Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.
You don’t find too many artists out there on the other side of 75 still plugging away and making new music. Practically no one of that age is laying down some of the best material of their careers. Then again, David Crosby isn’t like most other artists. The one-time Byrd, and a quarter of one of the greatest songwriting teams ever assembled — Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – is currently in the midst of an incredible renaissance, and he knows it.
“Musically I totally did the right thing,” he said about his decision to quit CSN and work with two different groups of collaborators. “These two bands [The Lighthouse band and the Sky Trails band], not only express what I want to express musically, they challenge me. I have to paddle faster just to keep up with these kids man!”
Ever since he decided to strike out on his own a few years back, the musical floodgates he never expected have opened, and it’s been all he can do to capture the magic on tape while he still can. In 2016, Crosby unveiled a sparsely arranged, wholly affecting solo album titled Lighthouse. This year, he’s decided to follow-up that record with an equally impactful release, a more ornate, jazz-tinged collection of songs called Sky Trails.
Carried by songs like Steely Dan-ish “She’s Got To Be Somewhere,” the whimsical title track, the Spanish-flavored “Curved Air,” and a stunning cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia,” Sky Trails is a work overflowing with different musical ideas, textures, and influences. I recently spoke with Crosby about his resurgence, what he thinks of newer bands and his contemporaries, and why his music sounds so great when you’re stoned.
Between Lighthouse and now Sky Trails, how much material were you holding onto during those last few years while you were still in CSN?
Quite a bit. How bands work, in my opinion, you get together, you love each other, you’re thrilled with each other’s songs; it’s all really quite wonderful. 40 years later [laughs], when we didn’t like each other anymore, and there was no forward motion, it devolves into turn on the smoke machine and play your hits. It’s not good enough for me. I was building up a head of steam so to speak, and when I left that group, it all came out. That’s why there’s been three records in three years.
“Building up a head of steam” is a bit of an understatement. As someone who’s followed your career for a long time, I’ve been stunned by the quality and the emotion you’ve been pouring into these new albums.
Thank you man! I’m doing my best. I try really hard and really do love it and want to do the best I possibly can. That’s what they put me here to do.
Can you talk about how Sky Trails came together?
James Raymond, my son, he’s the producer, and he likes to work with all the tools. He likes big bands, he likes horns, he likes every possible tool in the shed. The difference between this and Lighthouse, which was produced by Michael League of Snarky Puppy, Michael can make things big, but he wanted to make it acoustic. He wanted to make it small. He deliberately led it into that direction and James deliberately led it into this direction.
Were you writing the material for both of those albums around the same time and if so, how did you decide what songs to give to which project?
It’s case by case you know? ‘Where does it go? Does it fit here? What if we put it after this song? How does that emotionally effect you?’ I’m trying to build a little emotional voyage. That thing where you come onboard and we go sailing around the islands for a minute. Songs have certain emotional flavors.
There’s almost a Steely Dan-ish quality to a lot of the music on this record. The sounds are all immaculate and everything has its place. Can you talk a little bit about how everything came together on the instrumental front?
Well, it’s right that you say Steely Dan because that’s my favorite band… after the Beatles. I truly do like jazz and complex chords. That’s one of the reasons I started doing the alternate tunings on the guitar in the first place, listening to jazz keyboard players like Bill Evans and they would play a chord that had 11 notes in it and I’d go, ‘Oh yikes, I gotta have that!’
You said Steely Dan is one of your favorite bands, were you close to Walter Becker?
I met him. I know Donald [Fagen], but I never really got to know Walter. I’m not sure if anybody ever really got to know Walter. But, I met him and told him how much he meant to me. There’s no question, once the Beatles broke up, Steely Dan became my favorite band in the world, and probably still is… though I really love Weather Report and I really love Snarky Puppy.
On the song “Sell Me A Diamond” you sing about how it would be a gift to stop watching the news. For you as much as anybody else, it’s no doubt been depressing to take in the deluge of bad news that’s been coming out. Does that make it’s way into your art or do you consciously keep that to the side?
Yeah, I try not to let it get me down, but some of it does. That’s what the song “Capitol” is about, our congress which is abysmally bad and incredibly stupid, with no moral value at all. There’s maybe eight people in there that have a conscience. Sometimes I get ticked off and write about stuff that I think is wrong, but mostly I think my job is to make you boogie, or to take you on emotional voyages. You know, I come from folk music and the troubadour thing… our job was to carry the news from town to town. ‘Hey, it’s 12:30 and all is well,’ or ‘Hey, it’s 12:30 and you just elected an imbecile to be President.’ I don’t think it’s something we should do all the time, because preaching is not okay, but I do think every once in a while you see something and have to write “Ohio.”
You included a cover of Joni Mitchell’s song “Amelia” on this album. Why was it important for you to add your own spin to that song?
