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

No comments:

Post a Comment