Episode 7: Songs Are Holy To Us

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Welcome back to season two of Freak Flag Flying! Over the course of the next two episodes, music legend David Crosby and his friend and bestselling author Steve Silberman will take you inside the studio (literally) for an all-encompassing look at David’s timeless masterpiece, If I Could Only Remember My Name, with their conversations taking place in the very building that it was recorded in over 50 years ago, Hyde Street Studios (formerly Wally Heider’s). Along with their in-depth discussion, listeners will have the opportunity to hear some Crosby tracks that have never been heard by the public before!

Today’s episode features David taking Steve through the journey of making the album and collaborating with his friends and musical geniuses like Joni Mitchell, members of the Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane co-founders Paul Kantner, and Grace Slick. David goes on to explain his friendship and profound musical connection with Jerry Garcia, discovering Joni Mitchell and bringing her to Los Angeles, and the tragedy that struck just prior to the IICORMN sessions — a loss that can still be felt deeply in the words and melodies of the album. David also expounds upon his affinity with open tunings and tuning by ear rather than digitally, which contributed immensely to the distinctively luminous sound of the album, as recorded by Wally Heider’s brilliant in-house engineer Stephen Barncard.

Freak Flag Flying is brought to you by Osiris Media. Interview and editing by Steve Silberman. Produced by Tom Marshall and Zach Brogan. Art by Mark Dowd. Photo of Croz by Matt Bueby. Sales/Sponsorships by Greg Stangel and Christina Collins. Media by Nick Cejas. To discover more podcasts that connect you more deeply to the music you love, check out osirispod.com.


Transcript

Freak Flag Flying: In Conversation with David Crosby
Hosted by Steve Silberman
Episode 7: “Songs are Holy to Us”

Steve: Hello! And welcome to the latest installment of Freak Flag Flying on Osiris Media, my wide-ranging conversation with singer-songwriter David Crosby about his extraordinary life and legacy: a legacy of probing, adventurous, and shimmeringly beautiful recordings with bands like the Byrds, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and later groups like CPR and the Lighthouse Band — all of which broadened and deepened the emotional language of popular music permanently. I’m overjoyed and, in fact, ecstatic to say that our next conversations will mainly focus on David’s all-time masterpiece, his 1971 solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name — which was really anything but a solo album, and featured some of the best musical minds of David’s generation. It was also a very complex time in David’s life. He had become a superstar after CSNY’s triumphant debut at Woodstock, and the release of CSN’s debut album, and their follow-up with Neil Young, Déja Vu. But at the same time, David was in deep grief, because the love of his life, a lively and beautiful young woman named Christine Gail Hinton, had died in a car accident while taking her cat to the vet. The sessions for If I Could Only Remember My Name became a kind of sanctuary where friends like Jerry Garcia, Grace Slick, Phil Lesh, and Joni Mitchell could offer him comfort in the realest way possible, by making great music together. The album has now been re-released by Rhino Records in an enhanced 50th anniversary edition with awesome bonus tracks and new liner notes by me. As I explained in previous episodes, by the sheer power of synchronicity, David and I ended up having these conversations at the very recording studio where If I Could Only Remember My Name was recorded, because the studio we were planning on using was closed for COVID-19. So we ended up recording at what was then called Wally Heider’s and is now called Hyde Street Studios in San Francisco. Wally Heider’s was a very special place with a very groovy vibe, and many of my favorite albums, including the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty, Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers, and Paul Kantner and Grace Slick’s Sunfighter and Baron von Tollbooth were recorded there. As soon as we walked in, David sat down and played “Delta,” as if he was home again.

Steve: Do you remember being here fifty years ago?

David: (laughs) That’s a complex question! It should be very simple, but it’s a complex question. Yes I do, man. I remember it quite well actually. A couple of the homeless people out front are the same ones I think. I remember it. God, it was very very crucial times for me. Really a lot of stuff going on. We had just done Déja Vu here, and it was an intense experience. I mean, working with those guys is an intense experience. Always. We were always competing with each other and we were loving it. And then I stayed here and did If I Could Only Remember My Name, you know I had all of these songs, and I had only used up two of them for Déja Vu, so there I was. And I had a lot of friends. A lot of friends in this town. So I stayed here, it was a safe place for me to be. I was a little distraught right then and safe was really important. And my friends came.

