Albums You Cannot Touch: David Crosby’s ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’

The average music fan has probably avoided David Crosby’s first solo album for a number of  reasons, most of them related to the fact that, in the years following its release, Crosby would go on to embody everything that was wrong with 1960’s hippy utopianism: A junkie, a squandered talent, a paranoid blowhard who spouted peace and love but drove around with a .45 in the dash.  A jailbird, a fatty, an undeserving organ recipient, and, most egregious of all, a baffling choice for sperm donor.

Yes, all these things — and more — are true about David Crosby. But how about the alternate history in which the Cros OD’s in 1972 and never goes on to become the walrus we’ve all come to hate? Between Jim Morrison, Cass Elliot, Gram Parsons, and a host of other 60’s/70’s drug deaths, we sure memorialize the hell out of a lot less talent. Is it that we blame David Crosby for surviving? Can we not let the guy have his solo album, frozen perfectly in time like “Pearl” and “Electric Ladyland”?

I say let the music speak for itself.

Crosby was a singular talent.  The Byrds, his first band, were the originators of California folk-rock: the idea that backbeat music could have thoughtful lyrics (and vice-versa). A lot of ink has been spilt about how the Beatles and Bob Dylan influenced each other’s music, but really it’s the Byrds who are the connective tissue. They gave Dylan’s songs a melodic, John-and-Paul-caliber vocal beauty without complicating the straightforward three-chord structures. Crosby’s role was that of supporting vocalist / rhythm guitarist. He’s the one hitting the harmonies on “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Eight Miles High”, and was the unsung collaborator (with Roger McGuinn) on the hugely influential “jangle” electric guitar sound.

But you probably know more about the second band. Formed shortly after he was kicked out of The Byrds for various offenses (talking out of his ass onstage at Monterey Pop, penning a song about a threesome, growing a moustache), Crosby, Stills and Nash (and Young) would signal Crosby’s rise as a songwriter and lead vocalist. There was still plenty of that harmony out front in the mix– Crosby would hit the most resonant tones of his career as the clutch third vocalist, slinking in just above or below Stills’s lead, soothing over Nash’s dry tenor. But CSNY was ultimately founded as a songwriter’s collective, each member allowed to realize his own stylistic vision with help from the others. For Crosby, this was a chance to merge his acoustic folk cred with a childhood love of jazz. For example, a song like ‘Guinnevere’, all hippy signifiers aside, ultimately gets its trippy-yet-sanguine sound from a jazz-like reaching for the unknown (courtesy of Crosby’s patented EBDGAD tuning) while simultaneously adhering to a folky rubric of verse-chorus-verse.

But I wasn’t born yesterday: David Crosby liked to smoke the weed. All the damn time. In fact, by the time you get to If I Could Only Remember My Name and its cavalcade of guest stars, you realize that Crosby’s stash should probably be given a production credit for its role in getting everybody in the room…

So quickly: The first CSN album drops in May of 1969. A mostly low-key, acoustic affair, it takes the world by storm and lays the track for the California singer-songwriter movement. Three months later they play Woodstock, conscript Neil Young as full-time guitarist, and begin to ride a distinctly post-Woodstock wave of large venue concert promotion to sell-outs on both sides of the Atlantic. The shows get kinda ugly… not very true to the original, intimate aesthetic… but no bother: the sophomore album comes out in early 1970. Long in gestation, Déjà vu delivers on all fronts, featuring top material from every member of the group.

More electric tours, more hype. It isn’t long before CSNY completely blows its wad (see: the coked-up 1974 stadium tour), and we can stop paying attention. But just before the fallout — look closely! — we get a surprisingly decent round of solo albums…

The third to be released, Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name is by far the most interesting of the set. Recorded in San Francisco, where he’d been living out of his docked sailboat, Crosby brought to the studio a backlog of meticulously crafted songs, a peaking confidence at the mic, and, as mentioned above, the finest smoke in the Pacific time zone. So Jerry and the Grateful Dead rhythm section drop by to serve as backing band. The Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady sit in on a couple, as do Greg Rolie and Michael Shrieve of Santana.

But even with the guests, the mix never gets messy. It’s also an extremely well-sequenced album, with no two songs sounding exactly alike. “Music Is Love”, the naked, improvised opener, gives way to “Cowboy Movie”, a surging, eight-minute epic chronicling a saucy bit of gossip from a CSNY tour (the boys are all after the same groupie… but she’s actually a cop!?!). Recalling the howling “Almost Cut My Hair” from Déjà vu, Crosby’s vocal on “Cowboy” is loose and live. But then the pace slows way up… Crosby lays off lyrics altogether until “Laughing”, the album’s shimmering, 12-string centerpiece.

The hippy orgy jumps the shark on “What Are Their Names”, a hypnotic jam that builds gradually from Jerry and Neil’s snaking electric leads into the lone vocal passage: an unmistakably Crosbian litany of vague hippy shit, delivered banshee-style by no fewer than Crosby, Nash, Garcia, Lesh, Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, Joni Mitchell, and one of the dudes from Quicksilver Messenger Service:

I wonder who they are / the men who really run this land / and I wonder why they run it / with such a thoughtless hand / What are their names? / and on what streets do they live? / I’d like to ride over this afternoon and hear / them make peace of my mind / about peace for mankind / peace is not an awful lot to ask…

Harsh again gives way to chill, and the album glides to the finish. “Traction in the Rain” is a drumless  rumination about going out for fresh air. “Song Without Words” is a song without words, while “Orleans” is sung in French. Crosby even loses his guitar for the closer, “I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here”: stepping into the void, he retains only his voice, and a dozen, echoed fragments.

More Crosby:


6 Responses to “Albums You Cannot Touch: David Crosby’s ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’”

  1. 1 Dirk
    November 24, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    Great behind-the-scenes background in this review of an album that stands alone and still sounds good, in spite of Crosby’s bloated self-righteousness over the years (which I though was really cool back in high school–outrageous, dude!)

  2. November 24, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    Yes, one of the great post-Altamont classics. Perhaps you had to be there but if you were there you’re probably still there (even if the smoke and illicit ingestibles have passed and there really wasn’t about that). Perhaps also the magnitude of Crosby’s physical and mental collapse is indicative of the demonic power of the music industry especially managers, agents, producers, and a host of impish trolls. I defy anyone to keep sanity and soul intact in that company (far worse abuse than substance). But . . . simply to hear Joni Mitchell’s wordless crooning at the end of “Laughing” is cause for pause. Love in the time of Fallujah, Keido

  3. November 24, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    this album is truly untouchable. i am in my late 20’s and discovered this album by accident. its such a great document of the times – great songwriting and craft, amazing live studio performances and a group of great musicians getting together without ego. this shit doesn’t happen on this scale these days.

    gotta love dave crosby.

    good article

  4. 4 Carlos
    November 25, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    Right on, this is a great album. I think it is the only released recoding where Jerry Garcia and Neil Young trade guitar licks. “Laughing” is a classic. I never heard the story about the cop groupie before.

  5. June 6, 2010 at 5:09 am

    You listen to this album, and close your eyes, it sounds like an opium filled dream. I bought this lp 20 years ago, and I still love it as much as i did 20 years ago. It did not age at all. I am a big crosby fan, , but this is david crosby at its best
    We love you David

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