In the tradition of The Beatles Anthology, the Martin Scorsese-directed No Direction Home: Bob Dylan and the Grammy-nominated Long Strange Trip, the rapturously engaging new documentary David Crosby: Remember My Name serves as an equally definitive portrait of the titular two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee.
Though at ninety-five minutes, David Crosby: Remember My Name feels less akin to a multi-hour, career-spanning travelogue and more of a karmic double feature with this summer’s Rocketman.
Whereas Dexter Fletcher’s Elton John biopic was a $40 million musical extravaganza, what made it spectacular was the emotional arc of watching a universally lauded, multi-generational hero go through the humbling process of saying “I need help,” before successfully confronting embedded inner demons and replacing chronic trauma and pain with healthy self-respect and a more internally-sustainable sense of self-worth.
While Rocketman employed stream-of-consciousness psychedelia and magical realism in exploring these themes, David Crosby: Remember My Name is largely constructed around a series of intensely vulnerable and revealing interviews with 77-year-old Crosby granted to documentarian A.J. Eaton and producer Cameron Crowe, exalted music journalist and writer-director of the Oscar-winning films Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous.
Eaton lets Crosby largely tell his own story, using a few well-chosen filmmaking tools, including a memorable animated sequence of Crosby’s departure from The Byrds, to share with the audience the rich experience of getting to spend time with an endlessly entertaining — though increasingly introspective, regretful and apologetic — living legend.
In celebration of Sony Pictures Classics releasing David Crosby: Remember My Name in an expanding number of American cities through the late summer, David Crosby recently sat down with Rock Cellar to discuss the film and share his notoriously candid insights on a handful of topics, ranging from what he learned from Joni Mitchell to his thoughts on the 2020 presidential race.
“I don’t know if I revealed anything to myself,” Crosby stated of making the film. “Although maybe I did, I think, in the course of stuff. I’m not a person who’s well-censored. So stuff bursts out of my lips. I go, ‘Wow! Did I say that? Oh, yeah, that is kind of how I feel.’ That process goes on. Self-discovery, along with everything else. I think because of the way these guys were willing to do the film. They were willing to go for really almost brutal honesty. I think that’s what made it happen at the level that it did. I don’t think I could have done it if they hadn’t been really in the same place I was, about how we wanted to go about it.”
Though it’s a uniquely meta situation to be interviewing someone about a work that largely serves as a document of them being interviewed, Crosby spent our interview so profoundly present and joyfully relaxed that our conversation felt effortlessly delightful.
As we were sitting down, Crosby immediately looked at me and astutely pointed out a random scar on my head from well over a decade ago. He observed, “You hit your head.”
After an awkward chuckle and brief retelling of how said scar came to occupy the forehead of yours truly, Crosby explained, “That’s a thing you should be proud of. I don’t know anybody I like that doesn’t have any scars. I have a bigger one than you do. Much bigger. Mine goes from here. [Pointing all the way down his chest.] All the way to here. [Down one side of his stomach.] All the way to here. [Down the other side of his stomach.] Because they did a liver transplant on me. And when do that, they take your stuff out and put it on a table next to you so they can get back to where your liver is and take it out.”
Unsure as to whether or not I should attempt to ask Crosby follow-up questions about the particulars of his various medical procedures, as we were finishing get set up I mentioned that the first time I saw him play was on the 2000 CSNY2K reunion tour.
As Crosby’s expanding smile suggested that tour was a fond memory for him, I shared that when my dad used to take my brother and me to see CSN and CSNY, he marveled at the collective sense projected on stage that the need and the desire were to look forward, and that the best was yet to come. As Crosby beamed in response, I asked him if he still believes that as much now as he did then. Crosby marveled, “That’s a big, complex question. Your dad was a very cool guy to tell you that.”
After momentarily contemplating, Crosby shared, “More now than then. It’s been an amazing lesson. I’m more able to learn now then I was then. So I’m more able to perceive what’s going on around me. I’m more able to learn from it and modify my behavior based on what I’ve learned. I think it’s better now.”
