DI takes its role as edutainers seriously, and in that spirit we’re spotlighting great albums and choice cuts from 1970-1999 to edify our readers’ musical breadth of knowledge. Each week will focus on a single year and some of the sweetmeat it produced.
“And I thought that I’d found the light/ To guide me through my nights and all this darkness/ I was mistaken, only reflections of a shadow that I saw.”
The solo output of the Crosby, Stills & Nash has been a mixed bag – sometimes trapped in the production of a particular era, artistic self-indulgence, or just simply not as hefty as their combined mojo. There are fine moments on every single album these crazy talented musicians have put out but few feel as fully formed and organic as the two albums that will forever form the spine of their catalogues – Déjà Vu and their self-titled 1969 trio debut. However, there is a striking exception to this streak: David Crosby’s stunning 1971 solo debut If I Could Only Remember My Name….
An album lush with mysteries and inspired, intuitive playing, If I Could Only Remember My Name… beautifully bridges the feeling of volcanic 60s promise and the new decade’s rising ennui, sometimes snaring these feelings in pure sound – there’s a cut titled “Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves)” that’s as lovely and melancholy as any lyrical stab at those same ideas. The juxtapositions are pointed but not as sharp as one might think with pretty, hippy-ish opener “Music Is Love” giving way quite naturally to the gnarly, electric guitar-basted “Cowboy Movie,” which mingles rock’s enduring association with outlaw culture with CSN’s now-legendary personal drama, particularly as regards the bed hopping of various lady friends. But every piece here is drawn in a way that’s open to multiple interpretations, poetic leaps encouraged and possibilities embraced, firm notions skirted and clear lines blurred.
At times, the album lets out a great, collective sigh, be it the druggy late night stroll of “Tamalpais High (At About 3)” or more explicitly the enlightened disappointment of “Laughing,” which is simply one of the greatest tunes Crosby ever wrote and produced, a meeting of many major talents including amazing pedal steel from Jerry Garcia and haunting backing vocals from Joni Mitchell. Luminaries, particularly from the Bay Area scene, are all over this record, including Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner, Jack Casady and Grace Slick, Grateful Dead rhythm beasts Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, Santana’s Gregg Rolie and Michael Shrieve, CSNY chum Neil Young and a host of other talented folks. But Crosby, the album’s producer and clear architect, doesn’t dissect things track-by-track so we only know that these varied craftsmen and freaks had some hand in things but specific fingerprints are wiped away. It’s a strangely “Summer of Love” kinda move that speaks to the collective nature of the early 70s rock scene around San Francisco and Marin (and their invited compatriots), the rogues gallery of photos inside the album bespeaking the cool creative environment that birthed this album.
However, that group shot is balanced by a picture of a stone-faced, shirtless Crosby, smoking curling around his head, his Old West ready moustache curling downwards, and most strikingly an American flag folded to form a gun which he’s pointed at his head. It’s a loaded image – in several respects – that nicely sums up the 60s counter-culture as it ran headlong into the mainstream of a country still enmeshed in the Vietnam War, major social rights upheaval and other major challenges. On “Traction In The Rain,” Crosby sings, “You know it’s hard for me to find a way to get through another city day without thinking about getting out.” It’s a cold splash on a gently flowing tune but a necessary one, both at that moment and today in the rush-rush-rush 21st century. Without being preachy or programmatic, Crosby distilled a timeless classic in If I Could Only Remember My Name…, where folks with big hearts, wild natures, and oodles of talent went divining for truths that last more than a day or even a year.