David Crosby’s Had It With ‘Evil Bastard’ Trump and the Rotten Music Industry
The famously outspoken musician opens up about selling his publishing during COVID, streaming services, and why he thinks “Rupert Murdoch should be taken out and shot.”
With every new interview he gives, David Crosby seems to piss off yet another segment of his fanbase. Whether it’s his former bandmates in the Byrds or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY)—both of which Crosby co-founded and for which he was twice inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—or the former members and legions of fans of the Doors (and Jim Morrison), for whom Crosby reserves a special sort of ire, not to mention the current crop of rap and hip-hop artists (especially Kanye West), or supporters of the Conspiracy Theorist-in-Chief, whom Crosby can’t seem to go more than a few days on his ever-active and endlessly entertaining Twitter feed without rebuking mercilessly.
So, it would seem that David Crosby is, in fact, an asshole, right? Hardly.
Rather, Crosby is a rare breed amongst his fellow artists and musicians in 2021: He speaks his mind, in the most unvarnished manner possible, no matter whose feelings he hurts, even if it doesn’t do anything to help his career prospects. To put it bluntly: David Crosby, who turns 80 next month, doesn’t give a fuck, but also puts his art where his mouth is.
That’s because the Boomer hero, who contributed the hippie anthem “Almost Cut My Hair” to CSNY’s Déjà Vu at the height of the counterculture revolution, and who stood for all things hedonistic during that era—free love, excessive drug use, and lawlessness, in general—is also alone amid his peers from the Laurel Canyon boom of that same era in making vital new music.
For Free, Crosby latest album, out now, continues the hot streak that began with Croz in 2014, and continued through Lighthouse (2016), Sky Trails (2017), and Here If You Listen (2019), all featuring a wide variety of styles and some of the best songwriting and singing of Crosby’s career. Perhaps more Steely Dan than CSNY, For Free, produced by Crosby’s once-estranged son James Raymond, finds Croz, as his friends and legion of Twitter followers know him, yet again in fine voice, offering up songs that are more varied and elegant than even some of his best-known work, and seems to be having a better time doing it than at any time in a career that can only be referred to as both genre-shaping and tumultuous.
The Daily Beast spoke with Crosby via Zoom as he prepared for the release of For Free, and to say the octogenarian rocker didn’t hold back would be an understatement.
You have made a bunch of albums in the last couple of years, much more than any of your contemporaries. Why do you feel you’ve been so prolific, and do you feel that maybe your previous relationships held you back artistically?
Well, certainly not on purpose. But here’s the thing: The last few years of CSN, we weren’t really friends, and it wasn’t really working. I did not want to make a record with them. No question about that. The last records that I enjoyed making were Crosby Nash records, and even that got pretty dodgy toward the end.
That’s a long time ago David, by the way. Like 1976!
I know! But that’s how long ago it started going haywire. It was a really good chemistry when it was working, and it took a long time to die.
There’s a warmth and healing and intimacy and openheartedness in these songs, and all the music you’ve made in the last seven years or so, that, I’ve gotta be honest, I haven’t heard in your music in a very long time. I know you feel that the clock is ticking, and yes, you have had great collaborators, but does knowing that you have people around you who have your back, so to speak, free you artistically to put it all out there rather than be uptight, like, “What is Graham going to think about this?” or “What is Neil going to say?”
Definitely. Everyone I’ve worked with on the albums since Croz have been so good and so eager and so amazingly confident that I have felt safe and able to take chances and risks. I can be utterly, totally fucking naked. I can be completely honest about stuff. I can talk about stuff that’s really hard to talk about. I can go amazing places, because these people have that range. Every single one of them.
Feeling safe as an artist is something I bet you haven’t felt in a very long time.
A very long time. You’re quite right.
I want to talk about Spotify. There are plenty of defenders of that platform out there because it is, for many people, leveling the playing field and allowing people to be heard, although the reality is most of artists on there aren’t heard. What if they said, “Croz, we want you on our board, we want you to advise us, how can we do this more equitably? We’re a business, we need to make money, just like David Geffen did back in the day, but how could we do this differently?”
Very simple answer: Pay the people who write the fucking music.
And they will say, “Well, you’re locked into a shitty contract.”
