- David Crosby
In Episode 3, David discusses the power of harmony and the deep roots of his inspiration to create profound music through vocal chemistry.
Steve and David also discuss David’s success and departure from The Byrds, his relationship with Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia, and the all-star cast of musicians who contributed to his first solo record, If I Could Only Remember My Name.
Songs featured in this episode (with Spotify links where available):
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.
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Freak Flag Flying: In Conversation with David Crosby
Hosted by Steve Silberman
Episode 3: “Only a Child, Laughing”
Steve (narration): Thank you all for joining us for the third installment of my musical journey with David Crosby, whose innovative songwriting and heavenly harmony vocals helped elevate groups like the Byrds and CSNY to superstardom, and changed the face of much of the popular music that followed, creating a distinctively haunting sound that dozens of pop acts have emulated since, but rarely to such exquisite effect. We also talk about one of the most painful experiences of David’s life: the death in a car accident of the love of his life at the time, a lovely, spunky woman named Christine Gail Hinton, who was tragically killed taking her cat to the vet. David explains how his creative collaborations with musicians like Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and Paul Kantner and Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane, who helped him craft his first solo album, “If I Could Only Remember My Name,” helped him get through this difficult time, creating a masterpiece that stands today as one of the pinnacles of folk-influenced rock music that transcends all categories.
[“SOMEHOW SHE KNEW”]
Steve: David, we have some really exciting news for our listeners. You are going to undertake a tour next year with two of your favorite singer-songwriters. Nobody knows about this. Can you tell us what’s going to happen?
David: It’s really fun. Marc Cohn and Shawn Colvin, who are two of the people I admire most. You know that when people ask me, “Who do you listen to?” that’s very often the first two names that pop up. You know, those two, Steely Dan, the Beatles, you know. They’re right up there. So Marc called me up and said, “Hey, listen, I’ve got an idea. I’d like to do a tour with you and Shawn, and do it songwriter circle — Nashville songwriter circle. Which means the three of us go on stage., we sit down together in a circle, just us. And we trade songs.” Which is big fun. It sounds like a competition, but I don’t think it’s going to be. I think what will happen is we will wind up adding into each other’s songs, which could be stunning because the two of them are two of the most talented musicians I have ever run into.
Steve: And they’re both not only great singers, they’re great players…
David: They’re great players, and they’re really good people. I’ve spent a lot of time with both of them and I love them both. You kind of have to be selective about who you’re going to be on a bus with.
Steve: Right. So that’s how you’re going to do it, all on a bus?
David: Yes. You don’t have any choice, man. That’s the only way we can do tours. Until you get up to like the Rolling Stones level, then you can have a plane. When we were CSNY touring baseball stadiums, we had a plane. It’s the only way musicians can do it now, until you get down below our level, and then they do it in a van, and that’s really grim because there’s no place to sleep. You’re doing it sitting up.
Steve: Right. And in fact, what’s funny about both Shawn and Marc is that I’ve had them both in my life for quite a while. You turned me on to Shawn’s first album, Steady On. I remember a long time ago, we were in the car, and you said, “This is the best new album I’ve heard in years.” And I thought, “Is this more Crosbosity hyperbole here?” And you popped it in, and my mind was completely blown. I listened to like nothing else for a month!
David: Well, it’s like that. “Down the Avalanche,” you know. It’s over and over again, song after song, she just blows your mind — she and Leventhal co-wrote that shit.
Steve: The backwards guitars on Steady On and stuff….
David: Really, really good. Leventhal overdoes producing, but what he does is excellent. He overdoes it. He does too much, a little too much percussion, a little too much — “oh maybe some tambourine in the fast part.” He could do it a little more sparsely, and personally, I would like it better. But the stuff that he did on her records is masterful. He produced the spots out of ‘em — and really did a great job.
Steve: And the thing about Marc Cohn, which even he doesn’t know, is that when I was a student at Oberlin, way back in the 1970s children, I used to go see Marc play at a coffeehouse called The Cat in the Cream. And Marc was excellent then. And then he went on to have a huge hit with “Walking in Memphis.”
