Discover more from Listening Sessions
David Crosby's Season
Paying tribute to the Croz
Welcome music lovers to another edition of ‘Listening Sessions.’
My essay this time is a bit longer than usual and centres on David Crosby, who died last month at age 81. There are few musicians I feel a more personal pull towards than Crosby. With his embrace of harmony, jazz and the ethereal—three things I deeply love in music—it would be impossible for me to feel otherwise about him, I suspect.
I focus on his time with the Byrds, specifically the final two records he made with the group: Younger Than Yesterday and The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Needless to say, his legacy extends far beyond them but they are two of the finest albums in his discography.
I hope you enjoy it and will share your thoughts about Crosby in the comments.
Coming up next will be a look at one of my favourite ballad albums. It’s a surprising pick and I am looking forward to sharing it with you all.
Until next time, may good listening be with you all!
If you’re reading this and are not yet a subscriber of ‘Listening Sessions,’ I hope you'll click the button below to subscribe and get each edition delivered straight to your inbox. I publish a long-form essay on music three times a month, every 10 days or so.
If you are a subscriber, share ‘Listening Sessions’ with any music fans in your orbit.
“The musicians that are playing rock and roll, they know where you’re at, they know where your mind’s at, and they’re playing for you, to you and like the Beatles and other groups, you know, their music will get to you, reach you and the colours will flash and the sounds will embrace you, it’s beautiful, it’s the Byrds.”
Mike Bloomfield introducing the Byrds at the Monterey International Pop Festival; June 17, 1967
In an outtake from the reams of footage D. A. Pennebaker and his team shot of the groundbreaking Monterey International Pop Festival, Bloomfield, among the most gifted and assuredly the most forward-thinking rock guitarist of his generation, offered these thoughts: “In little towns in Iowa, man, growing up now, are kids that are being freaked out of their minds by the Beatles, man, freaked out, they were raised on Beatles man, raised on genius music.”
“Genius music.” It may not be the most artful turn of phrase, but it pointedly hits on a feeling as spring was giving way to summer in 1967: rock music, after undergoing a rapid maturation over the past three years, was in a golden age.
That spring, CBS broadcast Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, an hour-long program that was one part a musicologist’s dream and the other a sociologist’s expedition. Leonard Bernstein, a rock star in his own right in the classical world, was enlisted to dissect what exactly was distinguishing the best of the new rock music—as he put it, answering the question “why do I like it?”—and doing so with the enthusiasm and insight that were just two of his innumerable gifts as one of music’s most passionate proselytizers.
Among those interviewed for the special’s second part, a consideration of the societal implications of the advances in rock, were Roger McGuinn and Graham Nash, who both figure prominently in the life of David Crosby, equally in how harmony brought a glory to the music they made together and how discord brought, at some point, an inevitability that continuing to make music together was an impossibility.
Poignantly, in the 2019 documentary David Crosby: Remember My Name, Cameron Crowe, who directed it, posed a question to Crosby: “If I were to say, no music, but you get extreme joy in your home life, do you make that trade?” After clarifying that no music meant exactly that: no music, Crosby responded: “No music? Not interested. It’s the only thing that I got to offer, really.”
By 1967, what Crosby was offering through the Byrds, who were, arguably save for the Beach Boys, the most original and exciting band from California in the mid sixties, and undoubtedly the inventors of folk-rock, already bore the imprimatur of someone who was as flipped out by the Beatles as he was by the harmonies of the Ensemble of the Belgium Republic as he was by John Coltrane (his recounting of an encounter with the saxophonist in a night-club bathroom is one of the peerless moments of the Crowe documentary).
Cross-pollination—the blending of disparate elements to create a piece of music that aspired to art—was the name of the game, and Crosby was one of its most intriguing practitioners. His emergence as a foil to McGuinn, who co-formed the Byrds with Gene Clark and whose 12-string Rickenbacker was the group’s signature sound, led the group to make their finest music. It also eventually led McGuinn to take the group in a far different direction, trading the countercultural nirvana of Monterey for the straights of the Grand Old Opry a year later.
