An Egg Thief in Cyberspace:
An Interview with David Crosby, 1995
by Steve Silberman
S.S. and D.C. in Provincetown, on a deck in the West End.
The figure lounging on the right is Oliver Ray of the Patti Smith Band.
This interview took place on January 30, 1995. It first appeared in Goldmine, vol. 21, #14, July 7, 1995.
Steve Silberman: Your new record, It's All Coming Back to Me Now, has the intimate feel of the club gigs you've been playing in between CSN tours. How do you feel about playing smaller venues, rather than the big arenas CSN plays in?
David Crosby: I love it. There's a telepathic bond that happens between musicians onstage. You ball that energy up, throw it across the footlights into the audience, and palpable waves of energy come back at you. When you're playing in the big places, it's hard to establish that tenuous connection.
SS: One thing about this record is that you can hear your guitar playing again, which I think is underrated. I've always enjoyed how you're able to steer a band in interesting improvisatory directions with jazzier "outside" chords.
DC: [Pretending to address Stephen Stills] "You hear what he said, Stephen?" Yeah, I love that too. In Crosby, Stills and Nash, you never hear my guitar. There's just more going on. Stephen is a vastly superior guitar player, and he drives that band. But in my own band, Jeff Pevar and I have an interweave, a way of working with each other, that is a delight to me. Jeff leaves room for me to push rhythmically. When there's a picking pattern, like in "In My Dreams" or "Deja Vu," there's always an open space. Jeff's most powerful weapon is his ability to play not the notes, but the song. There are lead guitar players who like to play lead guitar, and there are lead guitar players who like to play songs. It's a definite difference in approach. Jeff loves songs. He's up there, trying to tell the same story that you are. Ever since I started playing music, my great joy has been submitting to a thing greater than myself, created when musicians link up, making something big in the air over our heads that speaks with one voice. That's my life. That's what I came to the party for.
SS: Did you ever sing with the Springfield?
DC: I was actually in the Springfield at Monterey Pop, but that was one for that one gig, 'cause Neil had split. I was the only person at Monterey Pop to be in two bands, and not in the movie. Don't know how I managed that.
SS: Did you ever think you might stay in the Buffalo Springfield?
DC: If Springfield had held together, I would have. I could see that Stephen was a major talent. He might have been a little hard to get along with, but there was no question that there was good energy there. Springfield was a very very powerhouse band. They had the essence, the wherewithal, and the jacks-or-better, which is the songs. And they could sing. If they had been able to refine that band and hold it together, there's no telling what they could have accomplished. But they drove it until the wheels came off.
SS: I have this tape of you with Les Baxter's Balladeers...
DC: Oh, you rat! Look, I was trying to eat some dinner. That was the folk scene, and the only thing making any money was groups like the Christy Minstrels. I think there were something like three Christy Minstrels groups out at the same time.
SS: A franchise.
DC: Right. But Les Baxter saw that, and decided he would have one of those, put it out on tour, and rake in zillions of bucks. We were gonna be really soulful folkies, and he had us in these red bellboy jackets. You would've died laughing, but we sang pretty good.
SS: When did you start writing songs?
DC: I started writing when I was hanging out with Travis Edmunson of Bud and Travis. He was my first mentor. I wandered into a club on Sunset Boulevard called the Unicorn, which was an early-early coffeehouse. I'd heard of Bud and Travis, 'cause I was kind of a folky guy who listened to Odetta, and Josh White, and the Weavers - stuff like that. Travis was really good, so I'd sit there, hawk his changes, and follow him around, carrying his guitar. The first song I ever wrote was a song called "Cross the Plains," and it was ludicrous. It's on a record someplace.
SS: That song has that modal feeling about it which became your main groove.
DC: It's certainly one of the places I'm most comfortable in, no question about it. The lyric ballad, odd-changes feel.
SS: When you were writing that song, were you aware that the changes were jazzier than what was happening in pop music at the time?
