By Karen Gordon
By any metric, Crosby is an old man: He’s in his late seventies, with long white hair flowing out of a knitted cap he wears constantly, covering a bald spot. He has multiple health issues that he figures will kill him in the next few years. He’s diabetic, has multiple stents in his heart and the list goes on. He’s betting heart attack, even as he continues to push and go on tour.
But for some reason I can’t see him as old.
Despite the years and the miles, the music and the misdeeds, Crosby reads as youthful. There’s an energy to him. And then there’s that sweet tenor that still has an astonishing range and power.
David Crosby: Remember My Name is an excellent debut by first time documentary director A.J. Eaton. He has a journalist’s sense of story-telling. He doesn’t soften or romanticize Crosby’s story, or the era for that matter, and stays just far enough away from his subject to avoid judgement.
Eaton has an ace in his hand. Rock journalist turned film director Cameron Crowe is his mentor. Crowe, who has known “Croz” since he started writing for Rolling Stone in the mid-seventies, does the interviewing largely off camera. But there’s no buddy-buddy insider vibe. The questions are informed and direct.
The results make for a great narrative. I don’t know how relevant or well-known Crosby is to anyone past his generation who isn’t a dedicated fan of the folk rock era.
But he was a big piece of it. He co-founded the seminal folk rock band The Byrds. He produced then-girlfriend Joni Mitchell’s debut album and then went to co-found Crosby, Stills & Nash (and Crosby, Stills Nash & Young). He was well respected by contemporaries including the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. The character played by Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider is said to be based on him.
“Croz” was a fixture of the arty Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles. He was there as it all blossomed, the hippies, the counterculture movement, anti-war, the Kent State shootings. And when music was at the center of the culture, there was David Crosby, creating, playing, and living the ultimate life of a California hippie who was also a celebrity.
But in spite of career success, and a life of hedonism, drugs, and a seemingly endless stream of beautiful and willing women, Crosby portrays himself as a young man full of insecurity and self-doubt. The boy who never felt loved by his successful cinematographer father, who was the class clown, carried that attention-seeking trait into adulthood, compensating for feeling unworthy by pushing every possible boundary he could.
That tendency to excess grated on his bandmates, and friends. He affected a persona and made grand political statements from the stage. He wrote songs about his sex life that weirded out his bandmates. Ultimately, he was asked to leave The Byrds because, as Roger McGuinn says, Crosby had become “Insufferable.”
Long-time friends hung on and on and then ultimately were pushed or walked away. Crosby wonders about whether he’ll ever see his lifelong friend Graham Nash again. Nash hung in through so much, until he also cut his old friend off.
Crosby’s personal life was full of ups and downs too. He became addicted to heroin and cocaine, and admits pushing some of the women in his life to the same.
The highs were high and the lows were soul crushing. Crosby openly talks about the death of his girlfriend Christine Hinton, who was killed in a car accident while taking their cat to the vet. Her death sent him into a spiral of grief. Crosby threw himself into music, setting himself up in a studio and recording his first solo album, the under-rated “If I Could only Remember My Name” from which the movie takes its name. Friends, like Mitchell, and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh and Bill Kreuztman came to support him inside that envelope of music.
Crosby recovered but continued to tempt fate, ultimately ending up serving a jail term, including several months in solitary. He emerged, clean and sober, and ready to get back into life and music.
He’s on the road as much as health will allow, and his tenor voice is still, remarkably, a thing of beauty. He says he has a mortgage to pay at the horse farm he lives with his wife Jan, but as he prepares to go out again, his wife Jan Dance sits at the kitchen table and wipes a tear from her face while worrying about whether he’ll come back alive.
David Crosby holds nothing back. He’s remarkably self-aware and unflinchingly honest. There’s neither pathos nor hubris. Crosby has no problem celebrating his achievements as a musician, and equally he has no problem talking about what a shit he was at various points in his life.
It’s a life lived hard, and sometimes horribly and sometimes well.
It’s really something to hear someone so willingly come face to face with themselves in the fourth quarter of life. Whether you know his music or not, it’s a rich experience listening to one who can look himself in the mirror with such clarity and still find grace notes in the world.
David Crosby: Remember My Name. Starring David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell. Opens Friday, August 2, at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema, and August 9 in Vancouver and Montreal.