In Advance of Tomorrow's Kent Stage Concert, David Crosby Explains Why We Need More Protest Songs

click to enlarge In Advance of Tomorrow's Kent Stage Concert, David Crosby Explains Why We Need More Protest Songs
Anna Webber
David Crosby, 77, has a lengthy and impressive resume.

The two-time Rock & Roll Hall of Famer is a founding member of not only the Byrds but also Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. He also boasts an extensive solo career.

Rolling Stone recently hailed Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio” as the “impossible to top” protest song. The group wrote and recorded the track just days after the Kent State shootings on May 4, 1970.

The university will soon honor the 50th anniversary of May 4, and Crosby’s solo career is around the same age. Crosby and his Lighthouse band have been on the road reinterpreting his greatest hits and introducing new music. They perform at 8 p.m. tomorrow at the Kent Stage in Kent.

It’s a great honor to speak with you. How are you?
I am…[laughs]. Oh God, it’s complex. My answer these days is “I’m elderly and pissed off about it.”

You have a long and distinguished catalog of music. How do you decide what to include in your sets?
It depends because it’s been a long time. Because there’s the Byrds, because there’s CSNY [Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young], because there’s CSN [Crosby, Stills, Nash] … there’s been a lot. My career was winding down and then this last sort of spurt; this last four albums in a row happened. I left CSN — which is a pretty dangerous thing to do, but necessary — then I started making these records. Croz and then Lighthouse and then Sky Trails and now Here If You Listen. They’re like a breath of fresh air to me. Part of it anyway is that I’m looking at how old I am and how much time I’ve got left, and I feel like I should get all the music made that I possibly can in the amount of time that I do have. It’s really a cool thing to contribute. It’s what I should be doing, and I really love it.

You’ve played huge arenas and festivals and you also play smaller venues like the Kent Stage. Is one more challenging than the other?
The larger ones I think are more challenging. The small venues, like 1,000 seats, that’s my favorite because the people can all see your face and see how you feel about what you’re singing. In a big huge place — CSNY we played 20,000 seaters and sometimes 50,000 — but people at the other end [say], ‘I think that’s Jagger. He’s waving his scarf.’ They don’t know. They can’t see. Even with screens, they can’t really see your face. You sort of have to work in broad strokes. Like Jagger, wave a scarf around and move around a lot.

Yeah, smaller venues seem to create a more intimate experience.
I think you do finer work there [in small venues]. You can work in more subtle nuances and stuff because people can see your face and because you’re close. If you can break the fourth wall and reach out to them and get them involved, like if you can make them laugh, you can make them cry. Then, you’re doing your job. That’s our gig; it's to take people on an emotional voyage. That’s what we’re supposed to do.

Is your audience receptive to new music?
You know, I would have said no. I would have said absolutely no, and I’ll give you an example, last night, we did four songs that nobody had hear before. That to me means that we’re a live band; we’re alive and growing and doing it absolutely on target. That’s exactly what I wanna do. They [the audience] loved it. I said to them, "Listen, are you guys okay with us playing this new stuff?" They said, "Yes!" The audiences… I wish it was somebody else saying this besides me, but they’ve been loving us. I mean they’ve been just loving us. They wanted a third encore last night. They absolutely wouldn’t stop. They were on their feet and just roaring. They loved it. It’s a really good band and we really care about what we’re doing. It’s not just "turn on the smoke machine and play your hits." It's real musicians doing real music because they love it and we take it to a pretty high level.

We need that right now.
Oh yeah! Don’t we? This is hard times. I like to tell people that music is a lifting force, you know? Like they say, ‘when the war drags us down, music drags us up.’ I think it tells me things better. I think it gives people substance for their soul. I think this is really hard times for us. I think our democracy is in danger. I think we’re in a really rough situation. People love [music], man. They love the lift of music.

You’re never been afraid to question authority. Why do think we’re not seeing many more performers outwardly questioning or creating protest anthems like we had in the '60s and '70s?
I think most of the people who get into show business get into it for the money. Which I don’t really give a shit about. I think they don’t want to be political because it gets in the way of getting the money. That’s pretty much it. It’s really not more complex than that. They’ve got a goal, and they’re doing what is totally sensible for them, which is being pop and being noticeable and being attractive and being sellable which doesn’t include having a political opinion.

The music industry plays a role then?
They want the shallow-end of the pool. That’s what they can sell fast. What we do is a different thing. Singer-songwriters carry the news from town to town. We’re the town criers. Well, that’s part of our job. It’s not all of our job. But that’s what protest music really is; it’s us being a witness. It’s us saying, "Oh my God, the United State of America is shooting its own children or putting them in cages." We have to witness this. In my opinion, it should be only part of what we do. Our main job is to take you on emotional voyages or make you boogie, make you wanna dance. Make you feel good. Every once in a while… "Ohio."