DC: A little, but one of the fortunate things about working in the Byrds was that Roger had a very open head, and so did Chris. Gene tended to be more normalized in his musical thinking, but Roger and Christopher were wide open. They let me get away with putting "Mind Gardens" on a record! Roger was willing to take a swing at almost anything.
SS: Was any of that encouraged by the Beatles' example?
DC: Of course. They were our heroes. They were absolutely what we thought we wanted to do. We listened to every note they played, and savored it, and rubbed it on our foreheads, and were duly affected by it.
SS: Do you remember when you first heard the Beatles?
DC: I was in Chicago, living with a British guy named Clem Floyd on Well Street, right in the middle of it all. I was singing at Old Town North and Mother Blues. I was trying to quit smoking, and the way I figured to quit was to buy a quarter-pound of pot, which I rolled and smoked every time I wanted a cigarette. I'm not saying to try this at home, kids - but it worked.
SS: How did you get into doing Dylan?
DC: There was a guy named Jim Dickson who I met in that same coffeehouse. He heard me singing, and he knew that I didn't know doodly-squat, but I had this pure little voice. He liked the business, and knew a hell of a lot more about it than we did. When I started singing it the Front Room at the Troubador with McGuinn and Gene Clark, I said, "I have a friend who knows a lot about the business. We ought to go sing for him and see what he says."
SS: Did you have a sense that Dylan was a peer in updating folk music, both the musical aspects of it, and also its social role - bringing the news, articulating the non-mainstream viewpoint?
DC: Yeah. I'm pretty sure that was the first time anybody had put really good poetry on AM radio. "To dance beneath the diamond sky, with one hand waving free." That wasn't on the radio until then.
SS: Had you been exposed to the Beats before Dylan?
DC: Sure - that stuff shaped us. And some of those guys were around when the Byrds started - Allen Ginsberg used to come and dance every night with Peter Orlovsky. I was unquestionably affected by all of those guys' writing.
SS: What did you get from it?
DC: A lot of my iconoclastic, outside-the-mainstream, don't-take-the-establishment-point-of-view-for-being-what it-says-it-is-at-face-value attitude. A lot of my go-find-out-for-myself-what's-on-the-other-side-of-that-hill. To say it another way: one thing we're sure we don't know is, we don't know. A sense of adventure. I wanted nothing more than to go around the country by myself with a guitar and a bag, bop into town, find the coffeehouse, and say "Hi! Hire me, I'm cheap."
SS: Their writing infused social criticism with real spirituality that didn't depend on religious structures and hierarchies, but on personal experience.
DC: I felt that. I felt from them a mission.
SS: Paul Kantner uses that story on Blows Against the Empire. He's got a song called "Mau Mau" - "We are egg snatchers, flashing sunshine children."
DC: More power to him. Paul Kantner's nearly a saint. The guy has never copped out an inch. If you go to a performance of Paul's tonight, you will get the full blast right between the eyes of the entire ethic that he espoused when he started. He is a fully idealistic human being. I love him so much when I watch him work. He's so honestly committed to his principles and ideals, and to what he believes is the good in human beings.
SS: You guys go way back, playing together, to Venice Beach, a house you had there. Could you talk about that communal experiment?
DC: It was pretty funny. This was right after Stranger in a Strange Land came out. We were all fairly naive kids. It was Paul, and me, and David Freiberg - who is still my friend - and Steven Schuster, and Sherri Snow, and Ginger Jackson. We kept all our money in a bowl, and if you needed any, you took it out.
SS: One of the lines that struck me early on in your music, from "Triad," was "Sister lovers, water brothers, and in time, maybe others."
DC: That was from Stranger in A Strange Land.
SS: And the idea was to create a new form of family.
DC: The dream was extended families, and other permutations sexually, too. We thought that it was possible to transcend the monogamous kind of two-by-two relationship, and go way further with it. Across sex barriers, across number barriers - make love to who you wanted to, in whatever numbers pleased you, and in whatever combinations pleased you. That sounded like a really good idea.
SS: Was Grace Slick there too?
