David Crosby

Wednesday, August 2, 2000

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded Aug. 2, 2000, in New York.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about the First Amendment, the arts, and American culture. I’m Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center. David Crosby has written and performed some of the most powerful music of the past 35 years. Throughout his solo career and during his years with the Byrds; Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young; and now CPR, he’s demonstrated that music can make a difference. Now he’s teamed with David Bender, a founding contributing editor for George magazine, to write the new book, Stand and Be Counted: Making Music, Making History. Welcome, gentlemen. It’s a book about courageous musicians and courageous music, and at a time when I read on the front page of The New York Times that record companies are routinely self-censoring themselves to enhance marketability of music, why this project, why the book, and why the television show now?

David Crosby: Well, to pick one of your words, courage. We are both very taken with human courage. Our heroes have been people who had the guts to stick up for what they believed in, and we saw that there had been no one looking at music being used to gather people in a cause as a phenomenon. The two biggest events in the last 50 years in American history were the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Civil rights movement was all activism. All. Vietnam War — strongly affected by it, strongly affected the outcome, strongly affected the length of that war. We know that now. We looked at this, and we said, “Jeez, you know, nobody’s looking at it as what it is.” How did it get here? Where did it — nobody mandated, There shall be benefits, you know? How did this come about? Well, right away, you run into the name Pete Seeger. Right away you run into Woody Guthrie. We — I asked David to research it, and David came back with, “There is no other work written on this subject,” and that was irresistible to us. You know, we feel very strongly about it. We knew we had an advantage if we went to speak to the people who do it, you know? I don’t have to walk in cold. I’m not, you know — it’s like, “How did you boys meet?” I know (laughter) who I’m talking to, and generally, we’re at least acquaintances if not close friends, and we’re talking about events that we did together or that we’ve done, you know, separately, but the same event, you know, at different times. And it gave us a window into these people that other people didn’t have. We asked them, “What really matters to you? What are you willing to put yourself on the line for? What are you willing to put your rep and your honor on the line for?” —

David Bender: And why?

Crosby: — and why.

Bender: You should see their eyes light up when you ask that question because it draws something out of them which is equivalent to what the music is. It’s the passion. It comes from that place that is expressed often in the art, but when you’re doing an interview on a talk show, you don’t normally have the chance to do it. I would watch it — as a fan of the music, I got to watch David talking to many of his peers, some he’d worked with, some he hadn’t met before, and there was an exchange and a give and take that you wouldn’t see anywhere else. It was a joy for me, but it also elicited some of the true motivation that I hadn’t known about before. I hadn’t known personally that Bonnie Raitt, as a young girl growing up, was fascinated by Joan Baez because they’re both Quakers, and they came out of that tradition —

Crosby: Antiwar stuff was, you know, served with breakfast for them.

Bender: Something we learned in doing Stand and Be Counted and something you’ll see in the documentary, that these are the stories of where people come from. Where did — what sparked them to do this? It didn’t happen for, you know, the same reasons for everybody, but everyone has a story to tell, and we learned a lot in doing this project.

Paulson: And as you point out in the book, it’s not about your career per se, but when you talk about the kind of music that’s a big part of the book, you’re in the middle of a lot it, and I wanted to ask you about, in particular, one song and one period of time. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, top of the world, “Teach Your Children” is riding the charts, and then we have the horrible shooting at Kent State, and Neil Young walks in with a song. And today, you’d have a meeting of the marketing department, and say, “No, ‘Teach Your Children’ has got to run another 24 weeks, and then we can cycle it out, and we’ll never record and release anything like ‘Ohio.’” What was that conversation about? Abandoning — literally abandoning a hit record in favor of a statement.

Crosby: Well, you’re right; it’s something that couldn’t happen now. We have different people running the record companies now. They’re lawyers and accountants, and they absolutely wouldn’t do that. We were in a position then when we were very strong, and we had an ally: Ahmet Ertegun, who was one of the really great old men of the record business and a gentleman and our mentor. Nash did an astounding thing, because that was his song that was going up the charts, and he pulled it.

