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David Crosby Talks Record Store Day, Protest Songs, Possible CSNY Reunion: ‘Never Say Never’

Variety logo Variety 4/22/2017 Chris Willman
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The official “ambassador” for Record Store Day 2017 is musician St. Vincent, but the guy behind the event’s official record is David Crosby. With the acoustic ensemble that he took on tour last year, he’s releasing a lovely EP with the unwieldy title “The David Crosby and the Lighthouse Band Record Store Day 10th Anniversary Record,” including new versions of the classics “Woodstock” and “Guinnevere.”

With new versions of those Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young songs destined to echo through speakers again, Variety couldn’t help but ask for his views on any future prospects for that threesome or foursome, as we just did Graham Nash. Like Nash, Crosby sounds surprisingly okay with leaving the door open, though, oddly, given their contentious recent history, it’s Young he seems most okay with meeting up with again. Also discussed: his nuanced views on injecting politics into music, and, naturally, his record shopping habits.

Of all the hundreds of records coming out on Record Store Day, yours is designated “the official RSD 10th Anniversary Record.”

Is it? That’s really nice of them. There are more people than just me that gave them stuff to put out. because there are a whole lot of musicians who really love the idea of Record Store Day, trust me. It’s so tough for us, with streaming killing the record business, that we’re trying to preserve the one place where it’s kind of still working, which is vinyl and little mom-and-pop record stores. I like physical records —  I like having the picture and lyrics and cover. I like every bit of it. I like opening an album.

Do you have a particular store you like to patronize? What was the last record you bought?

I run into them in odd places, like in Europe. I do wind up finding the occasional jazz album that you really didn’t think you’d see. It’s fun. I have a PhD in fun. I go in and I look for myself! And I see if they have any old stuff of mine.

Speaking of old stuff of yours: There seems to be a resurgence of love for your first solo album, “If I Could Only Remember My Name,” from 1971. That album was below the radar for a long time. I understand that the producer of your last studio album, Michael League, of Snarky Puppy, who helmed 2016’s “Lighthouse,” said he wanted to try to go in the vein of that particular album.

Well, it’s a good record. It really has to do with — to use the hippie term — the vibe of it. I was in a very tough place in my life, and a lot of my friends gathered around me and helped me. [Jerry] Garcia came almost every night. That’s how I survived, because it’s the one place I could get happy. You can feel it — it’s a really joyous record. And when I started working with Mike League, I thought, well, he’s got this big band of great jazz players; we’ll use them. And he said, “Nah, you know, I really loved ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name,’ and I’d like to go that direction, with big vocal stacks and intricate acoustic guitar stuff.” Of course that’s right in my wheelhouse; that’s where I live. So I said, “Oh, joy, let’s do that.” I think we’re gonna do another one [in that vein] this fall.

Up until “Croz” three years ago, you had only released three solo records in your life, and the previous one was 21 years earlier. Then you followed it up with “Lighthouse,” and you have a more electric album, “Sky Trails,” coming out this fall, and of course the Record Store Day live EP. That’s a big creative burst for somebody who thought nothing of going decades between releases.

Well, I did put out Crosby, Stills and Nash and Crosby-Nash albums a bunch. But, yeah, I hadn’t done a solo, and now I’ve done three of them in two years. I’m pretty excited about that. One of the songs on this new record is a jazz ballad that Michael McDonald and I wrote together that’s a stunner. And I do one of Joni’s songs on this new Sky Trails record, “Amelia.” You know that one? That’s the most acoustic thing on the electric record.

On the Record Store Day live EP, you do a version of “Woodstock” where you changed all the chords. And it’s not as if Crosby, Stills and Nash hadn’t already changed the chords on that version from Joni Mitchell’s. You revere her so much. Do you call her up and say, “Hey, I think you’re the greatest, and by the way, I’m rewriting your tune”? 

Oh, absolutely! [Laughs] But I do think she’s the best singer/songwriter I’ve ever heard. You know, she and I wrote a really good song together one time, called “Yvette in English.” She put it out and so did I. It’s the only time I’ve ever written with her.

You have a history of political songs, both in CSNY and as a solo artist, so people naturally think of you as a proponent of the protest song. But you’ve also recently been quoted saying there should be limits on that for pop musician. How does your new track “Capitol” fit in?

I think our job as musicians is to make you boogie, or take you on little emotion voyages. I also think every once in a while, we need to remember our roots in the Middle Ages as troubadours and town criers carrying the news. That’s where we came from. But you don’t want to preach at people. It’s better to set an example than to tell people what to do. Show them; do it yourself. Every once in a while, it’s good to see something and point it out honestly and say “This isn’t okay.” We were right about “Ohio.” America shooting its own children was wrong. We did a righteous job. … But it should only be [done] in exceptional circumstances.  Writing “Capitol,” it is an exceptional circumstance. Our congress has the lowest approval rating in history, because they do absolutely nothing except line their own pockets. There’s nobody in Washington working for you. It’s a corporatocracy, and that’s not okay.

Could you imagine writing a Trump song?

Yeah, except it’s hard to use that many swear words in a song.

You’ve said you had a rush of creative energy getting out of CSN, about which you used the phrase “not engendering any joy.”

Well, it’s a normal thing that happens with bands. You start out and you’re really liking each other and you’ve really got a bunch of fresh music to play and it’s really fun. When it gets to “just turn on the smoke machine and play your hits,” and you don’t like each other, and it’s really a grind, and you’re just doing it for the money, that could kill music in your heart, and that’s no good. At a certain point you have to look at that and say, “Oop, no, this is pretty dangerous territory. I’m gonna do something that’s closer to my heart.” Which is what I did.

It must be nice to finally be able to book your own calendar for years to come and know group obligations won’t get in the way.

I’m not saying I won’t do it. If Neil wanted to do CSNY, I’d do it. I like playing with Neil. He’s a very fascinating guy, and he always wants to push the envelope. So if he called me up and said he wanted to do CSNY, I’d do it. I like that music. It’s fun.

That seems kind of surprising to hear from you, because you’ve had very forthright opinions about the guys and about the band. But you don’t feel like you’re the sticking point in anything.

You never say never. It’s just too silly. It’s simple: I don’t have an attitude, man.

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