A FREAK FLAG FLIES BEFORE THE DAWN: The Strange Saga of David Crosby’s Saved, and Savored, Life

David Crosby in his Byrds days, circa 1966.

David Crosby in his Byrds days, circa 1966.

The Cheshire Cat grins. Did he just eat Alice?

The Cheshire Cat grins. Did he just eat Alice?

And speaking of cats, here's whiskers #1 and whiskers #2 in repose.

And speaking of cats, here’s whiskers #1 and whiskers #2 in repose.

David Crosby flying high with fellow Byrds Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman.

David Crosby flying high with fellow Byrds Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman.

12 Jul 1970, USA --- Musician David Crosby smokes a cigarette while Neil Young looks on. They are in a backstage bathroom. --- Image by © Henry Diltz/CORBIS

12 Jul 1970, USA — Musician David Crosby smokes a cigarette while Neil Young looks on. They are in a backstage bathroom. — Image by © Henry Diltz/CORBIS

Some guys called Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Some guys called Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

David Crosby turns an improbable 72 today, August 14. If the mustachioed muso were a cat, he’d have used up the lion’s share of his nine lives by now — but David Crosby being David Crosby, he’d probably figure out a way to make it to ten. Call it good fortune or luck, miracle or circumstance, but the man was right when he once told me that the truths of his sometimes tumultuous, often remarkable, life were stranger than fiction. You’ll have to read my story below to find out what I mean (and this is a piece, by the way, written before it became publicly known that he had served as the sperm donor to singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge and her partner, thus adding a new chapter to Crosby’s Ripley-esque book of believe-it-or-nots. And it was a chapter that, apparently, at least one of the trashy supermarket rags wanted badly to publish.

After I had written and published a couple of pieces based around Crosby’s good-spirited conversation with me (a shorter version of the story below was originally published in The Boston Herald in July 1998; the other was a Q&A-format interview with Crosby for RollingStone.com), I got a call from one of the more notorious supermarket tomes. Inquiring minds (no, not that one) wanted to know: Would I be interested in selling (turning over) my interview notes with David to them? For the princely sum of $150? It was an opening bid, perhaps, but no amount of money, no matter how tempting, would have persuaded me to breach the trust that would have been violated had I handed over my notes to a third-party — especially one that definitely didn’t want to do David any favors. Moreover, these fine folks clearly weren’t interested in having me write anything, even though part of me thought of it as a potential challenge for a nanosecond: Hell, I can do sleazy! I can do salacious! I’ve read all about Liz and Dick and Burt and Sally and Dinah and Michael and Liz and Bubbles and Tommie Lee and Pam and Jen and Brad and Angelina. I go to the grocery store too.

But nah, these folks didn’t just want a green rookie’s grass stains on the uniform, they wanted the dirt to stick. They had pros mixing up the mud. But even this they tried to sell to me as a positive: You don’t even have to DO anything; we’ll do all the work! 

Asking me to write it up for some decent moolah might have made things slightly more complicated for an unsalaried freelancer who only got paid per hustled, published piece. But I was pretty appalled by the notion of selling my notes. (Plus, uh, the money sucked). So I politely declined and asked why they didn’t just reach out to Crosby’s publicist and arrange for an interview themselves? They turned evasive. Nobody, it seemed, was returning their calls. Apparently, David Crosby had stood in a few supermarket checkout lines of his own and had read some of those tastefully understated headlines over the years (“Fat Elvis Spotted Eating Glazed Doughnut At 7-11 off New Jersey Turnpike!” “Alien Abducts Priscilla’s Love Child With Elvis’s Evil Twin!”). He knew what was likely in store: “Hippie Rocker David Crosby Becomes Dad and Grandpa In Same Day After Losing Liver To Liquor, Drugs! Elvis Absconds With Baby”  (You knew The King had to be lurking somewhere in the vicinity). It’s just a good thing for David Crosby that I didn’t need that hundred and fifty bucks that year.

There was a time when David Crosby didn’t think he’d live to see his 30th birthday. So he’s as surprised as anyone that now, at age 57, his life has instead become a series of new, remarkable beginnings.

“If you were writing fiction and tried to sell the story, man, they’d say it was too far out,” says Crosby, a two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee for his work with two of the most celebrated groups in rock history, the Byrds and, of course, Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young).

The story Crosby is talking about involves not his glory years of music and stardom with those two bands, but rather the dark decades and myriad scary moments that followed. There were Crosby’s well-publicized battles with drug addiction. His first solo album, released in 1971, was perhaps prophetically entitled, “If I Could Only Remember My Name.” (That album has also now come to be regarded as a musical masterpiece; a sublimely excursive example of psychedelicized Laurel Canyon folk rock with Crosby’s crystalline tenor, pure as a mineral spring, front and center). There were the ugly drug and weapons-related dust-ups and arrests (which eventually, in 1985, led to a one-year prison term on weapons charges).

But there was also a life-saving liver transplant in 1995 that enabled him to witness the birth of his child. And now, the newest addition to Crosby’s story and saga is that of light, not darkness: his discovery of a son who had been given up for adoption more than 30 years before.

Incredibly, the relationship that grew out of that discovery between the singer and his grown offspring, James Raymond — who also happens to be a musician  — has culminated in a musical collaboration called CPR (an acronym for Crosby, Raymond, and longtime CSN touring musician Jeff Pevar — as well as another slightly more obvious life-saving measure). The band, which Crosby says will have no bearing on his day job with CSN,  has just released an  eponymous debut album and is  even undertaking a tour.

Three years later, Crosby still can’t quite believe what’s happened to him.

