David Crosby – On inspiration, patterns of writing songs and influences

25. 1. 2018 | Rubriky: Articles,Interviews

[by Ken Hunt, London, Burns Night 2018] David Crosby is a musician whose influence is paramount to the way my musical tastes developed. Directly or indirectly. This interview snippet is drawn from a far longer one conducted in September 2012 for an article in R2 that appeared at the time of the release of the 2012 DVD set.

Here we discuss, among other subjects, a range of possibilities to do with writing songs and the influence of the Nubian oud player Hamza El Din. Hamza, it turned out serendipitously, had also been an influence on Crosby. And mirroring my own experience in a similar way to Ravi Shankar he opened my head to another set of possibilities with his Nonesuch Explorer LP Escalay. I would later interview him for the Kronos Quartet project Pieces of Africa and in his own right. He became a friend.

So, we’re here to talk about you and the chaps…

[Laughter] Yes. Ask anything.

Just arising out of the DVD [2012] there is this lovely transferrable maxim from a rather good songwriter whose name was Robbie Burns. He talked about talking about a problem rather than “nursing your wrath to keep it warm”. He talked about instead of bottling it up, getting it out. I thought that was a useful transferrable maxim for some of the stuff that CS&N had done.

I think that part of our job is talking about stuff that disturbs us or that we see. I think that goes right back to the troubadour days in Middle Ages Europe. Part of our job admittedly is just to make you boogie. Part of our job is to take you on more emotional voyages. But part of our job is to carry the news. So, we do talk about things that are going on. In America there’s some really awful stuff that’s happening. We’ve lost our Constitution. Our votes no longer count. It’s a corporatocracy and they run the country. And that’s a very disturbing thing.

So, yes, we do get stuff off our chests pretty often. Sometimes it is political. I think mostly we write about, you know, love: love lost, love found, love celebrated, love remembered. But, yeah, we do talk about the real world some of the time.

You can’t go on stage and just preach. That really doesn’t work. And it’s not our place to do it, but we can look at something and say, ‘That isn’t right.’ Or, ‘We believe that it is not right.’ I think the best we ever did was probably Neil’s song Ohio, but we’ve done it a lot of times. And I think it is part of what we’re supposed to do.

How did you as a band respond to Almost Gone being put into your lap?

We all jumped on it. Because we don’t think the man was treated fairly or is being treated fairly. We thought that he did a very brave thing and gave the American people a glimpse into the inner workings of our political, diplomatic and military machinations. We thought that Nash had done his job and we tried to support him.

How did he bring the song to the table?

[Laughter] He sat down and sang it.

But it wasn’t, as you describe in the DVD, with you handing Neil Young a magazine and him firing off Ohio. He brought the song to you?

Well, it’s a very organic thing. We just sit down with each other and sing the song. We used to call it the ‘reality rule’. If you couldn’t sit down and sing the song to somebody and make them feel something, then it wasn’t really done yet or it wasn’t the one. But if you can sit down and sing a song to the other guys and they say, ‘Oh yeah, I get that,’ then it’s real and we do it.

In that book that Graham Nash oversawI’ll use that expressionOff The Record, you talk about the difference between competition and cooperation and you come up with an aurochs line, hunting the wild beast, so to speak. Do songs tend to be brought in a fairly finished state to you as a band?

They grow as they are put into the chemistry. One of us may think up a counter-line, the way we did in Teach Your Children. Or one of us may say, ‘I don’t think that’s the best way to say that. What if you said, ‘Ta-da-da-da-de-da‘?’ We improve each other’s work, we always have.

How has that gone with writing credits therefore? Are you fairly lax about those matters?

Yeah. We’re not doing it to try to get a piece of the pie. We’re doing it to make the song better. Sometimes it’s so absolutely obvious that we’re writing a song together that we give credit to each other. But very often we don’t even bother because we’ve all done it for each other so many times that it’s all balanced out.

What might be an example of credit where credit’s due?

I have a song called Camera [on After The Storm, 1994] that I wrote largely about my father [Floyd Crosby] who was a cinematographer and photographer. I just didn’t have the chorus. Stephen said, ‘It needs a chorus.’ So I said, ‘Well, freakin’ write one!’ And he did – and so it became a Crosby/Stills song. When the guy gives you the whole chorus you really can’t ignore that.

