Iconic singer-songwriter Bill Crosby
Iconic singer-songwriter David Crosby Image Credit: Reuters

David Crosby, a singer-songwriter who helped define the sound of the Woodstock generation as a key member of the 1960s and '70s bands the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash, but whose wanton drug abuse made him a cautionary symbol of the era's culture of excess, has died at 81.

His publicist Michael Jensen confirmed the death. No further details were immediately available, but Crosby had a history of hepatitis, diabetes, heart ailments and other problems.

Crosby possessed one of the most ethereal singing voices of the 1960s, a sweet tenor that harmonised well with others.

As a member of the Byrds - a group once regarded as the mid-'60s American counterpart to the Beatles - and later with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash (sometimes augmented by Neil Young), Crosby sold millions of albums and performed songs that symbolized the era of peace, love and political engagement: "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and "Eight Miles High" with the Byrds; and, with Stills, Nash and Young, "Carry On," "Marrakesh Express," "Teach Your Children" and "Our House."

David Crosby
David Crosby Image Credit: Reuters

Crosby was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two times, as a member of each group, was at the heart of the Laurel Canyon music scene in Los Angeles and was considered one of the founders of folk rock.

He gained immense acclaim when he appeared with Stills, Nash and Young at the Woodstock festival in August 1969 and, four months later, at its dark-side-of-the-dream counterpart, the Altamont festival in California, where an audience member was killed by a member of the Hells Angels "security" team.

At a time when Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Doors and the Rolling Stones were taking rock in an amplified, acid-washed direction, Crosby and his bandmates turned to a gentler sound inspired by folk music, with acoustic guitars and intricate vocal harmonies. Every word could be clearly understood.

Crosby, Stills & Nash "captured the spirit of the last high moment of the American '60s," music journalist Paul Evans wrote in "The Rolling Stone Album Guide." "The CSN generation found in the band both spokesmen and representatives: The singers' slightly weary Utopianism, their bucolic fantasies and their songs about love and losses, reflected the inward turning of an aging youth culture."

For a few years, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were genuine superstars. The group's 1969 debut album, "Crosby, Stills & Nash," was hailed as a near-masterpiece, and the band won a Grammy Award as best new artist.

The group's next three albums, "Dj Vu," "4 Way Street" and "CSN," all reached either No. 1 or No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart and sold in the millions. Crosby wrote several well-known songs for CSNY, including "Guinnevere" and the Vietnam-era anthem "Almost Cut My Hair." One of the band's biggest hits, "Woodstock," was by his protegee, Joni Mitchell.

Few groups were as well suited to their time as CSNY, embodying both the laid-back dreaminess and the pent-up social anger of the period.

"Here's the thing - we're descended, singer-songwriters, from troubadours in the Middle Ages," Crosby told the San Luis Obispo Tribune in 2017. "Part of the job should just be to boogie, make you want to dance. Part of the job should be to take you on little emotional voyages that make you feel stuff. And part of the job should be for us to be the town criers."

Each member recorded separately but, with the possible exception of Young, none could match the work they did together. In many ways, Crosby was CSNY's spiritual nucleus. His name always came first, and he seemed to personify the wistful California optimism of the hippie era. His song "Wooden Ships" (written with Stills and Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane) from CSN's debut album in 1969 reflected the spirit of the time:

Wooden ships on the water, very free and easy

Easy, you know the way it's supposed to be

Silver people on the shoreline, let us be

Talkin' 'bout very free and easy

Behind the group's delicate musical harmonies, they often had fierce internal disputes. Crosby's worsening drug problems made him increasingly volatile and unreliable. Stills once poured a bucket of water over his head after a lackluster performance, and ultimately the other members of the group refused to go onstage with him.

"They believed in me, and I let them down," Crosby told the Toronto Star in 1989. "I became a junkie sleazebag, a criminal, paranoid fool. I didn't take care of anything - not my friends, not my music, not myself."

Once worth millions, Crosby sold his guitars and memorabilia to buy drugs. He was freebasing cocaine and injecting heroin and often kept a handgun at his side. He was arrested several times and went to drug treatment facilities, only to walk out or relapse.

In 1982, he was arrested at a Dallas nightclub for illegal possession of cocaine and a .45 caliber pistol. While appealing his five-year sentence, he gave serious consideration to sailing away and leading the life of a fugitive.

Instead, he walked barefoot into an FBI office in West Palm Beach, Fla., in 1985 and turned himself in. He went back behind bars, including five months in a Texas state prison, before he was released in 1986.

"I was kicking [drugs] under the worst possible circumstances," he told People magazine in 1987. "They wouldn't give me an aspirin. I did it as cold turkey as you can do it, and it was hell."

