David Crosby’s 1971 classic If I Could Only Remember My Name turns 50 years old today. To commemorate the occasion, Petal Motel put together a wonderful track by track review of the album, with contributions from Jon Siembieda (Tahoe Onstage) and myself. The post also includes incredible artwork from Chuck Harris and a fabulous introduction by Silver Current chieftain Ethan Miller. Check out the full shebang below.
Ah…If I Could Only Remember My Name. A record that has travelled the roads and decades of my life burned into my heart and mind since I bought my first copy in some crumbling cardboard box marked $1 LPs all those years ago.
The majesty of this album is in the artist’s ability to elevate the unfinished idea, to let it run in its rawest form completely unbound, the seed of artistic creation unguided and in some cases dissolving rather than evolving in the air before our very ears. Yet, the resulting architecture, like that in a Calvino novella, though shape-shifting and made of memories and subconscious, is every bit as mesmerizing and awesome as a centuries-made cathedral of stone and glass, and its light and colors inside, every bit as infinitely shifting and complex.
It would seem, like Burroughs ‘Naked Lunch’ that the artist awoke, after having lost untold days or weeks to fever dream and ecstatic black-out to find a masterpiece on his lap in the morning sun of a new day. And if that is not the fact of the creation of this work, it is certainly the truth of its essence.
For, if to ‘create’ a work of art is the perfect balance of control and abandon, then to create a masterpiece of art in the act of complete abandon and absolute letting go is a truly extraordinary event, one that is so chemically imbalanced as to have no basis for outcome in method and technique, and yet, here it is… a miracle of an album, perfect in its shape-shifting, its weightlessness and its small, dark, heavy vial of raw spirit and emotion, a single eye-drop of which is enough to set an ocean dreaming.Ethan Miller
Music Is Love
Lara: “Music is Love” is the sound of nostalgia for the 60s, recorded only a year after the Summer of Love in which Crosby flourished came to a screeching halt. This is the sound of the era – a simple but glittering strum, one unembellished lyrical phrase that soon becomes more than the sum of its parts as one voice adds to another, echoing the timeless, transcendent harmonies that have become more sublime than their owners. Or maybe it’s a nostalgic throwback and an acknowledgment to the era that preceded recording – before Deja u, before the love of David’s life died suddenly and tragically, before things became tense between Stills and Nash, and always between Young and everyone else. “Music is Love” is the bridge from Deja Vu, the song with the most minimal personnel; just C, N, and Y showcasing what they do best- harmonizing, conjuring something sublime out of thin air. It’s an acknowledgement that things were shifting. “Music is Love” encapsulates the spirit of the album – collaborative, spontaneous, a series of captured moments and passing thoughts and feelings.
Jon: As fun and natural as it might sound, it’s not as easy as it seems to just invite all of your favorite California friends that are legends-in-the-making to come down and sit in on your first solo album with not a lot of structure or prep. This easily could have been a mess, for many reasons… but it’s not. In fact, they all captured magic, definitively. For my money, this is the ultimate early morning record. I truly find it best served starry-eyed with wonder, dreams from the past night melting away into the California sunlight as it rises from the east, not all of my receptors firing with full clarity.
Side 1 sets the tone, with a long fade in leading to David, Graham, and Neil harmonizing over a vampy acoustic folk jam. Feels pretty open and most definitely warm, with a glow that you hope will stay throughout (and does). Neil catches the ear with a surprise contribution on the bridge – the vibraphone.
Roberto: Unlike most of this album, the classic intro track can be easily assimilated into an actual genre of its time: that being the sunny, harmony-driven sound of Laurel Canyon folk-rock. With that said, “Music Is Love” perfectly encapsulates the halcyon days of ʼ60s Los Angeles, both in terms of substance and from a personnel standpoint. Three singing hippies, some acoustic guitars, and a simple refrain that speaks profound measures.
Lara: This eight minute allegory is one of Croz’s most brilliant lyrical moments, and certainly the rawest and grooviest. Jerry Garcia does his best Neil Young impression with a “Down By the River”-esque solo. Phil Lesh plays a rolling, moody bassline that carries the piece, while Crosby’s voice wails with vindication as he discovers all along he was right – Raven indeed was the law (although I think in reality it’s unfair to blame the Otherized woman for the actions of grown men but that’s another story).
Jon: The tone changes a bit here. The Grateful Dead stop in from another room in San Francisco’s Wally Heider Studios (where most of the musicians sitting in were recording for other projects tandemly at the time). I love this song, it’s what got me hooked for good the first time I brought the record home, and it still gets me every time. More vampy goodness… with some deceptively subtle complexity within the chord voicings, which allows Phil and Mickey to establish a rollicking (but trademark) sketchy pocket, along with Billy adding percussion. Per the usual, the Dead know how to make you feel like the train is going to roll off the tracks… but it never does (thanks to Phil!). Jerry weaves in and out, with his glassy, crystallized tone spiking in and out of the groove with sharp, twangy licks. Crosby sings in an “Almost Cut My Hair” type of style – not a set melody, but more of a peacocking storytelling delivery drenched with attitude and wrapped in dark, but exciting imagery. What a track! A true tour de force.
