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David Crosby: The voyager returns

On his way to @FillmoreMB, David Crosby recalls South Florida inspiration for "Wooden Ships"

When David Crosby takes the stage at the Fillmore Miami Beach Tuesday night, he'll be alone, accompanied only by his guitar, his songs and his ability to spin a tale.

"It's how I started out," Crosby says, describing the challenging intimacy of his solo acoustic tour, in support of the excellent 2014 album "Croz." "I like the tale-teller, troubadour essence of it, when words really count. When it's just one guy and one guitar, you can really take people on the voyage."

In returning to South Florida, Crosby is making his way back to where the most colorful passage of his own journey began. It was in Fort Lauderdale that Crosby found a life-changing muse, a 59-foot schooner called the Mayan. And it was while the boat was docked in the city that the first stirrings of the supergroup Crosby, Stills and Nash were felt as Crosby and Stills, in the cabin of the Mayan, wrote their first song together, the rock classic "Wooden Ships."

Crosby was no stranger to South Florida on that trip in early 1968, with many comrades in the Coconut Grove folk scene, including Bobby Ingram ("a great singer, a dear friend"), Vince Martin and his mentor, Fred Neil. It was a time when Crosby needed friends, and he needed a boat.

"I had been unceremoniously tossed out of the Byrds, and I had some time on my hands," he recalls, laughing. "I was down there just goofing off, looking for a sailboat. I'd been a sailor all my life, and I wanted to find a big wooden sailboat that I could go and start voyaging. And I did. It was a joy."

A place in rock history for the Mayan, a distinctive John Alden-designed 356-B centerboard schooner built in Honduras in 1947, was a product of happenstance. While Crosby was staying on his new purchase, Stephen Stills and the Jefferson Airplane's Paul Kantner, unbeknownst to each other, decided to drop in on him at the same time.

"It was in Lauderdale, just off the Intracoastal, on one of those islands. That's where 'Wooden Ships' was written, right in the main cabin of the boat. I had the music. Stephen and Kantner each came up with a verse, and I came up with a verse. And we just fooled around with the music," Crosby says, recalling a process that took just one night.

The evening reinforced Crosby's intuition about his future partner.

"I really liked Stills, and I was pretty sure I wanted to work with him," he says. "I'd liked him in the Buffalo Springfield. I thought he was pretty terrific."

The next year, Crosby, Stills and Nash released their seminal, self-titled debut album, which included "Wooden Ships," along with such trailblazing folk-rock songs as "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," "Guinnevere," "Marrakesh Express," "Helplessly Hoping" and "Long Time Gone." (Kantner also released a version of the song in 1969 on the Jefferson Airplane's "Volunteers" album.)

"Wooden Ships," its gentle, rocking rhythm carrying a bleak account of life on a post-apocalyptic planet, with disoriented survivors setting sail for some uncharted place "where we might laugh again," has endured as one of the most lush and literate protest songs of the Vietnam War era.

Crosby and the Mayan, which would end up on the cover of the trio's 1977 album "CSN," also endured over the course of nearly 50 years and numerous trips around the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal and up and down the Pacific coast of Mexico and California. But last year, the relationship ended.

"I'd gotten the boat to a state where it was pretty much perfect, and I couldn't hold the idea of letting it go downhill in my hands," says Crosby, 73. "So I found a guy who loved it, and had billions of dollars, and who could take care of it, you know? And he is. I wish I had the kind of money to be able to keep it, but I didn't, and I don't, and there you are."

Crosby sold the Mayan (for $750,000, according to the yacht broker David Jones Classics) to San Francisco tech entrepreneur Beau Vrolyk, who seems to share Crosby's love of the boat. Referring to himself as a "caretaker" of the Mayan, Vrolyk has created a blog dedicated to the boat, which includes exhaustive research into its history (SchoonerMayan.Blogspot.com) and recent refitting.

As Crosby talks about the Mayan, his patter is not so glib. Clearly, the sea beckons.

"Oh, yeah, it calls me," he says, wistfully. "I haven't sailed since last year when I sold [the Mayan]. It's pretty painful. I miss it a lot."

Blood brothers

A complex set of emotions runs through Crosby's relationship with Neil Young, the now-estranged Y in CSNY. He speaks with reverence and a sense of awe while describing how he watched the quartet's iconic 1970 Kent State protest song "Ohio" blossom before his eyes.

"Neil and I were at a friend's house in a place called Butano Canyon on the coast near Santa Cruz [Calif.]. We were out cruising around in one of his woodies. [The friend] went out to get something for breakfast and … came back with that Life magazine cover, the girl kneeling over the kid dead on the ground in a pool of blood, looking up with that 'Why?' expression on her face," Crosby says. "And I watched that image hit Neil. He picked up his guitar and wrote that song right in front of me. I called [Graham] Nash, and I said, 'Get us a studio.' And he said, 'I can probably get one on Wednesday.' And I said, 'Get one tonight. Get us a studio right now.'"

Crosby and Young flew to meet Stills and Nash at the Record Plant studio in Los Angeles, where the song was recorded. Master tapes of the song were flown to New York personally by Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegün, who expedited the production process, putting "Ohio" in record stores less than two weeks after the National Guard shootings that claimed the lives of four Kent State students.

"It was amazing. I don't think anyone had done that before," Crosby says. "But when the country starts killing its own children, you know something is really wrong."

The Santa Barbara, Calif., resident doesn't see Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young reuniting onstage any time soon, and he accepts some blame for that. Last fall, Crosby made some indelicate statements about Young's divorce from his wife of 36 years, and the motivations of his new love interest, actress Daryl Hannah. In a subsequent visit with Howard Stern, Young refused to say Crosby's name.

In multiple interviews since, including his own Stern interview last month, Crosby has been profuse with his apologies to Young and Hannah.

"I [apologized] because I didn't think I had any place to stand when it comes to criticizing other people. I mean, she didn't wind up in a Texas prison, I did," Crosby says. "Slagging her in public, that was bad form."

But Crosby believes Young had made up his mind about a CSNY reunion long before this scrap. The release last summer of "CSNY 1974," a years-in-gestation box set of live recordings from the quartet's 1974 reunion concerts, would have been the perfect opportunity for another tour. Young was having none of it.

"Look at the ringing silence on Neil's part when we put out the '74 box set, which he did not say one word about. Not one word. I think you can figure that he had no intention of doing a CSNY [reunion] and probably has no intention of doing it," Crosby says. "You can never say never, but it's up to him."

Mystery music

When Crosby takes the stage at the Fillmore Miami Beach on Tuesday, he will perform music from "Croz," his first solo album since 1993's "Thousand Roads," while also ranging back to his days with the Byrds. But he'll also introduce songs from an album he hasn't recorded yet.

More than five decades into his songwriting career, Crosby is riding a wave of remarkable and mysterious productivity.

"I have so much stuff. I wrote two things this week," he says. "I've always written in bursts, but this is the longest, most sustained burst of writing I've ever had. It's been going on six months now. I've been really paying attention, and picking up the guitar every day and working at it. I'm astounded at the level that's coming out."

What inspired this creative connection of synapses?

"I don't know," Crosby says, quietly and conspiratorially, as if not to upset the order of things. "But I'm the most grateful guy in the world."

David Crosby will perform 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 9, at the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave. Tickets cost $45.50-$65.50. Call 305-673-7300 or go to FillmoreMB.com.

bcrandell@southflorida.com

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