If there’s one word that sums up David Crosby’s state at the very end of his life, it might be: working. That’s according to friends who’d been collaborating with him up until the week — and even the day — that he died. Crosby was not only working on a new album but had assembled and rehearsed a new band for his first gig since prior to the pandemic, which was within days of going on sale when he suddenly died Jan. 18. Plans for a tour were being made, too, with the intention of being out on the road this summer.
The portrait his collaborators paint, of a man who couldn’t have been making more plans, stands in contrast to the wrong impression some might have been left with, that Crosby was laid up suffering from a fatal illness in his last days.
“David didn’t think he was gonna last for years, which he joked about all the time. But there was no sense that we weren’t gonna be able to do this show and these tours,” musician Steve Postell tells Variety. “We were talking tour buses, and what kind of venues, and the whole team was all back together again — the road manager and tour manager and sound guys — on top of this band we’d put together. There was not even a remote sense that we weren’t about ready to hit the world. And it’s a shame people didn’t get to hear it. This was something else. This was as close to the original thing” — specifically, the original sound of Crosby, Stills and Nash — “as we were gonna get. It was very powerful.”
Although on the last day of Crosby’s life they’d been communicating via phone, Postell had been visiting him in person for an intimate rehearsal up in the Santa Barbara area the week before he died, following an exhilarating full-band rehearsal they’d had in mid-December. The musician says Crosby “seemed practically giddy with all of it…. He was showing us new songs, like, ‘What do you think of these lyrics?’ He hadn’t lost the fire. I’d like people to know that he was on it. He was writing, playing, singing his ass off and preparing a fantastic show. That’s what he was doing. He was not lying in a bed for two years, out of it. That’s not what happened at all.”
Postell was on the phone with Crosby on Wednesday morning, going over plans they were laying for a two-night stand in Santa Barbara, set for Feb. 22-23, with plans to have the shows recorded for a possible live album. The planned shows, a 150th anniversary celebration of the Lobero Theatre, would have set the template for a tour to follow at mid-year.
After hanging up with Crosby late in the morning, Postell spent the afternoon rehearsing the full set list they’d plotted out, staying in communication with James Raymond, Crosby’s son and a fellow member of the band. In the evening, Postell wrapped up his solo rehearsal and texted “Croz” with further thoughts, only to shortly get a text back from Raymond that his father had died.
“There was some misinformation” about Crosby, 81, having been seriously ill, Postell says, “but there always is. It’s hard for people to get the straight story.” A press release that went out from a publicist unknown to most reporters, quoting Crosby’s wife as saying he died after a long illness, muddled the matter in the media, since the singer had not been known to be seriously ill. “That’s a very confusing thing,” says the musician. “He was a weakened guy from a lot of different preexisting conditions, and everyone knew it — he talked about it in his documentary [2019’s “David Crosby: Remember My Name] — but he was not dying. We were rehearsing. We were going out to dinner.”
One reason fans and onlookers had assumed that Crosby’s touring days were over was because he had said so himself, in early 2022. But he’d publicly recanted that, on Twitter in November. The key, Postell says, was in convincing Crosby that he could tour just as a singer, with Postell taking over his guitar parts. The star’s ability to play his complicated acoustic guitar parts for the length of a set had diminished in the last few years, but Postell had convinced him that it was OK to just hit the road singing — given that, remarkably, his voice still sounded about as strong and choirboy-like as fans remembered it from the 1960s.
There was never a hint that Crosby was retiring from recording, meanwhile, as he’d only stepped up his pace. This became further clear when Sarah Jarosz, one of the younger singers that the elder artist had championed in the last few years, revealed on social media just after Crosby’s death that earlier in the week she’d been in the studio recording vocal and mandolin parts for his next album.
Jarosz had not talked directly with Crosby this past week — she’d recorded her part remotely and sent it to Raymond — but says his son indicated after the death that Crosby had listened to and appreciated it before his sudden passing. She would also like to see the message get out there that Crosby was active and creative till the very end.
