Monday, 18 July 2016
David Crosby "Oh Yes I Can!" (1989)
David Crosby "Oh Yes I Can!" (1989)
Drive My Car/Melody/The Monkey and The Underdog/In The Wide Ruin/Tracks In The Dust//Drop Down Mama/Lady Of The Harbour/Distances/Flying Man/Oh Yes I Can!/My Country 'Tis Of Thee
"It's not how much Croz is in the fight, but how much fight is in the Croz!"
We CSN fans all know about Croz's slightly conceited side. It's the personality flaw that keeps Crosby flawed just about human enough despite his many talents to still seem one of us mere mortals in the same way as Stills' brashness-masking-insecurity and Nash's ability to fall in love with someone new every five minutes, whether he or they are attached or not. Fans have come to love this side, which has become a source of hilarity between band and fans ('I'm the world's most opinionated man!' Crosby once sang on 1977's 'Anything At All', only half-jokingly). So it was a moment of great hilarity among my close-knit musical twitter circle when I tried putting Croz's name into '#twitamore', the app that allows you to see what twitter follower 'loves' you most - and found that out of the 57,000 twitter followers Croz now has, his biggest love was himself! (No kidding: you can check it out yourself: at http://www.twitamore.com !) The thing is though, that vain quality has a definite upside: Croz is the only musician (certainly the only AAA member) that you can actually talk to on twitter and have a conversation with and is easily the best twitter feed out there (would that mine was a hundredth as interesting...) Most questions get answered if you're patient enough, though stupid or repetitive ones get short shrift, and Crosby has an opinion on everything over and above the usual 'what made you become interested' in music questions: other people's music, the music business, family, politics, renewable energy, books, TV shows...everything that has a bearing on our modern world is on his twitter feed somewhere and feels like a Croz speciality. What's more, he's almost always right, about everything - I seem to remember warnings about Trump long back when everyone considered him an impossible candidate and re-tweets of articles on fracking long before most of us caught on to the dangers. If I was that right most of the time, I'd be conceited too. Despite the recent public bust-ups with Nash and Young (Stills, for the first time in nearly fifty years of CSNY friendship mixed with rows, is the only CSNY member still talking to everyone which must be a whole new experience for him!) it strikes me that Croz has never been happier in his own skin or more creative: two new albums are said to be on their way in the same year and inspiration is flowing freely.
It wasn't always that way, though: back in 1989 Crosby wasn't the twitter king, but the underdog in a fight against a drug addiction that so nearly killed him and landed him in prison. The drugs sapped away the creativity and left Crosby questioning his decisions. 'Oh Yes I Can!', finally released in 1989, took an entire decade to make and was finally released a full eighteen years after the last solo album 'If I Could Only Remember My Name'. Written off the back of Crosby's powerful autobiography 'Long Time Gone' (which is similarly full of apologies and mistakes), it's an album unique in the Crosby canon, without the eccentric certainty of the predecessor or the big open heart of the CPR records to come. Despite the certainty of the title, 'Can' is the one Crosby album where Crosby fears he can't and where nothing is safe, where things have gone so wrong that he can't get himself out of trouble. 'Drive My Car' has the narrator taking his motor for a spin, simply because it's the only thing in life he has any control over anymore. 'Tracks In The Dust' tries to have a four-way conversation about how to put the world to rights and comes up empty, or at any rate ends up a tie. 'The Monkey and The Underdog' is a struggle still left ongoing at the end of the song, the odds still heavily in favour of the tougher drug-Monkey whose killed so many, even though the underdog is doing his best at putting up one hell of a fight. On 'Distances' even Crosby's eloquence can't break through the barriers the drugs have built up. The title track is the closest we've had to an apology in over fifty years of music-making, part fictional but also part autobiographical. Even Croz's decades fighting the American establishment get overturned with 'Lady Of The Harbour' praising the constitution (if not the ways it's maintained) while the album even ends with the unofficial US anthem 'My Country 'Tis Of Thee'. Crosby, it seemed, had finally cut his hair. It takes an outside song, by Crosby friend Craig Doerge's wife Judy Henske, to proclaim that deep within nothing ever changes within the self, even when everything changes.
