The late David Crosby’s sometime musical partner Neil Young famously sang “Rock and Roll will never die.” But Crosby’s passing Jan. 19 at his home in Santa Ynez Valley in California hit home hard the fact that many of its legends and icons – and in this case the terms aren’t overused – have already left the building.
Yet Crosby endured, carrying the torch to the end and winning new generations of fans, many via Twitter and, hopefully, providing proof of concept for his onetime pal’s musical adage.
The original cohort of rock ‘n’ roll progenitors is already gone, with the death of Jerry Lee Lewis on Oct. 28, 2022. With the losses of Chuck Berry In 2017 and Little Richard in 2020, that generation of rock ‘n’ roll Founding Fathers now belongs to history.
There was a period of time, from the late 1950s to early ‘60s, that the then-nascent music form of rock ‘n’ roll was already considered dead. Much of what was left were interpretations by white artists like Pat Boone of what was then euphemistically called “race music.” The radio segregation of Black artists like Chuck Berry, Ike Turner, Little Richard and their peers was in full swing and Billboard’s top album charts was heavy with film and Broadway soundtrack recordings. It was folk music, not rock, that that was encroaching on the domination of the likes of the soundtrack for A Summer Place and comedy albums by Bob Newhart.
For example, the No. 1 album in 1960, according to Billboard, was the soundtrack of the Broadway production of The Sound of Music, which spent 12 weeks at No. 1. The Kingston Trio’s Sold Out topped the chart for nine weeks and Here We Go Again! reigned for five. Elvis Presley topped the charts for just five weeks that year, for a movie soundtrack: G.I. Blues.
David Crosby, the son of Oscar-winning cinematographer Floyd Crosby, was a kid in Hollywood soaking up the vocal harmonies of those early folk groups, as well as the jazz of John Coltrane and sitar of Ravi Shankar, both of which informed the later, groundbreaking music of The Byrds and his collaborations with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young over the following decades.
The adage to “see them while you still can” has never hit so close to music fans of a certain age – or their kids and even grandkids – than in recent years.
With the passing of the first generation of rock ‘n’ roll, we find ourselves staring down mortality for the next, and maybe our own. And it is profound, given the radical cultural change wrought between 1964 and 1970 – Vietnam, Woodstock, psychedelics, concern for the environment, social justice and more – that Crosby was at the center of, and which shaped the creative and musical landscape for all who followed.
Consider that most of the artists at the 1969 Woodstock music festival in Bethel, New York, are already gone, including co-founder Michael Lang. Many of those losses, granted, were premature thanks to personal misadventure – and Crosby was for years in danger of becoming one of those. Jail saved his life.
Crosby’s death at 81, coming in quick succession after that of guitar virtuoso Jeff Beck and Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie, set off an outpouring of grief on social media – which may seem odd, given the last major hit that Crosby was associated with, “Wasted On The Way,” is more than 40 years old.
But what sets Crosby apart is not only that he survived, but remained relevant – not only as an in-demand vocal arranger and formidable singer, but as a vital artist in his own right – until the end.
In fact, he hit a creative outpouring of five albums in six years – considered some of the best work of his life. Not only had Crosby regained the creative fire of his youth, but brought to it the wisdom of age. And he happily shared it with much younger artists (even while blocking Roger McGuinn from his Twitter account).
Among them are Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires. Isbell met Crosby thanks to an exchange on Twitter and became friends, with Isbell and Shires inviting Crosby to join them onstage at 2019’s Newport Folk Festival. Crosby’s final live performance, unbeknownst to them, was with Isbell in an incendiary rendition of “Ohio” at the Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara, California, on Feb. 26, 2022.
“Grateful for the time we had with David Crosby,” Isbell tweeted. “We’ll miss him a lot.” Shires added, attaching a photo of Crosby donning her signature butterfly sunglasses, “My heart hurts for Jan (Dance, Crosby’s wife) and everyone feeling [Crosby’s] loss.”
Not even Young, inarguably the most commercially successful musician of the CSN&Y cohort, can boast of compelling new music at the rate Crosby produced it on albums Lighthouse (2016), Sky Trails (2017), Here If You Listen (2018) and For Free (2021).
Living legend Joan Baez, Crosby’s friend of more than 60 years, has retired from making music and devotes her time now to visual arts. Crosby chose her watercolor portrait of him to adorn the cover of For Free.
“In 1965, Bob Dylan and I were discussing the state of the music scene,” Baez posted to Facebook. “He said The Byrds, who had made a hit of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ were the only thing happening musically at that point in time. Perhaps an exaggeration, but certainly a tribute to the stellar musicians who formed the budding monster groups of the years to come like The Byrds and CSNY. David Crosby was among the monster group icons who continued a solo career with the kind of success reserved for great musicians. And he could sing the hell out of a harmony.”
With the release of Lighthouse, Crosby’s comeback was aided by producer Michael League, who wrote five of its songs. The leader of Dallas-based, genre-defying outfit Snarky Puppy, League and Crosby formed the Lighthouse Band for 2018’s Here If You Listen and 2022’s Live at the Capitol Theatre album and film. Crosby returned the favor by helping Snarky Puppy secure an opening on some of Steely Dan’s (a Crosby favorite) concerts last year.
Snarky Puppy bandmate Bill Laurance paid tribute to Crosby, saying, “I feel extremely lucky to have been able to call David Crosby a friend. A beacon of creativity; generous, open, committed to speaking out when it was time to do so, never shying away and always refreshingly honest.”
In his last decade, Crosby became something of a multimedia star – his popular Twitter account, in which he alternately praised and mocked other artists as well as fans, critiqued followers’ joint-rolling efforts, and commented on the events of the day – was followed by nearly 240,000 fans at the time of his death. He’d had a Rolling Stone video feature, “Ask Croz,” in which he dispensed often unorthodox personal advice about everything from love to weed to music.
When Crosby joined The Byrds in 1965, phones were burdened with short curly cords, party lines and busy signals; voicemail was decades away and Twitter wasn’t even a twinkle in some developer’s eye. Maybe a developer’s grandfather’s.
But Crosby’s mastery of not only musical but digital communication, as well as his life-long social justice activism and unfiltered humor, made him a hit with young people in the 21st century, likely saved his early and substantial rock legacy, and provided a foundation for new music to be passed down for years to come.