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David Crosby on the Sorrow and Joy Behind ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’

Crosby gives a track-by-track guide to his 1971 solo debut. ‘I was an immature person, stoned out of my mind, hit with something I absolutely couldn’t handle. It’s amazing I managed to get into the studio at all’

Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

David Crosby has lived through some dark chapters throughout the course of his long life, but few compare to the period he spent grieving the sudden death of his girlfriend, 21-year-old Christine Hinton, in a 1969 car accident. “I didn’t have any way of dealing with it,” he tells Rolling Stone. “It was too big for me. It crushed me like a bug. People tell me they’d find me on the floor of the recording studio, weeping uncontrollably.”

The huge success of CSNY’s Déjà Vu and the tour that followed gave him a temporary distraction from his sorrows, but the group imploded in July 1970, and Crosby spent the next few months living on his boat in Sausalito, California, where he did little but sleep, eat, and drown his sorrows with alcohol and drugs.

Eventually, his thoughts turned to crafting a solo LP, just like Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young were all doing at the time. His bandmates were making folk-rock albums that didn’t stray far from the CSNY sound, but Crosby was interested in doing something stranger and significantly less commercial. Some of his new songs didn’t even have lyrics, and he conveyed their meanings through lush, stacked, wordless harmonies.

Assisting Crosby in sorting through all this was Jerry Garcia, who took time out from the Grateful Dead’s tour schedule to join his friend at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco. Together, they recruited a stunning assortment of musicians to work on the album, including Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Graham Nash, Phil Lesh, Grace Slick. Paul Kantner, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Gregg Rolie, Jack Casady, and Jorma Kaukonen.

It was Garcia who made the whole thing sparkle to life. “He’s a decent human being with a nice heart, and he’s funny and stoned and good and can play like God on a good day,” says Crosby. “Every time he sits down with a guitar and I sit down on a guitar with him, magic happens. Magic. Not bullshit. Magic.”

The created the album during a roughly three-month period in late 1970 and early 1971 with a routine that rarely changed. “I would get up on my boat around noon, walk into town for some breakfast, and just try to survive the day,” says Crosby. “Usually sometime around dinnertime, I would arrive at the studio. Then I’d work most of the night.”

“It was a strange, very conflicting environment,” he continues. “Here I am and I’ve been punched in the mouth, knocked my teeth out, and I’m on the ground, and then somebody ran over me with a tractor. In the same 24 hours, I’m in fuckin’ heaven. I’m making music that I fuckin’ love, and I believe in, that really moves me. I had the maximum amount of happiness and maximum amount of sadness at the same time.”

The end result was If I Could Only Remember My Name, which landed in stores on February 22nd, 1971 and was greeted with, at best, very mixed reviews. “Not likely to go down in history, but it is not a bad album,” Lester Bangs wrote in Rolling Stone. “It would make a perfect aural aid to digestion when you’re having guests over for dinner, provided they’re brothers and sisters enough to get behind it, of course. The playing is sloppy as hell…Crosby’s singing here is even blander and more monotonously one-dimensional than Stills’ on his solo album.”

“The critics didn’t get it,” Crosby says. “They wanted me to follow the trends. That’s what they were promoting, the guitar player world. We went in another direction they didn’t understand.”

The critical consensus has changed dramatically over the past five decades, and Crosby’s solo debut is now widely seen as a masterpiece, on par with the best of CSNY and even Young’s solo records from the era. To celebrate the 50th anniversary, a super deluxe edition is coming out on October 15th. It’s packed with demos, alternate versions, and outtakes from the album sessions.

Crosby has mixed feelings about the new package. “I was hesitant about doing it,” he says. “Frankly, I knew about all that stuff. I didn’t put them on the record because I didn’t think they were good enough, but they wanted to do this. I said, ‘Go ahead.’ I didn’t pick the songs. I wouldn’t have done it.”

Despite those reservations, he was still happy to get on the phone and give us commentary about all nine of the songs from the original record.

1. “Music Is Love”

That started out as an accident. I had been playing that little figure that it opens with for a while. One day, I was doing it and Neil and Graham heard me and they jumped on it. They liked it. Neil liked it in particular. I said, “That was fun. Let’s try and get on to something serious.” They said, “Listen, that’s really good. It’s better than you think it is. Give us the tape.”

And so they took it and they put the conga drums and the bass on it and some handclaps. They brought it back and I said, “Fuck, I love it.” And it became the first song on the record.

2. “Cowboy Movie”

It is the story of CSNY, but it’s told as a cowboy movie. I knew that it was going to be fun to play. Garcia and I had played it a number of times with Kreutzmann and with Mickey Hart. We did it at different times with different drummers. We did it with Lesh. I did it with Casady and Kaukonen. We would play at the Matrix [nightclub] and we’d do that song for laughs.