The record started life as an untitled solo record in 1979 which got as far as eight songs (four of which will make the final album, though only 'Distances' was left unchanged) and a submission before being rejecting by Capitol Records for being 'too weird', an accusation fans have always assumed is true (especially if they've heard the original version of outtake 'Samurai', though it's the album's exception not the norm). Actually if anything it's a bit 'normal' by Crosby standards:, heavy on the radio-friendly songs like 'Drive My Car' and 'Melody' and containing only two exotic rule-breaking instrumentals to 'My Name's four. It was Crosby who was acting 'weird' - Atlantic and CBS, Crosby's twin record labels for his CSN and CN albums, were reluctant to re-sign an artist who'd been left behind by punk and was largely forgotten as a solo act (poor sales for Stills and Nash's recent albums 'Thoroughfare Gap' and 'Earth and Sky' compared to CSN sales weren't helping) and Crosby had been reluctant to sign with a smaller label the way his comrades had done. It took a while before Capitol became interested and the pair were never a natural fit: Capitol aren't a lebl known for their loyalty or support to old hippies (just look at how quickly they dropped The Beach Boys in 1969 after a decade where almost all their income was from the one band) and signed Crosby on the understanding that the album would be made quickly, easily and commercially. Crosby must have put his early training as an actor into good use here and put minds at rest, while carrying on making an album the only way he knew how (i.e. from the heart) and with even more drug-taking hi-jinks during sessions than normal. Legend has it that the sessions were a self-indulgent mess as Crosby cared more for the drugs than the music (this is the source of the frequently mentioned Nash story, when he called in to visit his old friend and make a guest appearance, only to walk away horrified when Crosby's drug-toking pipe shattered during a particularly heavy jam that got called to a halt as the distraught singer got on hands and knees to rescue what he could). Actually the sessions sound much like 'Oh Yes I Can' will - disciplined, polished and even a little bit commercial, suggesting that Crosby had taken some of his bosses' requests on board. The trouble was, while Crosby was making this music he ended up in the news for all the wrong reasons. Policemen soon learnt that Crosby was now so dependent on drugs that he was a good choice for a quick bust and the charges came thick and fast across the end of the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s. Often Crosby had a pistol with him illegally, especially in the wake of Lennon's murder in 1980, which added to the charges and publicity. Crosby continued to drive and drive fast despite the drugs in his system, occasionally nodding off while on transit and wrecking several cars, bikes and highways. On tour one or two hotel rooms and dressing rooms 'mysteriously' caught fire when Crosby was alone (and smoking). The media love a bad boy, especially one who refuses to cut their hair, and Crosby was making the news a lot for all the wrong reasons. Capitol, a record label so squeaky clean they thought 'Good Vibrations' was a bit risqué and all but sabotaged The Beach Boys' 'Smile', didn't have time for this. Crosby got told that his actually rather good and oddly radio-friendly (if rather short) record couldn't possibly sell and got dropped from the label without a second glance.
This was bad news for Crosby's confidence and bank balance and the start of the point where things get really rough for the singer. By the time Crosby next appeared visible, to the world in 1982 on 'Daylight Again' (which would have been a S-N album till Atlantic asked them to consider getting in touch with Crosby who reluctantly gave them the bones of his 1979 record to pick over), he hadn't been heard on album in the five years since 'CSN', a lifetime in this period when artists sometimes did two records in the same year and a shadow of his former self, not above stealing from friends to fund his drug fixes. Crosby tried to re-start the album several times but without a record label and with funds for home recording low the record fell further and further down his list of priorities. In 1984 Crosby was arrested one time too many and told to attend a compulsory multi-month rehab session in Fair Oaks Hospital in New Jersey (where he scales the wall a month into treatment - and is arrested again 48 hours later for cocaine possession). Surprisingly he's given leniency (a moving testimonial from Nash at the trial that he needs support not sentencing helps a little) and is even allowed on bail to attend a CSN tour in September 1985 on the understanding that he doesn't re-offend. A car crash in November in Mill Valley where drugs were found yet again put an end to that idea and Crosby panicked, going on the run and failing to appear in court, living off the proceeds of a grand piano and sympathetic friends and drug-dealers while the IRA took possession of the Crosby house and the 'Mayan' boat so vital to CSN folklore down the years. Only on 12th December 1985, some 17 days after the hearing, does Crosby run out of money and give himself up. Jailed a day later and sent to Hutsonville, Texas, he spends his first few months playing old CSN classics and new originals with a prison band, struggling with drug withdrawal symptoms (weeks in solitary with no medicine is the cruellest way to end a drug habit....) and largely crying himself to sleep. Eventually he's allowed a guitar and some paper and his sub-conscious is finally freed of the need to concentrate on drugs 24/7, allowing him room to write. This latest batch of Crosby originals is his first in four, nearly five years and the effect this has on Crosby's confidence is magnificent to behold.
Oddly, perhaps, given how much Crosby has always worn his heart on his sleeve you don't get much sense of that truly awful period in his life from the music on 'Oh Yes I Can!', which is a largely upbeat and hopeful album. There's only one song about drugs, nothing about prison and precious little about 'freedom' (the closest we get is the statue of liberty appearing to America's first immigrants). Maybe that's because five of these eleven are old songs (four dating back to that 1979 record and 'Drop Down Mama' even further), one of these a cover and one a traditional folk tune/national anthem, which leaves only the title track, 'The Monkey and The Underdog' 'Tracks In The Dust' and 'Lady Of The Harbour' as bona fide new compositions. Crosby sounds more concerned with the outer world than he's ever been in song before, perhaps because he felt so cut off from anything outside his cell during his time in prison - hence the inclusion of songs that are respectively about his girlfriend Jan, fellow drug sufferers, the state of the world and a nationalistic pride for America from someone whose just realised how much they miss it. The last of these three songwriting methods are ones Crosby won't ever really return to again with no future song being so blatant about drugs, fictional four-way dinner party conversations or jingoistic concerns, though all are heartfelt after so long in solitary. What is constant is the true start of a run of love songs for girlfriend Jan Dance, the one loving constant in what must surely be Crosby's most difficult decade and final proof to the man who once sang 'Triad' and meant it that he had to commit himself to one true love. Jan had problems herself, struggling with none of Crosby's income and getting by through odd-jobs while battling drug issues too. Thankfully there's a happy ending, with the pair getting married soon after Crosby's release (and they still are to this day, with this currently the longest running relationship in all of CSN-dom). Though Crosby had survived hell and many fans expected a record full of exorcising demons, it's that sense of happiness that comes over most on 'Oh Yes I Can' - that love is there somewhere if you look hard enough (even if it's only in a 'melody' or a simple car-ride, two old pre-jail songs that must have taken on new meanings after being denied to Crosby for so long). The album's other message is that sometimes, just sometimes, under-dogs can win the hardest fights.
