Sunday, April 26, 2009

David Crosby

Sometime in 1991, I remember picking up a vinyl copy of David Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name, his first solo album released a full twenty years before then. At that time, there could possibly be nothing uncooler than David Crosby (well, I guess Stills and Nash). But I'd always had a soft spot for Crosby, and frequently embarrassed for it. It was hard to justify to my friends who (like me) were into the Smiths, Pixies, Ministry, or Big Black that I also liked David Crosby (or, God forbid, Crosby Stills and Nash). But I did. I always liked his music. In fact, I loved it. His two acoustic contributions to the CSNY live album Four-Way Street ("Triad" and "The Leeshore") were incandescent, just gorgeous acoustic meditations that were, yes, very hippie, but at the same time, peculiar, strange, and deeply evocative of dreams.

David Crosby has had an extremely checkered career but luckily for his audience, was at the peak of his musical abilities between about 1965 and 1971. His sensibilities were an interesting mix: chamber folk, jazz, unconventional guitar tunings, hippie/utopian lyrics whose subject matter ranged from medieval myths, free love, politics, and nature. First with the Byrds and then with Crosby Stills Nash (& Young), he would write some wonderfully innovative songs, taking the folk (rock) idiom into new places. Some of these songs ("Deja Vu" and "Mind Garden," for example) followed no discernible song structure, i.e., no choruses, verses etc.

But nothing really prepares you for the solo album. From start to finish, this album is guided by the notion that music can be beautiful, experimental, and accessible, all at the same time. And (cough) transcendental. If you can get over the fact that this is David Crosby, inveterate hippie and member of the absurdly self-indulgent group, Crosby Stills & Nash, who have produced some of the most bland music this side of Dan Fogelberg, I urge you to seek this CD out. Yeah, it's a pot album, but it's much more than just that.

It would be tedious to go through the album track by track but it's worth it to offer a little background. A whole host of the usual California "soft-rock" cognoscenti dropped in on the sessions, including members of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Crosby wrote the songs and played guitars but as he noted elsewhere, the guitars were tuned perfectly. You can hear the perfectly tuned guitars on the song "Laughing," one of my favorite Crosby songs of all time [mp3 posted below], as they strum in perfect unison through the song, a strum that builds into moments of sheer transcendence (that word again) as a steel guitar plays out the coda. The lyrics are even better. Like all the best lyrics, they are both general and specific. I have to excerpt the whole thing here because part of its beauty is its brevity:

I thought, I met a man, who said he knew a man
Who knew what was goin' on

I was mistaken

Only another stranger
That I knew

And I thought, that I'd found the light

To guide me through my nights and all my darkness

I was mistaken

It was only reflections of a shadow
That I saw

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

In the sun

I love the fact that the song is called "Laughing." Nothing more, nothing less.

There are a couple of instrumental jams, one called "Tamalpais High (At About 3)" and the other called "Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves)" that are drop dead beautiful. You can hear the latter here at NPR which picked the track as one of its "songs of the day" a couple of years ago. There's also an eight-minute long "rock" track, "Cowboy Movie" which is a fantasy cowboys-and-Indians story written as if a movie was filmed armed only with several awesome rhythm guitars. An unreleased version featuring Neil Young on lead guitar is, as one might expect, totally ragged and crazy. The album ends with an acapella song that is not unlike something you might find on an early Dead Can Dance album (like Within the Realm of a Dying Sun, for example).

It's worth noting how deeply uncool this album was for decades. Famous rock critic Robert Christgau, later champion of all things punk and post-punk, gave the album a D- and called it a "disgraceful performance." Now you have uber cool people like Devendra Banhart and the Fleet Foxes referencing this album as a touchstone for the new(ish) "freak folk" scene.

So what can I offer today? A version of "The Leeshore" from a September 1970 performance with Crosby & Nash. Nash talks too much. Just ignore it. The song soars on its weird tunings. Sends chills up my spine. Amazingly, the song was never released in its original form until 1991.

A couple of mp3s. The first is "Laughing" in its album version. The second is "Kids and Dogs," a song recorded at the original sessions for the album but left off and not released until 2006. And the third is "Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves)," a version originally recorded for Deja Vu but left unreleased until 1991.

David Crosby -- Laughing [mp3]
David Crosby -- Kids And Dogs [mp3]
David Crosby -- Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves) [mp3]

For completists, there's a detailed account of the recording of If I Could Only Remember My Name here, focusing especially on the recording of the song "Laughing."

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