“I never got to actually be in the studio with him when I was recording those vocals,” Jarosz tells Variety, “but he and James had reached out to me about a month ago saying they were working on this new album, and he really wanted me to sing on a new song, ‘Talk Till Dawn.’ It had just been a few days since I sent the vocal off [before Crosby died], but the way James made it seem to me is that he did get to hear it before he passed, which is obviously extremely emotional for me. I guess the way that I would describe the song is quintessential David Crosby —interesting chord movement and just a beautiful, stunning vocal performance.”
Adds Jarosz, “He just wanted to create until the very end, and that was always my impression of him in our conversations. He was so full of music, and it always struck me because, as a young musician myself, I think it’s easy to sometimes look at someone who’s had a long life and incredible career and think: How can they still just have that drive and that fire within them? I always was just so inspired after talking to him because it just seemed like he had endless music within him and worked so hard to just keep making it, obviously up until the very end. I’ll always hold onto that.”
Jarosz, too, was puzzled about the “long illness” quote when she saw it. “I was confused about that. I mean, every time we talked, he would call and I’d be like, ‘How are you doing?’ And he’d be like, ‘Well, I’m dying’ — but jokingly, with a laugh. I wasn’t aware if there was a long illness. It was more just like the hard years of living, and being 81. It certainly came as a shock.”
Postell, besides having played and co-written with Crosby on other projects in recent years, is a member of the band the Immediate Family, a supergroup of well-known session players he formed with veterans Waddy Wachtel, Danny Kortchmar, Russ Kunkel and Leland Sklar. He’s involved in a documentary that is coming out about that collection of musicians, but his primary focus in recent months has been getting Crosby back out as a live performing artist. He offers a tantalizing picture of what might have been, if the comeback shows in Santa Barbara and ultimate tour had proceeded.
But there had been one big obstacle to overcome in convincing Crosby to un-retire from the road almost as quickly as he had announced he was quitting it last year. “His hands got, increasingly, as people’s do, arthritic and difficult,” says Postell. “It gotten harder and harder for him,” Postell says. “He could certainly pick up the guitar and say, ‘Well, it went like this,’ but he wasn’t gonna do a whole show like that. It just happens to everybody. He was 81. It happened to Les Paul, you know? But [not playing guitar] wasn’t gonna be an impediment at all in doing this shows. As a matter of fact, it really freed him up, because he didn’t have to think about it. He just could sing. I don’t know how he could do it. He sounded great.”
But because of the guitar-playing issue, earlier last year, “He was done. I mean, from day one, part of his thing was having that guitar stance, from the Byrds on. But he came around after James said, ‘You know, Steve really could play this stuff.’ David was a little bit [hesitant]. He said, ‘I don’t know that I’m gonna want to do this until we try it, and I don’t want you to do all that work…’ And in this sort of sadly prescient comment, I said, ‘David, I don’t care if we ever get on a stage. I just want to do this. And if we don’t perform it, it will have been an honor to learn this stuff. So I’ll learn it, and then you think about it.’ So I did, after I filmed him playing all of his songs so I could see exactly what he was doing. He didn’t know how it would feel to just stand there and sing. But I played it exactly as he played it, and it worked. He could just sing, so once he realized that, he was gung ho.
“I learned seven songs and got together with James and him and we played those seven. There are songs where what he was doing wasn’t that hard, like ‘Long Time Gone’ or ‘Wooden Ships.’ That’s not a big deal. But I learned the deep acoustic stuff, both his originals and CSN stuff, that’s pretty intricate: ‘Deja Vu,’ ‘Guiunevere ‘Lee Shore,’ all of that repertoire that if you don’t play it like he plays it, it doesn’t sound like the song. With James on piano, Croz sitting on the couch singing, and me playing, we played the seven songs through,and he was like, ‘Yep, let’s go.’ Right at that moment he started calling band members: ‘You have Hutch’s number?’ He called up [bassist James ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson]. ‘Do you have Dean’s number?’ He called [guitarist] Dean Parks, right there and then, and we set up the first rehearsal.”
