David Crosby Can Remember His Name...and a Great Deal More Part 1

The Tracking Angle Interview: David Crosby

TA: Let's begin with If I Could Only Remember My Name , your first solo album. It won some awards for sound quality. You once were quoted as saying the engineer Steve Barncord did a really good job. Do you think that a record like that could be made and released today?

DC: Probably not. Things have changed in the field. It's not as loose as it was then. Nowadays, if it isn't a clone of whatever's at the top of the charts, it's very hard to get anybody to pay any attention to it at all. We (CSN&Y) had just gotten through doing Déjà vu, you know? And I had more stuff and I was just having fun in the studio. It was the only place that I was really happy right then. That was not long after that girl had gotten killed that was my old lady, and so the studio was my refuge. I would hang out there and all my friends that were loose on any given night would wind up there. It was very self-indulgent, but we had no push, there was no pressure so we could do anything that I could think of. That's not true these days. Nowadays, the prices are so huge and the game is so distorted that winning is what matters and MTV has changed it to where theatrical acts win more than musical acts. Smoke bombs and costumes, you know, how much rage you can seem to express and anything to cut through the fog. It has very little to do with music. But that was a very musical album. I think if it came out now, it would fail.

TA: I don't even know if you could get a label to release something that unconventional now. A major label, anyway.

DC: It's very difficult -- you see people, for instance Michael Hedges, whom I dearly love, who is just that innovative, and .... excuse me for that, that's a very un-humble thing to say ...

TA: No, it's true. Absolutely.

DC: But he does tremendously innovative stuff and is an utterly brilliant musician and he's still struggling to get his point across. And the same is true of other good singer-songwriters that are trying to break out now: Shawn Colvin, who is absolutely fantastic, and Marc Cohn. After he had that one hit, you know he didn't get a hit with the second album, and after that Atlantic Records is like, "Marc Cohn? Who?"

TA: It's like some expired shelf-life with a very short duration.

DC: Yes. "He's not here!" There are labels that don't treat people that way, but Atlantic is famous for it. If you have a hit on the radio, they can market it fantastically well. You know, witness Blowtie and the Hoofish.

TA: Right.

DC: Actually, I have no beef with them because I sang all the harmonies on their first single.

TA: Yeah, I remember I read that.

DC: Just because they were nice kids. But, you know what the deal is. That's how most major record companies deal now. They're after that bomb, and they do not sustain with an artist and they do not have any follow-through with an artist. And, what they want in material and artists that they can sort of generate: "Okay, give me a pound of bass player, a pound of drummer, a sort of androgynous-looking singer, the guitar-player has to wear a hat, call it ... Vandalism!"

TA: It's kind of a 1990's version of "So You Wanna Be A Rock and Roll Star." Those are the ingredients.

DC: Yeah, only it's worse.

TA: Much worse.

DC: They really do think like that. And they offer this incredibly creative bullshit about how they really support their artists and really love the poetry.

TA: Not a big surprise, unfortunately.

DC: No, I know that you're around it and you know how it works.

TA: The last Crosby, Stills and Nash album, which is the one Glyn Johns produced, which I thought was the best thing you guys have done in a long time -- I didn't really see or hear much about that anywhere. Relatively speaking.

DC: You mean, After the Sun ?

TA: That was really a nice record. I don't know what your feelings are about it, but I liked it a lot.

DC: Um, I liked it. I thought that not all of the material on it was great, but I thought it was a pretty good record, and Atlantic just cleared it out like a Frisbee and blew it out of the air. They do that. They did that to the live album that I just put out last year.

TA: I'd heard that. That's a nice record, too. I liked that.

DC: Thanks. I love that because it sounds like real people and actual real music, having fun doing it. I thought that was a real accomplishment, but of course, they didn't.

TA: It didn't have the formula, I guess. This was going to be my last question, but I might as well ask it now: any new CSN stuff in the works, or studio stuff?

DC: There's lots of songs, but very little agreement as to what to do with them. Right now we're at a pretty good point in our relationship, and we're playing very well together on stage, and that bodes well for the possibility of a record, but nobody has committed themselves to a plan.

TA: I see.

DC: Yeah, I have some of the best songs I've ever had. Ever. "I'm lying," he said, in humble fashion. But it's the truth -- I do. I just do. And I'm hoping that it'll work out all right. I'm really not too excited about giving Atlantic another record, because of what they did with the last one. They didn't even really try to hard with the Thousand Roads record I did, and that one had an actual, genuine radio record on it.

TA: That was the one with Phil Collins on it, right? Well, it'll be interesting to see what happens. It's good to know you have some new material coming around. You're a very distinctive songwriter, David. I know you like to use a lot of alternative tunings on the guitar. That's something (Michael) Hedges does a lot of, too. You've done a lot of nice work in that area as well.

