David Crosby has been through hell, but he still sings like an angel. A new documentary chronicles the survival and strength of a rock renegade

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David Crosby
Credit: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

David Crosby has learned a lot in his eventful 77 years, but there’s one thing he can’t quite work out: how the hell he’s still alive. The two-time Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer has survived addiction, prison, heartbreak and four decades in music’s most notorious powder keg, the multi-platinum supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. As if that’s not enough, in recent years he’s endured a litany of health problems ranging from hepatitis C and liver failure to diabetes and numerous heart attacks. A cursory read of his biography makes you wonder if he and Keith Richards have some kind of running bet. While he might not know how he’s still alive, he does know why: music. “It’s the one contribution I can make,” he tells PEOPLE. “See, it’s dark out here now. The world is not a happy place. Music’s a lifting force. Music makes things better.” In the last five years he’s put out four albums that rank among the best of his career, and a fifth is on the way. It’s a creative renaissance — ”a big burst of energy and joy” — that surprises even the artist himself. “That’s not how it’s supposed to work. You’re supposed to fade out and die!” His workload reflects a man racing the clock. “You’ve got nothing more valuable than time. Time is the final currency. Not money, not power.”

His remarkable past and prolific present is the subject of a gripping new documentary, David Crosby: Remember My Name. Directed by A.J. Eaton, the film features Crosby in candid discussion with Academy Award-winning writer-director Cameron Crowe (the doc’s executive producer), who first met Crosby in 1974 as a 16-year-old wunderkind reporter for Rolling Stone. Crowe would recall these early days with Crosby in his mostly autobiographical 2000 film, Almost Famous. “Cameron has known me for a long time and he knows where all the bones are buried,” says Crosby. “He knows what happened because he was there. He was there in the dressing rooms and backstage with us for years. He watched me go down the tubes as a junkie. He watched me slowly climb back out of the dung pile. He asked me the hardest questions I’ve ever been asked and I answered. I did the one thing that they asked me to do to contribute to this film, which was not lie.”

The discussions are unflinchingly honest as Crosby faces his own mortality and speaks of mistreating himself and others. “If they’re doing a documentary on you, I want to know what matters to you. I want to know what you’re afraid of. I want to know what you care about. I want to know who you love. I want to know what you want to make better. I want to know inside stuff. That’s what I think a documentary should be: an opening of the human being you’re trying to learn about, so that you get to see who they are.” Though it’s hard to convey a life, especially one as full as his, in 95 minutes, Remember My Name does a damn good job.

The most affecting moments concern his estranged CSNY bandmates, none of whom are currently speaking to him. This most recent schism was triggered, in part, by a much regretted 2014 comment Crosby made about Neil Young’s then-girlfriend, now-wife, Daryl Hannah. It’s far from the first time the guys have been at odds, but relations have remained chilly (or non-existent) for the last several years and many fans wonder if the group really is done for good. Though Crosby says it wasn’t his explicit intent, Remember My Name registers as a very heartfelt mea culpa to his estranged musical brothers. The result is unforgettable, and even a little jarring. To be blunt, it’s rare to see a major cultural figure so publicly own their s—. And, dear reader, there’s a lot of s—. “I’m trying to be honest,” he explains. “I know what I am and I know that I’m difficult to deal with, and I know that I have certainly offended many people. I am opinionated and sometimes I may possibly shoot my mouth off. So I’ve heard — it’s a rumor.” A puckish smirk spreads across his still-cherubic face, betraying his well documented mischievous side. “I get in trouble, but I’m happy about myself now.”

Trouble seems to have followed him from an early age. Born on Aug. 14, 1941 in Los Angeles, he was, by his own admission, kicked out of nearly every school he ever attended. Instead, his family provided a robust cultural education. His mother, Aliph, a descendant of New York’s prominent Van Cortland family, fostered an appreciation of poetry and music, and his father Floyd won one of the first Oscars for cinematography. For a time, Crosby thought he would follow his father into films as an actor — chiefly to attract women. “Then I went down and sang at a coffee house and I realized that I could meet girls that night,” he laughs. “Not two years later after they saw the movie — now!” But singing quickly became a labor of love rather than lust. With early rock idols the Everly Brothers as inspiration, he trained himself to sing complex harmonies. Socially conscious songs like “Strange Fruit” showed him the good that music could do, while jazz pathfinders like John Coltrane and Miles Davis showed him the outer reaches of how it could sound. The novice musician’s distinctive style began to take form.

