Image by Amy Grantham
While Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young might be permanently on ice, its individual members are moving forward into a future they are creating on their own terms, each carving a unique musical path that their lifelong fans can still relate to and enjoy, while beckoning new, younger sets of ears in the process. A new collection of songs from Graham Nash is designed for that broad spectrum of appeal, and its creator is happily anticipating its release. Over The Years is a 30-song compilation spanning 50 years of music, including unreleased demos and mixes, due out on June 29th, from Rhino Records.
As we waited on line at a Starbucks for some pre-interview coffee, Nash amiably chatted with the baristas while waiting for our order, holding the door open for other customers to enter (some of whom recognized him but were too stunned to say anything), and talking with me about everything from current political events to my teaching career. I had a chance to observe Graham the man versus Graham the two-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Graham the political activist, and Graham the larger-than-life figure known for some of the most enduring songs created in this or any other time. A trim 76, Nash carries himself with the energy of a decades-younger man. One can see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice.
So … on this particularly beautiful late-spring afternoon, after returning from Starbucks, Graham and I settled into two comfy chairs in publicist Michael Jensen’s hotel suite and began an hour-long conversation that encompassed the Renaissance Man-like range of Graham’s interests, knowledge, and experience. Read on and enjoy the journey!
Roy Abrams: As the self-appointed curator of the CSN catalog, you have spent years compiling boxed sets of your former band (CSN), plus Crosby’s Voyage, Stills’ Carry On, and your own Reflections. Now, with the impending release of Over The Years, you are continuing the archival process. It’s a curious thing: As one who is known for looking forward, always on the lookout for all things new, whether it is music, photography, or other art, your eye toward the past is eagle-sharp. How do you reconcile living in the now while devoting years of your life toward preserving the past?
Graham Nash: I like to do both! I don’t look back. That’s why on the cover of Over The Years, there’s this kid with binoculars looking, to me, in my heart, into the future. He’s not turning around looking backwards. It’s the same with a lot of the things I do; I like to be in the beginning and in the future of it all. It’s the same with photography, and it’s the same with daguerreotypes. The daguerreotypes were invented in 1838, but I own a company that deals in digital, Nash Editions. So, I’m at the very beginning of it and also in the future of most things in my life because I don’t just find the middle of where I am and just look. I’ve got to know the history and the past of what I’m doing; recognizing it, but always moving forward.
RA: Given your vast body of work, how did you go about selecting the songs for inclusion in this album? Was it tempting to include “deep cuts”? Any tracks which almost made the cut but didn’t?
GN: I think I based it a lot on what my audience expects to hear. They expect to hear “Teach Your Children,” they expect to hear “Our House,” they expect to hear “Wind On the Water.” They want to hear “Chicago,” they want to hear “Military Madness,” they want to hear “Just a Song Before I Go,” they want to hear “Wasted On the Way.” So, I started with them. So (those were) obvious things that had to be on there. “Better Days” was an interesting choice, because I found out that a very famous skateboarder, whose name I don’t know, took it as his theme song on his Facebook page and on his Twitter page, and Instagram, and it became a piece of music that was accepted by a lot of skateboarders—kids! And I thought, wow, that’s really great! So I put that on. And I realize, of course, that most people have all those songs, maybe a couple of times. They bought the first album (Crosby, Stills & Nash), they bought Déjà Vu, they bought the Greatest Hits … they have all that, I know that. So, to make it interesting, I said, well, why don’t I just put the very beginning (once again, going back to the past and the future), why don’t I put the demos on there and let people realize how I wrote the song, what the initial inspiration was on tape, on cassette, or whatever it was, and then listen to the records of what we did. With this particular record, Over The Years, people are finding that fascinating, because if people don’t write music, songwriting is like a magical thing. “What the fuck? How do you do it?” And very often, we don’t know! I mean, I don’t know. I know what happens, I know that I see something that I have to feel deeply about, and then I think about it. I have this conveyor belt in my mind that has melodies that I wrote and words that I wrote that haven’t “songed” yet, you know? And I’ll think about something and go, “Yeah, I’ve got the title!” And if I’ve got a title, then I’ve got the first verse, and that’s how I write.
|Over The Years album cover|
RA: Having listened to your music since my mid-teens, I’m discovering new things about you as a writer though this collection. I hear things and think, “Ah, that’s a mind-blower to me!”
GN: Ah, how nice!
