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David Crosby, an icon of American rock, has died at age 81

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Legendary musician David Crosby has died. He was the founding member of The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. He influenced scores of singer songwriters. Crosby helped shape rock music with powerful harmonies and a sound that blended elements of folk, pop country and psychedelia. The two-time Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee was 81 years old. It was just last year that Crosby said he was done performing live, saying he was too old to do it anymore and that he didn't have the stamina or the strength. Crosby's passing came after a long illness. NPR's Eric Westervelt has this appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROSBY, STILLS AND NASH'S "SUITE: JUDY BLUE EYES")

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: In a late 1960s and early '70s rock era dominated by either heavy electric guitar gods or meandering psychedelia, David Crosby and his friends took a very different path.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUITE: JUDY BLUE EYES")

CROSBY, STILLS AND NASH: (Singing) I am yours. You are mine. You are what you are. You make it hard.

WESTERVELT: Crosby, Stills & Nash at times would soar with electric jams. But their foundation was a unique California sound built on harmonies, acoustic guitars and a dose of self-awareness often missing in rock lyrics. Exactly where in LA's Laurel Canyon Crosby, Stills & Nash first sang together is still debated, lost in a smoky haze. But Crosby told me in a 2019 interview that night, they all realized they had something special.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVID CROSBY: Crosby, Stills & Nash knew right away. As soon as we sang one of Stephen's songs, you know, he's a great songwriter. Soon as Nash put in the top part, we said, oh, yeah, OK, that's what I'll be doing for a while.

WESTERVELT: Crosby, Stills & Nash's 1969 self-titled debut album was a huge critical and commercial success. America's first rock supergroup was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELPLESSLY HOPING")

CROSBY, STILLS AND NASH: (Singing) They are one person. They are two alone. They are three together. They are for each other.

WESTERVELT: The group grew out of three successful bands that were imploding. Graham Nash wanted out of the pop rock group the Hollies. Stephen Stills and Neil Young had departed the Buffalo Springfield. And Crosby had just been kicked out of The Byrds. Crosby, Stills & Nash's second live show ever was in front of nearly half a million people at Woodstock. They soon toured the U.S. to sold-out shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CROSBY, STILLS AND NASH: (Singing) Speak your mind, man, yeah. That is if you still can and you still dare.

WESTERVELT: The band regularly spoke and sang out against the Vietnam War, political repression and other issues. In the summer of 1969, the group added friend Neil Young. And in 1970, the newly expanded CSN & Y released the album "Deja Vu," an unbridled masterpiece. Crosby wrote and sang lead vocals on the title track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEJA VU")

CROSBY, STILLS, NASH AND YOUNG: (Singing) Feel like I've been here before. And you know, it makes me wonder what's going on...

WESTERVELT: Crosby's career started in Los Angeles, where he was born. His first big band was The Byrds. The group found success covering folk classics and later peaked with the psychedelic-infused hit "Eight Miles High."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EIGHT MILES HIGH")

THE BYRDS: (Singing) Eight miles high. And when you touch down, you'll find that it's stranger than known.

WESTERVELT: Crosby's offstage excesses and antics soon made him into something of a larger-than-life folk hero. But the Crosby myth would run hard into the reality that he'd become incredibly difficult to deal with and a drug addict. The fights, creative and personal, within Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are legendary. Crosby had started using heroin after a girlfriend was killed in a car crash. He would add copious amounts of cocaine, often freebasing the drug, and began a long, slow spiral. Crosby told me famous friends, including Nash and Jackson Browne, attempted interventions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CROSBY: That didn't work, either. There's a certain moment that you have when you know you just simply can't go on. You can't go any further down that road. In the meetings, they tell you it's a moment of clarity. Whatever you want to call it, there is a moment.

WESTERVELT: Crosby's moment came with the help of a Texas prison. Drug addled, paranoid and facing multiple weapons and drug violations, Crosby hid out on his sailboat in South Florida before turning himself in to the West Palm Beach FBI office. He was later sentenced to five years on drugs and weapons charges, but did less than a year. He kicked heroin during five months behind bars in Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CROSBY: Going to prison worked. I don't recommend it. It's a hard, hard, hard way to kick it. They laughed at me and thought I was funny. Hey, rock star. How are you now?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COWBOY MOVIE")

CROSBY: (Singing) We were riding back to have ourselves a party to celebrate the robbing of the train.

WESTERVELT: But even after he got off hard drugs, those that knew him say there was still a core conflict. Crosby's creative brilliance, humor and spark often mixed with equal doses of arrogance, egomania and hubris that alienated some of those closest to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DAVID CROSBY: REMEMBER MY NAME")

CROSBY: All the main guys that I made music with won't even talk to me - all of them.

WESTERVELT: That's Crosby and writer and filmmaker Cameron Crowe's documentary "Remember My Name." When it came out, I asked Crosby about how once good friends who made great music together could end up so estranged.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CROSBY: So it was a fully competitive band. And we were competing all the time, the whole time. And we were horrible to each other many, many times - all of us. In spite of that, we made some incredible music. And I don't have any bad feelings in my heart about any of those guys. But I really can't stand around waiting to have a therapy session. In the 5 minutes I got, I got to play a song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOK IN THEIR EYES")

DAVID CROSBY AND THE LIGHTHOUSE BAND: (Singing) You miss him when you're passing by.

WESTERVELT: Crosby's final years were filled with lots of new songs, despite health setbacks. Crosby recorded multiple solo albums and toured with groups of younger musicians, including The Lighthouse Band, here performing for NPR's Tiny Desk concert series.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOK IN THEIR EYES")

DAVID CROSBY AND THE LIGHTHOUSE BAND: (Singing) Look in his eyes. See him in the dark. What do you find? Without a light, without a spark. Look in his eyes and see the dark.

WESTERVELT: When the documentary about Crosby came out, he told me he's at peace with who he'd become, despite the burned bridges and lost friends. I've hurt a lot of people, he said, adding, I've helped a lot more.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CROSBY: You know, if you used to be a junkie, you spend all your time thinking how awful you were. So the feeling of being able to look at myself now and be proud of myself - oh, boy, that's a big deal.

WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.