David: The hit was almost a distraction from his real career, and he could have had a hit career if one person at Atlantic had been smarter. He had a hit on the second record, it was called “Paper Walls.” They didn’t realize it was a hit because they didn’t know squat. The people who ran record companies were failed shoe salesmen. They had absolutely no idea, so they picked the one that sounded most like “Walking in Memphis.” That’s the closest they could come to figuring it out. But there was a song on there, “Paper Walls,” guaranteed hit. He would have had his second hit and then he would have been a huge pop star. But it’s kind of good that he didn’t, because really the quality in Marc is in the depth of the writing. It’s in “Listening to Levon” — “I might’ve lied about the car.” It’s in “Can I Be Your Witness?” Yeah, it’s in the quality of the songs that he’s written. That’s where the real value in the guy is. He’s written songs that make me cry, that rock me back on my heels. That’s the name of the game.
Steve: One of the songs of his that rocks me back on my heels, makes me cry, and gives me those good kind of shivers down my back, is “She’s Becoming Gold,” which you and Nash did the background vocals for.
David: Wasn’t that fun?
David: You know, Nash and I did a lot of great background vocals for people, and Nash had an idea that I wished he had carried out, which he never did, which was to take all of those, get permission from each of those people, which I’m sure we could do, and do a benefit record of just those songs. Us singing with Gilmore. Us singing with Joni. Us singing with James Taylor, “Mexico.” Stuff like that.
David: Because those are really good songs, and we did it over and over again. We did it. We did it with John. We did it with lots of people. And it was a very good idea. He wanted to do it for, I think he had an idea of who he wanted to be the beneficiary, too. And he just never did it. I don’t know why.
Steve: Did you guys feel like the baddest-ass harmony singers basically around — the “hired guns” kind of thing?
David: We are both very good harmony singers. I’m better than he is, but we’re both good. He said modestly.
Steve: He said modestly.
Steve: So speaking of your harmonies, I know that one of the harmonies that impressed you was the Everly Brothers.
David: Hard not to. Such a natural thing.
Steve: So you were, what, like ten or something when you were hearing them?
David: A little older than that — I was a freshman at Cate, a freshman in high school. Whenever that is.
Steve: This is a really deep question, but what is it about singing harmony that appeals to you?
David: God, I wish I could put salt on its tail for you. I wish I could tell you. I don’t exactly know. There’s some part of me that wants to be in a relationship with other human beings, that wants to fly wing and wing — that thing that fighter pilots do. I like that. I don’t know what it is. There’s some part of me that wants that at a very deep level. The minute I did it, I liked it. It was on a song called “The Erie Canal” — “I got a mule and her name is Hal, 15 miles on the Erie Canal.” That one. Old folk song. Something about it rang my bell. The deeper it goes, the more it rings my bell. The Everlys rang my bell because it was so naturally correct, it was so on it, they were so tight with each other. Expression, attack, decay, tone… Everything really. And then I heard a great record, one of the most influential records of my life. It’s called The Music of Bulgaria by Philip Koutev and the Bulgarian National Folk Choir and Orchestra. It’s on Nonesuch, or a label that used to be part of Elektra, and it was in the ‘60s. And it was the first time that anybody recorded the Bulgarian folk choir, and that record changed my life about harmonies, because they sang stuff that I had never even heard anybody try, let alone pull off. There’s a song on there, where they rotate three voices around each other in half steps, and pull it off. No accompaniment. Perfectly in pitch. Half steps. It’s so brilliant — it would have stumped the Beach Boys. It would have stumped anybody, any of us. None of us could do that. None of us could you do any of the things they were doing, and it changed me. It opened up so much possibility to me. I mean, Brian Wilson’s kind of that experience, you know, when you hear him do that, you didn’t expect that when you first encountered it, it thrilled you. Right? It’s an odd vanilla kind of strain, but it’s really good. Well, these people were that, but with hot sauce. They were beyond good; they were revelatory. They were mind expanding. There were other people who have influenced me strongly.
[POLEGNANA E TODORA (Love Song)]
David: Bob Dylan influenced me strongly. Ask me how.
Steve: Well, how.
David: Because I didn’t want to sound like that.
Steve: Now, is it true that the Byrds got early access to an acetate demo of “Mr. Tambourine Man?”
David: We did.
Steve: How did that happen?
