Graham Nash,
The TVD Interview

Celebrating Graham Nash on his 79th birthday with a look back at our 2013 chat with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee.Ed.

Victor Hugo once said that music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent. When searching for ways to talk about the music of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young without saying what has already been said many times over, it was that quote that felt most apt. Each song is a gem, each gem is a story, and each story became part of so many lives. 

Graham Nash, writer of many of those gems, has always been known for his candor. His memoir, Wild Tales (out September 17), is an unflinchingly honest yet sympathetic telling of a musical life and the many immense talents who surrounded him. Sure, it’s full of the kind of decadent rock and roll stories you might expect—the (un)usual sex and drugs and in-fighting. But what sets Wild Tales apart from most rock star memoirs is that there’s a sort of kinship one feels with Nash while reading his stories of excess, burnout, and explosive personalities.

Perhaps that’s because Graham Nash grew up in poverty, and never lost sight of what that meant and never forgot those who encouraged him along the way. Nash writes from the perspective of nearly fifty years on, but he remembers it all, including where he came from and, of course, where he’s gotten to go. In his book and in our interview, the gratitude he feels for his life is obvious. He takes readers from a dreary Northern England council estate to a life of fulfilled dreams in music, photography (Nash is a digital fine art printing pioneer) and philanthropy.

“There are a lot of perks to being a rock star, and once we all got straightened out, we were able to enjoy them,” Nash writes. On the eve of a rare solo tour, he reflected on over five decades of wild tales for The Vinyl District. 

One of the things I loved about Wild Tales is that I felt like I was reading about a friend who “made it” from public housing to stardom through this incredible passion for music. It made everything seem normal and fantastic at the same time.

That’s pretty much how my life was—it was pretty normal, but fantastic at the same time! I’ve had an incredible life. When I got to the end of the manuscript, I looked down at the pages and said, “Holy shit! I wish I was here!” [Laughs]

Looking back on your life through the book, is there anything that you wish you could have done differently along the way?

I don’t believe so. I pretty much covered what I wanted people to know about me. You know, there are obviously a thousand more stories, but you’ve got to end it somewhere, you know? [Laughs]

You were part of the first wave of the “British Invasion” with The Hollies. Something that I’ve noted about bands from England around that time was how the North/South divide played out in their music. Do you feel like there was such a thing?

Yes—it’s very true, but it was also a cultural divide. There seemed to be this sort of imaginary line cut across the middle of England where everyone north of Birmingham was kind of thought of as a peasant. When you got south of Birmingham and you spoke the Queen’s English, you were cool. There were musical differences and there were cultural differences also.

So, it seems like northern bands—like The Hollies and The Beatles—had slightly more diverse influences, like show tunes or country & western; whereas the Southern bands—like The Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Kinks—seemed to be almost uniformly R&B bands to start. I don’t feel like I’d hear the Rolling Stones do “‘Til There Was You…”

Yeah, that’s true. After World War II, people desperately needed entertainment and needed to be distracted from the fact that bombs were falling and houses and lives had been destroyed. So, we really needed to be able to laugh, and that’s why people like the Goons [came to be]. They were a comedic troupe who were brilliant at entertaining with absurd humor, because we really needed to laugh.

George Martin did all the sound effects for The Goons. When John [Lennon] and Paul [McCartney] heard that George Martin was associated with The Goons, that’s really how he got that job.

I never knew that! You know, I really enjoyed reading about your trip to your first real record store in New York City on your first American tour with The Hollies. Do you remember what you bought there?

Yeah, I do! I got a lot of Miles Davis records and I got a lot of Lord Buckley, who was a comedian like Lenny Bruce, although much different, but around the same time and did the same kind of socially-activated humor. So, Lenny Bruce, and Lord Buckley, and Miles Davis and Music of Bulgaria, which was an album put out in 1954 of the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, which is one of my favorite records to this day.

That’s the album you talk about in your book—the one you try to introduce to everyone you meet.

That’s right, yes!

Do you still listen to the records you bought then?

I still do, but I’ve been totally involved, for the last ten years, in our [CSN’s] music. I did David Crosby’s box set, I did my box set, I did Stephen Stills’ box set, and I put out seven other albums—the very first Crosby, Stills and Nash record with four extra tracks—things like that. So, I’ve been completely engrossed in our own music, but I know that great stuff will make its way through to me. I don’t go searching for music; I am so involved in our music right now. That’s the way it is for me.

I guess I never really thought about how Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had two factions—Stephen and Neil and you and David. You talk a lot about your relationship with Crosby and paint him in a very sympathetic light and, despite your butting of heads, you do the same when talking about Stephen and Neil. It revealed a lot as far as why you guys continued to make music and never really “divorced.” Is this how you thought about the group all along, or did that work its way out as you were writing Wild Tales?

We always had this idea, this notion, of a mother ship where this mother ship contained the four of us, and that we could make music as the mother ship and then be able to go anywhere that we want and make music with anybody that we wanted. That was always an unspoken part of CSNY and it is to this day.

You said in your book, “I bonded twice: first to Allan [Clarke] and later to Crosby.” Were there any revelations as you were writing about your friends that surprised you?

Yes, in putting it all together, especially about David Crosby. While I was going through it, I really didn’t realize how dark it really was. In my heart, I never thought that Crosby would die from overdosing on drugs. But in writing the book and memorizing everything and running it all by David—he was my main concern—because I’m so brutally honest about him… But he called me up and said, “Nope, I did all that. I put you guys through all that stuff, so it’s okay. It’s fair game. Everything’s good.”

