David Crosby's personality is so outsize that he runs the risk of having his music overlooked, becoming the hippie par excellence in the collective imagination. Crosby can be described as the great jester of the 60s, the biggest loudmouth, or the man with the best known moustache in rock. But he is a one-off and a unique songwriter. He may not be particularly prolific, but his work with the Byrds or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young is full of strange gems, built on special chords and tunings, which show that, beyond being the best harmonic singer in the world, Crosby also has a wonderful voice of his own. A voice he is still making the most of, after years of wasting it amidst addictions and paranoia. From Guitars Exchange we want to celebrate the career of this great musician by choosing our 10 favorite songs of his career, plus one extra.
Everybody's Been Burned (1967)
After the departure of Gene Clark, the Byrds’ main composer, the rest of the band had to get their act together and start contributing more material. Crosby started to flourish as a composer in 1966 with songs like What's Happening?!?! and Why, the magnificent B-side of Eight Miles High (a song in which Crosby also collaborated but whose contribution is too small to find a place here), but he reached maturity in 1967 in the sessions of Younger Than Yesterday. Everybody's Been Burned is a pure distillation of Crosby's idiosyncratic style, special tuning and a sensual, atmospheric feel. The song had been composed during his time as a folk singer, before the formation of the band, but the arrangement that appears here is a wonder; the guitars of Roger McGuinn and Crosby are intertwined in several arpeggios, Chris Hillman adds a fantastic bass line and Crosby delivers what may be his best vocal performance with his voice, which is rarely without further vocal accompaniment, nor harmonic. The song is a real delight.
Renaissance Fair (1967)
Also from the Younger Than Yesterday sessions comes this song, which was composed together with McGuinn. The song is less than two minutes long but it encapsulates all the flavor of an era. If someone asks you about the summer of love and hippie idealism this is the song that could act as the soundtrack. It's like a hippie dream in which the voices of its two composers mix as well as its two guitars, McGuinn's Ric 370 and Crosby's Gretsch Country Gentleman, with those initial arpeggios of McGuinn answered by the power chords of Crosby. Meanwhile Hillman proves that, despite not having played before joining the Byrds, he was already the world's most melodic bassist; at the height of Paul McCartney by that time. The power of this song is demonstrated by listening to how Eric Burdon & The Animals used "I Think That Maybe I'm Dreaming" for their fantastic Monterrey festival collection in song form. Crosby was still growing as a songwriter and Younger Than Yesterday would have been even better if his It Happens Each Day had not been left out.
Lady Friend (1967)
The only single by the Byrds that bears David Crosby's solo signature, Lady Friend, might be described as his version of Gene Clark's I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better from the Byrds' first album, but it is more direct and punchy. It's a kind of primitive power pop with McGuinn's jangly guitar, complex vocal harmonies and the addition of magnificent horn instruments. It was recorded over several sessions, with the band participating in the Monterey Festival in between. It was at the Festival that the Byrds first played it and, as you can see, it came at a time when Crosby had already become the ‘Crosby character’. His ego had grown out of all proportion and Lady Friend was his attempt to take over the reins of the band, even replacing McGuinn and Hillman's voices in the harmonies with his own, something that was a bad move personally but not so much artistically, because we are talking about the, in the words of McGuinn, the "best harmonic singer in the world". The song was not a success, something that was incomprehensible, and Crosby's days with the Byrds were numbered.
Draft Morning (1968) / Triad (1968)
The recording of The Notorious Byrd Brothers was akin to hell because Crosby was both in his most fertile compositional period and also submersed in his most conflictive personal behavior. He refused to participate in the recording of Goin' Back, a song by Goffin and King, and was absent from several recording sessions. He also struggled to include his ode to threesomes and free love called Triad, to the displeasure of the normally calm McGuinn, and in the end, in October 1967, Crosby was fired from the band by McGuinn and Hillman. When the album appeared in January 1968, Triad was unfairly left out (although Jefferson Airplane would use it for their Crown Of Creation; and I have decided to give it an extra place on this list), but three of their compositions, Tribal Gathering, Dolphin's Smile and Draft Morning, remained on the album. All three are brilliant but the latter may be the best of the lot. Despite being Crosby’s composition, Hillman and McGuinn added a couple of lines to the lyrics and included themselves as co-writers of the lyrics. It's a song that brings together the best of all the Byrds' eras, flowing serenely to that psychedelic bridge with trumpets and machine guns. You only have to listen to Hillman's incredible bass to see the imprint the whole song had, including the anti-military lyrics, in Pink Floyd's Us And Them.
