Friday, February 28, 2020

Mild-Mannered Superman: A Conversation with Steve Hackett

Steve Hackett
image by Lee Millward

In the five years that have passed since my last interview with Steve Hackett, the iconic English guitarist/composer has been on a nonstop flight of creativity that has taken him, both literally and figuratively, to the far ends of the earth. With a career spanning more than 50 years, Hackett’s imagination has cultivated a loyal global audience that eagerly looks forward to each album and each tour. Best known for his innovative lead guitar work with the progressive rock pioneers, Genesis, Hackett has spent the decades since his departure from the band in 1977 pursuing his muse, a quest which has proved insatiable and lifelong. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010 as a member of Genesis, Hackett allows his music to speak for itself. However, in conversation Hackett is revealed as a true Renaissance man of culture, a quiet genius whose words reflect a deeply intelligent, profoundly spiritual soul.

Catching up with Steve a few days before he and his band headed across the Big Pond to begin their North American tour, we talked at length about many things past, present, and future. Grateful thanks to Steve for his time and his candor, and for gifting me with years of musical inspiration and wonder. Read on and enjoy!

Roy Abrams
: Very psyched for your return to Long Island on March 8th at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury! This is going to be a special tour for you in that you’ll be performing Selling England by the Pound, the 1973 Genesis album you’ve referred to as your favorite from that group.  Are there any new band personnel who are joining you this time around?
Steve Hackett: Yeah, we have two new guys; Jonas Reingold, on bass, from The Flower Kings, and Craig Blundell on drums, who most recently played with Steven Wilson. It’s an extraordinary rhythm section. Apart from that, it’s pretty much the same band as we had before. Nad Sylvan, the other Swede, is on vocals. Roger King is on keyboards, Rob Townsend on woodwinds, brass, extra keyboard, bits of percussion, and myself.

RA:  What is it about Selling England that makes it resonate so strongly with you?
SH: Well, you know, I think it came out of left field. Back in the day, I don’t think anyone realized how popular it was going to become. I think that’s the best atmosphere and attitude to undertake an album. We didn’t realize that John Lennon was going to say that we were one of the bands he was listening to at that time. It also had an unlikely hit single in it, in the UK we had a single, “I Know What I Like” … again, an unlikely song, because we weren’t known at the time for doing short songs. Everything tended to be epic length; the musical continuums were roguish at the time. People were making albums as audio journeys and it was only really in the 1980s that the idea of doing a collection of 10 short hit singles, MTV-friendly, was starting to supplant the idea of the album as a force in itself. But I think that the band’s playing took a quantum leap forward on this one. (There were) lots of instrumental passages. I was very proud of its quirky Englishness. It’s still my favorite Genesis album; I think it’s better written than all of other ones. I’ve made a couple of changes to the solo stuff; I’m doing (material from) Spectral Mornings, and it’s the 40th anniversary this year of Defector, so we’ll include some of those things.

RA: “I Know What I Like” was a collaborative effort between you and Phil (Collins). The bonus track from the album, “Déjà Vu,” which you’ll be performing on this tour, marks the only occasion where you’ve written with Peter Gabriel.  Was there ever any discussion between the two of you, post-Genesis, of working together again?
SH: I never really tried to hit Pete up for that. I mean, we’ve helped each other, swapped phone information and all that. We’re basically pals, but I think I’ve always been aware that he wants to distance himself. There were very few occasions, like in the early ‘80s, when we got together to do the Milton Keynes show, and everyone was a part of that. (Other) creative collaborations … there was a band reformation in 2005 but there just wasn’t enough common ground. From my end, I was very much up for it. Everyone had achieved so much collectively and individually, but the thing is, it takes a band to tango, to make that work. It doesn’t always come easily, if it comes at all. I figure my job, or my pleasure, if you like, is to take the early music from the classic period of the band, when we were a five-piece, and honor that. I don’t mind if it’s a song of mine, or a song of Mike’s, or Tony’s, or Phil’s, or Pete’s; it doesn’t really matter. The thing is, there’s a lot of great music there that came out of a bunch of guys, all of whom were songwriters, and as much as any band could share, we managed to share that.

RA: Your fans truly span the globe, a fact I know firsthand through reviewing the web analytics of our past published conversations, in 2014 and 2015. The only continent that is as yet unrepresented is Antarctica!  The same global reach applies to the diversity of artists with whom you’ve worked in the recent past.
SH: [Laughs] Well, that’s extraordinary! Yeah, the last couple of albums had 20 people on them from all over the world. This time, we managed to incorporate India into the mix. Sheema Mukherjee, she plays wonderful sitar on “Shadow and Flame,” so for the first time I was working with a real sitar virtuoso rather than trying to do an impression of it myself. It’s my proudest album, I think, as a convincing travelogue, a journey. I think that album doesn’t really falter. That doesn’t mean to say that everyone’s going to love every track; I loved every track, I loved everything about it. It had so much variety, so many different genres. “Shadow and Flame” is based partly on my wife Jo’s experience in India, where she described the Ganges, watching the dawn over the Ganges and seeing wonderful things: candlelight gave way to daylight, but at the same time with these beautiful visions of people bathing, there’s dead bodies floating down the river (wrapped) in shrouds, so you get the sublime and the ghastly side by side. I got to travel there with her many years later, and I saw the most stunning things … and frightening things. It’s an extraordinary place of extremes. Indian percussion (is great); it’s not just the tablas and the gentle lilt of the talking drum, there’s (a lot) of unlikely stuff. It’s a fascinating place, if you like to visit colorful places; the whole place is a riot of color. (We visited) temples that were carved out of caves, and temples carved out of monoliths! In other words, their idea of sculpture is, you take a mountain, and you carve it into a building, you carve a herd of elephants! We can’t possibly (duplicate it) with the technology of today, and they (achieved this) at least a thousand years ago. For all sorts of reasons, it’s stunning, it’s mind-blowing, and in a way, you can see the seeds of the ‘60s. You see the seeds of Pop Art, all the colorful things that the 1960s were all about. You see it on the temple ceilings, the walls, the figures, the detailed carvings on the front of some of these places. It wouldn’t be out of place on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band if you just stuck in a stray photo!

