In his first interview since heart surgery earlier this year, the two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer describes the effort behind his first solo album in 20 years, “Croz.”
Singer-songwriter David Crosby
Tavis: It’s easy to fall back on the shorthand of describing people as legends in their fields, but David Crosby truly deserves that moniker as a founding member of two groundbreaking groups: The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, then Young.
His exceptional songwriting talent and ability to produce beautiful harmonies has put him among rock’s elite, inducted not once, but twice into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
His latest CD, his first studio album in 20 years now, is called “Croz,” and he’s back on tour after a short setback to get his heart right last month. We’ll take a look at a clip of David singing with Graham Nash and Stephen Stills to start our conversation.
[Video of live musical performance by Crosby, Stills, and Nash]
Tavis: You still got it, man. You still got it. (Laughter) After all these years, you still got it.
David Crosby: Thank you, man.
Tavis: No. When you were supposed to be here some time ago, we got a call just before your appearance that you had to be rushed to the hospital for a surgery.
Crosby: Wasn’t quite a rush, but yeah.
Tavis: Wasn’t a rush, yeah, but –
Crosby: I did that thing you do, you go and you get, do all those tests and stuff, and one of the tests came back, you know, mm-mmm, wait a minute. Little red light went on, and jeez, it’s just science fiction what they can do nowadays.
To operate on your heart they go in through your femoral artery. Matter of fact, they can operate on your brain from there. So they went up there, took a peek, said, “Hm, that’s almost closed,” and then they make it open and they slip a little piece of macaroni in there, and all of a sudden your blood flow is terrific.
Tavis: See you’re making light of this because that’s the kind of guy you are, but you’ve had some serious health concerns –
Crosby: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: – and had they not caught that blockage, you and I might not be having this conversation today.
Crosby: No, we would not be having this conversation.
Tavis: Yeah, we would not be having it. So how has that, to the extent that it has, changed your outlook, changed your viewpoint, changed what, anything?
Crosby: Well anything like that of course shakes the ground a little bit for you. I’ve had a couple, as you say, of things that make me try to take it more seriously. But I’ve been working at it for a long time.
It came pretty much as a surprise, because I didn’t have any – I didn’t feel bad, I felt great. But that’s why you go once a year, and kind of check in with the docs.
Tavis: Yeah. You lost a lot of weight.
Crosby: I did, I lost a ton, yeah. I’m about, over the last 10 years or so, about 60 pounds.
Tavis: Yeah, how you feeling now? You look fine, how you feeling?
Crosby: I feel, for an elderly person, I feel pretty good. (Laughter)
Tavis: Has any of the weight loss and the health challenges that you’ve gotten through, has it in any way – as I said, you sound, you still sound great. Has it impacted your sound, your style, the way you feel when you’re onstage?
Crosby: Not a damn bit. I’m as amazed as anybody else. I don’t know why I can still sing. I have no idea, but I’m grateful. I’m a very grateful guy, believe me.
Tavis: By your own admission, when you say you don’t know why you can still sing, by your own admission, I think by your own admission, you’d be the first to tell us that you haven’t always protected your instrument.
Crosby: That’s a really nice euphemism. I think that – thank you, Tavis. That was very kind of you, how you put that. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah. You have pushed it –
Crosby: He’s a nice man. I want you to know that.
Tavis: I’m trying to be charitable and generous, but you have pushed your gift to the limit.
Crosby: I’ve pushed it. I did. I did. But that was 25, 30 years ago, and I’ve had time to think about it and work my way up.
Tavis: So time to think about it, work your way up, leads to a project like “Croz.” Why do this? Why this one?
Crosby: Well I haven’t done a solo album in a long time. That’s happened largely because of my son James, and I, you probably know this story, but James was put up for adoption by his mom, and I knew that he existed, but I didn’t meet him until, mm, 20 years ago, just after I had the transplant.
I met him and he was very kind and gave me a shot at earning my way into his life, and we started writing together. He’s a better musician than I am, by a long shot, and we communicate really well.
