- Steve Silberman
- David Crosby
In Episode 1, David and Steve waste no time getting personal. They talk about the deep roots of their friendship, David’s relationship with his son James, and how it transformed his career after leaving CSN, and the inspirations for David’s musical renaissance of the last five years. This is just the beginning of the discussion of David’s musical journey.
Songs featured in this episode (with Spotify links where available):
Wooden Ships (live w/Steely Dan)
I Think I (demo)
Freak Flag Flying is brought to you by Osiris Media. Executive Produced by Adam Caplan and Tom Marshall. Interview, Narration, and Editing by Steve Silberman. Mixed and Mastered by Brendon Anderegg at Telescope Audio. Art by Mark Dowd. Production assistance from Christina Collins and RJ Bee. To see more shows that can help you connect more deeply with the music you love, check out osirispod.com.
Freak Flag Flying: In Conversation with David Crosby
Hosted by Steve Silberman
Episode 1: Set a Course and Go
Steve (narration): Hello! I’m Steve Silberman, and I want to welcome you all to a very special limited-edition podcast brought to you by Osiris Media. Osiris is a network run by music fans, for music fans, and over the next few weeks we’ll be having a probing and unusually frank conversation with one of my own favorite musicians, David Crosby, whose resumé is a history of some of the most inventive music made in the past half century.
This series is also a tribute to the fact that I started out as a Crosby super-fan — going to shows, obsessively collecting tapes, you know the drill — and now he’s one of my closest friends, which blows my mind every day. Even the most dedicated hardcore Crosby fanatic will hear some very rare, unreleased music they may never have heard before. Thank you for joining us as we take this journey with one of the most consistently original, inventive, and gloriously weird musicians of our time.
Steve: David. It is so wonderful to have you on this podcast. I am so honored that you’re here. You personally have been responsible for some of the greatest music and musical developments of the last 50 years of music. And your influence spreads even far beyond what people know about. Like that you helped turn the Beatles onto Indian music. It’s hard to even imagine what the state of music in the 21st century would be if you hadn’t done that. So it’s great to be here with you. But to tell you the truth, why we’re really here is as friends and we have a very unusual friendship and that I sort of was able to graduate from being just a ridiculous teen fanboy and tape collector to being your pal. And it’s as if you sent a signal out through the world in your music that I was especially attuned to pick up on. And we ended up becoming really friends. And I’m very, very grateful to your friendship. And so we’re going to be talking as friends for the next couple of days. Thank you so much for being here. I wanted to say how we met because it actually gets into your passion for the Internet, which you demonstrate every day on Twitter. Are you having fun on Twitter, David?
David: I am having fun on Twitter. People are fascinating, man. You know, that’s the essential first part of it. People are interesting as hell, they really are. So, yeah, I have I have a lot of fun on the Internet. What Stephen should tell you, ladies and gentlemen, is that he’s the one who turned me on to the Internet in the first place.
Steve: That is a true thing. That’s how we became friends. I’m going to tell that story, a short version of that story, because it’s hilarious. It says a lot about who we both are. And it’s awesome that it was actually the thing that made us become friends. OK. Way back in 1970 or something, I was walking into a sandals shop in Provincetown that smelled of leather and incense, and I heard the most beautiful music I’d ever heard in my life. I had never heard music like that. And I walked up to the guy behind the counter, it was probably a really cool hippie in Provincetown at the height of that. And I said, Who is this? And the names that he said sounded like a law firm to me more than a rock group. But that was me hearing “Guinevere” for the first time. And I ended up following “Guinevere” through into jazz and Miles Davis and Bill Evans and all that, which you were listening to, too.
Steve: But in any case, what happened was I was talking to a friend of mine named Raymond Foye one day on the phone, and Raymond had been working with Graham Nash on his photo collection, on curating his photo collection. And I heard another phone ring in the background. And I said to Raymond, do you have to get that? And he said, “Oh, no, it’s just Croz.” I said, “It’s just Croz?!! You have to pick that up!” Raymond and I’s whole friendship was based on our mutual devotion to “If I Could Only Remember My Name”, basically. He was playing it when I first walked into a room and met him. But anyway, so he said, “Oh, no, I don’t have to get it. It’s Croz, he’s a fax addict.” And I said, “Fax addict?!” I said, “Does he have e-mail?” And Raymond was like, “I don’t think so.” I was like, “We have to get him e-mail right away. If he loves to send faxes, he’s going to love email.” So within a couple of hours, I got you an account on The Well, which was an early online community, pre-Web. It was very intense and very musically aware and full of Deadheads and all this. And there was a very telling moment when I asked you what you what your handle on The Well should be. And you said, “Croz.” And I said, “Oh, no, David, then everyone will know who you are.” And you said, “I want people to know who I am!” So then I believe CSN was on tour in Europe when you and I talked in a Internet chat window. You were in London, I think, actually. But do you remember the night that we talked in some kind of a chat program?