Paulson: And he believed in “Ohio”?

Crosby: He believed in it and he pulled ["Teach Your Children"]. He knew that we had to put “Ohio” out immediately. I watched Neil write it. I called Nash. Nash booked the studio, got Stills. We recorded it, you know, within — I think it was either that night or the next night, and we gave the tapes to Ahmet, or he took the red-eye to New York and had it out within a week, I think. And it was so immediate that we fulfilled that older part of our job. You know, our main job is to entertain, but there’s also another part which is to be the town crier, to be the troubadour, to be the guy that says, “Twelve o’clock and all is well,” or, “It’s 11:30, and it’s not so darn good.” And we did that. I think it was a high point for us, but, you know, the book isn’t about us. The book is about people finding a way to stick up for what they believe in and showing that there is, you know, a line that developed. We know, you know, that Gandhi read Thoreau. We know that King read Gandhi. We know that we all followed Martin Luther King. There is a — there’s a lineage here. The most common thread was Pete Seeger. I think they should give a course in Pete Seeger in high school. Pete Seeger is a great American. Pete exemplifies what we’re talking about here in terms of a human being that lives their life in such a manner that you want to be like them. You know, you see Pete Seeger, and you say, “Gee, I want to do that. I want to stand next to that man. I want to stand shoulder to shoulder with that guy.”

Paulson: He’s the guy who never, ever compromised his principles —

Crosby: Never.

Paulson: — even when he had his back to the wall; government was saying, “You’re not a real American.”

Crosby: House of Un-American Activities Committee, you know, he just told them, “Sorry, I’m not buying your stuff.”

Bender: One of the things you’ll see in the documentary is a wonderful moment where Pete is describing that, and he said, they’re — “Mr. Seeger,” you know, “are you — were you a member of the Communist Party?” And he answered, he said, “Well, I was polite, if uncooperative.” And he said, “I wished I had done what Paul Robeson had done, which was to stand up and point at these people, and say, ‘You’re the un-Americans.’” And, you know, what we have in here — and it’s wonderful as a connecting link for generations for Pete Seeger to talk about Paul Robeson, and for people now growing up to understand that that was something that made it possible for Beastie Boys to sing some of the songs they’re singing now, for the rap groups to sing what they’re singing. It started with people like Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger.

Paulson: And those guys faced tremendous oppression and censorship because of the message of the music. You had an experience with the Byrds in “Eight Miles High” where it’s just kind of insane, (the) reaction to the song. Roger McGuinn tells the story about how you were sure it was going to be a big hit, and his story is that it was written about an airplane flight.

Crosby: It was written about an airplane flight, but it was enough double entendre in it to where the Gavin Report, you know, just nixed it. They said, you know, this is — it came out at the same time — and there’s a little guilt by association — it came out at the same time as Dylan put out “Everybody Must Get Stoned.” And that was pretty unequivocal. They definitely banned our song.

Paulson: And there was a little bit of a wink in the writing of that song? Let’s set it straight once and for all.

Crosby: Yeah.

Paulson: Gavin later claims that they were simply providing it as a public service and in no way encouraging censorship, but, of course, that’s exactly what happened. Stations were worried about, you know, retaining their license. What about that period of time? It seems to me that — especially in your career, David, the Byrds were certainly socially conscious. You go to Crosby, Stills, and Nash, the same story, and sometimes even more aggressively political. A song like “Chicago,” written by somebody who did not grow up with the First Amendment, how’d that come about? And did you guys pay a price for songs raising the consciousness about the Chicago Eight? That couldn’t have been a popular cause.

Crosby: There are people who definitely think we did pay a price. I don’t. And Nash didn’t need to grow up in this country with the First Amendment. He grew up with a conscience, and he knows that telling the truth is the right thing, and he felt strongly that that was a travesty of American justice, and it was. It was a complete travesty. You can’t chain a man to a chair and gag him and say that you’re having a free trial. It doesn’t work that way. You know, I think Graham has been one of the most courageous guys, you know, I’ve known in my life in terms of speaking out for what he really believes in. He’s done it over and over and over again. And he’s a good example for it, man. He’s fearless.

