David Crosby, Byrds and CSN&Y Co-Founder, is Dead at 81

Singer-songwriter David Crosby was a founding member of two landmark L.A. bands and helped folk rock become a major, mainstream musical genre
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David Crosby, a leading personality of the 60s folk-rock movement as a member of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, has died. He was 81.

Born David Van Cortlandt Crosby in Los Angeles on August 14, 1941, he was the son of a renowned cinematographer and made his name as a singer in two ground-breaking acts from the classic rock era. Recognizable from his walrus mustache and impish grin, Crosby’s smooth vocal style was an essential ingredient in the vibrant harmonies of the Byrds, which was among the first to break out of the new Hollywood rock scene in the mid-1960s. The band was an American answer to the British Invasion with a series of jangly guitar hits like “Eight Miles High,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and as interpreters of the Bob Dylan songbook.

Crosby quit the Byrds after his song “Triad”—which recalled a menage a trois—was rejected by band leader Roger McGuinn. Crosby produced Joni Mitchell’s 1968 debut album, Song to a Seagull. The following year, he formed a new collaboration with Graham Nash and Stephen Stills. Their self-titled debut, Crosby, Stills and Nash, was a huge success and a rallying cry for a generation caught at a moment of idealism. It included the hits “Marrakesh Express” and Stills’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”—a landmark composition for the era, performed in several movements.

Along with Nash and Stills, Crosby was a fixture in the Laurel Canyon neighborhood north of the Sunset Strip, where an array of what would become the 1960s’ most influential young musicians settled and created some the era’s most enduring music.

Crosby spent much of his time at the canyon home of the Mamas & the Papas singer Cass Elliot, a friend from the pre-Beatles folk scene of the early 1960s. “My house is a very free house,” Elliot recalled. “Especially on weekends, I get a lot of delicatessen food in because I know David is going to come over for a swim and things are going to happen.”

It was at the Laurel Canyon house that Elliot, convinced that Stills and Crosby, who’d formed a desultory collaboration after Crosby had left the Byrds, needed a third voice, corralled the two musicians and dragooned Nash—then on tour with the Hollies—to sing with them for the first time.

The  band, subsequently known as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young after adding Neil Young—Stills’s bandmate from Buffalo Springfield—performed at the Woodstock festival in 1969. The followup album from CSN&Y was another generational hit, Déjà Vu, and included the hits “Woodstock” and “Teach Your Children,” plus Crosby’s defiant anti-establishment anthem “Almost Cut My Hair.”

CSN&Y was dragged down by internal battles as their recorded output slowed to a crawl, although the band (with and without Young) remained a successful touring act for decades, often appearing at events in support of leftist political causes, including No Nukes: The Muse Concerts for a Non-Nuclear Future, recorded at Madison Square Garden in 1979.

By the mid-1980s, Crosby’s freebase cocaine addiction and trouble with the law led to his conviction in 1985 for drugs and weapons offenses, and he served nine months in a Texas state prison. After his release, Nash, Stills and Young joined with him on the 1988 reunion album, American Dream, received largely as a disappointment in comparison to their past achievements.

In recent years, Crosby lamented that none of the famous collaborators from his career wanted to play with him anymore, while also admitting he’d often been “an asshole.” After he bluntly criticized Young’s girlfriend—and now-wife—Daryl Hannah in a radio interview, CSN&Y had a final meltdown, never again to reunite. Even Nash, who was once closest to the singer, had had enough.

Crosby was known for vocals as pure as his temperament could be raw and unpleasant, but he found a waiting audience of admirers on Twitter for his opinionated statements, weighing in on anything from politics to the guitar-smashing skills of Phoebe Bridgers.

“David Crosby stuck to his guns,” recalls Los Angeles musician and SiriusXM host Michael Des Barres, “a difficult man whose talent and taste were immense, who said said what he said and felt what he felt, a brilliant songwriter and an American icon.”

Like many artists of his generation in recent years, Crosby sold the rights to his recorded music and publishing, which were purchased by music mogul Irving Azoff’s Iconic Artists Group in 2021. It helped relieve the financial pressure he said he was under by being unable to tour during the COVID-19 pandemic, when he retreated to his property in Santa Ynez, north of Los Angeles.

“He was a wonderful neighbor and we will miss him,” says Jane Ayer, a music publicist who worked for CSN&Y’s label, Atlantic Records, in the ’70s. “It was always a joy to see him or talk to him and his beloved wife, Jan.”

Last year, Crosby told a high school journalism class interviewing him in Golden, Colorado, that his touring days were likely over. “I’m too old to do it anymore,” he said. “I don’t have the stamina; I don’t have the strength.”

In December, he released a live album recorded in 2018, David Crosby & The Lighthouse Band Live at the Capitol Theatre, the latest in a flurry of Crosby releases at the twilight of his career.

“It’s an absurd rate to be cranking albums out,” he said. “The reason being is that I’m gonna die…and I want to crank out all the music I possibly can before I do.”


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