He bottomed out in the early ’80s after abusing drugs, and spent months in prison on gun and drug charges. Today he marvels at his survival, while other legendary musicians with appetites for partying — Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia and many more — died too young.
In recent years, Crosby has been writing, recording and touring as if his time is running out — and it is, to hear him tell it. Speaking to me by telephone from his home in Los Angeles, where he was born and raised, the grizzled rock-and-roll veteran — who has dropped four solo albums in the past four years after releasing just three in the previous 43 — says his goal is to make as much original music as possible while he’s still ticking.
“Yeah, I’m gonna do it as much as I can until I die,” he says. “I think that’s right.”
Crosby’s latest album, Here if You Listen, finds him not only playing with, but writing with a group of esteemed musicians in their thirties. Together they make idyllic folk pop as the Lighthouse Band.
But when Crosby opens for Jason Isbell on Tuesday, September 17, at Red Rocks, he’ll be playing with his electric project, the Sky Trails Band. That outfit, which includes one of his sons, James Raymond, and guitarist Jeff Pevar, is already halfway through recording what will be Crosby’s next album.
So what does it mean to Crosby to continue delivering new music — not just in the studio, but in concert — while other living classic-rock legends stick to old hits at shows and rarely make new albums?
“It means I’m alive,” he says. “I don’t criticize other people for their set lists, but mine is at least half new. It keeps me alive. It keeps me feeling involved. And also, frankly, we don’t do old stuff the same. We change it all the time. We have different arrangements of ‘Triad,’ of ‘Déjà Vu,’ of ‘Wooden Ships.’ We change it up every night because it’s exciting, you know?”
Crosby was once an icon of the wild life. Dennis Hopper’s character in Easy Rider was reportedly modeled after him, and today the singer-songwriter continues to carry that free-spirited, searching-for-a-new-frontier attitude into writing and recording new music rather than living the stereotypical rock-and-roll lifestyle that cost him his freedom and almost his life.
He feels a kinship with Isbell and other stars who’ve gone sober. “James Taylor leaps to mind, but also Joe Walsh, a notably sober guy," Crosby says. "They’re good friends. All of ’em are good friends, and one of the reasons I like them is that they’ve climbed that same ladder that I climbed. Now, these guys — all three of them — are still sober. I’m not; I smoke pot. But I did stay sober for about fourteen years, which is what it took me to start feeling comfortable and not feel like the other stuff was snapping at my heels anymore. It took a long, long time.”
Crosby first fell in love with Isbell’s work when he heard the earth-shattering ballad “If We Were Vampires” and felt “smacked like crazy,” subsequently listening to everything Isbell’s done and realizing, “This guy’s really a good writer” who may “single-handedly drag country music” out of an Auto-Tuned abyss.
After Isbell and his band started performing the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young protest classic “Ohio,” Crosby reached out.
“I sent him a message on Twitter saying, ‘Hey, good on you for singing "Ohio,"'" Crosby recalls. "'It’s a song that needs to be sung right now a whole lot by everybody.' He sent me a message back saying, ‘I’d really like to sing it with you,’ and I sent him a message saying, ‘What time does the bus leave?’ He sent me back a message saying, ‘I’ll send you a ticket if you'll come to the Newport Folk Festival and sing with me.'
“We went there, my wife and I, and I just really liked him, really liked Amanda," Crosby continues, speaking about singer-songwriter Amanda Shires, who is also Isbell's violinist, backup singer and wife. "They’re just really good people. He and I did ‘Wooden Ships’ and ‘Ohio’ and just blew the place apart. It was absolutely, really fun, because we were really good. So I like him a lot. I think he’s a tremendous musician, and I’m eager to do another gig with him, because I think he’s terrific.”
Wrapping up our conversation, I pretend to ask about a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young reunion and then jokingly suggest one with Welsh crooner Tom Jones, whose 1969 television performance of "Long Time Gone" with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young has become a viral YouTube sensation.
“Fucking funny line, man!” Crosby erupts. “That’s the line of the day. Best interview. Never! Fucking never! It’s hysterical. We were all trying to swing so hard, and Tom is so fake. It’s so bullshit. He’s a nice guy and everything, but it was a mishmash of massive proportions. Of course, everybody loves it, and I hate it — but, you know...”
Then Crosby offers some humor of his own, talking about his upcoming show at Red Rocks.
“I love the place," he says. "And I think this gig with Jason Isbell is gonna be kinda special. I’m not saying it’s just because they recently legalized mushrooms in Denver, but there’s a possibility the audience may be a little bit lit that night.”
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, with David Crosby & Friends and Amanda Shires, 7 p.m. Tuesday, September 17. Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 18300 West Alameda Parkway, Morrison, $40-$65, 720-865-2494.