Crosby spent the early ‘60s playing folk clubs across the country before ultimately crossing paths with Jim (later known as Roger) McGuinn and Gene Clark, with whom he formed the Byrds. Fusing the rich lyrical poetry of coffee shop troubadours with the melodic sophistication and amped up arrangements of the Beatles, the band’s innovative “folk-rock” sound earned them a pair of Number Ones in 1965: a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” It was enough to impress the Fabs themselves, who befriended Crosby. During the L.A. stop of their 1965 U.S. tour, the Beatles invited him to their rented L.A. compound for a (reportedly) LSD-enhanced afternoon, and later welcomed him into London’s Abbey Road Studios while they recorded their landmark 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

However, rapid fame at an early age came with some risks. “If you’re successful right away, early on, usually it’s a disaster,” Crosby says with typical candor. Creative differences between the headstrong guitarist and the rest of the Byrds lead to increasingly tense sessions. His song “Triad,” an ode to ménage à trois, was rejected, and the group was less than pleased when he launched into a tirade about J.F.K. assassination conspiracies onstage at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. In an echo of his school days, Crosby was expelled from the band that fall.

With time on his hands, he traveled to Miami, where he’d played as a penniless folkie years before. There he encountered two ladies who would have a major impact on his life. The first was a 74-foot mahogany sailboat, The Mayan, which became both a personal touchstone for health and freedom, and a muse for beloved songs like “Wooden Ships,” “The Lee Shore,” “Page 43” and “Carry Me.” The second was a young Canadian singer named Joni Mitchell. Enchanted after watching her perform in a Coconut Grove coffee house, he persuaded her to return with him to L.A. where he integrated her into the local music community and helped her secure a record deal. His admiration for her talent remains undiminished after half a century. “She’s the best there is,” he says with touching affection. “There’s no question. She’s better than all the rest of us.”

Their romantic relationship did not endure — Crosby likens it to “falling into a cement mixer” — but their friendship did. He recalls hanging out in the kitchen of her Laurel Canyon cottage one evening in 1968 when he joined voices with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash for the first time. Before the last notes had faded away, Crosby, Stills & Nash was born.

Their self-titled debut album shot to the top of the charts in the summer of 1969, and they hadn’t even played a concert together. To help tackle their complex arrangements live, the trio recruited Stills’ former Buffalo Springfield bandmate Neil Young, and their name was appropriately amended. Their second-ever gig took place at the Woodstock festival, where Stills famously told the crowd that they were “scared s—less.” It wasn’t so much the sea of people stretched before them that rattled the nerves, but the small circle of musical peers like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Grace Slick and the Band watching expectantly in the wings to see if the so-called supergroup could deliver the goods.

They could, and they did. Their set, filled with generation-defining songs like “Guinnevere,” “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” and “Wooden Ships,” was a highlight of the weekend, but Crosby cherishes a different memory. He recounts it in rapid-fire present tense, as if the long ago moment is unfolding before him.

The hope was short-lived. Within the year, four peaceful student protestors were shot dead on the campus of Kent State University, inspiring Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s incendiary anthem “Ohio,” and Crosby himself would also be touched by tragedy. In September 1969, his long-term girlfriend Christine Hinton was driving their cats to the vet when one of the kittens got loose in the vehicle. In the confusion, her VW van crossed the center line and struck a school bus. Crosby rushed to the hospital, but it was too late; she was dead at the age of 21. The loss changed him forever. “There’s just this emptiness,” he says in Remember My Name. “It’s like a rip in the fabric, and an empty place. It leaves a big hole and you want to fill it.”

Crosby found refuge on The Mayan, embarking on a seven-week, 3,000-mile voyage from Fort Lauderdale to San Francisco, where he scattered Hinton’s ashes in the bay. Music also provided solace, as friends rallied around him in the recording studio to work on his first solo album. Released in February 1971, If I Could Only Remember My Name features the likes of Nash, Young, Jerry Garcia, Joni Mitchell, and members of Santana and Jefferson Airplane. “That album is a tribute to friendship more than anything else,” he remembers. “Those guys knew that I was having real trouble making it from one day to the next, and they all showed.” The spirit of the sessions is clear in the opening track, “Music Is Love,” a spontaneous round sung with Nash and Young. But the album’s closer, “I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here,” hints at the darkness that was never far away. Recorded by Crosby alone, the lyric-less a cappella piece is a haunting requiem for his lost love, and an exorcism of pain that words alone can’t express.

