BYRD WATCHING: with David Crosby

by Norman Warwick

Colin Locker was kind of The Fonz character of the year I spent at college in 1968. The girls swooned as he walked by, the guys mostly pretended not to notice him, scared to look in his direction, except for the Richy and Potsie characters and Ralph Malph, who when I started watching Happy Days, most reminded me of myself. I was out on campus looking for a kick-about football match, one day when Colin ¨Fonz´ Locker came striding quickly towards me. The area quickly became deserted and the tune to High Noon could be heard at full and menacing volume.

My knees were quaking as The Fonz dropped the bundle he was carrying into my hands. I looked down at a collection six or seven albums laying on my opened palms, ¨What are these?¨I asked in a trembling voice. ¨The Byrds´ he informed me. ´Watch them. Listen to them. Follow them¨  I did, so come join us as we return to those sidetracks and detours along which we always seemed to be accompanied by David Crosby-

The day that Colin Locker gave me his collection of albums by The Byrds was a turning point in my life. I had heard of The Byrds, and enjoyed their Dylan-esque singles but at the time had never heard a whole album by them. I was, though, on the cusp of a life-long love of Americana music, exemplified as I thought at the time by the music of the Monkees and their great songwriters. But sitting at my bedroom window to watch The Byrds in flight took me, figuratively and spiritually, around the world.

One of those albums, though, had a liner note that spoke of a live Byrds gig at which  David Crosby ´smiled down beatifically´ at the dancers. I didn´t then know what that advert meant but I later learned it was a perfect description of Crosby at his most laid-back (or spaced out).

David Van Cortlandt Crosby (August 14, 1941 – January 18, 2023) was an American singer, guitarist, and songwriter. He was a founding member of both the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash, and also embarked on a solo career.

Crosby joined the Byrds in 1964. They had their first number-one hit in 1965 with a cover of Bob Dylan‘s “Mr. Tambourine Man“. Crosby appeared on the Byrds’ first five albums and produced the original line-up’s 1973 reunion album. In 1968, he formed Crosby, Stills & Nash (CSN) with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash.

After the release of their debut album, CSN won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist of 1969. Neil Young joined the group for live appearances, their second concert being Woodstock, before recording their second album Déjà Vu. Meant to be a band that could collaborate freely, Crosby & Nash recorded three gold albums in the 1970s, while the core trio of CSN remained active from 1976 until 2016. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSNY) reunions were held in each decade from the 1970s through the 2000s.

Crosby released six solo albums. Additionally, he formed a jazz-influenced trio with his son James Raymond and guitarist Jeff Pevar in CPR. Crosby’s work with the Byrds and CSNY has sold over 35 million albums.

Crosby was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice: once for his work in the Byrds and again for his work with CSN. Five albums to which he contributed are included in Rolling Stone‘s list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time“, three with the Byrds and two with CSN(Y). Crosby was outspoken politically and was sometimes depicted as emblematic of the counterculture of the 1960s.

Crosby arrived back in Chicago from New York City to hang out with Terry Callier. On tour and in Chicago at that time was Miriam Makeba (right) and her band, who knew multi-instrumentalist, Jim McGuinn, who later dropped his first name and went by his middle name, Roger McGuinn. Callier introduced Crosby to McGuinn and Gene Clark, who were then performing by the name the Jet Set. Crosby joined them, and they were augmented by drummer Michael Clarke, at which point Crosby attempted, unsuccessfully, to play bass. Late in 1964, Chris Hillman joined the band as bassist, and Crosby relieved Gene Clark of rhythm guitar duties. Through connections that Jim Dickson (The Byrds’ manager) had with Bob Dylan‘s music publisher, the band obtained a demo acetate disc of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and recorded a version of the song, featuring McGuinn’s twelve-string guitar as well as McGuinn, Crosby, and Clark’s vocal harmonies. 

The song turned into a massive hit, reaching No. 1 in the charts in the United States and the United Kingdom during 1965. While McGuinn (left) originated the Byrds’ trademark 12-string guitar sound, Crosby was responsible for the soaring harmonies and often unusual phrasing of their songs, but while he did not sing lead vocals on either of the first two albums, he sang lead on the bridge in their second single “All I Really Want to Do“.In 1966, Clark, who then was the band’s primary songwriter, left the group because of stress and this placed all the group’s song-writing responsibilities in the hands of McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman.

Crosby took the opportunity to hone his craft and soon became a relatively prolific songwriter, collaborating with McGuinn on the up-tempo “I See You” (covered by Yes on their 1969 debut) and penning the ruminative “What’s Happening”. His early Byrds efforts also included the 1966 hit “Eight Miles High” (to which he contributed one line, according to Clark, while Clark and McGuinn wrote the rest), and its flip side “Why“, co-written with McGuinn.

Because Crosby felt responsible for and was widely credited with popularizing the song “Hey Joe“, he persuaded the other members of the Byrds to record it on Fifth Dimension. By Younger Than Yesterday, the Byrds’ 1967 album, Crosby began to find his trademark style on songs such as “Renaissance Fair” (co-written with McGuinn), “Mind Gardens”, and “It Happens Each Day”; however, the latter song was omitted from the final album and ultimately restored as a bonus track on the 1996 remastered edition. The album also contained a rerecording of “Why” and “Everybody’s Been Burned”, a jazzy torch song from Crosby’s pre-Byrds repertoire that was initially demoed in 1963.

Friction between Crosby and the other Byrds came to a head in mid-1967. Tensions were high after the Monterey International Pop Festival in June when Crosby’s on-stage political diatribes and support of various John F. Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories between songs elicited rancour from McGuinn and Hillman (right). He further annoyed his bandmates when, at the invitation of Stephen Stills, he substituted for an absent Neil Young during Buffalo Springfield‘s set the following night. The internal conflict boiled over during the initial recording sessions for The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968) that summer, where differences over song selections led to intra-band arguments. In particular, Crosby was adamant that the band should record only original material despite the recent commercial failure of “Lady Friend“, a Crosby-penned single that stalled at No. 82 on the American charts following its release in July. McGuinn and Hillman dismissed Crosby in October after he refused to countenance the recording of a cover of Goffin and King‘s “Goin’ Back“. While Crosby contributed to three compositions and five recordings on the final album, his controversial ménage à trois ode “Triad” was omitted; Jefferson Airplane released a Grace Slick-sung cover on Crown of Creation (1968); three years later, Crosby released a solo acoustic version on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s double live album 4 Way Street (1971); the Byrds’ version appeared decades later on the 1987 Never Before release and later on the 1997 re-release of The Notorious Byrd Brothers.

In 1973, Crosby reunited with the original Byrds for the album Byrds, with Crosby acting as the album’s producer. The album charted well (at No. 20, their best album showing since their second album) but was generally not perceived to be a critical success. It marked the final artistic collaboration of the original band.



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