RA: In terms of where you go with your melodies, I can hear the harmonies inherent in them. Also, with the demo version of “You’ll Never Be the Same,” the influences of Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers—
GN: Hank Williams—
RA: Yeah! Strong country roots as well. I recall seeing you perform solo back on April 26, 1980 at the Palladium in New York City—the first member of the “mothership” that I saw solo—and clearly remember being amazed by the deep vein of country music influence that permeated many of your songs. (I also remember Joey the goldfish keeping you company on stage!)
GN: Joey! [laughs]
RA: When you went back through your archives, did you find yourself reliving the moments of these songs’ gestation and infancy?
GN: Yes, obviously, because music is such a large part of my life, and of course, I still have a brain, and I still have a memory, and I still remember doing those demos. There’s a certain excitement you’ve got to (capture); I need to put it down somewhere so I don’t forget it. I don’t write music. None of my friends write spiders on a white page; we don’t. So, consequently, there have been several songs that you think of on the end of sleep, and you think, “Oh, I’ll remember this tomorrow,” and then you forget it. Me and Stephen (Stills) and Michael McDonald once wrote a great song at Stephen’s house. We’d been partying all night and we wrote this beautiful song, and none of us can remember what the fuck it was about! That moment at Stephen’s house, when we wrote it, we were excited about it, but we didn’t put it down.
RA: Speaking of Stephen, when I listened to the demo version of “Pre-Road Downs,” and looked at the date it was recorded, I noted that you had already crossed paths with Stephen. Was the guitar tuned to his “Bruce Palmer modal tuning”?
GN: Yes, it’s the exact same tuning. It’s all “E”s except for one “B”.
RA: In many instances, when artists release demo versions of their works, it’s not uncommon for fans to gravitate toward the early, rough versions of the songs rather than the fully-realized versions that they have come to know and love. Why do you think this occurs? Has it happened to you? (e.g., The Beatles’ “Esher demos.”)
GN: That’s interesting. No, I’ve never done that, strangely enough. The truth is, I rarely listen to other people’s music, especially in these last ten years. As the so-called archivist of the band, about ten years ago, Warner Brothers thought that they owned everything that we’ve ever recorded. Now, I’ve been recording us for years, stashing the tapes away in a temperature-controlled vault, all that stuff. And then we said, the truth is that you own the records that we delivered that you paid us for. God bless you, you paid us a lot of money; those are your records, CSN, Déjà Vu, and everything in between—they’re yours. But if I recorded me and Crosby in my kitchen doing a song, you don’t own that! We were arguing back and forth and then they finally realized that they in fact don’t own that. So then I was delving deep into the archives to bring out … holy shit, in the `14 years between solo albums, I think I may have done 16 CDs with Joel Bernstein. I mean, my boxed set, Crosby’s boxed set, Stephen’s boxed set, CSNY 74, the Greatest Hits, the demos … I was a busy boy! My point is that I haven’t been listening to a lot of new music, but it will find me! A perfect example is my girlfriend, Amy Grantham, who said, “You’ve got to watch this video, ‘This is America’ by Childish Gambino? Holy fuck. Have you seen it yet?
RA: Not yet.
GN: Stunningly brilliantly effective. It’s a great piece of art; the song and the video. Check it out!
RA: One of the things that always struck me about you is the manner in which you use your notoriety for the common good. I view you as a model “active citizen.”
GN: Because, look—these people are running our lives! These politicians and all these silly rules and these corporations are ruling our very lives! One of the things that I love about the Parkland thing is that these kids are now realizing, well, it’s not “Politics are for grown-ups.” Those politicians are ruling their lives, and I think that they’re coming out. If they can keep up the energy –and I think they’re going on an American tour to register voters, right?—if they can keep this energy up they will defeat people like the NRA who have completely distorted the Second Amendment and fashioned it to support what they do. I mean, sure, the militia has the right to bear arms. But look, it was a crossbow compared to whatever it is—an AK-47.
RA: Back to Over The Years … three of your solo albums are notably unrepresented: 1980’s Earth and Sky, 1986’s Innocent Eyes, and 2002’s Songs for Survivors. What memories do these albums evoke for you?
