David Crosby - If I Could Only Remember My Name

David Crosby
If I Could Only Remember My Name

Released 1971 on Atlantic
Reviewed by Joolio Geordio, 09/01/2005ce

David Crosby – If I Could Only Remember My Name – 1971

They say that the flame that burns brightest burns for the shortest time and the same can be said for so many musical talents over the last 40 years many of which mine a rich seam of creativity before being sidelined in one way or another; their talents cast adrift on the sea of lost musicians. Take if you will Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson, Skip Spence whose careers stumbled to an abrupt halt after the excesses of the all too brief glory years took their toll on their health leaving them fragile shells of their former selves. Or the more obvious “big 3” of Joplin, Hendrix and Morrison whose excesses brought not only their careers, but also their lives to a premature end. A third category; those former greats staggering on, their lives surviving the excesses but their talents visibly waning like the faded prize fighter looking for just one more fight, one more chance at glory, one more pay day. The list is endless but into this category fall luminaries such as Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and David Crosby.

Crosby’s sometime colleague Neil Young would enquire at the end of the 70’s “Is it better to burn out than to fade away?” And certainly by 1978 this could be taken as a direct broadside at his former colleagues who were sailing wooden ships (pun intended!) in ever decreasing circles, their audience older and shrinking and their creativity becalmed firmly in the doldrums.

A little under a decade earlier things had been very different – Crosby, Stills, Nash and latterly Young had ended the 1960’s and commenced the 1970’s on the crest of a creative wave with two stunning back to back albums before internal rivalries and mounting ego problems blew the band apart. All was not lost however as all 4 members were of such individual stature that they could command major label record deals and pursue or (in Young’s case) continue solo careers.

The release of If I Could Only Remember My Name in February 1971 captured Crosby at his (all to brief) creative peak. Always and perhaps unfairly viewed (particularly in retrospect) as one of the junior partners of the firm of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Crosby had been consistently producing material of a high quality since the mid 60’s and his contributions to the first CSN album and CSNY’s Déjà Vu mark him out as a singer/songwriter who was at least equal to or better than either of the Buffalo Springfield refugees Neil Young and Stephen Stills.

If I Could Only Remember My Name stand as a fine body of work, a 9 song opus of the same haunting fragile, beauty as contemporaries such as Nick Drake. The material spans Crosby’s career thus far and dates from 1963 through to 1970. Its contributors read like a late 60’s Who’s Who as Crosby drafts in to the sessions just about every member of the late 60’s West Coast rock aristocracy that he can find including his erstwhile partners in CSNY as well as various interlopers from the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.

So what about the music? What can I say?

A quick capsule review will tell you this much: it features a delicate blend of electric and acoustic guitarwork !

What else?

It’s divided between fantastically beautiful songs and delicate wordless vocal pieces!

So far so good. Is there anything else that you need to know?

Well, CSNY patent harmonies are all over this album!

First off - The Songs!

The album starts with Music Is Love, a three-way songwriting collaboration between Graham Nash, Neil Young and Crosby himself. It’s actually a curious choice to open the proceedings kicking in with a gentle strum along acoustic guitar intro, which ushers in the track and a much-repeated lyric “Everybody’s Saying that Music is Love”. Lyrically nothing much else happens until around the 2 minute 50 second mark when the lyric changes to “ Put On Your Colours, Run Come See Everybody’s Saying That Music’s For Free”. I guess a comment on the audience expectation at the time that festivals should be free – could be equally applicable to the file sharing generation too methinks – ho hum!

At 8:11 Cowboy Movie is the longest track on the album – a slow brooding piece based on a drawling moody guitar motif that, stylistically, recalls Young’s Down By The River. Lyrically the song works on two levels: on the surface it appears to be a story about a band of outlaws returning to camp following a raid but their plans to blow the doors off the safe go awry at the hands of a “sweet little Indian girl”. In reality the song is a thinly veiled commentary on the lives of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young themselves and the internal tensions within the band. Documenting not only by the musical rivalries between the musicians, but also the personal rivalries with the “sweet little Indian girl” sequence subtly recounting the tale of how Stills fell for the singer Rita Coolidge, only to see her go off with Nash instead.

The great thing about this album is the depth of sound, its huge, lush, deep and warm – listen to the track Laughing and you will see exactly what I mean. Clocking in at little over 5 minutes this is one of those Crosby introspective “What’s Going On in my life/head?” (delete as applicable) epics. With harmony vocals from Crosby, Nash and Joni Mitchell and musical accompaniment from Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann, Laughing drifts long in a slow smoky haze. Recorded in 1969 but written during Crosby’s sojourn with The Byrds this track is a stellar moment in the Crosby catalogue. It also, perhaps unwittingly, provides the blueprint for the brace of pastoral acoustic tracks, A Pillow of Winds and Fearless, that The Pink Floyd committed to vinyl on Meddle also released in 1971. However, although similar in style, and good that the Floyd’s efforts are, Crosby’s track is more up front and personal, his insecure confessional wins out by a country mile.