David: Our manager knew the guy that was managing Bob, and it was a terrible demo — it was him and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who couldn’t sing his way out of a paper bag, and it was awful. But you could hear the words, and you can hear the song. And McGuinn, God bless him — McGuinn is a strange piece of fruit., but boy, he knows how to take Bob Dylan songs and make a record out of them. He’s a freakin’ genius at it. He’s got some kind of absolute window there. The funny part was watching Bob. He came the studio on Third Street down there, and we played it, and you could hear the gears grinding all the way from the next room. He was stunned, and happy, and stoked, and excited. And he knew exactly what he was going to do next. And he went straight out of that room and got himself an electric band right away, immediately.
Steve: So you think hearing the Byrds do “Mr. Tambourine Man,” based on the acetate demo, influenced Bob to hire the Hawks, basically?
David: I don’t have any question in my mind at all. That’s when he went out and got — the first band that he got was Cooper and Bloomfield and those guys, and it wasn’t very good. Bloomfield was real scratchy and crazy at that point.
Steve: Although it worked on the records, I’ll tell you.
David: It worked OK, but it got a lot better when he got the Band. because they were freaking awesome. Different level of ability. They could write.
Steve: Do you remember hearing the Band’s music early on?
David: Oh yeah, I remember exactly how it happened.
Steve: Tell me actually.
David: Well the guy who managed them — a guy who we knew who was a mover and shaker in the business — walked into my dealer’s house, where I was at the time, purchasing chemicals. And he said, “Oh, you Byrds are through.” And I said, “We are?” And he said, “Yeah, you’re over with. It’s done. This record” — and he held up Big Pink. — is going to knock you out of the box. You’re going to have trouble even getting a job.” And I said, Bullshit, put it on.” I listened to it and said, “Oh fuck.” It was so good. The songs were so good. Richard Manuel was so good. Levon was so good. “Listening to Levon,” to bring us back to Marc Cohn. His song about Levon it is a perfect example of why I respect Marc. “Listening to Levon” is of the best songs of anybody’s that I ever heard.
Steve: Oh, that’s great. Yeah, those early Band albums also very much influenced the Grateful Dead, in terms of going in the direction of American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead instead of psychedelic freakouts.
David: You couldn’t not be influenced by guys like that. It’s like not being influenced by Bob. Not being influenced by Joni. People do work at a level sometimes that is — you can’t deny it. It’s undeniable. It’s there, it’s gigantic in your presence and you can’t not be influenced by it. Beatles. What happened to the first time you heard the Beatles? You went, “Oh, oh, oh, give me some of that! Let me rub that in my hair. I want to take a shower in that.”
Steve: Do you actually remember the first few times you heard the Beatles?
Steve: Where were you?
David: I was in Chicago. I was on Wells Street, in the apartment that Clem Floyd and I shared, and he brought home Meet the Beatles, and we put it on, and it was heaven. It was heaven. It was folk music meets the backbeat. That’s what happens with synthesis when you take disparate streams and mix them, and they create new stuff. That’s what the Beatles did They took folk music changes and apply them to rock and roll backbeat and rock and roll singing, and they created a whole new art form.
Steve: It probably didn’t hurt your image of them that they were followed by crowds of screaming teenage girls.
David: I actually totally ignored that. Who cares about crowds of screaming teenage girls? We’re not interested in girls.
Steve: Did you see “Help!” back then?
David: Sure, of course.
Steve: Was it like, “Oh, yeah, I want to do that!”
David: By that time, I was a deep fan. A Hard Day’s Night was the one that got us. A Hard Day’s Night freaked us the fuck out. We saw it. Roger and I went to see it together. I think Gene was with us, too. It might have been Michael, it might have been all of us, but I think Roger and I saw it together. “OK, now I know what I’m here for! That’s it. That’s who I want to be.”
Steve: What are your best memories of being in the Byrds?
David: Driving down Sunset Boulevard in Odetta’s old 1956 Ford station wagon, all five of us with our gear in the back, and on KRLA, which was the radio station in Los Angeles at the time — [Crosby sings first chords of “Mr. Tambourine Man”] And we’re thrilled, we’re freaking out. It’s the first time we’ve heard anything of ours on the radio and it was just unbelievably great. And they finished it, and they were raving over it, and they played it again. I’d never heard them ever play a song twice in a row. And we had to pull over. We were like dancing around the car. I could not believe — we were so freaking happy. It was a joy. A joy. But there were many times for the Byrds, man. Many times when… “Eight Miles High” was a really satisfying piece of work. But there were many. I remember the night that we worked out “Chimes of Freedom.” Boy, was I happy — it was the first time that I’d actually been able to contribute on the guitar, those looping kind of lines. There were many, many. There was a good chemistry in the early days. And we hadn’t irritated each other yet. We still believed in each other, and it was pretty great.
