David Crosby and Cameron Crowe on Capturing a Legendary Life in Remember My Name
At 77 the youthful fire inside David Crosby refuses to flicker out. The music legend makes this more than evident in the new, reflective documentary David Crosby: Remember My Name. A chronicle of his highs and lows, Crosby impressively allows this to be a work of complete, sometimes stinging honesty. Directed by A.J. Eaton with renowned director and journalist Cameron Crowe producing, Remember My Name leaves few stones unturned in Crosby’s life. In a sense he is a survivor from that last generation of creative minds who were heirs to the Romantic tradition. Born in the shadow of World War II, finding a voice in the tumultuous 60s, there’s more to a personality like Crosby than the mere tag of “old hippie.” From his drug abuse to writing iconic music and touring as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young before the group implodes amid intense squabbles, it’s all laid bare in this film. And that’s exactly how he wanted it.
“What matters is not how long you have, because you fucking don’t know, it’s what you do with it,” says Crosby while sitting down along with Crowe in Rodeo Drive to discuss the making of Remember My Name. “I can’t do anything about the fact that I’m old, I don’t know how much time I have left, but I do know how I want to spend it. I said this in the film, the one place where I can make a contribution, the only thing that can make your life better, bring some light to your life, make you feel interested, make you learn something is with this. Other than that I just want to get stoned and have a ball.”
How does a man who has lived it all decide to tell it all in a documentary? “When A.J. first approached me about it he said something that makes sense, he said ‘this is an aberration, it’s not how it usually goes.’ I should have been walking off into the sunset and say ‘it’s been great! Goodbye!’ And I didn’t. That’s unusual. A surge of songwriting at this point in someone’s career isn’t just unusual it doesn’t fuckin’ happen. So it’s a thing we wanna look at. It’s a valid reason to make a documentary. What happened though, is that it went vastly much deeper than I planned on or was expecting. It’s probably deeper than they had hoped. Fact is it was going there and we knew it. So we grabbed on to that tiger and hoped to stay on.”
Crosby’s life is itself a panorama of still-incandescent cultural memories from the 1960s, when he first rose to prominence as a member of The Byrds. The documentary finds him revisiting favorites haunts on the Sunset Strip, including the Whiskey A Go-Go, recalling meeting fellow legends like Jim Morrison (who he despised). It was a romantic, drug-fueled moment so different from today. How does Crosby hope younger musicians take it all in? “These are very troubled times. I hope they get a sense of what we thought was important,” says Crosby. “It’s very difficult for young people trying to make it now, for young musicians trying to make it now. If they watch this I hope they think ‘well the guy’s given his whole life to it,’ so there is that. You can give your whole life to it. I hope they take away some understanding that it’s extremely difficult now to do it as your life’s work, because of streaming, it doesn’t give them a chance. We don’t make any money off records. Period. That’s made it much harder for young people.” So is the struggle still worth it? “If you want it bad enough, you can do it, you can do it. And it is a good path. It helps other human beings and there’s very little you can do that does. So if you can shed a little light, if you can do that, good on you. It’s a good act. I’m happy about doing it. I wish I could do it better.”
Crowe has been a storyteller of different tools, having started off as a teenage writer for outlets like Rolling Stone, covering the 70s rock scene to making cult film hits like Say Anything, writing Fast Times At Ridgemont High and directing music-oriented films like Singles and Almost Famous. How does he change his approach from cinema to documentary? “It’s all journalism, it’s all about the details,” says Crowe. “It’s about what you show. It all comes from journalism. The little notes about behavior, what people do, and the way David tells a story. He never forgets a detail. He tells you about the cop at Woodstock, he’s talking about the crease in his pants, the shine on his shoes. He’ll say something like ‘white dress, pretty girl, straight hair, bangs right here.’ And I’m thinking, I’m there, I’m there in my mind. Movies are like that, and the documentary is like that too because without the details it’s all generic.” Real life is a motor force for Crowe’s work. “Even when I’m doing a movie it’s generally about something real or somebody I’ve met. It’s just my favorite thing. Even today David said three things that I made a note of and plan on stealing.”
David Crosby’s storytelling ability is so impressive he might’ve been a great screenwriter. “I have…I have written a number of things,” says Crosby somewhat cryptically. When it comes to this documentary, so raw and unflinching, Crosby was both storyteller and collaborator. “I did not have the sense of shaping the film that the filmmakers had because they were in the editing bay, particularly A.J. and our two editors and Cameron was there a lot. They’re filmmakers, they know how to make you feel stuff by juxtaposing images and taking you on their story. I knew I had one job, and that was to not lie, and I think all three of us are happy with it.”