Which is not to say that 'Oh Yes I Can' is a timid album or that Croz had entirely turned his back on what he once stood for. In many ways it's his bravest album (while simultaneously his most radio-friendly), Croz challenging both himself and his fanbase to look at the world with slightly different, maturer eyes. After all it would have been so much easier to sell a similarly 'eccentric' album to the first one to the Crosby cognoscenti, made up of choral passages and instrumentals in unique guitar tunings, but proving that the singer (absent on the world stage since a wretched 1985 Live Aid appearance with CSNY or on record since 1982's CSN album 'Daylight Again') still had something to offer the world which had moved on so far past the CSN and hippie spirit by 1989. On that score 'Oh Yes I Can!' is a success, Stanley Johnston's relatively subtle contemporary touches making this album sound far more palatable than 'Live It Up', the over-glossy CSN album released the following year. In other ways, though, the reception of this album has always been mixed. Crosby is acting his age on this LP - for perhaps the only time in his long career! - and won a lot of pleasant reviews from newcomers who'd either never heard of him or long ago written him off, his music still distinctive and 'Crosby' enough to stand out in an era when everything sounded the same . Unfortunately, his fanbase wasn't quite so happy: we'd waited so long for a second Crosby album that getting one that sounded so unlike the first and yet so like everything else around in 1989 (a year that badly needed CSN if ever there was one) that 'Oh Yes I Can' was always greeted as something of a disappointment. Fan expected a wave of gritty survival songs or life-affirming anthems (they'll get their wish on the two lovely CPR albums instead), not songs praising the American constitution or sappy keyboards.
The truth as usual is somewhere in-between. Though no masterpiece, 'Oh Yes I Can!' is another of those overlooked late-period CSN albums that holds up far better today than it seemed at the time. Though Crosby only ever mentions his recent struggles head-on in one rather forgettable song ('Monkey and the Underdog'), he's open enough to put his recent experiences and what he's learnt from them into song. 'Distances' is as lovely a song as any his canon, a warning to those who cut themselves off from friends and loved ones over obsessions the way he once did, 'Tracks In The Dust' goes back to answering unanswerable questions in true Crosby spirit, the title track turns simple devotion into the hardest lyric Crosby has probably ever had to confess and write and the much-discussed 'Lady Of The Harbour' winds up less a denial of everything CSN once stood for than a re-assessment of why they were so important in holding up America's utopian ideals up to analysis. Two of the three songs started in 1979 are also more than up to standard, with both 'Melody' and 'Flying Man' lighter moments despite the dark period of their creation and full of Crosby's natural ear for, well, melody. Even hidden behind a bank of keyboards most fans could have lived without ('Tracks', the one guitar song on the album, really stands out in all the best ways as the only acoustic humble song in the middle of such a polished sounding album), a good half of 'Oh Yes I Can' is strong, impressively so given the speed with which this album was made (after years of drugs bills, back taxes and prison wages bled the Crosby coffers understandably dry) and works best with Crosby writing and singing from the heart.