The recording on the album kind of naturally fell out. We played it a number of times. That time you hear on the record is pretty spectacular. It was really good chemistry between me and Garcia and Lesh. On the record, I think it’s Mickey Hart on drums. We just had a good chemistry. It was loose and funky and it felt right. I loved it.

[It’s not hard to work out that Eli is Stephen Stills, the Duke is Graham Nash, Young Billy is Neil Young, and Croz himself is Fat Albert. Is the Raven supposed to be Rita Coolidge, the woman who came between Stills and Nash before the band’s split? “Yes indeed,” says Crosby.]

3. “Tamalpais High (At About 3)”

Tamalpais is a big mountain in Marin County, right across the bay from San Francisco. It’s also called the Sleeping Lady. “Tamalpais High” is not about the mountain, though. It’s about Tamalpais High School. I had a girlfriend who was going to Tamalpais High School when I met her. And so “Tamalpais High” is not about getting high and it’s not about the mountain. But it is pretty. The subtitle is “At About 3” since 3:00 pm is when high school got out.

I didn’t have any words for it, so I just did it the way I wanted to, using my voice like a horn section. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no rules, so you can do stuff like that. I don’t know if anybody else would have done that. But I loved it.

4. “Laughing”

I first met George Harrison when the Byrds went to London in 1965. For some reason, he rang my bell. He was extremely nice to me. He had me over to his house. We had dinner. We hung out. I had, in my suitcase, a record that I’d just been given by Ravi Shankar. I gave it to George. That had repercussions. George later told him that I turned him onto Indian music. I don’t think it’s true. I think a number of people did. I think he was trying to be nice to me, make me feel good.

Anyway, he liked Indian music. He went to India. He had a lot of fun there. He met a teacher that he liked, a guru. He was telling me about that later. I wanted to say to him, “Be skeptical. Take it with a grain of salt. Anytime someone tells you they talked to God right after breakfast this morning, they are probably bullshitting you.”

That’s what I wanted to say. But I was chicken because it was George. I was looking up at him. I didn’t have the balls to say, “Listen, that guy is full of shit.” I just couldn’t do it.

And so I wrote the song. The song says that I’ve met people like that, that have a glimpse of what I think is the truth. The bottom line is the people that seem to know the most about what’s real and where the truth is are children. A child laughing in the sun knows more about God than I do. That’s what the song is about. It was me trying to tell George that I loved him and I wanted him to take the Maharishi and all other gurus with a grain of salt.

5. “What Are Their Names”

It’s amazing how “What Are Their Names” is still true. You listen to it today, you’d think I wrote it last week. Here’s an interesting fact about “What Are Their Names.” I’ve sung it at every gig I’ve ever done since I wrote it. I fuckin’ love it. I think it’s an extremely truthful piece of stuff, and I believe in it.

The music is a jam. That’s just me and Jerry goofing off. We’re just fucking around. You can hear the other guys come into the room, pick up their instruments, and start jamming with us. Months later, I was in an airplane and I wrote those words. I realized there was a space on the tape that would fit this. They fit perfectly. I tried it and it worked.

6. “Traction In The Rain”

That may be one of the prettiest songs I ever wrote. I love it. It’s just a straightforward singer-songwriter beauty. I love it.

There’s that line, “It’s hard to get through another city day without thinking of getting out.” Well, I was already not liking cities and not liking how they felt. But I was living on my boat in Sausalito. I was pretty happy about that. I was already headed for the country.

7. “Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves)”

This is another one of those songs without words. I had a melody in a tuning that I liked. I loved the set of changes. I thought it was pretty. I didn’t have words for it, so I decided I was just going to horn-stack it with my voice. When I listened to it afterwards, I felt it was complete. I didn’t feel like it lacked anything. I loved it.

David Geffen didn’t like it, but David had a limited conception of what was music. He is a very bright man in some areas. You probably won’t want to play poker with him. He’s a very, very intelligent guy. But he never understood music and probably never will.

8. “Orléans”

I learned this [traditional song] from Paul Kantner. He taught it to me. I loved it. I though it was beautiful. I knew what would happen if I stacked it with all the parts of my voice. It’s nine parts of my voice all in one place. It was too pretty to ignore, so I included it.

9. “I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here”

I think this might be the best piece of music I ever thought up. I was in an extremely emotional state. It was probably the hardest night I had. I was just crying my eyes out. I was devastated. I was fucked up, and I was crying out that pain into an echo chamber. And all of a sudden, it started being coherent. I knew I had to do another vocal. I took maybe 15 minutes to do that song, and it might be the best piece of work I ever did.

It’s six vocals, one right after another, I didn’t even listen to them back. I just did them one after another. And then we played them back and this is what it was.

Looking back, I was an immature person, stoned out of my fucking mind, and I’m hit with something I absolutely couldn’t handle, at all. It’s amazing I managed to get into the studio to make the record at all.

From Rolling Stone US