Octogenarian David Crosby has survived a liver transplant, multiple heart attacks and diabetes, as well as his own drink and drug problems, but he continues to surprise with his creativity and strong spirit on For Free (23 July 2021; BMG).
Nowhere is that feeling more evident than on the title track, which is a cover of the Joni Mitchell classic he has revisited over many decades. The song is about a well-known and wealthy singer (such as Mitchell) coming across a street musician who is…“playing real good for free”.
“Joni is the greatest living singer/songwriter, and ‘For Free’ is one of her simplest,” says Crosby, who is beautifully accompanied by Sarah Jarosz on the track. “It’s one of my favourite songs because I love what it says about the spirit of music and what compels you to play.”
In one interview Crosby is asked why he is not friends with his ex-girlfriend Mitchell now and he replies that she is not friends with many of her ex’s – cheekily forgetting that he has had trouble maintaining friendships with many during his lifetime, notably Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young. His reputation as a man who has a special capacity to annoy the hell out of others is legendary, but perhaps he is mellowing in his old age because he has re-engaged with his previously estranged son, James Raymond, who acts as producer on this album as well as contributing lyrics to several key songs.
Crosby himself has talked of the importance of this relationship in his life: “Can you imagine what it’s like to connect with your son and find out that he’s incredibly talented – a great composer, a great poet, and a really fine songwriter and musician […] We’re such great friends and we work so well together, and we’ll go to any length to create the highest-quality songs we can.”
This may have had a knock-on effect as Crosby also seems to have collaborated smoothly and productively with former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald and Donald Fagen, of Steely Dan fame. Saxophonist Steve Tavaglione and drummer Steve DiStanislao also make key contributions, while the album’s cover art features a portrait of Crosby painted by Joan Baez.
River Rise beautifully opens the album with Crosby’s crystal clear voice evoking California, and presumably Laurel Canyon, which was a key reference point for the counterculture in the 1960s and, among many others, Mitchell, Mama Cass, Jim Morrison, James Taylor and The Byrds (whom Crosby co-founded). The song has been described as a love letter to that period but it also looks forward as Crosby sings: “Let the clock run out, Don’t care about it, Not today.”
Next up is I Think I, which talks to the mistakes Crosby has made in his life. “There’s no instructions, And no map, No secret way past the trap, It’s so confusing I keep losing my way,” he intones, before suggesting that “I think I’ve found my way.” The album version features some lovely pedal steel, while in a live performance with the Sky Trail Band at Cooper River Park in June 2019 Crosby offers outstanding acoustic guitar soloing on what appears to be his Martin D45.
One of the album’s highlights is the song, Rodriguez for a Night, which Crosby co-wrote with his son and Donald Fagen. Evoking ‘outlaws, angels and drugstore cowboys’ it is an edgy tune with great lead guitar and horn solos. “Steely Dan’s my favourite band and I’ve admired Donald a long time, so that was a thrill for us,” Crosby says. Presumably this particular thrill was one that he could buy.
The album is appropriately bookended with another Raymond-penned song, I Won’t Stay for Long. Inspired by Marcel Camus’s 1959 film Black Orpheus, Crosby sings “I’m facing the squall line, Of a thousand year storm, I don’t know if I’m dying, Or about to be born” with enormous soul. “I did end up getting a pretty stunning vocal on it, because it meant so much to me that I sang the hell out of it,” he says.
Clearly For Free sees Crosby reflecting on his life and mortality but, inspired by reconnecting with his son, he now seems to have his priorities clear in what appear to be golden years for him. “It’s not how much time you’ve got because we really don’t know,” he says. “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.”