- Steve Silberman
David Crosby and Steve Silberman continue their in-depth conversation about David’s iconic album, If I Could Only Remember My Name, in Freak Flag Flying’s final episode of season two. To begin, Steve takes you on a musical journey that features classic Croz songs that you know and love, along with rare, previously unheard tracks and demos. Whether you’re a hardcore Crosby fanatic or just a fan of creative, innovative, soul-soothing music, you’ll love what Steve has in store. The episode continues by rejoining David at Hyde Street Studios (formerly Wally Heider’s, where the album was recorded 50 years ago), to hear more stories about the recording of this all-time classic album, as well as tales of meeting the Beatles as a member of the Byrds and turning George Harrison onto the music of Ravi Shankar, Jerry Garcia’s distinctive gift to one of David’s greatest tracks, “Laughing,” how hard it is to sit in successfully with the Grateful Dead, and meeting acid king and sonic alchemist Owsley Stanley in LAX. You’ll also hear David talk about the essence of what music means to him.
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.
Freak Flag Flying: In Conversation with David Crosby
Hosted by Steve Silberman
Episode 8: “Music as Healing and Sanctuary”
Steve: Hello fellow David Crosby enthusiasts, and fans of creative, innovative, mind expanding and heart healing music, and welcome back to Freak Flag Flying — to the second half of my deep, deep, DEEP dive with Croz into the stories and sagas behind the creation of his luminous masterpiece If I Could Only Remember My Name. An album trashed by mainstream rock critics upon its release fifty years ago, but now recognized as nothing less than one of the most singularly beautiful pop recordings of the late 20th century. Hailed as the progenitor of “freak folk” by hipster media outlets like Mojo and Pitchfork, and chosen as one of the top 10 pop music recordings of all time by… the former Pope Benedict! (Google it.) With influences echoing through a generation of younger musicians’ work, from Sufjan Stevens and Devendra Banhart, to those who only heard the album after teaming up with David to spark his full fledged creative renaissance on recent records like Sky Trails and Here If You Listen, like singer-songwriters Michelle Willis and Becca Stevens. We’ll be listening to some bonus tracks from the new 50th anniversary edition of If I Could Only Remember My Name just released by Rhino Records, like the alternate mix of “Cowboy Movie” we were just hearing with incendiary additional leads by Neil Young. We’ll also hear some even rarer music that didn’t make the final cut of the new edition, despite my best attempts. In our last episode, Grateful Dead bass player Phil Lesh called If I Could Only Remember My Name the culmination of everything that was happening musically in the ‘60s.
Phil Lesh: In a way, that was the culmination of all of that that happened in the ‘60s musically.
Steve: A total collaboration between David and kindred spirits like Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, and Neil Young — the cream of the crop of turned-on, tuned-in Bay Area psychedelicized folk musicians. In a couple of minutes, we’ll rejoin David at the San Francisco studio where most of the album was recorded, to talk in depth about the making of If I Could Only Remember My Name. Then called Wally Heider Studios, it’s now called Hyde Street Studios, built around the corner from San Francisco’s famed Blackhawk Club, where Miles Davis and others laid down classic jazz tracks. First, I want to play some clips that illustrate what the other players on this all-star session (unofficially christened the “Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra” by Jefferson Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner, or “PERRO” by tape collecting fanatics) brought to the table. First, let’s listen to the beginning of another bonus track from the new Rhino set. It’s a rough, early solo demo recording of what many fans consider to be the most beautiful track in David’s whole discography, “Laughing.”
Steve: I think we can all agree that this stripped-down demo, engineered by Michael Nemo in Hollywood on May 31st, 1968, is a beautiful thing. David wrote the song shortly after he was thrown out of The Byrds, while he was romancing singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, and a few months before he hooked up with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash to form the group that would define his career for the next thirty years at least. David recorded more than a dozen demos of “Laughing” — but what happens, what happens my friends, if you give the song to master musicians like Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, and Bill Kreutzmann, and then stack the chorus with harmony singers like Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell? You get this, my friends: the master take of “Laughing” from the album. While we’ve played this track before on this podcast, I’m just going to play the whole thing again, because life is too short to fade out a heavenly performance like this.