GN: With Songs for Survivors, I had a bunch of songs, and my friend Russell Kunkel was the drummer and his son Nathaniel was a great engineer, and that’s what we did! It was very interesting. I had Viktor Krauss on double bass; that’s Alison’s brother who, by the way, is the only guy that Leland Sklar would sit cross-legged on the floor in front of Viktor because he’s that great—and that’s Leland Sklar, one of the best bass players in the world, right? It was a really nice album. I thought there were some good songs on there, you know. It’s really interesting … I’m not interested in the past; there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m always going to be looking forward, I’m afraid.
|Image by Amy Grantham|
RA: We were discussing how some fans can become partial to demo versions of their favorite songs over the official release. I have to say that I’m more partial to the demo version of “Just a Song Before I Go.”
GN: It’s a silly song, but it’s nice. I think I’m playing harmonica on that one.
RA: The demo version of “Wasted on the Way”, besides capturing the beautiful blend between you, Stephen, and Timothy B. Schmit, exudes a painful poignancy in light of the dissolution of CSN(Y). In recent years, while you and I haven’t discussed it much, you’ve spoken with others about your anger at the situation, your sadness with the situation, and in one conversation with Paul Shaffer, you seemed to be wishing for a peaceful resolution, if not for the music, then for the friendship. May I ask your current thoughts on the matter? (This question is not merely “just for me” … it’s for your legion of fans who still hold out hope of a reconciliation and an eventual return of the “voices of a generation” to take up the charge in the present day mess.) Also, in the lyrics to “Wasted on the Way” and “Myself At Last” I sense a connection of sorts; “So much water moving underneath the bridge” and “Is my future just my past?”
GN: It was just an overwhelming feeling. After I wrote my autobiography, Wild Tales, I began to realize that … I wasn’t faking being happy, but I wasn’t happy, you know. I was just kind of cruising. My wife and I had fallen out of love with each other, and I had to do something, and I was what, 73? And I thought, most people at 73 will go, “Oh, fuck it. My life’s almost over, I’ll just settle and accept what’s going on.” But I couldn’t do that. My heart was telling me that I had to move, I had to stay alive, and so my wife and I divorced, and I went through an incredible emotional time; I mean, divorce is not an easy thing, you know. It’s traumatic and it’s an awful time. And so “Myself At Last” and the songs on This Path Tonight were my emotional journey of what was happening to me right then. And that’s all I can do. I just wake up every morning, and I’m glad that I’m alive, and I thank the Great Spirit of the Universe for keeping me alive, and get on with my day. And that’s all I’ve ever done!
RA: The emotional honesty on This Path Tonight is readily apparent. I liken it to your Plastic Ono Band (John Lennon’s self-cathartic first post-Beatles album).
RA: I did a pretty lengthy interview with Shane Fontayne about the whole process—
GN:--He’s such a nice man.
RA: You’ve worked with him for several years now. How has that creative partnership evolved?
GN: Fantastic. Here’s how it started: We have a friend, Marc Cohn … great songwriter. Me and David had sung on a couple of songs on a couple of Marc’s albums, right? And he was doing a show at the El Rey (Theatre) in Los Angeles, and he said, “Hey, do you and Croz wanna come down and sing?” And we said, “Fuck, yeah! Let’s go!” So we went down and Shane was part of Marc’s band, and we recognized how great he was. I didn’t know he was English; Shane Fontayne is such an American name, it’s not an English name. So, what was happening was that two weeks after that, Crosby and I were supposed to go to Europe with our band. We had a lead guitar player, Dean Parks, a great guitar player, a great session player, and probably at that point was the number one call for sessions. He didn’t want to lose his place in that queue because it’s so fragile. Once you lose your place, then three other people come up and (it’s) “Oh yeah, I remember Dean!” He didn’t want that, so he couldn’t go to Europe. So now, what the fuck are me and Crosby gonna do? Holy shit! We asked Shane and he said, “Yeah, I can do it.” We sent him 33 songs, and he learned 33 songs in a week and a half … and played fantastic. When Shane was 12 years old, he saw The Hollies, and he loved The Hollies, you know. Shane is the kind of guitar player—obviously, he’s a brilliant player—but he wants the song to live, not just his solo, so he supports the delivery of the song … because he’s a songwriter himself. So I’ve been playing with Shane for—wow, what is it, seven or eight years now? Is it? But I love him dearly. He’s a big fan of my music and we write good songs together.
|Graham in concert|
Image by Amy Grantham
RA: In our previous conversations during the past few years, I have avoided initiating any conversation that focuses on the falling out between you and David. I never went down that road because today is today and tomorrow is tomorrow. I spoke with David at the end of April and one of the things he mentioned was that he is receiving increasing calls from fans through social media for the resurrection of CSNY to reclaim its voice as a collective spokesperson for our troubled times. I can only imagine that it puts pressure on you—
GN: --It does!