One of the imperative functions the documentary serves is giving Crosby an additional platform to discuss Joni Mitchell, who, despite achieving a level of cultural ubiquity reached by few women in the 1970s, still somehow feels institutionally underrated, or at least underappreciated. I asked Crosby if he felt Mitchell had gotten the credit she deserved for her influence on alternate tunings in rock music, if nothing else.
Crosby began our Joni Mitchell discussion by remarking, “She never gets the credit she wants. I can tell you that.”
It’s long been in the that public record that Crosby has an infamously complicated relationship with seemingly everyone he’s met since he was a teenager, and Crosby laments in the documentary that none of his former band mates will currently speak to him. Although it might be more expected to see screen time dedicated to a public apology directed at fellow members of The Byrds and CSNY, the surprise is in seeing Crosby spend substantive emotional energy attempting to take accountability for the misogynistic and toxic thinking and behavior that infected so many of his relationships with women in the 1960s and 1970s, including Mitchell, prior to his now 32-year marriage to his wife, Jan.
As these themes continue to color Crosby’s infinitely sincere late-septuagenarian redemption tour, he generously shared his impressions of the reclusive Mitchell, who he’s previously said is “the best singer-songwriter that we’ve had in the past one hundred years.”
“Here’s what happened,” Crosby said, now leaning forward and storytelling in his well-documented element, holding the most intimate of courts with the gentle authority of a wizened village elder. “There’s a girl who comes up. She’s got her own take on how to do it. Because of the tunings and because of the other instruments that she’s using, she’s absolutely not like anybody else, right? She gets more complex. She goes deeper. She develops. She grows.
“As she gets more complex, she starts shedding fans. Because she’s going right over their heads. It’s too intelligent for them. It’s a sad thing about the public, the populace of this country. Only about half of them can read. Only people who care to think and who think all the time can really follow Joni. It’s been really frustrating for her. Because she wanted to be as big as it gets. And when people started saying, ‘Well, it’s going over my head. It’s too complex. I like it simple.’ She went more complex. She got pissed off and she started hanging out with Thelonious Monk. She wants — She’s a very complex woman.”
When I asked Crosby if he would be willing to share Mitchell’s greatest influences on him as a musician and/or human being, Crosby offered, “Absolutely. I can tell you two things. First, I learned about the tunings from her. The other thing, one day I was with her and I said something. And she said, ‘Write that down.’ I said, ‘What?’ And she said, ‘Write that down.’ I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Because it was GOOD.’ She said, ‘You do that all the time. You think of a little phrase or something. And it’s really terrific. And if you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen.
“That’s when a light bulb went off, big time for me. If you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen. I started writing stuff down then. She changed how I write. She changed how I create because of that.”
As a member of The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young), one of the seemingly innumerable ways Crosby helped change the landscape of popular music and culture was crafting influential albums and tours that had equal room devoted to the personal and interpersonal experiences explored in songs such as “Guinevere” and “The Lee Shore,” alongside pointed political statements including “Wooden Ships” and “Long Time Gone,” as well as the broader counter-cultural implications of seminal anthems “Déjà Vu” and “Almost Cut My Hair.”
Outspoken political expression and devoted activism have been central to Crosby’s artistry and public persona since the night of Saturday, June 17th 1967, when The Byrds played the Monterey International Pop Festival and Crosby ignited existing animosity within the band by introducing “He Was a Friend of Mine” with the remarks, “When President Kennedy was killed, he was not killed by one man. He was shot from a number of different directions by different guns. The story has been suppressed. Witnesses have been killed. And this is your country, Ladies and Gentleman.”
This followed statements made earlier in the set, in which Crosby brought up something he’d read in the then-current issue of Life Magazine: “‘I believe that if we gave LSD to all the statesmen and politicians in the world we might have a chance at stopping war.’ That’s a quote from Paul McCartney. I concur, heartedly.”
Apparently, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman felt that the audience attending the event most closely associated with the LSD-induced “Summer of Love” wasn’t in the mood for additional information about the single-bullet theory and the ability of consciousness-expanding psychedelics to play a role in bringing an end to wars based on lies and fought exclusively for the benefit of the Military Industrial Complex.
