David Crosby scored a no. 1 hit with his first major recording—but he would’ve had a right to be pissed off about how it went down. That’s because, in January 1965, when the newly formed Byrds went to record a version of Bob Dylan’s then-unreleased “Mr. Tambourine Man,” producer Terry Melcher thought session musicians were needed. Roger McGuinn was allowed to play his jangly guitar part—which would turn out to be the immaculate conception point for Peter Buck’s whole career—and McGuinn, Crosby, and Gene Clark teamed up to sing the vocals. But members of the elite studio team the Wrecking Crew came in to play all the other instrumentation.
For most musicians—even supremely talented ones—relegating them to backing vocals would render them more or less obsolete. (Does anyone ever talk about how great Peter Tork and Davy Jones’s “oohs” and “aahs” are on “Last Train to Clarksville”?) Crosby, however, took his assignment and changed the course of popular music. Working with just a straightforward folk melody, he arranged a complex harmony that has the trio’s vocal lines dancing around each other in a manner so dazzling that even crotchety Dylan was said to approve. (At least according to Crosby, an unreliable narrator if there ever was one.) The room was filled with musicians who recorded on songs like “Be My Baby” and “I Get Around,” but Crosby was the star that day. He was a dropout vagabond, just a few years removed from burgling houses as his way of getting by. (At least, according to Crosby.) He was 23 years old.
“I give the credit to Crosby,” McGuinn said in 2011, when asked about the unique blend of the Byrds’ vocals. “He was brilliant at devising these harmony parts that were not strict third, fourth, or fifth improvisational combination of the three. That’s what makes the Byrds’ harmonies.”
Crosby, who died this week at 81 of undisclosed causes, had his career so frequently overshadowed by his antics—by legal issues, by shit-stirring in the press, by endless tweeting in his later years—that it’s easy to forget to lead with his music. And even when you do focus on the music, the picture that comes in often isn’t totally clear. Despite being able to make an enemy out of just about anyone, one of Crosby’s paramount skills during his career was, remarkably, finding himself in continuous orbit of other great talents. So much so that his accomplishments are hard to pin down: Just how much did he contribute to get a writing credit on the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High”? (It was apparently just one line.) What, exactly, did his presence in the room bring to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio”? (That’s him wailing “How many more?” at the end.)
“My role is my role,” Crosby told Rolling Stone in 1970. “I don’t want to get tagged into it too tight, but on the most basic level I can approach it, it’s energy source, communication, and focus.”
The son of Floyd Crosby, the legendary cinematographer behind the 1952 classic Western noir High Noon, David Crosby grew up with a peripheral understanding of the entertainment industry—and, in particular, the art of movies, which are created by committee. Like a hotshot director, he seemed to go through life with the awareness that what he brought was not just a vision, but also knowing whom to work with in order to bring that vision to life. (Or when it would be wise to let someone else’s vision take center stage.) After dropping out of school, Crosby bounced around the country—Dennis Hopper was later said to have modeled his Easy Rider persona after him—eventually landing in New York during the folk-scene explosion, where he would be introduced to McGuinn.
Crosby’s time with the Byrds set a precedent of the path that he would repeat several times over in his life: start a group, collaborate with marquee talent, and then break up spectacularly. After the album Mr. Tambourine Man essentially placed the term “folk rock” into the modern vernacular, Crosby hung around for another four albums, his songwriting presence slowly increasing as they went along—a sort of George Harrison figure for the group, contributing occasional songs like “Everybody’s Been Burned,” while providing ancillary support to the more dominant songwriting of McGuinn and Chris Hillman. But Crosby was thrown out of the band during the making of 1968’s The Notorious Byrd Brothers, partially because he wanted to include more original material, and partially because he wouldn’t stop talking about JFK conspiracy theories on stage. (“The Warren Report ain’t the truth, that’s plain to anybody,” Crosby said to Rolling Stone in 1970, describing his usual stage banter. “And it happened in your country. Don’t you wonder why? Don’t you wonder?”)
At a party at Joni Mitchell’s house (Crosby produced her debut album, Song to a Seagull), the trio of Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash first hit it off, each feeling freed from the shackles of their previous groups (the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and the Hollies, respectively). Operating as Crosby, Stills & Nash, the band had a smash hit with their 1969 self-titled debut, and then doubled down, adding Neil Young, with whom they made the 1970 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album Déjà Vu, which hit no. 1. The members’ approach was inspired by both resentment for previous collaborations and an embrace of new collaborations at the same time.
“I started out as a solo writer, writing all my own stuff and jealously guarding it,” Crosby explained to Stereogum in 2021. “A lot of people do that. They want all the credit, they want all the money. What I found out is, the other guy always thinks of something I wouldn’t think of. It’s more colors, it’s like having two palettes of colors instead of one. We paint a better picture.”
