David Crosby, who died Wednesday (Jan. 18) at the age of 81, leaves behind six decades of music in a career that included founding folk-rock trailblazers the Byrds and uniting with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash for one of rock’s first and greatest supergroups, Crosby, Stills & Nash. With Neil Young soon joining the group, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded Déjà Vu, which went platinum seven times over and remains one of the most popular and beloved albums of the 1970s.
Crosby recorded eight solo albums and several others just with Nash, produced Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, and sang harmonies on albums by Phil Collins, Hot Tuna, David Gilmour, and the Indigo Girls. With his signature mustache, mischievous presence, and outspoken politics, he was often the biggest personality among his many superstar collaborators, and in recent years ran the most consistently entertaining Twitter account of any classic rocker. Surviving decades of drug use, health problems, and a stint in prison in the 1980s, Crosby was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame both with the Byrds and CSN. “I should be in there a third time, just to make Clapton jealous,” he joked.
Crosby played and sang on a number of classic songs, from “Turn! Turn! Turn!” to “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” but here’s a look back at 10 of the greatest and most noteworthy compositions on which he was a primary creative force.
10. The Byrds – “What’s Happening?!?!”
Gene Clark and Roger McGuinn wrote most of the original songs on the Byrds’ massively successful first two albums, with Crosby only co-writing “Wait and See” with McGuinn on 1965’s Turn! Turn! Turn! But when Clark left the band in 1966, Crosby stepped up his contributions on Fifth Dimension, co-writing several songs and contributing a couple lines to the psychedelic landmark “Eight Miles High.” Crosby’s first solo songwriting credit on record, “What’s Happening?!?!,” made a minimal, philosophical lyric sound like a pop song with a driving groove and careening guitar leads: “I don’t know how it’s supposed to be / I don’t have the vaguest notion whose it is, or what’s it all for.”
9. Crosby, Stills & Nash – “Wooden Ships”
Crosby and Stills wrote the antiwar epic “Wooden Ships” with Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner, who initially could not be credited as a writer on Crosby, Stills & Nash’s 1969 debut due to a legal dispute with Jefferson Airplane’s management. Later that year, the Airplane released a different arrangement of the song on the album Volunteers, and both bands performed “Wooden Ships” at Woodstock.
8. David Crosby – “What Are Their Names”
In 1971, Crosby released his first solo album, If I Could Only Remember My Name, with an all-star supporting cast. The project was certified gold, but its jazzy explorations were panned by critics like Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau and didn’t yield hit singles like the solo Stills, Nash, and Young material that followed CSNY’s Déjà Vu. Over the next few decades, however, If I Could Only Remember My Name was reappraised as an influential cult classic and reissued multiple times. In a 2021 Rolling Stone piece marking its 50th anniversary, Crosby singled out “What Are Their Names” as a cornerstone of his live repertoire: “I’ve sung it at every gig I’ve ever done since I wrote it. I fuckin’ love it. I think it’s an extremely truthful piece of stuff, and I believe in it.”
7. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – “Compass”
Crosby hit rock bottom as a heroin and cocaine addict in the ‘80s, spending nine months in a Texas prison in 1985 and 1986. “In prison, I woke up in a cell, remembered who I was, and started writing again. And that was the beginning of the road back. ‘Compass’ was the first decent song,” Crosby recounted in the 2019 documentary David Crosby: Remember My Name. The harrowing song about Crosby’s lost decade appeared on 1988’s American Dream, the first studio album by the full CSNY quartet since Déjà Vu.
6. David Crosby – “Time I Have”
Five of Crosby’s eight solo albums were released in the last decade of his life, a renewed prolific period kicked off by 2014’s Croz, recorded in his son James Raymond’s home studio. Crosby focused on vocals on his later albums as tendonitis in his hands hampered his ability to play guitar, but he continued to speak his mind frankly in his lyrics. “People do so many things to make me mad / But angry isn’t how I want to spend what time I have,” he sang on one of the standouts from this late-career high water mark.
5. Crosby & Nash – “Carry Me” (1975)
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young split in 1970, and the quartet splintered into on-again, off-again factions throughout the decade. Crosby and Nash released four albums as a duo, while the Stills-Young Band produced a lone full-length in 1976. “Carry Me” was the lead single from Crosby & Nash’s second set, 1975’s Wind on the Water. The song’s poignant third verse was about the final years of Crosby’s mother, Aliph Van Cortlandt Whitehead, who died in 1973: “She’s smiling but she’s tired, she’d like to hear that last bell ring / You know if she could, she would stand up, and she could sing.”
4. The Byrds – “Lady Friend”
The only Byrds A-side penned solely by Crosby, “Lady Friend” was a non-album single released between 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday and 1968’s The Notorious Byrd Brothers. The song only reached No. 89 on the Billboard Hot 100, but its bright harmonies and surging rhythms marked it as something of a proto-power pop song, later covered by Flamin’ Groovies and the Posies.
3. David Crosby – “Cowboy Movie”
One of Crosby’s more fleeting supergroups was David & the Dorks, the name under which he played the San Francisco club the Matrix with the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, and Mickey Hart in 1970. All three backed Crosby on the eight-minute “Cowboy Movie” from If I Could Only Remember My Name, with lyrics that cast the members of CSNY as characters in a western.
2. Crosby, Stills & Nash – “Guinnevere”
By the time the Byrds made 1968’s The Notorious Byrd Brothers, Crosby was fascinated with jazz and Indian sitar music, and writing increasingly ambitious songs in unorthodox guitar tunings and time signatures like the 5/4 “Tribal Gathering.” The Byrds fired Crosby during the sessions, and while some of his songs remained on the album, Crosby later recalled thinking, “I’m taking ‘Guinnevere’ and my weird tunings with me.” Written in the open tuning EBDGAD, “Guinnevere” ultimately found a home on Crosby, Stills & Nash’s self-titled 1969 debut. Another Notorious Byrd Brothers reject, an infamous ode to a menage-a-trois called “Triad,” was recorded by Jefferson Airplane and performed by Crosby on CSNY’s 4 Way Street.
1. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – “Almost Cut My Hair”
Crosby and the other members of the Byrds transformed from short-haired folkies to long-haired hippies during the band’s first few years together. Even when some reconsidered their hairstyles at the turn of the new decade, Crosby swore off scissors in one of the era’s defining anthems: “I wonder why I feel like letting my freak flag fly / Yes, I feel like I owe it to someone.” It remained Crosby’s signature song for decades, long after his long, flowing hair ceased to ostracize him from polite society, and a killer guitar duel from Stills and Young marks it as a definitive CSNY track.
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