David: No. I remember, my memory was the very beginning, which was when I was in the hospital.
Steve: Oh, right. Right. Right.
David: And what a kindness it was because I was in the hospital and as far as I knew I was dying. You know, every day was a little worse. My liver was failing. Other things were failing around it. You know, that’s how it works, it’s like a house of cards, right. And you can feel yourself getting sicker and sicker and sicker and I’m scared to death. Middle of the night, you know, 4:00 o’clock in the morning, you’re sitting there all by yourself in a building that’s really a cold place with a bunch of strangers. And you’re lonely as shit and you’re scared because you’re dying. And the idea that I could get on there and open the computer up and then talk to somebody? Talking to somebody who’s been a big thing in my life. It’s a major part of who I wound up being, is that I love to communicate with people. They fascinate the shit out of me. And also they make it so you’re not alone, you’re not lonely. I don’t like being lonely. And I, you know, if you’re on the road, you spend lots of time being lonely. So that there I wasn’t that in very intense circumstance, and here was this window, you know, a way to talk to somebody. That was wonderful, was a wonderful gift. Thank you very much. Doesn’t mean I think you’re a nice person or good looking or any of those other things. We’ve returned to the abuse.
Steve: I expect it by now.
David: I should explain this to people who were listening to this. I will abuse Steve as we go through this, continually.
Steve: Oh, it’s true.
David: But I love Steve. The truth is, we used to, us hippies, musicians, we used to be all, “Oh, bro, I really love you, man. Really,bro.” And it was sickening. It got so icky sweet that we wound up insulting each other instead. We started going “Hey, fish lips.” Hey, that’s Wallace the dog, right out there.
Steve: Well, the guy who was totally on that frequency, as far as I understand it, was Jerry Garcia.
David: Oh yeah.
Steve: That was probably how you bonded, insulting each other.
David: We did it all the time, constantly!
Steve: He was very snarky and sarcastic.
David: Well, he was funny, man. He was a very funny cat.
Steve: Smart AF.
David: Very really, really, really smart and very, very funny. And the same thing. He didn’t want to be icky sweet. Didn’t want to. Wasn’t interested. So yeah, he was he was one of the instigators of that whole trend. So if we as we go through this podcast, this is a podcast, I’m thrilled to be on a podcast. Yes. This might be my first podcast. And we go through this, ladies and gentlemen, you may hear me call him “fish lips” or any number of other things. And it’s because I love him. It’s only, it’s not serious. Don’t leap to his defense because he can handle it himself.
Steve (narration): I want to give our listeners a little context for my willingness to undergo this constant torrent of abuse. David and I were talking in a gem of little studio in the glorious Santa Ynez Valley in California run by a very nice guy named Joel Jacks. Thanks, Joel! David and his wife Jan were sweet enough to let me stay for several days in a guest cottage near their house just a few miles away.
As a longtime friend of David’s we playfully abuse each other routinely, though I don’t do it too much on this podcast. It’s David’s way of expressing affections, and we alternated these recording sessions with visits to local restaurants, where folks would line up at David’s table to express their gratitude for the ways his music had changed their lives for the better.
In the mid-1960s, David first made his mark in the Byrds, who fused folk music and rock, and put Dylan’s amazingly poetic lyrics into an electric context even before he did. Then David joined forces with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash to release an album in 1969 that changed the face of popular music, featuring poignant songwriting, great playing, and sublime vocals that struck just the right note of hope and harmony for a stressed-out America at the time.
When Neil Young joined the band, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young became mega-stars, one of the most popular touring acts in the country. After competing rockstar egos led to the eventual dissolution of CSN and CSNY, David reinvented himself again by collaborating with younger musicians like his son James Raymond, who Crosby had given up for adoption back in the early ’60s. We’ll hear much more about James, and the great band CPR that David and James formed with a great guitar player named Jeff Pevar, later in the podcast.
Steve: Which brings us very easily to the weird situation of David Crosby at age…How old are you?
Steve: 78. Being the most prolific of the four acronyms. In the last four years of your life, you have released four of the best albums that you ever did. And it’s not like “except for CSNY” — it’s not that at all. And in fact, something that annoys the F out of me is that wherever you go online, you’re pursued by “When will #CSNY get together again?” I love CSNY. Why nobody loves them more than me. You know, there’s a version of “Taking It All” with you guys doing live harmony in the studio, that is the most beautiful piece of music I know, as good as some Bach. But the thing is that in the last four years you have put out four interestingly different superb albums. And I wanted to know if collaborating with younger musicians had anything to do with your personal renaissance.
