10 David Crosby songs that show how he was an alternative music legend
January 19, 2023 brought the heartbreaking news that we lost David Crosby at age 81. As a member of The Byrds; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; and more, as well as a prolific solo artist, David Crosby was one of the most creative, groundbreaking, and influential songwriters of the past 50-plus years. The songs he himself penned were often slightly less popular than the hit singles penned by his bandmates in The Byrds and CSNY--or the Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger songs that The Byrds famously interpreted--but Crosby's songwriting has gained a cult fanbase over the years. His more experimental, more out-of-the-box, more psychedelic style of songwriting was a massive precursor to so much of the indie/psych music that defined the past few decades, from Ride to Elephant Six to Animal Collective to Fleet Foxes to Angel Olsen all putting out music that Croz either directly or indirectly paved the way for. As a way of celebrating his storied career, here are 10 essential songs either written or co-written by David Crosby that show how he helped lay the groundwork for so much of the alternative music that came in his wake.
10 songs is just the tip of the iceberg of David Crosby's career, and this list primarily focuses on his '60s/early '70s era, so there's of course so much more out there. Read on for the list, in chronological order...
The Byrds - "Why" (1966)
The Byrds' breakthrough singles were mostly covers, and Crosby had just one co-writing credit across their first two albums, but that would change with 1966's "Eight Miles High" single. Rock music was progressing quickly in the mid 1960s, and just one year after The Byrds helped pioneer folk rock, they helped pioneer psychedelic rock and raga rock on the groundbreaking "Eight Miles High," which took influence from Indian classical musician Ravi Shankar and jazz musician John Coltrane and was fueled by an overt drug metaphor that gave the song its title. Crosby was a co-writer on that song, alongside Gene Clark and Jim McGuinn, but, according to various accounts, it was the song's B-side, "Why," that was more predominantly written by Crosby. "Why" was cut from a similar cloth as "Eight Miles High"; Crosby has cited Ravi Shankar as a core influence on this one, and you can hear the drone of Indian music coming through on the song's hook--not to mention Jim McGuinn's raga-inspired guitar solo. Just as The Byrds' early folk rock singles impacted the direction of The Beatles' Rubber Soul, there's reason to believe that this song influenced Revolver, and you can hear the psychedelia of "Why" resonating throughout shoegaze and Britpop and other forms of alternative rock with a flair for trippiness.
The Byrds - "What's Happening?!?!" (1966)
After the release of "Eight Miles High," The Byrds hit the studio to work on their next album, Fifth Dimension, putting less emphasis on covers and more into the psychedelic songwriting that they were helping to pioneer at the time. But with their principal songwriter Gene Clark leaving the band shortly after the release of "Eight Miles High," other members had to step up, and Crosby contributed the first Byrds song written entirely by him, "What's Happening?!?!." With its abstract lyrics and hypnotic sound, it was markedly different from The Byrds' biggest singles, and it practically set the blueprint for the direction that Crosby's songwriting would take throughout the remainder of the 1960s and into the early '70s. All these decades later, the song still feels like it's from another world.
The Byrds - "Renaissance Fair" (1967)
The Byrds of 1967 were not the same family-friendly band that was topping the charts just two years earlier, and nowhere was that clearer than at Monterey Pop Festival, during which David Crosby used his platform to urge politicians to use LSD. His stage banter at that festival was one of the major factors that contributed to the growing tension between Crosby and his other band members, but Crosby's banter wasn't the only thing that made The Byrds' set a definitive counter-cultural moment. They opened with "Renaissance Fair," a song Crosby co-wrote with McGuinn for 1967's Younger Than Yesterday, and a song that perfectly captured the spirit of the hippie era. With lyrics about dreaming and kaleidoscopes and smelling cinnamon and spices and hearing music everywhere and wearing flowers in your hair, it functioned as an unofficial hippie anthem and it sounded like one too. The Byrds took the jangly guitars and the soaring harmonies that they'd perfected in their earlier days, and they used those tricks to deliver melodies that were just as kaleidoscopic as the lyrics.