So this album certainly wouldn’t have happened without him, and I think it’s happened at twice or three times the level I could have done by myself. He loves jazz and dense chording and intricate melodies and stuff, intricate harmonies, and that’s where I live.
So we pretty much went crazy on this, and I think the writing is pretty high bar. I’m very happy with it. My younger son took the cover picture.
Tavis: It’s a family affair.
Crosby: It’s a good shot.
Tavis: Yeah, it’s a very good shot.
Crosby: Makes me look 15 years younger than I am, I’ll tell you. (Laughter) You know where I got that look?
Crosby: From the statues of Lenin looking off into a great communist future.
Tavis: Oh, I can see that.
Crosby: It’s like, you know, that (pointing) – you know that one?
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) Lenin wouldn’t be so happy these days.
Crosby: No. (Laughter)
Crosby: Hell, no. It didn’t work out, did it?
Tavis: Didn’t quite – well, it did for a while, it worked. That Calvinism thing worked out for a while.
Crosby: Oh, come on. There has never been a communism that worked, man. They were all dictatorships or oligarchies, every single one.
Tavis: Yeah. I guess I should clarify that when I say “worked for a while,” it stood for a while.
Crosby: For a while, it stood.
Tavis: I won’t say worked, yeah.
Crosby: Yeah, it didn’t work, though.
Tavis: Yeah, before I get a bunch of mail saying, “Tavis is a communist.” You used a beautiful phrase when you said after meeting him 20 years ago, after his mom had put him up for adoption, that he gave you a chance to “earn your way back into his life.” Unpack that for me.
Crosby: Well you know that those meet-ups most commonly go wrong. Both sides bring too much baggage. He didn’t, and that was an act of generosity, an act of very high ground, very appealing.
It allowed us a chance to build something good, and I will be grateful for that forever. He’s the keyboard player for Crosby, Stills, and Nash now, and Crosby, Nash, and just my own band when I can go out.
I think it’s unusual. I think most times it doesn’t go that way, and again, I added it to the list of things for which I am very grateful, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah. Another thing you said that got my attention immediately, Croz, which I of course knew, but to hear you talk about it is a little bit different, and that is this notion that his mother puts him up for adoption, you guys only meet 20 years ago.
But when you meet, without him having been in your space, he’s already musically inclined.
Tavis: That’s, like, funny to me.
Crosby: Somebody tells you, anybody says to you it’s not genetic, you send them to me.
Crosby: We’ll talk.
Tavis: This guy’s nowhere around you, and you connect, and he’s a music lover and a writer – that’s amazing.
Crosby: Yeah, and he had no idea. Now mind you, he liked Elton and Billy Joel better because they were keyboard players. (Laughter) But he –
Tavis: I get that.
Crosby: He definitely knew Crosby, Stills, and Nash. He knew who that was. When he looked at the paper, he said, “Nah, couldn’t be.” But it was.
Tavis: Yeah. Does that – I don’t want to overstate it, but I don’t want to understate it either. Does that make this collaboration all the more sweeter?
Tavis: Given the back story?
Crosby: And given that we wrote together all through that thing. There’s songs that we each wrote separately, but mostly that’s co-writing. And his production talents, I’m surprised there isn’t a line of people out the door waiting for him to produce their records, because he’s brilliant.
Tavis: So what’s amazing about that – I wish he were here so I could ask him this question, because I’m curious as to how one –
Crosby: He’d love to come on. He thinks you’re cool.
Tavis: Well, thank you –
Crosby: He loves a fast mind.
Tavis: Yeah, well, fast – (laughter) I don’t know how fast my mind is. My mouth is fast, but I don’t know how fast my mind works. Well I wish he were here to ask him this question, but I’ll put it forth anyway, which is how anybody writes with you, even if he’s your son, and not be intimidated by writing with David Crosby.
Crosby: Believe me, he is anything but intimidated. (Laughter) Anything but intimidated. He knows what a bozo I really am.
