In keeping with his rather eccentric personality, David Crosby released the most unconventional of the albums issued around the time of his burgeoning popularity with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young (respectively, Déjà Vu, Stephen Stills, Songs for Beginners, and After the Gold Rush ). And yet If I Could Only Remember My Name (released 2/22/71) isn’t exactly a direct extension of his surprisingly sophisticated his latter-day work with The Byrds (“Lady Friend”) either. Instead, this collection of often-spontaneous performances is mood music at its most enthralling.
Recorded in 1970-71 around the same time and, at least in part, at the same location as the Grateful Dead’s landmark LP American Beauty, Crosby’s first solo album also boasted the specialized technical skill of Stephen Barncard. In recording and mixing this album, the staff engineer at San Francisco’s Wally Heider Studios was nurturing his aptitude for capturing layered vocal harmonies and acoustic instruments and it’s the resulting prominence of those particular elements that most readily distinguish the sound of this LP.
The sparkling multiple acoustic guitars earmark “Traction In The Rain,” for example, while equally lush vocal harmonies also billow within tracks such as “Tamales High (At About 3) and “Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves).” The latter features two of the most memorable sit-ins, among various contributions by contemporaries of Crosby’s, in this case, Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna’s Jack Casady inimitably feather-light touch on bass plus the only piano on the record from Santana’s Gregg Rolie.
Elsewhere, the fulsome singing on “Laughing” features Joni Mitchell. The ghostly rendition of the traditional “Orleans” also reminds us why the human voice is often regarded as the greatest musical instrument. Deep echo placed on the vocals during “I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here” doesn’t imprint the lush quality upon the track, but instead enhances that haunting virtue. And while that number duly reminds of Crosby’s innate talent for harmony, going back to his early days with the aforementioned seminal American band, this original is also quite representative of the author’s skill in fully capturing ineffable moods in melody.
Unfortunately, David did not possess a similar facility with words. The lyrics of “Music Is Love” consists of little more than the title, while “Cowboy Movie” is less interesting as a dramatic narrative than as fodder for gossip: who IS he talking about there?!? That and the fact its chord progression so clearly echoes the Canadian rock icon’s “Down By The River.” But this ultimately mesmerizing eight-minute cut is most notable for the impromptu ensemble that coalesces around the frontman, including the Grateful Dead’s guitarist Jerry Garcia, bassist Phil Lesh, and drummer Mickey Hart.
Given the tumultuous times in which this record appeared–four students would be shot and killed at Kent State University in May of this same year–the number’s subliminal paranoia might also seem justifiable, Not so, however, the strident but mercifully brief “Who Are Their Names” which only continues the conspiracy theorizing Crosby trumpeted from the stage at Monterey Pop (where he appeared with Buffalo Springfield in place of Neil Young).
Crosby would not release another record under his own name along until 1989’s Oh Yes I Can. Yet multiple reissues of If I Could Only Remember My Name, including a 1990 remaster by Barncard himself, have appeared over the years to take advantage of the advances of technology. Still, it’s a credit to the latter’s expertise, as well as David Crosby’s original self-production (markedly superior to his work in that vein for the Byrds’ 1973 reunion record), that, with or without headphones, even a stripped-down compact disc version of this now fifty-year-old album offers dream-like listening.
The immersive nature of that experience is, in turn, reflective of the cinematic cover image (not surprisingly taken from a movie frame) that adorns this solo debut of one of rock’s most iconoclastic figures.