Steve: Could you go back through a couple of Byrds tracks and point out like — obviously a ton of has been written about the Byrds, but your specific contribution has been left somewhat vague and abstract.
David: Well, it’s odd.
Steve: What was your contribution to the Byrds?
David: I wrote the weird shit, same as usual.
Steve: You did, but the stuff that wasn’t written, that wasn’t original material, like “Bells of Rhymney” or whatever. Did you architect the harmonies or anything like that?
David: Yeah. But I mean it wasn’t — you know, people always say, “How did you structure that?” As if I had written them out. “And then the fifth has to be here and –“ It’s not like that at all. I just sang. I sang it what came to me to sing? I didn’t plan any of that shit. “Bells of Rhymney” was Roger again. He was a folk musician, and he knew all those songs, and he knew some that were naturally freakin’ wonderful. “Turn, Turn, Turn” — Roger. “Bells of Rhymney” — Roger. “Tambourine Man” — The guy absolutely did know what he was doing, and I don’t know if I gave him credit for that. I certainly followed him, and believed in him. But it in hindsight, he was, you know, half the Byrds. That’s why I don’t want to do it without him. I could. I own the name.
Steve: Oh yeah? Huh. Now what would you say your best compositions recorded by The Byrds were? Some of your stuff was left off of albums, like some of the stuff that I like that you probably don’t even like, like “It Happens Each Day”? I think that’s a brilliant track, actually.
[“IT HAPPENS EACH DAY”]
Steve: You don’t like it.
David: Nah, it’s beginning stuff. It’s OK, But it’s early stuff. I don’t really give myself points on anything until —
Steve: “Everybody’s Been Burned.”
David: “Everybody’s Been Burned.” Probably it’s the first one that I can stand to listen to.
Steve: And you had written that actually before the Byrds, apparently.
David: Hmm, no.
Steve: It says in your book that you started it earlier.
David: I probably lied.
Steve: Oh, really? It’s an excellent song.
David: I don’t know. I think that’s the first one where I I’d look back and say that, you know, I’m starting to be able to write a song.
Steve: It has that distinctive sort of floating feeling that you turned into a career, really. It has the Crosby vibe.
David: The “Crosby vibe” is just I was stoned when I did it.
Steve: But when you get stoned, something special happens, apparently.
[“EVERYBODY’S BEEN BURNED”]
Steve: So tell us about like playing at Ciro’s and suddenly being the thing — with the Byrds, with Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg as we spoke about earlier. What was it like to be the thing suddenly in the center of this entertainment industry that you’d grown up around?
David: Well, it was great. I got laid.
Steve: A lot?
David: A lot. And that was really sort of when that started. And it was really good. And I approve of all of that, totally. A young guy trying to rub the velvet off his antlers, and that’s how you do it. Musically, it was a thrill, because people loved us and we were pretty good. You know — it’s a shame, I’m not sure that I could, in fact, I won’t tell you why I think they don’t want to do it with me. But there are reasons and they’re not good ones.
Steve: That’s OK. One thing I would like to get straight, finally, if that’s the word, is, what happened? Did you leave on your own steam or did they kick you out?
David: No, they absolutely kicked me out.
Steve: And one hears, you know, it’s because you were an asshole or whatever. What was really going on, because you were actually about to write —
David: Just the normal stuff that happens in groups always. Ego conflict between people who are competing with each other and being kids. We were young guys who had balls the size of oranges and brains the size of a pea. And we had no experience, so we did not know how valuable what we were doing was. We did not know how valuable the friendship or comradeship was. And we didn’t, you know, give each other the room or the respect. The one I regret the most is Gene. Gene was a talented guy, and we all but forced him out of the Byrds.
Steve: Yeah. I just heard, for the first time in my life, his solo album, which I believe was called No Other? One of his solo albums?
David: It’s pretty good.
Steve: It’s awesome! Amazing arrangements.
