “Son of Neil” but apparently Fred wasn’t keen on the idea so they settled instead for Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Bob Dylan

Crosby had also heard about this young guy who was new in town called Bob Dylan and wanted to find out what all the hoo-hah was about so snuck in to see him play at Gerde’s Folk Club, the most important folk music venue in NYC.

Crosby lamented “He’s such a good poet, holy shit, is he a good poet. And I was pretty stunned. I walked out of there very confused, because I knew I could sing better and I knew that I just had to up my game about words a thousand percent. He was a terrific inspiration to me in the sense that I knew I had to become a much better poet. And so I tried my best to do that.”

There were so many people breaking through at the time; Peter, Paul and Mary, who were the only people to have released a ‘folk’ record, Tom Paxton and Dave Van Ronk. He met Joan Baez and fell in love with her like everyone else.

Who would have thought that a few years later that Crosby and The Byrds would have their first number-one single with a cover of Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’.

No matter what life choices they were to make in the future, their careers would forever be connected and Crosby remained grateful for the lesson in humility witnessing up close a young Bob Dylan perform in the creative musical melting pot of Greenwich Village.

The Beatles

Crosby moved down to Florida to record with Fred Neill, then onto Chicago, where he discovered the music of The Beatles which pretty much changed everything for him.

Up to that point, rock ‘n’ roll had consisted of just four chords and a backbeat. Then along came the ‘Fab Four’, musically advanced, playing complex folk music changes against a backbeat which created a whole new ‘thing’.

On retuning to Los Angeles, Crosby walked into The Troubadour in LA and there was Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark singing that kind of stuff. They had bought in Mandolin player Chris Hillman, who learned bass to be in the band and conga player Michael Clarke, who also learned to play the drums. There you have it, the beginning of The Byrds.

The music business is all about contacts and their new record producer, Jim Dickson, managed to get the band some studio time at World Pacific studios, a jazz recording studio on Third Street. The guys would go in after the day’s sessions had finished, sometimes starting at 7.30 pm - other times at 1.00 am - to hone their craft and record new material. Finally they were ready to invite Bob Dylan along to hear their new version of Mr Tambourine Man.

Crosby recalled “Dylan said “Oh wow!”

You could see it click in his head: he knew right then what he was going to do… He went out and found The Band and started playing electric music, because he knew at that moment that his stuff could be played that way. And he liked it."

He added “I wish I could take credit for it – I could take credit for some of the harmonies – but the credit goes to McGuinn. He really saw how to do it, and we went out and bought exact same axes that the Beatles had. I had a Gretsch Tennessean and McGuinn had a Rickenbacker 12-string. The only difference was we used a Fender bass… better.”

So there you go! I hope you have enjoyed a quick journey through the early years that influenced and inspired David Crosby.

This is the point where we hand over to a lifetime of music to tell the story, just as David Crosby would have wished.

“It’s not how much time you’ve got because we really don’t know. It’s what you do with the time that you have. I’m trying to really spend it well. I’m very grateful for each day that I get and I try to do it making music because I think the world needs music.” - David Crosby 1941-2023

To complement this article, episode #109 of ‘The Supertone Show’ podcast features songs and stories that Simon - my husband and musical accomplice - and I have chosen from various points of David’s career to honour his colourful life, vibrant passion and prolific work.

The show is available on Spotify or if you are not a lover of big tech, direct from the Starlite & Campbell website.

Listen to the Supertone Show

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