Saturday, January 21, 2023

How I learned to love David Crosby

The past few months have seen the passing of three musicians who profoundly influenced the development of rock music: Jerry Lee LewisJeff Beck, and now David Crosby, who died Wednesday at the age of 81. The clip above, made in 2018 when Crosby was in his late 70s, shows him, along with mandolinist Chris Thile, doing "Déjà Vu", the title song of the first (1970) album by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

I first became aware of David Crosby in 1965 when I was nineteen and a student at the University of South Florida, and heard on the University Center café jukebox the Byrds' cover of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man". What excited me was the "jingle jangle" of Jim (later called Roger) McGuinn's Rickenbacker guitar and the group's celestial singing harmony. I didn't know it at the time, but it was Crosby's high tenor and precise melodic sense that gave the harmonies their special quality. 

Crosby later became my least favorite Byrd. What precipitated this was "Mind Gardens", to me at the time (1967) the one great blot on the Byrds' otherwise superb fourth album Younger Than Yesterday. My musical taste at the time was broad, encompassing classical, baroque, folk, country, bluegrass, blues, and soul, along with rock. Thanks to the Beatles I was beginning to appreciate Indian raga, and to Dave Brubeck jazz. "Mind Gardens", though, was a step too far for me at the time. Crosby's solo vocal and the instrumental accompaniment didn't follow any convention I could understand; it simply sounded discordant. Despite its ultimately optimistic lyrics, it seemed to me to lead nowhere. 

Jon Pareles, in the New York Times, provides a list of what he considers Crosby's "Fifteen Essential Songs". About "Mind Gardens" he writes:
"An artifact of psychedelia's experimental heyday, 'Mind Gardens' is a parable about protection and openness, with an Indian-tinged vocal line rising above a multi-tracked droney web of guitar picking: acoustic and electric, picked and sustained, running forward and backward and completely reveling in disorientation."

Now, with the benefit of half a century plus more of living, which have included a generous share of disorientation, I've come to appreciate "Mind Gardens", along with other Crosby songs like "Everybody's Been Burned", also from Younger Than Yesterday, which ends with the lines, "But you die inside/ Every time you try to hide/ So I guess instead I'll love you."