Steve: Obviously, one of the highlights of that magnificent performance was Jerry Garcia’s yearning, aching pedal steel. A notoriously tricky and temperamental instrument to keep in tune and play, which Jerry only recorded with for about a year and a half with any regularity, notably on Graham Nash’s “Teach Your Children” with CSNY and on his first solo album, Garcia, also recorded at Wally Heider’s by producer Bob Matthews, who sadly passed away recently. But his licks on this track, free of standard Nashville clichées and some of the purest expressions of the distinctive cry in Jerry’s playing, were closest to his heart: “The stuff I did on ‘Laughing’”, Jerry once said, “I’ve never heard anything like it but me. It had some sense of where I hoped to go with the steel.” We never got to hear where Jerry was going to go with the steel, because he basically stopped playing the instrument after that, except on a few tunes with Dylan a couple of decades later, but at least we have this. And Jerry brought a lot more to the If I Could Only Remember My Name sessions than his pedal steel. This is what David had to say about recording with Jerry on episode four of this podcast, “Time is the Final Currency”:
David: The thing about Jerry, which you know, is that there was serious magic there. Garcia was a consummate musician. He worshipped music. He ate it for breakfast. He rubbed it in his hair. He fucked it. It fucked him. He loved it with his whole entire being. He wanted the music to come out. He knew it was hiding all around him all of the time. He wanted to coax it out of the walls. Come out, little music! Come out and play! He was a magical cat that way. He was just as flawed and a normal human being like everybody else in every other way. He made all of the same mistakes, he was a totally human guy and I saw all of it. But when it came to the music, he was the priest.
Steve: There’s also that climactic vocal crest at the end of “Laughing”, like a collective outbreath — a universal ahhhh as the dream of the ‘60s came to an end. Did you hear Joni skimming her exquisite harmony over the top like a stone skipping across a pond? Let me refresh your memory with this little clip, recorded by the brilliant engineer behind If I Could Only Remember My Name and many other great records, including CSNY’s Deja Vu and the New Riders of the Purple Sage’s debut, Stephen Barncard.
Steve: I mean OMG people, does anything get more beautiful than that? In our last episode, Phil Lesh described the scene at Wally Heiders as “jammer heaven”. While Stephen Barncard and his assistant Ellen Burke were recording If I Could Only Remember My Name, they were also mixing another of my all time favorite albums, The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty. David appeared on numerous projects recorded at Wally Heider’s, including Paul Kantner and Grace Slick’s Blows Against the Empire, Sunfighter, and Baron von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun.
Steve: Which is not to say that every note played in the session was amazing. I’m going to play another brief clip, this time of a luminous song played in its entirety on our last episode, “Orléans”, an old French folk song that David learned from Paul Kantner. The master take on the album is all David, with multi tracked guitars and vocals, but at some point Jefferson Airplane’s monumental bass player, Jack Casady, was asked to record an overdub. I’m a huge Cassidy fan, but in this case, as you’ll hear, the addition of his earth-shaking “Yggdrasil bass,” as Jorma put it, is a little overwhelming.
Steve: Even some of the tracks they never finished were pretty awesome, like this practice session featuring several members of the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra. Phil Lesh’s bass is unmistakable, and that must be Jerry talking at the very end. But David didn’t feel the song was complete enough to make the cut as a bonus track on the new edition of the album. I get that, but I love it anyway, so I’m going to play you folks another track that did not make the cut.
Steve: Now, let’s rejoin David at the old Wally Heider’s, now Hyde Street Studios, to talk more about “Laughing” and the rest of this extraordinary album.
