In Praise of “Croz”: David Crosby’s Surprise Hit Record is a Father-and-Son Triumph
By Steve Silberman
David Crosby occupies a paradoxical position in American pop music. He is simultaneously one of the most celebrated and one of the most underappreciated musicians of his generation—a generation that produced the timeless voices and visions of Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Judy Collins, and other singer-songwriters. He’s also one of the most quietly influential. By recasting Dylan’s early songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man” in crystalline harmony for the Byrds, Crosby gave the gruff-voiced folksinger’s career a boost at a crucial time. After hearing an unknown waif named Joni Mitchell sing in a club in Florida, he got her a recording contract that ensured her maximum creative freedom, and produced her first record, launching Joni on her own inimitable career path. He turned the Beatles on to the ragas of Ravi Shankar, and the world of pop music was forever changed.
Meanwhile, his own music has been consistently fascinating, informed by jazz and world music as much as pop and folk, as Miles Davis knew when he recorded a 20-minute version of Crosby’s haunting “Guinnevere.” As a result, however, his solo albums—even the sublime If I Could Only Remember My Name, recorded in 1970 with members of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane—have rarely gotten the attention of his team efforts with Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.
Now that’s changed. “After 43 years, I’ve got a hit!” laughs the two-time Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer from his home in the Santa Ynez Mountains of Southern California. No one is more delighted—or, frankly, surprised — to see his new album, Croz, climbing the Billboard charts and chilling out in the Amazon Top 10 with Bruce Springsteen and Daft Punk’s latest efforts than Crosby, in part because it’s anything but an attempt to pander to the mass market. From the first heavily syncopated bars of “What’s Broken” (think Steely Dan in the 21st Century), it’s obvious that Crosby isn’t resting on his Woodstock laurels. Croz is one of the freshest, most innovative, and most vital albums of the year, in no small part because it’s the product of an intimate musical collaboration with Crosby’s brilliant son, James Raymond, whose keyboards and orchestral imagination turn these songs into cinematic landscapes that haunt your dreams. Along with illustrious guest soloists like Mark Knopfler (who adds characteristically slinky accents to “What’s Broken” as Raymond drops in “virtual” pedal-steel licks on keyboard) and Wynton Marsalis (whose stately trumpet rises majestically out of “Holding On to Nothing,” a meditation on passing time that shimmers with Zen clarity), Crosby’s band features a brilliant young guitarist and vocalist from Boise named Marcus Eaton, and Shane Fontayne, a consummately versatile fretman who has shared the stage and studio with everyone from Paul Simon to Elvis Costello. But at its heart, Croz is a family affair — Raymond’s musical sensibility is so akin to his father’s that they are like extensions of a single subtle musical mind. (Even the cover photo was taken by Crosby’s younger son Django).
“I could have made an album without James,” Crosby says, “but I couldn’t have made this record. So much of it is James and I writing together, or writing similarly to each other. I would have had to make a deal with one of the last remaining record companies to do it, and it would have taken longer.” Instead, father and son recorded the album in Raymond’s home digital studio and released it on Blue Castle, the label that Crosby owns with Nash. The recorder and mixer behind Croz’s sparkling sound is Daniel Garcia, an old friend of Raymond’s from the days when they were writing several songs a week together for the Nickelodeon series Round House.
Early on in the project, Crosby told Raymond that he wanted to go places musically and lyrically that he’d never gone before. “Morning Falling,” a poignant depiction of a drone bombing in the Middle East, is like nothing he’s ever done, with heart-wrenching photographic lyrics, an Arabic-inflected melody, and aching woodwinds by Steve Tavaglione. “Dangerous Night” is equally devastating, built on a set of chords by Raymond that has the majesty of Bruce Hornsby’s most memorable melodies and a set of lyrics that render a clear picture of the troubles of humankind in the 21st Century while delivering a stirring message of consolation. On every track, Crosby and Raymond—with the help of their brilliant rhythm section, Kevin McCormick on bass and Steve DiStanislao on drums—stretch themselves, drawing from a contemporary palette of pop and electronic sounds (dig the throbbing synth bass on “What’s Broken” or the martial drum-machine accents on “Dangerous Night”) but making them sound as natural and organic as breath. When Crosby and Eaton lay down a spread of luminous harmonies a minute into “What’s Broken,” you’ll know you could be listening to no one else but the man whose backing vocals has graced classic recordings by James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and Carole King. There is darkness here—check out the spare, desolate, sharply-drawn portrait of a young hooker in Amsterdam in “If She Called,” sung by Crosby solo with electric guitar—but there is also redemption in “Radio” and “Find a Heart,” two of the most upbeat and sparkling songs he has ever recorded, tributes to the transformative power of love and compassion. “My son is just a joy to write with,” he says, “and the way he strings a melody across a set of chords is just astounding.”
Crosby set a very high standard for himself with If I Could Only Remember My Name, but here he reaches that standard by coming at it from an unexpected angle, playing with the seasoned wisdom of age and the daring and ambition of youth. Croz is obviously a must-buy for his fans, but even for listeners who are only familiar with Crosby’s moody contributions to CSNY, it’s worth picking up as an exploration of new emotional and musical territory by one of the most fertile musical minds of our times.
At the age of 72, he feels very blessed to be reaching a whole new generation of listeners with music that doesn’t look back, but looks forward. “I don’t understand why I’m getting the blessing of still being able to write,” Crosby says, “when I see so many people at my stage of the game feeling like they said everything they had to say. Or maybe they just get lazy and don’t pick up the guitar or something. That the Muse is still coming to our house is a big deal.”
Steve Silberman is a contributing editor at Wired magazine and the author of the upcoming book, NeuroTribes: Thinking Smarter About People Who Think Differently (Avery/Penguin 2014).
Above left photo by Buzz Person. Above right photo by Daniel Garcia.