It's the other half fans haven't quite known how to take, with Crosby using up every filler song at his disposal whether they suited or not. It's the rockier songs that fare worst on this album, with 'Drop Dead Mama' (a comedy song from the 1970s and only ever busked in rehearsals or played on stage with 'David and the Dorks', the short-lived Crosby/Grateful Dead spin off band who played a few gigs in 1971) and 'Monkey and the Underdog' replacing the passion of yesteryear with slightly plodding backing tracks and not much happening. Up till here even the worst Crosby songs were, at least, never bland with the likes of 'Mind Gardens' accepted as the sign of a talent who was over rather than under-reaching. The album's lead-off single 'Drive My Car' (another song from 1979, but re-recorded here with a lesser tougher poppier sound) put far too many fans off this album too, being the only juvenile song on an album of mature reflections. Fans starved of product for so long and encouraged by the presence of the deeper, autobiographical 'Compass' and politically savvy 'Night-time For The Generals' (both from CSNY's reunion album 'American Dream' in 1988, which rather stole the show) didn't know quite what to make of comedy roackabilly numbers, shouty R and B songs, songs about chasing girls while driving cars or the national anthem. After all, even in the depths of hell, Crosby's creativity hadn't been totally redundant: it would be great to see a re-issue of this relatively rare record (which didn't sell too well the first time round and was given a re-issue in 2003 but didn't sell too well then either) with period bonus tracks intact: the original, superior cuts of 'Drive My Car' (as heard on the superlative CSN box of 1991), 'Melody' and 'Flying Man' (both still sadly unreleased) plus chilling a capella work 'Samauri' (re-recorded by Crosby-Nash in 2004 but first attempted in sadder fashion in 1979), an excellent song for Stills (a belated reply to 'Do For The Others') in 'King Of The Mountain' (finally released on the Crosby box set 'Voyage' in 2006) and a revived version of 'Kids and Dogs' the Jerry Garcia co-jam left over from 'If Only I Could Remember My Name', as well as two late 1980s songs discarded after one-off solo performances: 'He's An American' offers a much more CSN-style take on national pride with a nation of individuals who can think for themselves and see through political lies and 'Alexander Graham Bell', the 'Distances' style tribute to the inventor of the telephone written while Crosby was in prison and desperate to communicate. Any of these extras (plus initially the stunning 'Delta' and 'Might As Well Have A Good Time', both recorded for the 1979 version but plundered for CSN's 'Daylight Again') would have made for a classic record both fans and general music lovers would have fallen head over heels for.
Overall, then, 'Oh Yes I Can' wasn't the album we were expecting and it smacks at times of the speed and necessity with which it was made as Crosby found his need for a quick income was faster than his still slightly sluggish inspiration could flow. There has never been a Crosby related album with quite so much filler (the special case of covers project 'A Thousand Roads' aside) and the late 1980s production is often at odds with the timeless era-defying songs they're meant to balance (even more so than the 1979 version of the album, actually). However, there's a lot of hard work that went into this album at both the composing and recording stage and a lot of truth and heart went into the lyrics and melodies too. The 1979 recordings are, 'Drive My Car' aside, too good to hold back in a drawer somewhere (it seems odd that Stills and Nash didn't pick up on the excellent 'Distances', especially, the same time they 'borrowed' 'Delta' and 'Might As Well Have A Good Time'). The best of the new songs like the title track and 'Tracks In The Dust' are right up there with Crosby's best too, poignant and sophisticated. The much-debated flag-wavers 'Lady Of The Harbour' and 'My Country 'Tis Of Thee' aren't the betrayals of liberalness fans took them to be at the time, but a wider understanding of the idealism in Crosby's nature and his frustration when America so infrequently even tries to live up to that fact. 'In The Wide Ruin' is a better and more suitable choice of cover than most on next record 'A Thousand Roads' and Crosby's voice is still full of pure beauty throughout, impressively so given what Crosby had been doing to it for the past decade. Like Crosby, 'Oh Yes I Can' is far from perfect, is often opinionated (even if most opinions are right) and slightly conceited at times across the album. But, really, would fans have had it another way? Despite the production, despite the covers, despite the mix of old and new material and a sense of commercialism that will never be there on his solo works again, there's plenty of the 'real' Crosby here and after pretty much fifteen years out of the public eye (two songs on CSN's 'Daylight Again' and CSNY's 'American Dream' aside) for long term Crosbyphiles that's blessing enough. Oh yes Crosby still could, most of the time anyway - and that's all about this album you really need to know.
Many people dismissed the album's lead-off single 'Drive My Car' as a good time driving song from someone who seemed to have a mighty high crash-to-home quota in this period. However that's to miss the point: there's nothing good going on in the life of the narrator behind the wheel - the key line of the song is that 'at least a car goes where you steer it - sometimes it's the only thing that does!' This late-night drive isn't some reckless attempt to race a car by some rockstar millionaire - it's a moment of pure escapism in a life that didn't have too many moments of this. The trouble with the song is, the old Croz would have given us the reasons for the drive - the pressures, the soul-searching, the background to getting the car in the first place (the old Croz would probably have given us a more adventurous set of chord changes too). Here it's as if we've cut to the action scene in a movie that's really about the emotional drama happening off-stage and instead of the deep thinking all we've got is a verse about Crosby 'noticing' 'honeys' but deciding not to chase after them for a change (you can tell this is a pre-marriage song...) or fiddling with the car radio. To some extent it's understandable: when you're in the middle of hell it's very hard to write about it (your mind's too concerned with trying to remember what heaven felt like), but it's also quite sad: of all the things that brought Crosby happiness and hope circa 1979 (when the first version of this song as heard on the box set was first recorded), the one that worked best for him seemed to be a car. And a car that was as likely to kill or injure Crosby as deliver him the solitude and thinking time he needed (how did he survive all those car wrecks?!) This is, remember, a man who once wrote about the joys of sailing, family, peace, love, standing up for your rights and a belief in something deeper behind the woodwork of human life reduced to sounding like Bruce Springsteen on a bad day. It doesn't help that the production of both versions of this song are so slick they sound as if the car has running on oil, with heavy-handed drums and pure late 1980s synths. The first version from 1979 probably has the edge in terms of performance and backing, with slightly less of both, but the second wins out via some fine soulful guitar playing by old friend David Lindley (who was on the second and third Crosby-Nash albums) which runs all the way through the song like the one thread keeping the narrator's sanity together and the dropping of the slightly silly 'Roam...with all those people...alone' chorus. For all that, though, 'Car' is one of Crosby's weaker, blander songs which doesn't feel as natural as normal, rhyming 'car' with 'far' and 'roam' with 'alone'.
