as heard by Norman Warwick

Lee Zimmerman writing for Paste in 2016 selected his top thirteen songs by David Crosby and shared an eclectic, and perhaps rather subjective list with this readers. I whittled down the list to my own equally as subjective (but far less informed than Mr.Zimmerman´s) definitive favourite five. Mr Zimmerman even enthused about the selection far more enthusiastically and articulately than I would have been able to.

To paraphrase a lyric by David Crosby’s (left) on-again/off-again band mate Neil Young, it’s (never) better to burn out, because once you do, it’s likely you will fade away. Crosby has experienced both scenarios, and one threatened to cause the other to occur. For the better part of the 1970s and ’80s, he stumbled about, plagued by severe substance abuse, becoming—by his own admission—wasted on the way. He squandered his talents, alienated his friends and band mates, and eventually became zombie-like, a sad remnant of his former self. Had he not spent time in a Dallas jail after finding himself destitute, drugged out and without anywhere to turn, he likely would have been left to his own devices and ultimately succumbed to self-destruction.

Of course, that would have been a tragedy, especially for a musician who was in the front lines of the burgeoning folk rock era of the mid-’60s. The songs he wrote and recorded with the Byrds became classics, and his gift for harmony revolutionized the way voices could be locked in unison. Yet even early on, his irascible personality led to his discharge from that first band of brothers, and from there to the subsequent union of Crosby, Still, Nash and occasionally Young. That band had its own share of interpersonal squabbles, and crusty personalities, and as Crosby’s dependence on crack cocaine intensified, his alienation from his band mates was further exacerbated.

By the end of the ’70s, Crosby was living on the fringe personally and creatively. His efforts with Graham Nash gave him a second lease on life, as did his later collaboration as part of CPR, the belated reunion with his long lost son James Raymond. Nevertheless, his individual career floundered for years; after his debut solo album in 1971, If Only I Could Remember My Name, Crosby took another 18 years to release its follow-up, Yes I Can. His last album, 2014’s Croz was more than 20 years removed from its predecessor, but with the announcement of a new album called Lighthouse, due out October 21, he again seem to finally be on track.

For all his flaws and foolishness, Crosby saved himself by his love of music and the spirit of song. “I started out a solo folkie singing in coffee houses,” he told this writer prior to the release of Croz. “As I slowly began to write, I started singing my own songs. And very often when you start out that way, you’re singing in bars. You have people drunk out of their nut and yelling ‘Hey, do you know ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida?’ It’s a hell of a school to learn in, but it was very good for me actually. I’m very glad I did it.”

Considering his entire career trajectory and various projects, here is a handful of exdellent compositions by David Crosby.

(left to right, crosby, stills, nash)

“Wooden Ships”

Written with Stephen Stills and Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner, this classic CSN song picks up on another of Crosby’s favorite themes—that of living in a utopian world where communal collaboration is the key to survival. Those purple berries sung of in this musical dialogue may well be a symbolic analogy for LSD (it famously came in purple tabs on various occasions), but the essence of sharing while living off the land made this a signature showstopper for both CSN and the Airplane, as well.

“Eight Miles High”

It’s hardly surprising that at the time, certain radio stations banned “Eight Miles High” beause of its alleged drug connotations. However all Byrds involved—Crosby, Roger (then Jim) McGuinn and Gene Clark—insisted that this Fifth Dimension track was nothing more than a travelogue describing their initial impressions of England. Still, the lyrics were full of psychedelic suggestion (“Eight miles high and when you touch down, you’ll find that it’s stranger than known”). Crosby’s fascination with the new and strange music of Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane also had a marked influence on the sound, an otherworldly quality that set it apart from anything that came before or, for that matter, has been heard since.

“The Lee Shore”

Crosby’s love of sailing served more than one purpose, and the times he spent on his beloved boat provided him the inspiration for many of his best songs. “I love the sea,” he once said. “I love sailing because it’s a lodestone; it’s a thing that keeps me in touch with the real world. On the boat, the ocean doesn’t know who you are.” While being out at sea gave him the freedom to plot his course away from civilization and its inherent hassles, it also provided the dreamy and descriptive imagery that colored his music and melodies. “Lee Shore,” from CSN’s 4 Way Street is an ideal example—a tale of breezy enchantment and discovery so vivid, it’s almost possible to smell the salt air and hear the waves lapping against the hull. As far as Crosby’s catalogue is concerned, this combination of lyric and melody has never been bested.

 “Carry Me”

Drawn from the circumstances surrounding his last hospital visits to his mother as she faced her final gruelling battle with cancer, “Carry Me” is one of the most beautiful songs of Crosby’s cannon. The sense of liberation, of setting oneself free from these earthly bonds, becomes anthemic in its own way, its chorus an uplifting call to arms, a beckoning for every restless spirit yearning to separate from the bonds of Mother Earth and soar towards new heights, if even in a metaphysical sense.

“Déjà Vu”

In every sense, this song takes Crosby back to the beginning, to a life lived before as well as one entrenched in the here and now. The title track to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s first album, its lovely scat singing, seamless harmonies and otherworldly ethos (“And I feel like I’ve been here before”) makes this more than merely a song, but a defining encounter.

cover phot déjà vu album

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