Monday, January 23, 2023


Photo by David Ochs
 David Crosby, RIP. He was a wonderful singer who revolutionized folk harmonies, fusing them with the electric strum of loud rock. As a member of the Byrds he played a large part in creating a new genre that influenced thousands of musicians and hundreds of bands, an impact that is still hard today in younger artists. He wrote or cowrote a fair number of genius songs --"Why", "Eight Miles High", "Triad", "Everyone's Been Burned", "Dolphin Smile", "Draft Morning", "What's Happening", "Deja Vu", among others. When the key vocalist and principal songwriter Gene Clark left the Byrds after the second album, he and the other members of the band stepped up their songwriting chops and kept the Byrds a fresh, vital, and energetic sound. Sometimes, he was inconsistent in quality as a songwriter, and wallowing in sheer hippie muddleheadness.  "Almost Cut My Hair"? --but his best songs are among the best of the period. You can go so far that the songs achieve the elusive quality of being timeless in steeply musical terms. The hooks still seduce you; the melodies continue to set a seamless mood; the words evoke atmospheres and situations that refuse the taint of age. Crosby's best words, melodies, and vocals returned you precise moments of wonder.  I can't think of any ballads that set a higher mark than "Everyone's Been Burned" or "Triad". His genuinely splendid work is thin, however, being his studio work with the Byrds and the first two CSN (and Y) releases. I only lent half an ear to his work after those discs and found them inconsistent--some good, some dreadful, some simply unmemorable. Crosby's legacy is secure, though, as he always will be THAT GUY in the Byrds and THAT GUY in CSN (and Y) who help create music that hasn't, on its terms, been equaled. 

An issue I've always had with the original edition of the Byrds' last release in the original formation, The Notorious Byrds Brothers (1968), was the omission of two A plus Crosby compositions, "Triad" and "Lady Friend".  The latter was their previous single, released due to Crosby's conviction that it would be a hit, but it charted poorly on the Billboard charts. The singer's stock within the band fell dramatically according to various accounts, and members Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman chose to release a Gerry Goffman-Carol King tune "Going Back", a saccharine imitation of a Byrds-like song that did, however, do far better on the charts than did "Lady Friend" Tensions within the band were already at a breaking point, much of due to Crosby's habit of giving extended political raps between songs during live performances. After some arguments over Crosby's songs, McGuinn and Hill fired the aggrieved singer and released Notorious Byrd Brothers. Notorious could have been their best album had they passed up on the Goffin-King songs "Goin' Back" and Wasn't Born to Follow" and instead used Crosby's "Triad" and "Lady Friend". 

I'm a decades long admirer of the Goffin and King songwriter team, but their contributions to this album never sat well with me; they sound false, and a bit contrived to construct folk-rock message songs tailored to the band's image. Something like "lets write a Dylan like song that would a sure fire hit for the Byrds." The irony has always been that the Byrds were on the leading edge of a musical movement where lyrics were authored by band members and attempted more depth of feeling and imagery. I suppose by the time NBB came along the originality they introduced to rock had already become clichés and tropes, firmly embedded in the archive of go-to style moves and were ready for weak imitation and outright parody. "Goin' Back" and "Wasn't Born to Follow" sound like parodies, intended or not, and they spoil an otherwise fine album. Crosby seemed to have become a species of professional celebrity, famous for being famous, and I wish he had more brilliant collaborating years than there were. But so many artists become and remain celebrities with inflated reputations on dramatically less quality work than Crosby produced, which is to say that the late singer-songwriter's contributions were tremendous and, most importantly, they were advancements in craft and harmony that still matter over half a century later.  God bless him for that much.

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