David: Guaranteed, you know that. And let’s be specific. The first and probably always going to be, though, you can’t predict the future, but certainly now, the first and most important is my son James. Encountering him was just like, holy yikes. This is a guy who, when I met him, he’d already been a musician for 20 years before he found out that I was his dad. He had already been a musician for 20 years, and he’s definitely a better musician than I am. Definitely. I’m not being nice. I don’t need to butter his toast. He is better. He’s way advanced.
Steve: He’s got serious jazz chops.
David: Serious jazz chops. He’s a serious player. And he can read and write, which is different. I’m illiterate musically. So, that widened my world. He and I started CPR. We made some of the best songs I’ve ever written in my life together in CPR.
Steve: Absolutely. And the good news is those tracks are coming out again from the studio from BMG soon.
David: They are, yeah. That’s the theory. And I’m thrilled because nobody ever heard them but the writing thing…Yes, young people influenced it drastically. And the only credit I would give myself man, is for being such a lucky son of a bitch and I’ll give myself that I was open, that I know good writing when I hear it, and I have no problem wanting to be a part of it. I think people close that door too much, you know, because they want the credit or they want all the money or they want — i think more the credit than anything else. They want to feel autonomous. You know, “I’lI can do it all.” Well, yeah, you can. Only Becca and I can do it better than I can do it. Michael League and I can do it better than I can do it. James Raymond and I can do it better than I can do it.
Steve: But in any case, I remember the night that, shortly after you you’d first discovered James through him searching for his adoption records, correct?
David: Mm hmm.
Steve: Yeah. And you didn’t. Did you even know he existed?
David: Yes. Oh, yeah. I’d been wanting to try and look for him for 30 years. You know, doing the normal torment yourself stuff. “Oh, he’s dying in a dumpster in a snowstorm, and I don’t know where he is. And I wish i could find him.” But you can’t track from the parent down, only from the kid up.
Steve: Right. Oh, that’s interesting. I didn’t know that. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, I remember the night that you took me out to the bus and popped a cassette of “Morrison” in. James had just written it. I said, “David, that’s the best song that you’ve been associated with for decades.”
Steve: Not only that, it was very influenced by Steely Dan, I felt, who, by the way, you just got to sit in with in New York at the Beacon Theater. How was that, David? How did that go down?
David: Oh, man, it’s so good. It’s such a great story. So. Donald and Steely Dan are coming to play Santa Barbara, right? They now are being road managed by Richard Fernandez, who used to road manage us. Assisted by Dean Correa, who used to work for us, and Will Nash.
Steve: Oh, wow. Amazing. Who’s a super nice guy.
David: Who is a super nice guy and my close friend. And so they told Donald that I used to sing “Home At Last” with CPR because we did. So I come to soundcheck and Donald says “So why don’t you sing ‘Home At Last?’” In front of the whole band on the stage at Santa Barbara, at soundcheck. And I said, “Donald, you’re out of your fucking mind, right? I’m not going to sing one of your songs in front of you, in front of this band at my hometown gig.” I know. I am scared. All right. Okay. You want to hear me say it? I’m saying it. I’m chicken to do it right. The whole band is laughing their asses off. Nobody says no to Donald about anything. Right. So it was a very funny moment. He says, “What do I gotta do? Learn ‘Wooden Ships’?” I go, “You don’t know ‘Wooden Ships?’” And he says, “I can learn it in 30 seconds.”
David: I said, Oh, yeah, right. So next night I send him a text. “You were kidding, right?” He sends me one back saying, “Was I or was I not?” So then I know he’s fucking with me.
David: I know, absolutely for sure, he’s fucking with me. Two nights later, I get another text in the middle of the night, and like this time about four o’clock in the morning, which means, no. Three o’clock. It means it’s five o’clock in the morning where he is. He says, “I was just reading the words. This is a really good song,” I’m going to tell the band and the girls to learn it.
Steve: Sweet, sweet.
David: At that point, I’m frozen like a mackerel. I don’t know what the fuck to think, because I don’t. I’m sure Steely Dan must learn other people’s tunes sometime, right. But I don’t know about it, right? At all. Yeah. OK. So I’m gobsmacked. I’m completely. It’s like you stuffed a stick of dynamite up my ass. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. “He’s learning ‘Wooden Ships?’ He wants me to sing ‘Wooden Ships’ with Steely Dan playing it? You want what?” I go to the soundcheck in New York. I talk it over with Will Nash, and he says, I think he’s serious, man.” So I get him send me my 12-string, because that’s what I play in that song. My big Alembic 12-string, my Grateful Deadish 12-string.”