Bullshit. You want the truth? Here’s what happened: The guys who thought this technology up went to the main record companies and they said, “Imagine no physical object.” The record companies said to themselves, “Hmm. No covers. No shipping. No returns. No boxes, no pictures, no… Holy shit, yes. How do we get that?” Streamers said, “You’ve got to change your pay structure. You’re paying the artist too much. We want that money. You’ve got to pay us.” And the record companies said, “We could do that. All you’d have to do to get us to do that would be give us a piece of your company.” And they did. The reason the record companies are doing so well is that they are getting paid by the streaming companies enormous amounts of money that is not going to the people who made the music.
So, no matter how good or bad your contract is, the artists are not getting a piece of that pie.
It doesn’t fucking matter. It doesn’t mean jack shit. They’re screwing all of us all the time. But at first, I thought to myself, “Be grateful. You can still go back out and play live and pay the rent and take care of your family.” COVID comes along and I can’t. This pandemic forced me to sell my publishing, man. It was the only thing I had. Only thing in my life that I owned. That’s it. That’s all I had. I had to sell it, largely because these greedy assholes rigged it so that they’re not paying the people who make the music. Now, that’s bad for me, man. It fucked me up. Took away half my income. But it’s much worse—much worse—for young people. Young people trying to make it in the business haven’t got a fucking chance in hell because they can’t make any money off records at all. Not a nickel. Not a dime. How are they going to buy lunch? How are they going to buy guitar strings? How are they going to get a ticket to go to the city where they can play? They’re not being paid for the music that they are making. That’s the bottom line.
And if they’re not a success out of the box, they’re gone. They’re not allowed to grow.
You don’t get a shot. So that is completely wrong and does not bode well for the future of music. I don't know where they think they’re going to get the songs from. Maybe they think they can teach a computer to do it. They probably do.
I want to talk to you about our former commander-in-chief—
—because you’ve been calling him out as a con man for as long as he’s been in the public eye. You and I had this conversation 10 years ago about him, before he was even on the radar, politically. Does it feel like he’s ever going to have to pay the piper?
Yes. Probably because he was sloppy. He and his cohorts were sloppy in their crimes. So, he will, probably. I don’t have confidence in the legal system, because it’s too easy to buy your way out of things, and I think that he believes that, too, and that he’s going to be OK. But the Southern District of New York, they know who he is. They know he’s been taking Russian mob money and laundering it into New York real estate for probably 30 years. They’ve watched him do it; they know where the money is coming from. So, the folks at the Southern District may nail him. There are certainly people in there that want to nail him, and they’ve got the goods on him. Whether or not he can buy his way out, that’s a tough one to call.
And your feelings about him since the election and the insurrection?
He’s an evil bastard. He’s done an enormous amount of harm. He ripped the scab off of the racism in this country so that people have to look at it, and maybe that’s actually a bad guy causing a good thing to happen. Because it was there the whole time. There are plenty of people—not just in the South, mind you—who are racist, so it’s better that it’s out in the open so that we can try to deal with it, but that’s a good thing he did unintentionally, while being evil. And he and the other corporate guys who won’t pay taxes? They’re all setting a shitty example. They’re all saying, “Well, cheat if you can, man, yeah, it’s great. Everybody does it.” Well, everybody doesn’t fucking do it. I don’t fucking do it. I pay my taxes because I think I'm a citizen and I think I should. But they don’t feel the need to do that. My beef with [Jeff] Bezos, and even with [Elon] Musk, whom I admire tremendously, is that just because you can beat it, just because you have really clever guys working for you, and you can beat it, doesn’t mean you should. Because you’re setting a shitty example. You’re saying, “I don’t have to do it because I’m clever. I win. Ha-ha.” Well, that means everybody else reads it as, “Oh, the rules don’t count. I’m going to cheat, too.”
