David Crosby: a mercurial musical genius who thrived through the chaos
Crosby could be overbearing and convinced of his own brilliance – but despite the ups and downs of his time with the Byrds and CSNY, he was always proven right
By all accounts, including his own, David Crosby could be a tricky and difficult character. His career was regularly punctuated by angry arguments, bitter fallings-out, sackings, general discord. Joni Mitchell once waspishly suggested he was “a human-hater”. His former bandmate Roger McGuinn described his behaviour while a member of the Byrds as that of a “little Hitler”. Perhaps the best way to describe him was mercurial. He could be utterly charming and mischievously funny – fans gave him the affectionate nickname the Old Grey Cat – and incredibly generous to other musicians: Mitchell, among others, owed him a great deal. He could also be impossible: overbearing, mouthy, convinced of his own brilliance.
The thing was, he was right: Crosby genuinely was brilliant. He was blessed with a beautiful voice and an uncanny gift for harmony: in the early years, when the nascent Byrds were still blatant Beatles copyists called the Beefeaters, his vocals could make even their weakest material sparkle. He was a fantastic, forward-thinking songwriter. The jazz-influenced Everybody’s Been Burned sounded impressively sophisticated – a cutting-edge example of pop’s increasing maturity – when the Byrds recorded it in 1966. It turned out that Crosby had written it in 1962 while still a struggling folkie. Listening back to the multi-platinum albums of Crosby Stills & Nash (CSN), what’s striking is how original and idiosyncratic his songwriting contributions were.