David: It’s the guitar that I always played “Wooden Ships” on. So I get it there. I go to the soundcheck and they’ve learned the song, and they play it like God on a good day. They play it better than we ever dreamed of playing it because they’ve got horns, and Donald’s written some horn parts. Because they’ve got those three girls who can sing their ass into the middle distance, because they’ve got the Band of Destiny playing that shit. Keith Carlock, who’s gotta be one of the best drummers who ever lived. Unbelievable. Unbelievable how good it was, so I sang it. I walk out that night. “Just some guy was hanging around. We thought we’d give him a shot. Let him try to sing with the band. His name is David Crosby. I walk out. I got a standing O from the audience.
Steve: I know I was in that audience.
David: Holy fuck. Freaked me out. Was best reaction I ever got. So I walk out and we sing the song, and it’s fucking glorious. They fucking John Herrington plays an extended and expanded and and more sophisticated version of everything Stills played on the record. He knows, note for note, he knows what Stills played. So he plays that first, and then he’ll edge it up and take it a little further just to show that he could. A compliment the size of the fucking Empire State Building. He knew the whole record, every note. And the kid Connor, played a solo on it, man that was scary. Yeah. He shouldn’t able to play that good, he’s only 24, it’s crazy. Yeah. The horn players were so happy, the girls were so happy, they were all — the bass player was grinning at me like a fool.
Steve: Also, Donald sounded great, very respectful of Stills’ organ parts.
David: You know, Donald knows what he’s fucking doing. He absolutely fucking does. So it was as glorious as you could ask for it to be. And they gave us a standing O, you know, at the end.
Steve: It was magic to be there, I’ll tell you. I had a friend — we both came from the West Coast to be there practically. It was our first night there, actually. My friend Drew. And it was completely… Like, I knew it would be good, you know, it would be live Steely Dan. When I first heard that they wanted to play “Wooden Ships,” I thought, “Really? Oh, OK.” Like, I thought they might go for some… I mean, you’ve written more Steely Dan-esque shit.
David: Yeah, I would have thought “Déja Vu” would have been the thing.. .
Steve: But the thing that really made me respect Donald in a whole new way, actually, is that instead of dragging you into their movie, they put themselves in yours. It was very respectful of your vibe.
David: Yep. They did the song exactly as it was written, only better.
Steve: Yep. Yep.
David: They played it like, it was so good, holy shit it was good.
[“WOODEN SHIPS” BY DAVID CROSBY AND STEELY DAN]
Steve: So here’s the thing. There is an elusive quality to your best performances that is basically swing. In jazz, they call it swing. That performance swung. it was awesome.
David: You can’t help but swing if Carlock is playing the drums. Trust me, it’s gonna swing. Yeah. The man’s an absolute genius drummer. And that band is just — they know how. Every night, they lock in. Because Donald is not going to work with anything less. He’s a band leader. I don’t think many people have ever seen a band leader work. I’ve only seen a handful of them that could really do it. Donald is a master at it. Mike League is a master at it.
Steve (narration): That’s Michael League, band leader and bass player for one of the hottest bands around, Snarky Puppy, and one of the young musicians that David has been collaborating with on his recent albums, along with Michelle Willis and Becca Stevens, who are powerful singers, songwriters, and instrumentalists in their own right.
David: Very few people can lead a large band.
Steve: Yeah, and Michael League of Snarky Puppy is one of the young musicians you’ve been working with, particularly on your album Lighthouse, which I mean — all of the albums that you’ve released in the last four years are amazing. Lighthouse is unbelievable and has very much its own sound, in part because of Michael League. What has working with him been like?
David: It was an experience. When I met him, I liked him right away. I told you how I met him, right? I should tell you here. It’s a really interesting thing. A friend of mine turned me on to a bass player site on the Net called No Treble. A bass player friend of mine said, “Man, you’ve got to hear this band I heard on that site called Snarky Puppy.” I said, “That’s a crap name.” He said, “It’s a great band.” So I listened to him. Now, this is when they had We Like It Here out. And it was a lot of brand new stuff, right? A lot of breakthrough ideas there, but mainly it was the composing — the songs were better than anybody else’s. It was the best writing in jazz I’d heard since since Weather Report, it was that good. OK, so I start talking about it on Twitter, right? This band is really good. So then somebody tells Michael, so I get this message from him on Twitter from Singapore. He’s in Singapore, right? Because they play all over the world. And he says, “Listen, I just wanted to thank you for the things you’ve been saying, they’re really kind, and that’s really nice of you. And I’ve got a question I wanted to ask you.” And I sent back, “The answer’s, ‘Yes.’” And he said, “I haven’t asked it yet.” And I said, “I know.” And he said — “well, but.” So I said, “You’re gonna do another benefit record like We Like it Here, you’re gonna do We Like it Here 2, and you want me to be on it.” And he said, “Yeah, how did you know that?” I said, “Because I’m terrific and cosmic and smart and stuff. And the answer’s yes, I’d love to.”
