Friday 4 July 2008

David Crosby "If Only I Could Remember My Name" (1971) ('Core' Reviews #41, Revised Edition 2014)

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David Crosby "If Only I Could Remember My Name" (1971)

Track Listing: Music Is Love/ Cowboy Movie/ Tampalpais High [At About Three]/ Laughing// What Are Their Names?/ Traction In The Rain/ Song With No Words [Tree With No Leaves]/ Orleans/ I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here (UK and US tracklisting)

Following Stills and Young's early solo albums into the shops, stakes were high for what Crosby (and Nash, releasing his first solo record mere weeks later) had to offer. While Neil had already made a name of changing characters on his albums as often as he changed his socks and Stills had typically packed everything into a ten-song collection that went somewhere different with each track, Crosby's album was always going to be that little bit different. Freed of the need to 'fit' into a format (even as loose a format as CSNY), some expected radical jazz tunings without any regard for rules - others a collection of daring provocative songs like 'Triad', the song that had seen Croz finally kicked out of the Byrds. Some expected a folk-rock masterpiece like 'Guinevere', others hard stomping rock like 'Almost Cut My Hair', yet more political remnants like 'Long Time Gone'. 'If Only I Could Remember My Name' features all of these various aspects of Crosby's craft, but unlike Stephen 'Captain Manyhands' Stills this isn't an attempt to catch all the sides of Crosby's character (that would take a box set!) but all the things on his mind across 1971: disintegrating bands, disintegrating relationships, disintegrating America. With looks to Crosby's past ('Tampalpais High', long thought to be about the mountain, is actually about a high school Crosby attended before being kicked out and is a celebration of day's end when he could chat up girls!), the present ('Cowboy Movie' is the CSNY split of 1970 re-told as high drama) and the future ('Music Is Love'), there's no other single record that contains quite as much full-on Crosby as this record, an album that's special for many because it has a sound quite unlike any other record from any other time (perhaps because Crosby won't record a follow-up for 18 years, by which time most everything in his life - including the technology he made records with - has changed).

While Jefferson Airplane's Paul Kantner was busy playing with the concept of outer space on the previous album on this list (editor's note: his exquisite 'Blows Against The Empire', which was indeed the album before this one when our original 101 'core' AAA album reviews were listed chronologically), David Crosby was busy assembling the same cast of players for quite a different sounding album. This record, like 'Blows' and Nash's 'Songs For Beginners' was made with the cast of characters from various San Francisco area bands, who dubbed themselves the 'Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra' (that surely was a Kantner title!) who did a 'CSN' and came together, helping each other out on various albums that were all being made at the same time. All three of these albums - featuring various members of the Airplane, CSNY families and the Grateful Dead as well as passing extras like Joni Mitchell - are superb in their own ways, music being made not for deadlines or for record sales but for friendship, art and mayhem. Like 'Blows' 'If Only' is meticulously cast with friends like Graham Nash, Neil Young, Jerry Garcia, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick all being 'used' where their brilliance shines the brightest. On no other record can you hear two of the greatest guitarists of the 20th century - Jerry and Neil - play against each other (as they do on 'Cowboy Movie'). On no other record can you hear a chorus made up of a San Franciscan edition of 'whose who' (or at least a 'guess who')  of San Francisco all chiming in on politics so cutting and words so personal it's a wonder Nixon's ears didn't bleed ('What Are Their Names?') While 'Blows' is an Airplane/Starship family record with a strong Crosby bent and 'Beginners' a neat CSNY family record that uses the Dead rhythm section, however, 'If Only' really does sound like a compendium of the three band's main styles. The lyrics and harmonies are of course pure CSNY, but the extended running times and loose jazzy feel is more like a Dead record, with the slightly hazy and sloganeering lyrics more something the Jeffersons would do. The answer to what Crosby would do on his first solo album is this: he sketches his songs in a stark black and white and gets his friends to embellish them with wonderful colours of their own.

