In troubled times, Graham Nash remains a true believer in the power of music

GRAHAM NASH INTERVIEW

RALF LOUIS

GRAHAM NASH

“I’m feeling optimistic that music can change the world with the right song in the right place,” says Graham Nash. “I give you an example of us (CSNY) doing ‘Ohio.’ And some of my songs, ‘Military Madness’ and ‘Chicago’ and ‘We Can Change the World.’

“I do believe we can change the world, but I’m not optimistic about the future of America. I see a country completely divided, basically, between smart people and stupid people. There’s a lot of both and there’s a battle going on now for the soul of democracy and I certainly hope that we can figure out how we can stop Trump from running for President.”

Nash, who gave voice to a generation’s angst over love, loss, the Vietnam War and other social justice issues, spoke with me recently from his home in New York’s East Village, where he lives with his wife, artist Amy Grantham, whom he wed in 2019, a few blocks from the now defunct venue, The Fillmore East.

Though that venue and much of the legacy of the ’60s has faded away, the 80-year-old Nash’s vibrant energy sustains him, enabling him to create new songs; bring back classics from the past in concert; and photograph the streets of New York with an eye for an image that tells a powerful story.

His songs remain remarkably stirring. His new album Graham Nash: Live, recorded on tour in 2019 and out now via Proper Records, features direct, profound and painfully honest songs from his first two solo albums, Songs for Beginners (1971) and Wild Tales (1974).

Accompanied by Shane Fontayne (the producer of his 2016 solo album This Path Tonight) on guitar and vocals, and former CSN keyboardist and vocalist Todd Caldwell, Nash will perform at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, July 13; the Tarrytown Music Hall, July 16; and the Ocean City Music Pier, Aug. 8.

The cover of the new “Graham Nash: Live” album.

Most of us do not reach 80 without heartbreaks and disappointments, and Nash has experienced his share of tumult with his band and relationships, but his spirit remains upbeat. On a dreary day, I asked him how he was doing. “Excellent,” he said. “It’s a lovely day, nice and rainy.

“The lockdown was okay for me. I’m a lucky man. I don’t go out to parties and I don’t go to stadiums with 80,000 people watching a football being thrown around. I stayed in my apartment with my wife Amy and wrote songs and recorded remotely and worked with Allan Clarke, who started The Hollies with me in December of 1962.

“I’m working on finishing a studio record. I’m making an album with Allan Clarke … I’m singing on about 10 tracks. So the pandemic for me was not bad at all … I’ve lived in New York City for about seven years and, quite frankly, I wish I’d done it earlier. It’s an incredible city … there’s so much beauty and so much pain.”

Nash also serves as the unofficial archivist of all that he created with his colleagues David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Neil Young, working on re-releases of CSN and CSNY songs and albums. For example, he helped in the release of Rhino Records’ four-CD, one-LP 50th anniversary edition of 1970’s Déjà Vu, expanded with outtakes, demos and alternate versions.

In 2021, Nash released the book “A Life in Focus: The Photography of Graham Nash,” in which he reflects and writes about his memories among the photos, which include vintage shots of Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, family members and others.

“The portrait of my mother in the book I took when I was 11 years old,” said Nash. “So yes, I’ve been a photographer longer than I’ve been a musician.”

He added, “I know what kind of pictures I don’t take. I don’t take pictures of kittens with balls of wool. I don’t take photographs that match my couch. I’m all for surreal moments that happen in front of me, and it seems to happen a lot to me.”

I noted that surreal moments are common in New York City. “Yes, especially in New York City,” said Nash. “I can hear 10 accidents before I get my coffee in the morning.”

Our discussion turned to the relevancy of his music — including “Prison Song” and “Oh! Camil” from Wild Tales and “Military Madness,” “Chicago” and “We Can Change the World” from Songs for Beginners — and his thoughts about the timelessness of his songs.

“I feel proud that my music has lasted so long and … I’m disgusted that we don’t learn from history and that those songs like ‘Chicago and ‘Military Madness’ are still incredibly relevant today, particularly with Putin and Ukraine.

The cover of Graham Nash’s 1971 “Songs for Beginners” album.

