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Not even the love child of Jessica Fletcher and Sigmund Freud could pin down the true character of David Crosby. He was a mellowed songbird who crafted some of the sweetest tunes human ears have ever feasted upon… songs that were often musically conceived while backstage in a Dallas nightclub, where Crosby was freebasing cocaine with a propane tank in one hand, a brown bottle in the other, and a .45-caliber semiautomatic in his back pocket.
His own musical tastes were also hard to reconcile as the juxtaposed soundtrack to his often wayward days. But throughout the highs and lows of his life and career, a fondness for the serene folk propagated by his hero remained a constant. Crosby dated Joni Mitchell for a brief period as she first made her way into the music industry, and he never stopped talking about it thereafter. However, when he recalled the impact he had on her during the period when he was producing her debut album, he was decidedly humble.
“The strongest thing I did for Joni as a producer on Song to a Seagull, from 1968, was keep everybody else off of that record,” the Byrds man confessed in an interview with Rolling Stone. “She was a folkie who had learned to play what they call an indicated arrangement,” Crosby said in his glowing appraisal.
“Where you are like a band in the way you approach a chord and string the melody along. She was so new and fresh with how she approached it,” he added. “It’s the reason I fell in love with her music. She was a fantastic rhythm player and growing so fast. She had mastered the idea that she could tune the guitar any way she wanted, to get other inversions of the chords. I was doing that too, but she went further.”
This sense of placing her on a pedestal above all others was also evidenced when he eulogised her seminal 1971 classic, Blue. ”Joni went out with me, Graham Nash, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Leonard Cohen. She was exciting and turbulent and fun and we all loved her – yet I don’t think she was ever happy. She’d been through polio, the marriage to Chuck Mitchell and giving up a child – and music was her way of processing this,” he told the Guardian.
And never have truer words been spoken. In actual fact, on Blue, she not only extolled her emotional woes, but the full dexterity and uniqueness of her guitar playing came to the fore—guitar playing that was heavily influenced by her childhood illness. As she was how to play, thanks to Pete Seeger’s songbook, her left hand was weakened by her bout with polio. So, she had to innovate her way around this by playing with tunings.
“When I play the guitar,” she explained, “I hear it as an orchestra: the top three strings being horn section, the bottom three being cello, viola, and bass—the bass being indicated but not rooted.” This gives her playing not only great depth but also a nonstandard approach to harmony that allows for a lilting range of beauty in her music, reminiscent of the same yin and yang of nature and civility that is a central tenet of her songwriting. Both of which blossom to create the heart-breaking Blue.
As Crosby concludes: ”Bob Dylan’s as good a poet as Joni, but nowhere near as good a musician. Paul Simon and James Taylor made some stunners – but for me, Blue is the best singer-songwriter album. Picking a song from it is like choosing between your children. Can you imagine a better song than ‘A Case of You’? She was so brilliant as a songwriter, it crushed me. But she gives us all something to strive for.”