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Classic Tracks: David Crosby’s “Laughing”

At the dawn of the 1970s, David Crosby was on top of the rock world, as 'If I Could Only Remember My Name' and "Laughing" document.

At the dawn of the 1970s, David Crosby was on top of the rock world. Originally part of the Los Angeles folk scene in the early ’60s, he first rose to prominence as an integral member of The Byrds in their first couple of years, then hit the serious Big Time in 1969 as part of the harmony-heavy folk-rock supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash. Crosby was the author of the chestnuts “Guinnevere” and “Long Time Gone,” and co-writer of “Wooden Ships.” By the time Woodstock rolled around in August of ’69, Neil Young had joined forces with CSN and they spent several months recording the classic album Déjà Vu at the newly built Wally Heider Recording in San Francisco. That disc, released in 1970, included the typically idiosyncratic Crosby tunes “Almost Cut My Hair” and the title track.

Almost from the moment it was built, Heider’s San Francisco facility became the place for Bay Area rock bands to record: Besides the CSNY sessions (which reportedly sprawled more than some 800 hours), Jefferson Airplane cut Volunteers there in 1969, the Grateful Dead made American Beauty in 1970, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, Santana, Brewer & Shipley and Seals & Crofts all tracked there. The Bay Area had been a close-knit music community since the heyday of the first wave of psychedelic bands. That translated to the San Francisco studio scene in that musicians were always helping out on each other’s albums: The Dead’s Jerry Garcia played pedal steel on Déjà Vu and Volunteers, and steel, electric and banjo on Airplane member Paul Kantner’s 1970 sci-fi rock epic Blows Against the Empire, which also featured David Freiberg of Quicksilver Messenger Service and both Crosby and Graham Nash, among others. In fact, Kantner and Crosby were the driving forces behind a loose amalgamation of stoney Northern California rockers who came to be dubbed the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra (PERRO), who fantasized they would make albums together whenever enough of them were in town and not on tour with their main bands. And actually, there are widely circulated bootlegs of various combinations of S.F.’s finest players jamming and working on songs at Heider’s in ’70 and ’71.

A track here and a track there on different albums from the period show some of the inspired magic that took place at these sessions. But one album in particular — Crosby’s 1971 solo debut, If I Could Only Remember My Name — shows the full flowering of those collaborations. Helping Crosby out were some of the best artists from the local music scene, including Garcia, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann from the Dead; Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady from Jefferson Airplane; Gregg Rolie and Michael Shrieve from Santana; Frieberg from Quicksilver; Nash and Young; and, up from L.A., former paramour Joni Mitchell. This month’s “Classic Tracks,” “Laughing” is the album’s shining jewel: a brilliant and beautifully recorded song featuring Crosby with Garcia, Lesh and Kreutzmann, and in a brief cameo, Mitchell.

At the time, Crosby was living on a boat docked across the bay in Sausalito and still nursing a heart broken by the death of his beloved girlfriend, Christine Hinton, in an automobile accident in Marin County in 1969 — she was his Guinnevere, and later he would dedicate If I Could Only Remember My Name to her. “I was in a pretty emotional state,” Crosby told writer Steve Silberman in 1995, “trying to stay so deeply in the music that the other thing — Christine — wouldn’t drive me under. I needed to work all the time, so I would write constantly, and when I wasn’t writing, I was recording, and when I wasn’t recording, I would try to get some place to play. It was all I had to hang on to, so I was pretty prolific.”

When Crosby was ready to start recording his solo debut, he enlisted a young Heider engineer named Stephen Barncard to helm the sessions. Barncard had assisted engineer Bill Halverson on Déjà Vu, but didn’t really connect with Crosby then. In the interim, however, Barncard had recorded and mixed the Dead’s American Beauty, and it was allegedly on Garcia’s recommendation that Crosby asked to work with Barncard. In fact, when the Crosby sessions began in September 1970, Barncard was spending his days mixing American Beauty on Studio C’s DeMedio console with Garcia and Lesh, then tracking Crosby in the same room at night.