The Byrds were initially a five-man band: McGuinn and Clark early in 1964 began performing as a duo; Crosby entered the picture soon after hearing them at the Troubadour and the three, all part of the folk scene, soon became the Jet Set; Michael Clarke was next, drafted to play the drums and who hastily learned how to do so; the four recorded a single as the Beefeaters for the Elektra label (a recognition of how powerful the Beatles’ influence was on all four); and finally, Chris Hillman, a bassist who was more into bluegrass than folk or the Fab Four, joined. On Thanksgiving 1964, the five chose to rename themselves as the Byrds. Two weeks earlier, they signed a record deal with Columbia, a move in which Miles Davis is said to have a hand after his daughter hipped him to the group.
Success came lightning quick—their interpretations of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)’ remain touchstones of sixties music. Clark was the group’s primary songwriter. Horizons were quickly broadened—Clark, with McGuinn and Crosby, wrote ‘Eight Miles High,’ at the end of 1965 and it was recorded in January 1966. It was a revelatory hallucinogenic brew of Coltrane (his ‘India’ being the lift-off point for McGuinn’s swirling, jagged solo lines throughout the song) and Ravi Shankar’s hypnotic Hindustani music. Many credit it as being the first psychedelic record.
The B side of ‘Eight Miles High’ was ‘Why,’ which Crosby wrote with Hillman and sang lead on. It’s mix of a Beatles beat with a harmonically static structure and a modal McGuinn solo that exploded out of the boundaries of rock. It stands as Crosby's first assertion as an individual talent within the group. Soon, after the single was released, Clark was gone, partly due to a fear of flying and partly out of jealousy over his prowess as a songwriter. A five-man band became a foursome.
Their third album, Fifth Dimension, belied the demand for a constant flow of product but also signified a shift in direction for the Byrds. Their follow-up release, Younger Than Yesterday, recorded in the fall of 1966 and released early in 1967, revealed its promise.
It’s here where Crosby made his first major artistic statements. Younger Than Yesterday is of supreme quality. It often shimmers with the halcyon promise of the counterculture even as pessimism nips at the album’s edges.
Most obviously, it drives the opener, ‘So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star,’ written by McGuinn and Hillman as a response, in part, to the sudden rise of the Monkees. Yet, it is not too blistering a putdown. Consider the rush of the instrumental break, played over a bed of screaming fans—recorded during a Byrds’ concert in 1965—that reminds of the impact of the Beatles’ first feature, A Hard Day’s Night, had on Crosby and the rest of the Byrds, that euphoric and exciting snapshot of Beatlemania before the whole rigmarole got old and tedious. Equally, there’s the inspired choice to have South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela play on the song—a sign of Crosby’s often impeccable taste—which adds to its tension. Here’s a song lampooning manufactured pop that features a jazz trumpeter and also poses a question: “the price you paid for your riches and fame, was it all a strange game?” that sympathizes, at least to a certain extent, with our newly enshrined rock stars.
Few paid the cost as Crosby did. His lover, Christine Hinton, died tragically in a car crash in 1969. He described it as a “rip in the fabric.” Its shadow exacerbated the substance-abuse problems that would dog him in the seventies and into the eighties, and eventually land him in jail. He got clean but there lingered the regret of oh so many wasted years.
On Younger Than Yesterday, Crosby is both worldly wise and newly psychedelicized. ‘Renaissance Fair,’ his and McGuinn’s ode to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire of Southern California is a premonition of the Be-Ins to come. There’s cosmic wonder as Crosby harmonizes with McGuinn on “I think that maybe I’m dreaming.” The scene he paints of “cinnamon and spices,” “wine-coloured flowers in her hair” and “the crying of the venders” reveal Crosby’s capacity for expressive imagery (see also ‘Wooden Ships,’ ‘Look in Their Eyes’ and ‘Vagrants of Venice’ for other examples). The introduction with McGuinn’s jangling 12-string, Crosby’s crisp chords and Hillman’s thundering bass illustrate the potency of the Byrds at the dawn of 1967.
