Reflections: David Crosby
The erstwhile CSNY singer and outspoken ‘60s icon takes stock of his evolving legacy in a new, Cameron Crowe-produced documentary
David Crosby has pissed off all his old musical friends—perhaps beyond repair. That’s the sad truth that hovers over Remember My Name, the eerily candid new Cameron Crowe documentary that traces the sweet-voiced singer’s singular journey from a self-described “pudgy” son of an Academy Award–winning cinematographer to his folk-rock highs with The Byrds, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and his nasty split with the latter two harmony-laced groups. Along the way, Croz opens up, in riveting detail, about a struggle with drug addiction that led to nine months in a Texas state prison; he reflects on the trail of woman he left behind before meeting his current wife of 32 years; and he weighs the cost of the continued fallout from his often opinionated comments online and in the media.
“I still have friends, but all of the guys I made music with won’t even talk to me,” Crosby admits deep into the film. “One of them hating my guts could be an accident. But [Roger] McGuinn, [Graham] Nash, Neil [Young] and Stephen [Stills] all really dislike me, strongly. I don’t know quite how to undo it.”
The project started innocently enough when Crosby agreed to meet with director A.J. Eaton about documenting his recent later-in-life creative comeback. “A.J. was at [J.J. Abrams’] Bad Robot Productions visiting a friend and Cameron walks by and says, ‘You’re going to do a documentary about Crosby? You should let me ask the questions,’” Crosby recalls shortly before the film’s July premiere. “Cameron knows where the bones are buried, and he gave me nowhere to hide. And that’s exactly what I wanted.”
Crowe first interviewed Crosby as a teenage rock-journalist in the ‘70s, during the formative period he eventually used as inspiration for Almost Famous. They’ve remained in touch over the years, even as Crosby’s story has spiraled in unexpected directions.
“He is a tremendous storyteller, always was,” Crowe says. “He could have Garrison Keillor’s old career if he wanted it. After seeing so many music-based documentaries that always felt like a reverberation of Behind the Music—the same tropes —I had this instinct. If I just got out of the way, Crosby would take center stage in a compelling and exceedingly honest, maybe even heartbreaking way.”
Crosby made it easy for Eaton and Crowe to avoid those tropes. In recent years, he’s shattered the Behind the Music storyline, stepping away from CSN as they were sailing through the show’s traditionally joyous pre-credits segment and rebooting an adventurous solo career that prioritizes musicianship over, as he says in the film, “turning on the smoke machine and playing the hits.”
Despite an 11-year lag between solo albums—though he did work outside CSN and CSNY with Nash and his own CPR band in that time—Crosby has released four albums in the past five years with more LPs on the way. He’s settled into a comfortable pace, pivoting between work with Snarky Puppy’s Michael League and their acoustic Lighthouse band and with his son James Raymond and their electric Sky Trails Band. He’s also started writing with two members of those groups, Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis, and has collaborated with a new generation of Americana musicians, including Jason Isbell, Jonathan Wilson and I’m With Her.
“It had to do with me leaving CSN. Leaving CSN was definitely a big deal—risky—and made me very nervous, but was also a good thing” he says of his musical fertile period. “It also had to do with meeting Michael and meeting my son, James [as an adult]. James and Michael are the two best writing partners I have. And it’s been unbelievable working with both of them. It’s been partly just good fortune and partly just determination.”
In one of the film’s most intimate, revealing moments, Crosby can be seen packing up for the next leg on his never-ending tour and, later, wheeling his bags through a lonely hotel. Even though CSN’s numbers had softened a bit since their stadium days, they remained a steady draw into this decade, packing even bigger arenas during their occasional runs with Young. Now, following their break-up, Crosby believes he will remain on the theater circuit forever.
“It’s not a creative decision so much as simple math, man,” he says pointedly. “They don’t pay us for records anymore—streaming doesn’t pay us. You do your job for four weeks and they pay you a nickel. I love to sing, I do, but I have no choice but to work—or I will not have a place to live. I have a family, I have to take care of them.”