For much of the next 15 years, Crosby anesthetized himself with heroin and freebase cocaine, doing significant harm to both his musical relationships and his relationship to music. “The longer I did hard drugs, the less I wrote until it ground to a halt and all I did was get loaded,” he admits. “It nearly killed me, but more importantly, it kept me from making music.” CSN concerts were interrupted as Crosby left to stage to get high. As his bandmates became increasingly alienated, Crosby grew closer to Jan Dance, a young woman he met while recording at a Miami recording studio. Together, they slid into the depths of addiction.

Crosby’s body became covered with burns from his blowtorch used to prepare freebase, and drug-related seizures became alarmingly regular. One occurred while he was behind the wheel, resulting in the first of numerous drugs and weapons charges. Friends, including Nash and fellow singer Jackson Browne, recognized he needed help and staged an intervention for Crosby, who frustrated all concerned by sneaking off in the middle of it with his pipe. He would make at least six attempts to get clean, to no avail.

Wanted by the FBI after violating an appeals bond in 1985, Crosby became a fugitive. His money gone to drugs, he sold his last item of value — a grand piano — for $5,000 and rented a single-engine plane to fly from California to Florida in search of The Mayan. He and Dance planned to sail away and live the rest of their days abroad, but the boat was unseaworthy after years of neglect. Out of options, Crosby went to the nearest FBI office and turned himself in.

He spent that Christmas in a Texas prison, detoxing without so much as an aspirin. As he grew stronger, he confronted his past. “I woke up in a cell in Texas and remembered who I am,” he says. “I started fooling around with the guitar out in this little cinder block room and my brain started to work again.” Slowly, the future came into focus. He started playing with the prison band and eventually began writing. He cites one song, “Compass,” with obvious pride as “the first good song that I wrote” after getting clean. The lyrics detail the years he spent adrift, before offering a message of hope for himself.

I have wasted ten years in a blind-fold
Ten-fold more than I’ve invested now in sight
I have traveled beveled mirrors in a fly crawl
Losing the reflection of a fight
But like a compass seeking North
There lives in me a still sure spirit part
Clouds of doubt are cut asunder
By the lightning and the thunder
Shining from the compass of my heart

The compass had guided him back to music. “Having almost lost it, I treasured it more. I’ve been much more faithful to it since. When I didn’t die, and I didn’t end, I got a new chance. I felt much more strongly that I have to be true to my purpose here.” Within days of his release on Aug. 8, 1986, he appeared onstage with Nash, marking his first sober performance in two decades. He had just celebrated his 45th birthday.

Having reconnected with music, he reunited with the other love of his life. Jan Dance got clean while Crosby was in prison and the pair began to rebuild their lives together. A sympathetic judge reversed a court-ordered five-year separation resulting from their drug arrests, and they were married on May 16, 1987 in a ceremony at the Hollywood Church of Religious Science on Sunset Boulevard. “Jan loved me in ways that I didn’t love myself,” Crosby reflects in the documentary, “and taught me a lot about how to love, period.” Together they raised a son, Django, now 24.

Today, Crosby resides at the Santa Ynez ranch he shares with Dance and their many dogs, cats and horses. Upheavals in the music industry make constant touring a financial necessity — at least until his premium cannabis brand, Mighty Croz, makes the Fortune 500. “This streaming thing just crippled me,” he says, adding that the rise of subscription services cut his income in half. “It’s very hard. I’m 77 years old. I can’t really sleep on a bus anymore, so I’m tired as hell on the road. It’s a bitch, but the three hours that I’m onstage are heaven. I’m good at it, man, and I love it. I really love audiences. I really love singing to them, and I love talking to them, and I love taking them on an emotional voyage. I love it. It’s what I was born to do. It’s absolutely my thing. So for three hours a night, man, I’m the happiest guy in the world. Then I eat some kibble and get on a bus and go bang down the road to the next one. I can do it for four or five weeks and then I come home and I’m just destroyed. And then I put myself back together and I can do it again.” Even though he’s been through hell, his angelic voice remains astonishingly intact. When asked if he practices any kind of vocal conditioning, he merely cackles. “No, f— no! I’m doing everything wrong! The only thing I didn’t do was smoke cigarettes.”

