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June 2024
Vol. 23, No. 9

Smoke Signals

Everything’s Riding on This

by Jeff BerkleyFebruary 2023

David Crosby 1941-2023. Photo by Dennis Andersen.

Everything’s riding on this.
—David Crosby

I say it all the time backstage, before the show starts. It helps to loosen folks up and get a smile going on all the faces before we hit the stage. Works every time. It’s not really true, in fact it’s not true at all. Is it?

On January 18, we lost one of our guides. A leader, a guru, a preacher. A shaman, a Sherpa, and teacher. David Crosby was responsible for so much of what we now call American music. More than that, though, he was a generous, caring, and powerful artist and human who left the universe better than he found it.

We all know Crosby was there for the forming of the Byrds, a second-generation folk/rock/pop band that was informed by American folkies like Pete Seeger, Rambling Jack Elliot, Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie as well as countless blues and jazz artists. They fused folk and rock in a way that was easy to listen to and created a genre of music that would inform my artistic life and the lives of so many of us in the American music universe. They invented Americana or folk rock or whatever you want to call it. It just wouldn’t be the thing we all love without the Byrds and Crosby Stills Nash & Young.

Crosby was an incredible harmony singer who could morph the character of his voice to fit the character of the lead or melody singer. He sang the weird harmonies. The one no one else could hear or find. The one no one else could sing. Dissonant and beautiful. He sang notes that would’ve been outlawed in the renaissance age because of the way they made a person feel. The way they unlocked human emotions and lay the heart open. He was a mystic in this way. He could wield harmony like a magic wand and point it right at you, jarring loose the things that blocked your joy. Even for just one, short, beautiful moment. He could single you out in a crowd of people and single them all out, too. I wonder sometimes if he even knew it was happening.

Crosby was a force. He was full of righteous anger. The kind they talk about in the Bible. You know, when Jesus made a whip and drove out the money changers from the temple. That was David Crosby. Sometimes anger is what’s required, and he could also wield that like a magic wand. He fought the dragons. He was a modern-day Don Quixote! Tilting at windmills. Fighting the invisible forces until we could all see them too. I’ll miss him. He seemed to take every second seriously. He gave every moment importance and lived each second to its fullest.

I was backstage about to play with Jackson Browne for the first time. I was percussionist in the Joel Rafael Band when I was 25 or something. We were opening for Jackson, and he had signed Joel to his record label, Inside Recordings. Jackson was out there and about to introduce me. I was in the wings. Just then, I felt a presence next to me. Jackson said, “I’d like to introduce you to a new friend of mine, Jeff Berkley and an old friend, [his voice raised] David Crosby!” The audience rose to their feet! I realized at that moment David was next to me. He leaned over and said, “Everything’s riding on this kid, don’t f**k it up.” Then he put his arm around me and walked out on stage with me. He literally shared his spotlight and let me feel the energy and love that was directed toward him. We laughed and it felt like I’d known him for thousands of years. In that moment I realized that there was nothing about being a rock star that meant anything. Nothing was riding on it. It was just people playing music. Then we played “Rock Me on the Water,” “Lives in the Balance,” and “Doctor My Eyes.” I wasn’t nervous because of David. He was so amazing to jam with. I got to do that a few times more and the more I did, the more I realized what he meant when he said “Everything’s riding on this kid, don’t fuck it up.” He wasn’t talking about music at all.

Thank you, David. I’m trying to make the most of every moment, and I learned that from you.

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