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If I Could Only Remember My Name: After 50 Years, David Crosby Is Still Laughing

Rick Sunday

David Crosby If I Could Only Remember My Name 50th Anniversary

The 50th Anniversary release of David Crosby’s excellent solo debut If I Could Only Remember My Name features a treasure trove of demo recordings with Jerry Garcia, Neil Young, and more from its legendary early 70s sessions at Wally Heider Studios.

It’s that cover, really — a striking, psychedelic teardrop of sun streaming down the cheekbone of David Crosby, his eyes carrying a weighty sense of awe combined with regret, staring out through the ocean at whatever one stares at, wondering about whatever one wonders about. You know the feeling. A booklet of images flipping through the mind, pages of memories unfolding one after another. A thought here. An epiphany there. Everything’s been solved. Or not. Floating forever, lost in a haze of space and serenity. Am I happy? Am I sad? What the fuck does it matter, man? If I could only… remember… my name…

This special album, David Crosby‘s solo debut, arrived in February 1971. At this point in his career, Croz was a known figure in the budding world of rock ‘n’ roll. He rose to fame in the mid-60s through his pivotal work with The Byrds, and by the time Woodstock rolled around in ’69, he’d teamed up with Graham Nash and Stephen Stills. Eventually, the trio tapped Neil Young and formed the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young. You may have heard of them.

If I Could Only Remember My Name released not quite a year after CSNY’s Déjà Vu, a record that was a complete smash — both critically and commercially — and set the tone for the post-hippy California Dreamin’ of the 70s. It also made the four bandmates extremely wealthy, paying the bills for each members’ creative experimentation over the next decade, and probably longer. Crosby took his profits and rented time at the Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco, the iconic place that helped shape the sound of the era. It’s where CSNY spent a rumored 800+ hours recording Déjà Vu. It’s also where the Grateful Dead recorded American Beauty; eventually the studio would birth work from Gram Parsons, Fleetwood Mac, Tim Buckley, Gene Clark, and countless more legendary Bay Area rock and psychedelia acts.

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Crosby invited a bunch of his friends to come jam as he made sense of his fame — and an unexpected tragedy. In the wake of Déjà Vu‘s tremendous success, his longtime girlfriend Christine Hilton died in a car accident. It happened as she was driving her cat to the vet. Crosby was devastated and crippled by grief. Who could blame him? He’d then spend the next decade plus twisted up in hard drugs and general hedonism, eventually landing time in jail in 1985 because of a hit-and-run combined with illegal possession of a firearm and cocaine. It’s easy to point to this moment of cataclysmic loss as a catalyst for his spiraling.

Yet before launching on that tempestuous voyage, he recorded If I Could Only Remember My Name. These sessions offered a retreat of sorts between the end of the hippy dream and the beginning of his nihilism.

Countless musicians rolled through these sessions, somewhat casually, because that’s just kind of how things worked back then. Notable names included Graham Nash, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell — plus members of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Santana. This wild ensemble of music history stalwarts was dubbed the unofficial name The Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra, better known as PERRO, and spent night after night jamming in various forms, getting lost in space in the best way. It was a special time, a perfect collision of creativity from musicians who would eventually be considered some of the greatest to ever do it. There are many, many lost recordings from this period spread across the internet. Do yourself a favor and spend some time tripping out to this version of “Mountain Song.”

Back to If I Could Only Remember My Name. Through these sessions, Croz especially found a connection with Jerry Garcia, who had played pedal steel guitar on Déjà Vu, and who showed up almost every night, eventually helping arrange and produce the record.

“There’d be that grin, and then that look in the eyes, and this fascination with the music,” Crosby recalls of the time with Garcia. “Easy, not forced, graceful, fun, ever-present. It was a kindness, I’m pretty sure. Jerry never said that, never even implied it. Just, ‘Hey, I heard you were doing something. What are you doing? Let’s do something.'”

It’s worth noting that this was also a particularly prolific time for Garcia himself, and it’s interesting to think about how this may have complimented Crosby’s creativity. On top of these jams and recording music with the Dead, Garcia was also in the process of putting his eponymous 1972 debut solo album to tape, which contained songs — “Loser,” “Deal,” “Bird Song,” “Sugaree” — that would eventually become live set standards for The Dead. You could say, maybe, you know, that there was something in the water. Maybe it played a role in forgetfulness of one’s name. You know how it goes.