Steve: And your friends, for those who don’t know, included Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, Joni Michell, Neil Young, Graham Nash, Michael Shrieve, Laura Allen. It was basically the cream of Bay Area electrified folk musicians, more or less. And Phil Lesh, who I spoke to just the other week, actually about this album, described Wally Heider’s as “jammer heaven”.

Phil Lesh: That was the great thing about it, and that’s why it has such a huge place in my heart. Everybody was just so into collaborating. It was like, you know, five years before that, or in the Jazz era, bands would compete with one another. It wasn’t like that with these guys. It was like total collaboration. Nobody cared about who’s name was on it. I mean that’s like a true kind of Haight-Ashbury, 60s thing. In a way it was a culmination of everything that happened in the 60s musically.

David: It was “jammer heaven,” yeah. That’s fair. Phil’s not wrong about that. There were tons of good musicians doing tons of records here, of all sorts. And so there was a really nice cross section of different kinds of music and different ways of going about it. It was a very alive scene. Very alive.

Steve: Now Deadheads and tape collectors know this, but Paul Kantner kind of unofficially named the jamming that was going on here the “Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra.” I know that was never an official band name or anything like that, but people who circulate those tapes know them as “the PERRO tapes” because of that name.

David: Yeah I know. Well, here’s what happened. Because it was very loose and very unstructured, and because I had a ton of money, I didn’t care what it cost. I would just come in every night and see what happened. We recorded a lot of stuff. Some of it was just junk. Some of it was partially there. “Kids and Dogs” is another example. “Kids and Dogs” was no words but it was a fully fleshed out composition of music. It holds up. It should have been on the original record. I caved into somebody else’s ideas there.

Steve: It is a fantastic track.

David: Well, you know the moment in it that I love the best? Jerry and I were playing that game. We’d each play a note, and we didn’t know what the other guy was going to play. It was just a pulse: 1, 2, 3… play. 1, 2, 3… play. And we wouldn’t know what the other guy was going to play, so we did not know what kind of chord it would make between us, which is very experimental kind of music. And we hit one that was so scrumptious that it actually made Jerry laugh when we were playing it, he couldn’t hold it in. You can hear it.

Steve: One of the great chuckles of all time!

David: Yea one of the great chuckles of all time, recorded!

David: And there was a lot of that, because there was no financial pressure at all. I could have stayed in this studio for years. I could have set up a bed. I probably did. So that we could just goof off and be the musician/stoner/explorer friends that we were. You know, if you leave the door open, stuff is going to walk in. And we left the door pretty wide open. So, I wish I could have continued it. I wish I was doing it to this day. The thing with Jerry, it didn’t matter what we went at. If we sat down with two guitars, something would happen. Every goddamn time.

David: Jerry Garcia was a totally exceptional human being and musician. He was freer of preconception than any other musician I have ever run into. He really didn’t have an agenda. He’d go anywhere. Anywhere you could take it, he could go. And he was coherent and it made sense. He was fearless, there’s a good word for it. Garcia, fearless. Abso-freaking-lutley without fear. And that produced stuff. Every person that you listed there, and there were some others too, David Freiberg, Jack Casady — what a wonderful musician he is.

Steve: Jorma.

David: Jorma. You know, these are all my friends. The relationship with all of them was good and it was all different. Each one of them had a different way of connecting, and a different flavor of chemistry with me. But they all had a chemistry. And they all loved songs. If there was one unifying thing about all of the people that you listed… Songs are just holy to us, man. They’re like religion to other people. They’re stuff we really believe in. They take you on a voyage, they lift you, they teach you, they express shit that you desperately need to get off your chest. They’re wonderful. And they’re our life. Songs, me and Jerry, that’s our life. And it’s the same for all of those other people.