DC: No. Grace - God, what a powerhouse. Grace is one of my favorite people that I encountered in the whole scene. Totally, utterly, completely fearless. Not so great when she was drunk, but neither was I. She did me an enormous favor by being the one to break out "Triad" - she recorded it when other people thought it was sincerely subversive. Which I guess it was.
SS: So, you guys were playing folk music in Venice Beach?
DC: Folk music, and stuff we wrote ourselves. When I was living on the Charles Van Damme in Sausalito with Dino Valenti, I was singing more and more of my own stuff. Dino encouraged me to do that.
SS: Were the Dead hanging around at that point?
DC: I had heard of them playing down on the Peninsula, there was another name they went under first - the Warlocks. I had heard about 'em: "There are these guys down there who are really out there." That was like honey to a bee to me - I wanted to immediately go and find out who they were and what they did. I didn't encounter them until they were full-blown as the Dead.
SS: Where did you see them first?
DC: God knows. Probably the back of a truck in the park, or on Haight Street. Paul Kantner gave me their first album, and I loved it. This wasn't Paul Revere and the Raiders - this was the real stuff! These guys were having fun, and that's my thing - I love having fun with music. I knew they were kindred spirits immediately.
SS: Was there a lot of informal jamming going on?
DC: Around them? Always. They have always believed in the magic content of music - that anything is possible at any moment. That's why they've always managed to keep their door open to the incredible peaks that they sometimes hit. They hit valleys too. The only dependable grade of music that you can deliver every day is mediocre. They're not interested in that, any more than I am. So they leave the door open wide, and take incredible chances. And as a result, they've hit musical peaks that probably no one will ever touch. They've also played some dogshit, but they know that. They want those peaks, and they keep themselves open. That's why they'll play with Bruce Hornsby, or Branford, or any of the people they've played with. They want to reach.
SS: Around 1970, the Dead were moving from playing more electric, out-there, jams from Anthem of the Sun, to more folky traditional stuff. I've heard that Stills helped them learn how to sing.
DC: That's what the Dead said, but they were just being nice. They had listened to us a lot, and they liked what happened when three-part harmony went over a good track. It's very generous of them to credit us with it, but we never sat down with them in a room and said, "OK now, you sing this, you sing this." That never happened. Those guys are brilliant. They knew exactly what we were doing, and they evolved their own version of it. They just credited us to be nice.
SS: But you guys were hanging out a lot, especially around the recording of your first solo album, If I Could Only Remember My Name.
DC: I couldn't have made that record without them. Jerry practically co-produced it. He was there so many nights, he gave so much of himself to that record. He was so generous, and so was everybody else. It was a joint project of the entire city, just about. It was a joke to call it a "solo record." There were no rules. Because we had just completely grabbed the brass ring with Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, I could afford to go down to Wally Heider's studio every night just for laughs. Anybody that showed up, we'd try something. Paul would show up, Grace would show up, Nash would show up, Neil would show up, Jerry would show up, Phil would show up, Casady would show up, and Jorma would show up. We were just screwing around, and when you screw around with that caliber of players and singers, you goin' to get some shit, if you're patient. And we lucked out. I still am as proud of that record as I am of anything we've ever done.
SS: Could you talk a bit about how CSN''s been for you as an evolving venue for your songwriting over the years?
DC: Big subject. It's an incredibly strange chemistry, and, at its best, has produced some of the best music of my life, obviously. The mixture of the voices is most peculiar. The approaches to structuring harmonies were most peculiar. How has it worked? It's been a constant battle, and a constant joy. It wavers back and forth between which one is winning on any given day, and it always has. It was the same when Neil was in the group. I don't think Stephen and I are ever going to agree about anything. We're extremely different kinds of human beings. But I like him - no, I love him. I'm not sure I like him, but I definitely love him. 'cause I've been through too much with him not to care.
Nash and I were meant to be friends, from the first minute we met. We feel so much alike about what's right and wrong, and what matters. I've learned an awful lot from Graham as a human being.
SS: How did you meet?