'Melody' is a pretty and pretty under-rated song though, a hymn to the other great Crosby belief of 1979: music. Debate still rages as to whether it was this song or 'Delta' that was Croz's last before coming off the drugs but both are worthy songs to oh-so-nearly say 'goodbye' with. 'You are my reason for being...my reason for living' Crosby praises a tune that sticks in his head, driving him on out of musical curiosity, 'trying to capture a whisper' that's caught through his head. This song is similar in many ways to Stills' 'My Favourite Changes' from the 'Stills' album of 1975, though this time the comfort comes not from going through favourite chords that bring comfort but the need to still be alive and craving something new nobody's ever heard before. Like Stills, the realisation that music means so much makes Croz unusually weepy as he pours out his troubles to the listener: he feels like a 'patchwork of a man' whose life makes no sense except for this one gift he's found he's been granted, while in a moving middle eight (which suddenly falls into the trap of a minor key) he kicks himself for 'losing it' too often down the years as addiction and everyday living take a hold, sucking him into 'the worst damn places of them all!' with the poignant note that Paul Simon style alienation 'darkness' and 'silence' come to drive the music out of his head. Note, too, that even Crosby tries his damnedest to show the world that everything was fine, inwardly he's already realised that he's in the middle of 'my coldest season', adrift without a way of finding his way back to shore melody or not. Ironically what lets this fine Crosby lyric down slightly is the lyric - charming as the doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo main riff is, it's not substantial or memorable enough for a song about how melody is the single most brilliant thing about being alive. That said, the 1989 performance is a strong one that makes good riff of the artificial synth twinkling above a very human backing of real guitars, bass and drums, as if taking place just above Crosby's head where he can't reach it. The 1979 version, still sadly unreleased, is better yet with a quicker breezier tempo and a lovely Madrigal-style a capella section. There's a cut verse that should have been left in too: 'Melody, you are the best that I'm giving, then when I am out looking for reason you are the reason I'm living!' A sweet song in both versions, but the original feels that much more alive and desperate, the difference between singing about life you're going through at the time and a distant memory turned into another attempt at a catchy single.
'The Monkey and The Underdog' sounds like a heavyweight fight: everything about it is brutal and brittle as you'd expect from a song about drugs by a drug addict who nearly lost his life to them.
Crosby was hardly going to treat a subject like this lightly - and yet Crosby is often at his best with a lighter subtler approach that allows him to imbue songs with multiple meanings and interpretations. This blunt storytelling just isn't him and 'Monkey' ended up being many people's least favourite song on the album simply because it's the most un-Crosby like. It's also as if Croz couldn't quite bring himself to accept that the song is really about him, so we hear about it in the third person: the 'underdog' is a 'friend of mine' while the fight might have been better enjoyed and more satisfying had we seen it from the dog's point of view. The 'monkey', of course, is an old jazz/blues term for 'heroin', something an addict and music fan as big as Crosby in both cases would have known so well he was probably surprised when CSN fans struggled to work out the reference (it's also why The Beatles sang 'Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except For Me and My Monkey' on 'The White Album' if you were wondering; the jury's still out as to whether The Hollies realised the reference on their two 'Monkey' songs). There's no real ending either, perhaps because the 'real' fight was still to some extent ongoing (though a quarter century or so on, it's safe to say the underdog won, against the odds): 'I don't want to bore you with a bunch of dialogue' jokes Crosby, just at the point when the song's getting interesting and we never do quite find out who won (though we know the dog is at least putting up a fight. There are some good lyrics though: our strapline (actually 'It's not how much dog is in the fight but how much fight is in the dog') is a good one, while the lines about drugs pretending to 'lick your boots' and do good things for you, while secretly 'sucking your soul out by the roots' could only have been written by a reformed addict. There had to be a 'warning' song of some sort on this album after what Crosby went through and this song was worth a go but in the end there's just too much working against it with a rather clunky and heavy-handed backing track given the same synth-heavy polish as the rest of the album and thus getting the worst of both worlds. There's also perhaps the most OTT Crosby lead vocal of them all, which gets way out of step with the song by the last chorus (live versions of the song, such as the 'King Biscuit Flower Hour' period concert, work far better).