RA: And I understand that it’s probably unwanted at this point …
GN: Well, I understand people’s love for it. I mean, I love it too. Part of my sadness is the loss of the music. Just because I just don’t like Crosby right now and don’t want to be with him at all and don’t want to sing with him, I mean … we lost a lot of music. With all due respect, when he said all that awful shit about Daryl Hannah, what do you fucking think Neil Young is gonna say to you after you’ve said that in the press? Do you think he’s just gonna ignore it? Fuck no! David Crosby kind of tore the heart out of all of it, and it’s sad, but that’s the way it is. If we never make another note of music, look at what we did in the last 45 years.
RA: I apologize for bringing it up in the first place …
GN: It’s okay. Did you ask David what happened?
RA: I did.
GN: And what did he say?
RA: He said, basically, that the music got stale for him. He described it as “turn on the smoke machine and play your hits.” So his take on the situation was focused on the music. He said that he doesn’t hold an ounce of ill will towards any of the three of you but that he knows you’re all very angry with him. He doesn’t think a reunion will ever happen again but he would be very happy if it did. He knows that the fans would be ecstatic and shares their opinion that CSNY should be back out there, especially now.
GN: Two weeks ago I turned down a million dollars for one CSN show. It’s sad. Anyway …
RA: We were talking about education in America earlier, while we were in Starbucks—
GN: Wait till you see what I’m doing now. This is not for here (America). I have a friend, George Newman, who lives around Boston. He has an organization called OPEN—One Planet Education Network. What he does, he has designed a backpack with technology where you could be in the middle of the jungle and be online. So what we’ve been doing is connecting schools from Africa to New York and the kids are talking. These kids in Africa are going, “Yeah, I live near this volcano and we don’t really have a good evacuation plan. What’s your plan if something happens in New York?” The kids are conversing; they’re really talking to each other. My latest thing is that me and the ex-president of Liberia, Mrs. Sirleaf is her name, are going to approach Parliament to wire 6,000 schools in Liberia and turn them on to the rest of the world … and that’s just one country in Africa. It’s a very interesting project and I thought you’d appreciate it, as a teacher.
RA: That’s awesome.
GN: Can you imagine (what it will do) for these kids? It’s fantastic.
RA: Sticking with education, we had a conversation back in the ‘90s when I asked you what you felt was the single most important issue facing our world, your answer was immediate: The way we treat our kids. Your focus, you told me, moved from whales to humans once you became a parent. This brings up another memory: In 1983, you were involved in a program that was aired on PBS during which you addressed a room full of elementary school-aged children. You were speaking about environmental issues, and told the kids: “Each and every person in this room can make a difference. Every one of you can make a difference.” You looked around the room, at each of the children in turn, and the camera focused on their faces as your words made their impact. It was a lesson surely remembered by the direct recipients, but also many others who saw the program, including myself. I never forgot it. In fact, 25 years later, I became a high school English and Special Education teacher, and have used your lesson in both a classroom setting and a one-to-one environment. I can tell you that your words from 1983 still resonate with children today. I tell my students the same thing in a variety of ways: Don’t let anybody tell you that your vote doesn’t count, that your voice doesn’t count; that your opinion doesn’t matter just because you’re not an adult yet.
GN: Yeah, it’s bullshit.
RA: It’s all about communication: listening, speaking, reading, writing.
GN: I think it’s been fucked since the Tower of Babel! [laughs]
RA: What’s your take on the American educational system?
GN: The American educational system is making sure that they’re educating sheep.
RA: George Carlin said essentially the same thing.
GN: Is that right?
RA: Yeah, he once said that all the corporations want is obedient workers, so the schools are designed to produce just that.
GN: They don’t want people to rock the boat, they don’t want people disturbing the status quo; they just want idiots to lie down while they sell them another Cola and another pair of sneakers. That’s what’s going on. There’s a very interesting book I’m in the middle of reading called Glow Kids. And it’s about that fucking square, its glow [points to my iPhone resting on the table]. People walking by and falling into fountains, and what it’s doing neurologically to people’s brains … fascinating book! Yeah, because I’ve seen teenagers texting their friend who’s sitting four feet away!
