Sunday, May 10, 2015

So Much Time to Make Up: Graham Nash in Conversation

Graham Nash - photo by Eleanor Stills

More than 50 years into his musical career, Graham Nash shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, given his schedule for the remainder of 2015, one could argue that the singer/songwriter has never been busier. Currently on the road with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, a summer solo tour will follow, after which CSN will board the Queen Mary 2 in September bound for London from which they will launch a fall European tour.


Nash is a two-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (with Crosby, Stills, and Nash in 1997 and The Hollies in 2010), an outspoken social activist against the use of nuclear energy, and a musical icon whose incredible journey has, fortunately, been immortalized in print. Our conversation took place during one of CSN’s early stops on their current U.S. tour, and in the course of a half hour, revealed a veritable Renaissance man who, like a certain Mr. Einstein, questions everything; whose mind remains crystal-clear; whose tongue remains razor-sharp against those he views as threats to the collective safety, well-being, and ultimate survival of humanity; and whose heart remains firmly rooted in the essentials of life: home, family, love.


Roy Abrams: You’re in Milwaukee tonight (May 3). How’s the tour going?


Graham Nash: Unbelievably well. It’s really astonishing; really, we are still performing really well, and still writing really excellent songs, and still putting asses on seats, as they say!


RA: After CSN’s current tour, it seems to be the summer of solo tours. Was this coincidence or deliberate on the part of all three of you?