Roberto: This song is a jaw-dropping listen everytime I come back to this record, mostly because when I want to listen to If I Could Only Remember My Name, my mind is fixated on the hazy vibe it’s about to experience, and then bam – those opening riffs initiate a shockwave that tingles down my spine. The Dead’s freewheeling spirit injects the seance with a little acid-flavored rock and roll and Crosby’s flagrant, shouting vocal adds immensely to the rough and tumble trippiness.
Tamalpais High (at About 3)
Lara: More vocal brilliance. I have to admit that this album made me appreciate Phil’s playing more than any Dead studio record. Lesh’s signature style is tight and understated, Garcia and Jorma Kaukonen’s guitar parts play off each other beautifully. This album is truly the best of my worlds – the darkness and depth that CSNY had just started to broach with Deja Vu, those Laurel Canyon harmonies, and all of the experimentalism and intrigue of the Dead without overstaying its welcome.
Jon: Everything gets pulled way back in now with the dynamics… Pretty simple notes on the rhythm side, with just a touch of a jazzy feel on the turnaround payoff to go along with the psychedelia that’s settling in as the go-forward mood. The Dead are back as the band, and there’s a mega tasty guitar weave between Jorma and Jerry, who cuts loose about halfway through the song. Things are really starting to kick in. This is one of my favorite Jerry performances ever… but before things drift too far out to sea, the track fades out.
Roberto: The first truly psychedelic moment on the album. This is when I can start to feel the drugs kicking in. The breeze is picking up, colors are melting into one another, and peripheral objects are beginning to oscillate. The jazzy undertones are lovely and if you needed any reassurance of Crosby’s godlike harmony game, here it is. The melding of his and Nash’s voice into the sound of a singular instrument is life-giving and I love the way the music follows right in their back pocket. It makes me think of a bandleader carefully conducting their ensemble with swift but smooth hand gestures.
Lara: Almost impossible to describe, the feeling that “Laughing” evokes. Garcia’s crystalline pedal steel arcing, Joni Mitchell’s vocals mingling gorgeously with Crosby’s, a meditation completely unconcerned with any time outside the present. This song, widely the most beloved from the album, is about the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and writer/guru Erik Davis provides a wonderful meditation on the track on his website. There’s one lyric I interpreted differently though – Davis says, “The guru is not exposed as a liar or a lech, a joker or a thief, but ‘only’ a child laughing in the sun.” I instead thought that the intent of the song is indeed that no man holds all the answers – but perhaps only a child laughing in the sun actually does understand what it’s all about.
Jon: Things are getting exponentially stonier by the minute at this point. Now everyone’s just layered beautifully, hovering in the key of D. Once again, Jerry’s devastating dirty beauty is on full display, this time with a spaced-out pedal steel performance from another dimension, while Joni Mitchell joins in on angelic harmonies. The Dead continue as the de facto backing band, with Billy playing drums over percussion. Graham continues to contribute his legendary harmonies as well, which he has for most of this side. Laurel Canyon has merged full on with San Francisco, at the height of all of their powers. Very sick vibes. At this point, you’re scratching your head wondering why every one of your friends doesn’t have this album, and why it took you longer than necessary to find it yourself.
Roberto: Does it get any better than this? Seriously. This is the apex of rock’s seminal stoner classic, a sacred hymn for the psychedelic era and an otherworldly composition that sounds more like a mystic trance than an actual song. Garcia’s pedal steel is an album highlight and within four bars, Joni Mitchell’s celestial ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ capture a divine beauty that every harmony singer since has spent their entire lifetime chasing.
What Are Their Names?
Lara: A perfect follow-up to the translucent, airy, gossamer quality of “Laughing;” the urgency of “What Are Their Names?” is no less relevant today than it was fifty years ago. Such a deep groove, lingering and stirring before Crosby, Nash, Mitchell, Young, Lesh, Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, and David Freiberg launch into the haunting demand to know who’s really in control. Garcia and Young’s guitar parts overlay, mingling and separating like tributaries, both currents strong and becoming more powerful in their meeting.
Jon: Side 2 starts with Croz, Jerry, Neil, Joni, Phil, and now we’re getting the Airplane folks in on the action – Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, and David Freiberg. Ominous fade in over a drony riff, we’re getting a darker jam from Neil and Jerry. This is what these guys do that many don’t get – they marry the darkness and the light. Croz and co. layer haunting vocals. The whole track is relentless, and then poof! It fades out quickly.
