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R.I.P. David Crosby, founding member of The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash

Crosby, one of the most influential music superstars of the 20th century, was 81

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David Crosby
David Crosby
Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

David Crosby has died. As a founding member of The Byrds, and then later Crosby, Stills & Nash (and the subsequent Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), Crosby was one of the most influential figures in 20th century music, helping to bridge the gaps between folk and rock, and co-crafting the image of the politically conscious music superstar. Per Variety, Crosby died this week after a long illness. He was 81.

Born in Los Angeles, Crosby initially studied as a drama student before moving into music; while living in Chicago, he connected with Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman, and Michael Clarke, eventually forming The Byrds in 1964. Although never the band’s primary songwriter, Crosby contributed to several of their early hits, providing harmony vocals on hits like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (He also played rhythm guitar on “Turn!”, while the instrumentals on “Tambourine Man” were infamously performed by session musicians.) “Tambourine Man” launched the band into the stratosphere; critics coined the term “folk rock” to describe the song’s blend of old-school folk sounds and rising rock rhythms, and the single hit the top of the charts.

The Byrds - Lady Friend (Audio)

As the ’60s progressed, The Byrds pushed deeper into the sounds of psychedelic rock, even as their commercial performance began to slip. Tensions within the group began to build around the recording of 1967's The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Said tensions arrived, not coincidentally, with Crosby’s steady emergence as one of music’s great loud, opinionated guys; his bandmates were not, by all accounts, especially happy with Crosby’s increasing insistence on giving speeches about JFK assassination theories and the medicinal benefits of LSD in the midst of concerts. (Ditto his insistence on avoiding covers and focusing on original material, including the commercially dire “Lady Friend.”) The crisis reached a head in October 1967, when McGuinn and Hillman fired him. And although he’d re-collaborate with the band for their final album in 1973, the Byrds portion of Crosby’s life was clearly over. He took his settlement money and bought a sailboat.

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Meanwhile, Crosby began playing with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, both also established folk rockers at the time. (Their combined names were big enough that the newly formed Crosby, Stills & Nash’s second live gig was Woodstock.) Their collaborations saw Crosby come into his own as a songwriter; Crosby-penned tracks from the early eras of CS&N include “Guinnevere,” “Almost Cut My Hair,” and “Wooden Ships.” With the addition of Neil Young, the band’s line-up solidified into Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. And while Crosby’s second big band would ultimately be as fractious, if not moreso, than his first, the four men managed to stick it out for decades: Even in the last few years, amidst periodic bickering and public denunciations, Nash admitted Crosby’s talent and said he was potentially open to one more reunion. (It never came.)

Wooden Ships (2005 Remaster)

Said bickering wasn’t helped by Crosby’s increasing struggles with drug use; after the sudden death of his long-time girlfriend in 1969, Crosby reportedly delved deeper into substance abuse. He’d ultimately serve several months in prison, in 1985, on weapons offenses—Crosby was a life-long and enthusiastic gun advocate—as well as possession of heroin and cocaine. Crosby emerged from prison clean, although he’d later describe it as a “shitty way to do it.” (And, obviously, not counting pot; his cannabis brand, Mighty Croz, is still in operation; he also spent part of his COVID lockdown evaluating people’s joint-rolling skills on Twitter.)

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Although he continued to play with CSN&Y—when they weren’t screaming at each other—and had a successful and prolific solo career, Crosby’s later years were occupied both by health problems, and by his apparently instinctive cultivation of his status as an elder statesman of the weird, loud folk-rock lifestyle. (There was a certain, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense” vibe to it all when Melissa Etheridge announced that she’d chosen Crosby to be the sperm donor for her and her partner’s artificial insemination; he was, not surprisingly, a natural on Twitter.) In later years, he also mellowed: In 2019, Cameron Crowe—who’d been talking with Crosby, at various points in his life, since 1974—released David Crosby: Remember My Name, a retrospective documentary about his life. Directed by A.J. Eaton, the film drew strong reviews for its vision of the aging Crosby as he reflected on his failures, his music, and his life—all of which, it seems, were inextricably intertwined.

David Crosby: Remember My Name | Official Trailer HD (2019)

Crosby’s wife, Jan Dance, released a statement to the press today about his death:

It is with great sadness after a long illness, that our beloved David (Croz) Crosby has passed away. He was lovingly surrounded by his wife and soulmate Jan and son Django. Although he is no longer here with us, his humanity and kind soul will continue to guide and inspire us. His legacy will continue to live on through his legendary music. Peace, love, and harmony to all who knew David and those he touched. We will miss him dearly. At this time, we respectfully and kindly ask for privacy as we grieve and try to deal with our profound loss. Thank you for the love and prayers.