A month ago, I spent nearly two hours with David Crosby in New York at the duplex a friend of his. The apartment was on a perilously high floor of the Time Warner condo apartments in New York and had a majestic view of Central Park. David was in town to appear with bandmates Stephen Stills and Graham Nash at a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert celebrating Crosby, Stills & Nash's music.
My conversation with David appears in today's Wall Street Journal (go here) and centers on his life-long passion—sailing his74-foot schooner, the Mayan. From the time he was 11, David has loved sailing. Being ejected from the Byrds in 1967 provided him with the excuse he needed to buy a boat. So he borrowed money from Monkee Peter Tork and went down to Florida. His goal was to find a schooner—a John Alden-designed model he had admired as a kid while sailing around Santa Monica Harbor.
David found one in Ft. Lauderdale and bought it, eventually sailing to San Francisco and living aboard the vessel until 1970. He's taken many long voyages with deckhands and friends—up to 3,000 miles from California. He loves the adventure and seems fearless when it comes to placing his fate in the hands of the elements. He still owns the Mayan today, though he says the upkeep is tough for him financially.
David also has been suffering from three hard illnesses. As he said to me: "Look, I have maybe 10 more years, if I’m lucky. I have three fatal diseases—hepatitis C, diabetes and heart disease. All killers, and no cure. I’m managing them. I’m going to the gym three days a week, I’m feeling strong and I can still make audiences feel great." His greatest wish is that Neil Young will rejoin CSN for one last tour so he can earn enough to keep the Mayan and pay off the mortgage on his home.
David is notoriously hostile to journalists but somehow we hit it off. Once he heard that I was a jazz writer and that I knew his father's work inside and out (Floyd Crosby was the cinematographer on High Noon and many other great films), he relaxed and we had fun. David played the apartment's baby grand piano for me and we talked jazz. David saw John Coltrane perform in Chicago in the '60s and his favorite jazz musician is Bill Evans. I know, a mind-blower. [Photo above: Gary Cooper in High Noon, 1952]
Sitting on an enormously long black leather sofa looking out on the park through 20-foot-high glass windows, David and I talked movies, sailing, jazz, folk-rock, family, his health and a new album he's recording due next year. I found David to be startlingly honest, emotionally overjoyed about music and life, and relentlessly down to earth.
As a founding member of the Byrds and the supergroup Crosby Stills & Nash (with the occasional addition of Neil Young), David is one of folk-rock's originators—taking the grass-roots spirit of folk in the '60s and giving it a rock urgency. The movement remains vibrant today, and its cultural spin-offs—health food, all-natural fabrics, organic food, a clean environment, conservation, alternative fuels, etc.—are mainstream today.
But what I remember most about David from our time together in the apartment wasn't his wild, flowing white hair or his white 19th-century moustache but his eyes. They seemed on fire with life, unmoved by commercial distraction or the allure of opportunism. Through their intensity, they appeared to beg me to always keep things real and poetic and never mask the truth.
I think we often take artists who created the music we love for granted. We automatically assume the music we listen to fell out of the sky and that we deserve to own it—like people wheeling purchased groceries to a waiting car. In truth, we're darn lucky that the music that moves us most (jazz, folk, rock—whatever) was created at all, recorded and made available. Creating music is a fragile evolution, and the fact that it connects with a generation and forges a commonality is astonishing.
David Crosby's music has always provided a spiritual awakening. It's a mood thing and a period thing, I suppose. When I hear the purity of his guitar and voice, I think of a time when little we encountered was natural—including the color of nearly all products. There also was enormous social tension between those with long and short hair, those who liked watching sports and those who didn't, and those who cared about others and those who didn't. David's music was a breath of fresh air back then. His songs made it safe to pause and think.
JazzWax tracks: Sony recently issued all of the Byrds' albums for Columbia in a box here. Crosby, Stills & Nash's albums have been remastered and reissued by Rhino. An interesting album to add to your collection is Demos (Rhino), which was released in 2009 and features many of the group's best-known songs stripped down, before they were recorded. Go here.
As for video, a three-DVD set from Rhino is still in print here.
JazzWax clip: Here's CSN's Shadow Captain, written by David Crosby...
Here's a video on the Mayan when it was for sale. David says now that his wife would break his arms if he ever sold it...