GN: Well, the truth is that we are getting older, and we want to do this as much as we can. It’s quite simple, because we’re communicators, really; we’ve got a lot of things to say that we think that people might want to hear, and as long as we keep writing songs like this, I don’t see an end to this.
RA: I wanted to touch on your upcoming solo tour. You’re previously spoken about the song selection process at length, that it’s always been a challenge given the sheer volume of the catalog. Your contribution to the CSN “mothership” includes songs dating back more than a half century; you’ve travelled with them for decades and have, no doubt, established a personal relationship with each of them. What have those relationships been like?
GN: Sometimes great, sometimes not so great. For instance, it’s always good to write a love song, you know? On the other hand, I wrote “Military Madness” about my father going off to World War II and we don’t seem to have learned anything. [chuckles] In terms of “Military Madness” as a writer, I’m touched by the fact that people still like the song, but it sure is a drag to have to keep singing it! Not from the point of view of doing the song, but what the subject is about.
RA: From our first conversation more than 20 years ago, you explained that the shift in your focus from whales to humans came with the shift in focus one acquires upon becoming a parent. Our children are our biggest asset, you expressed at the time. As a teacher, I couldn’t agree with you more. And yet, we seem to be the only life form which poisons its young with hatred. How do you break that cycle in people whose mindsets have been frozen in fury?
GN: I think you have to peacefully and gently provide information that may change their minds. The truth is that you can only really take care of yourself, and your loved ones, and your family, and your friends, and do the best you can with your life. What more can you do except work toward positivity and good things and a decent path through life?
RA: The words of “Teach Your Children”, written more than 45 years ago, echo through the decades, reminding me that we, collectively speaking, should have come much further than where we are today …
GN: And we have to realize that even though children are only about 25% of our population, they’re absolutely 100% of our future.
RA: You have seen so much during your lifetime; for six decades, you have travelled the world and seen more of its people than the majority of so-called statesmen. Who do you see us as, as a society, as a culture? Where do you see us going? Are we where you imagined we might be when you wrote those words?
GN: I don’t feel great about it, I must confess. I think a couple of things: First of all, that the media is completely controlling real access to genuine information. They don’t want protest songs on their airwaves; they don’t want anybody rocking the boat. Just leave us alone while we rob you, and go away. It’s the old bread and circuses from Roman times! Give the people something to look at and give them a piece of bread and they’ll leave you alone, so you can control them. When you add to that the unbelievable melting pot of humanity that the world’s population is, everybody thinks that they should have this and have that, and what’s really disturbing to me is the amount of control that the corporations have over the population. And it’s really disturbing to me the amount of sheep that there are out there. It’s disturbing to me that—well, quite frankly, I don’t want to get political on you, but the Republicans disturb me. [They represent] the one percent, and it’s so obvious. They’re so obviously against women, they’re so obviously against abortion, they’re so obviously against trying to provide funds to feed people with food stamps; it’s so obviously against … I don’t know, don’t the Koch brothers have children? Don’t the Koch brothers have grandchildren? Don’t the Koch brothers realize what they’re doing to the fucking planet? I don’t feel good about it, and I have to keep going back to Stephen Hawking, who was asked quite recently how long he thought that the human race would last. He thought for a second and said, “Hmmm. About a thousand years.” And a thousand years is the blink of an eye. I don’t feel great. I do realize that bad news sells, and I do realize that good news is hard to find, but there are many, many wonderful things going on at the same time as many, many awful things are going on, and it’s part of being human, I guess. But I think greed and corruption and lack of manners does not bode well for humanity.
RA: Jumping off from your last statement, I wanted to try something a little different. Last year, prior to my interview with David Crosby, my stepson Eric came up with a beautiful question for him; one which could only have resonance coming from a young person. Asking David’s permission, I passed the phone to Eric, and David’s response proved to be among the lengthiest of our entire conversation. May I hand the phone to Eric so he could ask you the same question?
GN: Sure.
Eric Gordon: As a lifelong advocate of political awareness, what advice would you offer to today’s young people as they grow into adulthood and assume the responsibilities for moving our country and the world forward?
GN: I think that information and ideas will absolutely change the world. I think that if the children of today really try to find real information and not bow down to people who want to control their mindset, I think that they will be in good stead. As I said to your stepdad, children are 25% of our population and 100% of the future, and if we don’t teach our children a better way of dealing with our fellow human beings, we’re in deep shit, kid.
RA: Moving from global issues back to CSN, your eventual role within the band was that of peacemaker or, as George Martin described the role, “an emollient” that lubricated the friction between the partners. Can you talk about that responsibility and its impact upon you when situations had erupted in the past?
GN: I’ve always wanted to get the job done, whatever the job is. If you set out to do something, do it the best way with the most grace and the most dignity and the most fun that you can. I’ve always tried to see that; I think it’s in great part because of my English upbringing where, quite frankly, you didn’t know whether your house was going to be there tomorrow. Or even tonight, you know? So, I’ve always wanted to get the job done. If we’re going to do it, let’s do it the best way we can! I’ve always had that attitude and my partners have always respected that attitude, and I’m always bringing us back to how lucky we are to be doing what we do, how fantastic our lives have been, and how insanely lucky we really are. And I keep bringing everybody back to that basic truth. We were incredibly lucky choosing a path in our lives that brought us to this place.
RA: Speaking of getting the job done, the job that you and CSNY archivist Joel Bernstein did on the three boxed sets {Crosby’s Voyage, Stills’ Carry On, and Nash’s Reflections) ... bravo! I understand that some of those projects took you years to compile.
GN: And the CSNY 1974 stadium tour boxed set took me almost four and a half years.