Steve: Now, one of the songs, which we’ll talk about in a minute, that many people consider the highlight of If I Could Only Remember My Name, is “Laughing”. That was your advice to — or maybe “advice” is too strong a word… A kindly, comradely word to George Harrison about his disillusionment with the Maharishi in India. But I came across a statement that I’m sure you forget ever having written, but it’s amazing and it has, very much, a feeling to me of what you were talking about in “Laughing,” and it’s as close as you ever came to making a spiritual statement about what you’re about. I’m just going to read it because no one has ever heard this, it’s completely forgotten: “I get high a lot of different ways, mostly on myself. A lot on music. A lot on making love. When I’m lucky, I’m sailing, playing my guitar, talking to people, drugs, groovy foods, making love, making love. Making love as often as possible, which isn’t all of the time. That’s not to say I’m some weird kind of freak who fucks ten times a day or something. When it happens, it’s a groove. I get high on everything I can, man, and I’m trying to get high on everything: Buddha and Christ and Shiva and Krishna and Muhammad, and everybody all seems to say that you should get high on the flowers, and on yourself, and on making love, and you ARE love. And thou art God. And God grows. And the grass is God, and the grass grows. And everything is it, and if you get into it, the whole Universe is yours: Playground, playpen… Universe. Any label makes it small, puts fences up. The whole Universe is your home if you can get big enough to live there. You just have to get big enough.”
David: (whispers) Holy shit!
Steve: That was you in 1968.
Steve: Isn’t that awesome? That was a statement made to a, or written, for an underground newspaper called the Southern California Oracle.
David: I’ll be goddamned, man. You gotta ship that one to me. Email me that. I can’t believe I had it that coherent.
Steve: I know!
David: That’s, like, really good. Well, it’s truthful. I believe every word of that.
Steve: Yep, yep, yep. And so, when you did “Laughing”, George and the Beatles had gone to India and had this experience, but you were kindly trying to point to the larger universe.
David: I was trying to tell him to take it with a grain of salt. I was trying to induce a tiny bit of skepticism, which isn’t natural for me. Anytime somebody says “I’ve got God’s phone number,”I back up three feet. I’m sure I’m about to get hustled. So I knew that wasn’t necessarily what was going on, and that I might have it wrong, and I knew that I had so much respect for this guy, that I couldn’t say it to his face. I couldn’t just say, “Well that’s nice, George, but take it with a grain of salt.” Which is what I should have done, but I didn’t have… I just couldn’t do it. It was George, and I held him in high esteem, at the very least.
Steve: And you’d met him when you were a Byrd going over to “Swinging London,” right? In ‘65?
David: Right. Well that’s when the Indian thing started.
Steve: Right, because you apparently had a Ravi Shankar album…
David: Yes, a Ravi Shankar album in my suitcase. Listen, it’s all so preposterous, that I have trouble believing it. I know George told me that I introduced him to Indian music, I remember him saying that. And I asked Olivia (Harrison) and she said he told her the same thing. But here’s what I think. What I think is probably a dozen people probably hipped him to Indian music at different times, but I might have been the one to give him the record. But, in any case, whoever did it, it took. Indian music knocked him out. He went to India, learned all kinds of stuff. In the course of doing that, he also ran into a guru who he thought had some glimpses of what was actually going on.
Steve: It was the father of TM [Transcendental Meditation] actually, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
David: Yeah, and he said that to me, and I wanted to say, well, take it with a grain of salt. I didn’t, so I wrote that song to tell him what I thought in a gentle way.
Steve: And you had also, as a Byrd, put a big Indian music influence out there because you had blasted Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass and Impressions to the rest of the band on cassettes on the band bus. Is that not true?
David: That’s true. We didn’t really have a bus, we had a Winnebago. And it has an aisle right down the middle, and a thing across the back, and so we put an amp right there at the end of the aisle, a big amp, and a reel to reel, and we played stuff over that through the amp while we were cruising along. We had to have our own vehicle, man, because this was at the beginning of rock and roll touring and it meant sit up busses — Trailways, Greyhound. Yeah. No beds. Nowhere to lie down. And also, we wanted to smoke pot. We were pot smokers and we liked getting high and with four bands on the bus, we just couldn’t do that. So, it made sense.
Steve: If you want to hear what that all sounded like coming out of a guitar, “Eight Miles High”
David: You can hear how it affected him. But that’s the genius of Roger. Roger is a wonderful translator. He’s a wonderful arranger. He’s got wonderful skills in that area. I think he’s unquestionably done a better job with Dylan’s tunes than anybody else. He translated his records into RECORDS — Dylan’s songs into Byrds records — just brilliantly.