David: He was a talented guy, and we should have managed to keep him where he was: being the lead singer front for the band. But Roger was a better singer and a much better storyteller. And I was a much better guitar player. He was a very awkward guitar player, so that’s why he wound up with a tambourine. We didn’t value him enough, or we would have spotted that he was getting unhappy, and we would’ve kept him happy. We would have found a way to keep him at the center of things. He was a good guy.
David: Now, so far we’ve been in here for an hour and 10 minutes, and you have asked me nothing but softball. I’d like to point that out. That’s because you’re a wuss, and you’re kind of chicken to deal any real serious cards off the top of the deck. I’m just pointing it out, No pressure, though.
Steve: All right. Let me ask you a question.
David: Watch out. Here it comes.
Steve: Here it comes. Your father was not the most expressive man.
David: Oh, boy, is that an understatement!
Steve: He did not overwhelm you, as Jan your wife does, with advocating his love for you.
David: No, JanDee’s very good at loving. She’s the one who taught me how.
Steve: Right. So here’s the question. It is no secret to anyone that you have a great need for acclaim.
Steve: Approval. You call it “scratching behind your ears.”
David: I’m always looking for approval from everybody I talk to. It’s kind of a genetic thing with me, I can’t help it — it’s just how I am. And I’ve learned to deal with it, you know.
Steve: Do you think that’s in part because you did not hear it much from your dad?
David: I don’t know, that’s psychology, and maybe yes. It makes sense on the face of it. But that’s all so deep, and there’s always so many variables involved in a person’s life that it’s really hard to isolate a single cause for a single effect. It’s usually a multiplicity of stuff affecting a multiplicity of outcomes, so it’s a very tangled web. My dad didn’t know how to love anybody, because he’d never been shown. His mother never loved anything. She didn’t like a fork and spoon, let alone her kid. So he was never shown any love at all. None. Zero. Period. I met the woman. I know he didn’t. So he was lousy at it. He was very good at managing a Mitchell camera. Yeah. Knew exactly about light and focal points and distances and knew that shit. Down. He was technically a very, very good cinematographer. But he was a dick, he had no idea how to be a decent human being at all. He screwed both his kids over and his wife.
Steve: Now the way that he made his career was he was a cinematographer. Very well-known. Nanook of the North, High Noon, et cetera. Did that introduce you to the entertainment industry and those people?
David: Yeah. That’s what I thought I wanted to do — I wanted to be an actor.
Steve: Oh wow. And what put you off that.
David: The timeframe. You want to be a success as an actor, you have to have actually made a movie that somebody saw. That can take a year or two. Just to get in a movie. It could take 10 years. When you do that, then finally, a year later, the movie might come out. I could go down to the coffeehouse, and if I looked properly mournful, I could get laid that night.
Steve: Right, for sure. Did you ever make peace with your father?
David: No. He died before I got sober.
Steve: He died right when you were actually about to go to jail.
Steve: Did he know how messed up you were?
Steve: He did. He was very disturbed by it. You did, however — even though your parents divorced before you got to this point — you were on good terms with your mom when she was dying, which you write about in “Carry Me,” correct? So that really happened. “Carry Me” really happened. Can you tell that story?
David: She was dying, and as they still do, the hospitals put you on painkillers and keep you there. Most people just go along with it. It’s shitty way to die — alone, a bunch of strangers, cold place, painkillers, tubes stuck in you everywhere, scared to death. I would be. I went to see her, and we knew she was dying; she had cancer. She had told them not to give her the painkillers so she could be able to talk to me. I guess she was on a lot of them. And she said, “I feel like a bird with weights tied to its feet, wanting to fly. It’s time for me to go.” Those exact words. And I said, “God, what can I do?” “She said, “Well, you could do it. Would you?” and I said, “Absolutely.” I mean, set a caged animal free, of course I would. So I went to find out — I talked to a doctor friend of mine, and he said, “Well, you don’t have access to any of the poisons that would do it — things that would poison her or upset her system drastically enough to where she would go. And all those leave traces and stuff. But you can maybe do it this way. And he told me a way I could do it. And I went back and said, “OK. All right.” And she said we can’t. Why not? “Because I talked to them here, and if I die ahead of schedule — those words, ‘ahead of schedule’ — they’ll do an autopsy and they’ll charge you with murder. So I’m just going to let it happen on its own.”