“Most kids who have been adopted never find out that they’re adopted or who their parents are,” Crosby says. “The fact that we found each other after all this time was a miracle. The odds that he’d also be a musician are ten times longer. If I hadn’t had that one-day-at-a-time thing happening with my life, I would’ve gotten swamped emotionally. But that stuff really works in helping you deal with overwhelming events if you practice it seriously. Ever since I went through the almost-dying thing, I’ve tried very hard to live in the present and take life a little bit at a time.”

“But the combination of those events was still pretty overwhelming,” he admits. “When we met, I was pretty choked up.”

Raymond’s adoptive parents (“two of the sweetest people you’d ever want to  meet,” says Crosby) reached out to the singer while he was recovering from his liver transplant. They told him that he had a son who wanted to meet him. Earlier,  Raymond — who knew he was adopted as an infant — had been encouraged by his mother and father to seek his birth parents under California’s family adoption laws. So at age 30, curious and spurred on by their support, Raymond started looking. When he saw whose name was listed on the adoption papers, Raymond was stunned.

“Part of me thought, this has got to be a different David Crosby,” Raymond recalls in a separate interview. “But deep down inside, I felt like it was probably him because I had played music my whole life.” His mom confirmed that the identity of Raymond’s biological father was indeed that David Crosby. The two met face-to-face for the first time at UCLA Medical Center, where Crosby was undergoing tests related to his liver transplant. “We were both really nervous,” says Raymond, “but I instantly realized that he was a really good guy and I think he realized that I didn’t have any ‘issues’ with him.”

In another strange twist of fate and Kismet, Raymond’s wife gave birth to their child one day after he had met his biological father for the first time. “He became a father, and met his father within 24 hours,” muses Crosby in jovial disbelief. “Some of it’s just too absurd.” A similar double whammy hit Crosby. Having been granted a new lease on life in recent years with both his liver transplant and new fatherhood, Crosby found out that he was now also the biological father of another son, who had — in one fell swoop — simultaneously made him a grandfather.

Curiosity and a shared bloodline may have brought Crosby and Raymond together, but a different kind of bond brought CPR together as a band — a shared love of music.  Raymond, a composer in his own right with a lifetime love of jazz and R&B, is even scoring a new CBS television series (set in Boston) this fall, “To Have and To Hold.” But when Crosby handed him some lyrics to what would become the first track on the new album, “Morrison,” Raymond says he was a tad intimidated. “It was very daunting, because (David’s) written some amazing songs, and here I am with my piddly little songs,” says Raymond with a laugh. “But I felt I could learn a thing or two from him.”

One piece of advice Crosby would offer aspiring songwriters is to write music as true to one’s own life experiences and perspective as possible, rather than indulge in what he calls “abstract lyrics” that may be more clever than meaningful. Granted, he readily concedes that his has been a particularly “intensely lived” existence with — how shall we put this? — a lot of raw material to draw upon. But on a new Crosby-penned CPR song, “Rusty and Blue,” Crosby keeps it simple: “People fascinate me / All my life.” It’s a straightforward yet subtly beguiling and layered line. So what is it, exactly, about the people he’s met along the way that fascinates David Crosby?

“People’s fear fascinates me; people’s courage and intelligence fascinate me,” he says. “But I think more than anything, it’s people’s compassion for each other that fascinates me and draws me in completely. I love that about human beings, although I don’t think having a sense of compassion is all that common, unfortunately. But it’s something that should be celebrated.”

Speaking of “celebrated,” Crosby is refreshingly self-deprecating and good-humored when talking about his other, far more famous band’s lasting legacy, which is destined to endure well beyond CSN&Y’s existence. As for pinpointing the source of that group’s timeless appeal? Crosby chuckles. “It’s gotta be the songs, man. We’re certainly not doing it on our looks!”

But that’s another tale for tomorrow. For today, at least, Crosby sounds like he’s genuinely having a blast writing and performing with a couple of guys not named Stills, Nash, or sometimes Young.  “The working chemistry between the three of us is amazing; we write like crazy,” Crosby gushes. “It’s been really good. And it’s not like I’m quitting my day job — I love working with CSN — but it’s a great gift to be able to do something brand new. You need that. At this stage of my life, I don’t want to stay in one place too long without moving forward, without trying something new.”

Besides, Crosby claims he was immediately impressed with Raymond’s talent. “I’m not just saying this,” says Crosby, “but he’s ten times the musician I’ve ever been and that’s no exaggeration.”  If those sound like the words of a typical father bragging about his son, well, that’s because they are.

Listen to “Draft Morning,” one of David Crosby’s best songs that he wrote while in the Byrds, and which appeared on their 1968 album, “The Notorious Byrd Brothers,” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6pb2pLeR_s

Listen to David Crosby’s “Cowboy Movie” (with a guitar riff possibly nicked from Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher” by who cares? Great stuff!) from his classic “If I Could Only Remember My Name” here (and then go buy this album, you will NOT be disappointed, trust me): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xys5Lh37e2c&list=PLjyeMemtzri7x2upYxEQk7IBNwbag2Tcd

Listen to “Tamalpais High/At About 3” and much more (when the song ends it should automatically proceed to the LP’s next track), also from “If I Could Only Remember My Name” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVyYpibzlPk&list=PLjyeMemtzri7x2upYxEQk7IBNwbag2Tcd

Listen to David Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair” from CSN&Y’s “Deja Vu” album here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4YpqRPLIWc

Listen to David Crosby’s “Long Time Gone” from CSN’s 1969 self-titled debut album here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hi0CmCveFB8

Watch and listen as Crosby and Graham Nash perform a gorgeously pitch-perfect reading of David’s composition, “Guinevere,” live for a BBC television special in 1970 here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPvOTVVbMko

A little crazy with the Cheese-whiz links here, I know, but you have GOT to see and hear Tom Jones kick it with Neil Young and CS&N on “Long Time Gone” here (last one, I promise): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Kg0v0Er8Ak

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