RA: You recently said that it was very important to make albums with people from all over the world. When did that perspective begin to solidify?
SH: I think that the more I started to travel, not just on the rock and roll touring but beyond that, to explore other places. In recent times we’ve been to India, to Egypt, China, Ethiopia … you travel, you make friendsthat’s what happens! And also my contact with the Hungarian band, Djabe, who also work with people from all over the world, so they introduced me to people from Africa, Azerbaijan, (and) the United States. (Hungary) is a real melting pot, a crossroads of Europe. It’s been extraordinary working live with (these people). We didn’t start out with the idea of trying to build bridges between cultures, it just happened naturally. In other words, the rise of right-wing politics and nationalism seems designed to drive people apart; I think it’s an opposite direction to the way I’ve been working recently. I feel that my albums celebrate the best of whatever people are capable of; it doesn’t matter where they’re from. I’m very happy to work with people all over the globethe United States, the U.K., Iceland, Africa. If not people from those places, certainly instruments from those places, which the guys in the band have adopted and adapted to, so it’s a very wide church.

RA: Your music can be viewed as world music in the highest possible relief.
SH: I certainly try!

image by Tina Korhonen

RA: We’ve spoken before about the cinematic aspect of your writing. You’ve described your work as “film for the ear,” adding that “it’s quite common for my music to have a lot of drama, as it the case with most of the best music.” As you compose these “audio films” is the process an entirely visceral one or is it a combination of gut-level intuition and brain logic that informs your muse?
SH: It’s the hardest thing to explain, because there isn’t really any formula for writing songs. Music doesn’t appear on command. There’s a certain amount of waiting, but I think that when an idea is in the air, if you can preserve it in some kind of way, whether it’s some recording device or pen and paper, the main thing is to get the idea down. I’ve got books of unfinished things; riffs, songs, symphonies, all sorts of stuff. Often, I have to remind myself to go back to rejects, pretty much in the same way that Genesis used to go back to rejects, (to find that) this idea is pretty damn good, let’s run with the ball, and until you actually start recording, you don’t really know how far it’s going to go. The strengths and weaknesses of an idea show themselves once you start baking the cake! You have all the ingredients; you think, this might make a nice, big, glorious sponge (cake), but you don’t know how sweet it’s going to be, how moist. So yeah, it’s pretty much like cooking a meal, in a way! It’s an inexact art, and I’m very happy with that.

RA: With regard to your live performance arrangements of the classic Genesis material, aficionados will discern occasional slight variations in instrumentation or song structure. While the majority of fans welcome this exploration, we both know that there are devout purists who view any departure from the original version as sacrilege. What is your philosophy regarding evolution versus preservation of the original recordings?
SH: If you look back at the early recordings and you contrast them with the live versions, we’ll have a certain amount of evolution. It just has to be that way. It can’t be cast in stone. With Genesis, we did tend to segue ideas, messing around rather a lot. I try and do authentic versions; I try to be authentic to the spirit of the song. For instance, if I’ve spent a long time getting a particular guitar solo together, I’ll be thinking of it as not just an instrumental part, but part of the writing of the song. If I play “The Musical Box” I play exactly the same notes because it’s all about not being spontaneous. If something is composed, and if you’re still proud of it, stick with it. But then, at the end of something like “Supper’s Ready,” I’ll do some of the existing phrases but then I’ll go off on a bender, maybe going on for another couple of minutes, until I’ve had enough. I think you have to be flexible. I think (on) “I Know What I Like,” which started out as a small little tune, when we were doing it with Phil Collins (on vocals), it facilitated some of his antics. When he was doing the tambourine dance, it reduces the song to a virtual handclap, so that we’re accompanying the visual on Phil’s terms. With my band, there’s no point in doing a tambourine dance or trying to be Peter Gabriel, running around with a lawnmower onstage! What we do is we have a sax solo that gets very jazzy, but then I go into a very rocking guitar solo and start playing fast triplets so that it takes off like a rocket in a different kind of way, but then we bring it back respectfully at the end. This stuff continues to evolve. Of course, the diehards, they might want to go and see any one of a number of tribute bands who faithfully reproduce everything we did, including the limitations of that time, but techniques and technology improve and it makes it possible to have a band ofdare I say—virtuosos, like my guys. It takes us off into another direction, at the drop of a hat, I think it’s all the better for that, and I think the audience usually suspends its disbelief. They pick up on the interaction that goes on onstage between the various characters who are talking to each other, and there’s genuine spontaneity there.

image by Lee Millward

RA: In July, you’ll be publishing your autobiography, A Genesis in My Bed. Pardon the pun, but what was the genesis of the project, and how did it come to fruition?
SH: I’d done a series of interviews way back in the past with Alan Hewitt, and people were referring to it as “my book” and I kept saying to people, well, actually it’s not my book; it’s Alan’s book, and I was the interviewee. Doing that is not quite the same as doing a much more considered, in–depth thing, where you’re having to think about why you did something, how you feel about it now. I wanted it to be more revealing, and not just a complete collection of anecdotes. I didn’t think that was going to do the ideas justice. I’ve really gone into the music in a big way, and I hope people like that. There are the jokes and asides and all those other things, and I’ve hope I’ve been fair about all the people I’ve once worked with. I don’t think there’s anyone whose praises I didn’t sing. There might be the odd criticism, but in the main, I’m overwhelmingly positive about everybody. I might tweak the noses of a few, but, you know, that doesn’t matter. I think it’s been fun doing it, and we are still at the stage of putting in some extra things we haven’t thought about, so over the course of the next month or so, we’ll add stuff. Jo will ask, what was it like meeting Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney?

