“I’ve got to make the most of every minute I have,” David Crosby told Rolling Stone in 2018. “Wouldn’t you?” He was on his third or fourth life by then — the golden-voiced, long-haired, cantankerous, beatific American original who was there to invent folk-rock with the Byrds in the mid-Sixties, to redefine the supergroup with Crosby, Stills, and Nash a few years later, and to remain unquestionably himself through all the decades of gorgeous harmonies and outrageous opinions that followed. In his final years on this planet, Croz seemed renewed, making some of his best records ever and sounding humbled in interviews like that one in 2018. His death at age 81 leaves an irreplaceable space in music. Here are his greatest songs.
“Turn, Turn, Turn” (1965)
Crosby didn’t write or take the lead vocal on the Byrds’ chart-topping cover of Pete Seeger’s Bible-derived folk classic, but he did arrange the unforgettable vocal harmonies, as he did throughout his tenure in the band. It’s impossible to imagine this song without Crosby’s high parts floating above McGuinn’s lead on the refrain — a sound that inspired countless harmony-rich folk and rock acts in the decades to come. — B.H.
“Renaissance Fair” (1967)
Of all the original Byrds, Crosby was always the hippest and hippie-est, from his capes to his increasingly long locks. His open tunings, ethereal melodies, and elliptical lyrics captured that vibe, too, as heard on this ode to a land of “cinnamon and spices” with a “kaleidoscope of colors” from Younger Than Yesterday. This was inspired by actual Renaissance fairs in L.A. at the time. “They were the first large gatherings of hippies,” he said in the notes to his box set Voyage, “even before the Be-Ins.” This song, he said, “gave you a taste of what it was like.” — D.B.
“Everybody’s Been Burned” (1967)
Amid cycles of psychedelic chords, Crosby wrote lyrics about coming to terms with being hurt for this contemplative deep cut. “Everybody has been burned before,” opens the song. “Everybody knows the pain.” Crosby had written the tune, whose jazzy voicings allowed for an avant-garde guitar solo, a few years before he joined the group, and years later he still recognized it as a songwriting breakthrough, calling it “the first actually passable song that I wrote” in a 1995 interview. “‘Everybody’s Been Burned’ was most characteristic of what was to become my style,” he said in ’84, “pretty changes, an unusual feel and flavor — plus good words.” — K.G.
Crosby’s relentless drive to push the Byrds into new realms — so effective when he turned his bandmates on to Coltrane and raga for “Eight Miles High” in 1966 — met its limit two years later with this frank threesome proposition. “I love you too, and I don’t really see,” he crooned over the band’s smoky slow-burn, “why can’t we go on as three?” Those words were risqué enough to get him axed from the band in the fall of 1968, after Croz fought unsuccessfully for the song’s inclusion on The Notorious Byrd Brothers amid growing conflicts with bandmates Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. (Jefferson Airplane, always game for a provocative gesture, went on to cover it; the Byrds’ original studio recording of “Triad” wouldn’t be released til years later as a bonus track.) “At least one group of people was very uptight by that song,” Crosby told Rolling Stone’s Ben Fong-Torres in 1970, after he’d landed happily in CSN. “This band is not uptight behind that song at all, having been through similar experiences.” — S.V.L.
Imagine it’s 1969 and you just bought CSN’s debut album. It opens with the seven-minute “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” followed by the rollicking “Marrakesh Express.” But by the third track, it all slows down. It’s the ballad “Guinnevere,” and you’ve entered the mystic. Croz himself knew the song was a killer, as he describes the legendary English queen’s green eyes and golden hair over an almost haunting time signature. He eventually revealed to us that he wrote the song about three different real-life, non-mythical women. One was his partner Christine Gail Hinton, who would die later that year in a tragic crash; another was Joni Mitchell. “And the other one is somebody that I can’t tell,” he said. “It might be my best song.” — A.M.
“Long Time Gone” (1969)
At the end of the turbulent Sixties, Crosby was still making sense of the decade. The gentle, elegiac “Long Time Gone,” from the first CSN album, reflects his frame of mind. “I wrote [‘Long Time Gone’] right after they assassinated Bobby Kennedy,” he told Rolling Stone in 2008. “It was a result of losing him, of losing John Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I started to feel overwhelmed. It seemed as if it was ballot by bullet. It seemed as if it didn’t matter how good a person we could find to put up as an inspiration and a leader for the good, that somehow the other side would triumph by simply gunning them down.” But Crosby didn’t feel totally helpless. In the song’s third verse, he urges, “Speak out, you got to speak out against the madness/You got to speak your mind, if you dare.” — K.G.