It was a heady time even as Crosby raised a little cain with McGuinn over ‘Mind Gardens,’ a kaleidoscopic, aggressively weird musical acid trip that when it doesn’t grate on the nerves suggests it may actually be great because of how nervy it is, especially as it is sandwiched between ‘Thoughts and Words’ and ‘My Back Pages’ on the album. The former is one of four Hillman compositions on Younger Than Yesterday (all immediately established him as a formidably gifted songwriter) and while its beat is stuck in Mersey circa 1964, it also has a backwards guitar and a melody that feels foreboding. The song mashes up the past and the present in a glorious mélange before the floor falls away underneath the listener with Crosby’s first astringent chord on the aforementioned ‘Mind Gardens.’ As it fades out with Crosby at peace and a reverse guitar droning, offering a musical namaste, McGuinn and his guitar emerge to take the Byrds back to the source with a gorgeous and celebrated cover of Dylan’s ‘My Back Pages.’ McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman are all in accord on the chorus, the harmony sweet as they sing Dylan’s bittersweet words.
Crosby’s stunning ‘Everybody’s Been Burned,’ which he acknowledged as his first major composition, probes our collective brokenness and counsels to not yield to the despair, Hillman’s ‘The Girl With No Name’ paints a surreal romance and McGuinn’s ‘C.T.A. - 102’ (co-written with Robert J. Hippard) goes to the outer limits and beyond. Here was the rise of the sixties—soon became the fall.
The months following Younger Than Yesterday brought fracture to the Byrds. Rightly or wrongly, the blame is largely assigned to Crosby. In later years, he chalked it up cogently to him being a seven-letter noun starting with an a.
You can get a sense of what he meant by listening to the Byrds after Mike Bloomfield introduced them at Monterey. Their set lasts just over 20 minutes and falls short of Bloomfield’s groovy invocation. The music is jittery, phrenetic and sounds like it could fall apart at any second, especially during the wild closer, ‘So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star,’ in which Masekela, also appearing at Monterey, joins them on stage and is barely audible for just a brief moment.
Crosby dominates, introducing all the songs, expounds on the multiple-gunmen theory of the assassination of President Kennedy, yells at one point “your mother gets high and you don’t know it” and refers to Roger McGuinn as McGuinn. Even as the recording is of invaluable historical value, it’s hard not to listen without cringing, not only because Crosby refuses to tone it down but also because the beauty of the song he wrote for the Byrds’ next single, ‘Lady Friend,’ is all but eviscerated in a chaotic performance at the festival. The poetry of Crosby’s lyrics sound like a speed-fueled stream-of-consciousness rant.
The single version, on the other hand—well, it’s magisterial, about as textbook example as there is of the glory of the two-minute pop song as there is. There’s the rush of McGuinn’s guitar and how each verse quickly builds, then ebbs and regroups to end in bravado. Crosby’s take on the end of a romance is full of startling imagery: the anticipation of a break-up “like the last wave I drowned in,” the realization that she will be soon “take her trinkets” and the grit to “learn to live without her and survive.” It’s that rare song that never loses its sense of surprise, its ability to elicit wonder, the feeling that one has just been privy to genius. ‘Lady Friend’ wasn’t a hit—far from it and it’s not surprising, its moment may have been had if it had been written and released six or nine months earlier.