Crosby’s storytelling ability shines best when elaborating on a story told in the documentary about witnessing John Coltrane whaling his sax out of a bathroom trip. “It actually happened. It was a club at 1063rd Cottage Grove, south side of Chicago, I went there, I was one of three white people in the building. I was as high as I could get. We were totally thrilled, it went down exactly as I described it. He was in there because the tiled bathroom sounded good and he was in there blowing the entire time. He had never stopped soloing, he walked off the stage and kept going, he could hear the changes in the band. He knew where he was in that tune. He would walk around playing and walked into that bathroom because it sounded good.”
Crowe looks on in awe. “Who does that now?!” It also reminds him why Crosby is worthy of being recorded in front of a camera. “That story actually resolved our question on how to open this movie…he’s not this ‘poor old guy,’ he’s the guy that tells the Coltrane story. This guy who has eight stems in his heart is going to show you how Coltrane did a solo in the bathroom. And it’s not even a story about Coltrane in that scene, it’s a story about loving music. You’re high as shit but you’re grateful that Coltrane is playing in the bathroom.”
Crosby fans will recognize memorable stock footage like Crosby at Monterey Pop using his time on stage to peddle JFK conspiracy theories and his early TV performances, sporting the outdoors look so emblematic of 60s counterculture. These moments are contrasted with new footage of Crosby remembering all this while lounging around his current home with wife Jan Dance, who for a while was also sucked into Crosby’s wild dance with narcotics. Now the singer is facing more natural battles with diabetes, heart problems and simple tiredness. If as seen in the documentary some of his most powerful albums like If I Could Only Remember My Name were inspired by heartbreak amid the swirl of fame and addiction, what fuels the work today? Crosby calms down a little, as if pondering a serious issue. “The big shift in how I make music is from competitive to collaborative. I’m not trying to put it down, we did make some great music competing with each other in CSNY, we were fully competing with each other all the time. The bands I’m with now are fully collaborative bands. It’s a contributive, collective thing. That’s closer to my art, to the way I think I should be making art. The proof’s in the pudding, I’ve made four really good records in a row and I’m half-way through a fifth one. That’s not an accident. Art doesn’t happen by accident. This is my job, it’s what I’ve been put here to do.”
Of course the soundtrack of the film is imbued with some of his best-known work with CSNY, including “Carry On” and the Neil Young-penned “Ohio,” inspired by the Kent State protests and subsequent shootings by National Guardsmen that killed 4 students. Eaton follows Crosby to Kent State University to look over the memorial commemorating the 1970 event. There is still a fierce rage in Crosby when he looks at a picture of the guardsmen aiming their weapons at protesters.
“We put other stuff on the back burner because it was so fun to work on this,” says Crowe about the immersive atmosphere in making Remember My Name. “I realized I want to edit at home from now on, because this wasn’t edited in some studio lot. For the first time it felt like no one is looking over our shoulders. This is for us. We were thinking ‘Let’s make this great for us.’ And the sensibility was what I want now for our next movie. The gift of it being so personal, because we weren’t thinking about an audience for a very long time, was amazing. So everything else stepped back while we were making this.”
Crosby does not mince words when sharing how this measures up to fellow artists who have allowed documentaries to narrate their stories. His affairs, tragedies and arrests are chronicled, as well as the break up with CSNY which left bridges still burned. “It’s not another shine job, that’s what documentaries commonly are. They’re all bullshit, they don’t tell you anything. If I see a documentary I want to know what you care about, who you love, what’s going on, who are you afraid of. Why did you do that? I want to know that stuff. Most people don’t want to do that or are not willing to do that. I knew these guys would. That’s the only level I’m interested at, and it is dodgy and uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable to be naked in public. But it’s worthwhile if you want to understand a human being, any human being.”
The documentary goes so in-depth we get anecdotes worthy of any rock n’ roll history. Crosby found Jim Morrison to be a dork, but adores Joni Mitchell and considers her a great songwriter than even Dylan. He reveals how Mitchell wrote a song to say goodbye after a rather tumultuous relationship in those intense Summer of Love days. “It’s ‘That Song About the Midway,’ there’s no question about it. She told me at that point. She denies it now, but she does that a lot. The kicker was that she did it, then glared at me and then sang it again. But eh, it’s all ok. If you’re gonna get brushed off that’s a pretty magnificent way to get brushed off.”