By Daniel Margrain
In ‘Revolution Blues’ from his 1974 album, ‘On The Beach’, Neil Young famously spews vitriol on the fake tinsel town celebrity life-styles of the wealthy residents of Laurel Canyon many of whom lionized the killer, Charles Manson:
“Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars, but I hate them worse than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars,” sang Young.
Forming part of his ‘Ditch trilogy’ this was Young at his most angriest and bitter. It’s probably the Canadian artists greatest song from one of his best albums that reflected his disillusionment with the idealism of the hippies as the realism of the 1970s began to take hold.
Three years earlier, one of Young’s contemporaries, former Byrds member and long-time collaborator, David Crosby, released a far more cerebral, but no less brilliant take on the pessimism of the age. Indeed, with ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’, Crosby manages to evoke the resigned naturalist idyll of the Bay Area as a catharsis.
Among the seminal musician’s of the period who worked alongside Crosby on the album included Kaukonen, Slick, Casady and Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, Garcia, Leisha, Kreutzmann and Hart of Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash.
The creative influence of these brilliant musician’s is tangible, but the sound created is nevertheless ‘neutral’ and not comparable to any other kind in the bay area during the period when it was recorded.
Deeply philosophical and existential, the music and vocals exude a sadness and poignancy. Crosby appears to be lamenting a world lost in the mists of time while simultaneously yearning for spiritual redemption as if attempting to communicate with mirages or ghosts while in a trance.
This is arguably best expressed by the slow progression in the opening ‘Music Is Love’, which consists of a single verse (‘everyone says that music is love’) which is endlessly repeated by Crosby and choir in a mantra like way.
‘Laughing’ is one long note as if suspended between earth and heaven before returning to a resonating echo before it gradually fades into the silence of ‘What Are Their Names’. Possibly the weakest track on the album, the whispered tinkling guitar and harp strings of ‘Traction In The Rain’, evokes crystalline waterfalls.
‘Song With No Words’ is like an intense opera evocative of a subdued and poignant prayer in which the singing soars in a sublime flight. With the closing hallucinatory ‘I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here’, a cry of joy and despair is exuded which is a kind of corrective to the ambiguous dream and mystical states that preceded it.
The album which has influenced greatly contemporary musicians of the likes of Julia Holter and Julianna Barwick, is a tonal, harmonic and semi-baroque masterpiece akin to an impressionist painting. In the canon of rock music, it remains, nearly half a century since its release, one of the most absorbing and moving experiences in the history of the genre.
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4 thoughts on “What’s so great about David Crosby’s ‘If Only I Could Remember My Name’?”
I just discovered your blog through a link at Craig Murray’s. It’s been thirty years since I’ve listened to
‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’, and wonder what I’d think of it now. At the time it seemed like
a pleasant-sounding but complacent piece of work, but maybe I wasn’t listening closely. Maybe I’ll
check it out again. Thanks for writing this.
Thanks for reading it. Daniel.
Well, I’ve ordered a copy of the CD after realizing that the previous comment I left on the topic was
dismissive-sounding, and will try to add to the discussion after it arrives.