Its production—Crosby horrified by producer Gary Usher’s mushy mix, Hillman displeased that Crosby had added Tijuana brass-like trumpets and replaced McGuinn and Hillman’s backing vocals with his own—cemented the frustration of Monterey fueled not only by Crosby’s stage banter but also because he sat in with Buffalo Springfield at the festival, standing in for Neil Young. All this and more was brought to the studio as the Byrds began work on their next album. By the time it was completed, Crosby was fired; Clarke was gone as well and Gene Clark briefly returned. The result was The Notorious Byrd Brothers, an enigmatic song cycle released at the dawn of 1968 that has the weight of prophesying—offered both explicitly and implicitly—the turmoil that would stain the year as well as the holy and awe-inspiring moment of the Apollo 8 mission at the end of December which marked the first time humans orbited the moon. It’s as if—befitting Crosby and McGuinn’s interest in science fiction—the album is the musical equivalent of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, released three months after The Notorious Byrd Brothers.
Crosby appears on about the half the album, and wrote or co-wrote three of its songs—a fourth, ‘Triad,’ a wafting and chill ode to a ménage et trois was grudgingly recorded and then left off the album in favour of ‘Goin’ Back,’ a calliope-sounding, trolley-like piece written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King which Crosby thought was pointless for a band with such strong songwriters as the Byrds to record.
Of his contributions to The Notorious Byrd Brothers, ‘Tribal Gathering’ is the jazziest. With a 5/4 beat and a Crosby vocal with the syncopation of vocalese, it’s an ode to the happening at Los Angeles’ Elysian Park in March 1967. Like ‘Renaissance Fair,’ it evokes bucolic bliss; unlike it, thanks to an interlude dominated by a menacing, vibrating guitar, it suggests the idyll may only exist for its season. A similar eruption in the middle of ‘Draft Morning,’ a sound collage of artillery fire and the horror of war provided by hippie jokesters the Firesign Theater, illustrates how Vietnam represented the paradox of America in the Lyndon Johnson era: almost unparalleled social progress, almost unparalleled human loss. ‘Dolphin’s Smile,’ the first song Crosby recorded with a nautical theme, also has its tranquility shattered eerily.
On the CD reissue of the album released in 1997, there is hidden at the end a seven-minute excerpt of the session for ‘Dolphin’s Smile.’ Michael Clarke struggles mightily to lay down a beat that satisfies Crosby. At first, he encourages Clarke but that soon fades. Both musicians trade F bombs and taunt each other. The vibes are bad—a true bummer. Yet, Clarke’s drums on the master take nail the jazz two-step that Crosby wanted.
It’s an apocryphal tale that McGuinn and Hillman commemorated Crosby’s exit by having a horse pose on the album cover where he would have been. Even after Crosby left, his spirit continued to pervade The Notorious Byrd Brothers and its weird, off-kilter, gauzy milieu. There’s sped-up vocals, a liberal use of phasing as well as the newly invented Moog modular synthesizer. Listen to ‘Natural Harmony’ and one may be initially surprised that it’s Hillman who wrote and sang it instead of the bandmate he had helped give the boot to.
Few musicians have exerted the psychic pull that Crosby did. There is a wavelength to his music at its best that so shatters the distance between performer and listener that it makes being a Crosby devotee feel like a very personal act of devotion. It’s maybe that fact that explains why Crosby spent his last decade trying to make as much music as he possibly could. His renaissance resulted in five studio albums plus a live date with at least one more to come posthumously. It may also explain why he was one of the most accessible musicians on Twitter, answering innumerable questions from curious fans about just about anything. It certainly explains why his death at age 81 on January 18 feels like a significant step in the coming closing of an era.
August 14, 1941…a time to be born…January 18, 2023…a time to die…a linchpin of the grand story of rock’s adulthood…a time to plant…a musical fire that kept burning for seven decades…a time to reap…estranged from most of his closet collaborators from his past…a time to kill…most of them choosing now to forget the bad and remember the good…a time to heal…the wonder of keeping death from his door for far longer than he thought he deserved…a time to laugh…and now gone…a time to mourn.
That was David Crosby’s season.