Even compared to Crosby’s other equally inventive, original and uncompromisingly off-the-wall material, If Only I Could Remember My Name holds a particularly worshipped place in the great man’s canon. One third of it is full of gorgeous, wordless (but not voiceless) instrumentals, one third of it is gorgeous lyrical epic balladry and one third of it is powerful heavy rocking. We’d heard albums that were a bit like all three of these styles before now, but hearing these styles together this album is just so off the beaten track that it is hard to know what to make of it. After all, a full three songs on this album are instrumentals - not jazz instrumentals or folk covers either but wordless vocal chants from several multi-dubbed Crosbys that amazingly seem to tell as full a story as the songs with lyrics. The actual 'songs' are ethereal even by Crosby's standards, songs so light and fragile that they sound like a spell about to break. 'Laughing' is one of the greatest of all Crosby compositions, a song that tries hard to look for all the answers but is mistaken every time a solution seems to appear, wrapped up in a note-perfect performance that unites grief (Garcia's powerful pedal steel at its best) with soulful hope (Joni Mitchell's single greatest vocal, counting all her own albums). 'Traction In The Rain' is sheer poetry, taking baby steps towards righting a wrong that can never be righted. And 'Music Is Love', an improvised jazzy solo jam 'kidnapped by Nash and Young and overdubbed into a proper song to make sure the less prolific Crosby didn't throw such a magical scrap away, is the song everyone thinks CSNY albums are like: exquisite uplifting, harmony-laden pieces of hippie serenity. This is a record of extremes, though, cut at a turbulent time in Crosby's life, with equally forceful hard-hitting rock songs, fiercer even than 'Almost Cut My Hair'. 'Cowboy Movie' doesn't let up for a single second in its eight minutes as it's awkward angular stomp careers out of control. 'What Are Their Names?' , meanwhile, mixes the anger of 'Ohio' with the wrath of 'Long Time Gone', a moody guitar jam improvisation slotted together perfectly with an earlier lyric that gives greedy power-hungry tyrannical rulers one of the strongest musical slaps in the face until Neil tries to 'Impeach The President' in 2006 (this is the album with the famous inner-sleeve, of Crosby in the bathroom holding a gun-shaped American flag to his head). If you can find any other album with that many facets going on at once then either you've been listening to 'The Beatles' White Album' (deliberately designed to cover as much ground as possible) 'Stephen Stills' (Stills likes pulling off stunts like that) or your stereo's on the blink and it's actually playing your whole record collection at once.

One thing that surprised many when this album came out was how melancholy it sounded.  CSNY were no more – temporally as it turned out, but it seemed permanent at the time- and not withstanding the recent success of 'Stephen Stills' and 'After The Goldrush' Crosby can't have known he had a 'future'. After all if he's really wanted to go solo after being kicked out The Byrds he could have done - but this was the first time he'd had a whole record to fill by himself after six years as a musician. The musical tide that had been cushioning and supporting Crosby and his colleagues for so long – that thinking hard enough could change the world and that music and politics didn’t just sit well together, they directly impacted on each other – wasn't quite dead in 1971 but was dying, thanks in part to the break-up of both CSNY and the Beatles (a fact officially announced by both groups just months apart in that year) and their unlikely unsavoury replacements: glam rock and prog rock. Musical audiences were left largely on their own to confront the brave and rather unsteady road of the early 70s and for the first few years of the decade still felt slightly betrayed by the fact that CSNY and bands like them promised them a new world made of peace but then couldn't even get it together long enough to stay in the same room as each other. While many fans stay loyal and buy records by all four, a lot of the more general music audience simply moves on to the next big them (which if you're British means Slade - shudder - and if you're American means David Cassidy - bigger shudder). America was also going through heady days: far from ending Vietnam protests of 1969-70 seemed to have escalated it and Nixon, a year away from re-election, was enjoying comfortable gallup poll predictions despite a seemingly unending list of bumbling country-wrecking mistakes perpetrated by Richard Nixon. In this context there was no chance that the world was going to get the peaceful hippie slumber fest they perhaps expected; instead Crosby's album is by turns darker, edgier, moodier and more paranoid than that. An artist pre-occupied with the outside world more than most, Crosby accurately reflects the feeling of hopelessness and heavyness of 1971 as well as he and his two friends mirrored the hope and tranquillity of 1969.