Steve: Wow, that’s intense. So many intense things happened to you around the early ‘70s, late ‘60s.
David: You know, life is intense.
Steve: No, but it was especially intense. For instance, when I started really becoming obsessed with your music — If I Could Only Remember My Name, your first quote unquote “solo album,” which has everybody on it from Jerry Garcia to Joni Mitchell to Neil to Paul Kantner, everybody, Laura Allan, everybody — that album was somewhat overlooked. It had been dismissed by the pundits at Rolling Stone as self-indulgent or whatever.
David: “Mediocre” was the word they used.
Steve: Oh, really? Yeah. I thought it was a masterpiece — one of the highlights of, you know, all of music. I put it up there in my mind — this is me, I’m weird — but I put it up there in my mind with Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way, Bill Evans’ At the Village Vanguard. That was the stature that I gave it in my mind. And it’s everything about it. It’s not just each individual track. It’s not just who’s on it. It’s the sequence. It’s a journey. It takes you somewhere.
David: It’s the vibe.
Steve: Yes, it’s the vibe. It sucks you in. For most people who listen to it, it’s a very uplifting experience. But what they don’t know, most of them, is that you were going through one the most difficult times of your entire life.
David: I was fighting darkness, so I was shedding a lot of light.
Steve: Right, exactly. Do you remember those sessions?
David: Very well.
Steve: Tell me what it was like to have, you know, Jerry walk in and say, “Oh, I could play this,” or you know, Paul walking in.
David: It was a number of things. A, there was a certain rush of, “somebody likes me, because they knew that I was in trouble.”
David: They were all very aware of Christine’s death because it happened right there in Novato, when I was living pretty much next door to Mickey and it was one of their guys that drove me to the hospital.
Steve: Right. And you had just moved there, correct?
David: Well, a few months before. And we were pretty close at that point and him walking in the door was like a gesture of friendship. He was the guy that everybody was fascinated with, and everybody wanted him to walk through their door. And when he showed up —
Steve: We’re talking about Garcia right now, right?
David: When he would show up — you know, the guy, man. There’d be that grin. And then the look in the eyes. And this fascination with the music. Easy, not forced, graceful, fun, ever present. Play two notes, you had his attention. Talk to him for an hour, you might not get it. Play two notes, you’d get it. Yeah. He was a startlingly well-focused human being. The first time I ran into it was him. I’ve been. I’ve seen that quality in other human beings and liked it. I saw it in McGuinn, I saw it in Stills.
Steve: Michael League, it sounds like.
David: Michael League is a prime, fantastic, shining, gigantic example of exactly that. Jerry had it in spades. It was a kindness, I’m pretty sure. He never said that, never even implied it. Just “Hey, I heard you were doing something. What are you doing? Let’s do something.” There was no implication that it was a mercy fuck. But I think it was. I think Paul too, I think Grace too. I think they all knew.
Steve: Now, it was a pretty radical decision at the time for you to play songs like “Tamalpais High” and “Song with No Words” and not write lyrics for them. “Tam High” you’d written in this kind of amazing so-called skydrop period when you had just left the Byrds, around the same time you wrote Wooden Ships, et cetera. Do you remember thinking, “OK, I’m going to put these songs on this record without lyrics”?
David: No, I didn’t think about it that way. I thought them up knowing what I was going to do, which nobody else did. Everybody else thought they were unfinished songs because they did not hear the song until I put that “Mormon Tabernacle me” stack on top of it. That’s when it made sense. I said, “These are the changes and let’s play them.” We played them gloriously — and I mean, one of them is the only time anybody ever got Garcia and Jorma on the same fucking record, and they played great together. But I knew that that’s what I was going to do. They weren’t unfinished songs to me. They were something people just didn’t understand yet because they hadn’t heard the horn stack. And that’s all I did was I made a horn record with voices. That’s all I did. Yeah. You know, those songs are — that’s what they are. And I’m now negotiating with a horn player to try and translate them back into horn for a horn orchestra to do. I think it’ll sound fantastic. Those same stacks. And then you take off into soloing, you know. Yeah. I think it’ll be a good band record. I’m happy about that. I think I’m happiest about “I’d Swear There was Somebody Here.”