David: You know, Mitchell is probably the greatest songwriter of our times. I would give her best. Best singer-songwriter alive

Steve: And I did not know until I did research for liner notes for If I Could Only Remember My Name, which will hopefully be included, that you really had a lot to do with giving Joni a leg up at the beginning. Everybody knows that you produced her first album, but what I didn’t know until recently, is that when you first met her in Coconut Grove in a coffee house and saw this unbelievably beautiful woman singing unbelievably beautiful songs, that you convinced her and [legendary agent] Elliot Roberts to go to Los Angeles so she could get a recording contract. Something that you’ve never gotten credit for because most people don’t know it happened is that Joni Mitchell had already been passed over by the major labels in New York. Elliot Roberts had given them demo tapes and what they would say — it’s almost hilariously awful — what they would say to Elliot when he tried to convince them to give her a contract, they would say, “No, I’m sorry that kind of thing isn’t selling right now. But can I have an extra copy of the demo tape for my wife?” (both laugh). In other words, they kind of knew it was good!

David: Yeah, they knew it was good, but it’s not what’s selling.

Steve: Right. But you convinced Joni to move out to LA to try your contact list…

David: Well she didn’t have to move, I brought her.

Steve: Oh ok.

David: I rented a place, and we were together, so I said, “OK, let’s go!” I knew what would happen because I know songs. I don’t know much, man. I’m not brilliant and I’m not fantastically well educated. I don’t have a degree. But I do know songs. I have a fantastic sense of songs and I knew what I was hearing. There wasn’t any question in my mind. The thing that I did do correctly was keep everybody else off it. She was a folksinger, right, which means you’re playing an indicated arrangement. There’s sort of a bass line with your thumb, there’s kind of a horn part with your top two fingers there. And she was brilliant at it. Her arrangements of her stuff were scintillating. They were absolutely wonderful. And I didn’t want a bunch of ham-handed nincompoops trying to make it sound like the last pop hit. I did get Stephen to play on “A Night in The City,” because he can play a 6/8 bass part better than most other human beings. But what I didn’t want them to do was water it down and make it ordinary. So I wanted to keep it in her hands and with her flavor, and it worked kinda.

Steve: Yeah, it’s beautiful. Something I also didn’t realize until I worked out the timeline of events was that her album came out just five days before you recorded a bunch of demos for songs that ended up on If I Could Only Remember My Name — so her spell, her musical spell, was still over you.

David: She had a strong effect, man. But you gotta understand the effect. I would write a really good song. She’d come home. I’d say, “Honey, listen to this!” And I’d sing her this really good song, and she’d say, “Oh darling, that’s beautiful! What do you think of these?” — and she’d sing me three better songs! Three much better songs. And she wrote them last night. And it was like, crusher. You’d want to quit! I fortunately did not quit, but it was educational as hell.

David: A lot of songwriters affected me strongly, man. Pete Seeger affected me strongly. My early guys affected me really a lot.

Steve: Where did you get your interest in open tunings?

David: That’s a good question. A guy whose name, if we’re lucky, will come back to me. A guy from the midwest showed me the “Guinevere” tuning, EBDGAD. Which gave me “Guinevere” and “Déja Vu”. When you tune your guitar string, the bottom string there in regular tuning, when you tune it down to D… That’s the beginning of the slippery slope. Because the minute you change the tuning you realize, oh my god I can do anything here! I don’t have to have it this way. This one could be over here and then it would do this. It opens a lot of doors. It also creates a lot of problems, and if you’re not flexible enough to work out new chords positions for each tuning for each chord, then you can’t do it. But for me that was natural and easy. And it gives you sounds… I heard these chords that the piano players that I admired, the McCoy Tyners of this world, the Bill Evanses, you know, guys that could really play. Really play. Deep. Deep guys. Evans? Deep.

Steve: Deep. Very deep.

David: Well, McCoy.. Deep! I heard them play chords that were like tone clusters. They were rich and dissonant and spangly and bright and giving off sparks. They were beautiful. And I wanted those chords. And I couldn’t play then as a closed chord jazz player. I couldn’t recreate them with six notes because I only got five fingers and I can’t really play with my thumb. I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t a good enough guitar player to duplicate what they were doing. But in a tuning… All of the rules are changed, and I could get inversions of a chord that sounded like that chord that McCoy played. It was like a shaft of light hitting my brain.

Steve: And you had seen McCoy play with John Coltrane back in Chicago

David: I had and I’d seen Bill Evans play too. Just by himself with a trio. It is good to want — itt’s good to feel the need to grow. It’s good to hear stuff that you can’t play that you know you’re going to have to learn how to play, because that makes you grow. And the more you grow, the better stuff you do.