Steve: Which then influenced Dylan back, apparently
David: Oh, I watched it happen. When he came to the studio, when we all met him and everything, I watched his brain when we sang “Tambourine Man” to him. He was just cooking. There was smoke coming out of his ears. He went out and got a band the next day. He wasn’t kidding. He saw that we could translate his music into electric and it entranced him. He was completely into it and he made that decision right there in front of us, there’s no question in my mind. When he got The Band, then he had real guys. He had real players who could really do it. And they killed it. They fucking killed it.
Steve: If you think about it, it’s amazing because that music then went on, the music that the band made, went on to very much influence the music of the Grateful Dead, who then came here to this building that we’re sitting in, to record American Beauty, which was their great return to folk and acoustic guitars after some intense years of psychedelia and “Dark Star.” You sat in with the Dead several times. I know that you guys played really well when you were here, and it was kind of your gig. How did you feel about playing with the Dead on stage?
David: Unsuccessful. The Dead are a lot deeper pool than you realize going in. They have a chemistry, those specific guys have a chemistry. It is deep, it is long-standing. It is extremely complex. It has more variables than I can count. It is fearless and you can’t just step into it. You can play with them but you have to be as successful as the other people who successfully did it. Hornsby. Branford. We’re talking about guys at the very very top of being able to play. They are amongst the best players in the world on their instrument. They can sit in with the Dead. But even they have to learn the chemistry. It doesn’t happen right away. I tried to sit in with them like you’d sit in with a regular band, and you can’t do it. I couldn’t. You have to learn how to fit in.
Steve: You’ll be glad to know that one of the things Phil said to me the other day is that he wished he had gotten the chance to play with you more, actually. He felt like it was promising and he felt like it could have gone farther than you ever had the chance to go. So that’s nice.
David: Well, I am one of the few people he can play with. Because I understand what he’s doing, and it’s not bass. But it is…. You know, I think my description of the Grateful Dead is actually very peculiar and probably the most accurate one. I think they invented something that’s very much like electronic Dixieland. Now Dixieland is four or five melody streams running at the same time. That’s how you play Dixieland. Everybody is playing the melody all of the time. The really good Dixieland bands will crush you with how good that sounds. The Grateful Dead can do it with electrics. And they pulled it off a million times. And everytime they did, it would just… Nobody else can do that.
Steve: In Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary about the Dead, Long Strange Trip, Garcia describes what he got from bluegrass and brought into electric music. He said, “It’s conversational music. The instruments can talk to each other.” And that was something that I remember seeing you a million times with CSN: you were always very interested in the interaction between the musicians. You were always sort of cheerleading the interaction, like standing in front of Neil or whatever, you know, really making it as interactive as you possibly could.
David: That’s how you get it. That’s how you get it out of them. If Neil is crunched over his guitar and he looks up and he, three feet away, is burning into my eyes with “Holy shit, did you just play that?! Motherfucker, go!” it affects him. He can’t help it. And it’s magic. And it gave us juice to fly with. And it’s part of my job.
Steve: Switching topics slightly, when were the first times you took psychedelics?
David: I had found acid and done it in The Byrds. But I don’t think I did it before, I think I did it when I was in The Byrds. And then I’m in LAX and this wild-eyed hippie comes up to me and says, “I’m Owsley.” and I said, “Let’s step over here.” And he says, “Here” — and dropped a Blue Cheer on me. Remember the barrels?
David: Before he had the tabbing machines. He dropped a handful of those. After that I only did his stuff because it was strong but it was clean. He was a wild dude, man.
Steve: He was. Can I tell you about an experience I had with Owsley in a men’s room?
David: (laughing) I don’t know, man. This is going to get us in trouble!
Steve: It’s not x-rated! He was really into health, he had an all-meat diet.
David: What a nut!
Steve: He was pioneering Keto, you know, a diet guy. I think he was on the autism spectrum, and in my day job I’m an autism historian, so I say that from an informed perspective. He was very particular and exacting about how he did everything. About how he made LSD, how he made an espresso… A friend of mine used to work in a hotel where he stayed at and after the first day he would not let anyone else make his espresso because only he knew exactly how to make his espresso.
David: He was kind of a fanatic that way
Steve: So in this men’s room, we were talking about the all-meat diet and he ripped off his shirt and he said, “Feel my muscles!” Now when Owsley told you to feel his muscles, you did! (both laugh). So I did, that was one of the most intensely weird experiences of my life.