Steve: And that was all you.
David: That was all me. They’re all all me.
Steve: Well, not really. I mean, there’s a lot — other people play amazing stuff on it.
David: But the vocal stacks, those are me. On “I’d Swear There was Somebody Here,” that’s six passes in an echo chamber. I was standing in an echo chamber. Or maybe I was just trying out an echo chamber at Wally Heider’s — a live echo chamber, real chamber echo. And it was so good. And then something happened. I was very high. And something happened. And I thought she was there. I could see her almost.
[“I’D SWEAR THERE WAS SOMEBODY HERE”]
David: And it was spooky and it might be my best piece of music.
David: I did an interesting thing recently. A friend of mine, Becca’s husband, Nate. Nathan Schram — he’s a really good violist, and he’s in a really good string quartet in New York called the Attacca Quartet. He did “I’d Swear There was Somebody Here” — he actually figured out what I sang and did it with strings.
Steve: Seriously? Is this available anywhere?
David: It’s not available, but I have it. We’re gonna do something with it, but we’re not sure what. Either we’re gonna expand on it or — he and I are gonna get together and write some more for it. Because there’s more that can happen and it works really well with strings.
Steve: Oh that’s great.
David: It really works well. He made a demo for it, just using his viola, and it was scary. Really good.
Steve: And that was a completely spontaneous improvisation on your part, correct? With Stephen Barncard running around trying to capture it all.
David: All he did was just keep pushing record. I said, “Go to the top. Go again. Top. Go again.” Six times.
Steve: Did you listen to it right away and say, “Holy fuck”?
David: No, I kept singing.
Steve: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s amazing. If we could talk about one more track on that record, “Laughing,” which is, you know, many people’s favorite track of yours, really. Fantastic crew on it, including Jerry Garcia playing the best pedal steel he ever played.
David: Early on. Very early pedal steel from Jerry.
Steve: Yep, yep, yep. Joni on harmonies. Do you remember putting that all together, or was it just like there were a bunch of people around Wally Heider’s so let’s all sing on this?
David: It was such a good story, and they knew — I told them why I had written it, and who had written it to, so they knew the story.
Steve: Which was George Harrison, correct?
David: Yeah. George had, in his love of Indian music, gone to India. And he’d encountered a guru — a teacher.
Steve: Maharaj-ji, correct?
David: Yeah, and so he told me about it and he said he thought that the guy had some value, and he was going back, and he applauded the guy pretty well. And I wanted to say, because I’m very skeptical about that shit — I’m agnostic as hell — and anytime you start telling me that you know what God wants, I start heading for the door, because it’s bullshit, usually.
Steve: Particularly if God hates the same people you do, which is very popular these days.
David: Almost always you’re into trouble there. So this guy, I wanted to say, “Listen, take it with a grain of salt.” Basically, that’s all I wanted to say. And I was chicken to do it, because it was George, and I held him in very high esteem. So I wrote the song instead, and that’s what it is. It’s me saying that I thought the laughter of a child was a better prayer than any of the things that teachers and gurus and priests, any of them, had to say. And I don’t know if George ever heard it, but it made a good song, because it’s very sincere.
Steve: That was a hell of a band. Phil Lesh from the Dead hardly ever sounded better on any other recording.
David: You know, Phil — Phil’s playing and the fact that he loves to improvise, the fact that he’s not a normal bass player — affects the Grateful Dead style and was one of the reasons the Grateful Dead wound up playing the way they did. But that particular song, at that particular moment, on that particular night, he almost played like a real bass player. He was very respectful of the tune, because he loved the tune, and they all knew the story.
Steve: Do you remember the final vocal crescendo with Joni skimming over the top — do you remember putting that together?
David: Yeah, sure. I remember wishing she’d stick to the part, and then listening to it afterwards and realizing how beautiful it was.
Steve: I think there are a couple of passes by her actually, in that crescendo. That’s actually one of my favorite moments in music. That’s the moment that I think that the whole, you know, counter-culture thing won forever in immortality. That vocal crescendo.
David: And there’s Paul in there, David Freiberg’s in there, Grace is in there real strong. A lot of people — Nash is in there. A ton of my friends are in there. It’s really good.
Steve: And it’s very organic. It’s like a beautiful out-breath in a way. It’s almost as if everyone’s sighing in some exquisite peaceful way that leaves a silence inside of you afterwards.