Steve: At the end of both “Song With No Words” and “Orléans,” both tunes kind of ebb into harmonics. I was talking with Joel Bernstein about the importance of the fact that you were tuning guitars by hand, not with digital tuners, and that’s what gives the guitars on that album their unique luminosity. Can you explain why tuning by ear was so important to that album?

David: Ok, tuning by ear works like this. If you have two strings and you’re trying to tune them to the same note, when you get them close there’s a beat note. There’s a kind of woah woah going on. The closer they get to being in tune, it kind of slows down. And when it slows down and stops, you’re in. Now we can hear that, you tune your head to it then you can hear it. So you know when it’s in. Now the other way, you know, is when you get six strings in tune like that to where they really are in tune, they generate overtones. Ok? Your guitar will be tuned to… Let’s say you’re playing these notes (makes note sounds) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Ok, now if those are really in tune, you’ll get (makes sound) above it. Why? Because that’s how the fucking sound works. And when you hear those overtones above it? You are smoking. You are in the pocket. You are definitely flying. And for those of us that do play acoustic guitar a lot, and for whom that is utterly magical, it’s a holy grail. You seek it a lot. It’s one of the reasons you play in open tunings, because you can get them there and they will generate overtones of their own and it’s like God talking to you, man. It’s really good. It’s really good.

Steve: This is sort of one of the big questions that I have about If I Could Only Remember My Name, I have always loved the wordless tracks like “Tamalpais High At About Three” “Song With No Words” “Kids and Dogs” eventually when it came out. Like, that was kind of a bold move.

David: It was, yeah.

Steve: And it’s kind of the meeting place between, like, Miles’ modal jazz and folk music with a chorus. What were you basing those songs on? People like David Geffen were saying, “What is this? Why don’t you write words for it?” What were YOU thinking?

David: I liked it the way it was. It spoke to me in another way. Now, I’m a words guy. I like words. I wrote a bunch of words that I’m proud of. But, I would get a melody and a set of changes like “Tam High” and it would knock me out. I’d say geez this is pretty. And I would hear the stacks on the melody and the stacks come from me hearing jazz records and hearing horn sections, that’s where they come from. But the thing of doing vocals, I did it because I could. And we would sit in here, in this room or one just like it, and I would stack shit. And I didn’t know this but I have an unusual sense of how to stack things. I don’t build the same stacks that other people do. Normally it’s a major triad. “Triad” for me is a different thing, you know (giggles).

Steve: Yes indeed! It got you kicked out of The Byrds they say. Just kidding.

David: But I would sit in here and build these really rich stacks. “Orléans”. That stacks on that. That’s nine vocals.

Steve: Wow, and that’s all you. “Orléans” is all you. A solo track.

David: Well, all of those are all me. “Tam High.” “I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here,” probably the greatest piece of music I ever thought up in my life. Ever. Probably my top right there. That took me thirteen minutes. Just sitting here in that chamber I was asking him about. Playing with that. And then I felt this presence in the room and it was like an electric wire being plugged into me, and I sang that shit, and I don’t even know how I did that. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know how I thought those fucking changes up. I think it’s my best piece of music.

Steve: It’s a sad subject, but let’s talk about what kind of visitation you were having. One of the reasons why this was such a complex session for you was because it was very beautiful and fun to hang out with all of your friends, but you were also still grieving the first love of your life, Christine, who died in a car accident bringing her cats to the vet before Déja Vu actually, before you were recording Déja Vu.

David: Just before, yeah.

Steve: Right. And so, it must have been difficult. Apparently, I heard that you did “Almost Cut My Hair” — that sort of famously rough, intense vocal — just a couple of days after she died. But in any case, you were heavily grieving, and it was a very difficult time for you, and you’d never gone through anything like that before. When you did “I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here,” which is sort of the most overt elegy in her memory, you were receiving her presence in the echo chamber here at Wally Heider’s.