However the main reason Crosby sounds crushed on so many parts of this album - why the weight of the surroundings so often seems suffocating compared to Crosby's general positive outlook and soaring arms-out-to-the-sky vocals is personal tragedy. His long term girlfriend Christine Hinton, the one person who had stuck by Crosby through and through after and sometimes alongside short-lived romances with the likes of Joni Mitchell, died suddenly, awfully and tragically in a car crash. Hinton was due to take her poorly cat to a vets for a check-up; onlookers say the car veered off the road suddenly, suggesting the pet got free. Without her family around to identify the body, it fell to Crosby - who'd waved her off just hours before - to do just that and his close friends say he was never the same afterwards. After years of believing the best in people, that hard times would be followed by good and that his story would always have a happy ending eventually somehow, Crosby suddenly has to grow up just at the point when Crosby has finally achieved the success he's craved and a body of work to be proud of - and he plainly doesn't want to. While other factors inevitably became involved too, it's here that Crosby's addictions begin to spiral ever so slightly out of control, his paranoid hackles raised enough to start carrying a hand-gun around with him; his drugs no longer a hobby but little by little a crutch that allows him to cope. As late as 1998 (maybe later) he's still writing songs for Christine, emotionally powerful songs about his struggle to grieve properly for her even after a quarter century has passed. However what's interesting is how few reviews of the time picked up on this. Christine's death wasn't widely reported and it's significance was probably under-estimated (she wasn't Crosby's only girlfriend of the time and Crosby was already father to several children dotted around America ever since his pre-Byrds days - but until Jan Dance comes onto the scene at the end of the 1970s their relationship was by far their longest lasting). When a similar thing happened to Neil (divorce and the death of his right-hand man Danny Whitten) his songs became darker, harder, angrier. Even partner Graham will go through a similar experience while making his hardest-edged album 'Wild Tales' (inspired by the murder of his girlfriend Amy by her own brother - the CSNY story really is stranger than fiction). However 'My Name' isn't a particularly angry record (well, only on the delightful Nixon-bashing 'What Are Their Names?') and the hard edges come through more as claustrophobia than aggression or denial. Instead this is a questioning album even by Crosby standards, asking 'why?' and trying desperately to come to terms with grief and loss (especially the improvised title track, the closest Crosby ever comes to saying anything about her despite being a wordless vocal instrumental). Not un-coincidentally, Crosby is on startling form throughout the record, investing both the one-take raw rockers and overdubbed pristine vocal chants with soul and power, his performance never better as his grief, his sympathetic musician friends and his muse all connect for an album that many people rate as a favourite for some very good reasons.

More than anything else, this record is loved because it's a deeply spiritual record. The world was shocked when Pope Francis recently announced his top ten music albums with this album as high as #2  in the Vatican's official newspaper L'Osservatore Romano (the winner was The Beatles' Revolver', suggesting both that the fab four are forgiven for saying The Beatles were bigger than Jesus and that his holiness is an AAA reader!) Surely not  the world cried - some drugged out hippie spouting left-leaning politics at one with (at least the West's) biggest religious institution? But to me that makes perfect sense: this is an album that cries out for love, struggles to overcome ego and become a better person, looks for answers without ever quite finding them and ultimately ends up in what centuries ago would be assumed to be a choral mass of comfort and grief over death. While my bible studying days are long behind me thankfully (I don't trust any institution that tells me what to think and dismisses over institutions without comment based on nothing else but faith - a personal and individual feeling that can never be taught or passed onto others, only absorbed) I know why those who like would find 'religion' here, even though Crosby himself isn't a believer. Nine parables about love and life, each with questions and answers (and even the closest Crosby ever came to a religious song - the traditional 'Orleans', taught to him by Jefferson Airplane's Paul Kantner) gives this album some personal character and feeling that even The Pope can't get from anywhere else (interestingly 'Revolver' doesn't have quite the same spiritual appeal, although there is a similar sense of all-encompassing roundedness). Just look at that title again too: Crosby isn't 'alone' on his life's path for vast swathes of the record, although his searching narrators are never quite able to tie down what is there.  Is it the ghost of a loved one, kept safe in the afterlife? (as per the title track). A spiritual light guiding Crosby down a particular path he keeps getting distracted from (as per 'Laughing'?) Is it the heavy mob out to rule the world with big brother claws that see and hear everything (as per 'What Are Their Names?' If these un-named people aren't the 'devil' I don't know what is). Or are they the unseen loved ones pulling Crosby ever onwards, helping him find 'Traction In The Rain'?  Or perhaps Pope Francis just loves music made in the area of San Francisco - named after the saint he took his papal name from!

The album cover says a lot too. One of Gary Burden's greatest designs, it features a merged cover of Crosby shot on a 'soft focus' 16mm frame by professional photographer Robert Hammer (Crosby knew all about cameras - his dad worked on films and his own interest will spill over into the song 'Camera' on CSN's 1994 album 'After The Storm') merged with another shot of a San Franciscan Bay sunset. The way the sun shines just South of Crosby's eye makes it look as if he's shedding a tear, perhaps for his lost love or perhaps all those un-fulfilled 1960s dreams fading into the rear view mirror. However the cover isn't wholly sad: like the record it's ambiguous enough to be about 're-birth' too - a sunrise as much as a sunset. Along with the sweet 'photo gallery' of all those who played on the album (check out David's elder brother Ethan Crosby who is the spitting image of him down to the moustache and wide open singing mouth and Neil Young proudly standing in front of a sketch of Crosby a fan had painted and which hung in his living room for years! If you're wondering why future manager and record boss David Geffen looks a bit wet, by the way, it's because he was thrown into a swimming pool as a mischievous 'stipulation' for the re-signing of a contract!) it's one of the better and classier CSNY family designs, with a lot of thought (and a lot of listening!) clearly having taken place.
You can tell a lot about the inventiveness of an album by how well it was received at the time compared to how its revered years later: this album has a huge critical backlash in 1971, the first really bad as opposed to simply grudging reviews any CSN-related album had had up to that time. Yet nowadays, the short-sightedness of contemporary reviewers seems odd: this album now has a reputation for being one of the high points of American singer-songwriter music of the 1970s. Don’t just take my word for this album’s re-evaluation either: this album frequently gets high mentions in ‘greatest album’ polls, even if the public at large have never heard of it (its most often either bubbling under or just in the top 100, higher if polls stick to the 60s and 70s in general – to put that in context, this puts it with such well known bed-fellows as Brothers In Arms, Hotel California and even Deja Vu on occasions). Called ‘self-indulgent’ when it came out, thanks to its wordless Crosby choirs, long slow fade-ins and high quota of instrumentals, this album is actually anything but – nobody else but Crosby would dream of filling up a ‘solo’ record with so many famous guests playing under his leadership (well, maybe Ringo, but the two don’t really compare).  Like all good hosts Crosby doesn't hog the conversation despite being the common reason why everyone's entered into the conversation: all his musician friends get the chance to shine using their characters, not creating something Crosby asked them to come up with or dictated to them. 'If Only' shouldn't really be called a 'solo' work at all, but an ensemble piece played by one of the greatest bands that ever was. Several things stand out in the memory long after the record is last played and they mainly feature other people - the hastily assembled dozen-strong choir on What Are Their Names?, the Garcia v Young duets on Cowboy Movie and Joni Mitchell’s prettiest singing over the bridge of  Laughing. Even so, this is Crosby’s album all the way – no one else can make such unworldly, unusual songs sound so beautiful and natural and Crosby’s voice is in stunning form throughout, whether singing alone and fragile-like or multi-tracked for a full onslaught of the senses.

Odder than the Byrds, more subdued and less hopeful than CSNY and completely at odds with everything going on in American music of the time, Name is an extraordinary record, a one-off mixture of the brave and the beautiful, the muted and the overpowering, the un-listenable and the accessible, the seemingly throwaway and the most important songs you might ever be privileged enough to hear. Signalling the beginning of the end of Crosby’s unbelievably creative phase between 1968-71 (two CSN albums, a Crosby-Nash album and this solo work, plus lots of later-period Byrds songs and unreleased material—he won’t write this much material again until his 1990s CPR days), it would take a mammoth 18 years before Croz released another solo album. After years of being seen as one of the chief spokespersons of his generation, the uncompromising king of the counter-culture always ready with a witty quote and an intelligent argument for hippie themes, Crosby turned inward, distancing himself from anything except his music and drugs, an order that was to switch in importance several times over the next decade or so, never quite reaching the peak he gained here and on the first CSN and CSNY albums again despite several close tries along the way. While I'm not as sure as other CSNY fans that it's the greatest things to ever have Crosby's name attached to it ('Crosby, Stills and Nash' 'Deja Vu' 'CSN', possibly 'Wind On The Water' and maybe even The Byrds' 'Notorious Byrd Brothers' makes for very tough competition) it is another ridiculously strong CSNY record from a time when the four members could do no wrong, without a single bad track on it. Thanks to a combination of friends, drugs, grief and inspiration 'If Only I Could Remember My Name' is an incredible album from one of the most incredible, important and certainly one of the most under-rated musicians that ever lived; a special record from a truly special writer that truly sounds like no other album ever made.

The Songs:

Album opener [53] Music Is Love isn’t that impressive as a stand-alone song, but when you learn about its history this track’s quiet simplicity is staggering. A two-minute snatch of Crosby messing around on an acoustic guitar while rehearsing for another song entirely was ‘hijacked’ by then-still partners Graham Nash and Neil Young, who were amazed at how their partner dismissed this piece after doodling it and intended to throw it away. Young, a musician well known for being a prolific writer who often wrote four songs a week at a time when Crosby sometimes wrote only four a year, confessed once that he could easily have written an album’s worth of songs based around an idea that Crosby would casually dismiss. Without Cros’ knowledge, the two men – for some reason avoiding any contact with Stills who was either busy recording, being cross-patchy or both – overdubbed bongos, extra guitar parts and slightly off-key harmonies onto the tape and handed it back to their friend as a fait accompli, telling him that ‘this is going on your solo LP - or else’. The sleeve-notes to the CSN box have Crosby tell us that ‘ I learned a long time ago that it doesn’t pay to say no to either Nash or Neil’ and, grudgingly, he used the song as the opener of the album. Rough and unfinished as it is, there’s a charm about Music Is Love that makes you feel indebted to Nash and Young for rescuing it off the cutting room floor and even if the sentiments of the song sound a little bit like the ‘idiot guide’ to David Crosby’ it’s the perfect acoustic scene-setting introduction to the album.

[54a] Cowboy Movie quickly shows the other side of Crosby, despite sounding equally hurried and raw. An eight-minute electric epic with various members of the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead helping out plus Neil Young rocking at their hardest, its a close cousin to Crosby’s De Ja Vu contribution Almost Cut My Hair, offering us the chance to hear this most note-perfect singer at his rawest and loosest. Like its sister song, the vocal on this track truly makes the piece, with Crosby hanging out the words to dry and squeezing every last ounce of passion out of them, getting excitingly off-key in the process. The title of this song suggests it will be a simple catch-all Western film plot, one we’ve heard several times before, and on one level it is - telling the story of how a maiden betrays her lover to the law and puts him and his outlaw colleagues in danger. What Crosby didn’t reveal till many years later, however, is that this song was written as an allegory for a set of rather more ‘real’ outlaws: CSNY. Cowboy Movie ushers in a long history of CSN songs talking about each other (A list that will include Do For The Others (Stills on Crosby), Into The Darkness and Glass And Steel (Nash on Crosby’s drug addiction), Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Young on Nash), Cocaine Eyes and Stringman (both allegedly Young on Stills, but that’s a generally held fan assumption, not a true admittance from Neil) and Hippie Dream (allegedly Young on Crosby), not to mention the till-recently unreleased King Of The Mountain (Crosby on Stills). Added to this mix are Nash’s Chicago (which is a plea to ‘brothers’ Stills and Young to join Crosby and Nash for a gig on behalf of the Chicago Seven), plus two rather oddball Neil Young songs about CSNY as a whole, the hugely celebrated (but goodness knows why) song Thrasher (where CSN are ‘lost in crystal canyons’ - a dig at their drug intake from the anti-drug Neil, perhaps? - and, even less charitably, have ‘become deadweight to me’) and The Old Homestead (where CSN memorably become wizened old vultures who sing ‘why do you ride that Crazy Horse?’ to Neil’s dream-like narrator). Crosby, the narrator, portrays himself here as ‘weird Albert’, a rebel who seems to thrive on danger and stirring up trouble, but one that’s intriguingly far more afraid of being caught by the ‘law’ than his laidback colleagues. Stills is Eli, a man described as being ‘mean and young, from the South’, who wins over many friends through his talent but also creates many enemies thanks to his hot temper. Nash is ‘Duke the Dynamiter’, usually the diplomatic one but in the story he inadvertently stirs up a squabble between the group when he falls in love with the ‘Indian girl’ first befriended by Eli. Young meanwhile is, err, ‘young Billy’ (bit of a clue there) who doesn’t have much of a role to play except looking on bemused, rather like his part in CSNY in real life. Following the rift called by the Indian girl – presumably Rita Cootlidge, the girl who really did help split up the four-some by leaving long-term(ish) partner Stills for a short-term fling with Nash - the group get careless, quarrelling amongst themselves instead of looking out for the real enemies searching for them, and the quartet are betrayed by the ‘Indian Girl’ when she turns out to be an under-cover cop. In Crosby’s view the girl wasn’t an innocent by-stander who got caught up in CSNY’s messy squabble, she was ‘the law’ of human averages, the ‘law’ that something will always come along and break up relationships as fragile as the quartet’s. Enjoyed for years as a fun, rocking romp through some Western-style imagery, this song has for many fans now taken on a completely new meaning, especially Eli’s temper that sees him lose his cool and nearly kill his comrades out of anger and Crosby’s narrator’s helpless horror at how his close gang of friends who were going to save the world has disintegrated so badly and so suddenly they can’t even save themselves (I can’t say I’d ever noticed this before, but have any of you readers ever noticed how close this song is to reggae? I’ve just interrupted this review to tape something on the radio and heard one of those typically gormless 90s re-treads of ‘proper’ 70s reggae and I’d swear when I got up the stairs that this track was following exactly the same jerky rhythmical pattern and staccato swing).

After all that sumptuous noise, it’s a relief to get back to one of the many Crosby meditative instrumentals that flit through this album. [55] Tampalpais High (At About Three) is one of Crosby’s better wordless songs, with his multi-tracked soaring vocals making their actually quite tricky flight over the backing track sound free and easy. The song has two main inspirations: a mountain in Crosby’s old home area of Tampalpais, L.A. where he went to meditate alone quite often in the months following Christine’s death and the name of his old high school, where Crosby would spend the first few minutes after school (at about three o’clock) chatting up the girls from his neighbouring classes. Unlike most instrumentals – but like most of Crosby’s, it has to be said – the song does not get dull or boring without its words because there is just so much going on for the listener to concentrate on – the tricky harmonies of the vocals, the rumbling predictable bass riff set against some improvised and contrastingly unpredictable guitar yelps and the song structure that somehow finds its way back into the opening riff every so often despite travelling many miles away from home for most of the song.  

Side one of the original album then ends with [56] Laughing. One of the most perfect songs written by anybody anywhere at anytime, it may well be my favourite individual song on the whole of this list – some claim, as readers who have ruined their eyesight by studying all the other pages around it will agree. Laughing is a magnificently haunting creation, with a perfectly delivered performance from both Crosby and multiple guests, full of ‘crying’ Jerry Garcia pedal steel, hypnotic acoustic guitars and layers of sumptuous harmony. The lyrics are also profound and thought-provoking without being pretentious or preachy. Crosby thinks, time and time again, in verse after verse, that his life-long search is over and he has finally found the ‘answer’ to life he has been searching for, the ‘key’ that will finally unlock the mysteries and lead him to know why life is so complicated, so strange and so unpredictable. Time and again he tells us that he thinks he has found the truth – only to find once more that he is mistaken. ‘A man who said he knew a man what was going on’ proves to be only a ‘stranger’, seeking answers to questions that the narrator has never even thought to ask, causing confusion rather than the enlightenment he expects. A ‘light to guide me through my nights and all this darkness’ turns out to be a ‘reflection of a shadow’, a misguided tonic that seems built out of fear rather than salvation. A special someone (presumably Christine again, whose character is hiding in all the songs with lyrics on this album) then seems to provide the answers that the narrator wants to hear, but even this turns out to be a mirage, the only truthful sound the narrator ever hears is that of a ‘child laughing in the sun’. Thinking the noise is the closest to the ‘truth’ of the human race he is ever likely to hear, Crosby leaves it at that, playing out the song on a wondrous extended coda, full of sighing double-tracked Joni Mitchells, David’s elder brother Ethan and a Jerry Garcia pedal steel solo at his most heart-breaking. Interestingly, while compiling this website, I came across a quote of Crosby’s that I’d not heard before which said that he had written this song partly to warn his old Byrds-era friend George Harrison away from his blinding devotion to the Maharshi (see ** The White Album), warning him off putting all his spiritual eggs in one basket without trying to clip his devotional wings entirely or stop him looking for ‘answers’. Spiritual, melodic, laidback, moving, and - with droned guitars throughout and other Eastern flourishes on top - this song is a close cousin to Harrison’s 1970s work, but generally speaking has a much broader-minded and questioning soul at its heart (Harrison’s songs tend to be about whether the narrator has the courage to ‘accept’ what he knows in his heart to be true—Crosby’s narrators by comparison never come close to finding the truth, no matter how far they search). A fantastic aching, restless song, there is much about to recommend about Laughing, both in its clever construction and the note-prefect playing throughout. The most typical David Crosby piece on the record (both in its unusual open tunings and its ‘what the hell is going on?’ lyrics), Laughing is a true 100 carat gold album archive masterpiece and a true ‘catchy but deep’ triumph.

Side two and [57]  'What Are Their Names?' seems to start off innocently with a gentle fade in on a repetitive guitar lick, doodled by Crosby during a recording session. However as more and more musicians gradually join in (Neil Young and Jerry Garcia on more guitars, the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh on bass and Michael Shrieve on drums) and – inspired by Crosby’s lick – add their own unrehearsed parts, the song builds quickly into an anthem, a good example of the closeness and telepathy felt by the West Coast players of the period. Left untouched for weeks while Crosby worked out what to do with it, the singer suddenly thought of the song’s two brief verses while on a plane trip and hurriedly wrote them down, finding later that they fitted the middle part of this track spot-on. As angry and caustic as CSNY ever were, this is the sound of Crosby and friends pointing their fingers not at the politicians running the country this time but the unknown powers they see pulling on their strings, the un-named and un-mentioned businesses, warmongers and gangsters who have always had a heavy impact on so-called democracy, whatever the country, whatever the period. The power and indignation of this song is extraordinary, especially the way the song builds up so quietly from its innocent sounding introduction without you really noticing until the vocals suddenly kick in and the chance to hear some of the finest musicians of the period playing against each other is a sound to behold. However, the masterstroke of the song is the hastily over-dubbed chorus, an ad hoc decision taken after several of Crosby’s friends happened to drop in on the album sessions un-announced, causing the engineers to switch from recording guitar overdubs to pristine vocals in a matter of seconds while the idea was still hot. Various members of the Dead, CSNY and the Airplane families can be heard here (Grace Slick’s soaring, strident vocal is particularly recognisable) and the resulting verses sit so snugly over their note-perfect backing that it’s hard to believe this song wasn’t carefully planned from the outset. There was definitely something powerful lurking in the air on these album sessions and this last-minute coup, like much of the LP cobbled together at the last minute as sudden inspiration struck, is perhaps the greatest example of that magical telepathy.  

Switching gears once more, [58] Traction In The Rain is another of Crosby’s gloriously fragile songs, full of elusive words and imagery that sound like they mean something but probably don’t and set to one of its creators’ most gorgeous and delicate melodies. One of the most ethereal and downright beautiful songs its author ever wrote, its lyrics are also typically Crosby – listening to critics who tell him that human beings have ‘progressed’ and are destined to work 9-5, in smoky cramped cities, while waging war on each other over minute differences, Crosby simply points to the beautiful girls on his shoulder and leaves without firing up to the argument. Inspired by a heckler who walked up to Crosby while he out walking with his friends and equally pioneering fellow musicians Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell and attacked them for their outspoken-ness and hippie ideals, this is Cros once again putting forward his manifesto of ‘peace’ and scratching his head over why everybody else seems to be picking on him out of jealously for leading the sort of unconventional life that he thinks they all secretly want to be living for themselves (this is the t-shirt ‘turning green’ in envy of the ‘turtle doves’ or peace-makers, according to Crosby’s later analysis of the song). However, while many of Crosby’s other politically-charged songs of the period sound hot-headed and emotional, Traction In The Rain is so musically fragile that far from beating us around the head with the message, it sounds as if the great hippie dream is as about to break any minute (as indeed it was) and Crosby is doing everything he can to hold on top the beauty he sees in the world before things get ugly. Astonishingly pretty, not to mention pretty powerful, this is Crosby again at his peak again but showing off quite a different set of skills this time around.

[51b] Song With No Words – or Tree With No Leaves as Nash half-jokingly began calling it – is another of Crosby’s instrumentals with some great wordless scatting by lots of Crosbys, with the power of Crosby’s songwriting muse stripped back to its bare-bones essence. Many fans think this song is the best on the album, but to these ears it lacks the punchy power or vocal finesse of the other instrumentals on this album, for once sounding like a lyric would benefit rather than detract from the song. The performance is also rather sluggish compared to the technically rougher but emotionally superior recording on the CSN box-set, where the song comes alive courtesy of some sublime harmonies from Graham Nash. Understandably, Crosby decided to go with a ‘solo’ version for this ‘solo’ record, but you do wish that he’d listened to his own advice of using his friends’ skills wherever he possibly could – or kept the song back for the Crosby-Nash collaborations that were just around the corner.  

[59] Orleans is a similarly slight, multi-tracked acoustic version of an old folk song Paul Kantner taught Crosby after remembering it from his childhood learning how to play the guitar. A French song similar to Oranges and Lemons listing the names of Cathedrals, the idea is never quite developed properly on this recording, but the two-minutes we do get is spine-chilling, with about a dozen Crosby’s singing four separate parts three times over. Unnerving and beautiful all at the same time, the song gives Cros the chance to show off some of his fine and under-rated guitar playing, another skill that really comes into its own on this album after years of working with supposedly finer guitarists like Roger McGuinn, Stephen Stills and Neil Young. 

The closer [60]  I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here, meanwhile, is equally bare and doesn’t even feature anything except Crosby’s mournful vocals. With lots off his overdubbed voices running a capella hither and thither seemingly on a whim, this short 90-second burst of heartbreak and inspiration is a confusing but powerful way to end the album. We never knew it at the time, but Crosby’s loss of his girlfriend hurt him more than words could say so here is the closest Crosby can get to putting his grief on record. In a split-second decision that engineer Stephen Bancard recalls as coming ‘like a bolt out of the blue’ the singer lets his emotions run riot in a desperate, mournful wail that very suddenly dies away unexpectedly, the singer’s emotions spent. Very similar to Brian Wilson’s Smile opener Our Prayer but in reverse (this song is saying ‘goodbye’ to us unhappily, not ‘hello’ to us with bursting joy), this song is a similar mix of 60s psychedelia and 16th century madrigal, with the multiple Crosbys sounding like a group of particularly mournful Benedictine monks (Maybe it really is a group of Benedictine monks regrouping one last time; let’s face it there’s lots of really odd things going on in this LP!) With the possible exception of John Lennon, no musician on this list ever let their emotions show as readily as Crosby did and – like many a Lennon solo album – there’s no pretence going on in this track, just Crosby sounding lost among the layers of unrehearsed harmonies running through this track, as if he is calling to his fiancé as a ghost from his world, desperately seeking her spirit out and unable to come to terms with the fact the two are no longer together.

No other album would dare to end with such a track, but then If Only I Could Remember My Name is not like other albums. Teasing, serious, full of deeply complex words and unorthodox styles and guitar tunings, it is a balanced, deeply-felt album that sounds like no other ever made. Critics of the time called it ‘self indulgent’, moaning at Crosby’s lack of lyrics, the use of no less than three instrumentals on only a nine-track album and the fact that an eight-minute track takes up such a large amount of the album’s scant 38 minutes. In contrast, modern critics say it is too ‘selfless’ an album, that Crosby lets his friends and special guests take over parts that the singer could have done solo, with the album sleeve going so far as to grant all these extra stars their own photographs, each ‘guest’ granted a picture that on the original LP were each the same size as Crosby’s own. For those of us in the know, however, this is a very special album and one destined to astound and influence listeners away from the mainstream long after other albums have been forgotten. A truly hidden treasure, I’d swear there was somebody here in the room with me whenever I play it, so strong is Crosby’s vision and so powerful the emotions he evokes. This is music stripped back to its barest, unstructured essence—and it sounds all the better for it.

A Now Complete List Of CSN/Y and Solo Articles Available To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:

'Crosby, Stills and Nash' (1969)

'Deja Vu' (CSNY) (1970)

‘Stephen Stills’ (1970)

'If Only I Could Remember My Name' (Crosby) (1971)

'Songs For Beginners' (Nash) (1971)

'Stephen Stills II' (1971)
‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’ (1972)

'Stephen Stills-Manassas'  (1972)

'Wild Tales' (Nash) (1973)
'Down The Road' (Stephen Stills/Manassas) (1973)

'Stills' (1975)

'Wind On The Water' (Crosby-Nash) (1975)
'Illegal Stills' (Stills) (1976)
'Whistling Down The Wire' (Crosby-Nash) (1976)

'Long May You Run' (Stills-Young) (1976)

'CSN' (1977)
'Thoroughfare Gap' (Stills) (1978)
'Earth and Sky' (Nash) (1980)

'Daylight Again' (CSN) (1982)
'Right By You' (Stills) (1984)
'Innocent Eyes' (Nash) (1986)
'American Dream' (CSNY) (1988)

'Oh Yes I Can!' (Crosby) (1989)

'Live It Up!' (CSN)  (1989)

'Stephen Stills Alone' (1991)

'CPR' (Crosby Band) (1998)

‘So Like Gravity (CPR, 2001)

‘Songs For Survivors’ (2002)

'Deja Vu Live' (CD) (2008)

'Deja Vu Live' (DVD) (2008)

'Reflections' (Graham Nash Box Set) (2009)

'Demos' (CSN) (2009)

'Manassas: Pieces' (2010)

‘Carry On’ (Stephen Stills Box Set) (2013)

'Croz' (Crosby) (2014)
'CSNY 74' (Recorded 1974 Released 2014)

'This Path Tonight' (Nash) (2016)

‘Here If You Listen’ (Crosby)

The Best Unreleased CSNY Recordings
Surviving TV Appearances (1969-2009)
Non-Album Recordings (1962-2009)
Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part One (1964-1980)
Live/Compilations/Rarities Albums Part Two (1982-2012)
Essay: The Superest Of Super Groups?
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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