DC: Cass [the late "Mama" Cass Elliot of the Mamas and Papas] brought Graham over to my house in Laurel Canyon, and didn't tell me who he was.
SS: Had you already seen the Hollies?
DC: No, so I didn't know who he was. I just liked the guy. Cass brought him over, and he had never smoked our standard, sinsemillic, crush-you-to-death-and-melt-your-mind, go-home-six-hours-later-in-a-stupor kind of weed. So he had an interesting afternoon.
SS: Your melodies are very informed by jazz, and non pop-music tonalities.
DC: My brother loved jazz, and played drums and bass, and turned me on to late-'50s jazz, when it was Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck. That era. When other people were all excited about Elvis, I was excited about Brubeck. That progressed, quite naturally, to John Coltrane. The first time I heard "My Favorite Things," I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
SS: How did you start listening to non-Western musics, like the Bulgarian women's choir?
DC: I'm not sure who turned Graham and I on to that. I know that that first record on Nonesuch is vastly superior to everything that's come out since. Les Voix Mystères and all that is good, but nothing can touch that first record. It changed my life. They did stuff nobody else on Earth could do: intervals, inversions of chords, kinds of modes, shapes of melodies that didn't exist anywhere else. Opened my brain like a can opener.
SS: Were you close with John Lennon?
DC: Yeah. I guess I can say it now - 'cause nobody can give John any shit for it - but we all ate sugar cubes one time. But the only thing I ever did that really impressed John was showing him an E-modal chord with no major or minor in it. He loved that chord, immediately glommed that chord completely. It was the only time he ever gave me a real smile, and was obviously happy with me.
SS: Was that in a song of yours?
DC: No, we were just fooling around, playing guitar. He and I had a fairly nice friendship going until one time I visited him in New York in the studio, and every time I'd ask him a question, You-Know-Who would answer it. I finally said, "Can we go out in the hall and talk or something?" And John said, "Where I go, Yoko goes." And I said, "Well, it's been great, John - see ya." It was just too frustrating. She was constantly inserting herself, constantly demanding to be seen as an equal. An equal artist, even - and she was standing next to a guy who changed the world. It pissed me off too much. I expect that happened with a lot of people.
SS: How did you get involved in online community?
DC: I'm one of those kids who read all the Heinlein juvenile series when I was in my teens. I always thought that would be our future: spaceships and computers and faster-than-light drives and aliens and stuff like that. I imagined that we would eventually get computers up to the point where they were artificial intelligences, and talk to them, and also use computers to talk to each other.
When I first logged on to the WELL and looked in the music conference, here were these people talking about me! It was great ego food. I'm a raving egotist. So I sat back and dug what they were saying. It was neat, because it was uncensored. Uncensored data is a pearl beyond price, because people usually tell you what they think you want to hear. On the Net, they tell you what they think. It could be a 300-pound lady with a wart for a nose who lives in Duluth, but when she's on the Net, she's a mind and a keyboard, and she's not afraid of you. She'll tell you what she thinks. This is totally precious.
SS: Or celebrity.
DC: Or celebrity! For a celebrity, this is a gift beyond price. We can talk to anybody, and they can't show up at our door [laughing].
SS: You log in several times a day?
DC: I can't seem to help it [laughing].
SS: Before you got online, did you read fan mail?
DC: Not as much. Snail mail is harder. In the hospital, I would get a couple of hundred pieces of mail a day - it's hard to open and read a couple of hundred pieces of mail. And half of them are people whose handwriting you can't read. I don't know, it's just not the same.
SS: Your music was a force for community, a rallying cry for people to realize their ideals. Do you see your involvement in online culture as a continuation of that?
DC: No. The Net doesn't need me. It's going to do it all by itself. It's inherent in it. It doesn't need people to proselytize for it, it doesn't need people to be its heroes. How it's going to affect the political process, I can't predict. But if you have the guts to stand up and be counted, here's a new way to stand, and a new place to be counted. "As of 15 seconds ago, exactly 92.6% of the country thought that you were lying, Mr. President..." It could get to there.
