If I could only forget how I feel… love and loss with David Crosby

Not that anyone would be so interested, but, were I to be asked what is the best feeling in the world, I would say that it is to love and be loved by someone. To wake up next to that someone and know that your future is secured by that someone being beside you. Maybe even until you shuffle off the proverbial coil. That is joy. He is there and you love him and he loves you back and nothing else matters. I hate how trite and sentimental that sounds but it is a truth, maybe even THE truth, best described by Giovanni Ribisi in an episode of Friends: “being with her [in my case it was a him] is better than, like, not being with her”. 

Those of us who have experienced that level of dedication are lucky, but also potentially at risk. Of loss, of betrayal, of things not working out. Four years ago, the love of my life left me. And I have never recovered from that sadness, to the point where I feel I probably never will. And I no longer believe I got the second part of the arrangement, the being loved back part. I think I believed he loved me back, but I was delusional. And what a state that leaves you in. Love is a powerful force and when you can no longer deploy it, the resulting gulf is -or feels- insurmountable. And so one turns to the familiar. Music is familiar, and it is music that keeps me going while also preventing me from moving on. “I haven’t moved on but trust me I tried” sings Troye Sivan on ‘You’. What a mantra. 

I will not give my love’s name here, but I will mention one of the ways I tried to show him how much I loved him. He loved vinyl records, and had an exceptional collection of the things and an even more exceptional sound system to let them belt out around his room in Archway when we were just friend and then, if not as frequently as I should have liked, around the flats we shared. 

I didn’t grow up with vinyl. Which is ironic given I am seven years older than him. I guess that, although my parents had some vinyl, the advent of the CD was novel enough when I was a child to be a more dominant vessel for my family. And when I got to the age of buying my own music, vinyl was supposedly dead. We had CDs, minidiscs died a death, the Internet was many years away, vinyl was a ghost. It wasn’t until I was in my mid- to late-twenties that I learned that vinyl was making a comeback among young, Internet-savvy, erudite music fans. Such as the young man I fell in love with. It was for him that I embraced vinyl and that made me want to share in his passion. Unsurprisingly, said passion has waned since he left.

I know, I know – get to the fucking point and to David fucking Crosby. How does the now-79-year-old hippy from The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young mean jack shit to this rather maudlin story? Well, it’s all about presents. When I was ham-fistedly trying to woo my love, and later when he’d somehow succumbed to my dubious charms and become my boyfriend, my gift of choice was vinyl. Because I knew he loved and cherished it. Sometimes I’d get him vinyl editions of albums he had on other formats. But most of all I wanted to give him the music I loved that he didn’t know. Sometimes it worked and it was like I was letting him into a portion of my heart that I was thrilled to learn he liked. Sometimes, it didn’t. Starsailor by Tim Buckley, Desire by Tuxedomoon, Everybody Knows this is Nowhere by Neil Young and Crazy Horse: these were just three albums I introduced him to and felt awesome because he liked them. If I could only remember my name, David Crosby’s debut album, which I bought for my love in Brighton before we were together, was one case where my instinct of what he would like fell flat. I don’t think I ever heard him play it. 

Nearly four years after my love left me and broke my heart, however, it is If I could only remember my name that makes me think of him more than any other album. Because If I could only remember my name is an album of loss, the story of how the superstar of hippiedom, friend of the Beatles, founder of the Byrds and the first true supergroup discovered true pain and suffering. At this point I must make it clear that Crosby’s loss far eclipsed mine. His girlfriend, Christine Hinton, was tragically killed in a car accident. My boyfriend just stopped loving me. It happens, and I want to make it clear that I am not comparing the pain. But I have been in pain since 2017, as trivial or ridiculous as that might be and so, perhaps perversely (I have also subsequently experienced real grief), If I could only remember my name just keeps resonating with me. And above all I have come to associate it with the one who walked away. Four years after the fact.

That’s the crucial fact: four years. Four years in which I probably didn’t ever listen to If I could only remember my name. I struggled and failed to deal with the loss of the love, then other shit hit me in the sternum and I just kept treading water. Some music helped, such as the ever-reliably elegiac William Basinski or Troye Sivan’s unexpectedly apposite and sensual pop. Sometimes I’d play ‘I believe in you’ by Neil Young, ‘Visions of Gideon’ by Sufjan Stevens or ‘It’s too late’ by Carole King and cry. Or I’d lean towards the desolate pop of Tirzah’s ‘Basic Need’ (“oh could you blame me for wanting to move on from you?”) or the unequaled romanticism of ‘Take My Breath Away’. Each time I was wallowing in my sadness. Then I got a bit better. Not much, but I started to taste air again. And it’s been, again, four years of feeling like it could get better only for something (a text, a memory, a social media mention) to drag me back. 