Steve: Oh, that’s great.
David: I’d love to work with you. So I went down to New Orleans to do that.
David: Now, the state of mind I was in, I had just left CSN. Now, that’s a very turbulent statement. A lot of stuff in there. Forty years of being in that band. Really big paycheck. Really easy. Gonna sing six songs, go home with enough money to buy a car. I left. Which is a little like diving off a cliff. And I really thought I had no choice if I wanted to continue to be in love with music. If I wanted music to be the essential thread of my life, I had to leave. Going to going to New Orleans and meeting Mike League, it was like growing wings halfway down the cliff. Wonderful. I met an entire roomful of musicians, all of whom cared more about music than the money. At that point, they were still in a goddamn Sprinter van, carrying their own gear. OK, making barely enough money to pay the rent. Barely. All of them living poor. Michael didn’t even have a home, had no home at all. He lived out of a suitcase. He was on the road 365 days a year. I loved him. I loved all of them, man, I loved them, they were just my kind of people. They really didn’t give a shit about showbiz and they really didn’t give a shit about, you know. It was contributive music. That was the biggest difference. They weren’t competing with each other. There were three lead guitar players standing in a row playing parts. I said, what does he have their children in a cage someplace? How would you get them to do that? They’re lead guitar players, they don’t do that. And they were doing that. And there were three keyboard players doing the same thing also. And it’s crazy. You can’t get people to do that. How did he get them to do that? He’s a natural leader. It comes just absolutely like waking up in the morning to him. It’s nothing — it’s how he is.
Steve: He’s also very selfless about it.
David: I mean, he’s not jerking his own chain, he’s not blowing up his own balloon at all, which is one of the reasons he’s so good at it. If you watch how he deals with people, he’s totally respectful of every human being he speaks with. Every time. Everybody. The busboy up to the president. Everybody gets the same deal. And I want to be more like him. Please don’t tell him. But I admire the guy so much. And he’s such a natural at it. Everybody in the room wants to go along with him because he makes sense. Yeah. And when he asks you to do something, it’s always the right thing.
Steve: He’s also strong and sweet in a way that is very appealing. He’s very likeable.
David: So very, very likeable. Very decent guy. And plainly so. Yeah. And in love with life and having a good time. And right now he’s got his own thing going on. Oh, yeah. Is he good at his job? Oh, my God. He’s good at his job. Yeah. Oh, what a musician.
Steve: Here’s the thing, though. Same deal with Steely Dan, in that I thought Snarky Puppy would try to get you in their movie, but Lighthouse is very much your movie. For somebody who’s been following your music for all this time, like me, Lighthouse is very much a very Crosby-ish album, even though it’s very collaborative and very Michael League-ish as well.
David: Mike reads people. He reads who they are musically. He knew who I was. He knew which way to go. He and I wrote that record together. We wrote three of the best songs in the first three days we were sitting down together. That’s when I knew.
David: That record is essentially just a Mike League/David Crosby record, but it was the inception of the Lighthouse Band, because he said, “Let’s get the girls to sing on this some.” So we invited Becca and Michelle to sing on it a little. He and I wrote the whole fucking record.
Steve: Right, though they also play amazing parts on it.
David: They do play some parts on it, — really, really, really good. That’s when he introduced me to them. And when I went back the next time, I went to them and I said, “Listen, you know, there’s a chemistry there. There’s a real thing that the four of us have when we get in a room. I don’t think there’s any question about it. I’m not the smartest guy in the universe, but I do know about this kind of thing, chemistry in a room of musicians. I can spot that pretty well. And I see it here and it is rare as hen’s teeth. And I would like to do another record with you guys. Only this time, I’d like it to be a group record that we the four of us write together and then sing together. All four of us.” That’s the second Lighthouse album.
Steve: You’re recording an album now, right? Is that it?
David: No. So how it goes is, the first one in the series was Croz, and that’s me and James.
Steve: And it’s amazing. It’s a wonderful record.
David: It’s an amazing record — it’s where he and I really, really nailed it. Yeah. The next one is Lighthouse. That’s me and Michael. The next one after that is Sky Trails. That’s me and James again, and peaking. We were absolutely fucking peaking when we made it. He and I could not have had an easier and better time. We were writing all over the map then. Then the next one is Here If You Listen, and that’s it. That’s right. Mike League again. Here If You Listen is what happens when you let the Lighthouse Band write the record together and sing the record together. And I got to warn anybody who’s out there making records: Don’t leave Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis alone in the studio. Don’t do it. You will come home and find somebody who has built something you can’t believe.
Steve: Yeah, it’s really true. I got to see that in action at that studio on the Lower East Side in New York.
David: Oh, yeah. Flux. Fab’s place.
