One of my earliest musical experiences occurred on a park bench. There were very few hip musicians around Mt. Horeb in 1969 and I was just barely becoming aware. There used to be an open area on Main Street that is now occupied by the local telephone office. Its main function was to provide gathering space for the weekly ice cream social. The telephone office is probably too big now given that everyone is cellular and I still like a good pie and ice cream. Maybe they’ll change it back.
It was early evening in the dog days of summer when I introduced myself to Eric Miller. He was sitting on the bench that faced Main Street and he was playing his guitar. At that time Main Street was still the Federal highway that ran straight through town so there was a lot of traffic including semi-trucks and other travelers. I had never seen someone play music like that; right out in the open. He was older than me and invited me to check this stuff out. Being older than me by a few years, I assure you this was not the norm in our small town but being a known guitar player came with its privileges. There were only two people I knew of who seemed to have older friends and I was friends with both of them. Little did I know there was a unit of hippies coalescing and this would be my adoption into this entirely new world. Eric was singing, too – in public! He showed me the songbook he was playing from. I could already read music quite well. It was the first Crosby, Stills and Nash songbook and I had never seen a book of music made for an album. The song he was singing was “Marrakesh Express.” “Have you heard this one?” Eric asked to which I replied that I had not. “Oh, you’ve got get into this, Rick,” he said. It would not be the last time those words were uttered to me.
There was something about the music of David Crosby that simmered in my mind. It returned every so often from 1969 on, reminding me that there was some genius there. When CSN became CSNY I was much more drawn to Neil Young who tended to overshadow the other three. Crosby would remain a musical reference point for me but not a prominent one.
In 2007 I became aware of a 3-CD box set called Voyage that encapsulated Crosby’s career. I got ahold of it and was dumbstruck by the collective beauty and depth of the man’s music. Like a good poet there was barely a wasted word; everything meant something. It reminded me of my golden years when each day was a lifetime, every person in my circle was a precious soul to me and music was the common language of the collective consciousness.
Over the years I had heard the news stories concerning Crosby. The irresponsible behavior, the drugs, the guns, the arrests and, of course, his agreeing to be the surrogate father to Melissa Ethridge and Julie Cypher’s two children. Like all sensationalism I sensed there was more to the story. A couple of years ago I became aware that there were two volumes of Crosby’s autobiographies out there. I acquired them and recently got around to reading them and, yes, there was a lot more to the story.
For those of you who have read Keith Richards’ book Life and were astounded at the sheer level of drug use, let me tell you something: David Crosby makes Richards look like an amateur. What’s interesting about Long Time Gone is how accurately the title reflects the truth. Everything is corroborated by Crosby’s peers and friends, some of whom make no bones about him being a major asshole. The books were co-authored by Carl Gottlieb who wrote several screenplays including Jaws. Gottlieb provides factual analysis of the times and the circumstances surrounding the events recounted in the books.
There were two things that Crosby did well (not including consuming drugs). He was an expert sailor and was well-known for that fact. This required clarity and he frequently took long voyages in attempts to clean up. The other was music and what is surprising is how well he performed given the completely fucked-up nature of his existence. This dynamic always gets me thinking about the effects of stardom. Imagine being Michael Jackson. You are famous at ten (the family claimed he was only eight but that was a farce). Few would argue that weirdness got the better of Jackson and his own addictions became well documented. The bottom line is that fame will screw you up with few exceptions, especially early on in a career or a lifetime. In Crosby’s case he already had fame as one of the founding members of the Byrds. CSN was his second time around and it was only 1969. The massive success catapulted him into an incredible lifestyle that became dangerous very quickly. It’s said that Crosby could take a hit of weed and then tell you where it was grown, what strain it was and its probable entrance into the country. His descent into freebasing cocaine takes up a large portion of the first book and is truly horrifying. At that he was also a master. And yet, when he played music he was adored. Few knew that he had to take a break during his set while his handlers had his drugs and torches ready just offstage. He would have been unable to finish the show without them.
It’s not uncommon to hear of icons who had everything and lost it all. If you are like me, you wonder how they could let this happen. As always, the stories are complex and that is why I read so many music biographies. I like to learn about how they did it, what makes them tick and what their life was like. My wife recently asked me if they aren’t all the same and why I don’t get bored with them. They most certainly are not and I most certainly do not.
I do wonder about the effects of the fame syndrome. It is no secret to me that I sought fame as a musician. Are you kidding me? I witnessed the Beatles. There is no way any adolescent did not want that! I often wonder what would have happened to me if I had achieved some level of fame. It frightens me in a way because I was not afraid to experiment in order to experience. Those who toy with fame should be wary and recognize the need for balance. If things feel unbalanced there is trouble, even if the masses shower you with adulation – even if the music is still good. For those who don’t seek fame but some other form of success, that paradigm still holds: a good life is a balanced one. That is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way and continue to learn.
As for Eric Miller, I’m not sure what happened to him. I heard he was in Texas and had some success as a musician. I hope he’s had a good life. I hope it has some measure of balance. Maybe it’s never as good as that moment of discovery, like that moment we sat together on a park bench and forged a big part of our futures. Maybe achieving balance in whatever you do and acquiring some modicum of happiness in this enormously difficult world is the true measure of success. Maybe fame is the real drug.