“What I did on my last tour, which I finished about two months ago, (was) change the beginning of my show. Normally you’d come out and play a song that (audience members) were familiar with so that they could take off their coats and sit down in their seats and get comfortable. But I walked out there and introduced myself and welcomed them to the show, and I told them I had to change the beginning of my show because of what was going on with Putin and Ukraine. So, we came out and did ‘Find the Cost of Freedom’ and followed that with ‘Military Madness.’ ”

I asked if he planned to change his setlist in response to the erosion of women’s rights given the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

“Yeah. I think the decision of the Supreme Court is incredibly awful,” he said, adding “I think it’s going to affect millions of women. I don’t understand how any man has the balls to tell any woman what she can do with her body. I think that the scrutiny on the Supreme Court is going to get intense, particularly with Clarence Thomas and his wife Ginni. She definitely tried to overturn the results of the election. There are many emails that she sent to people like Mark Meadows talking about how they can overturn the election.

“I think that this idea that the Supreme Court is supposed to be unbiased and level-headed is completely wrong. There will always be a 6-to-3 majority of conservative Supreme Court justices and I really do believe that the democrats should try to find some way to increase the membership of the Supreme Court because this is ridiculous. It’s obviously completely political and that’s not what the Supreme Court is supposed to be.

“I wish more men would come out, too. This abortion issue is not just a woman’s issue. This is a man’s issue also. With all due respect, the Supreme Court, with their decision, is not going to stop abortions. It’s not going to stop people wanting to make love … not going stop rapists … not going to stop medical conditions that threaten the life of the mother. All you’re doing is stopping safe abortions.”

I wondered if he thought that music is as culturally segregated as politics are now?

“Yeah, I believe so,” he said, and then spoke about a powerful protest song, Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.”

“What a beautiful song that is, in terms of standing up for what you believe, and that reminds me I have a song on my new album called ‘Stand Up for What You Believe.” The album should be out by early 2023, he said.

Nash is a collector of rare objects. He is thrilled with his recent acquisition of an autographed guitar: The Beatles wrote the words to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” on the guitar’s pickguard, Nash said. His collection includes President Nixon’s resignation letter; Nash felt a deep sense of relief when Nixon resigned and I wondered if he felt a similar sense of relief when Trump lost the election.

AMY GRANTHAM

GRAHAM NASH

“In a way, he has never gone away,” Nash said. “Yes, he is not President. Yes, he doesn’t have the power he used to have. But his presence has not gone away.

“The (number) of members of the GOP party who follow the big lie and wrap their arms around this man, I don’t understand it at all. They’re obviously bright people. They have just fallen for the wrong story. Trump was saying that the election was rigged way before the election, so he was setting up the premise that he was going to be robbed and a lot of people fell for that lie and still, to this day, are maintaining that lie.”

Nash came to this country at the height of the Vietnam War, when battle lines were being drawn, and has, therefore, witnessed the pendulum of public opinion swinging back from militaristic might to a more progressive demand to end the war.

“The pendulum will swing back, but it might not swing back as far as it did,” he said.

“There are so many issues going on and this Roe v. Wade decision isn’t going to stop there,” he said, adding that “Clarence Thomas has already talked about banning contraception and banning same sex marriage. It’s madness. This is not the country I came to live in and love and become an American citizen, over 40 years ago.”

Nash’s song “Chicago” references another time when our nation was divided. Outraged by the Vietnam War, anti-war activists protested at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and eight were put on trial for conspiring to cause riots. William Kunstler, the fiery civil rights lawyer, defended the activists known as the Chicago 7 and dramatized their efforts by putting the Vietnam War on trial, placing a Viet Cong flag on the defense table, and wearing a black armband to commemorate the war dead. He asked Judy Collins to sing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” from the witness stand (she discussed this in a prior NJArts.net interview).

COURTESY SACKS & CO.

