David Crosby’s ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’ – his most definitive album turns 50
After the initial dissolution of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, all four members went on to release landmark solo albums. First out of the gate was Neil Young -- already an established solo artist -- with September 1970's After the Gold Rush, then Stephen Stills' self-titled solo album, David Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name, and Graham Nash's Songs For Beginners. Neil's album of course went on to become one of the most popular rock records of all time, and Stills' and Nash's albums both produced enduring Top 40 hits ("Love the One You're With" and "Chicago," respectively). In comparison, Crosby's album has become more of a hidden gem over the years, not a staple of classic rock radio like his work with CSN(Y) and The Byrds, but a goldmine for those eager to explore it and a complete realization of the psychedelia that Croz had been honing in on since The Byrds' groundbreaking 1966 single "Eight Miles High." That album turns 50 today.
After emerging as a pioneering folk rock and jangle pop band and scoring chart-topping hits with unique covers of Dylan and Pete Seeger tunes, The Byrds caught on to the psychedelic craze that swept rock and pop music in the mid-to-late 1960s, and no Byrds member embraced it more firmly that David Crosby. The band's aforementioned 1966 single "Eight Miles High" took influence from Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane and made allusions to drug use in its lyrics, and it's widely considered one of the first psychedelic rock songs ever written. Croz co-wrote that song with his bandmates Gene Clark and Jim McGuinn, and from that point on, he increasingly became The Byrds' freak flag waver for psychedelic music, contributing trippy compositions like "Renaissance Fair," "Everybody's Been Burned," "Mind Gardens," and "Tribal Gathering." At their now-legendary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, Croz -- much to his bandmates' dismay -- became The Byrds' spokesperson for mind-expansion, urging politicians to take LSD and blurting out things like "your mother gets high and you don't even know it!" Around the same time, Crosby's hippie-friendly ode to love triangles "Triad" was rejected by The Byrds for its subject matter, so Croz gave it to his friends in Jefferson Airplane. By October of 1967, he was kicked out of the band.
Not long after his departure, he linked up with Stills and Nash, and his interest in psychedelic music carried over into CSN's self-titled 1969 debut on songs like "Guinnevere" and "Wooden Ships," the latter of which was co-written with Stills and Jefferson Airplane's Paul Kantner and also recorded for the Airplane's 1969 album Volunteers (and performed by both bands that year at Woodstock). Croz snuck musical weirdness into each band he was in, but it wasn't until If I Could Only Remember My Name that he was able to indulge his most mind-bending impulses for the length of an entire album.
Like on all of their solo albums from the era, other CSNY members were present on If I Could Only Remember My Name (opening track "Music Is Love," the album's closest thing to a hit, was co-written and co-sung with Neil Young and Graham Nash), and the album also featured Joni Mitchell and a collective of musicians from the Haight-Ashbury scene nicknamed The Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra. The group was made up of members of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and more -- including Croz, Nash, Paul Kantner, Jerry Garcia, Grace Slick, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, and David Freiberg -- who made their debut on Paul Kantner's stunning 1970 sci-fi concept album Blows Against the Empire and also played on Nash's Songs for Beginners and other albums from that era by Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, Mickey Hart, Jefferson Airplane violinist Papa John Creach, and more. So as much as If I Could Only Remember My Name is indeed a solo album, it's also a supergroup of some of the greatest musicians of the Woodstock generation. Jerry Garcia played an especially big role in the making of the record; it'd a huge missing link to talk about the Dead and their friends' prolific early '70s studio output and leave out this album.
The folky, shambolic, Neil Young and Graham Nash-assisted "Music Is Love" opens the album on its most CSNY-like note, though it's even more of an overt hippie anthem than "Wooden Ships" or the Joni Mitchell-penned "Woodstock" or anything else the group had released prior, and the record just gets weirder from there. The radio-friendliness disappears by track two, "Cowboy Movie," eight minutes of jammy psych-rock that finds Crosby backed by half of the Grateful Dead and sounds as freeform and improvisational as anything the Dead were doing on stage in that era. Songs like "Tamalpais High (At About 3)" and "What Are Their Names" marry the glistening, acid-soaked instrumentals of Deadhead faves like "Dark Star" and "St. Stephen" to the painstakingly beautiful vocal harmonies that Crosby penned in The Byrds and CSN(Y). "Traction in the Rain" reminds you that all Crosby needs to hypnotize the listener is his voice and acoustic guitar, and that -- as a psychedelic folk singer -- he could rival Tim Buckley or Syd Barrett or Vashti Bunyan or any of the other cultishly-loved solo artists who were reevaluated as underrated pioneers during the 2000s freak folk boom. On "Orleans" -- a harmony-laden arrangement of a French traditional fueled by several overdubs of Crosby's own voice -- he practically invents the style of Fleet Foxes' first album. On album closer "I'd Swear There Was Somebody Here," he leans into the studio-as-instrument approach and creates the kind of audio mindfuck that Panda Bear would make a career out of, using almost nothing more than his voice and effects.
Even if the album wasn't literally "the Grateful Dead meets Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young," that'd be a good way to describe it. Crosby embraced the Dead's explorative jam side when his two previous bands wouldn't, and he was able to embellish those jams with the kinds of complex vocal harmonies that the Dead never had the ability to pull off themselves. It's a classic document of psychedelic folk, psychedelic rock, jam band, and experimental music, and it remains such a crucial record because it continues to directly and indirectly impact artists across all four of those genres of music half a century later. (And aided by Jerry Garcia's pedal steel, "Laughing" can basically qualify as proto-alt-country.) There's no mistaking what era this album is from -- if anything, it sounds more like what we think of as "'60s music" than what we think of as "'70s music" (the story that Altamont killed the hippie era is a neat ending on paper, but plenty of musicians carried the sounds of the '60s over into the next decade, Crosby included) -- but it continues to be striking how fresh and timeless this album sounds year after year. The popularity of psychedelic music ebbs and flows but it never fully goes away, and Crosby's debut still sounds like it could fit in at any point in the last half-century of psychedelia.
If I Could Only Remember My Name is one of those albums -- like The Beach Boys' Smiley Smile or The Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request -- that you almost can't believe was released by such a famous musician during such a height of their career. David Crosby is a household name, but you're way less likely to encounter a stranger on the street who can hum a song from this album the way they could "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes." It is both eternally underrated, and the most comprehensive portrait of who David Crosby is as an artist.