RA: What was it like?
SH: Extraordinary! Whenever you get to meet people who’ve been a huge part of your early life, first of all, you hope that they’re not going to behave like an absolute asshole, which neither did, and they were both polite and talkative, which was lovely. I don’t think the autobiography is a kind of “who’s who” of everything. Yes, you’ve got a few people mentioned there, and some unlikely ones, too, but in the main it’s trying to create a two-way mirror. If you were a fly on the wall and you saw what I was like at three years old, you’d have an idea of some of it; struggles at school and all that kind of stuff. That’s not all legendary by any means. I want to be self-deprecating and send myself up and say, well, at one point, I had stage fright and I saw a hypnotherapist to get me over it. I don’t have that problem anymore. That’s the sort of stuff I’m revealing (in the book). I want to give people hope and say, it can happen to anyone. Sir Laurence Olivier had suddenly reached a point where (I haven’t mentioned this in my book) he couldn’t look at any of the other actors; he didn’t want them to catch his eye. He wanted them to look to the side, because for some reason (direct eye contact) unnerved him. How is that possible for someone who was seen, to the world of English acting, as lord and master? Even the greatest … Mick Jagger was telling me at the time that he was tired … there was this whole entourage, this whole circus around him, masses of people. It reminds me of a story when I was in Japan for the first time, and Michael Jackson happened to be staying in the hotel, and what a revelation that was! A hundred people gathered at the lift entrance, and the camera light would be above this seething mass of people, it was moved twenty-five yards to the left, and they all moved back, and the lift doors opened, and they were gone. Talk about life in a goldfish bowl! His life must have been like a mobile zoo. I don’t know how you could exist like that, except on your own property, on your own terms, but then it becomes a prison. I wouldn’t want that level of celebrity. I don’t think I’d be able to handle it at all. I think I’d go around dressed as Groucho Marx or something.

RA: Speaking of stage fright, original Genesis guitarist Anthony Phillips said that stage fright ultimately drove him from the band. When we last spoke, you brought up the prospect of collaborating on an album together.
SH: Funnily enough, we collaborated on two different projects. He was on one of my albums, I think it was Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth, he was on a couple of tracks on that, and then we did something recently for an elephant charity called Harmony for Elephants, and we did a track together. He provided a piano part and I improvised all over it, then he did some twelve-string work on it. He and I get on very well, and I’ve often said to him that if we’d been in the band at the same time, I suspect it would have been just fine because we’d be fine with each other’s ideas. He’s very democratic in his approach.

RA: Next year’s tour will feature a complete performance of Seconds Out
SH: —That’s right, that’s what we graduate to!

RA: That album marked your point of departure from the band, and I’ve seen the Tony Banks interview where he said that your guitar was mixed out. So, my question for you is: in addition to anticipating the joy of rehearsing and performing this album, given the circumstances behind its mixing and release, is there any additional sweetness, if that’s the right word, in getting to set the record straight from a musical perspective?
SH: When it comes to Seconds Out, the whole album was a case of cherry picking across the whole of the band’s history, although the current album at the time was Wind and Wuthering. So, until we actually start working on that, I don’t know exactly how that will shape up. But when it comes to Tony, he tends to contradict himself. He tends to praise me on one hand [chuckles] and then criticize. I hope I’ve been generous about him in my book, because I think he’s one hell of a writer and a very fluent chordsmith, no doubt about it. There is no sense of “getting even” … I know they do tend to say (that I’ve been mixed out) but I can hear my guitar on it. I can hear my guitar more clearly on “The Carpet Crawlers” than it was on the (original) record! So, there’s a little bit of creative license, I think, with similar statements. Strange, obviously they called the album Seconds Out, you know, I’m right in the foreground of the album cover, although they asked Armando (Gallo) to darken it so I look like a shadowy figure, so I kind of became the black sheep, somewhat. Sometimes, I think that a band needs someone who’s prepared to say unpopular things and try and drive it forward. It’s a shame that the band weren’t more open at that time for everyone to have parallel solo careers. Once you start growing, people start to have families, divorcing, and various things, you can’t behave like you did when you were all kids together; it just doesn’t work anymore. I have no regrets; I love the music, and I honor it politics-free. That’s my take on Genesis now. I was hoping that Genesis might expand into a band that behaved pretty much like The Beatles. In other words, the occasional use of orchestra; I’ve done that myself. They’ve used the horn section from Earth, Wind, and Fire, but I think there is a bit of a limitation after all that time, I think it is important for there to be some evolution. But that’s just my opinion; a departed band member shares his opinions with you.

