JOHN BARTUS: BEAUTIFUL MUSIC FROM A TOTAL JERK

David Crosby is a total jerk. At least that’s what many of his old bandmates say. A founding member of the Byrds as well as Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Crosby has known the heavenly heights of music stardom as well as the hellish lows of serving prison time for drug and gun violations. A case of hepatitis C necessitated a liver transplant in 1994, courtesy of Phil Collins. 

Crosby really pissed off Neil Young, calling his girlfriend Daryl Hannah a “purely poisonous predator.” Neil responded, “Crosby should write an introspective book: ‘Why People Won’t Talk to Me Anymore.’” Crosby spit similar venom about Graham Nash’s divorce and accused Nash of only hanging around “just trying to keep the money coming.” Nash was about as happy as Young was. And a representative of Byrds co-founder Roger McGuinn said that “(Crosby) is not hated. But that doesn’t mean anyone wants to work with him.”

So how does a guy who seems to be such a jerk make such incredibly beautiful music?

Crosby recently released “For Free,” a wonderfully textured and brilliantly composed album that is absolute ear candy. The opening track, “River Rise,” begins with Crosby’s sweet vocal over a piano, and builds into a climactic chorus that features Michael McDonald and Crosby’s layered vocals. The man does know a thing or two about harmony. Combining his love of his life in California with a reflection on his own dwindling years, Crosby sings, “Let the clock run out, don’t care about it, not today.” 

“I Think I” begins with some beautiful and intricate acoustic guitar work, something that’s luckily present all over this album. A song about lessons learned over time, “I think I found my way” is the sentiment that glues this song together. Although not credited, I swear I can hear Boz Scaggs contributing a vocal response in the third chorus of this song.

“The Other Side of Midnight” is pure, beautiful Crosby. His angelic vocal harmonies tell us of a dream world where the stars are in different places and nights are spent counting galaxies out at sea — put on a set of good headphones, close your eyes and transport yourselves onto that dream boat.

An album standout is his collaboration with Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, “Rodriguez For a Night.” With characters straight out of the Steely Dan roster, a self-confessed “drugstore cowboy” pines unrequited for a woman who’s smitten with “the outlaw Rodriguez.” This track could easily have been lifted from “Gaucho” — with the exception of Crosby’s less jaded and seedy vocals.

The title track, “For Free,” is the wonderful Joni Mitchell classic from her younger days. Crosby and Mitchell had a brief relationship that resulted in his producing an album for her and getting her out to the nascent singer-songwriter scene in Laurel Canyon where musical history was made. Joni and David are still on good terms, and she has to be pleased with this version of her song, presented here as a duet with the amazing Sarah Jarosz. Their vocal harmonies flow beautifully around the piano accompaniment, telling the story of the street musician playing real good for free.

If this proves to be Crosby’s last album (he says he has two more to record), there wouldn’t be a better finale than the closer, “I Won’t Stay For Long.” A song about a man nearing his last days, this reflective track was actually written by his son, James Raymond. Raymond is the album’s co-producer. He co-wrote a lot of the songs and  plays a lot of the instruments on the record. Crosby gives the perfect take on Raymond’s words, perhaps one of the few with the perspective to do so: “I’m standing on the porch / Like it’s the edge of a cliff / Beyond the grass and gravel / Lies a certain abyss.” 

While Crosby may have pissed off a lot of people, he still found more than a few stellar talents to help bring out his own. And this album is one of the best collections of songs I’ve heard in a while — impeccably produced, and sung by a man whose voice sounds 50 years younger than he really is. Godspeed, David Crosby — I can’t wait to hear those next two albums.

– John’s Perpetual Island Tour resumes in June. In the meantime, listen to his music at www.johnbartus.hearnow.com

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