And despite CSN and CSNY’s legendary body of work and best of collections, Crosby is also keenly aware that he is the only member of the group to never score a major hit. “I never did write hits, and wasn’t really trying to, but I didn’t,” he says. “And I do write odd stuff, that’s always been the case and I can’t deny it, but that’s definitely true. I enjoy the fact that I write so strangely. It kind of makes me happy, I like it.”
Crosby’s measured candor while describing some of his darkest moments never comes off as smug. Instead, it adds to the honest revision of his life story.
“He hated that we took him to the Laurel Canyon Country Store and then proceeded to sit outside the store and pour his soul out,” Crowe says of a particularly memorable scene where Crosby revisits his old stomping grounds and precedes to deconstruct the California dream he defined for so many generations. “I just love interviewing him. I showed up with two notebooks and a file of photos and, within three hours, we’d worked through everything. So I came up with more, and we did more interviews until he came to the moment of grace that ends the film. His last moment in the film is so striking to me. It’s someone reviewing their entire life in one small moment and his expression was priceless. We looked at each other in the editing and said, ‘Is that the end?’ Which was the perfect thought to end the film on!”
“He was a very bright kid who grew into a fascinating man,” Crosby says of Crowe. “He’s a very intelligent guy and someone that I look upon as a real friend. But that doesn’t mean when he’s doing a documentary that he is gonna cut me any slack. He asked me, truthfully, the hardest questions I’ve ever been asked. But that was a good thing—that’s how we ended up with a documentary that people don’t have. Documentaries are often too shallow—they are little shine jobs, bullshit. They don’t tell you anything about the person. I want to know more about the them—what they like, what they are afraid of, what they love. I want to know about their insides; I don’t just want to hear a list of their greatest hits. There were about three times where I said, ‘That’s not going in the film,” but they all went in. They made the best movie they could make without regards to anybody’s comfort or giving anybody a free pass. I’m very happy with what we did.”
That level of trust allowed Crosby to get emotional when describing the tragic 1969 death of his girlfriend Christine Hinton, take responsibility his terse relationships with McGuinn and Young and look closely at CSN’s final days. They even show an uncomfortable clip of what may end up being the trio’s last live appearance at the National Christmas Tree Lighting on December 3, 2015—a performance of “Silent Night” that was such a train wreck even President Obama can be seen making some curious faces. (Crosby now says that part of the problem was caused by technical issues, adding it was “definitely something sad.”)
Perhaps the only hot-button topic Crosby stops short of answering was what exactly caused his recent rift with Nash, his closet collaborator for decades. Crosby admits the two haven’t spoken in years and that one of his last interactions with Nash included a nasty spat onstage. Though McGuinn sits for the doc, neither Stills, Nash nor Young weigh in for new interviews. When Crowe asks Crosby in the documentary if he would like to reach out to Nash to make amends during such a reflective time in his life, he simply responds that he doesn’t even know “where he lives”
As he lays out clearly in Remember My Name, Crosby estimates that he only has a few years left, thanks to a lifetime of hard-living and a cocktail of health problems that include diabetes, a liver transplant and multiple heart attacks.
“We don’t know how much time I have left—I could have 10 years, I could have two weeks,” he says. “What we can figure out is what we do with that time. The only thing I can do with that time is what I said in the movie—this is the only place I can lift, the only place I can make it better. So I am gonna do it. When you get old, the last thing you want to do is slow down, you want to keep pushing yourself as much as you possibly can because that’s how you keep up, that’s how you keep going.” Crowe says that he was “extremely surprised” about Crosby’s recent prolific output and sees that “story about facing your mortality.”
“You think you’re going to live forever, especially when you’re filling stadiums with just songs and guitars,” he says. “But then the day comes when you realize you are not going to be around too much longer. You’re put together with Band-Aids and rubber bands. How do you make up for all the lost time? Crosby is heroic in that, even after all his mess ups, he doesn’t want to leave without trying to make all the music he was ‘too smashed to make in the day.’ It’s a crusade and it will continue until, as he says, he takes his last breath—hopefully in front of an audience, with his wife nearby.”
You can follow Mike Greenhaus on Instagram @Greenhauseffect3