Garcia’s kinetic creative energy is captured on If I Could Only Remember My Name. The original release is as wide as it is deep — a rolling album that’s made out of and for getting lost in the space between. Crosby’s album is not the kind of record that jumps out at you immediately, but rather one that requires a bit of understanding and patience. Ethereal, that’s a word thrown around quite a bit. It works here, though. Over the years, critics have pointed to this record as a beginning point for the genre of freak folk, and the evidence is strong. These songs aren’t linear. Rarely are they built off riffs that chug along on a train track, but instead pull together from all directions, almost obscenely and in slow motion. Crosby’s tenor flies above the clouds, wandering its way into deep moments of tripped out reflection, brought back to earth with warbling Garcia guitar licks.

Take “Cowboy Movie,” for example, which features Croz narrating the story of a tragic old western acting as a metaphor for friction between his bandmates in CSNY, driven apart by a rumored affair. Underneath these lyrics, Garcia shreds and Phil Lesh drops bombs. It’s a collision of so many different interpretations of regret — and it somehow sounds… badass? That’s kind of the perfect thesis statement for Crosby himself. A idiosyncratic mustache of swagger.

Or, let’s talk about “Laughing,” the heart of If I Could Only Remember My Name, and perhaps its best song. On this track, Crosby plays acoustic guitar, and Garcia picks up the pedal steel before Joni Mitchell joins on the backing vocals. “I thought I found a light to guide me through the night,” Crosby croons, almost sweetly. “The darkness, I was mistaken.” It’s a heavy meditation on the end of the psychedelic 60s, a time when the counterculture was being questioned yet still somewhat embraced, lamenting in a post-hippy malaise. There are answers, and then there aren’t. How do we make sense of these things that are always shifting? The sun will rise tomorrow… right? There’s a sweet insecurity in the spacial chaos.

Next, we jump to the roaring “What Are Their Names,” which takes this kind of existential musing and makes it literal — and also features the PERRO chorus of voices: Crosby, Garcia, Lesh, Mitchell, Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, David Freiberg, and Graham Nash. It’s a beast of a song, with the lyrics to match:

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 right over this afternoon and give
Them a piece of my mind about peace for mankind
Peace is not an awful lot to ask

There’s an urgency with which this anthem is delivered. You want to ride these lyrics like a horse into the sunset, chasing existential dread like it’s a rabid dog. Grab your gun and fire it into the air! Yell from the top of a mountain! Peace is not an awful lot to ask, damnit! None of this changes, or will change, anything about anything. But hell, it might make you feel a little bit better, at least for the night.

The 50th Anniversary version arrives remastered top to bottom, and these songs, which in their original form highlight the scratchy nature of a recording studio in 1970, are so clean they practically sound like new recordings. The remaster process was overseen by Stephen Barncard, the original album engineer, with restoration and speed correction using Plangent Processes, a form of analog to digital processing of original tapes. This has made the original sound brighter and fuller. Moreover, the shimmering of this remaster highlights the quality of the songwriting, that what was scribbled down and jammed around over 50 years ago can still carry a surprising amount of power when harnessed correctly.

The bonus disc of this release, however, is where there is newly discovered joy. It’s nearly an hour of unreleased recordings from various points of the making of I Could Only Remember My Name. These demos are extraordinary, capturing a late 20s Crosby in his midst of a highly creative time in his life. “Tamalpais High (At About 3) [Demo]” comes from as early as March 1968, when he recorded a solo acoustic version of it in Los Angeles. The intimacy of this take is much, much different than the sweeping, orchestral approach on the original album version. You can hear similar playfulness on “Riff 1 (Demo),” on which Crosby is lost in his elevated humming, his plucking around creating a swirling dreamscape. It’s almost an uncomfortable listen, like you’re paging through someone’s journal when they’re not in the room.

But these demos aren’t just sketchbooks slowly coming to life. “Cowboy Movie (Alternate Version)” is over 10 minutes long and features Neil Young on the guitar rather than Garcia. It’s a stark difference in playing style, and a fun illustration of how these two guitar gods approached their musical weapon. Rather than Garcia’s mythical, twinkly eyed jams that effortlessly float along the original, Young approaches it with weight. His guitar punches, the vibe of a gritty night out a bar, throwing back whiskey and cheap beer. It’s not better than the original, but it does feel a bit more cowboy-ish. A noticeable and grizzled chemistry exists between Young and Crosby. It’s remarkable, and no wonder these guys essentially created the genre of Americana.

