Lost classic #3 David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name

In February of this year, David Crosby’s 1971 album, If I Could Only Remember My Name, will reach its 50th anniversary. Over the years it has found its way into many people’s hearts, an album that you soak up and always return to again. It has become one of those albums in my collection that I would always grab if running from a burning house. It probably won’t make many of the ‘best of 1971 – 50 years on’ lists so I decided to blog about it, as #3 in my lost classics series (more on the series here).

Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd was often quoted as asking ‘What colour is sound?’. This is a thought I’ve turned to with a number of albums and it also feels adapt with this album. Lie back and daydream the colours on this one.

David’s love of harmonies, layered together, forged in CSNY, float magnificently through this album but don’t ever think this is CSNY lite! The album has its own unique sound, stretching out and experimenting with the voice as instrument. Writing in Rolling Stone in 2007 Rob Sheffield talks about David acting as a ‘cosmic cruise director’ with cast he put together. He also refers to the album containing ‘hydroponic jams’ – I had no idea what that really means but I like the idea of it!

This album communicates its human feeling through layers of sound. It’s transcendental, hymnal, and contemplative (but not in a crap ambient album kind of way..). The stacked vocals are woven with guitars, acoustic and electric. Crosby is the conductor of an overall sound that is hard to define. There is an amazing Californian cast of musical characters flowing in and out of this album – not for the sake of an all star album, but a musical tribe gathered to layer in the sound, from Gerry Garcia’s spatial guitar to Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell’s harmonies. Plus Paul Katner and Grace Slick from the Jefferson Airplane.

The cast list…from album gatefold

In 2005, Joolio Geordio wrote about the sound on his great review on Julian Cope’s Head Heritage site : “The great thing about this album is the depth of sound, its huge, lush, deep and warm. Sam Sodomsky writing in Pitchfork in 2019 said this: “...they sound gloriously abstract. The music feels the way a dream sounds when you try to retell it in the morning: foggy, only loosely coherent, dissolving in real time.” Interviewed as part of the Crosby piece in Mojo in 2014, Michael Kiwanuka talks about his love of David’s pure harmonies – “his voice seems to blend perfectly with whoever he’s singing with”.

This is an album about loss – David has often spoken about how broken he was by the recent death of his girlfriend Christine Hinton and how music, and making this album, pulled him through this period. Alongside this tragic backdrop there was also the challenge of bringing an album together on his own terms, taking the wave of creativity that the CSN and CSNY albums had unleashed, but charting the boat to sea on a new course.

Interviewed in Mojo Magazine in 2014 (print version), David said: “There’s a lot of joy on that record, because that’s where I desperately needed to go, Graham Nash came a lot, Jerry Garcia came even more, almost every night – he was a good friend and he liked it that I was open to the accident of music as he was….I could dive into making that music and spend the whole night stacking harmonies on myself, being the Mormon Tabernacle me, and it would elevate me out of the hole I was in.”

What do I love about this album? – its the overall sound, the ur-spirit that can’t be defined. Something I’ll also take from the albums of Shack, Nick Drake. There are there lyrics and stories in there, for example unpicking the story and parallel with the lives of CSNY on ‘Cowboy Movie’. But this is an album to soak up and project on to. The drifting harmonies, layered, picked guitars just build throughout. I obviously love the whole thing as a suite but in particular ‘Tamplais High’ stands out for me – the voices interwoven with building jazz rhythms. This was clearly an emotional point of the album – David talked to Sylvie Simmons from Mojo in 2003 about the role Mount Tamplais played at that time – ‘The studio was almost the only place where I felt I could function – the rest of the time I spent a lot of time up Mount Tamplais just crying – so I would go there every night and my friends would come’.

The album opens with ‘Music is love’. In the BBC radio Mastertapes programme David talks about how Graham and Neil helped persuade him this was the opening track on the album and took the song away to add more to it, to convince him it could be the opener. It seems like a heartfelt paean to the power of music but also reflecting on the mantra of the counter culture that ‘music should be free’. Was he pushing back against this notion or calling for a new type of hippe driven music collectivism to drive forward the music industry?

