Tuesday, January 24, 2023

RIP David Crosby

I was talking just the other day about getting into "The Sixties"....

That was 1982 and I think it was the following year that I discovered The Byrds. There had been references in the papers, in relation to R.E.M. and that jangling, chiming sound that was emerging on the indie / college rock fringe. 

I can remember several of us sitting in Hilary's room, listening to Younger Than Yesterday. I had borrowed the LP off our friend Micalef - I must have taped it for her, I know she didn't have a record player, just a boombox. We listened in rapt silence, shyly exchanging glances every now and then, eyes shining. I don't know what the others felt, but I imagine something along the lines of what I was feeling - sheer disbelieving awe that something so beautiful could exist. 

(There was a similar joint revelation around this time with Forever Changes, also borrowed from Micalef's sprawling collection - literally sprawling across his room, like some kind of deep pile vinyl carpet, sleeved and unsleeved discs layered slant-wise, resembling shingles on a roof). 

The track that entranced me the most on Younger Than Yesterday was written and sung by David Crosby: 


"Everybody's Been Burned" stole my breath with its beauty: the guitars hewn out of some magical mineral; the deep-chiming bass and the fluid, snaking way it moved in relation to the guitars and voice; Crosby's timbre and pacing and nakedness. And the lyrics made me shiver with their emotional wisdom, proposing an approach to living and loving at once true and impossibly idealistic. The original song was written a few years before Crosby joined The Byrds, when he must have been only 21 - just a year older than me when I first heard it. 

I know that door

That shuts just before

You get to the dream... 

I know all too well how to turn, how to run

How to hide behind

A bitter wall of blue

But you die inside if you choose to hide

So I guess instead

I'll love you


The other song that set me spinning was "Mind Gardens" - also written and sung by Crosby. Which most people find embarrassing. It is a period piece, I suppose. But the modal singing, the truly-let-loose folkadelic ululations, the rippling reversed-guitar, I still find dizzyingly gorgeous. As for the lyrics -  it's the same idea as "Everybody's Been Burned" (and their cover of "My Back Pages", which is sort of the title track of Younger Than Yesterday). But this time it's rendered as a parable, the garden as self walled off from the winter's "killing cold" but also from life-replenishing rain and sun. Again, that seems like  timeless emotional and spiritual wisdom. 


Crosby had a hand in two other beauties on Younger - "Renaissance Fair" and "Why".  




"Why" is one of a pair of Byrds songs in which the rebel, the free spirit cutting loose, is a young woman ("She Don't Care About Time").  It occurred to me that "Why" in particular preempts "She's Leaving Home", and sure enough, Younger preceded Sgt. Pepper's by several months - I wonder if the song subliminally influenced The Beatles? In both cases, rather than ascribe it to a spirit of enlightened male feminism, I suspect the gender choice was more like an intuitive songwriting impulse based in the understanding that the big threat to the status quo / patriarchy was the fear of daughters being led astray, lured into the counterculture. (Not that parental anxieties were unfounded exactly - bohemian freedom cut differently for women then, and probably still - the costs and risks were greater).

You say there's a limit there, she can't go past that

She don't believe you, she don't think that's where it's at

Why?

You say it's a dead old world, cold and unforgiving

I don't know where you live but you're not living

Why?

Keep sayin' no to her since she was a baby

Keep sayin' no to her, not even maybe

Why?

Back then ('83, '84) I would have known "Eight Miles High", "5D", "All I Really Want To Do" - taped off somebody or other - but it took me years to get to the previous album Fifth Dimension or the one after,  The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Back then I simply couldn't afford to be systematic: funds were tight, so many things from the past and the present beckoned urgently, hearing stuff depended to a great degree on what you could find in libraries or the collections of friends and acquaintances. So I think it was only when it came to doing The Sex Revolts that those gaps got filled (although I had picked up Sweetheart of the Rodeo along the way, in a brief moment of Gram Parsons interest - something that hasn't lasted at all, nor the Flying Burrito Brothers).

By Notorious, Crosby is starting to fade as a creative presence within The Byrds. But he does have a hand in "Dolphin Smile" (pleasant enough) and "Tribal Gathering" (ditto) and in one absolute beauty, "Draft Morning". Here the critique of a system that offers the living death of routine parceled out between meaningless work and empty leisure shifts to a soft protest against a system that wakes young men from their dreams and marches them off  "to kill /and take the will / from unknown faces". This time it's the Byrds who seem to be writing a sequel to a Beatles song ("I'm Only Sleeping").   Like "Why" and other Byrds songs of this period, "Draft Morning" is a kind of rejoicing lament - the plaintive, chiding tone of folky protest shot through with an elevating ecstasy, rising above the folly it decries. . 