In addition to further alienating already enraged band mates with his behavior in The Byrds’ set, the following day Crosby served as a temporary member of Buffalo Springfield alongside Doug Hastings, who had been regularly filling in for the so-called “mercurial” Neil Young, who kept leaving and rejoining the influential group he helped form. By the end of the weekend, Crosby and Stephen Stills had appeared on stage together, with the Buffalo Springfield set featuring “For What It’s Worth,” “Rock and Roll Woman” and “Bluebird,” all songs that would become mainstays in the live repertoire of CSN. Perhaps more importantly, Crosby had publicly launched a newly subversive and increasingly outspoken on stage persona.
Given Crosby’s fifty-year-plus standing as an impassioned political activist, it felt mandatory at this moment in our nation’s history to ask him about some of the most pressing issues of the day. In the beginning of David Crosby: Remember My Name, Crosby states that he wants to fill the exceedingly limited time he has left with the joy of making music and hopefully free of anger.
When I asked Crosby if he sees himself remaining politically active as the 2020 election approaches, Crosby immediately answered, “I don’t have any choice. I have kids. I have to be active. We’re getting down to where our democracy is in trouble. We have people who are actively trying to disassemble, trying to turn it into something that it should not be.
“I think we are going to have to get very political. I know I’m going to have to. Because I believe in this country. And I believe in democracy.”
“I think that the current asshole President and his crew, McConnell, all of these people, are doing great harm to our democracy and great harm to our life in the world. And worse harm to every human being on the planet by not addressing global warming, which is a real thing. So I’m going to have to get very political before this next election.”
I then asked Crosby the question I had been most looking forward to, “What do you think is the greatest issue currently facing our country, and what do you think needs to be done to fix it?”
Crosby emphatically replied, “The single biggest issue is that we have screwed up the heat engine that is our climate. And it is going to kill us if we don’t fix it. Most people don’t get that. The idea is completely beyond their comprehension. It’s not convenient. And it doesn’t involve profit. So they don’t want to hear about it. So, that’s the Number One. We HAVE to deal with global warming. That’s going to require restructuring the entire economy of the world. Because it’s based on hydrocarbon burning now and it can’t keep going on or we will die.
“If that asshole has done anything right, he did us a favor by tearing the scab off of the festering wound of racism in this country. It’s been there the whole time. Anybody that thinks it hasn’t didn’t see those guys with the torches. And I don’t like them. And I don’t like that. I never have. And I think I’ve got to work against that. I think that I have to try and get really political before the 2020 election. I have to. Because I can’t let it keep going the way it’s going.”
When I followed up by asking Crosby who on the national stage he thought was speaking to these issues in a meaningful way, Crosby reflected, “Several. But Pete Buttigieg more than anybody. He is so freaking brilliant. He’s the smartest guy there. He’s an absolutely brilliant motherfucker. And he’s also courageous. What kind of guts do you have to have to go into the army knowing that you’re gay in the first place? Because you think it’s the right thing to do. What kind of person does that? He is a wonderful human being and would make a fantastic President. He’s my guy.”
When I offered my assessment of Buttigieg as being a role model of “emotional self-control,” Crosby exclaimed, “He’s got it! And he’s brilliant! And I love the guy.” After taking a moment to consider the overall strength of the current front-runners in the presidential race, Crosby mused, “I’d be happiest with Pete. I don’t think Joe Biden is a good idea. Because I think we’re going to have to restructure our entire economy, and how we go about living in the United States of America. I don’t think he’s the guy to do that. I don’t think he can stomach or facilitate that much change.”
Even as Crosby has taken a brief break in between legs of touring to lend his voice and support to the release of David Crosby: Remember My Name, politics and activism remain central on multiple fronts. Last month Crosby appeared at “California Saga 2: An All-Star Charity Concert to Benefit People Experiencing Homelessness,” a benefit held at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, where his performance included “Long Time Gone” and the Young-penned “Ohio,” backed by an ad-hoc ensemble that included longtime colleagues Danny Kortchmar and Waddy Wachtel.
