Interview: David Crosby on Fatherhood, Tibet and Working With Rick Rubin

By Brian Ives 

Whether the subject is music, politics or fatherhood, David Crosby always has a lot to say.

He recently stopped by the offices to promote his new solo album, Croz, a labor of love that he worked on with James Raymond, his biological son who he gave up for adoption at birth, but whom he reunited with nearly two decades ago. Raymond played with Crosby in the now-defunct CPR (which stood for Crosby, Pevar–as in guitarist, Jeff Pevar–and Raymond) and is also in Crosby Stills and Nash‘s touring band.

“Croz” is very happy with his latest collection, but was even happier to discuss a number of topics that he tackles on his album including his mistakes, China’s treatment of Tibet and musical collaborators that range from Neil Young, Roger McGuinnPhil Collins and Rick Rubin.

~ How long has this record been in the works for?
David Crosby: We’ve been working on it for two years, maybe three, because we didn’t have any money. The only way we could do it was in the studio James built in his garage. I’d go down and sleep on his couch and we would work on it. A couple of times we did tracking at Jackson [Browne]‘s Groovemasters, that’s my favorite studio. We didn’t have the money to do all the work in that studio. I’m really happy about how it turned out, obviously. We sat down to write songs that would make you feel something. I know I’m bragging and I know it sounds immodest.

Well, everyone likes to brag about their kids.
My other son, Django, he’s the one who took [the album’s] cover photo. He made me look fifteen years younger. Thank you! Raising Django was one of the great joys of my life. I didn’t raise any of the other kids, I couldn’t have raised a Kleenex box [back then], but I did raise Django, and it was a truly great gift to be able to do that.

It must be great being able to work on music with James. 
It’s a gift that I can’t even measure. This record would not have happened without James. He wrote, sang, produced, played on, engineered, arranged, he did everything, he made this record possible. He elicited from me the very best I had , and he made it better. I owe him a debt I will never repay. We have a great relationship. He’s not afraid of me at all. He respects me, but he’s not intimidated by me, not in the slightest bit. He’s incredibly talented. He’s a much better musician than I am.

He also co-writes with Graham Nash.
Graham loves him as a writer. They have a song called “Burning For The Buddha.” It’s my second favorite song in the CSN set. And the the CSN set now has, like, six new songs. That can’t be bad, that’s lifeblood. It’s critical to us. I’m happy that the other guys [Stephen Stills and Nash] are writing. (His phone rings: the ringtone is Steely Dan‘s “Aja” and he sings along for a few seconds) Oh, now you know who my favorite band is!

“Set That Baggage Down” from Croz is a song that you probably couldn’t have written as a younger man. 
[Guitarist] Shane [Fontayne] and I wrote that together. What that is, is stuff I learned in Alcoholics Anonymous. If you made mistakes in your life, and I obviously have , you have to look at them. You have to look at them honestly. You have to sit down, sober, look at them and say, “That’s not who I want to be, and that’s not where I want to be, and how did I get there?” And figure out how not to get there again. Because you can’t get on with your life if you’re dragging a huge railroad car full of baggage. It just doesn’t work.

Similarly, “Time I Have” has to come from being alive for a long time. 
The time that you waste being ticked off at the world, or sad, or morose, or smashed out of your gourd, or living in the past, is time wasted. And you don’t have as much time as you think you do. I don’t want to spend my time being angry. It’s a mistake I’ve made repeatedly. I have a bad temper. But I don’t want to be that guy and I don’t want to waste that time. I don’t have very much time [left]. If I have another ten years on this planet, it will be a miracle. I’m going to use every second.

Speaking of Shayne Fontane, I remember when he played guitar in Bruce Springsteen’s backing band in the ’90s. How did you start working with him?
Did you ever see him with Marc Cohn? Marc and Shawn Colvin are the two best songwriters in America. Anyway, that’s where I found him, he was playing with Marc. I thought, “My God, that’s an adult lead guitar player, what a contradiction in terms!”

Didn’t you also find CPR guitarist Jeff Pevar in Marc Cohn’s band?
Yep, Marc’s threatened me a couple of times. No, we’re great friends. He’s a fantastic man, a fantastic singer, and a fantastic writer. I would give anything I have to have written that song, “Listening to Levon.” “I might have lied about the car!”

