David Crosby is an easy man to share your secrets with. Maybe it’s because of the life he’s lived, surviving three heart attacks, nine months in a Texan prison for drugs and weapons offences, and five decades of fractious folk-rock stardom as a member of first The Byrds and later supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Maybe he just has that kind of face, a wizened version of Yosemite Sam, as former girlfriend Joni Mitchell once described him. Either way, people have a habit of opening up to him. Take the soldier he met in an airport bar not too long ago, just back from Iraq and Afghanistan. He started telling Crosby about a firefight he’d been in, how in the middle of it he’d fired off this shot with an assault rifle that flattened a guy from 200 yards, maybe the best shot he’d ever taken. Afterwards, when the fighting was over, he went over to find the body. He’d killed a 12-year-old boy.
“He looked at me, when he said that, and his eyes were…” Crosby trails off, trying to find the words. “He was in hell,” he says finally, his clear, melodic Californian tones growing softer. “He was absolutely torturing himself to pieces right there in front of me, drunk and shattered. Listen, if you’d seen it, man, it would have broke your heart. The guy didn’t mean to do anything wrong. He was just a regular guy doing his job and he was destroyed by it.”
Crosby was so moved by the chance encounter that he wrote a song about it, “Shot at Me”, a searingly poignant ballad that appears on his new album For Free. It is Crosby’s eighth solo record, five of which have arrived since 2014, when he was 72, representing a remarkable late-career renaissance. Today, he’s speaking over the phone from the ranch house in Santa Ynez, California that he shares with his wife of 34 years, Jan Dance, and their various dogs and horses. A week ago he celebrated his 80th birthday there, with a homemade chocolate cake and a little reluctance. “I’m not sure 80 is one you celebrate,” says Crosby with amusement. “It’s one you kind of go: ‘Oh, Jesus!’”