Tavis: I’d be scared to death to sit and write with you, or attempt to write with you.
Crosby: No, no, no. He’s definitely not intimidated. He’s not overwrought at all. He likes it when I come with something good. He’s, “Yeah, that’s pretty good.” But there’s nothing more than that.
I’ve made as many mistakes as I’ve done good shots, and he knows them all. All of my close friends do, and I think that’s a good thing. I don’t want to look at myself as being bigger than life.
I put my pants on one leg at a time, same as you, and I’m struggling along here, trying to make sense out of it. I think he knows that, and I think most of the people that I really respect and play with know that well.
Tavis: I appreciate that and I accept that in the spirit that you offered it. Yet you do realize, I hope, the iconic role that you’ve played in the lives of so many –
Crosby: No, I don’t.
Tavis: Come on, man.
Crosby: No, I try deliberately not to.
Tavis: Your stuff is the soundtrack of people’s lives.
Crosby: I swear on my word of honor, I don’t. No, (laughter) goofy, I am goofy. No, I try not to, man. I don’t want to look at myself that way.
Crosby: I want to look at myself the way I do on purpose, because if you aggrandize and try to look at yourself the way a fan does or the way a reviewer does or the way – God bless them, they all got a right to, everybody’s got a right to an opinion about it.
But I have a pretty clear picture of the whole weight of my life, and there are things that I’ve done that are good, and I’m proud of them. There are things that I’m really not proud of, and that they, you have to look at me with a perspective, and I try really hard to do that, to keep from thinking I’m cool and ever so smart.
Star is just a trick. It’s like a straw man thing. They set you up just to (makes noise) knock you over. It’s bull. You avoid it, I avoid it.
Tavis: So how do you think that you’ve navigated that as well as you have, to be as well-adjusted as you are all these years later? (Laughter) You’ve been a star a long time.
Crosby: I don’t think star is real, but I’ve been a musician for a long time.
Crosby: It didn’t come easy. Took a lot of bumps and rocks in the road. But I’m able to work now, and I’m able to stay straight and level and keep track of what I’m doing. So that’s enough to be grateful for.
Tavis: See, I think – how might I put this? For me, and I can’t speak for all your other fans, but for me, the greatest compliment that I can pay you is the seriousness with which you take your lyrical content.
Crosby: Well if you don’t have something to say, what’s the point?
Tavis: Yeah, but there are a lot of people who are doing that. (Laughter) And there are a lot of folks selling records who ain’t saying nothing –
Crosby: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: – but they selling records.
Tavis: But the lyric for you has been important.
Crosby: I come from a school of people, folk singers, and the tradition there is troubadours, and you’re carrying a message. Now admittedly, our job is partly just to make you boogie, just make you want to dance. Part of our job is to take you on a little voyage, tell you a story.
But part of our job is to communicate the way a town crier did: It’s 12:00 and all is well, or it’s 11:30 and the whole Congress is sold. (Laughter) It’s part of the job.
Crosby: So I like to do all of those things. I like to take you on a voyage most especially, and most of the songs I write are about love – love found, love lost, love longed-for.
Tavis: What has been – strange question, but let me ask it anyway – what has been your particular and unique fascination with the notion of love as an artist?
Crosby: As an elevating force. I think it’s a lifting force. I think music is a lifting force, I think love is the lifting force in the human condition. I think you see someone loving on their child, and it moves you, and you can’t help it.
It rings a bell inside of us that elevates us as human beings, and I treasure that. I think it’s one of the few great things about human beings. I don’t like greed, I don’t like ignorance. I really don’t like anger. But I love love.
Tavis: What you got against anger?
Crosby: Waste of time. I wasted a lot of time that way, being angry. You don’t accomplish a hell of a lot.
Tavis: But you will concede, though, that anger is different than righteous indignation, because I’ve heard in your writing righteous indignation. Not the same as anger.