Another guy you’ve worked with in the past is Phil Collins. You once told me that you met him at a concert celebrating Atlantic Records’ 40th anniversary, and he was quoting lyrics from your debut solo album, (1971’s) If I Could Only Remember My Name
That shocked me. I saw him as a pop idol, a guy who was making incredible pop records. I had no idea that he knew about that music and cared about it. There’s a lot of backstory there. He was extremely kind to me and a real friend to me when I really needed it. [Editor’s note: Rolling Stone reported that Collins paid for Crosby’s 1994 liver transplant.] He’s a very good guy. I’d do something with Phil in a second. He’s one of the most accurate singers on earth, and fun to work with, and smart. But he’s had problems with his hands, and that’s a terrible thing for him. But man, he’s still one of the great singers. I think he should still be working.

On your album you touch on China’s treatment of Tibet in “Time I Have,” and you recently tweeted about that subject.  

If I had my way, we wouldn’t do any business with the Chinese at all. What they have done to that country, they will never be forgiven for. Not ever. They have done their best to obliterate, wipe out, and erase all memory of one of the finest, oldest and most beautiful cultures on the planet. They’ve done it absolutely ruthlessly. They’ve shelled monasteries, raped nuns, shot monks, they have been utterly merciless. I believe in karma and I think theirs is about as bad as it can possibly be. China will pay, some day, in some awful way, for what they have done there, its a hideous thing what they did, and what they’re still doing. [He reads some of the song’s lyrics] “Those who rule the Middle Kingdom,” which is how the Chinese think of themselves, there’s the rest of us. There’s the Middle Kingdom, and there’s heaven; they’re the Middle Kingdom. “Those who rule the Middle Kingdom hate the old man in the robes, they put up roadblocks everywhere he goes. And he says, ‘Have no anger in your heart for them, they know not what they do.’ Does that sound familiar to you?”

It’s amazing that when you listen to the Dalai Lama speak, he isn’t angry.
It’s a great freedom that they have. One of the monks who works for him is named Tensen. He carries no baggage. This is how they are: they’re not afraid of anything. You can’t frighten them. And they don’t want your stuff. They don’t want anything. I wish I could be like them.

When you guys performed as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at the Bridge School Benefit in October, was there a hope that CSNY would do more shows or record again? 
There always is. I love working with Neil [Young], and I’ll tell you why. He sets the bar very high; the guy writes incredible songs. Not all of them [are incredible], but he’s written some of the best songs I’ve ever heard. And the thing I love most about him is he is not satisfied. He will not just lay back and say, “That’ll do.” It won’t do. He wants to push the envelope more. He wants to get in deeper, he wants to get more intense. He’s not satisfied. I love that about him. If he wants to work with me, obviously [I would]. I’d walk from here to San Francisco. I love making music with the guy. But he’ll do it when he wants to, because that’s how you get the best out of him. It’s the same thing with [former Byrds bandmate] Roger McGuinn. I’d love to work with Roger again, but he doesn’t want to do it. If he doesn’t wanna do it, I gotta respect that. I do respect it, I know that [former Byrd bandmate] Chris [Hillman] and I both would love to do it. Because there’s music there still to be made. I know exactly how to fly wingman with Roger, I’ve got that down. [But] with Neil, you know about the package that’s coming out right?

Yeah, the CSNY box set was my next question. 
It’s three CDs from 1974. Eight shows, three CDs of incredible stuff. There’s a “Pushed It Over the End” on there that’s one of of the most intense pieces of music I’ve ever heard it in my life. It might be the single greatest Neil Young live [performance] ever. I never heard anybody be that intense on a record. Ever. Anybody. Anybody. Ever. And repeatedly all through this thing there are just moments where you say, “Wow, did they do that?” It’s stunning stuff.

Will we ever hear any of the sessions that CSN recorded with Rick Rubin? 
Maybe not from those specific sessions, because we didn’t really successfully generate any masters out of the time when he was trying it out with us. I don’t think it was his fault, there just wasn’t chemistry. I’m not trying to slag the guy. He’s done a lot of good work. But we produced our own records, the “Couch Album” (Ed. note: better known as the band’s 1969 self-titled debut), Deja Vu, we produced them. We pretty much knew how to make records when we got done with our first bands. Just to check, after months of trying it with him, we went in to Jackson’s Groovemasters, and cut five things in four days. When we were singing [Pete] Townshend‘s [Who classic] “Behind Blue Eyes,” I thought, “We absolutely have to do this, this is too good.” When you hear us singing [the Beatles‘] “Blackbird,” we sing it better than Paul [McCartney] does. And that’s saying some stuff. And I have a lot of respect for Paul, but we do it better.


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