Out of the dust comes beauty though, with 'Oh Yes I Can' if nothing else a well sequenced album. 'In The Wide Ruin' sounds far more like a Crosby song, fragile and poetic and other-worldly, though it's actually by his good friend Judy Henske (along with her husband Craig Doerge the co-writer of 'Might As Well Have A Good Time' which would have made the album too had Stills and Nash not lifted it for 'Daylight Again'). Another hymn, like 'Melody' to music, this one is more ethereal and prog rock-ish, with a utopian city that once flowed with fountains of music still existing silently no matter how far the narrator has wondered from home. 'Deep in the wide heart, nothing ever changes...nothing remains' runs the chorus before a redemptive final verse that's sung with real gusto and power compared to the rather fragile first half of the song. Realising that he's content in this bubble with everything but the lack of human contact, Crosby reaches out to a 'human heart' - and realises that the valley doesn't look quite so perfect anymore and the journey to humanity starts all over again. You can totally see why the creator of the similarly nature-filled-but-mankind-is-lost song 'Delta' would take to this song: Crosby feels as if he's abandoned the life that was planned out for him somewhere along the way and feels completely isolated and lost in a world largelyu of his own making. Both songs also equate water with inspiration and creativity, though 'Delta' had Crosby's sub-conscious stuck and 'Ruin' is set in more of a desert. Both also feature important input from Jackson Browne, who forced Crosby to finish 'Delta' before allowing him to get his drug pipe and who sings majestic back-up vocals on 'Ruin', a song written very much after his own writing style. What 'Ruin' doesn't quite have is 'Delta's sense of sad slow inevitability, the melancholic hanging chords and the ultimate redemption of the song's pure beauty - 'Ruin' feels more of a wasteland you're not entirely sure about spending extra time in. Both songs are beautiful though and Crosby sings the hell out of both of them.
The album's masterpiece and the only song from this album considered 'good enough' for the CSN box set is 'Tracks In The Dust'. A Classic Crosby song full of contradictions, simple yet profound and acoustic yet 'heavy', it tries to make sense out of how the world works with a four-way conversation in which everyone is right and yet no one person 'gets' it - only by comparing discussions do we come anywhere near close to the 'truth' of life. Even then, it's a sort of fading, passing truth as each verse's discussion ends in the same stalemate chorus of life going too quick for us to make any judgements and writing off human achievement as simply tracks in the dust to blow away. All four people at this imaginary dinner party (there never was one in reality - Croz admitted this was four of his 'selves' talking to themselves) have very different views but share a sense of helplessness at the fact that they can't make life the ideal they want. It starts with a man cursing the world news from a newspaper, his wife urging him to do something to make life better instead of just complaining about it, a friend complaining that 'hippie hopefulness' is just escapism from life's uglier side and a final acceptance that life is hard and any way of getting through it in one peace and getting to sleep at night is fine. The dinner guests aren't sure what to do - having another glass of wine seems stupid when the world 'goes to hell - which you know damn well it's going to do just down the line'. The friend and his wife then argue: surely the world isn't that bad? Damsels are still saved and dragons defeated? Or is that just a naive point of view when 'they're selling death in the streets - cheap' and 'lying politicians are rolling in the profits they reap'. The closing lines of comfort in the verse, that 'it's always been that way' and somehow mankind have always survived at least bring some comfort, whatever the choruses repeated sentiments about impermanence suggests. A truly sublime song, Crosby plays all four parts to perfection and this duo acoustic performance with old friend Michael Hedges (plus some lovely Nash harmonies) is perfectly cast, it's stark sentiment really shining out on this slightly over-cooked production-fest of an album. Mankind may not last forever, but as long as he does he needs songs like this one, full pof pathos, hope and help. Hippie hopefulness a crutch? Not with writers like Crosby around - this album highlight is right up there with the singer's best work.
Not so 'Drop Down Mama' at the start of side two, but then it was never meant to be. Crosby made the song up one drunken/drugged up night in the early 1970s for fun as a sort of spoof blues song (one wonders how the song went down with Stills, who thrived on blues songs like this and famously told a giggling CSNY audience on the live version of 'Black Queen' on the CSN box set that 'if there's one thing the blues ain't, it's funny!') The first verse is clumsy sexual innuendo unusual for Crosby's lighter touch ('You got something down there that keeps on worrying me!'), the second and verse cope with rejection from a Mrs Robinsonesque figure ('Son you're too young!') and later we end up in a re-write of 'Triad' with a harem of girls all working hard for Crosby (one does my cooking, one does my washing, one pays my room and board'). There are bootlegs of early versions of this song (with and without most of the Grateful Dead) which sound pretty fine - bouncy, sassy and hilariously 'wrong' as if Crosby and co are mocking their own chauvinistic tendencies (well, it was the 1970s). Heard in 1989, played somewhere between laughs and a commercial hit with added synthesisers it just doesn't quite gel with another forced Crosby vocal and a sense in the room that nobody is enjoying themselves and letting rip as much as they ought to be. And if the performers can't enjoy a song like this then what hope have we? Yes Crosby was short of songs while making this album, but why revive this one with the likes of 'Kids and Dogs' 'King Of The Mountain' and 'Is It Really Monday?' all sitting there in the vaults to be re-recorded?