RA: Or in a restaurant—you watch families do it.
GN: They’re all doing that [mimics staring at a smartphone]
RA: Talk to each other, please!
GN: Contact; human beings …. So I think the education system in America does two things: It is designed to keep people stupid, but at the same time there are tremendous educational possibilities in this country. It used to be that countries used to send their best and brightest to America to get educated beyond what they could do in their own countries. But I’m not so sure that’s true (now) …. I’ll tell you this, you know. I’ve been an American citizen for 30-odd years. I love this country. I’m still here. I think this is a great country, and I know it has its problems, and I know that we have to stand and fight it all, but ... this country deserves better. It deserves better than a president who is taking us back 50 years, who is undoing all of the incredibly hard-earned points, particularly (with) the EPA. [emphatically] How the fuck do you put somebody in charge of the EPA when he’s determined to destroy the agency? How do you put Betsy DeVos in charge of education, who never did anything in her life! (And Erik Prince is her brother.) We deserve better. I just cannot wait for all of this to catch up with him. I know that Mueller is taking his time because he has to—this is incredibly important—but I sincerely hope that he disappears.
I know that we will be left with Pence, but I think that once Trump is gone, they’re gonna start bringing Pence down, too, because that fucker already lied under oath. Same with Jeff Sessions. How can the foremost lawman in the country lie under oath three times and still have a fucking job? It’s the same for the Republicans, too. They’re gonna be saddled with this for the next couple of decades. Didn’t (Senator Bob) Corker, the other day, say it was kind of like a cult? I know that you get brave when you’re not running for reelection; you can say what the fuck you want, because your job doesn’t depend on it.
RA: It’s sad.
GN: It’s crazy, right? “Don’t poke the bear.” Is that what he said? Oh, we’re poking the bear. Holy shit! We might upset the president because of what we’re trying to do? Oh, man.
RA: Did you hear what he said today? Something about how Kim Jong Un said that his people sit and pay attention when he speaks, so Trump said that he wanted “his people” to sit and pay attention as well.
GN: He wants to be a despot, just like Putin, just like Kim. With him saying, “Well, America’s killed people, too.” I mean, this fucker put his uncle into a fucking cage with 60 dogs that hadn’t been fed in a week. They just put him in there, and they ate him alive. We want to be friends with this guy? They gave Kim everything he wanted. They gave him a world stage. Now, Kim Jong Un is up there in the hierarchy of presidents, or whatever he’s called. He hasn’t given us anything. We’re threatening to stop the war games with South Korea? He’s given Kim everything he wants. (Trump has) gotten nothing in response except a promise, which he’s been doing for a long time.
RA: Speaking of presidents, in 1977 you, David, and Stephen were at the White House to visit Jimmy Carter. What was that experience like? How’d you find him?
GN: Very interesting. I really liked him. He seemed to be a very interesting man with his feet on the ground. And I’ll tell you one of the things that made me very proud that he was president: After he was president, what does he start doing? He starts building fucking homes for people that don’t have them. That’s the president up there on the roof, come on! (He’s a) great man; a really nice, solid man.
RA: Going back to 1996, you were involved in a project called LifeSighs. Given your immersion in technology, was there ever any inclination to do something like that again?
GN: It was an insanity in my life. It took me a million and a half dollars to put together and I did, I think, seven shows in Philadelphia, and then David and Stephen wanted to go on the road, and I kind of lost my energy. But nobody—even today, with the technological advances, nobody has ever done anything possibly like it. I mean, I was on a fucking stage in Philadelphia with this 30-foot screen and a wireless mouse, telling my computer what to do, but my computer was in Los Angeles. It was assembling what I’d asked it to do; I had this gold watch as an interface of time, and I could go forward and backward on the clock, and go all the way back to the Everly Brothers, and all the way forward … no one’s ever done it. Every time I walked to a certain place on the stage, a certain image would appear that was tracked … I mean, it was an insanity! I do think that I would like to incorporate a little of that into my future, because the computers then that were running were like refrigerators, but now it’s all in your fucking phone, so technologically, it would be a bit easier to put controllable visuals (together). You know who Jon Pareles is?
RA: Yes, the writer.
GN: He reviewed LifeSighs. He said, “Oh, the guy’s just reacting to a videotape.” He didn’t fucking get it at all. He didn’t even understand what I was doing. It was a very interesting show.