Things get beautifully lost in themselves, too. “Bach Mode (Pre-Critical Mass)” is an early display of Crosby’s affection for chanting and harmony, something further displayed throughout the discography of CSN/Y. The a cappella track is a bold listen that feels like something you may howl when standing on the edge of a cliff, showcasing Crosby’s particular skill as an arranger.

Meanwhile “Coast Road” feels like a lucid dream, swirling around itself, and might be the best illustration of Crosby’s rare approach to songwriting. The song pulls from all different directions, a sum of angles, and his voice floats over the top, his words barely audible. Absorbed in the sky above.

It comes rolling down
Rolling quickly over the sand
When climbing, climbing, climbing
Up the canyon to the…
When the fire comes rolling down
When the sun comes up again
If I come rolling
On the coast road, on the coast road…

At the time of all this recording, Crosby was living on a boat — a 59-foot schooner named The Mayan — docked across the bay from San Francisco in Sausalito. There, he was attempting to make sense of his unimaginable heartbreak. It was the only place where he could find some sort of peace in the chaos, and he brought that energy into the studio. These demos offer transparency into that time period — and perhaps more importantly can provide some sort of understanding about how hard things must have felt for him, not just specific to his own life. It was pretty fucked up back then. Peers getting shipped off to die in a war that made no sense. Girlfriends dying in unexplained car accidents. Hells Angels getting hired as security at festivals, which obviously didn’t end well.

“I was in a pretty emotional state,” Crosby told writer Steve Silberman in 1995. “Trying to stay so deeply in the music that the other thing — Christine — wouldn’t drive me under. I needed to work all the time, so I would write constantly, and when I wasn’t writing, I was recording, and when I wasn’t recording, I would try to get some place to play. It was all I had to hang on to, so I was pretty prolific.”

Life happens. We attempt to make sense of it the best we can. The chaos of our dreams. The failing. The succeeding. On the demo of “Laughing,” the sparse playing from Crosby underneath his warbling voice is a sense of comfort, like he’s there with another version of himself, floating together into the unknown. “Only a child laughing in the sun,” he howls in his searching. “Ahh, in the sun…” No one can explain why things happen. Humanity is an amoebic blob, pushing towards… who can remember? But we remember the chaos, the shadows. We look at the demons, even the ones who bring the most unexpected pain. Sometimes you gotta live on a boat and then do drugs for a decade. Maybe that’s not the right answer, but that’s also the point. If I Could Only Remember My Name is a delicate exploration of the human psyche, one that delivers some sort of understanding while raising a million more questions. And do those questions even matter? Who’s to say? The sun will rise tomorrow, though. Let’s go stare at it.

David Crosby – If I Could Only Remember My Name (50th Anniversary)

Disc One: Original Album

  1. Music Is Love
  2. Cowboy Movie
  3. Tamalpais High (At About 3)
  4. Laughing
  5. What Are Their Names
  6. Traction In The Rain
  7. Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves)
  8. Orleans
  9. I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here
  10. Kids And Dogs” (Bonus Track)

Disc Two: Bonus Tracks

  1. Riff 1 (Demo)
  2. Tamalpais High (At About 3) [Demo]
  3. Kids And Dogs” (Demo)
  4. The Wall Song (Demo)
  5. Games (Demo)
  6. Laughing (Demo)
  7. Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves) [Demo]
  8. Where Will I Be (Demo)
  9. Cowboy Movie (Alternate Version)
  10. Bach Mode (Pre-Critical Mass)*
  11. Coast Road*
  12. Dancer*
  13. Fugue*

* previously unreleased

Rick Sunday

Rick Sunday

Rick Sunday is a writer and a traveler who’s been writing professionally about music and culture for over a decade. His creative work has appeared in a variety of publications of note, exploring the strange while finding inspiration in the in-between. He loves driving. He loves talking to strangers. And he loves the Grateful Dead. In his spare time, he writes a newsletter called COOL MUSIC, a semi-regular outlet for experimental writing, photography, and playlists.

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