‘Excited with life’: David Crosby talks sobriety, love, and second acts

Why We Wrote This

What happens when people defy society’s expectations about retirement? David Crosby discusses what led him to a creative and spiritual rebirth, a renaissance captured in a new documentary about his life. 

Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP
David Crosby has released four solo albums since 2014. A fifth is on the way. In a new documentary, he serves as a tour guide through his past by revisiting landmarks such as the house where Crosby, Stills, and Nash formed and where they later recruited Neil Young.

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Veteran musician David Crosby shows no signs of slowing down. His recent years have been filled with multiple new albums and a project first suggested by a friend: a documentary. 

“David Crosby: Remember My Name,” includes events such as Woodstock and the founding of the band Crosby, Stills, and Nash. But it isn’t merely a chronological recap of Mr. Crosby’s life. “We wanted to go a lot deeper,” the musician says in a phone interview. “It’s a very honest documentary.” 

It’s not only a cautionary tale but also an inspirational one. It chronicles Mr. Crosby’s change of outlook following a period in prison and his embrace of sobriety. He realized that his family and music are the most important things to him.

His songs today range from those about drone bombings and the plight of Syrian refugees to love songs penned for his wife of 32 years, Jan. Ultimately, Mr. Crosby views time as his most precious currency. He intends to spend it well.

“I gotta use the voice and I gotta write the songs and I got to do this the best I can. It’s here to be done. I’m gonna do it.”

David Crosby belies F. Scott Fitzgerald’s claim that there are no second acts in American lives. A former member of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, the veteran songwriter is enjoying a late-career renaissance. He’s released four acclaimed solo albums since 2014. A fifth is halfway finished. 

Now, the musician’s creative and spiritual rebirth is the subject of a documentary, “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” directed by his friend A.J. Eaton. “He kept saying, ‘You know there’s this weird thing going on with your life here. There’s a big resurgence in your 70s when everybody else is shutting down the shop and moving back home. And why? What the heck? I want to do a documentary about it,’” recalls Mr. Crosby in a phone interview.

As much as Mr. Crosby loves his home life, retirement doesn’t interest him. He’s aware that, after a period of chronic drug abuse, he’s fortunate to be alive. The joy he still gets from singing is precious to him because he doesn’t take it for granted.

“I am definitely excited with life,” says the musician. “If you could look at what I’m looking at right now – the trees I’m looking out at in the sun here in the afternoon in California – that’s really a good picture of how I feel.”

The film project gained momentum when rock journalist-turned-filmmaker Cameron Crowe (“Jerry Maguire,” “Almost Famous”) offered to do the on-screen interviews. Mr. Crosby says Mr. Crowe has known him since he was 15. “He knows where all the bones are buried,” the songwriter says, chuckling. 

The documentary unearths them all. Mr. Crosby serves as a tour guide through his past by revisiting landmarks such as the house where Crosby, Stills, and Nash formed (they knew they had a unique sound within 40 seconds of first playing together) and where they later recruited Neil Young. 

The narrative spans the Woodstock festival, the making of Mr. Crosby’s 1971 psychedelic folk classic “If Only I Could Remember My Name,” and his relationship with Joni Mitchell. (“In the long run, people are going to say Joni was probably the best singer-songwriter of her times,” he says now.) Yet the documentary isn’t merely a chronological recap of Mr. Crosby’s life.

“It’s not just, ‘Oh yeah, and then he had this hit, and then I did that, and then I invented electricity,” says Mr. Crosby. “We wanted to go a lot deeper and that’s what we did. It’s a very honest documentary.”

Mental and physical journey

Inevitably, there are startling moments – beyond just early photos of Mr. Crosby before he grew arguably the most famous mustache in rock. The musician offers unstinting reflections of his descent into drug addiction and subsequent run-ins with the law. In December 1985, for instance, he failed to show for a court hearing. Wanted by the FBI, he fled across the country. Once he arrived at his derelict yacht in a marina near West Palm Beach, Florida, he spent several days taking stock of his life. Then he walked into an FBI office and turned himself in. But the real surrender was inside his own thought.

“There is a definite moment when you decide you can’t take it anymore and you give up. You’re going to do whatever it takes to get free” of addiction, says Mr. Crosby. “We know there is a moment, ‘the moment of clarity,’ we call it in the 12-step programs. It’s so well known that everybody keeps trying to document it and figure out how it happens. ... You know, because we want to be able to duplicate it. We want to save people’s lives.”

The documentary’s not only a cautionary tale but also an inspirational one. It chronicles Mr. Crosby’s change of outlook following a period in prison and his embrace of sobriety.

“Don’t mess with hard drugs. That’s definitely a big lesson,” says Mr. Crosby. “I’ve realized that there are certain things that are really important to me – my family and the music – and that I really shouldn’t let anything else distract me from those things.”

The artist readily admits he hasn’t been easy to work with. “Remember My Name” reveals that Mr. Crosby’s most famous musical compatriots, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young, have fallen out with him. Do his former bandmates know that he loves them?

“I expect they don’t,” says Mr. Crosby. “And I do, but I don’t think they know that.”  

Songwriting and politics

When the band imploded, he took a small trove of unrecorded songs with him. Those tunes have surfaced on recent solo records. Mr. Crosby is also quick to credit his creative renaissance to younger collaborators including his son James, singer-songwriters Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis, and Michael League, the leader of the popular jazz band Snarky Puppy. “They are really good writers. I’m really picky about who I do it with,” he says. 

He’s drawn to political topics: drone bombings, money in politics, and the plight of Syrian refugees. “I don’t want to get involved in the cause of the week,” he says. “I reserve it for the things where my sense of moral outrage is involved and I can’t shut up.”

Mostly, though, he writes about love, including songs about Jan, his wife of 32 years. “I’m as in love with her as I was the day I fell in love with her,” he says.

Mr. Crosby views time as his most precious currency. He intends to spend it well.

“I gotta use the voice and I gotta write the songs and I got to do this the best I can. It’s here to be done. I’m gonna do it.”

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