RA: Speaking of visuals, you mentioned acquiring the John Quincy Adams daguerreotype earlier today. Where is Nash Editions today? What are you involved with?
GN: Whenever I go out on the road, I often visit art galleries and see what their ink-jet prints look like. They keep calling them giclée, which I fucking hate; it’s French a word meaning “to spray” and that’s what it does: ink comes out and it sprays it onto the paper. My printer, Jack Duganne, invented that word, and I hate it. Anyway, I do check all that stuff, and the first thing I do is I take a loop out of my pocket and check the bottom right-hand corner, because if these four colors aren’t exactly on top of each other and I look on the bottom right-hand corner and see a magenta pixel, (it means that) the magenta is off by a pixel. But a pixel is a lot; it’s very important. You might think, it’s a pixel, who gives a shit? But if you’re printing a four-color picture and one of the colors is out of alignment, it’s not quite as good. And I still think we’re doing the best work, even today.
RA: How did you come across the John Quincy Adams daguerreotype?
GN: I’ve been collecting daguerreotypes for a long, long, long time. I probably have 3,000, maybe. I know there’s been some incredible images created on paper. But when you see a stereo dag, and you’re looking at it, and that person, whoever it was—and I’m particularly thinking of an image I saw of John Wilkes Booth—those people stood in front of that plate. Now, with a paper print, you’ve got film, you’ve got to develop it, you put it in an enlarger, you shine it down on a piece of paper … you’re twelve generations away from the moment that person stood in front of that plate. My friend Bob Hoffman has the earliest dag ever of Lincoln, taken when he was about 28 years old. You know that when he had that taken, and the photographer said, “Mr. Lincoln, here’s your image,” that he took it in his hand and went, “Mmmm, I look good! I’ll take this home to Mary,” and he put it in his pocket and took it home and show to Mary. I’ve always wanted to be closest to the flame without getting my ass burned, and because they (were) standing in front of that plate that I’m looking at, I’m closer to them than a print that’s been twelve generations removed.
RA: How do you view the children from Florida and Texas who, in the aftermath of their respective school shootings, have become eloquent spokespeople for their generation in their demands for a saner, safer society? I’m particularly thinking of David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez. What advice do you have for them?
GN: They need to realize one thing: They have to realize that they’re up against an incredible enemy. The NRA and the gun lobby are incredible enemies of the American people. I have a feeling that in 50 years they’re gonna be seen as major criminals. I think the same for the pharmaceutical industry, and I think the same for the liquor industry and the smoking industry. I think they’re all gonna be seen as … what do you mean, you make cigarettes when you know it kills three hundred fucking thousand people a year. How the fuck do you sleep, knowing that the stuff you’re making is killing people by the hundreds of thousands?! I think they’re gonna be seen as major criminals in the future, and if I have any advice to the students of Parkland, they should believe that they’re on the side of truth. They’re on the right side of history, and the right side of the truth. I think America is gonna be in for a rude awakening when they see that these 15-year-old kids have actually got power. One of the things that I’m loving about what I’m seeing is the power of the 15-year-olds saying, “Wait a second! I’ve got to get into politics! They’re running my life!” it’s not just, “I don’t need to go to the mall and buy another t-shirt—these people are running my life, and I’ve got to get into this!” That’s a tremendous power, to realize that. And that’s what the kids at Parkland are doing. They’re going to spread that message throughout America.
RA: At the Parkland schools, from what I understand, civics classes are taught at the middle school level. Civics is not part of the curriculum, in general, in this country.
GN: Well, we don’t want to educate people! Educated people start rocking the boat! Fuck ‘em!
RA: As a teacher, I always tell my kids what Einstein recommended: Question everything.
RA: I suggest that my students perform an experiment: choose any current event and observe how the different American network and cable news programs deliver the story; then view the same story through the BBC lens, which is a lot like the way American news used to be. It teaches them to be independent thinkers and to not be spoon-fed.
GN: That’s right. And that a tremendous power, that recognition of the fact that they can get involved, and they can do something, and they can make a difference with their lives. That is tremendous power, and it’s getting to younger and younger people. When kids look at the kids from Parkland, they’re gonna go, “Wow! Look what they’re doing, Wow, they have a voice! Wow, they’re making a difference! That means I can!” That’s the power. Doesn’t the Parkland situation really add credence to the words of “Teach Your Children” and how much we can learn from our kids? There are adults looking at the Parkland students and going, “Holy shit! Man, if a kid can do it, I can!”
