David Crosby and Raekwon have more in common than mentioning a few cocaine references in their respective careers. Both are involved in groups who not only released albums as a whole, but went out of their way to release a wide range of solo and side projects to a hungry audience. It is safe to say that Crosby, Stills & Nash (& sometimes Young) indirectly paved the way for the marketing techniques of the Wu-Tang empire. The first part of the CSN(&Y) equation belongs to David Crosby, who had been in The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield before playing on his own. This lead to the formation of a group who would singlehandedly influence much of the rock, folk-rock, and acoustic-based music that was to come in the 1970’s, a “California sound” involving acoustic guitars, incredible songwriting and lush vocal harmonies. Each member of the CSN(&Y) equation had their own musical mission, and 1971 saw the release of Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name…., and this brand new deluxe edition from Rhino Records shows, in sound, why this is one of the most important albums of the last 35 years.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were already falling apart during the recording of Déjà Vu, and when they toured in support of it, there was a lot of backstage bickering which lead to one of many break-ups for the group. Young had gained some popularity before joining CSN, so leaving allowed him to continue with his muse, creating a legacy separate from the group function. Stephen Stills released his debut solo album and had a massive hit with the hippie anthem “Love The One You’re With”. Graham Nash wrote songs for what would become his debut solo album, which left Crosby to write and gather songs for his long-awaited solo album. Like most musicians of the time, he jammed, smoked, drank, and celebrated with other musicians and friends as a family function, so it was perfectly natural for him to ask his friends to sit in and simply play. While the issue of “contractual obligation” was not as huge as it is today, gathering everyone in the studio at once was as simple as a phone call and a few joints. If the late 1960’s sought a need for freedom, love and unity, perhaps If I Could Only Remember My Name…. was the potential of the dream realized.
On a personal level, this was one of those albums I had been curious about for years. Getting into record collecting as a hobby, I would always see a photo of this album on the inner sleeves found on albums released by Atlantic. One could easily find records by Stills, Nash, and Young, but never this one. That curiosity would remain until I was able to locate a copy at a thrift store. I then realized why people were hoarding it, and after doing some research, I began to understand the album’s mystery and power.
Simply put, the album allowed Crosby to shine on his own, and he did so through songs of love and life, sometimes being very direct, sometimes clouded in unique metaphor and imagery. The album begins with “Music Is Love”, which is nothing more than Crosby playing an acoustic guitar and making up the words as he plays. One is able to hear the creation of a song as it happens, and the recording itself is in mono, as if it came from a private home recording. Graham Nash and Neil Young join in, the song becomes alive, and suddenly the mix moves from mono to stereo, the musical equivalent of what happens when Dorothy dreams and finds herself over the rainbow. From that point on, it becomes a journey worth riding and exploring.
Crosby found himself in San Francisco following the death of his girlfriend, and so he seeked the solace of music and friends to carry him to the next phase of his life. Those partnerships resulted in the musicianship heard throughout the album, and what this deluxe edition does is allow older fans to relive the power heard when this was released, and to give new listeners a chance to hear a recording that has gained a cult following. The album was mixed from the original master tapes, and as someone who kept a constant audio archive of his work, the recordings are well preserved and sound great. While this writer prefers the digital version released by Atlantic a few years ago, they both capture the unique soundscapes Crosby and his friends created together. However, fans of the album have been anxious to hear a much rumored surround sound mix, which has been delayed for years with no release date in sight. This deluxe edition is a CD/DVD combo, with the DVD featuring a 5.0 surround mix (not 5.1, and this was done for “artistic reasons” according to Crosby) and if you think you’ve heard this album from every angle, think again.
What I like about “Music Is Love” is that the mix pretty much stayed the same as the standard version. But once it moves to “Cowboy Movie”, you are completely surrounded in sound, and in this case Crosby jamming with the Grateful Dead. In unreleased recordings, Crosby has said he admired the Grateful Dead for what they were able to do in their music but knew they could play better, and this is perhaps the music Crosby had heard in his head. The song is pretty much an eleven-minute jam session based around the same chord structure, but its repetitive quality works as a meditative drone as Crosby starts to sing with more intensity as the song goes on. The song itself is spoken in metaphor about the breakup of CSN(&Y), and once the listener gets caught up in what they’re playing, one doesn’t realize (or care) how long the song is going. This goes right into the multilayered vocal harmonies of Crosby and Nash in “Tamalpais High (At About 3)”, and the 5.0 mix has the vocals arranged evenly in all speakers, with some of the guitar overdubs mixed nicely in the back channels.
Critics and fans have often said this album brings chills to the spine, bringing an eerie aura that is not common in other recordings, and that begins in the beautiful “Laughing”. The song has some of the best harmonies ever heard in a rock song, from the Indian-like drone of the guitar heard at the beginning of each verse (the song was written as a message for George Harrison) to the slide guitar played by Jerry Garcia, and of course those harmonies that come out of Crosby flawlessly. Of course, it is the lyrics that make “Laughing” a special song. Crosby did not agree with Harrison and his belief that a Maharishi-type person could provide all of the answers to life, and suggested that if an answer can be found, it may be closer than seeking a self-proclaimed guru:”And I thought/ I’ve seen someone who seemed at last/ To know the truth/ I was mistaken/ only a child laughing in the sun”
The simplicity of those four lines, and the harmonies used to sing the last line, work so well, and the added vocal harmony from Joni Mitchell only helps to bring the message home, along with a complimentary closing slide solo from Garcia.
If there’s one song that has always given me chicken skin (“goose bumps”), it’s “What Are Their Names”. While Crosby may have written it from the newspapers of the time, it couldn’t be more relevant than it is today. The song itself begins with a few simple guitars, which goes on for a minute before the rest of the band starts walking into the mix. The vocals, shared as a group by Crosby, Grace Slick and Paul Kantner (Jefferson Airplane), David Frieberg, Graham Nash, and Laura Allen, come in from behind, but then it sounds as if there are two vocal groups, one in the front, one in the back. Slick’s voice is the one that always stood out, and in the first half of the verse she’s a lot clearer: “I wonder who they are/ The men who really run this land/ And I wonder why they run it/ With such a thoughtless hand”
Once we get to this point in the song, Slick sings a little stronger and at one point dominates everyone, resulting in something that brings the listener to tears: “What are their names/ And on what streets do they live/ I’d like to ride right over/ This afternoon and give them/ A piece of my mind/ About peace for mankind/ Peace is not an awful lot to ask.”
The music slowly fades away, and one almost doesn’t want the song to end. The power generated by the music, the vocals, and the lyrics is almost overwhelming, and yet the album is only half way over.
The rest of the album is relatively reseved compared to the first five songs, but with a mixture of unique guitar tunings and writing styles, Crosby was able to create something that didn’t speak for a specific generation, but was a personal message from him to his friends, who shared their love and respect for him by joining him on his recording. That concept may sound outdated and hippie-dippie, but it was an honest and genuine celebreation of music and life, without ego.
The stereo remaster on the CD is fantastic, and the 5.0 nicely compliments the well known by enhancing what lies in the multitracks, which adds to the listening experience. There’s a moment in “Tamalpais High (At About 3)” where the musicians stop playing and singing, and it doesn’t sound like you’re in the middle of a mix, but rather in the actual studio as one can actually feel and hear the presence of a room. The overall vibe of the album, even in 2006, is that of a recording that should be listened to in the dark or with your eyes closed. Intoxicating liquids and green leafy substances are optional, but one will discovery that the music and mental imagery is more than enough to feed ones head. What Pet Sounds did for Brian Wilson, If I Could Only Remember My Name…. has done for Crosby.