But there have been some pieces where they were just contributions and we don’t beat each other up about that. We didn’t do this to make money. [Guffaws]

You lying toad!

Ahh, we did it with the intention to meet girls… [Still laughing] After we’d gotten the attention of girls we did it because we thought it was the most fun thing we could do. So, we don’t really worry too much about that. We’re not desperate for credit or money – either one. All of us have written well. Anybody who doesn’t know that we can write, sing and play isn’t listening.

So we don’t really agonise over, [mock-indignant tone] ‘Well, I thought those three words up!’ No, we don’t do that.

With the new material on the DVD, had youfor instance, with your Radioroad-tested those songs before the filming?

Yeah. We’ve been doing that one since the beginning of the tour because the guys liked it. It’s part of a record that James and I are making. My son James is the keyboard player. He is a brilliant writer and a much better musician than I am. I’m inordinately proud of him. He and I brought that one to the other guys. We said, ‘We’d like to try this one,’ and they said, ‘Oh, goody.’ They jumped on it. It seems to go down well.

A friend of mine, now dead, came up with a great line. His name was Hamza El Din and…

You know Hamza El Din?

Yeah. Knew him.

You’re talking about the oud player?

The oud and tar player.

I know the instrument you’re talking about and I know the man. Hamza El Din is amazing. Friends with him?

Anyway, Hamza had this wonderful piece called Escalay which means ‘water wheel’. He told me this story that when he was a feisty youngster he played this composition quite fast, you know, as if the water wheel was going round fast. Then when he got older it got slower. And when he got to his mature years it was even slower still. And I wonderedand there are two parts to this [question]how, first, the physicality of playing the music affects you now compared with earlier…

Pretty much the same way. The excitement of playing music has not dimmed. But we do some tricks to try to sustain it. We change the arrangements of things pretty much all the time. We change things night by night. You’ll hear Nash and I take chances with the harmony off the record. We’ll sing something completely different. We do that in order to keep the stuff fresh and to keep ourselves from becoming like a wind-up toy. We constantly try to find new things in the songs to excite us, to get that little thrill out of the song. I think that’s a really healthy thing. I hope that it continues. So far it’s still working really well for us.

One of the things I found interesting is how little you’ve changed the tempos. The arrangements may change but the tempos are fairly fixed.

A tempo is a large part of how the emotional content of the song works. We rarely slow something down or speed it up. We do change the arrangement a lot, but not very much with tempos. You’re very observant there.

I don’t know about observant. I just pay attention.

That’s what I meant.

Since we are of advancing years, you and I both, do you believe in Dr. Stage?

What’s that mean?

If you’re feeling poorly or under the weather or out of salts, when you get on stage you suddenly feel better.


Dr. Stage is an actorly term in England.

You know, I’ve been through a lot. I’ve got a number of things completely bonkered in my health and in my body. But the minute that I start singing I feel wonderful and I don’t notice any of that stuff.

Are you still a record collector?

Yes. In a very specific sense. I do look for two kinds of things.

I look for great singer-songwriters. And sometimes I find them! Somebody like Shawn Colvin or Marc Cohn. Or this young man that I’ve just recently met: Marcus Eaton. You can find them. They’re rare but they do exist.

The other thing I look for is world music, music from other countries and cultures that affects me very strongly. Hamza El Din stunned me as a player, almost as much as Ravi who was the first other-music-stream person to penetrate my consciousness. I thought Ravi Shankar could move a melody around as skilfully as John Coltrane. I was very affected by it and one of the first things that I did when I met the Beatles was to tell George about Ravi. He says, he said, and I don’t know if it’s absolutely true because I wasn’t there, that I was the one to turn him on to Indian music, which obviously affected the hell out of him once he heard it. I don’t know if that’s true but that’s what he said, so I’m goin’ to go with that.

I do really like other kinds of music because it affects me. It widens my palette of colours. It stretches the envelope.

© 2018, Ken Hunt/Swing 51

Have you enjoyed the article? Digg Del.icio.us

Directory of Articles

Most recent Articles