GRAHAM NASH

“He (Kunstler) was a great defense lawyer for the Chicago 7,” said Nash. “We have a friend in the music industry called Wavy Gravy. His (real) name was Hugh Romney. He was a comedian in the late ’50s and early ’60s in the Village here. He became the man who saved a lot of people who were having bad drug experiences at Woodstock. He called me one day and said these seven kids were busted for disrupting the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 and could Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young come to Chicago to raise money for the defense. I could go, Crosby could go, but Neil and Stephen couldn’t go. They wanted to, but they had other commitments. And so my song ‘Chicago’ was basically written for Stephen and Neil to say, ‘Can’t we just go to Chicago to sing?’ ”

Kunstler died in 1995. Ron Kuby, who worked as a partner in Kunstler’s law firm from 1983 to 1995, weighed in on Nash’s inspiring lyrics. “The song ‘Chicago was part of the soundtrack of my youth and made me want to be a lawyer like Bill Kunstler when I grew up,” he said. “And all these decades later, I still believe we can change the world. Rearrange the world.”

Nash addressed the horrors of war in “Oh! Camil” through the tale of Vietnam vet Scott Camil, the founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He sings, “So you tell me your story from beginning to end/All the blood and the guts and the gore/Will you tell all the people ’bout the people you killed not for God, but for country and war?”

“Prison Song” — which could be used today to highlight the insanity of mass incarceration — recounts his father’s harsh jail sentence for a trumped-up charge when Nash was a teenager.

His father bought Nash his first camera from a friend. “I used it for some of my earliest images,” said Nash. “The police came to the door, which was incredibly unusual and quite embarrassing. And they told my father that the camera had been stolen (and asked him) who was it that sold him the camera. And I don’t know if it’s the same here in the United States — I’m sure it is — you don’t tell on your friends. You just don’t — particularly to the police. My father wouldn’t tell them. So they put him on trial and they put him in jail for a year and it broke his heart and he died at 47.”

The cover of the book, “A Life in Focus: The Photography of Graham Nash.”

He said he thinks about his father “every time I pick my camera up. I’m not particularly interested in what camera I’m using. I’m only interested in what I’m looking at and what I want to capture.”

His mother wanted to be a performer, but child-rearing did not leave room for her career ambitions. For years, Nash spread his mother’s ashes in concert halls at his shows as a tribute to her.

“I did it for several years,” he said. “I carried my mother’s ashes in my pocket. I spread her ashes on the stage of Carnegie Hall, at the Royal Albert Hall in London and at Red Rocks in Colorado, beautiful places where I think my mother would have wanted to play because she wanted to be an entertainer and a singer. But of course, after World War II, when you have three kids … her life, in that way, was over. So, I’ve always tried to bring her back to beautiful places to play.”

His 2014 memoir “Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life” describes the first time he, Crosby and Stills sang together in 1968, creating original and gorgeous harmonies, with influences from the musicians’ former bands The Hollies, The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield.

Nash travelled from London to his then partner Mitchell’s “small wooden house … a little jewel box, with a sloping shingled rook and a lovely garden out back” in Laurel Canyon, he wrote in his memoir, and sang with his future bandmates on Stills’ “You Don’t Have to Cry.”

He wrote in the book: “I was drenched in the Hollywood scene — the music, the sun, the palm trees, the attitude, the looseness. The way people there asked me, ‘What do you think?’ In England, nobody ever asked your opinion of anything.

“When you sing with two or three people and you get it right — when the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts — everything kind of lifts a couple feet off the ground. The three of us were levitating, all right. The vibe was so high, it was hard to touch down.”

From left, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills and David Crosby on the cover of their 1969 debut album.

When I interviewed Collins in 2020, she spoke about Stills as if their romance happened maybe 10 years ago. I tend to think that’s the way is it with big loves, and I wondered if that is the way it is was for Nash with Mitchell?

“It is,” he said. “Once you’ve loved Joni Mitchell, it’s with you forever. I’m not in love with Joni now, I’m in love with my wife. But always, part of my heart will love Joni. I mean how can you not? She’s an incredible woman, not only as a songwriter and a painter, but as a thinker as well. My time with Joni was magical, produced some really interesting songs on both our parts.”

In Mitchell’s song “Willy” (from 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon), she sings: “Willy is my joy, he is my sorrow/Now he wants to run away and hide/He says our love cannot be real/He cannot hear the chapel’s pealing silver bells/But you know it’s hard to tell when you’re in the spell if it’s wrong or if it’s real.”

