I’ve been waiting a long time to see this film. David Crosby and CSN&Y are among my favorite subjects.
Crosby is an interesting cat. He is approaching age 80 and he’s busier than ever. And more vilified. The documentary covers the long, successful and difficult life of David Crosby. And more.
Crosby, reflecting on his life, faces his mortality, and accepts that he’s viewed as an asshole by a lot of people. People who matter to him.
“Music, it’s the only thing I got to offer,” he says. “It’s the only thing I’m good at.”
But, he realizes, “I’m the only guy in CSNY who’s never had a hit.”
At this point in his life, Crosby has been in a creative renaissance. In the past five or six years, he has produced more recorded music as a solo artist than in all his other years as a musician. Sure, he had CSN, CSNY and Crosby/Nash albums, but the pressure was not on him to write and produce all of the songs. This rebirth happened after his split with his other band members.
At the end of the film, this issue is addressed, a comment he made in 2014 about Neil Young’s girlfriend (Darryl Hannah), who he has since married. Young has vowed never to work with Crosby again. On the 2015 CSN tour, longtime friend Graham Nash exploded, apparently telling Crosby off, on stage, in front of an audience. They finished the tour, not speaking, and Nash is quoted as not sure if the damage can be repaired. So at this point, Crosby has no possibility of a reunion with any of those guys.
The film also recounts Crosby’s firing from the Byrds back in 1969. Interestingly, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, the two members of the Byrds who fired Crosby, are interviewed for the film. Neither seem to hold a grudge against him and speak quite respectfully about him, but the question is never asked about a Byrds reunion. Crosby says in the film that McGuinn won’t play with him, but the subject is avoided in McGuinn’s interview. That’s a bit puzzling.
The film was directed by A.J. Eaton and co-produced by Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire, Fast Times at Ridgemont High). It is competently done, a non-linear trip through Crosby’s life, bouncing from the present to the past and back.
Being part of CSN was financial security for Crosby, and now that is gone. Sales from CDs and streaming of past songs is not enough to live on, so he records new music and tours. He goes out for six weeks or so at a time, not too many shows in a week, or he’ll lose his voice. He has to earn a living. “I hate leaving home. But I love to sing. I have to pay my the mortgage and buy groceries.” His wife says people don’t know how sick he is. A liver transplant, diabetes and eight stints in his heart. But he has to tour, and when he leaves, she fears she may never see him again. The film follows him on tour, and to places of his past, on Sunset Strip and Laurel Canyon.
Joni Mitchell looms large in his life. Crosby fell for Mitchell and produced her first record, but he knows it wasn’t a very good job, but he opened the door to her music. They visit the house she lived in, where musicians used to come to play. It’s the house where she and Graham Nash lived, where he wrote, “Our House.”
It was in Laurel Canyon, courtesy of Mama Cass Elliott, that Crosby, Stills and Nash first met up, and that delicious three-part harmony was discovered.
What was the origin of Crosby’s gregarious personality?
“I wanted attention. I was thrown out of every school attended.” McGuinn adds, he was thrown out of every group he was in.
Crosby irritated the Byrds with his politics, which he openly promoted, and controversial songs the Byrds didn’t want. The rest of the Byrds wanted to be a pop group singing pop songs. The felt Crosby was intolerable, so they fired him. He admits to having a knack for causing trouble. “I was a difficult cat. Big ego, no brains. I was tremendously lucky early and didn’t realize how lucky I was”
So he borrowed $25,000 from Peter Tork to buy a sailboat. The Mayan, which Crosby had for years, until it fell into disrepair during his heavy drug years. “It was a magical part of my life. I wrote a lot of songs out there,” he said.
The film pauses at times and shifts from his musical story to his life story. He is very reflective of the people who have passed through his life, especially the women. “I hurt a lot of girls. I dragged them through a lot of stuff. I was addicted. I turned these girls onto drugs. They were addicted and I did it. I went back later and tried to build some bridges.” He references his adult daughter only once, apparently he could not build a bridge with her.
There are two major relationships that were key in Crosby’s life. Christine Hinton was his girlfriend during his early CSN days. She lived with him and one day drove their cat to the vet. She never made it, dying in an auto accident. Only 21 years old, it burned a hole through him. “I spent a lot time crying. I didn’t know what else to do. No one prepares you for death. You torture yourself. I couldn’t deal with her death.”
Drugs began to take over his life. There was success and every opportunity to self-medicate with alcohol, cocaine and heroin. The music he produced with CSN and Crosby/Nash was great, but by the late 1970s, even the music was impacted by his drug use. By Daylight Again, the next CSN album in 1982, Crosby was getting by on fumes. His musical contribution was sparse, and he was a zombie on stage.
