Carrying on for love and money

April 25, 2002


At age 60, David Crosby is opinionated, contentious, and more than a little bit egotistical.

Of course, as a founding member of two of the most renowned bands in rock history--the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young--plenty of fans would say that heís more than entitled to be.

CSN & Y makes an encore appearance at the United Center tonight, one of the final gigs of its triumphant reunion tour. (Tickets remain at $40.50, $56, $86 and $226 plus Ticketmaster fees; call 312-559-1212.) I spoke with the legendary Baby Boom icon Tuesday as he prepared for the show.


Q. Youíre stopping at the United Center for the second time on this CSN & Y reunion tour. Will it be as exciting for you as the first time?


A. Itís completely different every time. There are so many variables in the audience, and in the acoustic space, and in our psyches when we arrive at the stage and how things actually just fall together when we play that itís never the same twice. Itís an adventure ride every night; you get out there and you start and then it goes some place, and you really have no idea where itís gonna go. We try on purpose not to do it the same every time. We vary the set and we play the songs differently and take chances in them.


Q. When itís CSN, youíll play one size venue thatís considerably smaller. Then you add that last letter and itís another story. Is it two completely different bands from your perspective as well?


A. Neil [Young] is bigger by himself than the three of us are together. Heís a huge star, so when he adds himself to the mix, we play much, much bigger places. But itís different musically, too. When we play Crosby, Stills & Nash, thereís more concentration on the three-part [harmonies], and we donít have the excitement of the guitar conversations that Neil and Stephen [Stills] have, which is a large part of the attraction of the band. I think actually--and Iíll probably get in trouble for this--we were, if not the first jam band, one of the first jam bands. Because what happened with us was weíd have the ability when playing a song like ďDown by the RiverĒ to stretch out on it, and they would take it places. Now that I look back on it, I donít remember anybody doing that before us.


Q. But there was always that key difference in that there was always a song there.


A. Always a song. We like content.


Q. A lot of the jam bands today lose that, but I agree about your influence on that world. Didnít you craft the harmonies for the Grateful Dead on ďAmerican BeautyĒ and ďWorkingmanís DeadĒ?


A. No, we didnít do it, they just gave us credit for inspiring them. People said, ďHey, you guys are singing three-part harmonies. What happened?Ē And they said, ďWe listened to Crosby, Stills & Nash and we liked it.Ē


Q. Speaking of ancient history, as a member of the Byrds, youíre a seminal figure in psychedelic rock whoís been credited with introducing the sitar to Western pop. Early in your career, you played with Les Baxter, who wrote some of Martin Dennyís best cocktail-lounge exotica. Is that where the interest in world rhythms and exotic instruments came from?


A. What the story is is that we listened to a lot of different kinds of music--folk music, music from other countries, Indian music, jazz--and we let it affect us. We let it seep into and change the songwriting, and I think that was good. That helped us push the envelope a lot.


Q. Do you hear that in many bands today?


A. I think too much today they try to imitate each other. They want to sound like whateverís winning at the top, so they try to clone themselves off whoever is the hip thing of the week rather than try to invent their own music.


Q. One of the charms of the psychedelic era was that there were no boundaries.


A. Well, there were far fewer boundaries, but it was a different era in a lot of ways. The business was completely different; the record companies were still run by people that liked music. Last year, a quarter of the record business was owned by a whiskey company, and they sold it to a French water company. How much of that music do you think a French water company executive knows? Iíll tell you: Nothing. There are a lot of things that have changed what you can get away with, how much experimentation you can do. The record companies donít want any. They wouldnít know a song if it flew up their nose and died. And MTV and VH1 have had a very bad effect, because theyíve turned it from being a musical experience to being a theatrical experience. So 99 percent of the music that is out there now is about form rather than substance. Itís about do you look cute, do you have nice tits, do you have a flat tummy, and can you dance? Thatís O.K. for 13-year-olds, but it really cuts the singer-songwriters right out of the loop, because weíre about substance rather than form.


Q. I donít know how much you listen to the rock underground, but there are cyclical movements where people sort of rediscover the music of the Byrds, whether it was R.E.M. or Tom Petty in the early days, or bands like Wilco and the Waxwings today. Does that register much with you?


A. No, not really.


Q. You make a point of saying youíre anti-nostalgia. As someone who was born in 1964, Iíve always resented the notion that because I wasnít at Woodstock, I missed out on everything. Hell, Iíve been to raves in muddy fields in Wisconsin that had to have been as good as Woodstock. I saw the movie, and it wasnít that good!


A. No, no! Woodstock itself wasnít that big a deal, it was that we became self-aware as a subculture that there were that many of us.


Q. When I first saw you perform as a teenager, it was an influential experience. The top ticket price for this tour, after Ticketmaster add-on fees, is $244. A 17-year-old who wants to see you today and see what all the fuss is about is going to have a hard time paying that price.