I asked Nash (whose nickname is Willy, since his middle name is William) how he felt when he heard that song.

“I think we may have made a mistake by not getting married,” he said. “I think Joni thought I would want her to stay home and cook and clean and do everything a wife is supposed to do, in the stupid thinking of males over the centuries. But the truth is I never would have wanted her to stop writing or performing. But I believe at that point she was thinking of her grandmother, who wanted to break out of that wife syndrome: I think Joni was thinking a lot about her grandmother” — who, Nash recalls, wanted to be an artist — “when we decided not to get married.”

If Nash and Mitchell had met when they were older and she felt more secure in her career, could she have married him without losing herself?

“Who knows?” he replied. “One never knows what could have happened. You can imagine, of course. Maybe Joni and I would have had three kids by know. You just never know.”

NORMAL SEEFF

JONI MITCHELL

Nash still hears from her, he said.

“My last voice message from her was about how she loved my version of ‘Case of You’ (from 1971’s Blue) for the Grammys — (for) a section called MusiCares that raises money for musicians that are down on their luck. Every year they choose a particular person and last year they choose Joni and everyone did her songs and I did ‘A Case of You.’ And she told me how beautiful it was.”

So love endures, I said.

“Yes, yes,” he said.

Song for Beginners creates a portrait of their breakup through some of its tunes, including “Better Days,” “I Used to Be a King” and “Simple Man” (listen below), in which he sings, “I am a simple man, so I sing a simple song/I’ve never been so much in love, and never hurt so bad at the same time.”

I asked Nash to describe the origins of “Our House” (listen below), which, like many CSNY songs, is sung along to by audience members who know the lyrics just as well as Nash.

“I had taken Joni to a delicatessen for breakfast on Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles,” he said. “It was a really shitty day, rainy and cold and just miserable. Leaving breakfast, we walked to our car, looking in a window and was curious what people made in the past that sold as an antique, and she saw a vase, maybe some hand-painted flowers around the edge, reasonably cheap … so we got to the house in Laurel Canyon and I said, ‘Hey Joan, why don’t I light a fire and you put some flowers in that vase that you bought today.” And an hour later, ‘Our House’ was born.”

He sings in “Our House,” “Staring at the fire for hours and hours/While I listen to you play your love songs/All night long for me/Only for me.”

“There are homeless people, I understand that,” Nash said. “But the majority of people have a home where they feel safe and warm and protected. Everybody has ‘Our House.’ And that’s why it’s so popular, I think.”

The cover of the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young single, “Woodstock.”

The first time he heard Mitchell sing “Woodstock,” Nash said, he was in Manhattan’s The Carlyle Hotel.

“Joni and I had a suite with a grand piano in it,” he said. “And when we (CSNY) got back from Woodstock, we wanted to tell Joni how interesting and exciting it was and she played this song that she’d written.”

Mitchell was supposed to play at Woodstock, but she was scheduled to appear on television’s “The Dick Cavett Show” on the Monday after the festival. “Dick Cavett was an enormously popular television show and this was going to be her first American television show,” Nash said. “Our managers Elliot Roberts and David Geffen said it would be very difficult to get out of there to be on time for the show the next day, so they decided that Joni should not go to Woodstock.

“But, of course, she was very interested in what was going on and probably watched all three channels: ABC, NBC and CBS. And by the time we got home the next morning, she’d written 95 percent of it. Her version was, let’s say, a little more purple than our version. I was there. David was there, Stephen was there. Neil wasn’t there. He was staying somewhere else. After she got through playing it, Stephen said, ‘Wow, that’s a really great song. Can we have it? I want to turn it into a rock ‘n’ roll song.’ And Joni trusted Stephen because Stephen was unbelievably brilliant in those days. She said yes, and so we recorded it for the Déjà Vu record and the rest is history.”

We talked about the changes in the personal lives of Nash and his bandmates between recording 1969’s Crosby, Stills & Nash and the 1970 CSNY album, Déjà Vu.

“When I was making the Crosby, Stills & Nash record, I was in love and living with Joni,” he said. “Stephen was in love with Judy Collins and David was in love with his girlfriend, Christine (Hinton). A year or so later when we were making Déjà Vu, I was no longer with Joni, Stephen and Judy had broken up and Christine had been killed in a car accident. So there’s a very definite darkness over Déjà Vu.