RA: The concept of “the music business” has essentially been supplanted by “the musicians’ business,” meaning that musicians earn a living these days primarily by getting out there and reaching their audiences directly through live performances. You recently said that you still felt the need to record and would continue to do so, if only for an audience of one; very much like classical musicians who wrote and performed for individual patrons. What are your thoughts on the current state of affairs, with particular emphasis on the freedom that you have come to experience by managing all aspects of your career with just you and Jo at the helm?
SH: It’s a multi-faceted question! I’d say that there was greater freedom in the 1960s and 1970s. In the ‘80s things were tightening up; things were becoming much more formatted, as I said earlier, (with artists) doing a collection of MTV-friendly potential singles. The magic of an album that at one time changed the world gets lost somewhere, so the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater. Now, I think in terms of big business, there simply isn’t enough money in the record business for it to contain anything but enthusiasts. Moguls have moved on to something else. If you want to make tons of money, then go sell baked beans! Someone who’s in the music business who has no love of it has got no place being there, and I think unless you understand music, you aren’t really in with a chance. For me, as a musician, it’s understanding the audience, but also taking them on further than perhaps they intended to, (to) stretch their tolerance, but that’s how music works, because at first everything seems strange. First of all, you say, “This is strange.” Then suddenly it no longer becomes alien, it becomes your friend. The other aspect you mentioned, in terms of self-management, is with Jo, where basically we have a team. It means there’s no Fuhrer; it doesn’t work like that. We just have a team that very often talks things over, saying, “What do you think? This one’s a good idea; this one’s a no-brainer.” We have an immediate understanding. We have a band that wants to work, wants to travel, do as many shows as possible. Luckily, the albums are selling—the physical product—very, very well in an era where everyone’s saying, that’s all over, CDs are over. Well, I like CDs because I like to have a package, and I also like the size of vinyl records because you’ve got … let’s put it this way. The album sleeve (cover) is the best possible advert for a record you could possibly have. The size of the original album sleeve, 12” by 12”, whatever it was, was a piece of artwork or an incredible photograph that you could stick on your wall. Remember those days? I personally love the quality of sound of CDs but we like to release in all formats to keep everyone happy; to keep the vinyl fundamentalists (happy) and the audiophiles, you’ve got to address them too, plus make things available for download. If there’s a new format, I’ll go for it.

RA: As a musician, I have worlds of respect for you, for everything that you’ve brought to the table for decades. As I look at it, you’re a shining example of how to do it, how to keep the fun intact, how to keep your integrity intact. I think for any aspiring musician who wants to learn how to address all the avenues of their career with integrity, with creativity, and with heart, they can look to you and your career.
SH: Thank you very much! It’s very nice of you to say so! I’m sure you share that with your own input to music as well. It’s a natural childbirth every time, isn’t it? That’s how we keep it coming.

© Roy Abrams 2020

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Road Goes Ever On: Graham Nash in Conversation

Graham Nash
image by Amy Grantham

With a career as illustrious and a song catalog as voluminous as that of Graham Nash, putting a concert set list together is no easy task. What is a comfortable ratio of “expected” songs to the deeper cuts that will thrill the true aficionado? Should songs written by former partners be included at the expense of self-penned compositions? If so, which ones, and why? What about other cover songs? The list of questions goes on, but in one particular instance, those questions are rendered irrelevant. On September 27th, Nash comes to New York City’s Town Hall to perform his celebrated first two solo albums in their entirety, accompanied by a full band and background vocalists. Sandwiched in between dates on his current U.S. tour, the concert marks the very first time that Nash has done something of this nature. To be sure, his fans are over-the-top excited about this event, and the artist himself is gearing up for it with great anticipation.

At 77, Graham Nash is brimming with energy and enthusiasm for life. Recently remarried to artist/writer Amy Grantham, he is frequently on the road, joined by guitarist/vocalist Shane Fontayne and organist/vocalist Todd Caldwell.  Delighting audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, he includes songs from his days with The Hollies, as well as from his tenure with two of the best-loved groups this country has ever produced: Crosby, Stills and Nash and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Nash also features songs written by Stills and Young in his regular live set, and has newly added a song he co-wrote with Crosby, his former best friend of 45 years with whom he no longer speaks.  Neither of them has spoken publicly about the root cause of the rift. With the 50th anniversary of Woodstock come and gone, the music of CSN and of CSNY will live on in recorded form only; Nash is adamant that those three (or four) individuals will never play another note together again. Nevertheless, he is content; a happy man indeed. To those who know him, he is a true Renaissance man who is on a constant quest to seek out new knowledge and new experiences. Graham Nash is intent on filling every day with pleasure and purpose.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Graham about the upcoming Town Hall concert, the albums around which the concert is based, his former partners, the current U.S. tour, and the future. Read on and enjoy!

Roy Abrams: Looking forward to the September 27th show at The Town Hall in New York City, which is a complete performance of your first two solo albums, Songs for Beginners and Wild Tales. What prompted you to do this special event?
Graham Nash: It’s been an idea that’s been floating around for a long time, but recently my wife, Amy Grantham, who loves both those albums, has been putting pressure on me to do this. So, I’m doing it, and I’m really looking forward to it! I’ve never done it before. I’ll come out with a full band and play Songs for Beginners from start to finish, then take a break and do Wild Tales.

RA: First of all, congratulations on your marriage; that’s great news. Please tell Amy I said thank you for her encouragement with this wonderful idea! In addition to Shane and Todd, who else will be joining you onstage for that particular show?
GN: This has been a way of actually letting go, because I’m going to be playing with several people that I’ve never even met, which is really interesting! [Laughs] Here are the people who are going to be playing with me: Todd Caldwell’s brother Toby is a great drummer. I’ve met Toby before but I’ve never played with him. Andy Hess will be on bass, Thad DeBrock is going to be playing pedal steel, and I have two lady singers with me; Celisse Henderson and Grace Stumberg.

RA: Who lined up those musicians?
GN: Basically, Shane and Todd.