Roberto: With echoes of CSNY’s “Ohio,” in its lone group verse, the sentiment of this track cuts deep. Much of that is in credit to Young and Garcia’s guitar interplay, which maintains a sinister vibe throughout, but it’s the impassioned communal cries of all the legendary voices behind the mic on this one that seal the deal and make the song one of the more emotionally-affecting moments on the record.
Traction in the Rain
Lara: The simplicity of Laura Allan’s sparkling autoharp, Crosby’s breathy, melismatic vocal performance, and Nash’s gentle strum of the acoustic guitar would make this song fit in easily on a new age-y compilation. (Check out Laura’s 1980 album Reflections to hear more of her enchanting autoharp alchemy. Tender, shimmering, and highly emotional, this stripped down performance reminds us of what Crosby’s left with when the music stops and his friends step out – this was a man in the midst of unbearable pain and suffering; and we’re lucky he allowed us witness.
Jon: Probably my favorite on Side 2. The darkness gives way to the light. Laura Allan carries the day with the autoharp along with Croz, and that’s all you need for a stellar cut. Total contrast in vocals from the bravado in “Cowboy Movie,” David is at his most delicate and vulnerable, maybe ever. Incredibly simple, tremendously beautiful, and profoundly effective.
Roberto: One of the more tender and pretty numbers here. I recently watched Crosby and Nash’s 1970 BBC concert, where they perform a handful of tracks from this record, and this was the one I kept going back to. Croz’ voice is mystifying, like almost unbearably beautiful. It’s an illuminating moment that puts things in perspective; Crosby’s voice was an integral part of not only The Byrds and CSN but the sound of the ʼ60s and the counterculture as a whole.
Song with No Words (Tree with No Leaves)
Lara: While the majority of songs on this album are snippets, moments captured, fleeting in nature, not one seems like an afterthought- no fluff or filler (despite many critics’ claims to the contrary.) Although David’s voice is his greatest gift, words aren’t missed in this hypnotic, illustrative jam.
Jon: Really dig this one too. The record just doesn’t let up… and is masterful at going from epic soundscape to epic soundscape without ever getting monotonous. The Jerry/Jorma weave is back, and in top form. Crosby is humming and chanting at this point with – you guessed it – no words, along with Graham… and it’s pretty awesome. Not to go unmentioned, Jack Casady is playing bass, and Gregg Rolie is playing piano. The outro is a legit jam of powerhouses.
Roberto: If “Laughing” is the album’s climax, “Song with No Words” is its testimony. Only Crosby could turn serendipitous humming into a dreamlike meditation. The band deserves a lot of credit on this one too. Rolie’s piano licks add loads of drama to the delicacy of the core tune and the ascending guitars deepen the song with an underlying urgency – a final flash in the pan of instrumental brilliance after a record’s worth of masterful performances.
Lara: In case you got caught up in the wonder of the grooves on this record, “Orleans” is an undeniable reminder of why despite any antagonism and bullshit on his part, Crosby is one of the most talented motherfuckers of the century. As he says himself, “I just love to sing.” His versatoile, classical tenor, whether alone or harmonizing with others or himself, is pure, clear, and remarkably evocative. Although he self-effacingly referred to this song as “Mormon Tabernacle” Dave, after unrelenting Bay Area jamming, “Orleans’ highlights his magical vocals.
Jon: More simplicity. Just Croz on layered vocals until a pretty descending acoustic guitar enters tastefully. Feels like a tension release in the mood. Makes you wonder what’s next.
Roberto: Building on side two’s hallucinogenic momentum, “Orleans” only bolsters the album’s case as the ultimate “vibe” record of the classic rock era. The layers of rich vocals reverberate with an unmistakable shimmer that likens to the warm hues of the sunset on the album cover and the subtle acoustic patterns round it all out to form an inviting bed of comforting sounds.
I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here
Lara: A chilling cry, a ghost in the studio as the musicians head out one by one and Croz is the only one left, taking a last look around before flipping the light switch and locking up. Completely goosebump-inducing, heart-rending. That’s this album’s brilliance, and Crosby’s, love him or hate him. Despite listening to him for decades, he can still stop you in your tracks.
Jon: Everything that has brought us here has given way to 100% Crosby. All vocals naming only locations in France, no other instruments… just vibes and reverb, feeling like ocean waves crashing on the rocky California coastline. It’s as if the entire experience of this LP, all of the moods, and all of the guests have culminated in one ethereal, open, final commencement offered solely from Crosby… and now that I’m fully awoken, I can properly go on and start the day.
Roberto: I love that the album finishes things off with a touch of eeriness. It’s hard to shake the darkness that underscores Croz’ atmospheric chants, a preview of things to come perhaps. But it’s hard to envision a better outro. With solely his voice, Crosby manages to cap off what remains a transcendent album experience. It’s a completion of the ritual. The finishing touch on a revealing self-portrait. One last sacred psalm before the dream sails away for good. The final say on his masterpiece.