Steve: Yes, exactly. And you were very insulated from daylight in what used to be a junkie-ridden neighborhood. But it was fascinating to see you guys work together as an organism, because you each brought the best out of each other, really were completely open to each other’s ideas. Like, I know that you’re supposed to be the super famous guy and all this…
David: But not to them.
Steve: Not to them.
David: And that’s one of the main reasons it works. I’m a contributor and I’m a good one. And they value my contribution. They don’t see it as bigger than life. They know that they can contribute like that too, all three of them can. What the deal was we made it fully contributive music. We gave each other the respect and the room and the love and the support to be willing. Michelle’s pretty shy, man. She doesn’t do that. Yes, she is. And she came into that and was — she wrote some stuff that was just so right.
Steve: All of those guys are all heart.
David: They are. And they really know how to write music. Yeah, I mean, they’re really good at it! Yeah, really good.
[“THE OTHER HALF RULE”]
David: That chemistry is probably my one of my most favorite ones of my life. It’s right up there at the very top. Mike League, Becca Stevens. Michelle Willis are three of the best musicians I ever encountered in my life ever. That’s why I say that I’m insanely lucky. I mean, I could have gone my whole life and never met any of the three of them. And the world would be a poorer place because there’s a lot of music that’s come there and might be more. If I can ever get Mike back in the studio.
Steve: Let me ask you a question. In your younger days, almost like you didn’t collaborate or well, you collaborated constantly with other guys in the latter part of your life You’ve been more open to collaborating with women. Has that felt, you know, interesting in some way?
David: You know, I don’t really look at it that way. When I was younger, I didn’t collaborate, hardly at all. And then “Wooden Ships” came along, and it’s a very successful collaboration. Paul and Stephen both really brought stuff. I think it kind of opened the door for me. And during the Crosby/Nash years, when we were friends, you know — a couple of times, like “Taken at All” — a couple of times we’d write something that really was pretty good. It didn’t happen very often, but it did happen every once in a while. But it didn’t happen the way it’s been happening since I got out of CSN and started working with these guys in Lighthouse. The only person and that it happened with before then was James. James I could write with all day.
Steve: Well, I feel like CPR was the beginning of your escape from CSNY.
David: It was. Yes.
Steve: I’ll just be hyper-blunt here. You know, I went to see CSN all those years. They were fine. You know, they were nice shows. But I felt like it was like Madame Tussaud’s House of Hippie, you know — you were trapped in being the guy who was at Woodstock. And it was boring. I must be honest with you. You always put your muscle behind trying to make it fresh and new in any situation. And dare I say, no matter how messed up you were — and I saw you very messed up on cocaine in the early 80s — but you were always trying to push it. I never saw a performance of yours that was just sleepwalking. I never did. You always tried, even when your voice was messed up — like you’d try to sing “Guinevere” and you’d try to make it real, you know? And I feel like that’s essential to your self as a musician.
David: It is. it’s the only way I can that I can go with it. It has to stay the most important thing in it. And it really got to be an uphill battle in CSN. It was turn on the smoke machine and play your hits. And take the paycheck.
Steve: Right. And which is what the audience wanted, in a way. The core.
David: They want the same stuff they heard on the record. That’s why the Eagles are the Eagles, because they can do that. And they will do that. I can’t really do that. I need to be excited, and that means I got to play something that excites me. It was Mike League, Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis, James Raymond, Mai Leisz, Stevie DiStanislao. Jeff Pevar. These people changed my life, and largely because they are all into contributive music, not competition. That’s not how they get what they want, so they don’t do it.
Steve: What was amazing to me, sitting in on those sessions, was seeing the whole band function with unspoken understanding that you were all there to serve something greater than an individual musician’s ego.
David: Please, ladies and gentlemen, play that part back again. He just said it. That’s the absolute truth. We were there to serve the song.
Steve: Yeah. Absolutely. No matter where it —
David: Whatever it needs. “Dave, I only want you to go ‘oooo oooo’ second line. That’s all. That’s the only thing I need.” “Okay, fine. I’ll do that.” Some of the best sessions I ever did and some of the most joyous music I’ve ever made in my life was making that record. And I think Michael loved it, too. It’s completely different than what he does with the Puppy or Bokanté.
Steve: But I feel like that speaks really well of him and his friends.
David: It does. He loves music and he loves all forms of music. I remember the day that you told me he was going to Turkey. I said, “Why are you going to Turkey?” “I want to play oud.” So he comes back a month later and he’s playing lead on the oud. He’s got chops because he’s a bass player, right?
Steve: Does he play it on “The City” or something or one of your songs?
David: No, that was somebody else. But that was James using a sample. James can use samples better than anybody you’ve ever heard in your life. Yeah. You ever heard the song “Curved Air”? That’s flamenco. That’s really good flamenco. That’s James on a fuckin’ keyboard.
