David Crosby has winged to a higher place. A true original of the 1960s and beyond, Crosby enchanted us with his music – and often unsettled us with his words. He liked to provoke people, raise them from their comfortable slumber. The Byrds fired him for being so “outspoken” – that was the word used in the New York Times obit. According to the San Francisco Chronicle obit, Crosby – who died at his horse ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley (California) on Wednesday surrounded by his family – former friends like even the forgiving Graham Nash were no longer speaking with him. “They actively hated him,” according to the Chronicle obit.
Crosby himself admitted that he was often hard to take. But sometimes it’s the obnoxious ones who speak the truth. Crosby was one of the ‘60s rock legends who dared to know. He encouraged band mate Neil Young to write the searing song “Ohio” after National Guard soldiers fired into a crowd of Kent State students protesting the Vietnam War. After Senator Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down, killing the dreams of all those who yearned for a more just and peaceful country, Crosby wrote “Long Time Gone” for his “super group” Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young).
Onstage at the now-iconic Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, Crosby took over the Byrds’ between-song patter. Introducing the song about JFK “He Was a Friend of Mine” by band mate Roger McGuinn, Crosby stunned the audience. Even though the song seemed to pin the Kennedy assassination on Lee Harvey Oswald (“from a sixth-floor window a gunman shot him down”), Crosby made the following statement:
“When President Kennedy was killed, he was not killed by one man. He was shot from a number of different directions by different guns. The story has been suppressed, witnesses have been killed. And this is your country, ladies and gentlemen.”
After the song, referring to his courageous statement, Crosby commented, “As I said, they will censor it, I’m sure. They can’t afford to have things like that on the air. It’d blow their image.”
David Crosby was known for his angelic harmonies. And for his prodigious drug-taking, which the obits lingered on. But I’ll also remember him for his political boldness.
Looking back on the 1960s and '70s years later, Crosby told the Chronicle, "I don't think it was for nothing. We did manage to stop the Vietnam War, and we did some good work for civil rights. Music is a great tool for propagating ideas. Ideas are the most powerful thing on the planet. Underline that."
That devil-may-care attitude of Crosby and other counter-cultural leaders, that willingness – that DRIVE – to speak the unspeakable is what shimmers from that time. It still lights our way forward.