Wooden Ship (1969)
When Crosby was fired from the Byrds he couldn't think of a better idea than to buy a boat and go sailing. It was on that boat, called The Mayan, that Crosby wrote some of the best songs of his career, such as The Lee Shore or Wooden Ships, composed on board in 1968. By that time Crosby was living in Laurel Canyon and playing with other musicians like Stephen Stills, who had just left Buffalo Springfield, and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane. It was these two who put lyrics to Wooden Ships. The relationship with Stills was consolidated when Mama Cass introduced them to Englishman Graham Nash, who had just left the Hollies, and the three of them began to sing together. In less than a minute the magic of their voices in harmony would bring Crosby, Stills & Nash to life; one of the most successful supergroups of all time. Wooden Ships would appear on their first album, sung by Stills and Crosby, as well as on the Airplane’s Volunteers, in addition to being performed by both groups at the original Woodstock, being one of the few songs that was performed twice at the legendary festival.
This is another acoustic wonder, composed with Crosby’s Martin D-18 12-string or D-45, with strange tunings and a dreamlike atmosphere, that nonetheless sounds perfectly like Crosby. It's a song about three of the great loves of his life: Nancy Ross, who "painted pentagrams on the wall" and left him in 1966 for Gram Parsons; Joni Mitchell, who according to Crosby is the best composer of his generation; and Christine Hinton, his girlfriend at the time, and the woman whose death in October 1969 would drag him into a spiral of self-destruction that would last for decades. However for our protagonist, it's the best song of his career.
Long Time Gone (1969)
Crosby's solo signature song in the debut of Crosby, Stills & Nash, is one of the most famous of its kind thanks to its inclusion as the opening song of the arch-famous Woodstock documentary. It's a great song with a huge vocal performance by him, although the definitive version may be from September 6, 1969 when the quartet, then with Neil Young in their ranks, went to the television studios to participate in the Tom Jones program. The welsh Tiger decided to go on stage with them and sing this song; it is worth taking a look at Crosby's approving face as the performer of It's Not Unusual sings his melody and words. It is clear that great singers know how to recognize each other; talking of which also do not miss Stills singing the chorus in falsetto as if he were possessed. This is not a performance, it is an ecstasy; as if they had been told that this is the last song left on Earth to be performed before its end. Even the irascible Young, playing the orange Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins from his time in Buffalo Springfield, seems to be having a great time.
Déjà Vu (1970)
A song by Crosby gave its name to the second album, now with Young, by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It was an even bigger hit than the first and made all four of them superstars. Déjà Vu, the song, is based on the Buddhist beliefs of reincarnation. Crosby thinks that life energy is recycled and that, for this reason, he was already capable of singing harmonies at the age of six and sailing a boat the first time he got in one. Musically it begins with Crosby singing 'scat', before beginning a daring circular melody and a wonderful change of tempo in which he demonstrates his full class by singing.
Almost Cut My Hair (1970)
The song that most people relate to Crosby, with lyrics about rebelliously leaving his hair long, of the counterculture against the establishment, is one of his most direct and rocking songs, and one of the only two of Déjà Vu, together with the version of Joni Mitchell's Woodstock, in which the whole band (Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, plus Dallas Taylor on drums and Greg Reeves on bass) recorded at the same time. The guitars of Young and Stills, with his White Falcon, engage in beautiful duels while Crosby takes care of the lead voice, without the well-known vocal harmonies for which they are famous; although it is sufficient on its own, even though Stills was convinced that it was a bad vocal take.
After the recording of Déjà Vu, the quartet was torn apart by oversized egos, interpersonal friction, and their relationships with women. However the fact is that from September 1970 to May 71 their four excellent solo works appeared, After The Gold Rush by Young, Stephen Stills by Stills, If I Could Only Remember My Name by Crosby and Songs for Beginners by Nash. It seems clear that Neil Young's is a step above the other three, but if I had to classify the others I think I would keep Crosby's just above the other two. In that marvel, released on February 22, 1971, Crosby gave the best of himself surrounded by a good handful of friends. The best song on the album is Laughing in which he is accompanied by three Grateful Dead members: the rhythm section formed by Phil Lesh on bass and Bill Kreutzmann on drums, as well as the icing on the cake, Jerry Garcia playing the steel pedal, together with the harmonies of Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash.