Crosby’s timeless, haunting masterpiece
The first time I became aware of this album was after reading a review in Mojo Magazine’s “Forgotten Classics” section, many years ago while in my early twenties. Such is the influence of music journalism I knew I had to hear it. So one Saturday I went off to do a little hunter-gathering at my local record store (remember those?), and surprisingly found a copy in the $10 section.
Beginning with the campfire sing along of “Music is Love”, to the cathedral-like a Capella of “I Swear There Was Somebody Here,” which draws the LP to a haunting close, David Crosby’s 1971 debut solo album remains a transcendent time capsule of the age in which it was made, when the rising sun of the hippie dream was already setting, and where a darker landscape had emerged (the Manson murders, Altamont etc). On top of this, the recent and tragic death of Crosby’s girlfriend had had a profound effect on his state of mind. As a consequence he sought solace in the studio, recording what would ultimately prove to be his finest and most enduring musical statement.
The guest list alone for If I Could Only Remember My Name reads like something out of rock and roll heaven. Neil Young, Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead), Grace Slick, Jack Cassidy (Jefferson Airplane), Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, as well as an assortment of lesser known players too numerous to mention (including Crosby’s reclusive brother).
Following the aforementioned “Music is Love,” is the autobiographically cinematic “Cowboy Movie,” where we find Crosby and his “good partners” riding home after a successful train robbery, only to learn that they’ve been followed by an Indian girl. It’s been well documented that the song is an analogy for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and their subsequent breakup soon after the release of Déjà Vu. Each member has their own alias; Crosby is “Fat Albert,” Stills is “Eli” (the “fastest gunner”), Nash is “The Duke,” and Young is “Young Billy.” As for the Indian Girl, so central to the story, that’s Rita Coolidge, with whom both Stills and Nash had an affair with, which goes some way to explain the friction behind the band’s breakup. Nevertheless it remains an entertaining and cryptic insight into the dynamics of four unique personalities.
“Tamalpais High (At About 3)” is a wordless instrumental excursion that will mend your mind after a hard day at work. Crosby scats while some exquisite jazzy-psychedelic guitar, courtesy of Garcia, mingles and floats around your brain, transporting you into a state of almost semi-nirvana.
“Laughing” was, in Crosby’s words, “Written to and for George Harrison about the Maharishi, and… telling him that nobody’s really got the answer.” Another soothing and hypnotic listen, with some lovely backing vocals by Joni, and heavenly pedal steel by Garcia.
“What Are Their Names” is a political paean about Nixon and the U.S. government in general (which CSN&Y continue to sing to this day). A brief albeit biting invective and thought provoking invocation which regrettably never seems to date.
And now we have the reflective “Traction in the Rain”, which consists of only two acoustic guitars and an autoharp. I dare anyone to listen to this song and not hear the rain fall like therapeutic drops outside their window.
“Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves)” is about as ethereal as it gets, with opiated harmonies that hover Zen-like before they disappear into the upper atmosphere. As the title suggests, there are no words, only more scatting from Crosby and Nash, while Garcia adds some gorgeous and understated ambiance, improvised no doubt after imbibing a good deal of medically approved substances.
“Orleans” is a lovely mood piece sung a Capella, where Crosby chants the names of French cathedrals. Sounds strange, but somehow it all works. In one word, exquisite.
The final piece is “I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here”. Crosby’s deeply haunted vocals sound like spirits emerging through your speakers, and eerily transform your living area into a 14th Century Gothic church in the process. I say haunted, because to this day, Crosby swears that while he was recording it, he could feel the presence of his deceased girlfriend with him in the studio. This probably explains its otherworldly quality. But be careful; never play this song when on your own late at night.
The remastered edition contains one bonus track, the previously unissued “Kids and Dogs”, another relaxing mind massage, which sees just Crosby and Garcia ‘duelling’ it out with some acoustic guitars and peaceful harmonies. As usual, Garcia throws in some lovely soft electric flourishes towards the end. A song so good it makes you wonder why it remained buried for so long.
With the hippie dream fast disappearing, If I Could Only Remember My Name didn’t quite resonate as CSN’s far more popular and mega selling debut only a couple years earlier. And so it too faded from the mainstream as glam-rock and heavy metal began to take hold, and a new generation was beginning to assert its own styles and tastes on the world, relegating everything that had gone on before it to the cultural scrap heap. And although the time in which it was made has long passed, listening to this album now, more than forty years after its conception, one can still take comfort and be thankful that such a time existed in the first place.