What Are Their Names was born out of a jam session featuring Neil Young, Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Michael Skrieve as well as Crosby, Joni Mitchell, Grace Slick and a cast drawn from San Franciso’s heavyweight division. It finds Crosby and company in an angry confrontational mood. Emerging out of a gentle acoustic guitar motif it builds into a brooding tension riddled track, a politically supercharged number. Lyrically it’s an attack on the ruling classes – the political movers and shakers, the warmongers and the industry fat cats (later of course also the target for one Julian Cope of Avebury and England on Greedhead Detector).

If the track What Are Their Names exudes tension and venom then the next track provides the antidote. Of all of the word based songs on this album then Traction in The Rain is perhaps the most delicate and the most beautiful. Acoustic guitars are again to the fore and lyrically the song proclaims Crosby’s doubts about city life on one hand and on the other hits autobiographical mode retelling the story of a walk in the park with his girlfriend Christine Hinton, Graham Nash and his then girlfriend Joni Mitchell. The song documents the abuse Crosby and Nash took from non-hippies for being with two attractive woman. As with Cowboy Movie Crosby uses subtle imagery to tell the story “ The strangest thing I’ve seen is a T shirt turning green, in envy of a turtle dove, the doves lady was the cause or maybe it was the olive branch she held in her claws”

The final word based song on the album is the outstandingly beautiful Orleans, clocking in at a mere 1 minute 56 seconds. It is the second last track on the album and can be described as truly haunting. Orleans is a traditional French arrangement reinterpreted by Crosby featuring a stunning multi tracked vocal with Crosby singing a gentle swirling mantra in French eulogising the various districts of Paris.

The remainder of the album is to quote Crosby “Where it all begins to get weird!” with two of the final three tracks being hypnotic vocal choral pieces bookending the equally atmospheric Orleans. At these points on the album Crosby ups the ante as a musician and songwriter and draws from his fertile imagination two tracks of stunning beauty and which were, to my knowledge anyway, unparalleled amongst any of his contemporaries on the West Coast music scene (although I am sure someone can correct me on this!)

Two tracks Tampalais (High at About Three) and A Song With No Words (A Tree With No Leaves) were set to sympathetic acoustic guitar backing and are inter dispersed amongst the word based songs. In comparison “I’d Swear that There Was Someone Here” is a haunting Gregorian chant with no instrumental backing, dedicated to the tragic Christine Hinton. It is the final song on the album following directly on from Orleans and the sequencing of the two tracks is a masterstroke and the supreme eeriness of the tracks finishes the album on a stunningly ethereal note.

The tragedy for Crosby was that this was the high water mark of his career and from here on in his creative talents were directed towards his reoccurring partnerships with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash and the ill fated reunion of The Byrds in 1973. And although those partnerships yielded some fine musical moments they still fell someway short of the stellar works penned and recorded between 1967 and 1971. Added to this of course was Crosby’s growing interest in his “extracurricular” activities namely freebase cocaine addiction which sapped his creative energies and almost fatally derailed his partnership with Nash once and for all when Crosby interrupted a recording session mid song in order to try to repair his broken freebase kit.

Indeed so serious was the problem that Crosby’s eventual follow up to If I Could Only Remember My Name, recorded in 1979, was rejected by Warner Music due to quality issues and Crosby spent the next 5 years in freefall towards an eventual prison sentence. Creatively the 80’s yielded little of note for Crosby – his second solo album Oh Yes I Can, released in 1989 and the Crosby, Stills and Nash album Live It Up issued in 1991 – were smothered in the worst sort of bland AOR production imaginable – not to mention lacklustre song writing performances.

Things looked up slightly on Crosby’s third solo effort A Thousand Roads, released in 1992, with the excellent title track hinting strongly at past glories – but any hopes of an upswing in fortunes ended there and the remainder of the album consisted of series of ill chosen covers again coated in awful period piece AOR production values which left this listener not only asking “Why Bother?” Surely the title track should have been better used elsewhere rather than wasted on this excuse for an album?

Indeed it is only really with Crosby’s recent musical collaboration Crosby, Pevar and Raymond that he has started to really re-establish himself as a valid musical creative force with material that is at least on a par with his output between 1974 and 1977.

Consequently if you want to explore the Crosby catalogue then If I Could Only Remember My Name, his 1960’s output with The Byrds as well as the Crosby, Stills and Nash and Deja Vu albums represent the essential releases. After this only the trio of Crosby and Nash albums recorded in the early to mid 70’s and the more recent CPR collaborations hold anything of note.

Happy listening


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