“Deja Vu” (1970)
More than 50 years ago — long before Olivia Rodrigo or Beyoncé felt any kind of eerie familiarity in the back of their minds — there was this dazzling CSNY title track. When the band began amassing material for the album, Croz was grappling with Hinton’s death and was too devastated to write anything new. So he handed his bandmates this gem, which he wrote after a strange ride on a friend’s sailboat. “It’s as if I had done it before,” he told CSNY biographer David Browne. “I knew way more about it than I should have. I knew how to sail a boat right away. Not an instinctive thing. It doesn’t make sense …I felt then and now that I have been here before. I don’t believe in God but I think the Buddhists got it right — we do recycle.” — A.M.
“Almost Cut My Hair” (1970)
One of the bleeding-heart fan favorites from Deja Vu might never have been on the album had David Crosby not fought for its inclusion. “Stephen [Stills]…didn’t want me to leave it in ’cause he thought that it was a bad vocal,” Crosby told Rolling Stone in 1970. “But I felt like what I meant when I sang it.” What Crosby felt when he wrote the song was a mix of late-Sixties disillusionment in the wake of RFK’s assassination and heightened alienation as the body count in Vietnam rose. 53 years later, Crosby’s righteous anger still resonates. — J.B.
“The Lee Shore” (1971)
The first time fans ever heard Crosby’s ballad that he wrote “about a 20-year love affair with an Alden schooner” was on Four Way Street, CSNY’s multi-platinum 1971 live album. “Sailing is a mystical experience for me,” Crosby said of the acoustic lullaby. “It gets me out of the whole scene.” Although it never was one of the band’s biggest hits, the song became an integral part of Crosby’s sets in decades to come, a touching moment of natural impressionism, two-part harmony (when performed with Graham Nash) and future rendezvous: “Perhaps I’ll see you,” Crosby sang. “The next quiet place.” — J.B.
“Cowboy Movie” (1971)
Backed by three members of the Grateful Dead — Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, and Mickey Hart — this standout from Crosby’s classic solo debut, If I Could Only Remember My Name…, is one of his rawest, hardest-grooving recorded moments. “It is the story of CSNY, but it’s told as a cowboy movie,” he told Rolling Stone‘s Andy Greene. “The recording on the album kind of naturally fell out. We played it a number of times. That time you hear on the record is pretty spectacular. It was really good chemistry between me and Garcia and Lesh… We just had a good chemistry. It was loose and funky and it felt right.” — B.H.
“Tamalpais High (At About 3)” (1971)
Crosby couldn’t find the right words to fit the mood for “Tamalpais High (at About 3)” — whose title refers to a Bay Area high school that let out around 3 p.m. — so he sang jazzy stacks of “doo doo doo” over bluesy guitar and splashing cymbals. “I just did it the way I wanted to, using my voice like a horn section,” he told Rolling Stone in 2021. “As far as I’m concerned, there’s no rules, so you can do stuff like that. I don’t know if anybody else would have done that. But I loved it.” At one point he had a girlfriend who attended the school, which explains the track’s upbeat vibe. “‘Tamalpais High’ is not about getting high and it’s not about the mountain,” he said, meaning Marin County’s Mount Tamalpais. “But it is pretty.” — K.G.
On “Laughing,” Crosby sings about false prophets who claim they talk to God. “I thought I met a man who said he knew a man who knew what was going on,” he sings. “I was mistaken/Only another stranger that I knew.” The idea for the song came to him while thinking about his friend George Harrison, whom Crosby worried had been taken in by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. “I wanted to say to him, ‘Be skeptical. … Anytime someone tells you they talked to God right after breakfast this morning, they are probably bullshitting you,’” he reflected in Rolling Stone in 2021. “That’s what I wanted to say. But I was chicken because it was George.” The song’s final line, “I was mistaken/Only a child laughing in the sun” had a poetic significance to Crosby: “A child laughing in the sun knows more about God than I do.” — K.G.
“The Wall Song” (1972)
As he would proudly explain, no one specialized in songs about grappling with life, mistakes, and groping around in the darkness as much as Crosby — or, as he puts it in this track from Graham Nash/David Crosby, “Stumbling half-blinded/And dry as the wind/That strafes you and leaves you/To lie in the sand.” Featuring backup from members of the Dead as well as Nash, “The Wall Song” featured a more aggressive groove than some of his other songs of the time, even as it clearly hinted at the turmoil he felt after the death of Christine Gail Hinton. — D.B.