“The biggest part to me of why it was going to be different than what he’s been doing — and what he’s been doing is great, don’t get me wrong; I mean, I wrote with him on wonderful projects over the last 10 years — but this was more sort of honoring the past. I brought Chris Stills in. David knew him since he was a baby. Not only is he great, but he sounds like young Stephen. He’s got this beautiful voice, and I can sing really high. So the three of us were gonna stand up front, just where they used to with, with me off David’s left shoulder, where Graham used to stand, and Chris off of his right shoulder where Stephen used to stand. So we were doing the three-part harmonies, going back to some of the really original arrangements that even Crosby, Stills and Nash weren’t doing when they last played.” Also enlisted for the live shows was the longtime drummer in Crosby’s cheekily titled CPR band, Stevie DiStanislao. Leland Sklar was going to sit in on bass if Hutch was out touring with Bonnie Raitt, and James Harrah was going to alternate on guitar with Parks, depending on the dates.
There was just one rehearsal with the full band, on Dec. 12, and Postell admits he is “pissed” they didn’t record it, obviously having no idea it would be the last, although he captured a bit on his phone. “The interest was great, with calls from Japan, calls from Canada … when they found out he wasn’t retired. With the makeup of the band, especially, and having Chris Stills in it, the interest was dynamic. They were figuring out what kind of bus to rent and what kind of residencies to do. It would’ve taken a few months to get the logistics together, but it was on its way.”
In their last conversation the day Crosby died, there were two topics of discussion: “One was talking about the recording truck; we were maybe going to do a live record of the Libero, and certainly we were gonna multitrack it, so we were just talking about the logistics of that,” Postell says. “And then really the last thing we talked about is, he wanted me to read his treatment for a screenplay he wrote, because I know some people that he wanted to see it, and he wanted to see if I thought it was a great idea. He was all excited about it and sent me the treatment. And that was our conversation.”
There was one other thing that had come up, too: how to end the Lobero shows. Originally the idea was to cap it off with CSNY’s “Ohio,” but Crosby had brought up a more personal choice. “David had the idea of instead of ending the last encore with a raucous rocker, we should bring it down and play his intimate and beautiful ballad, ‘Anything at All.’ … The last three lines are:
I’ve got time for one more question here
Before I fall, fall
Is there anything at all
“I got through the set, played that song, sang it, got the vocal parts, and the last thing I texted him was: ‘This is perfect. This is a beautiful way to end this night.’ And that was 11 minutes before James texted me that he was gone. So that text was on his phone somewhere. It’s just a poignant thing, and, I mean, the words to that song are pretty prescient. Pretty, you know, like, wow.”
Jarosz will have their harmonies on the new song to remember him by, and eventually, presumably, so will the world. It marks their second recorded performance together, after Crosby asked her to join him on the closing song of the last album released during his lifetime, Joni Mitchell’s “For Free.”
“Talk Till Dawn,” Jarosz says, is “just an absolutely stunningly beautiful song and I was so moved by it. I feel like his voice almost was getting better and better. As time went on, there was just a richness to it, and his vocal performance even on that song has so much youth in it and spirit and honesty.
“I first met him when he came to my show at the Libero, and he basically started coming out to my shows anytime I was in the area, and then eventually he just started calling me to talk music.” Last year, as the pandemic was abating to allow more in-person connections, she and her partner joined Crosby and his wife for a day at the beach, which she posted photos of on her Facebook account.
“He would tell stories about Steely Dan,” she laughs — one of his musical obsessions — “and he would compliment me greatly on my records and my music. He would always say, ‘I don’t wanna butter your toast… but I’m gonna butter your toast one more time.’ He had called me maybe a couple months ago and said he had plans to try to film a concert retrospective of his career and had wanted me to play on the concert with him, and he wanted to write together.
“I just was always so taken aback by his friendship and kindness and generosity and honesty. I think what a lot of people are saying is, he was just a very refreshing human to be around. And in terms of his generosity to younger musicians, he didn’t have to do that. For myself and for a lot of my peers, he went out of his way to be encouraging to us, and that means the world.
“I think that maybe the hardest part, in a way, is that there was still so much music in him. But that’s also the beautiful thing.”