I also love the explorations of inner-space in ‘Laughing’, the changes in the harmony tone as Joni’s voice comes through in the latter part of the song. The album is about the voice, but words are used sparingly, as sounds build and evoke as much as the words can say. When the words are there, they really stand out – look at how the mood builds on ‘What are their names’ and the sharp political comment that Crosby that makes of the political classes of early 70’s America.

The album builds in its experimentation with layered vocals. ‘Orleans’ is a mind-melting harmony leaden track, that then moves into the final track ‘I’d swear there was somebody here’, an amazing, almost Gregorian, finish. You want to feel it will build more and more, but finishes all too early after 1 minute 20 seconds. (I do wonder if there is a long version in the archives somewhere, David?). In the Sylvie Simmons interview David said ‘Sometimes it made magic, and sometimes it made mud’. Would be great to hear some of the mud as well 50 years on.

Every music documentary will always have a section about how perfect the moment was when a famous band came together for the first time, but with the story about how Crosby, Stills and Nash discovered the combination of their voices you really buy into the feeling a cosmic linkage did occur. I was lucky enough to see Crosby and Nash sing with David Gilmour at the Royal Albert Hall in 2006 (also the magical night that David Bowie appeared). Crosby, Nash and Gilmour sang ‘Find the cost of freedom’ and I experienced that amazing blend of voices first hand. Video below:

On BBC Mastertapes, a very eloquent question from an audience member gets a classic Crosby put down. The questioner asks whether the album is an embodiment of the end of the sixties dream – Crosby flatly said ‘no’, the optimism was still alive at this point. Peter Doggett (in his recent CSNY biography) mentions that David, Jerry Garcia, Paul Katner and Grace Slick had discussed setting up their own anti-business fraternity, and this would have involved the Airplane, the Dead and CSNY forming their own company. Whilst these plans didn’t come to fruition for Crosby, Doggett notes that this spirit of collectivism carried into the album, with all of those musicians involved. This also led to an explosion of other activities around the album, with all of those involved, including various gigs.

At the time, the album didn’t connect with some of the critics – Peter Doggett notes that Village Voice called it a ‘disgraceful performance’ and Melody Maker called it a ‘grotesque display of self-indulgence’. Just what were these critics listening to? I guess it was an album without immediate pop tunes or an urgent message for the 1971 audience. Plus 1971 was a year when so many albums demanded attention (See David Hepworth’s great book on 1971) and this was an album that needed to just breathe and find its place.

Finally, this record is often called a stoner classic. David has often played down the role that hard drugs played in the making of the album. On BBC Mastertapes he was clear that this album was made before the drugs created that tipping point against his creativity. Though in this Guardian interview from 2014 he indicates that he was using heroin at the time of the album, but not while making it. No doubt a lot of dope was smoked during its making, though. Whatever was taken during the making of the album the creative output jelled magnificently and whilst this sounds a bit clichéd, this is an album that shows music can also be an amazing drug as well.

David Crosby was searching for some magic on this album, he sure did find it. It is also great to still hear him talk about the magic connection with music, today in 2021, and that he is still looking forward and talking about new music for this year. The man is brutally honest about what mistakes he’s made in life (fully captured in the recent SkyArts documentary, Remember my name, directed by Cameron Crowe). We don’t need to put the man, or those times, on a pedestal – but let’s find space for this amazing, unique, album that sprang forth from those times and a little reflection on collective communal approach that this album embodied is something we should think about for today. More Bandcamp – less Spotify.

If 2021 gets too much for you, give this album a listen and let it soar, lift and move you forward.

Update

Since writing I’ve been pointed to the excellent McCartney in goal podcast, which dissects the album in great depth, with great humour and expertise. Really interesting discussion comparing this album to Nick Drake as well.

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