RA: Let’s revisit the demos you included on Over The Years. Listening to some of the songs you recorded in your London apartment in 1968, were you hearing phases of completion in your head during the demo stage?
GN: Yes, absolutely. Particularly harmonically, because The Hollies, The Byrds, and the Springfield were harmony bands, so when I’m writing a melody, my head is already filling in the top part and the bottom part. I learned in The Hollies to write melodies that were pretty simple but that, unfortunately, you couldn’t forget them if you heard them two or three times. But the words still sucked. [sings] Hey, Carrie Anne …
RA: I loved the Butterfly album.
GN: It was very interesting, that Butterfly album, when we did it live—particularly “Carrie Anne”, right? A lot of people know that the solo on “Carrie Anne” is a steel drum solo, but what do you do when you do it live? This is what we did. This is in ’66. We made a tape of the bass part and the steel drums. So Bobby Elliot, who was an incredible drummer for The Hollies, the timing he knew because of the bass part … and the bass player would turn off, but he would pretend to be playing. We knew we were in sync because we had the bass part right, so as soon as the solo is supposed to come on, out of nowhere comes all the steel drums. We had a little echo, the separation … we did the same thing with “Butterfly.” At the Whisky, I sang “Butterfly” on my own with an entire orchestra! We were pretty adventurous in the ‘60s.
RA: The demos enable me to peel away all of the layers; all of the production, and get to the essence of the song. For a songwriter, this is essential listening. On This Path Tonight, I know that Shane contributed a lot of the music to your lyrics. In your collaboration with him now, is it a similar process?
GN: When I was going through all this emotional stuff about divorce and leaving my wife, and leaving the place I lived in Hawaii for 40 years, Shane and I wrote 20 songs in the back of the bus, just out of energy and anguish and celebration; there was a lot of emotion going on because of the emotion going on in my private life. So we wrote 20 songs together, and here’s what would happen: I would vomit words onto the (page) and make sure everything rhymed, and would give it to Shane. He would come back the next day. “Myself At Last” is a perfect example. That’s all Shane’s music—all my words, but all Shane’s music. That’s how good Shane Fontayne is; a lot of people think that that’s a Graham Nash song, and it is, but 50 percent.
RA: When I spoke with him, I got his perspective on that song, too. As you said earlier, when he was 12 years old, he was sitting in the audience listening to The Hollies perform; it seems as if he’s internalized so much of Graham Nash—
RA: From your perspective, that must have been quite a moment.
GN: It was! It was stunning. I just kept writing. What would have normally happened was I’d be writing all this stuff, and then it would take me a year to go through it all and try and figure out melodies … but this was happening now. I’d write a song and I’d push it under the Shane’s door in the hotel and when sound check came he’d say, “Hey, what do you think about this?” Fantastic! Yeah, it’s a good working relationship.
RA: How do you find living in Manhattan after living in Hawaii for so many years? John Lennon was once asked why he chose to live in New York City when he could have picked anywhere in the world to settle down, and his response was that if he lived in Roman times, he would have wanted to live in Rome, because that was the center of everything. He viewed New York City as the Rome of today.
GN: It is. When I lived I Hawaii, the sidewalks rolled up at 4:30 in the afternoon, and then all you had to do was wait for the sun to go down, you’d eat dinner and go to sleep. But my soul was craving art galleries and culture. I like to hear six languages when I’m getting a Starbucks. I flippantly say that I just traded jungles; it’s kind of true, but I love this city! I think it has incredible energy. I live in the Village. I have a pretty fucking great life, quite frankly. I’ve been to New York, obviously, many, many times … and I never could wait to get out, because when you just come into this city, it hits you in the face and you’ve got to get on with it, right? But now that I live here and I’ve made it through three New York winters—which are getting less severe; even I’m seeing this … I’ve seen it go from snow for four months to maybe a couple of snowstorms, and it’s spring already! I love this city, it’s got incredible energy, and I hope that it will support me. So far, it has.
RA: Do you have a bucket list of those with whom you’d like to collaborate?