Crosby: I grant. Point. And these are two different things. Easy to mistake the one for the other. Easy to get up on your high horse and start saying, “Well, you ought to.”
Well, I’ve got to be real careful about that. I’m not a preacher, and I’ve seen a good one, and I don’t aspire to that. But I don’t think being angry is useful or healthy, and usually when I get angry, anyway, I don’t know about anybody else, but usually when I get angry, my brain just goes right out the window. Boom, as soon as the adrenaline hits, instant stupid. Just add water and mix.
Tavis: (Laughs) Great song lyric. You should write that down, man.
Crosby: Hey. “Instant stupid.”
Tavis: Add water –
Crosby: “A song about politicians.”
Tavis: There you go. (Laughter) Since you went there, let me pick up on that. So you come out of this, you start, by your own admission, out of this folk tradition, you’ve been inspired by these folk artists for years and you become iconic in your own right.
You’re singing about this, that, and the other, and yet this is the world that you now inhabit. So do you feel like you’ve made a difference? Does music, is music still pregnant with the power to make a difference that it seemed to have imbued with back in the ’60s?
Crosby: That’s a really fascinating question. My heart wants to believe that we can make a difference. I think ideas are still the most powerful things on the planet, and music is a great way to transmit them.
But after all the time we spent, even with great leaders like Martin Luther King, racism’s still alive. It’s still here. After all the time we spent saying look, war is a stupid way to solve stuff – oh, you’re not trying to solve stuff. You’re trying to make money.
We’re in a war because you want to make money? Oh, damn, you corporation guys just bought the government. Gee, you can get a senator for the price of a Cadillac. Who’s kidding?
That’s discouraging. I believe in this country, I love this country, I believe in the idea of this country, and this country is an idea. To see it cheapened so and made so tawdry and so bought and so – that’s very discouraging.
Yet at the same time we can’t just roll over and put our paws in the air and say, “Oh, I can’t deal with it.” You have to, if you believe in it.
Tavis: But you have to have reason to believe.
Crosby: Well you’ve got these guys –
Tavis: Belief doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Crosby: – Martin Luther King, Pete Seeger –
Tavis: Yeah, but they’re dead.
Crosby: – great – well –
Tavis: So what does David Crosby -?
Crosby: But the ideas are not dead.
Tavis: – believe in now, though? What do you believe in?
Crosby: I believe in those same things that I believed in in the first place.
Crosby: I think the value of the human individual is crucial to the whole thing, and I do not believe that the Founding Fathers of this country intended that the guy with the biggest TV budget should get the key to the kingdom.
That’s not how it was supposed to work. I believe in the ideas that they came down with in the first place, but they couldn’t envision mass media. They couldn’t envision that you could buy whole populations and just shape it back and forth and say, well, the truth’s over here – well, it doesn’t matter, we’ll just spin it over here.
They didn’t envision that, and I think we’re in a lot of trouble, if you want to know the truth. But I don’t want to get discouraged. I don’t want to let that make me shut up. I’m not going to.
Tavis: So you’re not shutting up, thankfully. Some great stuff on this project, a lot of good stuff. Is there a message that you wanted to communicate to us through this?
Why these tracks? I’m just trying to get a sense of what’s on this for everyday people.
Crosby: Well, stories. Glimpses, hopefully, of stuff that’s true, celebrations of the very things that we liked in the first place – love, intelligence, integrity, loyalty, gentleness, kindness, empathy, looking out for your brother.
Tavis: I kind of feel like – if I’m wrong, you can slap – well, don’t slap me. I was going to say slap me if I’m wrong.
Crosby: Slap a guy your size? Do I look stupid? (Laughter)
Tavis: Because I love you so much I wouldn’t slap you back.
Crosby: Oh, you say that, but –
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, I’d turn the other cheek.
Tavis: I get the sense, though, listening to this, that you did this as much, maybe even more, for you than for the rest of us. Does that make sense, that this is a project that you just loved doing for you?