DC: Thanks. I particularly love it myself, because it gives you all different kinds of chord inversions. Michael is probably -- he and Joni -- are probably the two leading practitioners in that, but Graham's done some very innovative stuff, and so has Steven.

TA: This magazine has a particularly high musician readership. Now, there's two songs that you've written that I play myself, just for fun, and I've got to ask you if they're alternate tunings, and what kind of bizzarro chords they use. “Renaissance Fair” is one of them, off of Younger Than Yesterday.

DC: Boy, that's a tough one. How did I do that? Back that far, I think that one was likely to hve been in regular tuning. Is it in A minor?

TA: It was a lot of minor 7's. I know that much.

DC: Yeah, I think it was A minor 7, and I think it was in regular tuning. When I was in the Byrds, the furthest I'd gone was just dropped D. I hadn't really started to experiment until just about the time that they threw me out.

TA: But you were using some strange chords. To use as an example: “Everybody's Been Burned,” that was not your typical chord structures.

DC: No, that one's in dropped D, and you could see right away that I was a slightly demented child.

TA: That was a good thing.

DC: And it's gotten worse.

TA: So, you'd have to get a guitar and kind of poke around with it to see if you could even remember what the chords were in “Renaissance Fair?”

DC: Yeah, I haven't played that in a long time. I remember the chords to “Everybody's Been Burned,” that's for sure.

TA: And then the other song I've always love a lot, which never enjoyed the commercial success it should've, was: “Lady Friend.” I think those chords aren't typical. Do you remember that one, or not?

DC: Yeah, I do. I do. I liked it.

TA: It's a beautiful, beautiful song. With the brass, and how you did the vocals. The layered vocals on it - -really a nice piece of music.

DC: Thanks, man.

TA: I love that song. It's a relatively obscure song, but people who like it really like it.

DC: It's a frustrating thing for me. I thought that the Byrds, that we did, for that time anyway, some very unusual stuff. Some very pretty stuff. But, man, this is really frustrating. I feel that with McGuinn still here and still as good as he is, and with Christopher (Hillman) still here and still good and with me being still here and still good that we could be doing it.

TA: I know.

DC: It's a very deep frustration to me because Roger doesn't want to do it. And, I don't know why -- he did it with everybody else in the world. But, either he or his wife, must have some sort of enormous grudge. I'm not sure.

TA: You know, David, I talked to Roger, and I asked him that question, and he seems very adamant that he doesn't want to do that; he wants to be a solo artist. I didn't get the sense that there was a grudge against anyone, like you or Chris Hillman, it was just that he wants to do his own thing and be a solo artist. I didn't want to push the question, but I wanted to ask if those were two mutually activities. Couldn't you primarily be a solo artist and still do a record or a tour? I don't see where one precludes the other. He said that for some people they wouldn't, but for him they do.

DC: Yeah, he's very adamant about it.

TA: Which is just a shame, because I understand his convictions, but you guys are all still here -- how many of the great sixties bands are all still here -- and time is wasting, and it's too bad people can't enjoy more of your music. I told him it would make the people very happy, and he said, "Yeah, I hear that all the time." He doesn't want to budge, which is too bad.

DC: It's his business, and it's his right. He's got a right to play how he wants to, and to do whatever makes him happy. It's terribly disappointing to me.

TA: To people who like your music, it's upsetting. It's something Hillman would also like to do. Maybe something will change.

DC: I doubt it.

TA: Yeah, from how he sounds, so do I. It's too bad that the only thing that was able to make that happen periodically was when you guys were in litigation over the name a couple years ago, and there was the motivation to go out and play and stuff. Anyway, we won't belabor that, but I hope that changes at some point down the road. Let's go way back to the ancient days -- what made you choose to be a musician?

DC: Family. My family played a ton of music around the house, classical music. My father played a little bit of mandolin; my brother played guitar. My mom sang in choir. We used to -- I know it sounds impossibly corny -- sit around and sing folk songs. My mom, when LPs first came out, and they were ten inches, brought home the Weavers and Josh White and Odetta, and stuff like that. So, I was immediately drawn to that, and drawn to classical music. Then, I started singing harmonies when I was six or something ...

TA: Wow.

DC: It just came very naturally to me. I guess, because my father was a cinematographer, I wanted to grow up and be an actor in movies. But, I started singing in coffeehouses when I was still in high school, and it was too good. It was too much fun.

TA: What would you have done if you hadn't been a musician? Is that a question you've ever pondered?

DC: Well, I had thought I wanted to be an actor, and I still enjoy doing that. But, I think I would have enjoyed being a teacher, too. I love watching that spark connect when you get it across to somebody.

TA: I know that you probably don't have a lot of time, but if you at some point would make an instructional videotape, because of your distinctive style and your tunings, I think people would really enjoy something like that.