RA: Each of those albums possesses its own aura. As their creator, can you define what makes those records so distinct from each other?
GN: That’s a good question. For many years, I’ve tried to figure out why the popularity of something like Songs for Beginners was, and I think it basically boils down to the simplicity (of the songs) and the immediacy of touching your heart. You know, the sound of those albums was exactly what I wanted for those particular songs. Wild Tales was a little different; it was two or three years later, and I built a studio in my house in San Francisco, in the Haight, and recorded Wild Tales there in my basement.

RA: Focusing on the pedal steel contributions on both those albums, you had Ben Keith on Wild Tales and Jerry Garcia on Songs for Beginners. What was your relationship like with Jerry, who played on “I Used to Be a King,” “Man in the Mirror,” and of course, “Teach Your Children” on CSNY’s Déjà Vu?
GN: Jerry was basically Crosby’s friend, because they both lived in the Bay area, which I did after 1969 after I broke up with Joni. Jerry was a wonderful man; he was very calm, and he was very Zen, for want of a better word. We had recorded the track to “Teach Your Children” at Wally Heider’s in San Francisco. When we were trying to figure out what we were gonna do for a solo, Stephen was trying to figure out what to do, and Crosby said, “Hey, I hear Jerry’s been playing pedal steel!” I said, “Oh, really? Why don’t we play him the track and see if he likes the song enough to want to play on it?” We played Jerry the track and he loved it. He brought his pedal steel in and he played the first take, and I thanked him profusely. He said, “You know, I kind of screwed up in the chorus; can I do it again?” I said, “Absolutely, you can do it again, but I’m never gonna use it!” He said, “Why?” I said, “What you consider to be mistakes, I thought they were brilliant; small, real touches, and I’m going to leave it exactly as it is, if it’s okay with you.”

RA: I remember a couple of years ago when you and Shane performed that song, and he played a solo after which you spent a few extra measures before launching into the last verse, you were so blown away by how he played.
GN: It was astonishing to me that Shane Fontayne could play Jerry’s solo that was played on a pedal steel on a normal electric guitar. Shane’s the kind of player that wants the song to live, not necessarily his solo. He saw The Hollies when he was 12 years old! [Laughs]

Graham Nash and Shane Fontayne
image by Amy Grantham

RA:  Moving to a different type of relationship, you’ve had an interesting one with Long Island that extends back 50 years. Your current tour will make two stops on the Island: Friday: October 11 at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, and Saturday, October 12, at the Landmark on Main Street in Port Washington. What are some standout memories of your time on Long Island?
GN: John Sebastian, our dear friend, was actually partly responsible for me getting in that band. David and Stephen, at some point, asked John who they could get for a third harmony. He said that there were only two choices: they had to get Phil Everly or Graham Nash. And I thought that was an incredible compliment, so that was a great memory. Sebastian actually rented us the house in Sag Harbor; he found a beautiful little old wooden house on the lake. It was winter, December of ’68, so it was pretty chilly and pretty snowy and icy; a lovely time. That’s when I discovered that CSN wasn’t gonna make an acoustic album, which we all thought, but an electric album because in Sag Harbor, Harvey Brooks played bass, and all of a sudden it started to become a gentle rock and roll album.

RA: Your current touring set list has expanded to include songs from all three of your former CSNY partners; Neil’s “Ohio” is in there, as are a few Stills songs. The recent addition of “Taken At All,” a Crosby/Nash collaboration, is a welcomed surprise. Have you seen David’s documentary? (David Crosby: Remember My Name)
GN: I have.

RA: What was your take on it?
GN: [Long pause] I didn’t feel that it showed enough of the joy in the music that we had created. There was a lot in it about David’s five stents in his heart, and Jan crying about him not coming home maybe. You know, if I had to sum it up, I would call it a video obituary.

RA: Wow. At the end, he spoke about his wish to be able to say one last goodbye to his friends, to let the people he loves know how much they meant to him.
GN: A little late. A little late.

RA: When you were speaking with Paul Shaffer last year about this, you said, “I don’t quite know how to undo it.”
GN: What happens is this, Roy. I liken it to a metaphorical kind of sentence that when you break that silver thread that holds you to your friends and your loved ones, when that silver thread breaks, it’s very, very difficult to get those two ends to come back together and join. Quite frankly, we need to like each other and love each other before we can find music. We did it for 50 years and now it’s over, and so we get on with the rest of our lives.

image by Amy Grantham

RA: Have you heard any of David’s recent albums? If so, what are your thoughts on them?
GN: David’s doing remarkably well. He’s made four or five albums in the last two or three years and God bless him. I just don’t want to make music with him anymore. It’s that simple.

RA: Let’s move over to the unfortunate state of the country. Do you have a favorite Democratic presidential candidate?
GN: In thinking about this very carefully, I realize that America needs a leader that can calm everything down. That thought process leads to (Joe) Biden; of course, the critics of Biden have very good points. He will be almost 80 years old in the middle of his first term, if he got elected. This country is a very different country from when Woodstock went down. It’s an incredibly different country that I came to know and love and be a part of. I’ve been an American citizen now for over 40 years. I wanted to be a part of the community; I wanted to vote; I wanted to raise my voice … and I did. The Trump administration has taken America on a certain path, and I truly believe that that path is going backward, and they are undoing a tremendous amount of great work that was done, particularly in the realm of the environment.