SS: You've had plenty of time to reflect on your life lately, having survived a liver transplant. What was the chain of events which led up to your operation?
DC: I got hepatitis C probably 15 years ago, around there. We don't know how. And it started munching on my liver. Then about ten years ago, I became diabetic. And that started munching on my liver. Meanwhile, I spent 20 years trying to convert myself into a chemical waste dump site, and drinking when I couldn't find drugs.
SS: Is that your situation for the rest of your life?
SS: Have you talked with other people who have received liver transplants?
DC: Yeah. As a group of people, we are all extremely grateful. One of the nicest was Jim Nabors - he came to see me, and was the sweetest guy. I don't recommend doing this unless you're going to die otherwise, because it's not an easy life. The double handful of pills I have to take makes a chemical soup in your stomach, and I have trouble sleeping. But I do get another shot at being alive. I really am puzzled about that, after all the stuff that's happened to me: overdoses, car wrecks, motorcycle wrecks, gun fights, prison. Terminal disease. [Vampire voice] Vut special fate are they savink me for?
SS: That song you're going to write next week.
DC: It must be that, man. What got me through so many nights in that hospital was logging on. Instead of me being all alone, in pain, not knowing if was going to stay alive much longer - all of a sudden, there were all these sparks out in the darkness, talking to me, who cared about me. It made four o'clock in the morning not anywhere near as bad. That's how I got through a lot of it.
SS: When you thought about why you wanted to live, what did you most look forward to?
DC: I have a great life. I have a wife who's one of the nicest human beings I've encountered on the planet. And we're gonna have a baby, which, for an old fogey like me is pretty far out. "I didn't know there was another bullet in there, your honor!" We found out on her birthday, September 16th. For a raison d'etre, it's a real good one. Also, I love what I do - singing and playing, writing songs, communicating with people, performing, recording. It's the most fun I know how to have with my clothes on. If I get a chance to do it some more, I will.
SS: Have you had any experiences of sensing the presence of the young man whose liver you have now?
DC: I did, a very strong one. I was online when it happened, one of the first times I was coherent enough to log on. I had this flash that I could feel the guy's soul finally going up and out. Then I had this other flash, that I could gather up a whole bunch of energy, a gratitude-wave from all the people who were linked online, and send it after him. If it was a hallucination, it was sure a powerful one. I saw that donor's soul go.
SS: Does music come to you when you go through an experience like this?
DC: It's bound to do it. This is as close to the bone as you can get: life, death, birth. But I can't predict it. I know there's all kinds of stuff cooking in there. When it's going to pop out, or in what form, I have no clue. I don't even know which one of the people inside my head writes this stuff. All of a sudden I wake up in the middle of the night, "Quick! Jan, where's a pencil?"
SS: When you were in the hospital, facing the possibility that you might die, what about your life were you happy that you got to do?
DC: The music. The love. The friends. The adventure. The sailing thousands of miles. The making love - there's was a lot of really good making love. My daughter, who is such a joy. The few women I have loved, and the one woman who I am really in love with. The friends - I've had great friends, man. And the chance to go and see what was on the other side of the hill. I should have been dead five times ago, and I keep getting another shot at making music.
SS: If you could go back, and talk to your younger self, and send him some messages from the future - what would you tell him?
DC: There's the obvious one. "Don't waste your time getting involved with coke and heroin, because it's a complete dead end, and it'll waste ten years of your life." There are people who say, "But would you have written the same music?" But I didn' t really write much music when I was on coke and heroin. I wrote some, and some of it's good. Some of Coltrane's music was good when he was wacko. But I could have written a hell of a lot more.
SS: The last few CSN albums haven't done well.
DC: That kind of music isn't real popular now. The major demographic of record-buyers is kids, and they're buying rap and hip-hop. There are very few singer-songwriter records that make it at all. Even when you get a hit, like Bonnie [Raitt] had with Nick of Time, the next two albums had to struggle, both of them. The market isn't there for that kind of stuff.