“At first it was pretty quiet,” Barncard remembers. “There wasn’t a lot of people hanging out. It was largely [assistant] Ellen [Burke] and myself. David would sit in a chair with an acoustic guitar and play. What was chaotic about it is I had to switch into double-session mode. When I was mixing the Grateful Dead in the daytime, we’d start around 10 and go all day. I’d take a break, cook dinner — probably on a hot plate I had there. We’d have stewed prunes or some vegetarian goulash or something out of a can, and then by 7 o’clock, I’d have everything ready, and at 7:15, David would come in beaming from ear to ear. It was so much more leisurely than Déjà Vu had been, which was a real pressure-cooker, but also incredible — those guys were amazing; really larger than life in a lot of ways.”

Studio C, which Barncard once described as “ground zero for so many great records,” was simply equipped by today’s standards. The custom console, designed and built by Heider associate Frank DeMedio, had 24 channels, eight buses and Gotham faders that went up and down in 2dB steps. DeMedio favored plug-in line amps made by United Audio and passive Universal Audio EQs on the way to the line amps. “It was really an incredibly well-built and simple thing,” Barncard says of the console. The monitor speakers in the small control room were Altec 604s. For outboard gear, “We had four 1176s in every room, two LA-2As, two Pultecs in portable cases that got moved around from room to room, this crappy-sounding Altec graphic [EQ] and some totally useless Lang equalizers,” he says. “And that was about it. We also had a Univibe for guitarists and also a Countryman phaser, which I used horribly on Van Morrison’s ‘Wild Night.’” Barncard describes the echo chamber at Heider’s as “probably the best chamber I’ve used anywhere, anytime. It was magic. That’s what you hear on Garcia’s pedal steel on ‘Laughing.’ What I would do is print the echo on guitars and some other instruments. I took a lot of risks — sometimes because I just wanted to and sometimes because I was young and didn’t know any better.”

The studio had one of the first Ampex MM1000 16-tracks ever built, but Barncard preferred the 3M 16-track. “Everything I ever recorded on 3M [Scotch] tape is still playable today and sounds great. Every piece of Ampex tape I used in the ’70s turned into glue and stops the tape.”

The songs on If I Could Only Remember My Name were a combination of personal tunes Crosby had written during the years and numbers that developed during jams in the studio. “Laughing” dates back at least to early 1968: Crosby cut an acoustic guitar and voice demo version at Hollywood Sound Recorders in March of that year for Elektra producer Paul Rothchild. In September 1969, when he was still shopping for a solo deal, Crosby cut a second solo version at Heider’s studio in Hollywood. Later, he tried unsuccessfully to entice his CSNY partners to record the song on Déjà Vu. Perhaps the song was waiting for the right musicians and the perfect setting to come along.

Though the master tape box for “Laughing” is dated “11/3/70,” Barncard suspects that the tune’s basic track was actually cut in September ’70 and that the later date is when it was completed. Whatever the case, that initial tracking session comprised Crosby and Garcia playing electric guitar (probably a hollow-body Gretsch and a Gibson SG, respectively), Lesh on his original Alembic bass and Kreutzmann on drums. “I’m sure they ran though it at least three or four times [before cutting it],” Barncard says. “It wasn’t one of those spontaneous tunes; it’s one they had to work on to get it right because it has a few tricky changes in it. Garcia played very little on the basic track — just tiny little riffs because it called for that.”

Early on in his career, Barncard learned the value of “going in to record as soon as anyone was in the studio. You don’t want to miss something because you’re waiting for a downbeat. On this album, there were times when people were drifting in and out and sometimes they’d be kind of messing around and it would slowly turn into something interesting, so it was important to capture all that. Sometimes I had the luxury of actually going in and getting sounds, but other times, I had to wing it and just put up whatever [mic] was handy at the moment so I wouldn’t miss it.”

For miking, Barncard used a relatively straightforward scheme: “On drums, I probably only used four mics — [Shure] 57s on the kick and the snare and [Sony] C37Ps as overheads, which also picked up the hi-hat and toms. I sometimes used [Neumann] 67s as overheads, too.” Garcia’s and Crosby’s guitars were captured by single 57s on each player’s amp, but Lesh’s beefy bass sound came from a combination of mics on two different amps — one large for more low end and a smaller one for the high-end part of his sound.”