And you talk about how he was always brutally honest with everyone around him. That seems to be key to how you all continued to make music together—everyone was brutally honest with everyone else, all the time.

Yes, we have to be because your friends need to tell you the truth. I never surround myself with “yes men” who think I’m great and think everything I do shines. I like to have friends who tell me my weaknesses and tell me where I’m going wrong. I think that’s one of the main ways you can grow as a person.

If your friends won’t be honest with you, who will be?

That’s right.

You are well-known for your political activism through your songwriting. Do you feel like there is still room for socially-aware songwriting in today’s musical landscape?

Of course there’s room. There’s so much going on in the world. The world’s media owners—you could probably count them on two hands—and they don’t want protest music on their airwaves. They just don’t want it. They want people to be sheep and to lie down and to consume and just lie there while they run our lives. This band [CSNY], particularly, has never been one to lie down and shut up. We’re always standing up and talking. And it’s one of the benefits of living in a beautiful country like the United States—we get to speak our minds. In many, many other countries you can’t do that.

You’re so right, and people forget or are not aware of the monopoly that exists in media today.

Oh, yes. They’re much more interested in the size of Kim Kardashian’s ass and Justin Bieber’s monkey.

That’s the saddest and truest thing I’ve heard today.

Well, it’s true, isn’t it?

It’s disheartening. I think that’s why music like yours continues to resonate and attract new fans. It’s difficult to find that quality today.

And I often wonder, you know, these people—God bless them, they’re musicians and they’re trying their best—but people like Justin and Miley Cyrus… are they going to be around in five years? Are you going to remember any Justin Bieber song? Are you going to remember any Miley Cyrus song? Are you gonna be moved to action by any of those songs?

Well, I think it’s different. They are songwriting by committee, and not in a good way where it’s collaborative…

Well, it’s more image-driven isn’t it? They definitely use focus groups, but man… don’t you know instinctively in your heart whether you’ve written a good song or not?

The priorities are different.

Yes, absolutely.

It does feel like music has come back to being singles-driven as opposed to album-driven, which is kind of where you started out with The Hollies, but not where you ended up with CSNY.

Yes, and I’m not particularly interested in singles. I like to put people on a musical journey when they listen to our albums. That’s why the very first track is important, because that entices you to listen to the rest of the album. And we’ve always tried to make albums where every single track has a reason for being and has a raison d’être and has to be there.

When people started to make albums that had only two tracks that people wanted, people got upset with that. Eventually they started to only download music for free and only download the two tracks they wanted, and let the rest alone. But we never made albums that way. We’ve always made albums where every single track is important for us.

When every track is solid, why wouldn’t you buy an album?

And wait until you hear the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young album I’m just about to complete! In 1974,we played thirty-one huge arenas and baseball stadiums and giant places—average audiences of about 70,000 people. And we did thirty-one of them! And we recorded nine of the shows, and I’ve put together this three-and-a-half hour concert from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young from 1974 and I think you’re going to enjoy it tremendously.

This might be a loaded question, but I was curious about which was more meaningful to you—to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Crosby, Stills and Nash or, finally, with The Hollies?

I must tell you, Jennifer, that my heart was more with when The Hollies were inducted. I kind of expected that David and Stephen and Neil and I would be inducted at some point because of our music and what we created in the past. But it took them twenty-five years for them to recognize the value of The Hollies, so I was much more pleased… I mean, I was incredibly thrilled when CSN and Neil were inducted, but my heart was more pleased when The Hollies were inducted.

I know touring solo is a rare thing for you, and you’re about to hit the road in a few days. What is the most fulfilling thing about touring on your own?

When you’re with three, sometimes four, very strong writers in a democratic group, if there are thirty-six songs in a show, I could only get nine. That’s because Stephen gets nine, and David has nine, and Neil has nine songs. But we keep writing and we keep talking about what we consider to be important issues, whether it’s falling in love, whether it’s laughing, whether it’s being disgusted about what’s going on with the government and what’s going on with the NSA… all the Tibetan monks burning themselves to death because of the dispute between the Tibetan people and the Chinese government… that’s many, many things throughout the world to talk about. And so, I need to play some of those songs. I have six new songs I want to play, you know? That’s why I’m going out solo.

It seems like smaller rooms and more intimate venues are better for your songs…

We’re hitting the smaller rooms by design. We’ve played everything from Woodstock which was, what, half a million people? And then to two or three friends, and everywhere in between. I want to be able to see the audience’s eyes. I want to be able to know that I’m connecting with them, that there’s a reason that they paid hard-earned money on a ticket to see me… I want to give them full value for their money.

And you talk about that a lot in your book as well, that playing arenas is a fantastic experience, but something is lost for you in that.

Yeah! It’s hard to play “Guinnevere” on one acoustic guitar and two voices to half a million people. [Laughs]

Did you ever imagine you’d still be playing music and performing well into the 21st century?

No. I never did. I knew I was having a great time and took everything day-to-day, but I never thought it would last this long. I mean, in May that just passed… it was fifty years from The Hollies’ first single release. And that was stunning to me, that something that I remember so clearly and so well happened fifty years ago. That’s a half a century—my goodness!

That’s pretty wild when you put it like that.

Yeah, it is! Wild tales… [Laughs]

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