'Lady Of The Harbour' is the album's controversial moment. No one who has heard Crosby sing 'Almost Cut My Hair' 'Long Time Gone' or the tag of 'Ohio' would ever have dreamed that he'd write what is effectively a 'love song' to the statue of liberty. Surely, fans asked themselves in worried tones, prison hadn't made Crosby go soft had it? Actually, no - if anything prison seems to have hardened Crosby against corruption and authority figures (see 'Night-Time For The Generals' on 'American Dream' which was written amongst this batch of songs). What prison had done, though, was make Crosby aware of how many things he'd taken for granted in his life outside prison, most of them 'protected' by the constitution. Many prisoners comment on how coming out of prison back home feels like emigrating back home from a different country, with different rules and codes you have to live by. 'Harbour' sounds to me like Crosby empathising with his 'fellow' immigrants, eagerly awaiting to get back into America and wondering if it lives up to the legislation in the bill of rights. Even in his new-found rosy glow for America, Crosby can't resist a few digs ('Many good men died - maybe more next week!' 'This country's gotten so big we hardly know one another), but the overwhelming feeling here is one of pride, that Crosby is 'back' belonging to a country whose values he believes in, if not always the way they are carried out. After all, what liberal CSN fan couldn't agree with the idea that 'all are created equal, if given have a chance' or delight in Crosby's hope that one day still we can 'work out all our differences - their distance in the dance'. Yes the last verse is a bit tacky (Crosby asks the statue to glow her torch a little stronger), but actually this song fits a lot better into the Crosby pantheon than fans assume. Crosby's melody too reflects his new-found love and respect, with the tune for 'Harbour' about the closest Crosby will probably ever come to writing a national anthem, ponderous and conceited. A much under-rated track given some nice additional backing vocals by Bonnie Raitt.
'Distances', the album's second candidate for record highlight, carries on a similar theme about seeing things with new eyes (and tongue) after being deprived of them for so long. 'You know what I miss?' a sensual starved Crosby complains, 'Small things like textures and flavours'. The song isn't simply a list of things Crosby missed out on though, but a discussion of distance in a bigger sense than simply being incarcerated. The way Crosby sees it, every couple has 'distance' between them, whether it's geographical or emotional and it's a full-time job trying to get close to someone - and staying that way. Crosby must have worried himself sick that he'd cut himself off from everyone he once loved with his behaviour in his final drug days and sadly wanders off down memory lane, with memories of silly one-off moments between him and an ex that didn't seem to matter at the time but matter like hell now. Crosby sighs too over the emotional dance all human beings play when 'trying to get close to one another' while simultaneously trying to protect their own hearts from hurt. Everyone carries some distance between themselves and the ones they love - the trick is trying to communicate, to talk through the barriers so that we can stay close and keep the distance at bay. This sad and reflective Crosby song features some lovely scat-singing and some lovely rushes of positive energy that work well at turning this sad and lost song around. Chordwise it's even more clever than it sounds, with this largely minor key piece given just enough glimpse of the major key resolution that will make it happy, sounding musically like a massive game of hide-and-seek where Crosby's vocal and the backing track get closer then further apart as the song moves on. Beautiful in every way.
'Flying Man' is perhaps the most experimental of the album songs (though 'Samurai' would have won windmills-down if it had made the final cut), though also not quite edgy enough to satisfy Crosby long-termers. The song is a typical Crosby bah-dah-ed instrumental based around complex chord changes and with a restless time signature that must have made it very difficult to play. However unlike most similar Crosby songs ('Tree With No Leaves' 'Tamalpais High' 'Critical Mass' and 'Dancer') this track feels like it needs some words to finish it off. There is, after all, a clear verse-chorus-middle eight structure and even a passage that sounds like it's meant to be the instrumental break (even though strictly speaking all the song is an instrumental break!) Had this track been given words, we'd probably be talking about it as another rather over-radio-friendly song akin to 'Drive My Car' or 'Melody' and wondering where Crosby's curios pioneering musical spirit had gone. Which is not to say it's poor - Crosby's vocals on these sorts of songs are always lovely and Larry Carlton's rather Stillsy guitar part is pretty good too. It's just that this song about flying never really takes off or loses its stabilisers in its journey into the sun of experimentation and improvisation and sounds a little set in its ways. Especially the 1989 re-recording which is slower and more ponderous with extra weight from extra superfluous keyboards - the 1979 original (sadly still unreleased) is rather lighter on its feet.