DC: I hadn't thought about it, but I'd love to do another songbook.

TA: Yeah, I think I have the one with the green cover on it from years ago.

DC: You have one?

TA: I've got one. Beautiful photography in that thing.

DC: Man you know that doesn't exist anywhere. You can't get it.

TA: I've never seen it anywhere. I saw it at one store one time and I grabbed it.

TA: Your entrance into the Byrds was through Jim Dickson?

DC: Well, Roger I'd met before when he was accompanying the Limelighters. When he was a folkie and I was a folkie wannabe. Then I'd met him and Gene Clark who was one the two or three Christy Minstrel bands that were wandering around. Actually, Randy Sparks threatened to sue me for saying that but I'm pretty sure it was true. They were hanging around in the front of the Troubadour and singing songs, Beatle-y kind of songs that Gene was writing and harmony is second nature to me man, I came in and started singing harmony to it and they went "hey!" and I know Dickson-he'd recorded me singing a few songs trying to see if he could get me a record deal because he'd run into me in coffee houses around town and I took them (Clark/McGuinn) and he said "oh yea, this is a very good thing." So he got us a situation-not a deal at World Pacific which was a jazz label, where we could go in after they were finished recording at night and then we could rehearse in the studio without getting busted by the sheriff's department. We rehearsed where we lived, they would always show up.

TA: They could also give you the feedback of the tape...

DC: Yea, that was the cruel part (laughs).

TA: The painful truth.

DC: Yea, we learned faster than any other garage band you ever saw 'cause he would sit down and make us listen to the tapes and boy was that cruelty. Aversion therapy! We would look at each other and go "aw, shit! We'll never do this!" But we'd come back and try some more and eventually we got pretty good at it and it happened a lot faster than it normally would because of that. Credit where it's due: that was Dickson's idea. And he was also responsible for turning us onto the Dylan material. He know a number of people that we didn't know and through one of 'em got a demo of Dylan and Ramblin' Jack (Elliot) doing a truly awful version of "Tambourine Man".

TA: What were you thoughts when it was first proposed that you do that song?

DC: Neither one of those guys could sing. We can certainly improve on that! And we did!

TA: You redid that to the point where it almost sounds like a different song.

DC: That's Roger. Roger primarily. Obviously I did the harmony and my harmonies don't sound like other people because I'm weird. Roger has a true gift for taking a song and rearranging it into his style. That was The Byrds' style. He is, I mean always was the essence of The Byrds. The rest of us contributed and I'm not belittling anyone's contributions but Roger was the main deal.

TA: To this day, no one makes the sound he does on a 12 string.

DC: Nobody else has that style. He got that from banjo picking- stuff like that.

TA: It's like roll finger picking.

DC: Yea, he's got stuff that's light years ahead of everybody else.

TA: You guys were young, you were in The Byrds, you got to do this work at World Pacific with Jim Dickson listening to your material...did you have any master plan or was it just sort of happening and evolving spontaneously?

DC: Our master plan didn't go any further than we had seen "A Hard Day's Night" and we knew what we wanted to do.

TA: The Byrds over the years had four producers if you count Dickson as one. There's Terry Melcher, then Allen Stanton then Gary Usher. Could you give me your impressions of those guys?

DC: The only one who ever did anything was Dickson. The others were all idiots and wouldn't know a song if it bit 'em on the nose.

TA: Even Usher?

DC: Especially.

TA: From a sound quality standpoint I thought the stuff that was done with him and Roy Halee

DC: Oh, that's Roy Halee.

TA: More than Usher...

DC: Well, of course! He did Simon and Garfunkel. No, that was Roy Halee, not Gary Usher. Usher doesn't know his nose from his asshole, okay? And what's his name, the actress' (Doris Day) son Terry Mecher was even worse- a total idiot. They were all idiots and the Columbia union engineers that used to take breaks in the middle of a song and stuff? They were idiots. All flaming idiots! Dickson wasn't much better because he had a terrible temper and an enormous ego and built up such a core of resentment in us, it made a non-functional situation. You'll notice we did the best work by ourselves....Let's see, one of them was still around on Turn! Turn! Turn! right?

TA: That was Melcher still, yea.

DC: What a f....., what a dick! He's the one who put that idiot organ part on "He Was A Friend of Mine".

TA: I thought the version you guys cut in Nashville was much better than the original and largely because of that droning organ in the background.

DC: But Fifth Dimension and Younger Than Yesterday where we really actually started to shine, I don't think they had producers did they?

TA: On paper you did..

DC: What did the have?

TA: Stanton was Fifth Dimension but in one of these interviews somebody told me that he just sat around reading the newspaper and didn't say a word- he was like totally out of it....

DC: Yes, he was Columbia's idea of just having someone there to make sure we didn't [hurt] the place.