You brought up the race issue, and certainly there was a reckoning, with George Floyd’s killing and the aftermath, and all the protests. But the backlash, the way the right has turned that, and Critical Race Theory, and whatever else they’re using to fire up the base, into talking points…
They’re not going to change! You’re not going to convince them suddenly that Black people are nice! They haven’t learned the essential truth that every group of people on the planet has all the kinds, and that’s why racism is stupid. There are good Black people and there’s bad Black people. There are good white people and there’s bad white people. Every group of people on the planet has all of it, axe murderers to saints. You can’t say, “I don’t like Mexicans because they’re all like this. I don’t like Black people because they’re all like that.” It’s bullshit, because they’re not. And I’ve had first-hand experience, man. My experience with Black people goes from people like Miles Davis to the guys that I was in prison with who couldn’t read a comic book and had nothing but fierce anger. That’s all they had in the world, nothing else. So, I’ve had a real wide spectrum. I go from guys who killed a bunch of people for no reason at all simply because they were pissed off at the world, to Wynton Marsalis and Odetta—people who are exemplary. So, my range of experience with people taught me that essential truth. But these bastards, the people who are prejudiced, they don’t get it. They think, “Oh, we’re better.” They need somebody to feel better than. So, it’s really about their egos. They want to feel better and bigger and richer and tougher than somebody. “Them goddamn Black folks, they’re nowhere near as good as me.” Well, that’s just a fucking childish mentality to burnish your ego, man.
You’re a curmudgeon, but you have a hopeful nature. When you were watching, like everybody else, everything that happened in January, and Trump inciting a riot and all the people storming the Capitol, did you still have hope for democracy?
I do. But I gotta tell you, man, I’m not sure we’re going to make it. Look at it this way: There’s about a third of the country that are actually too dumb to understand what a democracy is and how it works. There’s about another third that are not too stupid, but they’re misinformed, because they’re uneducated. Ignorant.
And from Reagan through to today, the GOP has defunded education to keep it that way.
Exactly! It’s on purpose! They downgraded and defunded the schools to have a more manipulable public. We used to be number one in the world. We had the best education of anybody. We’re now, like, 26th, 28th, something—behind every other developed country in the world. They are all doing a better job than we are, and that way happened on purpose. These bastards downgraded our educational system every way they could because it suited them and because it makes more manipulable, more manageable people. The dumber they are, the easier it is to feed them a lie and get them to do what you want. That’s some sick shit. But that’s what’s going on. Anyway, then there’s about 40 percent of the country that reads books and can think and speak. And that’s us. We can shift the entire balance of power in this country, but we have to look at how to do it. We can fix it, but it will take an enormous amount of effort, and it might take us beating, scamming and cheating, just like they right have, to somehow get our way into enough places of power to change the structure. But we ain’t going to have to do that unless we address global warming, because it won’t matter until we do. But the other side are also too dumb to understand what global warming is. They really don’t get it. They think it’s something Joe Biden put out there to make the changes the left want. They don’t get it. They don’t have the brains of a squirrel, man. They just haven’t got any education at all. They got screwed. They’ve got really shortchanged by the people they support, and they don’t even know it.
So ultimately, it’s just about maintaining power and keeping people in their place?
It really is. You’re quite right. And it’s very sad. But here’s what I think: I think there is a fairly good chance that the United States of America will come unglued. Fact: California is the fifth largest economy in the world. By itself! Add Washington and Oregon, and between those three you’ve got Google, Apple, Tesla, SpaceX. I’m sorry, man. We could leave. And we would be fine, thank you very much. Then ,New York and New England might leave and it’s possible that we could have a two-part country. The flyover land, down to Texas, with probably the capitol in Texas, as another county.
Well, they would be fucked.
They would be fucked, but they have got an awful lot of corn and wheat. They don’t like their farmers, but that’s where they’ve got a huge powerhouse there. They are raising an awful lot of corn, wheat, and beef. So, I don’t know how it’s going to play out. But I know that there are a lot of really stupid people in the world and that many of them are in power and that the rest are being fed a whole shitload of absolutely untrue shit. Rupert Murdoch should be taken out and shot. The people on Fox are doing great harm to the human race. What can I say? They’re lying for money. So, it feels hopeless. Because they don’t mind lying. Lying for money is normal to them. It’s OK.
Speaking of political turmoil, what about CSNY? What’s the state of things?
It’s fucking awful. Those guys were capable of really good work and are guys whose work I’ve admired and contributed to and tried to work with. I am kind of surprised that they’re not at least trying to make some music these days. But whatever trips their trigger is what trips their trigger. For me, making music brings me great joy, so of course I want to keep doing it for as long as I can. Because it’s fun. And I love doing it. That’s the main reason. Secondly, it’s like I said, man, and I know it sounds hippie and cosmic, but music is a lifting force. It makes things better. And the world could use a shitload of it right now. It could use a whole lot of really good music. Really badly.