David Crosby had the good sense to enlist help in writing this book–lots of help–and the result is stunning. Instead of a typically self-absorbed druggy memoir, it becomes part oral history, part biography, part raree show–all in all a sweeping portrait of a man and an era. The list of celebrities and hangers-on who contribute their recollections is long, too long to give here. Among the most amusing is David Geffen, the producer, who was, in his own words, “a formidable figure always”. Not formidable enough, however, to keep himself from being bullied by Crosby into taking an envelope of weed through airport security and being handcuffed and jailed.
Geffen had already begun to have doubts about his business relations with the singer after Crosby talked him into financing a movie in which “a tribe of nomads arrives at a campsite, spends a night and a day, and moves on, leaving the environment lovingly unblemished”. The script was written by Crosby and an equally stoned partner. Geffen perceived at once that the film would be something less than a blockbuster, and pulled the plug on it even as Crosby was scouting locations.
But this sort of thing was quite mild compared to the hilarity of Crosby’s hard drug phase, which followed his soft drug phase. Marijuana gave way to cocaine, and cocaine led to the breakdown of the barrier between his nostrils. As a precautionary measure, Crosby switched to freebase cocaine, which is smoked rather than snorted. This effort at health protection was in vain, however, as freebase turned out to be one of the most addictive substances on earth, demanding tribute from its hapless user virtually round the clock. So fierce was his desire to get the stuff into his lungs that he excused himself from a crisis intervention featuring such stars as Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, and Grace Slick, to go to the back room to be alone with his pipe.
And, with a propane torch for the odd procedure which turns ordinary cocaine into “freebase” Crosby slipped many times, leaving his body not “lovingly unblemished”, but rather covered with burns and impetigo. By the eighties he was consuming thousands of dollars worth a day of the drug, and his life became a dizzing round of nightclubs, treatment centers, airplane rides (paying no attention to the illumination of the No Smoking sign), and binges with the ever-present torch and pipe in operation even while driving. “‘I’m the best no-hands knee-steering driver in the world,’ he would reassure startled passengers.”
That may have been true, but in 1982 he passed out from coke overload while on his way to a demonstration at a nuclear power plant, and smashed into the center divider of the San Diego Freeway, and was busted by the Man. Here is laid bare the dilemma of the addict/activist: in order to save the people from radiation, he must at the same time endanger the people by driving while comatose. Law enforcement, after a couple more such incidents, decided he was a clear and present danger.
Yet he hung on for another 4 years, struggling to live as a functioning addict, even as his friends abandon him and the long arm of the law reaches ever closer. Obdurate to the point of psychosis, Crosby continues to cling to his guitar and torch and pipe until he has nowhere to turn but the nearest police station to make a clean breast of things. He finally kicks his addiction for good, not in the plush confines of Betty Ford, but in a solitary confinement box in a Texas prison, and emerges about a year later, with a greater knowledge of himself and of mattress fabrication procedures.
If there ever was a story about which the phrase “cautionary tale” is not a cliche, this is it. I’m surprised Geffen hasn’t made it into a blockbuster.
Obligatory background goes something like this: David Crosby, member of The Byrds, CSN, CSNY, and a notorious drug-crazed hippie sets out on an apparent quest to remember his four-syllabled name. His first solo album (mentioned above) charts modestly at #12 in the U.S. but yields no hit singles. The album gets forgotten (I believe there is a theme here) in the seemingly endless parade of solo output by the likes of Stills, Nash, and most importantly, Young.
Obligatory afterward: Mr. Crosby fails to release another LP that even makes the top 100 on the charts, gets arrested multiple times for crack and weapons possession, and somehow finds the time to artificially inseminate Melissa Etheridge and her less famous partner, Julie….something.
Now that we know the completely useless facts, let’s get to the music. Recorded in the 1971, at a time when late 60′s euphoria had given way to bitter pessimism, the album stands as sort of an anomaly in time. Rooted in the hazy California vibe of years passed, it seems the album is either a product of resilient hope or utter drug-fueled delusion. Nonetheless, with song titles such as “Music is Love” and “Tamalpais High (At About 3)” you know your in for a massive dose of hippie hokum. The surprising thing is that his level of belief in his ways actually keeps If I Could Only Remember My Name afloat and never dissolves into pitiful self-parody.
Opening track “Music is Love” sets the album’s tone as a campfire dream floating in and out of your consciousness. Voices start, drop out, join back in, and eventually create their own cadence as the circular acoustic guitar and congas keep time. In keeping with this mellowed out vibe are songs that are evidently too stoned or lazy to have their own lyrics. “Tamalpais High (At About 3)” and (shocker!) “Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves)” marry intricate guitar work with CSNY’s patented wordless vocalizing stylistics.
What should just be another pile of pointless hippie nonsense turns out the opposite; the results are stunningly beautiful. The gorgeous “Laughing”, subtlety accented by Jerry Garcia’s pedal steel and Joni Mitchell’s heavenly coo, is such an eyes-roll-back-into-your-head reverie that you may lose all motor control while listening. Just a warning.
The only true “rocker” (and I use that term very loosely) is “Cowboy Movie”, which is basically an 8 minute extension of Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair” from the previous year. Stinging electric guitar, gruff vocals describing a tale out west, and and overall dusty feel lace this lumbering, lethargically paced slab of song. Sounds awful on paper, right? Except it’s actually pretty great, without a note wasted in it’s excessive length. The album closes out with a duo of short, vocally-highlighted mood pieces.