A. When you were a kid, man, the dollar was worth about 10 times what it is now; $244 now is about $24 10 years ago. Thatís one thing. The second thing is we donít set the prices. The promoters buy the entire tour, they pay us our fee, and they set the prices. We donít have anything to do with it.


Q. Thatís not true. If you wanted to play for $30 a ticket, you could.


A. Sure, and then we would lose money. I guess you donít understand how much it costs to put a tour on the road.


Q. Yes I do. But somebody like Blink-182 can play the United Center and fill it and charge $30 or $35, and thereís no way Clear Channel would do the show if they werenít making money. The promoter and the band are making money, but itís a little less money than youíre making.


A. Well, my advice to you is donít go. If itís too much money for you, you definitely shouldnít go.


Q. But donít you know what Iím saying, David?


A. No, I donít. What youíre saying I think is full of bull----. If you donít want to pay the money, you should definitely not come. As a matter of fact, we wonít miss you, because all the seats will be sold.


Q. Thatís the capitalist argument.


A. Iím definitely a capitalist.


Q. So am I. I get paid by the newspaper, and I appreciate that. But is there a cap on how high ticket prices can or should go?


A. You got me, chief. Weíre selling tickets. What can I tell ya?


Q. So you donít understand why I ask?


A. No, not really.


Q. I read and enjoyed your autobiography, Long Time Gone. Thatís now 14 years old, and so much has happened since then: You cleaned up, you reunited the band, you conquered your health problems, you had a child with Melissa Etheridge. Any plans to write part two?


A. Yeah, I wrote it too soon. I have offers to do a part two, the stuff we didnít tell you the first time, and I probably will, when I get time. Telling all that stuff, writing it down, is a very cathartic experience; you can look at your experiences and say, ďJesus, how did I do that? How did I get to there?Ē And then you learn from it and hopefully you set it down and then you can not carry it around as baggage. You canít really go forward in life too well with a lot baggage. You have to look at stuff, learn from it, and then set it down, and the process of writing is very good for that.


Q. Whatís the difference between writing songs and prose?


A. Itís completely different. Songs just come by inspiration, and prose you can sit down in the morning and say, ďO.K., at 9:30, weíre starting to write.Ē Dylan used to get up in the morning and sit down before anybody else was awake and just type out two or three genius songs and then say, ďTime for breakfast.Ē But not many people can do that.


Q. What inspires you to write these days?


A. Mostly love. Love between family, love between lovers, love lost, love found, love triumphing over disasters. The most fascinating thing about human beings is that they can love.


Q. Whatís next for you on the artistic horizon?


A. Iíve been alternating this band with my little band, CPR, the band with my son and James Raymond. We play tiny little places and make absolutely no money. We have yet to make a dime, but we have played some truly wonderful music, and I may go out with that band again just for artistic satisfaction. Itís an amazing band, but itís certainly not a commercial band.


Q. Do you think CSN will be able to twist Neilís arm into doing this again?


A. Oh, you canít twist Neilís arm. Heís the 600-pound gorilla. If he wants to do it again, I will do it again, because I love working with him. Heís a fantastic artist. And if youíre going to have somebody be the leader of the group, itís nice to have a functioning genius take the job.


Q. One last question: Youíre an icon to a generation that rose up and stopped a war. There are now 72 million members of Generation Y. What is the challenge for them?


A. I think there are several. The first one is not to pass along to your children the mistakes that your parents made. Thatís the most heroic thing you can do: Do a better job of parenting your kids. The second thing is--and I wrote a book about, Stand and Be Counted--is that you can make a difference. A single human being can make a difference, and if you donít know that, you should study the life of Gandhi. Too many people now thing, ďOh, you fight city hall.Ē Youíre right; thereís a huge juggernaut of city hall out there, but you can fight it. It took us 10 times as long as we thought it would to stop the Viet Nam war, but we did, and you can. You can make a difference, you can stand up. Acts of exemplary humanity inspire other human beings to want to stand next to you, and if thereís anything that will put us in a better place as a country and as a human race, itís that. Itís being willing to stand on principle and stick up for what you believe in.


Q. And where does the musician fit in that?


A. The musicianís in a really wonderful place. Part of our job has always been being the troubadour, telling whatís happened over the hill in the next town. Part of our job has also been the town crier: ďItís 11:30 and all is well!Ē Or, ďItís 12 oíclock and itís not so damn good!Ē I think thatís part of our job and we learned it from heroes like Pete Seeger, and I donít think weíre all gonna forget that. Thereís plenty of young bands who have a lot of social conscience and who are not going to buy into the conglomerization which is a terrible f---ing trend, and they are not going to simply buy the government line. Theyíre going to be themselves and speak out for their own hearts and minds.