I’ve loved that song for a very long time. You know, I love Joni Mitchell. We went together for about a year. I produced her first record. I discovered her. I think she is the best singer-songwriter on the planet. I don’t think anybody else is close. I had dinner with her the night before last and I told her then how much I loved that song. I’ve wanted to sing it for a long time and truthfully, I’ve been a little intimidated by it. I wasn’t sure if I was good enough to sing it, but I just couldn’t resist taking a swing at it. It’s such a beautiful story.
How is Joni doing these days?
She took a terrible hit and she is very bravely working her way back.
I’m not a huge pothead or anything, but when I do smoke weed, for whatever reason, your music, whether solo or CSN, or CSNY resonates with me in a way that no other music does. I know you personally have a reputation for imbibing over the years and wanted to get your take on the relationship between marijuana and the creative experience
Music and pot go together really well. Being high and listening to music is an excellent idea. That’s certainly not true of hard drugs. They get in the way of everything. But yeah, smoking pot and listening to a record? That’s a winning combination. I think a lot of the great music was written by people who may have been herbally enhanced at the time.
I noticed you tweeted recently about Neil Young’s most recent album Hitchhiker the other day. Had you heard that before and what was your impression of it?
I’ve heard some of those takes before because they’ve been around for a long time. When I heard this record I thought, ‘Oh, thank God!’ Because truthfully man, I didn’t like his last four records. It’s not that he’s wrong about Monsanto, they’re evil people, the records just haven’t killed me until this one. These are the songs and this is the guy I fell in love with. This is the guy I wanted to sing with. I hear these songs and hear what he’s doing with them, and it makes me want to make music with him. It makes my heart swell up. I think he’s really, really good.
Do you think you two will ever collaborate again? Even outside of CSNY?
I would work with Neil at any time he wanted to. Right now he’s mad at me because I said something bad about his girlfriend [the actress Daryl Hannah], but I love the guy and would work with him this second.
I caught the commercial you did recently for Twitter and thought that was great. Have you heard any of Chance The Rapper’s music?
I think he’s a helluva guy. I like him! Lin Manuel-Miranda I like a lot too. I don’t like most rap because it’s usually bad percussive poetry sung over somebody else’s music. There’s no value in that at all to me.
Following you on Twitter, it makes me happy to see how engaged you’ve remained with what’s happening in the music world right now, with artists no matter how big or how small they may be. To see someone who’s been in this industry for as long as you have and to remain un-jaded is just really cool.
Well, I’m always looking man. You gotta remember, I discovered Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne; that’s not bad! And it works. I found Becca Stevens that way and she’s a freaking genius. I found Michelle Willis and she’s one of the best singers I’ve ever heard in my life.
Before I let you go, I was hoping to do a lightning round of artists you’ve mentioned here or there and get your take on them or see if you have any memories you’d like to share.
So to begin, let’s go with Bob Dylan.
Bob is a friend of mine and I love him. I think he’s one of the best poets I’ve encountered in my entire life. I think Joni is a better musician and a better singer, but I think Bob is a masterclass poet and a really wonderful guy. I’m grateful that he exists.
How about Gram Parsons?
Gram Parsons was a very talented guy who I liked a lot in spite of the fact that he swiped one of my girlfriends.
You gotta give me the story behind that!
Okay, moving on, how about this newer band The War On Drugs?
You know I just encountered them and I thought there was some value there.
Have you heard any of Father John Misty’s stuff?
Yeah, Donald Fagen turned me on to it. I got to listen to a lot more. I think there’s some potential there. I think I might wind up liking him.
Alright, last one. Stephen Stills?
One of the big musicians of my life. I’ve heard that guy play guitar more melodically, more beautifully with more touch and more feel than almost anybody in the world. He’s just spectacularly good and he wrote some of the best songs that I’ve ever gotten the chance to be a part of. I’m deeply grateful to him.
I need to throw out a quick shout out in this section to the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. Though it was demolished in 2002, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, this basketball/hockey facility played host to some of the biggest rock bands in the world. Unlike other similar-sized venues on the circuit, however, the personnel at the Capital Centre filmed most of the concerts that took place inside of its hallowed halls. Some of the best, and in many cases, only existing footage we have left from those iconic runs exists because someone was wise enough to hang on to the tapes.
A great example is this gig performed by David Bowie exactly 30 years ago today, on September 28, 1987. Bowie was then on his Glass Spider tour, lugging around the biggest and most ornate traveling set that had ever been assembled for an arena rock show. He was joined by a seven-piece band that included guitar wizard Peter Frampton, a whole host of dancers, who helped him put together a theatrical showcase unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.
Bowie called this “the most physical tour that I’ve ever done,” and he’s absolutely right. The demands on his voice and body took a terrible toll, even while the performances, like this one above were absolutely dazzling. When the run finally ended, the singer claimed he had the entire stage setup trucked out to a field and set on fire.