Hell, the whole album is a mood piece. Traditionally arranged “Orleans” with its complex acoustic picking, and the ghostly harmonizing of ‘I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here” conclude the proceedings pretty much on the same note that they started; a druggy, yet peaceful fog.
It’s easy to understand how this LP got swallowed up in the early 70′s tidal wave of dissent for 60′s nostalgia, but it’s difficult to comprehend why it never got the homecoming and deluxe packaging it so rightly deserves now. If I Could Only Remember My Name is a blissfully sun-baked work of a collective of musicians set in their brilliant ways. Not for those of the attention-deficit variety, this warm, enveloping piece of art deserves to be heard on a turntable.
Don’t you hate it when all the music assholes say things like that? Yeah, I know. But with this forgotten gem, comparing vinyl with any other medium is like comparing Schwag with Northern Lights. Amiright, Dave?
When Gene Clark’s troubled brilliance checked out of The Byrds in 1966, it left David Crosby’s syrupy baritone, which for all of the obvious guitar talents of Roger McGuinn, as the remaining great voice in one of groups who helped to define the close harmony sounds that emanated from the hazy glamour of Los Angeles at the end of that decade and into the next. While far from one of the primary songwriters in the early days of the band from which he would eventually be sacked the following year, his notable contributions to the joyously fractious Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s eponymous debut and then Deja Vu with notorious misanthrope Neil Young, hinted at not only the great singer and bon viveur, but a songwriter whose compositions could match his ego.
The tracks penned for those albums are archetypes of what are presented as shorthand for the counter culture concerns of the period, from threats of nuclear war in ‘Wooden Ships’; cries of revolution in ‘Long Time Gone’; long hair as a thinly veiled metaphor of non-conformity in the face of ‘the man’ in ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ and general wistful expressions of soul searching in the likes of ‘Guinnevere’ and ‘Deja Vu’. His solo debut expanded on these themes and with an assorted cast of the who’s who of the Laurel Canyon scene, it became an initially critically lambasted album which has become recognised as a curious minor classic of the period.
The album was recorded with a large ensemble cast preposterously nicknamed the ‘Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra’ and in addition to Nash and Young making appearances, it also featured members of The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and CSN&Y muse Joni Mitchell. Album opener ‘Music Is Love’ simultaneously showcases the album’s strengths and weaknesses, with the chiming open-tuned guitars of Crosby, Nash and Young singing ‘Everybody’s saying that music is love’ in a round that is both gorgeous, but retrospectively hamstrung by wishy-washy hippy sentiments and therefore the cynical listener is left wondering whether they can suspend their disbelief and embrace the innocence of the author.
The song that follows, ‘Cowboy Movie’, is far from innocent, using the extended metaphor that the title suggests to explore a tale of deceit and betrayal over the love of a woman, in this case strongly suggested by most biographers to be former Crosby, and later Graham Nash partner Joni Mitchell, to the backdrop of an extended groove in the vein of the previous year’s ‘Almost Cut My Hair’, and the sound that characterised much of the notable moments of Neil Young’s 1969 album ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.’ While hardly aggressive, it’s the only one moment of even threatening to explore conventional rock music on an album which uses tonal shifts rather than bludgeoning with sheer force.
The aforementioned Mitchell casts a shadow over much of the album, whether it the aforementioned autobiographical impact or in adding her distinctive vocals to what are the more conventional elements of the album. Certainly, her soprano harmonies at the end of the luxurious ‘Laughing’ add enjoyable counterpoint to the deeper bass rumblings of Crosby’s voice, while she also makes her mark on the somewhat impotent anger of ‘What Are Their Names.’
Powered by some startling guitar interplay between Neil Young and Jerry Garcia which would put Tortoise, Slint et al to shame, the choir which dramatically, but somewhat ludicrously demands to know who the men are ‘that really run this land’, so that they can ‘give them a piece of my mind, about peace for mankind’, is earnest and heartfelt, but does conjure up images of railing against ‘the man’ for ‘the war’, while vanishing in a cloud of paranoia. A little like eating sausages, it is perhaps best to simply enjoy, rather than look too closely at what is actually there and how it was produced.
It’s perhaps the instrumental, or at least less conventional pieces on the album which make it stand out from its contemporaries. ‘Tamalpais High (At About 3)’ is all jazzy tones and bebopping along like the sound of a lazy musical researcher aiming to convey the sensation of a smoky beat cafe. The album’s final two songs ‘Orleans’, takes the fifteenth century French nursery rhyme ‘Le Carillon De Vendôme’ and multi-tracks Crosby’s voice into barely recognisable shifts in tone like a proto-Sigur Ros, while album closer ‘I’d Swear There Was Somebody There’ takes this to its logical conclusion; shorn as it is of any instrumentation and, without wishing to unduly evoke memories of Spinal Tap, takes wordless forms in Raga-like fashion to present something which is almost choric in sound. This was a far cry from the man who started his career adding harmonies to covers of folk hits from Dylan or Seeger.
Albums with various permutations of CSN&Y would follow, but this flawed but ambitious album, which came before the druggy excesses that would plague Crosby in the decades that followed, marked the end of his most lucid and engaging period which started with The Byrds ‘Younger Than Yesterday’ and ended here. It may well slip into many of the clichés of the period, but few singers of the time matched the ambition of the album. While it rarely makes many top 100 lists, it did come second in a top 10 list of The Vatican newspaper ‘L’Osservatore Romano’s’ best albums of all time, only losing out to The Beatles ‘Revolver’.
For a self-styled iconoclast who once wrote a song about an acid trip in Winchester Cathedral and fathered a child for a lesbian couple, this is a result of sorts and shows that at least ‘the man’ can’t have been that offended.