In “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” A.J. Eaton’s moving and elegiac rock-nostalgia documentary, David Crosby appears before us as an older and wiser hippie troubadour, his signature long locks and frontier mustache now white, his spirit chastened but still keyed to the muse of his holy boomer-rock self. In the movie, Crosby speaks with candor about all the drugs he did, the women he “didn’t love enough,” the abuse he handed out to his body and soul. Yet he’s not apologizing; he’s testifying. In “Remember My Name,” he treats his life as a shamanistic parable of pleasure and pain, beauty and loss.
The survivors of the ’60s have been flaunting — and, in some cases, regretting — the consequences of their hedonistic if-it-feels-good-do-it lifestyles ever since the ’60s ended. It was back in 1989 when I first remember seeing an interview with David Crosby (on CNN) in which he announced, with a touch of pride, “I should be dead.” If you wanted to be cruel about it, you could say that he’s been dining out on his I-should-be-deadness for 30 years. But in “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” Crosby is more than just a rock ‘n’ roll survivor nursing a lifetime of second thoughts. He’s a romantic witness to a time that was genuinely about following the road of excess to the palace of wisdom. (Break on through to the other side.)
Everything comes full circle, and to the millennials, David Crosby isn’t just some boring old hippie — he’s more like the Gandalf of Woodstock. He’s a figure who now seems stubbornly exotic in the miracle of his perseverance (it helps that he’s on Twitter), and that’s one reason why “Remember My Name” has taken Sundance by storm. It’s a terrific movie, and anyone who ever swooned to the soaring folk-rock vocal majesty of a Crosby, Stills & Nash (or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) song like “Helplessly Hoping” or “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” or “Carry On” or “Déjà Vu” will want to see it. But the movie also represents a cross-generational epiphany: an aging bard of the counterculture talking about why the counterculture had to end, and about what we lost when it did. He’s evoking the magic of a long-time-gone era, when people did what they wanted and the lucky ones (like Crosby) lived to tell the tale.
When you see fabled rock stars who came up in the ’60s on tour, or performing for some PBS fund-raiser (it might be the Moody Blues, or the Beach Boys, or the Temptations), it’s always a little oxymoronic to realize that they’re now old men. That said, the toughest thing to adjust to is their voices, which simply aren’t the same. The sound is thinner, and you can hear the strain as they reach for those high notes (or, more often, avoid them altogether). But in “Remember My Name,” we see David Crosby performing in concert over the last year or so, and the sound that pours out of him is as pure and clean as ever. He hits every damn note, including the high ones, and that golden-sunlight voice is a clue as to why he outlasted so many others. There’s a spirit inside him that won’t fade.
It’s not as if he’s a paragon of health. Crosby talks about his liver transplant, the fact that he’s a diabetic, and the eight stents in his heart. (At one point he predicts that a heart attack will take him, probably in the next few years.) He was born in 1941, but beyond the age factor, his drug-taking was epic; he was never not high on stage. The cocaine, the heroin (a drug he says gets you chasing that first high forever), the psychedelics, the booze: He did it all, and prodigiously, without a thought to the future, or to anyone he was hurting, including himself.
The movie is full of great stories, backed by great photographs, about Crosby’s love affairs (Joni Mitchell dumped him by playing a new song), his loathing of Jim Morrison, the days he spent letting the Beatles tutor him in how to be a rock star, and about how he wound up alienating every musician he ever worked with, from Roger McGuinn of the Byrds to every member of CSNY. We see a clip of Crosby ranting about the JFK assassination from the Monterey Pop stage, which provokes McGuinn to recall, “Well, David had become insufferable.” And Graham Nash, who started off as Crosby’s bosom buddy (according to Nash, the two spoke every day for 45 years), wound up telling Crosby off and shouting his final “F— you!” to him inches away from his face, right in the middle of a concert. Crosby’s ultimate comeuppance: After bottoming out in 1986, he turned himself into the FBI on drugs and weapons charges and spent five months in prison, which was just the intervention he needed.
He got sober after that, and now enjoys the charmed life of an aging hippie celebrity, still going on tour and living in serene splendor with Jan Dance, his devoted wife of 32 years. “Remember My Name” is the portrait of an irascible legend who finally figured out how to age gracefully. Yet the movie does leave you asking: What is it about David Crosby that drove everyone around him nuts? It seems to relate to his metaphysical self-absorption, a quality that’s there even in his youngest photographs. In his heyday, he was a bit like Matthew McConaughey in “Dazed and Confused,” a long-haired lothario and legend in his own mind. And, in fact, the documentary reminds us of an amusing tidbit of New Hollywood history — that Dennis Hopper based the character he played in “Easy Rider” (the hair, the ‘stache, the stoned use of “Man!”) on David Crosby. In a way, Crosby’s whole life has been a movie. In “Remember My Name,” even when he’s chastened and regretful, it’s all about him. But that, in a way, was the crazy glory of the ’60s, an era of people who never stopped believing, especially in themselves.