GN: There’s one thing I would still like to do before I die. I would love to be onstage with Paul (McCartney) with just his acoustic guitar, singing “Yesterday” with me singing harmony. What a song. Really, you know? And Paul has got one of the great voices in the world as far as I’m concerned. So that might be interesting. I keep imagining what I could bring to that song. It doesn’t need anything; it just needs Paul and an acoustic guitar, I know that, but I think I can add something that would make Paul really smile while we’re doing it.
RA: You had also mentioned in Dave Zimmer’s book that at that stage in your life—it was 1983 and you had done some work with The Hollies and were taking a break from CSN—that what you really wanted to do was to make some music with George Harrison.
GN: I love George. I’ve known him a long time, since November of ’59.
RA: Want to share?
GN: There was a Canadian promoter named Carroll Levis who would go to a town, assemble ten acts, they’d go, they never got paid; it was just a competition, and it was one of those things where at the end of the show, you all lined up and he’d put his hand above your head and whoever got the most applause won. This was in Manchester on November the 19th, 1959. Me and Allan (Clarke), we were just teenagers; there’s no Hollies—later, there were, Freddie Garrity, who later became Freddie and the Dreamers, Ron Wycherley, who became Billy Fury, and these four kids from Liverpool called Johnny and the Moondogs. They did a Buddy Holly song called “Think It Over.” It wasn’t (with drummer) Pete Best. My memory of it was Johnny Hutchinson from The Big Three on drums. Me and Allan won that night. We did “It’s Only Make-Believe” by Conway Twitty with two acoustic guitar and two childish voices. We won, but I think that Johnny and the Moondogs would have won but they had to catch the last bus to Liverpool, which left at 9:00, but the show was over at 10:00 so they couldn’t be there for the final judging. So they may have won but they didn’t because they weren’t there! And it was one night where John Lennon saw somebody’s electric guitar right there on the side of the stage and just walked off with it! But yeah, I’ve known George a long time. As a matter of fact, the last time I was with him, I was at Friar Park with my kids, and with Dhani, and my kids and Dhani shared chicken pox.
RA: So you’re heading over to Europe soon …
GN: I leave on the 24th.
RA: I saw that in October you’ll be doing a show in California. Any plans for New York?
GN: I’m not sure. [pauses] I’m a very lucky man. I don’t need to know who I’m talking to (on an interview day) … all I know is that Michael is going to pick me up at 9:00 and we start, whatever the fuck it is. I don’t have the details; it’s the same way with touring. I hardly look at my itinerary. I get on the bus and we go. I don’t need to know which hotel I’m staying at in Amsterdam, I don’t need to know the phone number, so my point is that when I finish in Europe I’m going to take a couple of months off, maybe go into the studio with Shane, and in the fall we’ll start a tour … but you know probably more about where I’m going in the fall than I do right now! I’m not being flippant about it; I’m living today and this week, and making sure I do the best I can.
RA: Would the 25-year-old Graham Nash be surprised by what the Graham Nash of today is doing? It’s a strange question …
GN: It is a strange question. You know, we never thought that … rock and roll was such a youth-oriented music that it’s hard to think of rock and roll and 60-year-olds. They just don’t quite go together, you know? Was it Jagger that said “Don’t trust anybody over 40?” I’m 76 now, are you kidding?! But I still have the same insane passion for music. People say, “Well, you’re 76, you’ve done a lot of stuff. Are you coming to the end now?” And I’m going, “Are you fucking kidding? There’s so much to write about in this world, you know? I’ll be writing when they’re lowering my fucking coffin lid. I’ll be writing, “Oh, they’re closing my coffin right now.”
|Image by Amy Grantham|
RA: Something I see with you, your former partners, is such a sense of being in-the-moment, moving forward. It’s such an inspiration—
RA:--On a musical level, on a personal level … wow. I also want to let you know that from time to time, your music has made it into my classroom lessons.
RA: Finally, from the bottom of my heart: It’s been 40-some years since I first heard your music, and … thank you for everything.
GN: You’re very welcome. I’m always trying my best. I’m just the same as you. I just happen to do something different with my time, but I’m trying my best. I’ll never make it. I’m trying to be the best friend, and the best husband, and the best boyfriend, and the best musician, and the best writer, and the best painter, and the best photographer … and I’ll never make it, but I keep wanting to grow. And I think if I keep wanting to grow, I think I’ll live longer.
|Graham Nash and Roy Abrams|
June 15, 2018
Image by Michael Jensen
© Roy Abrams 2018