The key question about David Crosby, asked in the first minutes of the unflinching documentary Remember My Name, is "Do you ever wonder why you are still alive?” Looking into the lens trained on him by director A.J. Eaton, answering the first of many tough questions posed by producer Cameron Crowe, he looks wounded, a little battle-weary from years of touring, addiction, jail, loss and busted friendships. He’s also steadily vibrant, engaged and above all truthful. “He's just a really good storyteller,” says Crowe. "He knows when he has you. He knows when your attention is wandering, he knows when he owns you. He can throw crumbs down as he lays out a narrative, just keep you going.”
It’s an insight Crowe has owned for quite a little while -- since 1974, to be exact, when he did what he still considers to be a career-landmark interview with Crosby. Like most 'Croz' friends and close observers, he held little hope for a long run for the musician: “I ran into him probably four or five times between '78 and '93, where I really thought it would be the last time. He felt a bit like an empty shell. I would see him at one of those [local school] events and he gave you this look like, 'Travel safely, my friend.' You go, oh, shoot, kiss it goodbye. Then a year later, he's back.”
Through Crowe friend Jill Mazursky of the Bad Robot production company, Crowe was brought into the conversation with Eaton -- whose brother Marcus is a musician friend of Crosby’s -- and Crowe’s longtime friend Crosby himself as they discussed the incipient doc. Crowe’s instincts said, “This guy has had so many lives and now he wants to talk about it. So what's wrong with that?” An accompanying instinct said, as he told them, "'Guys, you don't have to do the cavalcade of talking heads, you really don't need to play that game -- just stick with Crosby the whole film.’ Because the whole idea was to get [the viewer] across the table from him, where there's no middleman.”
The 95-minute picture, which debuted to a strong reception at Sundance and was quickly picked up by Sony Pictures Classics for release on July 19, pointedly defies the standard rock-doc tropes. A couple days before Crosby left on a tour he's making despite cardiac issues he freely states could take him down at any moment, I spoke about the film with him at his adobe ranch house surrounded by green fields in the California horse country enclave of Santa Ynez.
Cameron makes it clear he was up for this project only if you were all in, with complete honesty -- which you embraced.
You make a documentary these days, mostly you go around and stick a mic in front of every famous person you ever met -- “Say something beautiful about me, then I invent electricity and I discovered California and aren't I cute.” Cameron and A.J. and I all agreed going in, you're in a movie now. He's now the boss, appropriately and wonderfully merciless. He gave me nowhere to hide.
In place of the happy talking memories, you have your Byrds bandmate Roger McGuinn saying you were “insufferable."
I can be contentious. Opinionated. I'm comfortable with that. When you're in a relationship like that in a band, it's like a marriage... you start out, you love each other, you love each other's music. You're thrilled that you're doing this, and every time you play music, you feel brotherhood with the other guys. In CSNY with Neil [Young] and Graham [Nash] and Stephen [Stills], we were a competitive band. Not cooperative/competitive. We were also very shitty to each other over and over and over again, unkind and disloyal.
And yet there are moments like the first time Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young launched those harmonies in a kitchen in a Laurel Canyon house, and similarly, the first time you heard “Ohio” in 1970 within days of the Kent State shootings, after Neil saw the pictures. Your cries of “Four, why?” and “How many more” were electrifying.
What you hear me singing on the end of that song, that's my heart, how I truly feel. That outraged that emotion. Big deal that song... I watched it in his face. I handed him the guitar and watched him write the song.
You respected that he had the courage to call out Nixon by name.
To me, it's an essence of what we should be doing -- as songwriters, part of our job is to be the town crier. We did our job there probably the best we ever did. It's a very emotional thing for me.
Some people scoffed at your “Almost Cut My Hair” on 1970’s Déjà Vu, but it’s held up curiously well as a throwback, and an emblem of a certain defiance rock culture represented.
Now it doesn't matter, right? We're way past that... now it's a fashion choice. Then, it was a political statement and I think a very good one.
From the days when you first heard Joni Mitchell onstage and began bringing her (and some powerful weed) around Laurel Canyon, you’ve championed her. She’d end up immortalizing the entire pop culture’s experience of “Woodstock," a standout cover on Déjà Vu. Yours was an artistic connection rather than a romantic one.
It wasn't physical, it was how she sang and played and how good the songs were. I'm a song guy and walked into a room this woman sings “Michael from Mountains” and “Both Sides Now," with her own funky tunings, a totally different approach to everything. I was smitten with this startling, stunning amazing woman -- and I think she'll go down in history as absolutely the best of us.
The film depicts the emotional catastrophe of September of 1969 when you had just moved to a Marin County house with your lover Christine Hinton, and then on a trip to the vet, she’s killed in a wreck.
We really loved each other, and she was a very sweet human being, it was a very healthy relationship. And she took the cats to the vet... I wasn't prepared because nobody had taught me anything about death, about how to deal with it. It took me 20 years. Yeah, I went to an enormous amount of pain over it. I would go up on Mt. Tamalpais and just sit there look out at the ocean and cry and cry and cry and cry.
I've never been any good with it. I mostly hide from it. I survived because of the music I was in the studio making, If I Could Only Remember My Name [which emerged two years later], when it happened. And when we were in the studio making Déjà Vu I wound up sitting on the floor crying in the middle of the studio.
That haircut finally came when drug and gun possession charges in Texas caught up with you and in the '80s, you went in for a prison stretch. You had enough street sense to stay out of trouble inside?
It's a very dangerous place, a prison, because there's a ton of people on there who have nothing but attitude. They don't have education, they don't have money, they don't have love, have nothing positive at all in their lives. All they got is attitude. "What you looking at motherfucker? You looking at me motherfucker?" You're fresh meat and you have to go, "No, I ain't looking at you at all," and cruise right on down the hall. You have to learn, because there's a ton of them in [there] totally walking around short-fuse crazy and they're going to be there for 11 more years and the guards couldn't give a shit.
You can learn to survive, but you have to mind your own business. You don't tell anybody you don’t like that TV show -- you do not engage.
The Graham Nash episodes in the film are particularly poignant and painful because he seemed to be your closest bandmate. Yet the screaming onstage row in Norway that you describe is so brutal…
He did exactly what I said, and it wasn't acceptable to me. I can't be around somebody who hates me that much. No, there's no joy in that at all. I can't work with somebody that -- the entire tour he’d been going on stage and not looking at me -- he would just turn towards Stills.
After Neil Young broke up with wife Pegi and started seeing Daryl Hannah, you completely alienated him by calling her a “poisonous predator” in an interview -- though you later apologized.
That was a bad thing for me to say -- I should not have said it. So he went on a show and said, "We’ll never play together." Okay. I'm totally fine with that. We did a bunch of really good work that I'm proud of and I’m still moving, working as hard as I can. I've made more records in the last four years and those other three guys together, right?
I wonder if you’re forecasting that the film’s impact heals some wounds?
The film is honest enough to qualify as an apology. It's a very difficult film for me, playing a flawed human being, highly imperfect -- sometimes an asshole. Lots of mistakes. If you are trying to look at me as a whole picture, you can't leave that stuff out, because otherwise it's like cooking the meat and no salt.