Onstage with CSNY (c) Marty Wolff

Graham Nash - Reflections
RA: Is the role of band archivist something that you found yourself gravitating toward, or did the other two turn to you and say, “Graham, could you please do something here?”
GN: No, it’s just been a natural thing for me. I’ve been a collector of many things: of art, and objects that I really love. It’s just who I am, kid. What can I say? It’s just who I am.
RA: You’ve stated that you’ve been a photographer longer than you’ve been a musician. Do you feel a sense of linkage from one to the other, whether in the form of a particularly lyrical photo or an extremely cinematic lyric?  In that regard, I’m thinking of “Cold Rain”—I see these really grainy black and white snapshots of your home town.
GN: Perfect. That’s a great description. Yeah, I see life as a column of energy. Where do I want to plug in today? I don’t think I’ll ever get what they called “writer’s block” because if I’m not writing, I’m sculpting, if I’m not sculpting, I’m collecting, if I’m not collecting, I’m doing wood blocks, If I’m not doing wood blocks, I’m painting, if I’m not painting, I’m  … I’m a lucky man, kid!
RA: Last year, David released his first solo record in 21 years, which was very well received and captures Crosby and band at the peak of creative inspiration and performance. Here we are in 2015, and it’s been 21 years since CSN’s last studio album, After the Storm. After the aborted sessions with Rick Rubin to record an album of covers, were there any attempts to reconvene and record a new, original album?
GN: Not really … no. There are songs that you write that are very obviously for three vocal parts. There are songs that you write that are only solo stuff. For instance, my life has been chaotic for years now, in a good way. Recently, I had a month where, with my friend Shane Fontayne, who’s (CSN’s) second guitar player, I wrote 20 songs, went into the studio and recorded 20 songs in eight days.
RA: Really!
GN: And they’re solo songs. So, that’s what we’re doing. David did the same thing with his band. You’ll notice that there’s not a great amount of what would be normal three-part harmony on David’s album. Of course, there are harmony parts, but not like “Helplessly Hoping” for instance, which is obviously an incredibly great vehicle for three voices. So, you know, I think we have to get this year out of the way; we’re on the road almost all year. In September we go on the Queen Mary 2 to Europe, to London, and start our European tour. I think after this year, we will obviously sit down and talk about making a new CSN record.

Crosby, Stills, and Nash - photo by Eleanor Stills

RA: You have recorded with an amazing variety of people. Who are some favorite collaborators outside of the CSN “mothership”?

GN: Jimmy Webb, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, David Gilmour.

RA: The Crosby/Nash collaborations of the mid-‘70s—Wind on the Water, Whistling Down the Wire, and Crosby/Nash Live!—featured the famous Jitters, more commonly known as the Section, comprised of some of the West Coast’s most accomplished session players. What are your memories of that band?

GN: The Jitters—an incredible band. Russ Kunkel on drums, Leland Sklar on bass, Danny Kortchmar on guitar, Craig Doerge on piano, David Lindley on anything with strings … an incredible band! I keep coming back to how lucky we are to be able to play with these incredible musicians. I’m considering going back into the archives and bringing out some live Jitters shows.

RA: That’s really cool! Speaking of incredible musicians, on the 1984 CSN tour, you introduced Michael Hedges to your fans for the first time.

GN: I miss Michael desperately. I don’t use this word much, but I think that Michael Hedges was a musical genius. His ability around those strings was completely stunning. (He was) absolutely one of the greatest acoustic guitar players on the planet.

RA: Given the chaotic nature (in a good way) of your performing schedule for 2015, the lyrics to “Wasted on the Way” come to mind: So much time to make up/Everywhere you turn—

GN: That’s right.

RA: I am amazed and impressed by the number of artists of your generation who are continually touring (witness Paul McCartney’s marathon “Out There” World Tour), continually connecting with their audiences, continually reminding their fans that the music matters and that yes, we can change the world. You said that the central element that drives you in this regard is the passage of time. Is that pretty much it at this point?

GN: Yes. On my new solo record that is going to come in the spring of 2016, time is threaded throughout the lyrics of my songs. The older you get, the more that you realize, how long can this go on, seriously? I mean, my next birthday I’ll be 74! Although I intend to live as long as I possibly can, of course, how long, seriously, do I have left?

RA: Will any of the new solo material be showcased during your summer solo tour?

GN: Absolutely. The solo tour is only me and Shane Fontayne. It’s a very intimate and very fun evening!

Crosby, Stills, and Nash will be performing at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn on Friday, May 15 and Saturday, May 16. Graham Nash brings his solo tour to the Paramount in Huntington on August 12.

© Roy Abrams 2015


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