Bender: And Graham’s an American citizen, and I remember when we talked to him about this. One of the things he said was that when he came to this country, his love of the Constitution, love of what the principles that govern America taught him was possible in this country, motivated him to write that kind of a song, and that “Chicago” and some of the actions that, you know, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were involved in, in terms of speaking out, came from looking at this Constitution and saying, “This is something that we should all stand up for.”

Crosby: And looking for the freedom to express it.

Paulson: Right.

Crosby: You know, he saw — here he sees, you know, people willing to do exactly what we wrote the book about: stick up for what they believe in and get away with it. You know, we have a great country. I believe deeply, and have all my life, in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence. I think it’s the finest defense of personal freedom that’s ever taken place. I know that it’s descended from the Magna Carta and the French Constitution, but I think it is a brilliant, brilliant structure, and he saw that. He saw how much freedom we have here, and it’s a treasure.

Paulson: From time to time, when I’ve seen Crosby, Stills and Nash play in recent years — I believe you’ve done “Ohio” as part of your set.

Crosby: Uh-huh.

Paulson: Does it have the same emotion for you?

Crosby: Every time — I played it last night; I get chills. You can’t have a country shooting its own children and not know that there is a sickness in the land, and there was.

Bender: We were in Washington, D.C., about six months ago for an event, a rally. I think it was for campaign-finance reform. And some students came up — at the end of the rally, came up to David, and one of them had a Kent State T-shirt on, and couldn’t have been more than 20 years old, so he wasn’t alive when this happened, and he looked at David, and he said, “Sir, Mr. Crosby, I just want to tell you how much that song means to us. Thank you for writing it.” Now, you know, he — I hadn’t heard that before. He hears it all the time, but I know what the song means to me. I saw it last night when they played it and what it means to an audience today. Those lyrics and those words resonate because they touch a chord that is so deep, and it isn’t about just an event anymore. It is about how we need to live our lives and what we need to remember.

Crosby: But you’re totally right. The business now would not allow that. I’m amazed at what some of the hip-hop people and the rap people are getting away with saying, you know, but I know that in pop music, you know, no way. You would be crushed like a bug if you tried to say that stuff.

Paulson: So where does that passion go today? Where — is that …

Crosby: Into activism. You know, we looked at this, and we thought, “Gee, you know, we’ll be able to show how we passed on the torch to these younger people.”

Bender: Not true.

Crosby: Bull. They already knew. They all knew. They didn’t need us to show them the way. These kids worked out very early on, all of them, that they had principles, that they had things that truly mattered to them. It’s a key thing. If you don’t have something that you’re willing to stick up for, fight for, you have a very empty life. Having something that matters to you that much raises your life, makes it much, much better, and these kids knew that. Every one of them we talked to: Eddie Vedder, Michael Stipe, Jewel, you know, was just a kid.

Bender: Adam Yauch very much — he’s a Buddhist, and this is — he is organizing on Buddhist principles, particularly in terms of nonviolence, and these “Tibetan Freedom” concerts that are now, I think, in their fourth year, these are some of the hugest rock and roll events ever held actually, and some of the most amazing artists of — across the board participating. They do it because Adam asks, and he’s willing to go out there, because he has learned that it’s something that can make a difference, and again, one of the stories — we talk about this all the time. It’s amazing to me. He grew up in New York City when the “No Nukes” concerts were held here in the late ’70s. There was a big rally in Battery Park, and it was a free rally. Pete Seeger performed. Crosby, Stills and Nash performed, and Adam Yauch was a teenager, probably couldn’t drive yet, came down and handed out leaflets for antinuclear activism. Now, he grew up with that tradition. His parents were against the war, but he remembered — and he told us this — he remembered that — looking out and seeing that musicians can attract all these people around a cause, and fast forward 20 years later, he realizes, “Hey, I can do this too. I’ve got a band; I can have an impact.” You know, it’s — David’s right. It’s not about passing the torch. Maybe some of the techniques, maybe some of the methodology —

Crosby: There might be some inspiration, but it wasn’t the way we thought it would be where we could pat ourselves on the back.