Though he’s grateful to be singing, finances have forced him to part ways with another great love: The Mayan. It’s a personal loss he resolutely blames on the payment practices of streaming services. “I had the boat for 50 years. I sailed it all over the world. I loved it more than any other physical object on this planet. I had to sell it because they don’t pay me for records anymore. Imagine you worked your job for a month and they paid you a nickel. It’s completely out of proportion wrong.”

But the records continue to pour out of him at a furious rate, with the help of several young collaborators. In a twist worthy of one of Crowe’s scripts, Crosby has reconnected with a son, James Raymond, who was placed for adoption at birth in the ‘60s. (He also has daughters Erika and Donovan from previous relationships, and was later revealed to be the sperm donor for the two children of Melissa Etheridge and her then-partner, Julie Cypher.) After years working as a musician himself, Raymond went in search of his biological father in the ‘90s — and was stunned by who he found. Now the pair make music together, with Raymond producing 2014’s Croz and 2016’s Sky Trails. More recently, Crosby has joined forces with Michael League of the jazz band Snarky Puppy, who oversees the collective known as the Lighthouse Band, which also features vocalists Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis. “I feel like I’ve been rewarded an avalanche of good luck because these people are incredibly talented and like working with me,” Crosby says. “I write with all of them, and the result has been a serious upgrade in the amount and level of the music that I’m putting out. These people are not lightweights, man. When I write with them, we write really good s—. I mean really good.”

Any who fear he’s mellowed in his twilight years needn’t worry — he’s just as opinionated as ever. His most recent album, 2018’s Here If You Listen, continues to push the socio-ecological causes he first championed in the ‘60s. The track “Other Half Rule” urges women to run the planet after millennia of men — leading all the way up to the one Crosby refers to as “our Pestident” — have screwed it up. “Vagrants of Venice” is sci-fi tinged odyssey that touches on the effects of global warming, which Crosby repeatedly says is to the biggest danger facing our planet. “[Musicians] come from troubadours and town criers. ‘It’s 12:30 and all is well! It’s 12:45 you’ve elected an idiot to be president!’ That is part of our job, but it’s only part. Our main job is to take you on emotional voyages. The second job: make you boogie. We don’t want you to be able to stand still when we’re playing. We want you to want to dance. Third or fourth down the list comes being a witness.”

Despite all he’s seen and done, Crosby isn’t quick to give advice. When Rolling Stone asked if he’d be their new Dear Abby in a column called “Ask Croz,” he found it hilarious. But Here If You Listen does feature some words to his youngest son, Django, with “Your Own Ride,” the album’s emotional centerpiece. “You’re trying to say, ‘Look. I’d love to guide you in your life. I can’t really do that. I can only be an example, and I’ve been a questionable example. But I love you and I want the best for you.”

Regrets, he’s had a few; his biggest being the time lost to addiction. “It cost me probably 10 years of my life. I regret it greatly. If I had to change one thing, that would be it. No hard drugs, because it nearly killed me and put me in prison and, most importantly, it kept me from making music.” Intended or not, his recent geyser of work is a throw-down — a signal to his CSNY brethren that he’s back and means business, and a challenge to artists a quarter of his age to stand up and be counted. “I’ve wasted so much time and it grates on my nerves. I’m obviously trying really hard to do a whole s—load better. I’m trying really hard to be a decent human being and I certainly am doing what I was put here to do, which is make good music.”

For a man who rarely looks back, Remember My Name gave him the rare opportunity to step out of himself and scrutinize. At first the process was uncomfortable, but ultimately he found it cathartic. “The catharsis thing works. They taught me that in AA. You have to honestly look at your mistakes and then you can learn from it, which is the only good thing that’s going to come from any mistake. Then you can set that puppy down and walk on, because that’s what you need to do. You need to walk on. And you need to be looking forward when you walk on, not backwards. Otherwise you’ll run into a phone pole. So I think it’s had a great effect on me. It’s lightening my load.”