David Crosby Celebrates His Ornery Self in the Documentary “Remember My Name”
Though David Crosby’s recording career began in the early nineteen-sixties, as a founding member of the folk-rock band the Byrds, the singer and guitarist has been enjoying a curious renaissance in recent years. “Remember My Name,” a new documentary about Crosby—directed by A. J. Eaton and co-produced by Cameron Crowe, who conducts many of the film’s interviews—opens in New York and Los Angeles on July 19th. In the film, Crosby presents himself as a complicated, intelligent, and sporadically ornery figure, certain of his attributes and shortcomings; this makes him a strikingly clear-eyed narrator of his own life. For decades, Crosby wrestled with drug addiction, including a dire heroin habit that wrecked his musical career on multiple occasions. (“You feel exalted and wonderful, only the first time,” he says in the film. “Addiction takes you over like fire takes over a burning building.”) He was not always a respectful or present partner to his girlfriends and wife, and, at one point, he describes his old self as “a caboose to my dick.” His life style eventually thrashed his body. Crosby now has eight stents in his heart, diabetes, hepatitis C, and a transplanted liver. When Crowe asks him why he’s still alive, Crosby is as bewildered as anyone else. “No idea, man,” he replies.
“Remember My Name” is one of the most existentially probing rock documentaries I’ve ever seen, and should interest fans of the Laurel Canyon folk-music scene that effloresced in Southern California in the early nineteen-seventies, and also anyone curious about the spiritual mechanics of dying. Though Crosby appears sturdy, even robust, everybody in his immediate orbit seems to agree that the singer, who is seventy-seven, is operating on borrowed time, as the seemingly undeserving beneficiary of a divine extension. How spooky and beautiful to watch a man reason through his own mortality. “I’m afraid of dying, and I’m close,” Crosby tells Crowe. “I’d like to have more time.”
Crosby, of course, has already lived a colorful life. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice—once for his work with the Byrds and again for his work with Crosby, Stills, and Nash—and has sold somewhere around thirty-five million records. In the late nineteen-sixties, he dated Joni Mitchell. He is the purported inspiration for Dennis Hopper’s character, Billy, in the film “Easy Rider,” from 1969. He spent nine months in a Texas state prison for drug and weapons charges from 1982; for four of those months he was in solitary confinement, feverishly detoxing from his opiate addiction. In 1994, he received a liver transplant, paid for by his friend Phil Collins. He is the biological father, via artificial insemination, of Melissa Etheridge and Julie Cypher’s two children. He has his own brand of proprietary, ultra-premium cannabis, Mighty Croz. The last song that he ever sang with Crosby, Stills, and Nash was “Silent Night,” at the National Christmas Tree Lighting, in 2015, and it was awful. He has been estranged from his former bandmates for years. “All of the main guys that I made music with won’t even talk to me,” he says in the film. “One of them hating my guts could be an accident. . . . But all really dislike me, strongly.” In 2016, Graham Nash wrote a song about Crosby, called “Encore.” Nash explains the song’s central questions in an interview: “Are you a decent person? Or are you a fucking asshole? Who are you?”
The film lingers on Crosby’s strained interpersonal relationships, but it gives weight to his musical legacy, too. Though he is probably still best known for his work with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Crosby released a solo record, “If I Could Only Remember My Name,” in 1971, after the band went on its first acrimonious hiatus. 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. 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. Crosby was living on his boat when he wrote it, and still grieving the death of his twenty-one-year-old girlfriend, Christine Hinton, who was killed in a car accident. There are hints of sorrow—as in the experimental “I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here,” in which Crosby half moans, half sings for a minute and a half—but mostly he sounds like a person trying to plug back into the magnificence of the universe.
“If I Could Only Remember My Name” is rooted in a folk-rock tradition, but, like many of Crosby’s solo records, it borrows tunings, time signatures, and vocal phrasings from jazz. The documentary opens with Crosby recounting a story about getting super high and going to see John Coltrane on the South Side of Chicago, in the early sixties. At one point, he ducked into the men’s room to gather himself, but then, suddenly, Crosby recalls, Coltrane kicked open the bathroom door, still holding his saxophone and soloing like a madman. Apocryphal or not, Crosby’s version of the story—it is, perhaps, the moment in the film in which he becomes the most animated, his face squeezed with joy—betrays his love and admiration for Coltrane and his music. “My brain ran out my nose,” he later told Jazz Times about the incident.
These days, Crosby lives in Santa Ynez, California, with his wife, Jan Dance. His late career has been prolific. He has released four solo albums in the past five years, and still performs with regularity. (The film lingers for a bit on the tension between the touring musician’s rootless life style and what it means to be a decent husband and father—especially when time is, in the most serious sense of the word, limited.) Crosby usually takes to the stage wearing dark suspenders and a red cap that Jan made for him, his signature puff of unruly white hair exploding out of the bottom. He looks like a cross between the man who sells unusual mushrooms at the farmers’ market and a shrimp-boat captain. If he hasn’t been overusing his voice, it’s still clear and sweet, a sunbeam through glass. The new songs are good.
Crosby is noticeably active on Twitter, and his presence there has helped elevate his renown among younger listeners. One of the charms of Crosby’s feed is how much time he spends dutifully doling out curt answers to arbitrary questions; his brevity is even more striking in an era in which every living American seems not only ready but eager to pontificate endlessly on social media. Yet here is the Croz, incessantly muttering blunt answers to inane queries, as if no one has told him that he doesn’t have to reply. Did he see the last total solar eclipse in North America? “Only pics.” Do celestial events interest him, more generally? “Yes they do.” Is he a Black Sabbath fan? “No not really.” You get the idea. He recently Tweeted a photograph of himself standing in his living room, wearing a pair of striped boxer shorts and a maroon T-shirt and holding a lovely Martin guitar. “Thank you for this …been playing it.”
Toward the end of the film, Crowe, who first interviewed Crosby in 1974, when Crosby was thirty-three and Crowe was just seventeen, plays the tape from their first meeting. “The only thing counts is whether you’ve got any fucking friends. All the rest of it is bullshit,” Crosby counsels Crowe. Now, as Crosby listens to his own imperious words, a flash of regret curdles his expression. You can see him thinking of all the ways that he eschewed this advice. He is a difficult man, and perhaps too insensitive to the needs and egos of others; he does have friends, and a devoted, affectionate family, but it is evident that a lot of the people whom he cares about are mad at him. It’s a funny burden, learning to tolerate the anger of others. Yet it is hard not to watch “Remember My Name” and wish that Crosby might be around forever. For whatever belligerence he might bring to his relationships, he has lived vigorously, and fought hard for beauty.