Home Music

David Crosby, Iconoclastic Rocker, Dead at 81

Croz was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of both the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, and Nash

David Crosby

Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty Images

David Crosby, the singer, songwriter and guitarist who helped shape the sound of Sixties rock and beyond, died on Thursday at the age of 81. A source close to Crosby confirmed the musician’s death to Rolling Stone, but did not disclose a cause. Crosby was a member of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash, two groups that featured his bright harmony singing that played a major role in the development of folk-rock, country-rock and the emergent “California sound” that dominated rock radio throughout the mid-Seventies.

“I’m heartbroken to hear about David Crosby,” Brian Wilson wrote. “David was an unbelievable talent – such a great singer and songwriter. And a wonderful person. I just am at a loss for words.”

While his success continued in the 1970s and into the Eighties, Crosby’s personal life was marred by heavy drug use, which wreaked havoc on his career and led to a short jail sentence in 1985. Yet he recovered and continued making music and touring for another three decades. “I have no idea how I’m alive and Jimi [Hendrix] isn’t and Janis [Joplin] isn’t and all my other friends,” he told Rolling Stone in 2014, years after he’d cleaned up. “I have no idea why me, but I got lucky.”

Crosby was born in Los Angeles in 1941. His father Floyd Crosby was an Academy Award winning cinematographer. He briefly attended Santa Barbara City College but dropped out to pursue music. In 1964, he joined a band called the Jet Set, consisting Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark. They changed their name to the Beefeaters, and then the Byrds. Crosby’s gorgeous harmonizing, heard on hits like the Bob Dylan cover “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn Turn Turn,” was an essential component in the Byrds’ folk-rock sound. By 1967, tensions within the band had mounted to a breaking point, and Crosby left. Crosby and Stephen Stills, of the recently disbanded Buffalo Springfield, began writing songs together in 1968. They were soon joined by Graham Nash, who had just quit the Hollies, and the trio performed together for the first time at the L.A. home of Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas. Their self-titled 1969 debut was a hit, producing the classic single “Judy Blues Eyes,” about Judy Collins.

Adding Neil Young later that year, the quartet played their second gig at Woodstock, in front of nearly 500,000 people, announcing the arrival of one of rock’s first–and greatest–super-groups. C, S, N & Y’s debut album, Déjà vu, sold seven million copies and produced the hit singles “Woodstock,” “Teach Your Children” and “Our House.” Crosby later said, “I think when the Beatles bomb blew apart, we were the best band in the world.”

CSN&Y released a live double-album, Four Way Street, before splitting up. Crosby recorded his solo debut, If I Could Only Remember My Name, in 1971, backed by Nash, members of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane and Joni Mitchell (who he was romantically involved with for a time and who famously compared Crosby’s walrus-mustache look to Yosemite Sam). Though critically savaged at the time, the languid meditative album later gained a cult following and its influence can be heard in the contemporary neo-folk of Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear. In 1977, Crosby, Stills & Nash re-grouped for the quadruple-platinum CSN. In 1979, they performed at the antinuclear benefit concerts sponsored by Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE).

1982’s Daylight Again was another success, producing the hits “Wasted On the Way” and “Southern Cross.” During these years, Crosby was a frequent voice on records by artists such as Grace Slick and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna and Phil Collins (including the hit “Another Day In Paradise”).

By the early Eighties, though, his drug abuse was having a ruinous impact. In 1985, he was sentenced to prison for nine months after leaving the drug rehabilitation program he was allowed to enter instead of serving a five-year prison sentence for possessing cocaine and carrying a gun. He appeared with Stills, Nash and Young at Live Aid while out on appeal bond. Crosby emerged from prison in 1986, newly clean, and married his longtime girlfriend Jan Dance in 1987. In 1990, he published a revealing, widely praised memoir Long Time Gone.

He received a liver transplant in 1994 and recorded another album with CSN, the commercially unsuccessful After the Storm. During the Nineties, Crosby gained more attention for a unique act of celebrity generosity when he became the sperm donor for Melissa Etheridge and Julie Cypher. In 1995, he reunited with his son Raymond, who he’d given up for the adoption in the Sixties, and they recorded three albums together as CPR. He has three other children, two daughters (Erika and Donovan) and a son Django, the only child of his marriage with Dance.

Crosby maintained a sense of humor about his troubled past. When he angered the recovery community by admitting he smoked pot, he joked, “our big crime is that we eat ice cream, let’s face the truth.” He also embraced his rep as the archetypal Wasted Sixties Guy, especially in his emerging acting career. He was a hippie in 1991’s Backdraft, a bartender in 1992’s Thunderheart and an AA sponsor in an episode of The John Larroquette Show. (He also occasionally appeared as himself on the Simpsons.) Though much more toned down by the 2000s, Crosby remained unapologetic in his pro-gun views. In 2004, he pleaded guilty to criminal possession of a weapon when police found a gun and a small quantity of marijuana his in hotel room the night after a concert in New York. He served no jail time.

Towards the end of his life, Crosby recorded the 2014 solo album, Croz, his first record in 20 years, featuring Raymond among the guest musicians and a cover photo taken by Django. “Most guys my age would have done a covers record or duets on old material,” he told Rolling Stone at the time. “This won’t be a huge hit. It’ll probably sell nineteen copies. I don’t think kids are gonna dig it, but I’m not making it for them. I’m making it for me. I have this stuff that I need to get off my chest.”

He followed it up with more more solo albums between 2016 and 2021. “I’m fuckin’ lucky,” he told Rolling Stone in 2021. “I don’t know if I have two weeks left of life or 10 years, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is what you do with the time. If you sit there on your butt and worry about dying, then you fucking wasted it. I haven’t been wasting it. I’m having a really good time, and feeling wonderfully about it. Sooner or later, something is going to break. Right now, my life is pretty great.”

This story is developing

From Rolling Stone US