And then came a documentary. A friend offered me her Now TV login and, joy of joys, I was able to watch the superlative documentary about “Cros” called Remember My Name. It’s astounding: intimate, historical, confessional and it shines a spotlight on both Crosby’s pain and his music which, for a couple of years was both beautiful and resplendent with pain. I’d just had a text from my love, just some attempt at becoming friends again, out of the blue, and then suddenly Crosby made more sense than ever. Especially If I could only remember my name. I put it on and became swallowed by memories of my relationship with my love, of Budapest, Prague and Malta; of Finland and Brittany; of life together in Islington; of his family and mine; of his smile; of music we had drowned in together. 

What was it that made that album, one he’d never acknowledged me gifting to him, so triggering? Well, sorrow links to sorrow I guess. And for whatever reason, after watching that documentary and totally coincidentally getting a message from the man I still miss like someone took an organ from me, I turned on If I could only remember my name. ‘Music is Love’ (the opening track) passed without note, for it is slightly fluffy. But then ‘Cowboy Movie’ kicked in with its impeccably abstract narrative about dissolving friendships and I had memories of strife and arguments swimming through my mind. Remember – we were friends first and maybe, almost certainly, should have stayed thus. 

Then the album sucked me into its vortex. ‘Laughing’, ostensibly a song about the silliness of some folks’ devotion to cod spirituality, made me start crying from the line “I thought I met a man […] I was mistaken”. Crosby’s voice, often overlooked, hit me with its emotional force. Thoughts of misguided devotion were swirling through my head on the wings of exquisite slide guitar notes and Joni Mitchell’s divine harmonies and I suddenly couldn’t focus. All I felt was the overwhelming sense that I’d overcommitted back when he and I got together, that I’d believed a myth I’d cooked up for myself. Not his fault – I was selling myself the snake oil. He’d made it clear it wouldn’t last, even subconsciously, but I’d become the mythical child “laughing in the sun” that Crosby was empathising with. He was hugging me through my delusion, one that had clearly cost me my sanity in some ways.

In such context, ‘What Are Their Names’, a ferocious political diatribe, was a bit of relief, but ‘Traction in the Rain’, with its lyrics of loss, brought me back into the maelstrom of hurt. And the album closes with two wordless and one basically wordless tracks that showcase a man bereft, unable to convey what is killing him except through the odd word and many elegiac cries of pain. ‘Song with no Words (Tree with no Leaves)’ and ‘Orleans’ are powerful. But ‘I’d swear there was somebody here’ is a sucker punch to the gut. Crosby’s multi-tracked voice cries to heaven and I have yet to listen to it without shivering. Because that is his farewell to Christine. And yes, my own sadness, the loss of one man who stopped loving me (my other bereavements are different, albeit excruciating), is nothing compared to what Cros was dealing with in 1971. I know. But for whatever reason, nearly four years after [redacted] left me behind, the album swam out of the ether, unprompted, on the back of a nice message from the man I still love and a fascinating documentary about Cros. And that album burned with all the pain I still feel, every sentiment I want to convey to that beautiful, hurtful man. In some wordless way, David Crosby was sharing my pain and asking the question I can’t shake but also don’t want the answer to: “why?” The stars do align every now and then. 

What to make of all this? Essentially, there is only one conclusion: If I could only remember my name is a work of unparalleled majesty and beauty. Every song, even the slightly slight ‘Music is Love’, is superb. And as an expression of grief, it has few parallels. Maybe Berlin. Maybe Tonight’s the Night. But If I could only remember my name doesn’t get the credit it deserves as a tower of sadness equivalent to those other masterpieces. As for the rest of my meander, well, I still haven’t stopped loving [redacted]. I have a lot of friends who would scold me for that. He himself would be annoyed as he has long tried to revert to our pre-love friendship. And so this essay is a convoluted way of explaining to the love of my life and to those who have had to deal with my broken heart, that some pain just doesn’t die. I will never stop grieving the deaths of my mother and aunt. And it seems clear now that I will never stop grieving the death of the best relationship I ever had. Malta, Prague, Helsinki, Budapest, Islington will swim in my head forever. Memories of stroking his back, of wanting to make him laugh, of his body, of his smile, of his family, will never stop haunting me. And I guess my rediscovery of If I could only remember my name (not that I’d forgotten it) just reinforced my sense of loss while also reminding me that I am but a speck when it comes to said loss. Maybe I’ll get over it. Maybe I won’t. But I know David Crosby understands. Because If I could only remember my name came back into my life in 2021 and reminded me of what loss and memory feel like. And such pain is beautiful, even if it may kill me.

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