David: Yeah, at least that’s how I perceived it. Look, it happens to everybody. We all lose somebody and it’s a bitch. There’s no easy way about it. And I’m not trying to whine and snivel about it because I’ve had other friends lose their child and it’s even harder. It did break my fucking heart. I had no, you were right, I had no experience to deal with it, and it creamed me. Completely. I was devastated. But I had a life saver, and it was here, and it was the music and it was… I don’t want to glorify him past reason here, but a lot of it was Jerry. He was very kind to me and he knew exactly what was going on. He was a very perceptive guy, as you know. You’ve talked to him too. I don’t want to make too big of a deal out of it, but it was a big deal.

Steve: Well, she was just twenty-one. I mean it’s very sad.

David: Yeah it was. But I mean… The more time passes after it, the more it puts it in perspective and I see people dealing with shit that’s as bad or worse, and they keep their heads up and they keep trucking. I always think of Clapton. His kid went out the window. Clapton’s trying to stay sober. He didn’t break. He didn’t go and get loaded. I think I would have. You know, that kind of bravery in the face of a horror, an absolute life destroyer of a moment… Other people have had to deal with pretty terrible shit too and they’ve done a better job at dealing with it than I did. But I admit it, it knocked me out and knocked me in the dirt. But I had the music to hold on to. And when I say I’m a lucky cat, I’m telling you the truth. I really am. If I hadn’t have had the music to hold on to, I probably wouldn’t be here. But I did. And it saved my butt. Again and again and again and then over again.

Steve: Now something that even you didn’t know and I didn’t know until I talked to Phil Lesh the other day was that he had seen you with the Byrds. He went to a Byrds show by himself in North Beach, and he told me he was kind of pissed that you didn’t play “Mr. Tambourine Man,” but that he danced his ass off anyway. And he didn’t even ever tell you that.

David: No!

Steve: And apparently he met you again at Monterey Pop, through Phil’s then-girlfriend Florence Nathan, who is now the photographer Rosie McGee. Phil told me that as soon as he met you, he felt like he’d met “a fellow traveler. Someone he could really talk to.”

David: Yeah, I’m sure that was the case.

Steve: So, what was it like at that point? This was a couple years before this (If I Could Only Remember My Name). You were out of The Byrds, we had talked about that on one of our last podcasts and why you were thrown out and it was kind of complicated and you were being difficult and they were being difficult. But, at the same time, you were in a very good position in a way, even though the Byrds money started running out at some point, because you were a popular guy in Los Angeles and in the scene there. One of the things that Elliot Roberts pointed out was that you really helped people like Elliot and David Geffen to put together a bunch of great singer-songwriters and practically launch a new industry within the crumbling edifice of the old folk music industry.

David: And the old pop industry! You gotta understand, bands when we were trying to put all of this together, bands were like Paul Revere and the Raiders. They wore uniforms. They danced on their amps. They sang songs that were really bad.

Steve: And you had toured with them, correct?

David: Yes.

Steve: “Paul Revade and the Rear Doors” — that’s what you called them, right?

David: Yes, that’s what we called them. But we were pretty strange for LA. But the reason I was so taken by the San Francisco bands is that we didn’t like Hollywood. We didn’t like their approach to music. We didn’t like the “wear uniforms and dance on your amps” kind of thing. We wanted to go an utterly different direction. And the San Francisco bands were doing that. There was no Hollywood going on at all. They were pursuing the music and the magic. That’s what we wanted to do and so yeah, we were unusual in LA. We were salmon swimming upstream. In San Francisco, man, we were right in the pack.

Steve: Please join us for the next installment of Freak Flag Flying, which will probe even more deeply into the glorious soul-healing music of David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name, including some rare behind the scenes looks at the making of the album and a forgotten psychedelic manifesto David wrote that anticipated his advice to his friend Beatle George Harrison in the song that many people feel is the high point of this wonderful album, “Laughing”. This Freak Flag Flying podcast is brought to you by Osiris Media. Find the previous episodes and other wonderful podcasts archived at osirispod.com. Thank you David and Jan Crosby. Thank you also to Hyde Street Studios’ Jack Kertzman and William Chason for hosting this epic conversation. Interviews by me, Steve Silberman. Produced by Tom Marshall and Zach Brogan. Art by Mark Dowd. Mastering by Matt Dwyer. Social media by Nick Cejas. See you next time and remember, music is love.