You guys had "Ohio" out within a week of the May 4, 1970 shootings. Today, the landscape has changed so much that musicians can have music out online even faster, but we don’t see any many musical responses to tragedies like we did during the '60s and '70s.
You don’t see any many as you’d like. I’m not seeing as many as I’d like either. I wish more people felt compelled to stick up for what they believe in but there are quite a few of principled people in the music business. Bonnie Raitt leaps to mind; James Taylor leaps to mind. There are some pretty decent folks. Jackson Browne isn't a bad guy. I think you can find a lot of younger people that I admire — the ones I’m working with I admire like crazy — Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis, holy shit. Michael League from Snarky Puppy… these people are talented. But I don’t see anywhere near as much activism [in music] as I would like to. I’ve been appealing to other writers – a shit load of people on Twitter – I put it out there saying, "Anything you can write; we need a fight song. We need an Ohio. We need an "We Shall Overcome." We need one. I’m trying to write it myself, I’m also trying to encourage everybody else to write. In the meantime, I’m singing "Ohio" [laughs].

Is it generational? Does a generation that doesn’t face a military draft fail to see the urgency of what we have today?
I think you’ve put your finger right on a key part of the 70s thing. They were faced with the military draft, which put every single college campus in the country into a hotbed of activism because it was right in their face. They were looking at having to quit studying, quit getting laid, and go to Vietnam and risk their lives. They did not want to. I did not want to. I absolutely did not want to. I did everything I could conceive of to beat the draft 'cause I did not want to go, you know, sit in a piece of jungle and have people shoot at me. I had just started getting laid. I had other things in mind [laughs].

Do you think a moderate or left-leaning candidate would inspire more musicians to use their voices more often?
Well, it would inspire everybody to feel better about their country. What’s going on now is pretty horrific. The guy is like a spoiled child who broke into his dad’s office and he’s peeing on all the papers because he was never allowed in there. He’s just… he’s a dick. He’s doing great harm. He’s been lying to our country. The worst thing of all is not addressing climate change. We are doing a disservice to everybody. Every human being on the planet. Every single human person, we are doing a bad thing to. And if you believe in karma, well, chew on that one for a while. I can’t live with that, so I have to fight it. I have to. I have to fight it every day and I have to fight it every way that I possibly can. I’m not gonna let these stupid bastards kill us all because they’re being so short-sighted and so focused on profit. They just don’t want to have less profit. It’s about money. And they’re being shortsightedly stupid about the evidence because they just don’t wanna look at it. But it is what it is, and it’s worse than anybody knows.

You questioned the Kennedy assassination long before others. Not many artists have that much courage.
We just need people willing to speak their minds and stuff. I think some of the big pop acts — notably Lady Gaga — and a couple others of the women are sticking up. I don’t know… maybe I will get better. Maybe the rap people will get involved. Some of them talk about the truth. Some of them talk about important shit. It’s pretty rare though. Mostly they’re talking about, you know, tits and ass. But maybe it will get better. Maybe we’ll get another Bruce Springsteen come walking in out of nowhere. You just never know. But in the meantime, I’ve got a certain amount of time; I’m gonna spend it doing this.

We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of May 4. Can you believe it’s been that long already?
Yeah. It’s been a long road. That’s how long I’ve been on the road.

What do you think it will take for younger musicians to have the same fire that you have, that Dylan had and many others?
I think a lot of them do have the same fire and determination. I think they are up against a really shitty system. The big problem for young kids trying to get started now is streaming. Streaming doesn’t pay us for records. So, half of our income went away. Half. It’s as if they cut your paycheck in half with a pair of scissors. That’s what happened from streaming 'cause they just fucking don’t pay us. That’s hard enough for me and I’m an established guy. Kids trying to make a name for themselves can’t sell shit for records, and they don’t get paid. So, it’s insanely difficult for them to drive 185 miles to the next gig, play for 80 people, get paid enough for a tank of gas and one meal and drive on. That’s beating the crap out of those kids. They used to be able to make more because they could get paid for their records. I’m completely, insanely against streamers.

Musicians have to rely on touring now.
That’s the only way I can make any money. That is the only way I make a dollar.

What do you see in the future for music or music with a message?
I think the center of music is always going to be aimed at pop music and making money. I think there will always be some of us who are conscious and feel a need to talk about stuff that’s real and for me, content is more important than guitar solos.

Do you have any words of wisdom for up-and-coming musicians?
Don’t do it unless you absolutely can’t not do it. If you absolutely feel compelled, you must do it. If you can’t put that guitar down, if you can’t stop singing in the shower, well, then, you probably need to figure out a way that you can play music and have a job at the same time [laughs]. If you get really good at music, well then, try it. It will give you experiences that nothing else will.
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