The title track of 'Oh Yes I Can!' is unusual for Crosby and sounds more like a Phil Collins ballad. That's not that surprising: though the pair of musicians had never met till Crosby was in prison, Collins was kind enough to start writing letters to Crosby to keep him strong and encouraged and Croz being Croz he repaid the compliment by guesting on two songs of his new friend's '...But Seriously' album (released ten months after this one). This track shares the same big wide spaces, crashing drums and high-emotion-in-a-top-40 setting, something Crosby had never really done before. However, while Crosby's traditional style has aged far better than his friend's appear to have done, this song is not without worth and this song feels 'real' in a way that few of Collins' songs do. Crosby has admitted that the first verse is a lie and just a way to get into the song, that 'the woman I was sure I was in love with seems to think that the deal is done'. However, the thought must have occurred to Crosby, during some dark night in prison away from his beloved Jan and Crosby's agony over how to prove his worth to his partner sounds real enough. Vowing to 'still be the man you fell in love with', Crosby coos enough to get himself out of trouble. Next the scene cuts to the kitchen after a squabble, where Crosby is 'so afraid of losing you' and wonders 'if this is what it feels like to be going blind'. So again he vows to be who he used to be, the person she fell in love with and not the person he's grown into. Finally sea-captain Crosby is back on his beloved beach, 'asking the ocean what to do' and pleading for his lover to return because he's 'found his life again' but is in danger of losing it if his greatest love won't be a part of it. This time the chorus is triumphant, not doubting. Throughout the song Crosby weaves a line that many critics used to describe the twin forces of Crosby and McGuinn in The Byrds: 'fire and ice'. Crosby has at last learned that together pair don't make opposites or arguments but instead create a new healing quality of 'water' that helps life grow. Crosby has learnt and matured during his time inside and proves it more on this track than perhaps any other. By the time the song was recorded the song was out of date (David and Jan married in May 1987, some 19 months before this album), but it still feels like a very real promise of commitment and maturity. Who'd have guessed Crosby could have written a song like that even a decade before? Though not the most original or memorable song on the record, it's proof of how much Crosby had changed and grown and features a spine-tingling lead vocal that ranges from a roar to a whisper. If Phil Collins had released it, this track would have been a million seller easily.
The album then ends with everybody standing for the semi-official American national anthem 'My Country 'Tis Of Thee'. Slow and stately, proud and powerful, it has none of the tongue-in-cheekness fans were expecting when this song was first rumoured; closer to the American Armed Forces version than Madonna's or Aretha Franklin's covers or Jimi Hendrix's take on 'The Star Spangled Banner'. If the song sounds familiar to my British readers, it's because the tune was nicked from our own ghastly (and oddly savage past the first verse) national anthem, 'God Save The Queen'. Samuel Francis Smith adopted the tune and wrote the lyrics in 1831 while still a music student (he was actually meant to be translating a German hymn and setting it to music instead of writing his own words, but his teacher liked the result so much he let him off and had the song performed at concerts where it quickly took off - huh typical, when I do that in my music classes I just got a 'fail'!) Though many fans were left feeling confused that a counter-culture rebel could change his spots, like 'Lady Of The Harbour' Crosby is saluting the idea of America rather than the reality. Likely recording at the same time as 'Tracks In The Dust', this is another acoustic reading featuring guest appearances by Michael Hedges and Graham Nash, who adds a delightful harmony vocal that blends effortlessly with Crosby's own. Though far too short (not that there's much Crosby could have done about that as he most likely didn't want to mess around with a tradition - Stills mind you would have simply written a couple more verses of his own!) it's poignant enough and the final Crosby-Nash 'let it ring' harmonies matched with Hedges' ringing guitar is a fine way to go out. A re-recording on 'Crosby*Nash' in 2004 is near enough the same, but this original has more of a 'feel' about it somehow and a slightly more golden Crosby lead vocal.
Overall, then, 'Oh Yes I Can!' wraps up many Crosby contradictions: it's as commercial an album as Crosby has ever made with period synths and production values while staying true to his past styles and his own personal discoveries; it's a hard-hitting album with several curmudgeonly and quite brutal songs unusual for Croz while having a gooey centre; it's a confident album from the title on down that plays with many new styles while revealing more insecurities than ever before and a record that manages to be both childish and grown-up on alternating tracks. Given the circumstances behind the ten year delay it's a wonder the record ended up as good as it is: both the 1979 songs for being written in the middle of a crippling drug addiction that by rights should have sapped Crosby's creativity even more than he did (he wasn't writing many songs maybe, but at least the ones he was writing were largely very good) and the 1989 songs for being made in a rush as Crosby tried to recover his bank balance as quickly as possible. It's not the album of depth and redemption and dark shadows fans were anticipating ('Oh no I shouldn't have?') but that's not necessarily a bad thing - hope is what got Crosby through this dark period so that's largely what he gives back to the listener loyal enough to purchase this record. You could argue that this album could and should have been better after ten years of on-and-off work: it was all too clearly made in a hurry and the modern poppy production really gets in the way ('Oh no I can't?') It's also three or four superb songs short of a classic - no excuse, really, given that there were five or six pretty classic songs waiting in the vaults or discarded after one or two period performances of this album ('Oh yes I can - but I could have done more'). Clearly it's not as groundbreaking as 'If Only I Could Remember My Name' (Oh yes I used to') but nor should it be expected to be - Crosby's not the same person who made that album and the stakes are much much higher if this album failed to sell (which, sadly, it largely did anyway with a US peak just outside the album 100). Though flawed in several ways, 'Oh Yes I Can' isn't flawed fatally: it is instead a highly likeable and all too often under-rated album that's halfway to being a classic. Though not a must-have, it's still a should-hear for fans curious to know what their hero went through. A second re-issue of it is long overdue - let's hope the extra attention Crosby might get this year from his new albums will see his old ones back out again. For inspirations of fire and ice, as this album represents, makes not just water but melody - and melody is truly one of the reasons for being.