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David Crosby: CSNY’s Secret Weapon

david crosby

By the time Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released their first album Déjà Vu in March 1970, it was apparent to the music press – as well as any listener interested enough to note – that three-quarters of the group could be easily categorized based on their contributions. Stephen Stills was the most overtly musical, tackling the majority of the instruments and performing some of the more intricate backing vocals. Neil Young harbored a lyrical ability that later blossomed on the genuinely staggering On The Beach. Graham Nash, all coiffed hair and angelic falsettos, was the one most at ease on the album covers and in television appearances.

Perhaps because of the way he presented himself, David Crosby was the easiest to ignore in contemporary reviews and the hardest for fans to sink their teeth into – although he demonstrated a willingness to converse with the members of the counterculture who were happily buying tickets to their concerts. But there was also no denying that he was the most interesting of the four and certainly the most thoughtful, imbuing an ambiguity that lingered behind his lyrics and opened themselves to constant re-interpretation.

Crosby’s brooding nature was more noticeable onstage than it was on record. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had spent much of the 1960s harnessing their sound, dividing their attention on a series of projects before uniting under one banner as a vocal quartet. Their tight vocals superseded the stop/start vocalization of The Beatles, earmarking a newer, more angular sound, more in keeping with the ideals American hippies were espousing.

Considering their metier, Stills and Nash were most comfortable singing the band’s commercial songs, but Young also demonstrated a penchant for melody, which was heard on the proto-punk “Ohio.” Crosby, even when he was writing for the albums, seemed better suited to the bluesier songs, which might explain why “Almost Cut My Hair” and “Déjà Vu” sounded so intense, a set of unflinchingly personal songs, with nary a note wasted.

Stills realized that the quartet possessed a versatility that was lost on many of their rivals, and bolstered Crosby’s work with sturdy guitar hooks that best exhibited the former Byrds’ voice. But although Crosby was a fine vocalist – Genesis frontman Phil Collins was eager to work with him on his solo work, and is rumored to have paid for Crosby’s liver transplant in 1994 – his most important influence on the quartet was the manner in which he kept them afloat amongst the tempers that frequently erupted. Indeed, Stills considered him the “glue” that held the four voices together, describing him as “a giant of a musician” in a written statement following Crosby’s death on January 18, 2023.

Like the other members, Crosby remained active as a songwriter outside of their mothership, releasing a series of albums that furthered his idiosyncratic view of the world. Of the four musicians, Crosby seemed most comfortable with the British-born Nash, which might explain why the two of them performed as a duo during the band’s hiatus in 1972; they released five albums in total. “What has always mattered to David and me more than anything,” recalled Nash, “was the pure joy of the music we created together.”

-Eoghan Lyng

Photo: David Crosby, 2012 (Eva Rinaldi via Wikimedia Commons)

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14 comments on “David Crosby: CSNY’s Secret Weapon

  1. Norman Normous

    Yeah, but he was a bit of dick.

  2. Mark Hudson

    Hmm – RIP Croz certainly, but saying “he was the most interesting of the four and certainly the most thoughtful” does rather a disservice to the other three, all immense talents, all interesting and thoughtful!

  3. What does he mean by the stop/start vocalization of The Beatles. It does not sound like a compliment.

  4. Why aren’t you explaining what it means.

  5. Eoghan Lyng

    Means they stopped/started, stopped/started

  6. What do you mean, they stopped/starting playing and singing. It makes no sense at all but sounds like a putdown. I don’t know why you think I am insulted by this. David Crosby himself said The Beatles were his major inspiration as a musician so I doubt he would put them down.

  7. Avi, I think you’re reading too much into it. I think all the author means is that when the Beatles harmonized in their songs, they stopped harmonizing at the end of a phrase or whatever, and you just heard the lead singer sing. Then they did it again. Their harmonies stopped and started in any given song. Whereas CSNY (whose catalog I am not as familiar with), had more than one voice singing pretty much all the way through a song (though the Beatles did something similar, like in “Because”). Maybe that’s what he means? I don’t think it’s a put-down, just a comment on different styles. I think he was just saying CSNY were taking vocal harmonies in a new direction for your standard pop/rock fare. I don’t know what “angular” means….I enjoyed the article.
    Crosby must have really been something. Seems like some of his collaborators struggled to find things to say about him. The power of music, right? Anybody with his reputation in real life would barely rate a mention, but because he had musical talent, we’re all reflecting on his death. Well, I didn’t know the man; hope he’s at peace.

  8. CSN and sometimes Y didn’t always do as you say, they also employed what has been characterized as stop and start in this thread. The Beatles did songs with anywhere from 1 to 3 singers and even occasionally all 4 of them. As far as collaborators struggling it seems the members of CSN and sometimes Y always had a history of challenges with each other, yet all of them made great music for a long, long time.

  9. PHILIPPE RAINAUT

    je pense que les albums CSN, puis +N ne sont qu’un aspect du talent immense de David Crosby, voir entre autres If I only remember my name, et de Stephen Stills , album Stills

  10. I was also curious/confused by the “stop/start vocalization” remark, and by the lack of explanation when Ari first commented. (Also I would think a vocalization or anything else would start before it stopped.) CF’s explanation seems reasonable, but Eoghan didn’t write that, and didn’t reply to CF’s comment. I also take issue with “superseded.” That seems to assign a hierarchy/judgment that may not be appropriate. I have no idea what was meant by “angular sound,” and am curious to know what Eoghan meant by that term. Finally, I think it unlikely that “the ideals American (or any other) hippies were espousing” had anything to do with whether the harmony, no matter the number of singers, continued throughout the entire song or came with a “stop/start” nature of lead vocalist trading off with full harmony. It was an interesting piece, though. I would have thought Crosby could have been able to pay for his liver transplant himself, but perhaps he’d spent all his money on other interests by then.

  11. It’s not unusual for celebrities to end up broke by spending more money than they take in. DC’s lifestyle mandated enromous spending. A really tragic case was Mike Smith, lead singer and chief songwriter for the DC 5. I don’t want to go into the details but I believe it is common knowledge that Clark owned the group, took half the songwriting credits and despite the fact that supposedly he was the great musical force in the group and all his bandmates got were wages until they disbanded after being active about 8 years. Most people in the know feel that Mike was the real talent in the group. When he fell off his fence and ended up a quadriplegic and lived the last 4 years in the hospital some musician friends contributed to get him a speical motorized chair as well as other helpful items. Conspicuously missing from this list was Clark himself. When Mike passed away his estate was worth only $90,000. Unlike Crosby he didn’t squander it as he never had it in the first place. David at least recovered and reportedly had a sizeable estate to his name.

  12. Paul Doherty

    Did he write the Macarena?

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