RA: The video you released for “Teach Your Children” is a starkly compelling, viscerally moving testament to the struggles that this country still faces, with particular emphasis on the challenges faced by our young people. Can you describe the process of putting that video together?
GN: After the Parkland shooting in Florida wbere 17 students got murdered by one of their fellow students, the surviving students, and their efforts to go around America and get people to vote, getting people to not support politicians who take money from the gun lobby or the NRA; that energy should be applauded and should be helped as much as possible. When I realized what passion that had, and what power they had—because there are our children telling us what they need from the world—I talked to my manager, Mark Spector, who also manages Joan Baez, and he had a friend, Jeff Scheer, who had done some work for Joan Baez ten years ago, and I saw some of his work and let him run with it. Jeff Scheer made, I think, 2,200 drawings and provided the animated video for “Teach Your Children” which is on YouTube right now.

RA: Once and always, Graham, thank you for your time, and thank you for your music. I’m looking forward with incredible anticipation to the September 27th show, and twice on Long Island … that’s a first for you!
GN: [Laughs] Yeah! Me too, kid. Thank you, Roy.

Note: Island Zone Update features other interviews with Graham Nash, as well as with David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and many other artists.

© Roy Abrams 2019

Friday, July 19, 2019

One Man's Sunset is Another Man's Sunrise: The Continuing Adventures of David Crosby

David Crosby
Image by Anna Webber

David Crosby looks fearlessly into the waning light of his life, embracing the time remaining to him with all the energy and enthusiasm of a child waking up to a sunny summertime morning. CSN and CSNY are now things of the past, but all is well in Crosby’s world. The fire still burns, the muse still beckons, and the voice still soars. Moving gracefully into his 79th year, “the Croz” has entered what he stoically knows is the home stretch of his mortal journey, but this outspoken troubadour, the delightfully eccentric wizard responsible for writing some of the best self-proclaimed “weird shit” of this or any other time, continues to exude the energy of eternal youth. It’s in his voice, it’s in his attitude, and it’s fueled by the musical company he keeps these days. 

Since 2014, Crosby has entered a true Golden Age of creativity, recording and releasing four critically and commercially acclaimed albums within a five year span. He has toured America and Europe with two markedly different bands: the Lighthouse Band, an acoustic-based affair consisting of Crosby, Snarky Puppy’s Michael League, and singer-songwriters Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis, and the Sky Trails Band, an electric, jazz-infused rock conglomerate featuring Crosby, his son James Raymond, Jeff Pevar, Steve DiStanislao, Mai Leisz, and Michelle Willis. The shows have left audiences exhilarated and rapturous from the sheer musical magnificence that emanates from the stage, night after night. 

Shortly before the first leg of Crosby’s Spring-Summer tour with his Sky Trails Band gets underway, I am sitting in my home office, waiting for the phone to ring and resume a conversation that began nearly thirty years ago. I watch the clock and glance at my list of questions. A few minutes before the scheduled start time, the call comes through, and we get underway …

Roy Abrams: On July 19th, Sony Pictures will premiere the highly-anticipated documentary, David Crosby: Remember My Name in select theaters in New York City and Los Angeles, with a general release to follow shortly thereafter. The documentary was directed by A. J. Eaton and produced by the veteran music journalist Cameron Crowe. Am I correct in assuming that you met A. J. Eaton through his brother Marcus, with whom you have recorded and toured in the past?
David Crosby: The two brothers have been friends of mine for several years now. They’re really good guys.

RA: I know you have a long standing friendship with Cameron Crowe as well.
DC: Yeah. Cameron and I have been friends ever since he was 17 years old. You ever see Almost Famous?

RA: Yeah.
DC: Well, he was the kid in the film. Led Zeppelin and us (CSNY) were his experiences in coming of age. [Chuckles]

RA: Okay!
DC: Yeah, we introduced him to girls, and his mom definitely wanted to have us all shot.

RA: I was watching the trailer for the documentary where you described A. J. and Cameron, saying, “They’re both friends of mine. They’re both merciless,” in that they gave you no place to hide. You followed that up by saying you were asked the single hardest question that you were ever asked by anyone, anywhere, at any time. I would never presume to ask you for the answer to the question, but is that a question you could share now?
DC: I suppose I could. It’s a painful one. He asked me if I hurt any of the women that I loved and I was with, and I had to say yes. Not physically, but certainly emotionally.

Image by Anna Webber

RA: You said that the experience was paradoxical in the sense that it brought you pain, but that it also brought you much joy, that it was a cathartic experience.
DC: Absolutely! It really depends on how you look at it, man. If you’ve making a documentary, normally, it’s very shallow. They go around and get anybody famous that you’ve ever met; they stick a mic in front of their face, and ask, “Isn’t he great? Isn’t he wonderful?” This one, we wanted to give you an honest picture of a guy, and how he accomplished the good things he did and why he did the stupid things he did, and who he was. You don’t want to just prettify the picture; you want to find out who the person is. That’s how all three of us looked at it. There was a unity of purpose; we definitely felt that we knew what we wanted to do and we did it, and it was very honest.

RA: I know you’re working on another new album with the Sky Trails Band.
DC: The Sky Trails Band came out of CPR (Crosby, Pevar, and Raymond). My son James Raymond is the producer and keyboard player (and) he’s doing half of the writing. It’s probably the most successful writing partnership in my life. Jeff Pevar, our guitar player, is a spectacular guitar player; Stevie DiStanislao, our drummer, has been with me and James right from the beginning. He’s also (David) Gilmour’s drummer, as well as ours. Mai Leisz, our bassist, has her own jazz band in Scandinavia. She’s from Estonia, of all places. And then there’s Michelle Willis, who’s in both of my bands … a glorious fuckin’ keyboard player … just wonderful.

RA: Thanks to you, between Michelle and Becca Stevens (from the Lighthouse Band), I just can’t get enough!
DC: They’re two of the best singer-songwriters I’ve ever found in my life, ever, anywhere.