Crosby: I love music. I love making songs. It’s – what greater gift could they give you than having this as what you do with your life? You do something you love, man. You know what I’m talking about.
You love doing this or you wouldn’t be so damn good at it. So that’s how I feel. I feel like I’ve been given a path where I can contribute, where I can protest if somebody does something really obviously wrong or inhuman right in front of me, where I can make a difference.
Where I can most especially elevate, make you happy, elevate the condition, elevate the thing. If I can do anything, if I can raise it a quarter of an inch, God knows we’ve got enough people shoving it down.
Tavis: You’re on to something now that I was going to ask you about, so I want to ask anyway, even though you’ve kind of already talked about it, David. That is how fortunate you feel – I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but how fortunate you feel, how blessed you feel, how lucky.
I don’t know what your particular perspective is, but how, fill in the blank, how whatever do you feel about being born with this gift to be an artist? Because my staff knows, I say this all the time – I love talking to artists.
With all due respect to all the guests I have on this program all the time, I love talking to artists more than anybody, for a few reasons. But sometimes I just wish that God had made me an artist, because you guys –
Crosby: Well isn’t it better to be able to earn a living, though?
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) Point well taken. Touché.
Crosby: Let me ask you something. Let me ask you –
Tavis: I’m on PBS. I ain’t doing much worse than you. (Laughter) How blessed do you feel to have been born an artist?
Crosby: Well, grateful. I’ve been given a gift – don’t misuse it. I spent a lot of time just wasting that talent, not treasuring it, not valuing it, not respecting it, just taking it for granted. I don’t want to do that.
That was a hard lesson to learn. It doesn’t come for free. Don’t do that. Treasure it, respect it, treat it as a responsibility that you’ve been given, and enjoy the hell out of it.
Don’t waste the time. Time is the final currency, man. Not money, not power – it’s time. We get a certain amount of time. I need another hundred years. I got –
Tavis: You got stuff to do.
Crosby: Man, I got (laughter) so much stuff I want to know. I got a list as long as your arm of stuff – I would go back to college in a second and try to learn three or four different major scientific disciplines, about nine languages.
History – I could spend my whole time studying history and not feel I wasted a minute.
Tavis: How much has your curiosity aided and abetted in your artistic genius?
Crosby: Did he say “genius?”
Tavis: Yes, I did.
Crosby: Did he say – oh, man.
Tavis: Nobody on this set disagrees with me.
Crosby: We’re headed downhill now.
Tavis: No, nobody disagrees with me. (Laughter) Not on this set.
Crosby: No, they didn’t, but would they?
Tavis: No. Well, the – yeah, believe me, they would, trust me. This crew? They disagree, they tell me. (Laughter) So trust me, they would tell me. But how much has curiosity played into what you think has been the expression of your gift?
Crosby: Very largely. I’m fascinated by people. I’m fascinated by how the world works for them, and I actually remember being a kid and being – we’d gone east to visit relatives, and I was sitting in Grand Central Station, and I realized how many different kind of people there were walking in all directions.
That’s when I fell in love with people-watching. I’m fascinated by people. An awful lot of them are bozos, but there’s some fascinating folks out there. Then I learned to read, and boy, I was off on a merry trip then.
I read constantly. I’m very curious.
Tavis: You are fascinated by people, and a whole bunch of people are fascinated by you, and not just fascinated, but enlightened, encouraged, empowered, inspired by your gift, David Crosby.
The new project from David Crosby, his first solo project in 20 years – that great cover photo by one of his sons. The project’s called “Croz,” produced and written with another one of his sons.
As I said, it’s a family affair and it’s got a lot of good stuff on it. From the two-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, our friend David Crosby. David, congrats. You going to be touring this summer? You on the road?
Crosby: I am.
Crosby: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: Good, so we’ll see you. We’ll catch you somewhere.
Crosby: I’d love it.
Tavis: Good to see you, man.
Crosby: Thank you.
Tavis: Honored to have you on.
Crosby: Nice to see you.
Tavis: Thank you, sir. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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