Paulson: There is a generation, I think, that believes all the meaningful music took place between 1960 and 1969, and you tell an extraordinary story in the book about your own childhood. At age ten, you hear a song called “Strange Fruit.” Could you talk a little bit about your reaction to that?

Crosby: “Strange Fruit” was my painful introduction to racism. I was listening to a record by Josh White, a wonderful folk singer, and he was singing that song. Billie Holiday made it famous, but Josh is the one that I heard sing it. And I said, “What’s he talking about, mom?” And my mother started crying, and she did not want to tell me. And I said, “No, you can tell me.” And she said, “Well, it’s — the ‘strange fruit’ are people hung in the trees, black people hung there, by white people that didn’t like them.” And that was a tough one for me. Hard to wrap your little five-year-old mind around that. Doesn’t really compute to a kid. And I guess I’ve been pretty strongly antiracist ever since.

Paulson: Although the book is not about you, certainly your lives are reflected, and there’s a passage in here about the night Bobby Kennedy is killed, and you’re 12 years old, David?

Bender: I was then.

Paulson: You’ve grown since then. You were 12 years old, and you were a volunteer with the Bobby Kennedy campaign.

Bender: The presidential campaign in ’68.

Paulson: In California?

Bender: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: And you were with Rosemary Clooney as well?

Bender: Well, she was — I met her that night, and she was performing that night as artists — she was one of those who had campaigned for Robert Kennedy. A lot of artists went out on the campaign trail for candidates, and I was with her that night. And actually, at the moment that Senator Kennedy was shot, I remember that it was the last time I’ve seen her, which was 32 years ago. She was supposed to sing at the overflow room downstairs, and the senator was supposed to exit one side of the stage where — to see Rosemary Clooney, and at the last minute — you can hear it on the tape. Someone says, “This way, senator.” And he goes the other way. What happened that night was obviously, for a kid — I remember seeing people in shock, and I — you know, when you’re 12, you’ve never seen that. I didn’t understand why adults were crying, and people were doubled over and, you know, just absolutely wracked with emotion. And I couldn’t process it, really, you know? I think I’m lucky for having had it happen at that age, because I was just young enough to be able to sort of step back from it, but what did happen, I remember a month later looking at magazines and just sobbing because the reality of it finally sunk in, and within a year, as I started to know music, and the very first album I ever owned happened to be the very first Crosby, Stills and Nash album, by coincidence, as it happens. There was a song called “Long Time Gone,” and we do talk about it, because it had a huge impact on my ability to go forward and to say, maybe, you know, out of the darkest things, it’s still possible to see some light. I know personally that that’s how the song kept me going, and I know for a lot of other people — and I’ve talked about this with many other Kennedy folk, you know, people who worked for Robert Kennedy and cared about him, were touched by that song, and you know, David — David is — has analogized, sometimes, this to, you know, songs are like paper airplanes. You toss them out, and, you know, you don’t know from a tall building where they’re going to land. One of them landed on me, and it stayed with me my whole life.

Paulson: And the song stayed with many people. You wrote that the night of the shooting?

Crosby: I wrote it partly that night, partly shortly thereafter. I mean, there are other songs, you know, that I think are even stronger. I think Sting’s “They Dance Alone” is one of the great songs of our times. That one really gets me. I think Springsteen’s done it several times. I think he just did it again.

Bender: “41 [Shots].”

Crosby: It’s — there’s a wonderful thing that he says in the interviews, which is that it’s very hard to lie when you’re singing.

Bender: Sting says this in the documentary.

Crosby: Wonderfully. And — just — we have such incredible stories, man. We don’t have time to tell them all to you. There’s the six-bullet story from Harry Belafonte, and there’s — there are stories of Joan Baez when she was going down and trying to play, you know, in the South. There’s stories of all of them. You know, the civil rights people weren’t just risking their time or their rep or their career or stuff like we do. You know, they were risking their lives.