Steve: What are some of the musical opportunities that you would have liked to take up if you if you could relive your life again?
David: I wish I could’ve had some much deeper contact with Richard Manuel, and Levon Helm, and Rick. Not Robbie. But the other guys. I would have liked to have crossed paths with them much tighter. They impressed the shit out of me. They do to this day, still. I would very much like to have written with George. I was not confident enough to even think of it, let alone suggest it. But I would have loved to have mixed music with George because he was a fine human. This is a tough guy from a tough neighborhood who paid tough dues. Worked in bars where they threw bottles at you, OK? He’s not a wussy little hippie kid. He was a tough kid. He was just naturally a decent guy. And I would have loved to have got way deeper with him. Not John, not Paul. I like Paul. I admire Paul tremendously as a writer, particularly in being courageous enough to write “Eleanor Rigby,” because it’s one place that nobody else… all the other writers were like, “My dick is big and you love me and I’m cool and isn’t this just fantastic?” He’s looking at lonely, old, fragile people that nobody else even notices, and making you care about them. That’s fucking good art.
Steve: It is good art — and actually you’ve done it too and I’ll give you an example. “Come Through Here Quite Often” — you’re writing about a waitress, and it’s great.
David: I don’t think most people noticed it going by, but I love it. It’s really good, one of those fragments, you know, it’s like a little vignette. You notice this waitress and she’s kind, and she’s just being nice to human beings, and she leaves a wake of…
Steve: She’s “leaving crumbs,” as Jan says.
David: Exactly. I really liked that song. I liked that set of words. I thought it was really good. That’s me and Dean Parks. He did a good job.
[“THROUGH HERE QUITE OFTEN”]
Steve: Yeah, it’s beautiful. And it’s also really your life. Just being here for the last couple days — that’s who you’re seeing in the course of your day.
David: If I can, yeah. If I if I see one, I always go back to that place. Because I collect decent human beings, and I like human beings that are being nice to other human beings. They lift my spirits. They make me feel not so lonely. And that’s good.
Steve: We were talking about that last night, about feeling lonely as one gets older. And it’s something I struggle with too. Because for one thing, you don’t have college friends hanging out with you and all that. We went out to dinner last night, and five people came up to the table and said hi. I get recognized sometimes for being a writer. It’s hard to keep track of everybody’s face. You can’t remember everybody’s name. Has some level of fame contributed to your isolation and loneliness over the years?
David: Yeah. Yeah. But a lot of it has to do with how, as usual, it has to do with where your focus is. I don’t accept it, very much, at all. Remember me telling you that my dad used his Oscar for a doorstop?
Steve: I don’t remember. But yeah, I believe it.
David: It’s that kind of thing. I don’t want to get to — I have been — I saw so many people start to buy into their own fame, and I saw it destroy them as human beings, that I’ve been repelled by it. From the get-go, I reject fame. I don’t like it. I don’t think celebrity is a real thing at all. I don’t think fame is a real thing, and it’s usually a straw-man trick where life tries to set you up “bigger than life” and then it can knock you down. I think it’s bullshit. I don’t think I’m any different than anybody else — I think I put my pants on one leg at a time, same as everybody. I think I’ve got gifted some talent. I don’t think that makes me smarter or better, either one. I think I can get better by behaving better, by looking for the significant value in things and trying to follow that and behave better. I can get better then. I don’t think you come here better. I don’t think I got any reason to believe in fame or celebrity at all. The respect of my peers? Fuck yeah. Love it. The honest admiration in somebody’s eyes when they say, “You know, I got married to your song, ‘Laughing,’ because it moves me.” Well, I love that man. That matters to me. Being on the cover of Rolling Stone doesn’t fucking matter to me. Being a star? I don’t give a shit. It doesn’t help and look — somebody asked me, “What do I judge people by?” Who have you helped? What have you created? What did you make better? That’s what I judge myself by. That’s what I judge you by. And everybody else. And it has nothing to do with whether you’ve been on the cover of Rolling Stone. I’ve been on there four times, five times. I don’t give a shit. It’s not what counts. It counts what effect you have, what you’ve brought to the party, what you’ve created, what you made better — that counts in my scale, that counts deeply and will count forever.