Crosby also recently promoted the film with an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon in which he played an especially funky version of “Long Time Gone” with house band The Roots.
After Crosby gets a chance to take a well-deserved breather following the release of David Crosby: Remember My Name, mid-August finds him beginning a four-week, late-summer tour advertised as “An Evening with David Crosby & Friends”. The “Friends” as such, are in fact Crosby’s Sky Trials band, currently his most consistent touring outfit, who have received ever-accelerating acclaim from audiences since their first run in the spring 2017, and that Fall’s release of Crosby’s Sky Trails album. Take note that the first Sky Trails tour served as another indispensable foundation of David Crosby: Remember My Name, as that was when Eaton was documenting Crosby’s current experiences of being on the road.
Followers of Crosby’s work will recognize the band’s lead guitarist Jeff Pevar and keyboard player James Raymond. After Crosby connected with Raymond, his biological son, in the nineties when Raymond was already a professional musician, the three musicians formed CPR, a tragically underseen and underheard outfit that expanded the jazz influences and identity in Crosby’s music, and indubitably served as significant artistic and emotional bridge between him previously being a so-called “reluctant solo artist” to having released four albums since the beginning of 2014, with a fifth hopefully forthcoming.
Longtime CPR drummer Steve DiStanislao returns, who in addition to playing with CSN in their last several years of performing is probably best known for drumming on David Gilmour’s last two tours.
— David Crosby (@thedavidcrosby) August 1, 2019
The two newer members whose additions helped shape the Tao of Sky Trails are Estonian bass player and composer Mai Leisz, who received bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in performance jazz at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, and Michelle Willis, a British-born, Canadian resident and keyboard player who graduated from the Jazz program at Toronto’s Humber College.
Crosby extolled to me Willis’ brilliance as a writer and singer, which is equally evident in the work she does with Crosby’s Lighthouse Band, a recurring collaboration initially between Crosby and Michael League from Snarky Puppy that was first heard on Crosby’s 2016 Lighthouse album. Last year’s Here If You Listen, Crosby’s latest release, and second Lighthouse Band project, featured Willis and singer-songwriter Becca Stevens in expanded roles.
The recently-concluded run of Sky Trails shows found the band continuing to explore performing sets that featured the best-known and most beloved songs from throughout Crosby’s career, presented in ways that embrace new musical directions and fresh, energetic vitality. The resulting live concert experience makes for an equally reflective and rousing evening that’s increasingly appealing to devotees and casual fans in equal measure.
Northern California is getting a number of dates this time out, but the one Southern California stop is at the intimate and beautiful Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. While Crosby remains an important musical fixture throughout the great state of California, it’s hard to imagine getting to see him perform closer to the Laurel Canyon locations revisited in David Crosby: Remember My Name.
While the evening at the Saban stands to be particularly special, Crosby is once again covering an admirably broad spectrum of the country over the course of eighteen shows. As it promises to be a special treat to see where these next Sky Trails take us, fans throughout the country are strongly advised to buy their tickets before they sell out.
As my interview with Crosby was wrapping up, I asked a longtime childhood hero, now adult role model, what effect he hoped David Crosby: Remember My Name might have on his legacy. Crosby summed up, “I don’t know what effect it will have. If there’s going to be stuff out there about me, I don’t want a shine job. I don’t want the normal about as deep as a bird bath kind of treatment. I’m not interested, and neither is A.J. and neither is Cameron. We don’t do that kind of work.
“If we’re going to talk about a person, I want to know what matters to them. I want to know what they’re afraid of. I want to know who they love. I want to know what is really going on in there. They feel the same way. I think we did it the way we wanted to. I don’t know if everybody is going to like it. I know everybody that’s seen it so far has liked it.”
Go to http://www.sonyclassics.com/davidcrosby/ to find out when David Crosby: Remember My Name is opening in a city near you and https://davidcrosby.com for links to buy tickets for you and your loved ones to “An Evening with David Crosby & Friends: Sky Trails Tour 2019.”