“We were depressed and we were still cognizant of the fact that we were four good musicians and four decent writers and that we had songs, for sure.”

The cover of Graham Nash’s 1974 album “Wild Tales.”

While his relationship ended, he was making his first solo album. “I’ve always loved Songs for Beginners and tried to figure out what was it about that album that people loved, and it seems to be the simplicity and the humanity of the songs and the way it was recorded, and that’s why I decided to bring out this live record.

“I do Songs for Beginners (on tour) from start to finish. I take an intermission and come back and do Wild Tales start to finish. We did four shows like that and I chose the best performance of each song and that became the live album that’s out right now. There’s no talking on the record in between tracks … I’m very proud of the record. I think it’s really good piece of music.”

I asked him if he is listening to any music by younger artists and he said, “Nope, I’m so incredibly deep inside all the stuff that me and David and Stephen have recorded … in any of the ways of doing it. Maybe Crosby-Nash, or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, or Crosby, Stills & Nash. We recorded a lot and I’ve been bringing out CDs and I haven’t listened to any new music, but I know it will find me.”

I wondered who else has made a mark on Nash.

“The reason you and I are talking right now is Cass Elliot … the singer in the Mamas & the Papas,” he said. “I met her in a recording session. She wanted to know what I was doing the next day. She picked me up from my hotel and took me to Laurel Canyon and I met Crosby and my life has never been the same. And on every piece of music that I’ve made since, we credit her in some way by thanking her.

“I think she could hear what the three of us would sound like. Buffalo Springfield had broken up and David had been thrown out of The Byrds. They were trying to get a duo together, kind of like The Everly Brothers but with today’s music, and I think Cass knew that if I started singing with them it would be a completely different sound. And that’s exactly what happened. When we first sang together, it was an incredibly wonderful magical musical moment. It changed my life completely and I realized I would have to follow that sound of making our three voices into one. I’d have to go back to England and leave the Hollies and leave my equipment and just come to America and follow that sound which is exactly what I did. Joni was the only witness.”

How was it to have The Everly Brothers play his music, when he was with The Hollies?

“It was a thrill,” he said. “The Hollies were playing at the London Palladium, which was a really big deal on a Sunday evening. Kind of like the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ of England. I think Pete Seeger was the main act. We had done a soundcheck and we heard the phone ring. Our tour manager picked up the phone. He said, ‘It’s Phil Everly.’ ”

Nash didn’t believe it. He took the phone.

Graham Nash, second from left, with The Hollies.

“I recognized his voice and asked him why he was calling us,” Nash said. “Phil said that he and Don were in England and they wanted to do an album called Two Yanks in England and did the Hollies have any songs we hadn’t recorded? And we did. We went to their hotel and sang them a bunch of songs and they chose seven of them and started recording them the next day. Part of the backing band was a kid on piano called Reggie Dwight, who of course became Elton John, a guitar player called Jimmy Page and a bass player called John Paul Jones.”

I asked Nash if there will be a CSN(Y) reunion or if it’s better to let go of these relationships.

“We have to love each other before we can make really great music,” he said. “We did in the past and in the last 50 odd years, we’ve made some really beautiful music. But we have to love each other. And when that connection is gone, it’s gone. That’s what’s going on with us, and I don’t think there will ever be a CSN or a CSNY reunion.”

Lenny Kaye, co-founder of Patti Smith Group, wrote an early review of Songs for Beginners in 1971 for Rolling Stone magazine. When I spoke with Kaye recently, he said that Nash “seems like a guy who knows how to keep himself happy, and that’s a blessing these days.”

Nash shared his reaction to Kaye’s appraisal.

“I went through several years of being completely depressed,” he said. “I’m feeling better about myself. I’m looking back at my life and realizing I tried my best in everything I do. I tried to be the best husband, the best father, the best friend, the best partner in music. I’ll never make it — I know that — but at least I’m trying to be my best, always.”

I wondered if he was at peace now.

“Yes, basically,” he said, “but I think I’m witnessing the end of the American Empire.”

For more on Nash, visit grahamnash.com.

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