Steve: I remember when you sent it to me — I literally checked with him. ”Are you serious?”
David: “I don’t believe you” — I’ve had people tell me that over and over. “No man, that’s your guitar.”
Steve: James is a genius.
Steve: I even like the stuff, what was the stuff he put out under another name? He put out some danceable stuff.
David: You know, he’s been doing that a lot. But on the side, trying to have a hit. So he can pay the fucking bills.
Steve: He’s amazingly talented. Plus, they have a jazz band.
David: Yeah. You gotta understand about James, man. He’s barely making it. Yeah. He’s not a guy who’s rich, right? He’s barely making it. Sending his kids to school nearly broke him. That’s how it is for musicians now in the age of streaming, it’s a bitch.
Steve: I wanted to ask you, David. You’re one of the few musicians who lived through every single phase of the music industry; every phase of the music industry’s arc around the Baby Boomer generation, basically. You became a big star when you were young, then an even bigger star. Lots of money, lots of parties, lots of whatever. But now it’s like you’re going around the bus playing with people who are in their 30s and stuff. So what is your perspective on how the life of the working musician has changed in the age of streaming and everything, everything available all the time — except with no money going to the musicians?
David: It’s changed everything. What happened, Stephen, is kind of a shitty thing. The guys who developed the technology knew what they had. It revolutionizes the record business because there’s no record, there’s no physical object. You don’t have to make a physical object. You don’t have to package that physical object. You don’t have to mail the package. You don’t have to truck it. You don’t have to get returns. You don’t have to make a cover. You don’t have to have a picture. You don’t have to print the lyrics. You don’t have to do any of that shit. You just hit a button and it sends the signal. And they pay you for it. Well, everybody in the record business said, “Oooo yummy!” The three big record companies who run the music business pretty much, they said, “All of this is for us.” And the guys who thought up streaming said, “Yes, but we need you to do us a favor. The rate that you’re paying the musicians at is way too high. They’re getting rich. We want to get rich instead. We want us to get rich. Not them.” The record companies said, “We can give you a different rate. All you have to do is give us a piece of your company.” Which they did. I am told — I can’t prove it, but I am told — that the three record companies right now are making off their piece of the streaming companies 19 million dollars a day.
Steve: Really? Oh, my God. Wow, that’s amazing.
David: It’s money that the musicians are not getting. I feel since they are making billions with a B, that that is unfair. It’s like you’re doing your job, Stephen, for a month. And they pay you a nickel. It’s insulting, pisses me off. Because they’re making money off of my songs, and I’m not. That’s not fair. And of course, I’m one of those silly people who got stuck with the concept of fair — thinking that that was a real thing, which of course it’s probably not. But I want it. I want them to be fair with me. And they’re not. They’re making freakish amounts of money. Meanwhile, new artists, OK — it cut my income in half, but I can still sell a thousand tickets in most cities. So, OK, I make a living out of live. I’m 78 years old. It’s real hard for me to do live. It’s real hard for me to be on the road still. I should have retired. I can’t. Why? Because live is the only thing I got. I’m not making anything off the records at all. That Lighthouse record that you liked, I have not gotten a single penny.
Steve: Seriously, it’s terrible. It’s one of the best records of your career.
David: Nothing. OK, so now that’s due to some other malfeasances on the part of a not-specified record company, but the point is — I didn’t do it for the money coming in. I wasn’t making records to make money in the first place. I made them because they’re my art form. They’re what I make: Songs, on record.
Steve: Except you don’t just make songs on record, you make sequences of songs, which is also being challenged.
David: Yeah. So I have to do it anyway, cause I love it. It’s what I’m going to leave behind. It’s the mark that I make. If you believe in the idea of legacy, then that’s my legacy.
[“TRACKS IN THE DUST”]
David: But it isn’t right, what’s going on. The young people coming up — Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis — they can’t make a goddamned nickel. They’ve got a band. They’ve got a Sprinter. They finish a gig, everybody gets a cheeseburger. You pay for the two hotel rooms that they shared to be able to have a shower, everybody gets back in the Sprinter and drives another 220 miles to get to another gig where they’re going to play to 80 people and not make any money either. And that’s it. That’s all there is, because the check from streaming was $2.82, instead of $282.00. That’s shitty and it doesn’t bode well for the future. If you don’t make it so that young musicians can make a living, you won’t have any. If you don’t. — where are you going to get the music? Now, I can tell you that there are people who are so coldhearted, and so shitty, that they are already trying to get computers to write songs. It’s an algorithm. It’s that there’s a there’s a formula to it make a hit. They’re going to try.