Then the drug and weapon charges. He left a court-ordered treatment center and became a fugitive from the law. In a Texas prison he had to kick cocaine and heroin. But he started writing again, and the music returned. He said he thanked the judge for sending him to jail, it saved his life.
He rejoined CSN. The other important relationship in his life was Graham Nash. Besides how their voices “locked together” as he called it, the two were very close friends since 1969. They recorded many albums together, toured and added their vocals to many songs by other artists. The two were like brothers. The film tells Nash’s side of the split, but Crosby does not say much about trying to heal that fracture.
Crosby truly misses the relationships with Stills, Nash and Young. As a power Twitter uses, Crosby tweets all the time and his most frequent questions from fans are about these relationships. And the one with McGuinn.
Of particular sadness is that CSNY will likely never regroup. “CSNY, I can’t tell you how great it was to be in that band,” Crosby says quietly. “The 1974 tour, we were packing in probably more people then since The Beatles. Forcing four guys into a space only big enough for three would be explosive. It was.”
A poignant section of the film is when Crosby talks about Kent State. “Neil wrote the song right in front of me. It made me feel good that I could stand up for something. There were protests on every campus in the country.” Crosby and the film crew went to the Kent State campus, to the memorial and to the location where the students were killed. It is a sobering moment that is still hard to believe. National Guardsmen were given live ammunition and fired on students.
The key to Crosby’s life, not necessarily the anger that is his demon, but the self-inflicted harm, was the drug use. “Drugs change your life. The first time you feel great. After that you are just trying to catch up and you never do. It’s for anesthesia, you want to live inside the dream.”
After getting out of prison, kicking hard drugs, and finding the woman he would form a permanent life with, he still hadn’t figured it out. She helped him find the answer and to release the sadness and grief that he believes he was holding onto since Christine Hinton’s death. He stopped punishing himself and allowed Jan, who he would marry, to teach him how to be loved. That’s a sobering revelation.
But that didn’t fix the other problems in his life.
As a junky, he knew he wasn’t pulling his weight in CSN or CSNY. “I was really lucky to be in those groups.” When those bands were new, they really liked each other and enjoyed learning each other’s new songs. Forty years later, he said they didn’t enjoy each other’s company, didn’t ride the same buses, didn’t care about new music, just turn on the smoke machine and play the hits. “If I brought in one of my new weird songs, they didn’t want to hear it. We’ve done terrible things to each other, many times.”
He knew, his biggest enemy was himself.
“The biggest mistake I ever made was getting mad. Once the adrenaline hits my system, instant asshole. You say and do stuff that’s just awful,” Crosby laments in the film.
“I shot my mouth off about Neil’s girlfriend. I didn’t realize the guy was going to put it in the Internet, I thought the interview was over. I apologized for it but it didn’t do any good.”
That incident meant no more CSNY and Nash was livid. The next year, while touring, Nash went ballistic in front of an audience, screaming at him, “You don’t get it, you don’t mean anything to me anymore. Fuck you!”
Nash wrote a song about Crosby called “Encore.” It asks who you are when the song is over, when the lights go out. Are you a decent person or an asshole? That pretty much sums it up for Crosby in his life.
The film includes the very last song CSN sang together, at the White House Christmas tree lighting, “Silent Night” in awful three-part harmony. They were terrible, and they knew it. The end.
As the film neared the end, Crosby reflects on where he is. He’s very sickly and says he is scared of dying. He wants more time. He’s overdosed on drugs and was revived. He nearly died waiting for a liver transplant, but it arrived in time. He was addicted to cocaine and heroin and spend months in solitary in a Texas prison. He’s been flat broke numerous times. But he’s has a great life in many other ways. His wife Jan adores him. He has great relationships with two of three kids. He’s making very well-received music. He writes a regular advice column for Rolling Stone and has tens of thousands of Twitter followers. He tours and people show up, and show him love.
But, it is evident that there is a hole in his soul where Stills, Nash, Young and McGuinn used to be.
“I still have a lot of friends, but all the main guys I made music with won’t even talk to me.”
“I want to be a loving guy. My kids, my wife, my dogs my music. I like how it makes me feel.”
David Crosby knows he has fucked up. The trail of damage in his life is miles and miles long. When he returns from his tour, and done with the interviews for the film, he retreats to the comfort of his home. He lays in the green grass, looking at the trees and sky. He has dogs and horses, and the quiet company of Jan. He has regrets, but he seems to squeeze every minute from every day because he knows they are in limited supply.
Is it likely he will ever make music with those other guys? The film doesn’t seem to offer a lot of hope. If not, Crosby will keep making music and harvesting what he can from each day.
His name will be remembered. But for all the sordidness in his life, it will be about the music.
“The one thing I can do is make music by myself. To prove I’m worth a shit.”
Rottentomatoes.com 92 percent critics, 87 percent audience rating.