The true genius bit of writing and singing from Crosby during those sessions got left off the album: "Triad". I'm not sure if that exclusion was because of personal conflict or because the theme was considered too risqué (if so, oddly timorous of the other Byrds, given all the other taboos being broken at this time).  In some ways, it's the third song in the cycle of "She Don't Care About Time" and "Why" - in this case, there's an appeal to a woman (well, two women) to break with convention, take a leap into the emotional and existential unknown. Again, it doesn't strike me as a feminist song; if anything, it leans the other way, a man proposing an arrangement  that suits him only too well. Today "Triad" might be considered prophetically polyamorous, but in the context of the 1960s counterculture and its mile-wide streak of chauvinism, its ideal of free love invites the thought, "free for who?". The reference to "sister-lovers" is uncomfortably redolent of "sister-wives" as in Big Love and that Mormon fundamentalist sect that still practices polygamy. The line "and, in time, maybe others" cracks me up - Crosby holding out the prospect of further additions to the harem, an ill-timed suggestion that in real life could easily have killed the deal he was on the verge of striking. 

I also can't help thinking that Crosby might have reacted rather differently if it was Joni proposing that he join her and Graham Nash in a ménage à trois

We didn't know about this song when we did The Sex Revolts - I guess it came out only later as a bonus track on the Notorious Byrds Brothers reissue - which is a pity because one verse in particular is a classic example of "momism": the syndrome, rife with the Beats and the Angry Young Men, and largely continued with counterculture-era rock, in which suburban convention and conformity are equated with housewives and mothers (the patriarchy-as-matriarchy switch, where the victims of a System get mistaken for its perpetuators and beneficiaries - as gaolers rather than inmates). 

You are afraid, embarrassed too

No one has ever said such a thing to you

Your mother's ghost stands at your shoulders

A face like ice, a little bit colder

Saying to you, you cannot do that

It breaks all the rules, you learned in school

But I don't really see

Why can't we go on as three

As songwriting and as a sound, "Triad" forms a triptych with "Everybody's Been Burned" and the next tune in our selection today, "Guinnevere". What Crosby is doing in these songs - the crooned vocals with the long held notes, the intimacy and lack of drama or bombast, the unusual chords and tunings, the haze of drone-chimes -  became clarified for me when I read that he was never into rock'n'roll. When all that was happening in the late '50s, he was listening to Chet Baker and cool jazz instead. Certainly, his vocals on those three songs owe nothing to rock but also little to folk or country or blues either.  


If it took me a while to fill out the Byrds discography, I only got to Crosby Stills and Nash in the second decade of the 21st Century. For some reason, the punk dismissal of that type of hippie music held sway in my head long after similar prohibitions about progressive rock or sophisto-rock (Steely Dan etc) had faded away. The idea of a song called "Marrakesh Express" was enough to put me off investigating. The S and the N element held no interest (Hollies = meh; Buffalo Springfield bypasses me apart from the very famous song, while as a personality Stills unappeals).  Even after moving to Los Angeles and experiencing first-hand the idyllic vibe of Laurel Canyon and Topanga Canyon, that era / area of rock history didn't draw me (apart from Joni).

So it was actually hearing "Guinnevere" used to spellbinding effect on the science fiction TV series DEVS that convinced me anything was there: the gold-graded images suited the gauzy radiance of the recording, the song's spacey stillness and suspension chimed perfectly with the suspense of the storyline. In the week after hearing "Guinnevere" in the show I must have played the song about forty times -  and "Triad", rediscovered through contiguity and affinity, another forty.



"Triad" and "Guinnevere" seem to go together especially, in style and sound. Thematically they may be cousins too:  "Guinevere" is inspired by three different inamorata of Crosby's. Crosby told Rolling Stone, "That is a very unusual song, it's in a very strange tuning (EBDGAD) with strange time signatures. It's about three women that I loved. One of whom was Christine Hinton - the girl who got killed who was my girlfriend - and one of whom was Joni Mitchell, and the other one is somebody that I can't tell.

