By Ron Lancia

Vista Cruising Volume VIII: The Day the ’60s Died

There is no way to truly measure the loss of David Crosby. To use a description from Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, “Only those who talk their talk through the gold of curved metal, or in the touch of black-and-white rectangles and taut skins and strings echoing from wooden corridors, could give true form to his life.” The pieces of Croz’s life “could become coherent only in the head of a musician.”

And as a writer, I’ll leave it to those with more expertise in the area to try to articulate Crosby’s musical influence. It is important to note that before his iconic work with CSN, his resume includes being a founder of the Byrds, whose song “Eight Miles High” bridges folk and psychedelic rock. From there, Crosby continued to be a cultural conduit, connecting everyone – folkies and hippies, Southern Cross sailors, and main street America.

Admittedly, I tend to view an event like this through skull-and-rose colored glasses and focus myopically on its intersection with the Grateful Dead, so forgive me as this piece meanders there.

For as much as the Dead was an experiment in collaboration, Jerry Garcia was unquestionably the leader of the band. In groups like CSN and the Beatles, that line of demarcation was not as clear. Metaphorically, Crosby struck me as the Lennon of the group, the political firebrand.

Only a portion of the classics released by Crosby, Stills, and Nash were penned by Crosby, but while Beatles songs are often quite distinctly Lennon or McCartney to the ear, that is not the case with CSN because of the signature harmony that is their legacy. This ultimately led to Crosby’s direct contribution to the Grateful Dead.

That timeless and mellifluous pedal steel on “Teach Your Children” was provided by none other than a first take from Jerome John Garcia. In a hippie quid pro quo, along with Nash gifting Jerry his Fender Strat (now known as Alligator), the guys from CSNY would help the boys work with their harmonies. As Billy Kreutzmann reveals in Deal, Crosby gave the band “hands on instruction” when they were recording what would become a mainstream treasure, and certainly a mainstay of the band, American Beauty. In Sandy Troy’s Captain Trips, Garcia revealed that album, along with another classic Workingman’s Dead, “was really the result of hanging out with Crosby and those guys…”

The “cross pollination” that Crosby described between musicians who hang out and jam as friends does not end there. If you haven’t already, you should go listen to the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra (PERRO) recordings, a holy grail of sorts found in old rehearsal archives. This radiant gem features a veritable who’s who of San Francisco musicians, including Garcia, Phil Lesh, Airplane’s Paul Kantner, and Crosby, and their anthemic “The Mountain Song”.

His orbit includes the incomparable Joni Mitchell, who broke up with Crosby via “That Song About the Midway” when she sang, “Wearin’ wings, do you tape them to your shoulders just to sing.” When I caught the seismic “Woodstock” encore during CSN’s opening set before my first Dead show at Three Rivers Stadium in 1990, I lived under the mistaken assumption for years that it was their song until I discovered it was written by Joni Mitchell, who hadn’t even attended the 1969 festival.

Certainly, the spirit and the zeitgeist of that era will never be extinguished, but in my estimation until his passing no other surviving artist embodied and personified the ‘60s more than David Crosby. He was, in a sense, the last bastion of the counterculture, lyrically captured by his incandescent “Almost Cut My Hair:”

It happened just the other day, it’s gettin’ kinda long
I could-a said, “It was in my way”
But I didn’t and I wonder why
I feel like letting my freak flag fly
Yes I feel like, I owe it to someone

And if applied to today’s global conflicts, Crosby’s (with Stephen Stills and Paul Kantner) post-apocalyptic “Wooden Ships” is as relevant today as it was when it was played by both Airplane and CSN at Woodstock:

If you smile at me, I will understand
‘Cause that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language
I can see by your coat, my friend, you’re from the other side
There’s just one thing I got to know
Can you tell me please, who won?

The timelessness of his contribution is the cultural impact of David Crosby. I first heard these songs in the backseat of my parent’s car on a Sunday morning, and I sing them full volume with my children in our house even today. They are pieces of Americana that bridge generations.

David, we will remember your name.

If you would like to go Vista Cruising through previous articles, check out:

Volume I: Elliptic Windows: A historical piece which includes rare material from Robert Hunter

Volume II: A Vulcanized Constitution: A timeless tale involving Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady

Volume III: Feast of Diamonds: An interview 11 years after Jerry’s passing with David Gans

Volume IV: I Still Believe in Santa Claus:  A holiday message as 2023 comes into view

Volume V: Scrap of Moonlight: Robert Hunter’s post-GD additions to the canon

Volume VI & VII: Miles Invents Fusion Music and Jerry and Ornette Out of Space

Ron Lancia is a school teacher in the San Diego area—as a matter of fact, he was Schoolteacher of the Year recently—and he knows stuff. He’ll be one of WON’s regular contributors.