RA: For the new album, do you have a working title, and is there a tentative release date?
DC: No, we’re just going song by song, going right down in the trenches, taking each song as we get it, and serve that song. Then we’ll figure out that stuff later on, as we go along. I don’t know why I’m making the albums one after the other … well, I do. That’s a lie. I do know why. It doesn’t make sense, because they’re not paying me for them. Streaming just really killed it, man.  Streaming’s the reason I had to sell my boat. It took away half my income, because they just don’t pay us. Streaming is like if you worked for three weeks and they paid you a nickel. It’s not okay. They’re making billions—with a “b”—of dollars, and they’re not paying us, and it’s our music. I’m very resentful about that one. It left me pretty broke. The only way I can make any money at all is by my performances. I’m not in a big band; I’m a leftover from a big band, so it’s been very difficult that way. But I do think I’m making really good music.  This new song I’m doing with James might be better than all the others put together.

RA: Will any of the new material be premiered on the upcoming tour?
DC: I guarantee it. We’ve put two of them in the set already.

RA: I have so many more questions, but you just said something that I need to go back to. You just described yourself as a “leftover” and I have to respectfully disagree. You and I have been speaking to each other for 27 years. I’m 58; I’ve been listening to you since I’m 15. This might be an almost heretical thing for me to say, as a lifelong CSN and CSNY fan and all the permutations thereof, but it seems that all that was laying the groundwork for what you’ve done for the past five years. I don’t look at you as a leftover at all! I look at you as someone who’s this musical/historical figure, but you’ve given me the joy of discovering you as a new artist, and I’ve been listening to you all my life.
DC: Well, I love you for saying that. That’s how I feel too, man. The truth is that I can’t explain this resurgence but it’s there. I can’t explain how I can sing like this, man. I’m singing better than I ever have in my whole fuckin’ life, and it doesn’t make any sense at all. What can I do? All I can do is be grateful. I can’t take credit for it, because I have no fuckin’ idea how I do it. It’s not like I thought it up and was doing something clever; it just happened. The only smart thing I’m doing is recognizing it and working as hard as I can. If I’m going to be allowed to be a good writer at this stage of my life, and given a voice to sing really well, I am going to write and sing constantly. And, praise the Lord, in between! [Laughs]. It’s fantastic for me, man! I don’t want to slag my previous partners, man. I like ‘em all, they’re all good guys, and they’ve all done really good work. But I don’t want to go back there. I think it would be a step backwards.

RA: I agree with you in boldfaced italics.
DC: I really love what I’m doing. I love both of these bands. Both of the producers are extremely good. You know, I don’t know how much longer I’ve got. I don’t know if I’ve got two weeks or ten years. But here’s the thing. The question is now how long you have, it’s what do you do with the time? And I’m making the best music I can come up with, as fast as I can, because that’s what I think I ought to do.

Image by Anna Webber

RA: Let’s talk about the songwriting partnerships. You’ve been working closely with James for about 20 years now; in recent years, Michael (League), Becca, and Michelle; with Michael McDonald for the song “Before Tomorrow Falls on Love” … and, of course, your former partners. Can you put your finger on a common thread between all of those very, very different people and you as a collaborator?
DC: They all love songs, man. They all don’t want to do it half-assed. Every single person I’m working with treasures really good songs, and every single person I’m working and writing with loves the process and feels that it’s a place where they can do something to contribute. If you look at the world right now, the world’s pretty shitty … really shitty. Our government’s tremendously shitty, the situation is really not good right now, and we need a lift. Now, music is a lifting force. It makes things better. Just the same way that a war is a drag-down force and brings out the very worst in human beings, just the same way, music lifts people, makes their lives better, opens up their heads; it’s a positive force, right? And it’s the only thing I can do to contribute! It’s the only place I can lift. It’s the only place I can make anything better. It’s the only place I can help anybody. So, I think (that) we—the people who are doing it, and doing it really well, crafting really good songs—are a lifting force. It’s like we’re doing a mitzvah to the whole world. We’re doing a good deed. I believe in that really strongly.  So, behind everything that I’m doing, and everything that I celebrate other people doing, there is that ethic.

RA: Let’s talk about harmonies. From the days of The Byrds, I associate you with a pattern of instantly identifiable sounds … CSNY, certainly CPR, and now the Lighthouse and Sky Trails Bands. Just the other night, I watched CPR’s 1999 performance of “Homeward Through the Haze” at the Montreux Jazz Festival and lost it. Of all the harmony singers you’ve worked with over the years—and there have been so many—is it even possible to rank or classify those people?
DC: I don’t see how you would, man. The ones that I would talk about are all brilliant at it. You have to look at (Graham) Nash; he’s very, very good. Gilmour is a terrific harmony singer. Nobody knows that because they’ve never heard him do it, but he’s excellent at it. Who else is really good? I think (Paul) McCartney is fantastic at it. My favorite place, for me, is with Becca, Michelle, and Michael. We sing real four-part, with four notes, that I think is probably some of the best work I’ve ever done in my life, better than CSN or CSNY, for sure. CSN and CSNY sounded really good, and we had a really good vocal sound, but I think I’ve done more exploratory and more significant stuff with Becca and Michelle.

RA: I have to agree. I’m thinking of “Vagrants of Venice,” the co-write between you and Becca.
DC: Isn’t that good? It’s a crazy song! [Chuckles]

RA: When I saw the four of you perform that song at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY last December, it was one of those moments. I mean, I’m a grown man, but music can make you cry when it hits you on that certain “joy” level. You know what I’m talking about, right?
DC: Absolutely! It can, and it does all the time with us.