According to Barncard, when Crosby was really “on,” he liked to work quickly, so he suspects that the gorgeous waterfall of harmony vocals created by Crosby for “Laughing” were done at the same session. “He has such a great ear and he would just go in and sing a part, double it, maybe triple it, then do the next part and the next one,” Barncard says admiringly. “I think you can put the vocals on that song next to the best stuff he did with Stills and Nash. It was amazing.” Barncard kept each vocal stack on a separate track. By the time Mitchell’s small but still important vocal contribution to the song’s bridge was recorded late in the process, Barncard had run out of free tracks, so “I punched in Joni’s double of ‘In the sun…’ on one of Phil’s two bass tracks for the duration of her part and compensated the level during the mix.”

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It was two other overdubs that really helped define the song’s character, however. The first was the clear, shimmering 12-string guitar part by Crosby on track 1. “On acoustic guitars, I liked to use an [AKG] C-60 with an omni capsule,” Barncard relates. “Before I did David’s record and before I did American Beauty, I had this artist named Chet Nichols who was an acoustic guitarist and singer/songwriter, much like Crosby in the sense that he used interesting tunings and 12-strings and that sort of thing; a troubadour type. I’d always wanted to record him, so when he came to San Francisco maybe six months into my stay at Wally Heider’s, I was able to do some spec sessions with him and experiment a lot on mic techniques and with vocals; he was pretty much my guinea pig for what would become David’s solo album. It really gave me a lot of ideas to try. By the time I got to David’s record, I was really tight with the room — Studio C was pretty much my domain at that point.”

At the time I interviewed Barncard at his home studio in San Francisco, just steps away from Golden Gate Park, he was completing some surround mixes for a 5.1 version of the Crosby album, so he had a handy version of “Laughing” broken out to its 16 tracks and was able to play me, for instance, the glorious vocal stacks as a unit and to isolate Garcia’s ethereal pedal steel track, which truly sounds like it was beamed down from another galaxy — it’s so strange and different. It, too, was captured with a 57 on the amp, but then drenched in echo. “It was from outer space and it was probably the first take,” Barncard says with a laugh. “It was absolutely beautiful.”

A number of years later, Garcia himself noted that during that era when he was playing steel on a lot of albums, “The nicest thing I did during that period was on Crosby’s solo album. I like what I did on that, generally speaking. I particularly like the pedal steel on ‘Laughing.’ That was some of the prettiest and most successful of what I was trying to get at at that time.”

“There was such a great vibe around that song — really, all those sessions,” Barncard adds. “David was in his element with these people, and when things were going well, as they did consistently on this album, he was the happiest, cheerleading-est, funniest, most charming, most beautiful cat in the world. It was a party! But also, we were done by 11, which was great for me because I had to be back the next morning to mix the Dead!”

As for the mixes on If I Could Only Remember My Name, “We were sort of mixing everything as we went along because David was always having playback parties,” Barncard chuckles. “In fact at one point, he was bringing so many people by to hear stuff that I complained, and he almost fired me! But I started making up a master reel of the good stuff and that became sort of the rough, and every time we’d do a new mix, we’d put it on the rough reel. Then at some point, we just started making real mixes.” Mixing was on the DeMedio board to a 3M 2-track at 30 ips. “I’d also put it on a cassette for David — he was one of the first artists to take a cassette home instead of a reel-to-reel [tape] because he lived on a boat and had this little Sony stereo cassette recorder he’d listen to.”

Today, Barncard still views that Crosby album — and “Laughing” in particular — as among his greatest achievements. That’s one reason he’s had so much fun remixing it for surround all these years later: “I always felt ‘Laughing’ was the centerpiece of the album — one of the most important tunes and one of the most hi-fi tunes. If I only had one cut to do in surround, it would be that one. Everything about it is right: The vocals are right, the overdubs are right, the lyrics are right. It stirs the soul. Everything just fits together like a beautiful mosaic. It’s so satisfying from the first note. That song is sacred.”