Pick of the Week #3
Graham Nash/David Crosby
Where Will I Be?/Page 43

(Graham Nash David Crosby, 1972)
By Beppe Colli
Dec. 7, 2020

It's quite funny, in a way, to find yourself immersed in deep concentration, thinking about the world as it was before Internet, while looking at the cover of an old album: If I Could Only Remember My Name (1971), the much-lauded first solo release by David Crosby. An album cover the never failed to capture one's attention, in that spacious 12" format that was the LP. A "movie-like" cover image I'd call "innovative", with an inventive coupling of elements, combining a close-up of the artist and a panoramic view of his great love: the sea.

At the time it was quite normal, upon entering the room of someone you knew barely, or not at all, to have a look at his "record collection" that typically consisted of ten or twenty titles, rarely many more, that told one that one's guest was a "serious listener". If the collection was of a high quality, it was obvious that your host was a person of taste. But sometimes it happened that one could see David Crosby's eyes and the sea appearing among those records, which meant that one's host was a really special listener, a lover of both "attentive listening sessions" and of that special kind of "delayed satisfaction" that only comes after a certain amount of time is spent exploring the music.

What "the others" thought about a certain album - those one didn't know, and those whose existence one could not even imagine as existing - was bound to remain an unknown quantity forever. Learning about an album's sales, or its chart placement, was not too difficult, radio speakers announcing "from the top of the American charts", and singles' covers reproducing slices of "trade papers" such as Cash Box, Billboard, etc. as a witness to the fact that, yes, that song was really a "smash hit".

Learning about a "different opinion" could be a source of heavy quarreling, in most extreme cases proving to be the end of a strong friendship. Many harsh words - even injuries - were thrown at those few critics one could read at the time, rarely in a foreign language.

Even more disconcerting to learn ex post that somebody didn't share one's enthusiasm when it came to album x. That not everybody at that time "got" David Crosby's first album. And that world-famous critics such as Robert Christgau and Lester Bangs spoke words of great scorn and ridicule about it.

Lester Bangs's review - in Rolling Stone, 4/15/71 - admits that "it is not a bad album", but then it defines it as this: "It would make a perfect aural aid to digestion when you're having guests over for dinner". After unfavourably comparing Crosby's album with Alexander Spence's solo album, Oar, here's the punch line: "And oh, the songs! They may sort of mumble and drone into each other, but they sure got vibes!".

Robert Christgau's review is short and straight, just a few lines that start with "This disgraceful performance" and end with what I think is one of his lowest grades ever (D-). The review announces a reader competition: to change David Crosby's name. Christgau offers his entries. (His opinion of the David Crosby and Graham Nash album I'm gonna talk about in a short while proves to be even more spiky: "Two stars trapped in their own mannerisms, filtering material through a style.")

Present-day judgements offer quite a few surprises, with an unexpected twist: a favourable opinion whose argument makes the material sound ridiculous.

Enter Amanda Petrusich, with her piece which appeared on July 16, 2019 in the Culture Desk section of the US weekly the New Yorker under the title "David Crosby Celebrates His Ornery Self in the Documentary 'Remember My Name'".

"The record was a moderate success upon its release, but it has since been heralded as a weirdo classic, beloved by stoners and record geeks for its easy harmonies and pleasantly meandering melodies."

Calling If I Could Only Remember My Name "a weirdo classic" is quite strange - to today's ears, it's not such an unusual-sounding work - even more if one talks about "easy harmonies" and "pleasantly meandering melodies".

Even more perplexing is her use of the same put-down devised by Lester Bangs, but as a compliment: music sounding similar to an open-air party.

"Many of its best songs feel like luxuriating in a long summer afternoon in the country, when good friends have come by and the fireflies are just beginning to gather in the yard: the music is warm, buoying, and gently psychedelic."

The way it appears online, Petrusich's piece features two YouTube links at the words "best" and "songs": one takes readers to the song titled I'd Swear There Was Somebody Here, the other to the song Laughing. Songs that really need no introduction, with the first - featuring echoes of "chanting" that appear in Indian music - as a solemn meditation about the ghostly apparition of somebody whom one once loved (besides being one of the most "wasted" performances by David Crosby, as witnessed by Stephen Barncard, the sound engineer that was an accomplice to the song creation); and the second as a deep meditation in a way that's both serene and full of grief at the same time - a quality shared by the pedal steel guitar played by Jerry Garcia, appearing here as a guest - about one's trying to find an answer, or a light in the darkness, or the truth; and it's really superb, the way the tiny single voice placed in the background talking about one's search and the majestic choir placed in the stereo spread announcing the sad outcome of one's search - "I was" (pause) "mistaken..." - are played as opposites.

And I think that it's quite difficult for one to find a more vulgar listening perspective than one that presents these songs as comparable to the serene mood of a party in the garden with one's friends.

With such celebrities as David Crosby and Graham Nash one can assume much of their story to be well-known.