David: He was an intensely weird guy, man. But he did make good acid. I remember at Monteray, man, he had Purple Haze. He had a leather jacket on, and both pockets were full of Purple Haze, and he just handed it to everybody.
Steve: Were you tripping when you did that Kennedy rap at Monterey?
David: Nope. I had tried playing on acid, and it was really interesting. My guitar was about three feet thick and it was made out of rubber, and I was playing a really great tune, and the band was playing this other really great tune, and the two did not come together. And it was not a successful endeavor. It might be great by yourself, but it certainly didn’t work for trying to play music with anybody. I don’t recommend it. I do recommend it for taking your whole mental deck of cards and throwing them up in the air and seeing how they come down. It’s pretty good for that.
Steve: Right. By the time you guys were recording If I Could Only Remember My Name here, there was a lot going on in this building. Volunteers had been recorded here. American Beauty. Eventually Paul Kantner and Grace Slick would do Sunfighter, which you also sang on, and Baron von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun, which you also sang on. And those are in fact your nicknames for Paul and Grace, are they not?
David: I think they thought them up but, yeah, I loved those names for them because they were really righteous names. These are my friends, man. I loved both of them. I still love Grace. We were really tight. I mean, the number of times I slept at 2400 [2400 Fulton Street in San Francisco] were probably, you know, a hundred. I hung out with them a lot. Bolinas. Man, that was a great house. Hung out there a bunch.
Steve: Oh, that’s great.
Steve: So after the recording sessions here for If I Could Only Remember My Name, you would go to your boat, The Mayan, in Sausalito, is that correct?
Steve: And Stephen Barncard, the engineer, told me that he would make a tape of rough mixes for you to listen to on the boat. He said you had a great little early model excellent tape recorder.
David: Something like that. I don’t remember. But I could play them, and I could play them in the car on the way home too. I’m a person who needs to listen to things quite a bit to really sus out what’s there.
David: Because not only is it complex trying to listen to twenty-four things at the same time and be able to separate them out in your head, but they affect each other. When this note is here by itself, it does one thing. When it’s here with that note and that instrument, then it changes the quality of this note, it actually changes the sound. And you have to know that. I have loved really listening deeply to stuff to figure out what I was going to do next. That’s me producing myself, that’s how I do it.
Steve: When you look back at If I Could Only Remember My Name, how does it feel to you? What are you thinking about it? How do you think about it in terms of your own legacy?
David: I think I’m one of the luckiest guys alive. I had no plan. I had almost no strength. I was defeated. Damn near destroyed. I had belief in one thing only and it sustained me. It lit my fire in spite of the dark, and it was really dark. And all that does is totally confirm by belief in my particular religion, which is music. Music is a magic thing, man. Music and poetry… Magic. Magic, magic magic. Words delivered in the context of music go right past your sensors into your heart, if it’s good enough. Magic.
Steve: That’s great. One of the things I did for the liner notes for If I Could Only Remember My Name was to talk to the young musicians who have been collaborating with you on your most recent albums.
Steve: Yes, it was a surprise for you actually
David: Yea truly. I wasn’t sure that they’d even heard it!
Steve: Yeah, well what’s interesting is that they had not heard it until you invited them to play with you, actually
David: Ah! Ok!
Steve: And then they had profound revelations, which you’ll be hearing about when you read the notes to your album!
Steve: Yeah, they were completely blown away by it. Let me just read you one. This was said by your son, James Raymond: “It’s one of the purest examples of music as healing and sanctuary and became my touchstone in deciphering who David was as an artist and musician. Unhurried, languid, mournful and celebratory all at once. The melodies and harmonies seem to have always existed.”
Steve: Amen. Thank you, David.
Steve: And thank you all for listening to this historic series of conversations with singer-songwriter David Crosby. I am grateful to David and grateful to be able to share these conversations and this timelessly beautiful music with all of you. See you all down the road.
Steve: This podcast was brought to you by Osiris Media. Find previous episodes of Freak Flag Flying and other wonderful podcasts archived at osirispod.com. Thank you David and Jan Crosby. Thank you also Jack Kertzman and William Chason for hosting this conversation at Hyde Street Studios and for being very cool dudes. 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. Remember, music is love.