“Page 43” (1972)
Crosby’s reminder to seize the day, “Page 43” has all the makings of a gospel song — a Biblical message of practicing kindness, curious metaphors about looking for silver and gold in a rainbow, plenty of wine in the third verse — except it’s all secular. When Crosby sang, “It says right here on page 43 that you should grab a hold of it/Else you’ll find it’s passed you by,” he was speaking generally, joking that the page could have come just as easily from the Old Testament or Zap Comix. But he had no problem praising one holy inspiration for the track: “I wrote it in the main cabin of my boat in Sausalito,” he recalled in the book Songwriters on Songwriting, “and it was under the influence, musically, of James Taylor.” — K.G.
“Carry Me” (1975)
On “Carry Me,” a track off Crosby and Nash’s 1975 album, Wind on the Water, Crosby reflects on his mother’s death. “She was lying in white sheets there, and she was waiting to die,” he sings. “She said if you’d just reach underneath this bed/And untie these weights, I could surely fly.” But for all the grief in his voice, there’s never despair, and his and Nash’s voices become ascendant in their harmony. In the chorus, she calls for him to carry her. The song became a live staple for Crosby and his bandmates. “It doesn’t matter how many times we sing those songs, at some point our emotions take over, and brother, let me tell you that it generates something sacred,” Graham Nash wrote of “Carry Me” in his memoir, Wild Tales. “Whatever that might be, Croz and I have it with each other, whether it’s intuition, tone of voice, or something much deeper and indefinable.” — K.G.
“Homeward Through the Haze” (1975)
Depending when you asked him, this song was either about the deterioration of L.A. or CSNY’s first brush with haters back in the day (“first rain of winter/first fall from grace”). But with Crosby playing a rare piano part, it was, either way, one of his most introspective songs, with a hymn-like melody that felt burdened and beautiful at the same time. CSNY tried cutting it first, during their failed ‘74 sessions, but then he and Nash, with guest Carole King, recorded the definitive version for their Wind on the Water. — D.B.
“Shadow Captain” (1978)
The opening track from 1978’s CSN — Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s first album as a trio since their 1969 debut — combines a sleek arrangement and sophisticated chords that hinted at Crosby’s love for the then-ascendant jazz-rock of Steely Dan with harmonies as rich as anything the band has recorded. He wrote the metaphorical lyrics in a single burst on a sailing trip, and the song was strong enough overall to almost entice Neil Young back into the band. — B.H.
“Tracks in the Dust” (1989)
After spending time in prison for drugs in the mid-Eighties, Crosby slowly began reuniting with his muse, as this largely forgotten track from his Oh Yes I Can album attests. What sounds like a dinner party conversation between people who are optimistic or grumpy, it turns out to be his own internal dialogue. With guitarist Michael Hedges prettying up the melody with his acoustic shimmer, “Tracks in the Dust” was one of the first signs that Crosby was capable of a post-meltdown, post-addiction comeback — which would continue, startlingly, for several more decades. — D.B.
“Dream for Him” (1999)
On “Dream for Him,” Crosby reconciles bringing new life into a cruel world, questioning how to explain death and hardship to his son, Django, without lying or sugarcoating. “I want a world where I can tell him the truth about everything from Jesus to John Wilkes Booth,” he sing-speaks over jazzy guitar. “How they lie in the House and the Senate, too/Only get close to the truth when it suits them to.” In the background, his CSNY bandmates sing the title of the song, which appeared on their Looking Forward album. “Nobody I know that has children hasn’t asked themselves those questions: How do I explain the insanity of human behavior around the world to my kid? … How do you explain that one day you’re going to be gone?” he once said. “This is tough stuff.” — K.G.
“Things We Do for Love” (2016)
Crosby wrote “Things We Do for Love” for his wife, Jan Dance, whom he married in 1987 and who’d stay by his side till his death. It’s a tender, subtly gorgeous ballad that focuses on the little moments of a relationship, more meditative tone-poem than gushing valentine. “At first it’s just fun/But love is long,” Croz sings. “A little each day/You build it that way.” For Croz, the song came as part of a fruitful period of late-career songwriting. “I can’t explain why that would happen except that I’m happy,” he told the Wall Street Journal at the time. “I’m a very happy guy. That may be the key to the whole deal.”