Paulson: How do you feel about the generation you grew up with? Have they retained the spirit that you had in 1969?

Crosby: Hard to generalize. I think largely, yes, because I think most of us came to the same conclusion I did, which is that most of the causes we espoused, we were right about. Peace is better than war. Racism stinks. Civil rights are crucial. You know, and we weren’t wrong. We weren’t wrong about any of that. We were wrong about the drugs, but we weren’t wrong about any of the rest of it.

Paulson: There are several people: Mr. Belafonte, Peter Yarrow, who emerge as just heroes in this book, and there are people that, I think, a lot of Americans don’t think about daily or regularly. They’re familiar with their work in the past but don’t recognize their contribution to the American fabric.

Bender: Peter Yarrow — Peter, Paul and Mary were there every step of the way from the earliest days of the civil rights movement, risking their lives, as David said, in times when, if you went down there, you really didn’t know what bullet was going to go whizzing by your ear —

Paulson: Right.

Bender: — but Peter tells us stories that are in the book and in the documentary of organizing in the Vietnam War period, which I don’t think a lot of people do realize. They think of Peter, Paul and Mary and, you know, the earliest days of folk music. It was Peter, particularly, who moved a lot of artists, including a lot of rock and roll artists, into organizing against the War. He organized concerts in New York City. He had concerts where Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin — the only two benefits we were able to find that either of them ever did, Peter Yarrow organized, and they were antiwar and Vietnam Veterans against the War in 1970, right before they died. I mean, it’s an amazing fact, you know, Jimi Hendrix on stage for something, you know, at that crucial time. Imagine, you know, the significance today if people realized, you know, artists of that stature moving around the cause. It had an impact. Peter Yarrow did that.

Crosby: Harry Belafonte is one of the most dignified, well-educated, lucid, focused, eloquent men I have ever met in my life and has a sense of humanity to him and a sense of — of what really matters. I wish I could run him for president. He wouldn’t take the job. But he’s a truly wonderful human being, and he was certainly one of the most astounding interviews. The man is a walking history book. You know, he was walking next to Martin Luther King at all of those things. It was him. He was there. He was the guy next to him, and he told us stuff that you won’t believe. If the “six-bullet” story doesn’t make your hair stand on end and make you want to cry, I didn’t —

Paulson: Now you have to tell it. You do need to tell it.

Crosby: Do you? OK, I’ll tell it. In the Harry Belafonte interview, he said, “I went —” in this wonderful, whispery voice, “I went to an event with Dr. King, and when I arrived there, there was a large man, a sheriff, who looked at me with hatred, with real anger in his eyes. And I couldn’t help but notice him. But I ignored him, and I went on to do what we came to do. Dr. King spoke. I sang. We did what we had come to do. When I came back into the holding pen” — he called it, in the back. He said, “This man came up and tried to speak to me, and he couldn’t speak to me. There was something he wanted to say, but he could not speak, and he walked away. And I was fascinated. I wanted to know what he had been trying to tell me. The next morning, I was in the hotel, and I was checking out …” — I’m speaking as Harry here. “And he says, ‘And there was an envelope for me. I took the envelope; it was very heavy. I opened it up, and I poured out, and there were six bullets in the envelope and a note. And the note said, ‘I give you the bullets from my gun. You and Dr. King have shown me that violence is not the way. I will try to find something more useful to do with my life.’”

Paulson: Wonderful story.

Crosby: It’s a great story.

Paulson: Inspiring book. Thank both of you for being here. The documentary is extraordinary, a lot of footage people have not seen for many years, and it tells the story about passion, and it proves, once again, I think, that music can matter. It’s been a pleasure to visit with David Crosby and David Bender, coauthors of the book Stand and Be Counted: Making Music, Making History. I’m Ken Paulson, back next week with another conversation about the First Amendment, the arts, and American culture. I hope you can join us then for “Speaking Freely.”

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