RA: That’s what this music is doing to me.
DC: Thank you, man!

Image by Anna Webber

RA: Thank you! So, you’re scheduled to play Woodstock’s 50th anniversary event?
DC: Yeah! We’re gonna go try to kick everybody’s ass. We want to be just as competitive as possible. We’re going to kick ass.  We’re going to play every hit we’ve ever had.

RA: Did the organizers hit you with a “Won’t you please come to Chicago, just to sing?” kind of pitch?
DC: No, they offered us a bunch of money, and we’re so broke, we’d go anywhere for a bunch of money.
[Note: as of July 19th, the Woodstock 50th festival is in a state of limbo.]

RA: Time for a couple of non-music related questions! The Mighty Croz is a new strain of marijuana that will soon be available for purchase. What’s the back story?
DC: Well, okay, that goes back to the streaming thing. They cut my income in half, so I’ve already had to make a bunch of sacrifices, like selling my boat which I’ve had for 50 years and loved more than anything else in my life. What it is is that I need money; I’m trying to hold on to my house. I’m trying not to lose my home. I am trying to rent or lease my name and face to one of the emerging national pot companies. There are a thousand of them out there, thinking they’re going to be General Motors next week, but it’s totally crazy, and now the big guys, in the last three weeks, Marlboro, Anheuser-Busch, and Molson went into the pot business. Molson is going to make a pot-infused beer.

RA: Well, now!
DC: [Laughs] It’s a crazy thing. The same process that happened to the car companies—there used to be 40 of them, now there’s four—that same process is going to happen to these companies. They’re going to eat each other and fuck each other and fight each other, and we’re going to wind up with a few national pot companies, or international pot companies. And I try and get my face and name to be on the cover of one of those to keep (earning) money, which I need. I admit that I have a personal axe to grind in that I don’t like seeing people go to jail for pot, which they absolutely should not. It’s like beer and wine, there’s nothing wrong with it at all. I did join NORML and I do have an ethical stance about it, but it’s mostly because I need to supplement my income, and that was the best way I could think of.

RA: Another non-music question concerns your “Ask Croz” column in Rolling Stone, which I love the whole concept of!
DC: Did it make you laugh when you saw it?

RA: Absolutely! How’d that happen?
DC: [Laughs] They called me up and said they wanted to do it. It was their idea.

RA: I’m guessing that your Twitter presence might have been the catalyst.
DC: Oh, I’m sure that’s what it was.  They were looking at the Twitter thing and (my following) of 130,000 people and stuff … they liked the attitude of it. They said, we’ll send you a bunch of questions, pick the ones you think you can be funniest about or that you can deal with best … it’s a great thing, because the questions (are) like them teeing the ball up for you and handing you the bat. You can take a swing at the thing and put it where you want, pretty much. So, it’s fun … it’s certainly an opportunity to get in trouble! I’m going to try not to use it to slag any of the old targets that I used to do. I used to spend a lot of time saying why I thought The Doors weren’t any good. I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m probably not going bother to waste my time pointing out what an idiot Kanye (West) is. I think I’m going to try to be funny. If I get the right questions, I think it’s going to be funny and very good.

RA: What are some of the odder Twitter questions that have been lobbed at you thus far?
DC: Oh, I can’t remember them all, man. (I’ve gotten) everything from “I think you’re my Dad” … that’s happened a number of times, because they all know about James … every possible type of question that can be asked …. I don’t have one that I can pass along to you for a good story. Watch the column and you’ll see!

Image by Anna Webber

RA: One final question, referring to a topic you brought up earlier: the current state of the Union. Are there any of the current assemblage of Democratic candidates that you favor?
DC: Yeah. I like about five of them, at least, maybe six. My favorite candidate right now is (Alexandria) Ocasio-Cortez, but she’s not running. Of the ones that are running, I like Elizabeth Warren, I like Kamala Harris, I like Beto O’Rourke, (but) I like Mayor Pete (Buttgieg) best of all. He is the most intelligent (candidate) that’s running for office, and I think he would do a wonderful job. He’s got balls the size of oranges, for going into the armed services as a gay guy, and he’s got intelligence right off the charts. I think he’s terrific (but) I don’t think the United States is grown up enough to realize that he would be the best one. I don’t think they’d let him do it because he’s gay, but I think he’s fucking wonderful. I like all of those people; I’d pick any of them. They’re all of good character, and they’re all trying really hard to do it. I’m not really happy about (Kirsten) Gillibrand. I didn’t like the way she piled onto Al Franken. I never liked Al Franken personally. He always used to try to get me to come to campaign for him, and I don’t like him as a guy; he’s just not my kind of guy. But I think he was piled on. He didn’t really do anything bad. The minute he was in the crosshairs, she piled on, and I didn’t like that. I thought it wasn’t right. But all of the other people I mentioned, I’d vote for any of them. I think they’re all really good people, really good character, really intelligent, really politically savvy. I think the two older guys, both of them I like a lot. Bernie’s fine with me. President Bernie, I’m there. I’m totally fine, I love him. I would prefer somebody younger. I‘d be happy with Vice President Biden; he’s a great guy. That’s like what, seven different people. I’d be happy with any of them. Whichever one of them becomes the candidate, I will work for, because I don’t want this son of a bitch ruining my country anymore!

RA: Amen! David, I’m going to end our conversation with another giant thank you. We’ve been speaking since 1991, and first met back in 1984 at Jones Beach. It’s been a while!
DC: Yeah, it has, man. Thank you for the help! I really appreciate it.

© Roy Abrams 2019