The Byrds - "Everybody's Been Burned" (1967)
"Renaissance Fair" was the hippie anthem, but Crosby had much weirder stuff than that to offer on Younger Than Yesterday. He also contributed the haunting, pained "Everybody's Been Burned." Eschewing the band's trademark harmonies, Crosby sang this one himself, and his stark voice set against the minimal arrangements made for one of the band's eeriest songs to date. It also showed that Crosby was emerging as a force of his own.
The Byrds - "Mind Gardens" (1967)
Crosby's other weird song on Younger Than Yesterday was "Mind Gardens." If it wasn't clear from the title, Crosby had his third eye open with this one, delivering meandering, stream-of-consciousness lyrics over a nearly-formless backdrop fueled by psychedelic backwards guitar effects, not unlike the ones The Beatles had used on "Tomorrow Never Knows." It was an early example of bands using the studio as an instrument, and its impact can be felt on decades upon decades of experimental music.
The Byrds - "Tribal Gathering" (1968)
Crosby was ousted from The Byrds in 1967, during the making of 1968's The Notorious Byrd Brothers, but a few of his contributions still made it into that album, like "Tribal Gathering." Like "Renaissance Fair," it was lyrically inspired by and perfect for the hippie movement, and it was matched by a jazzy backdrop and a fuzz-drenched guitar solo that made it fit in perfectly with what was becoming known as acid rock.
The Byrds - "Triad" (1968)
The best song that Crosby wrote during the sessions for The Notorious Byrd Brothers was one that didn't make it onto the album at all. "Triad," Crosby's ode to threesomes, was dismissed by the band due to its subject matter, so Crosby instead gave it to Jefferson Airplane to record for their 1968 album Crown of Creation. Jefferson Airplane's version is a classic, but the Crosby-sung Byrds version--which was eventually released to the public in 1987--is an essential gem. With a moody and atmospheric vibe that perfectly suits Crosby's lyricism, the song is pure hippie-era bliss.
Crosby, Stills & Nash - "Guinnevere" (1969)
Once Crosby was kicked out of The Byrds, he teamed up with Buffalo Springfield's Stephen Stills and The Hollies' Graham Nash to form the folk rock supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash, who released their classic self-titled debut album in 1969. The album's big singles were penned by Stills and Nash, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" and "Marrakesh Express," respectively, but Crosby's less radio-friendly "Guinnevere" gave him a chance to further explore the tender, jazzy psychedelic folk that The Byrds had become disinterested in. It's one of Croz's most purely gorgeous songs.
Crosby, Stills & Nash - "Wooden Ships" (1969)
During the making of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Crosby and Stills teamed up with Paul Kantner of the aforementioned Jefferson Airplane for "Wooden Ships," which was released by both CSN on their self-titled debut and by Jefferson Airplane on that same year's Volunteers. Jefferson Airplane's version is a little harder-rocking, while CSN's--which was primarily arranged by Crosby--is a little more ethereal. Both are essential, and both are among the most iconic recordings of the Woodstock era.
David Crosby - "Cowboy Movie" (1971)
After releasing their self-titled debut, Crosby, Stills & Nash recruited Neil Young for the first CSNY album, Déjà Vu, and the release of Déjà Vu was followed by solo albums by all four members: Neil Young's After the Gold Rush, Stephen Stills' self-titled album, Graham Nash's Songs For Beginners, and David Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name. In many ways, IICORMN is the definitive David Crosby release of the psychedelic/hippie/counter-culture era, the one album released during that period where Crosby could call all of the shots, the culmination of everything he had been building towards with his contributions to Byrds and CSN(Y) albums. It's hard to pick one song from that album for this list, but if pressed, I think I'd have to go with "Cowboy Movie." It's an eight-minute song that finds Crosby backed by Grateful Dead members Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart, and it's a jammy journey that quite literally sounds like David Crosby meets the Grateful Dead. He had put out weird, trippy songs before, but he never had the chance to really let his music trail off into space like this song does.