Steve: So I wanted to ask you, you mentioned earlier that meeting James and writing songs with him really helped you escape CSNY. What was it like to write a whole bunch of new material with James after you had even had trouble getting CSNY to rehearse your newer songs. Like, they didn’t even do it. So what was it like to suddenly have a working band, a touring band — and a kickass band too, because Jeff Pevar has some serious chops. Everybody did. What was it like to suddenly engage your creativity in this really intense way?
David: Joy. Because there wasn’t a price tag on it. It didn’t come with all that psychodrama and all that competitive bullshit and unpleasantness. It came with a clean heart and an open hand, and it was incredibly good writing. He’s good, man, he’s really fucking good. Listen to the music of “At the Edge.” It’s stunning. And he did it over and over again, and different every time. I knew it as soon as I heard “Morrison,” I said, “Oh fuck, I’m shittin’ in tall cotton, yippie!” But he’s actually gone further — he’s having a hot streak right now. You should hear the stuff that we’re writing right now. .
Steve: And even in CPR, he did a great rearrangements of like “Homeward Through the Haze?” Really, really good. Kicked it up. It was tight and swinging.
David: Our way of doing “Déja Vu” was really good. That opening that he thought up for “Déja Vu” was really good. The thing that’s most shocking about him, man, is “Delta.” People don’t know this, because they only experience it once or twice, right? That opening for “Delta.” He’s never played it the same twice. Ever. He’s played it a thousand times. There are a thousand different beginnings. I tape them. I have them. There’s at least a song in every one. They’re genius. And they’re all improvised, and they’re all completely different. It’s one of the most fun moments in the set. We all just shut the fuck up and say, “Take it, James — where’s it going tonight? Because it won’t be wherever it was last night.” He’s an amazing musician. He’s also a very decent human being, very nice man. Good father, good husband.
Steve: My mind was blown by another album that didn’t get as much attention as it deserved — was the David Crosby/Graham Nash album of just a few years ago — because James played an intro to “Jesus of Rio” which is called “Grace” on the album. It’s like Bill Evans. It’s unbelievable.
David: Isn’t that beautiful?
Steve: Yeah, and it’s completely improvised as far as I can tell.
David: It is.
Steve: It’s one of the nicest moments on the album. I feel like James’ music really deserves a lot more attention.
David: A lot more attention.
[“GRACE” INTO “JESUS OF RIO”]
David: Too much of it has been derailed by us trying to keep the rent paid. He and I are both struggling to hold onto our houses. We both got our houses when we had more money, and both of us stand a pretty good chance to losing them. So we we work pretty hard to try and make money one way or another.
Steve: I was really struck by what you said earlier about how if musicians can’t support themselves, there will be less musicians. What do you feel like is the future? Do you feel like musicians are going to be able to finally challenge the streaming companies and demand appropriate compensation?
David: You know what I believe is, how I handle stuff like this man, I have a desperate need to keep my head above water. I can get pretty depressed. It’s not a thing you want to see, and it’s also dangerous. So I don’t want it. So when I look at this thing, I think, “Oh, well, some new technology will come along. Some exemplary human being will come along. It’s the same answers I give myself about global warming. Technology, exemplary human… something will happen that we don’t foresee right now. And it just allows me to not cave in, to not go under, because I could.
Steve: So what are you most looking forward to musically, now, that you’re working on now? What are you doing?
David: I feel pressure because I’m going to die. And I don’t want to, but I’m gonna. Before it actually kack, I’ll probably fail, some part of me is gonna fail, and then I won’t be able to do this right. So there’s pressure on me to make as much music as I possibly can while I can still make it. I’m singing really well right now. It doesn’t make any sense, I did everything wrong, but I am. My plan sort of is to do another record with James. I’m about a third of the way into that. We have the songs. We have more songs than we need. Mai and Greg Leisz wrote music to one of my sets — that’s another one. Vin Downes wrote music, too.
Steve: Oh, awesome. He’s great on Twitter, releasing these little fragments of melody…
David: He’s nice.Cat’s a fine player. Musically, he’s just delicious. He also turns out to be a nice cat.
Steve: That’s great.
David: But James is on fire. It may well be that James will write the whole record because everybody else can’t keep up, including me. I don’t really care where the fucking songs come from, I care how good they are. And I’ll give myself qualified to judge on songs. And they’re stunning, the ones I got now. Well, you’ve heard two of them, they’re pretty fucking good.
[“I THINK I” DEMO]
[“FIND A HEART”]
Steve (narration): Please join David and me for the next episode of “Freak Flag Flying,” where we’ll explore David’s history of political activism, which continues today, and some of the personal struggles with addiction that infamously landed him in a Texas prison in the mid-1980s. See you then.
Freak Flag Flying is Executive Produced by Adam Caplan and Tom Marshall. Interview, narration, and editing by me, Steve Silberman. Mixed and Mastered by Brendon at Telescope Audio. Production Assistance by Christina Collins and RJ Bee.