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David Crosby, ’60s Icon of Music, Dies at 81

The revered singer, twice inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, leaves an immense legacy

spinner image David Crosby poses for a portrait in Park City, Utah
Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

Legendary singer-songwriter and guitarist David Crosby, who gained fame in the 1960s with both Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Byrds, died Jan. 19. His wife, Jan, told Variety that Crosby had suffered from a long illness and died “lovingly surrounded by his wife and soulmate Jan and son Django. Although he is no longer here with us, his humanity and kind soul will continue to guide and inspire us. His legacy will continue to live on through his legendary music.”

Crosby grew up in Los Angeles, the son of Oscar-winning cinematographer Floyd Crosby (High Noon), and took to music after dropping out of college. In 1964, he formed the Byrds with Chris Hillman, Gene Clark and Jim McGuinn (later Roger McGuinn). With their 1966 hit “Eight Miles High,” the band helped popularize the California folk-rock style, and would later be cited as one of the first alternative country rock bands.

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Crosby then met Stephen Stills and Graham Nash and formed a trio (eventually adding Neil Young) that became one of the most successful groups of the late ’60s and ’70s. Some of the songs Crosby wrote with the band — “Guinnevere,” “Almost Cut My Hair,” “Long Time Gone,” “Déjà Vu” — became anthems of ’60s culture, particularly after the group played at Woodstock in 1969. Although it was only the band’s second live performance, it forever cemented Crosby — with his long hair, rebelliousness and anti-establishment ways — as one of the seminal icons of the era.

Crosby’s 1971 solo album, If I Could Only Remember My Name, also became a classic, featuring contributions from the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Joni Mitchell. In 2017, Crosby told me that he’d “discovered Joni Mitchell,” and while that wasn’t exactly accurate, he did serve as a nexus between so many singer-songwriters at the time that he was certainly at the center of much of the music of the era. “I collect singer-songwriters,” he said.

Offstage, Crosby’s had issues with drug abuse after he lost a girlfriend in a 1969 car accident. The pain of that tragedy, he said, had turned him from a user to an abuser. In 1985, he spent nine months in prison in Texas on heroin, cocaine and weapons charges. Two other weapons arrests followed, greatly derailing his career.

He cleaned up his life in the ’90s after a 1994 liver transplant (paid for by Phil Collins). In 1997, he appeared on the cover of People with the headline “Confessions of a Coke Addict.” He had some hard-earned advice for fellow addicts: “There are four ways it can go — you can go crazy, you can go to prison, you can die or you can kick.” Still, he swore by cannabis, and said it had helped with his body issues.

Crosby married Jan Dance in 1987, and added Django to his previous children, Erika, Jackie, Donovan and James. James toured and played in Crosby’s band. In 2000, Crosby’s life was again headline news when it was revealed that he was the sperm donor for Melissa Etheridge’s child.

In 2019, Crosby’s life was the focus of Cameron Crowe’s widely praised documentary David Crosby: Remember My Name. It found him mellowed to a degree, but the cranky, unrepentant Crosby was still on display, fighting with his former CSNY bandmates even in absentia.

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At times a softer Crosby appeared, such as when issues of mortality came up. “I’m afraid of dying, and I’m close,” Crosby told Crowe in the film. “I’d like to have more time.”

But when he was on the road, and still playing before the pandemic, Crosby told me he was never happier than onstage. “I do really enjoy telling stories,” he said. “I like to take people on a voyage.”

When I asked him if he could ever have imagined the career and life he had before he started in the ’60s, he said no, not in his wildest dreams. “It’s certainly weird,” he said. “But even though it’s weird, I’m grateful.”​

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