Crosby was a former Byrds, known all over the world as the inventors of "folk rock" with a colossal hit such as Mr. Tambourine Man, and those hit singles called Turn! Turn! Turn!, Eight Miles High, and So You Want To Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star (whose B-side was a song announcing Crosby's complete maturation: Everybody's Been Burned).

Nash was a former member of the Hollies, an English group whose memory is maybe not as strong, but that at the time was one of the Beatles' rivals. While in the Hollies, Nash perfected his typical way of doing things in music, quite succinct, which will remain his trademark in the future.

A new name, like a legal firm - Crosby, Stills & Nash - announced a new group, featuring former Buffalo Springfield Stephen Stills, a very fine guitarist and multi-instrumentalist (and the writer of For What It's Worth, the only real hit song for his former group), for an album of same name (1969) that proved to be a massive influence the whole world over. Quite typical of Nash, the songs Marrakesh Express and Lady Of The Island. Quite typical of Crosby, the songs Guinnevere and Long Time Gone.

Déjà Vu saw the appearance of another former member of Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young. Nash wrote Teach Your Children and Our House, while Crosby penned Almost Cut My Hair and Déjà Vu.

Songs by Nash made for great singles, their linearity being greeted by the audience with "Top of the Charts" placing. Crosby's songs were more experimental, a lot less linear, with great use of "empty" spaces, "open" tunings, and a chordal aroma that was not at all common in the "pop-rock" music of the time.

The first LP of the double album titled 4 Way Street (1971), featuring live performances by the quartet, offers a few songs that were still unreleased at the time of the album's original release, such as the widely famous socio-political anthem penned by Nash, Chicago; and the excellent Crosby song The Lee Shore.

It's more or less at this point that the four group members released one album each. Songs For Beginners (1971) was what at this point in time one could expect from Nash, with good sales. While Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name (1971) was the one selling less, and listening to it will explain why.

While opening track Music Is Love - a song that too much over-exposure made persona non grata - had to provide a link to the famous quartet; and track #2 Cowboy Movie - featuring the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia dueling with himself - had to show that David Crosby could rock; the rest of the album is simply superb.

Tamalpais High (At About 3), Laughing, Traction In The Rain, Songs With No Words (Tree With No Leaves) offer a musical landscape that's rich and measured at the same time. Among the special guests: Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, a bit of Nash. The two closing tracks offer a world of music in less than 3'.

Those who have seen the BBC show (from 1970) that it's (still?) possible to watch online already know the good musical relationship between Crosby and Nash, here appearing as a "voice and guitar" duo, playing both released and unreleased songs. The duo decided to go on as an entity, both in the studio and on tour. Hence, the album I've always called Crosby & Nash but which is titled Graham Nash David Crosby.

In so differently from the duo's previous solo albums, Nash & Crosby (1972) is not a parade of special guests, even though a lot of fine names are here to be found. The main musical component is a quartet of musicians collectively known as The Section, but who at the time were quite busy as session-men: Russell Kunkel on drums; Leland Sklar on bass (a bass as famous as his beard); Craig Doerge on keyboards; and Danny "Kootch" on guitar (who'll have a very prosperous future as the main collaborator of Don Henley, post-Eagles). They are practically perfect as a "normal" backing band (but listen to Sklar's finesse on Nash's Girl To Be On My Mind, an inventive mix of Paul McCartney and Jack Bruce for a song that sounds as quite influenced by the Beatles), but they show great maturity in the difficult task of making Crosby's songs sound "full" while not playing "too much".

Those songs penned by Nash that appear mid-album - Strangers Rooms, Frozen Smiles, Girl To Be On My Mind - are fine, but his best songs are those that open and close the album. Southbound Train, with fine harmonica and meditative groove - Johnny Barbata on drums and Chris Ethridge on bass - talks about Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. While Immigration Man - quite strange, this, nobody thought about doing a cover during the Trump years - has Johnny Barbata's groove coupled with Greg Reeves's nervous-sounding bass.

Let's have a look at Crosby's songs. Whole Cloth asks questions over a slow tempo, with great work by the backing band; Games features drums played with brushes in a close dialogue with the piano and great work by Sklar; The Wall Song features (about) half the Grateful Dead, with Nash on piano playing a motif that acts as a "glue", and an image - the door that opens in a wall, to reveal a world of great beauty - that was a classic tale in the "myths and legends of the counter-culture" of the time (a short tale along these lines appears in the classic Philip K. Dick book A Scanner Darkly).

Where Will I Be? features David Crosby in almost complete solitude. Three lines with a succinct guitar accompaniment, then a long ensemble section of overdubbed voices with mysterious echoes by the electric piano, an abrupt change from the almost-serene to the almost-desperate, four more lines, and close.

A perfect coupling, after a very short pause here's Page 43, where a clear, calm, melody backed by an excellent Russel Kunkel on brushes and perfect background vocals illustrates "the perfect recipe to a human being's serene life".

© Beppe Colli 2020

CloudsandClocks.net | Dec. 7, 2020