I've yet to hear anything else quite as magical in the CS&N / CSN&Y discography but friends who are fans recommend these: 




Another take on "Guinnevere"


And here's Miles Davis's extremely expansive interpretation of "Guinnevere", which apparently Crosby disliked intensely, and had the balls, or ego, to tell him to his face.  A circle of influence was completed here: as Crosby said in one interview, “When I was young I must have listened to Sketches Of Spain 100 times... I learned if I changed tuning on the guitar then I could get chord inversions that were really different.” Some say that "Guinnevere" song is actually based on a motif from a Sketches of Spain song.


The story of Crosby's youth spent listening to modal jazz is related here

A bit from Graham Nash's memoir Wild Tales, a Rock & Roll Life about Miles and Crosby meeting in the street in New York in 1969 and Miles taking Crosby back to his brownstone pad to hear his take on "Guinnevere":

Miles put on the song, a twenty-minute version that riffed in myriad cosmic directions, and went into the bedroom with the blonde, leaving David there to smoke...  and listen to the track. A half hour later, Miles emerged from the bedroom rendezvous. “So, Dave, what do you think?” Crosby threw him one of his trademark glares. “Well, Miles, you can use the tune, but you have to take my name off of it.” Miles was crestfallen. “You don’t like it?” he asked. Crosby refused to temper his opinion, even for royalty like Miles Davis.

“No, man – no. I don’t like it at all.”

About ten years later, I was at an after-party event for the Grammys at Mr. Chow in LA and saw Miles come in with Cicely Tyson. He caught my eye and started waving insistently at me. I looked over my shoulder, certain he must be gesturing to someone else. “No, no, c’mere, man,” he insisted. When I got within earshot, he leaned close and asked in his low, gravelly voice, “Crosby still pissed at me?”

I said, “You mean about Guinevere’?”

“Yeah.” He nodded. “He still pissed?”

“I don’t think so, Miles. He was either too high or he wasn’t in the right mood to hear your take on it. He probably expected the chords to be the same as his, but I don’t think he’s pissed at you one bit.”

Miles pondered this with Socratic intensity. “Okay. Tell David hello. Tell him I hope he’s not still pissed.”


Addendum 1/26/2003

I clean forgot to mention If I Could Only Remember My Name, the first Crosby solo album... it's never made much impression on me, I must say, but it has its fans and now would be the time to reinvestigate 


Asif Siddiqi points out a couple of Crosby contributions:

Crosby was the one who pushed The Byrds to cover the then-obscure song "Hey Joe", and after its appearance on Fifth Dimension, it became widely covered by others, including  Love, Tim Rose, and most famously Jimi Hendrix.  (That said, I believe the first recorded version of it was by the garage punk group The Leaves - indeed, it was they who added the word "gun" to the lyric). 


Asif also directs our attention to Crosby's rhythm guitar on this Neil Young track "Revolution Blues" - "there's something about that choppy guitar that opens the song and that essentially carries the song for four tense and taut minutes... it's really unsettling, meant to be unobtrusive, but somehow channeling all the slow derangement of the fall of the '60s in its sloppy minor chords".


Andrew Parker hears The Incredible String Band in the modal soul-moans of "Mind Gardens" - and he could be onto something, the debut ISB came out in '66 and was well received in folk circles on both sides of the Atlantic. No less than Byrds-god Bob Dylan singled out this song as particularly impressive - its piercing long-held-notes  do bear a resemblance to Crosby's more untethered cries on "Mind Gardens".



A demo for "Burned"



Tyler comments: 

'Why' as unintentional proto-feminism based in 'intuitive songwriting impulse' - yes, and Dylan's 'Tears of Rage' works on a similar principle, casting the irrational, controlling, but genuinely hurt patriarch against the daughter pushing against him

'Triad' - the 'sister lovers' bit comes from Heinlein rather than Brigham Young, but that hardly makes it better; the Airplane version complicates it interestingly with Slick's female vocals, but I'm still not crazy about it - subject matter aside, it's a little too pat

Crosby's non-rock fandom - this was always the root of both old-school rock critics' and punk-and-after's animus against him, but once you get past the assumption that electric guitars should inherently rock, it's one of his most interesting facets - taking the texture of amplification/electronics and blending it into acoustic forms, rather than the initial 'Trad. with a backbeat' school of folk-rock (not that there's anything wrong with that)

Possible ISB connection - it's entirely possible; there was a fairly substantial crossover between US and UK folk-rock then, which tended to get obscured later (when Garcia was asked if the Dead's incorporation of acoustic sets into their late 69/70 shows was inspired by the Band, he replied that it was more so by playing bills alongside Pentangle)