But as democratic as these albums were, Crosby’s songs, like “Guinnevere” and “Déjà Vu,” were always easy to pick out; they would be the ones with the strange tunings and structures, the ones with the most out-there lyrics. (“If I had ever been here before / I would probably know just what to do.”) Listening to him push songs like “Almost Cut My Hair” over semi-jazzy terrain made it seem like he was never quite a team player, even if he was the one who formed the team in the first place.
As always with Crosby, though, the music was just one part of the story. CSNY was an experiment in explosive personalities—and even with a group that included Neil Young, someone who once abandoned Stills mid-tour with a note that said, “Eat a peach,” Crosby still came out as the most volatile figure. “See, the thing is, everybody—especially David—is a controversial character,” Young told Rolling Stone in 1969. “Everybody has an opinion. Like, I like to watch David just to see what he’ll do next.”
Already an unpredictable character, Crosby was sent into an emotional tailspin when his longtime girlfriend, Christine Hinton, died in a car accident in 1969. His substance use subsequently became more severe, and his behavior more erratic. As he continued to make music throughout the ’70s and into ’80s—including the landmark 1971 solo release If I Could Only Remember My Name—he was heading for his own ditch, like the one Young himself ended up in. At his lowest, Crosby spent multiple stints in prison for drug and firearm charges. (It’s reasonable to presume that the gun in his lap on the cover of Déjà Vu wasn’t a prop.)
But the second career of Crosby is nothing short of remarkable. Even though he released plenty of music after his major legal and addiction issues subsided, he embodied something more powerful—and frankly bizarre—than just a musician. He was the walking id of the hippie generation—the counterpoint to the boomers who left behind their ponchos when middle age and mortgages started staring them down. Crosby never stopped wearing odd clothing and smoking weed. He never stopped singing.
“I don’t look back at all,” Crosby told The Guardian in 2018, by way of answering a general question, but providing an ethos in the process. “I don’t think about any of this stuff, I don’t concern myself with it. My focus is all on today, tomorrow, next week, and next year. That’s where I put all of my attention, constantly.”
Most household names have the good sense to not freely post on social media, but this protective approach didn’t fall in line with Crosby’s surprising interest in the digital realm. While his old frenemy Neil seems hellbent on avoiding any kind of embrace of the new frontier of the internet, Crosby charged forward with abandon. Crosby’s Twitter presence—one in which he would consistently reply to almost any inane question sent from any account—could be seen as an extension, however unintentional, of his artistic realm. This is the thing about great posters: They don’t think. They act as vessels through which the content flows, almost like a trance. Crosby posted with the abandon of a truly free spirit. He spent his last hours posting because it was what he liked to do. Because, for better or for worse—and, often, it was worse—he didn’t view it as PR, but just a way of being himself.
“I like Twitter,” he explained to Stereogum. “It’s a place where it’s a conversation. It’s not ‘Post a cute pic of me,’ ‘Do you think I’m cute.’ It’s a place where you can actually converse, and sometimes you can get engaged in discourse.”
There’s a certain irony in Crosby dying during the rollout of a boygenius record; for the cover photo of the first boygenius EP, the group—consisting of Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker—recreated Henry Diltz’s iconic front cover image of Crosby, Stills & Nash. It was a nod from one generation’s most powerful supergroup to another’s, but in typical Crosby fashion, this gesture didn’t stop him from stirring the pot, later posting that Bridgers’s guitar-breaking performance on Saturday Night Live was “pathetic.” Bridgers, whether she likes it or not, is a student of the school of shitposting that Crosby helped found; like a pupil turning on the master, she simply replied, “little bitch.”
This is the thing about Crosby that was as inspiring as it was asinine: With the exception of Joni Mitchell, there wasn’t a person in the world he didn’t think he could take one on one, in some capacity. Even when it came to his contemporaries—the artists with whom he harmonized to create something together that was greater than the sum of its parts—he would still insist on saying he was the best. He was like a former champion boxer who only got louder the more he wished he could still be in the ring with the current heavyweights. In regard to how he stacked up against the talents of the rest of CSNY, he was as adamant as ever in his later years that he was the greatest, telling The Guardian in 2021, “I thought I was as good or better.”
“I don’t know who you think you are,” he sings on the 1966 Byrds song “What’s Happening?” “I don’t know what you’re doing here.” Whether Crosby meant the lyric as a swipe at his then-bandmates playing alongside him, or as just a stoned thought one might have watching someone walk down the street, it’s one of his all-time best compositions—a moment when he truly was better than McGuinn, better than Clark, better than Hillman, better than Stills, better than Nash, better than Young. It’s a freight train of a song, chugging along, but also feeling as if it’s in danger of meandering off the tracks. At one point, Crosby slightly cracks up while singing, some secret joke amusing him that we’ll never know a thing about. And then the song starts to drift off, full steam ahead into the deep distance.
Nate Rogers is a writer in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, GQ, and elsewhere.