For 15 years, he didn't have so much as a beer. He later began to smoke marijuana again, angering some sobriety advocates.

"Most people who go as far as I did with drugs are dead," Crosby told People. "Fool with them and you'll get strung out. Then there are about four ways it can go: You can go crazy; you can go to prison; you can die; or you can kick. That's it. Anything else anybody says is bull."

A quarrelsome youth

David Van Cortlandt Crosby was born Aug. 14, 1941, in Los Angeles. He had an often tense relationship with his father, Oscar-winning cinematographer Floyd Crosby, who was best known for his work on the 1952 western masterpiece "High Noon."

Crosby was expelled from several private schools before graduating from a public high school. Following an early interest in music, especially jazz and the Everly Brothers, he began to play folk music in his teens with his older brother.

After performing in several groups in New York and California, he met Roger McGuinn, the leader of the Byrds. By adding amplifiers to their guitars, they created the jangly Byrds sound that took them to the top of the charts.

By 1967, quarrels between Crosby and other members of the Byrds led to his departure. He retreated to Miami, where he heard Mitchell singing in a coffeehouse. Crosby produced her first album, "Song to a Seagull," and the two had a brief romantic relationship.

David Crosby
David Crosby Image Credit: Shutterstock

Back in Los Angeles, he met Stills (a member of Buffalo Springfield) and Nash (previously of the Hollies) at either Mitchell's home or that of Cass Elliot, the lead singer of the Mamas & the Papas. Accounts differ on where they met, but Crosby, Stills and Nash spontaneously began singing together and made plans to form a group.

"The reason we used our own names when we started the band was because we also wanted to pursue individual careers as well," Crosby told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. "We didn't like being locked into roles the way we were in Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds and the Hollies."

Crosby's dependence on drugs increased in 1969, when his girlfriend, Christine Hinton, was killed in a car wreck. "David went to identify the body," Nash later said, "and he's never been the same since."

During his prison sentence in Texas, Crosby played guitar in a jailhouse rock band and began writing new songs for the first time in years. After his release, he published a contrite and revealing autobiography, "Long Time Gone" (1988), released a solo album and reunited with Stills, Nash and Young for several acclaimed tours and recordings.

"David's playing some of the best music in his life," Nash told The Washington Post in 1987. "Which surprises me because, I confess, I looked for brain damage immediately. But he doesn't seem to have lost one cell."

In his 1988 song "Compass" from the CSNY album "American Dream," Crosby described his second chance at music and life:

I have flown the frantic flight of the bat-wing

And only known the dark because of that

I have seized death's door-handle

Like a fish out of the water

Waiting, waiting for the mercy of the cat

Crosby received a liver transplant in 1994 and, at various times, dealt with heart ailments, hepatitis, diabetes, a motorcycle crash and a house lost to an earthquake. In the late 1990s, he formed a band named CPR - not as a comment on his physical condition but for the primary band members: Crosby, Jeff Pevar and James Raymond.

Raymond, who was adopted in the early 1960s, learned in his 30s that Crosby was his biological father.

In addition to Raymond, Crosby's survivors include his wife since 1987, Jan Dance; their son, Django Crosby; and two daughters from earlier relationships, Erika Keller and Donovan Crosby.

In 2000, it was revealed that Crosby was the biological father, through artificial insemination, of two children of singer Melissa Etheridge and her partner at the time, Julie Cypher. (Beckett Cypher, Crosby's biological son, died of a drug overdose in 2020.)

In a surprising late-career transformation, Crosby evolved from youthful rebel and junkie to mellow, seen-it-all sage. Among other things, he became an unlikely advice columnist for Rolling Stone, dispensing guidance about relationships, addiction and music, like a counterculture Santa Claus. In 1989, he and his wife took in a teenaged Drew Barrymore, helping the actress overcome her problems with drugs and alcohol.

He published a second memoir, "Since Then: How I Survived Everything and Lived to Tell About It," in 2006 and was the subject of a 2019 documentary by A.J. Eaton, "David Crosby: Remember My Name," in which he summed up nearly 20 years of his life: "Addiction takes you over like fire takes over a burning building."

Despite occasional musical reunions, Crosby had difficult relationships with his former bandmates and eventually stopped talking to Nash and Young. Still, he wrote and recorded new albums into his late 70s, collaborating with a wide range of musicians, from rock guitarist Mark Knopfler to jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis to the jazzy folk collective Snarky Puppy.

Realising that "the only thing I can do now is use the talent I was given," he sought to make up for his lost years. It didn't matter that he no longer topped the charts.

"I'm not interested in what I already did. It's already done," he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2015. "The trick is that when the music comes by your house, you have to have the lights on and the doors open."