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Graham Nash walking tall 'over the years'

As Graham Nash puts out a retrospective, he examines his career through the decades of making music, from The Hollies to the present.
 Graham Nash performs live on stage at City Winery on January 24, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Matthew Eisman/WireImage)

Graham Nash performs live on stage at City Winery on January 24, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Matthew Eisman/WireImage)

By Mike Greenblatt

Over The Years is the new two-disc, 30-song, five-decade Graham Nash retrospective that beautifully showcases his gems on disc one. But it’s disc two that should blow minds worldwide as it contains the original demos of songs he wrote in their original unvarnished and pristine introductory presentation.

Goldmine sat with the ageless 76-year-old singer — whose voice is still surprisingly strong — in his New York City hotel suite. Still looking quite the rock star with a head full of (white) hair, that handsome face, that British accent, that fit frame. He was, as always, confident, direct, articulate and funny. He’s an American Treasure (a citizen of the USA for decades).

Goldmine: You’re telling me that those guys in The Hollies didn’t have the ear to realize, after hearing the demo of “Marrakesh Express,” that it was a damn hit waiting to happen?

Graham Nash: Nope. They didn’t. Somewhere in the bowels of Abbey Road, in the tape hall, is a multi-track of The Hollies doing “Marrakesh Express.” And I, quite frankly, hope you never hear it. After I wrote and recorded “King Midas In Reverse” with them, they stopped trusting both me and my material. But I thought “Marrakesh Express” would be a hit, and I just couldn’t understand at the time why they wouldn’t get right into it.

GM:I see a definite parallel between what you went through with The Hollies and what Brian Wilson went through with The Beach Boys. Mike Love thought Smile was a piece of sh*t but Brian was tired of all the “Surfin’ USA” retreads and wanted to—like The Beatles—musically mature.

GN: I’m certainly not going to equate myself with a genius like Brian Wilson, but I do understand the similar situations we were both in. It’s awful because when you grow up and have a band, and you go through years of being together, rehearsing and sweating in practice rooms, you begin to trust what they think. And if The Hollies didn’t think that “Marrakesh Express” was worth a sh*t, it affected me. They made me feel like I was the piece of sh*t! I then began to think that none of the songs I was writing were worth anything. It was David Crosby who came to me and said, “Whoah! Hold on. This is a great song!”

GM: History has it that he was the one who made the option of hopping across the pond real for you.

GN: By that time, I had already sung with David and Stephen (Stills) and so he was just confirming what I already knew in the back of my head but wouldn’t yet dare myself to believe. I knew it the moment in 1967 that I heard the three of us sing for the very first time in Joni Mitchell’s living room. My life had instantly and dramatically changed. But I still had to go back to England, leave The Hollies, leave all my equipment, my sisters, and leave all my finances. I had to leave my country...

GM: ...and your first wife.

GN: We were getting divorced anyway but yes. Such was the power of that vocal blend. When we made our three voices sound like one, Stephen and David also said they never heard anything like it.

GM: What a leap of faith you took! At 26! Your 1968 demo of “Horses Through a Rain Storm,” a co-write with Terry Reid, has been called the “Maltese Falcon” discovery of Over The Years. It was supposed to be on Déjà Vu but didn’t see the light of day until the 1991 CSN box.

GN: Terry Reid has always been my good friend. I just spoke to him this morning, in fact, and will see him tonight.

GM: My friends and I all loved his version of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.” We also loved him when he opened for The Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden. [Jimmy Page asked him to sing for Led Zeppelin but he turned Page on to Plant and Bonham instead. He was also asked to sing in Deep Purple but said no so they got Ian Gillan.] How did Jerry Garcia get to play pedal steel guitar on “Teach Your Children”?

GN: Oh, he played on a lot more, too, like “Southbound Train” and “I Used To Be A King.” Here’s what happened: We were recording in Wally Heider’s famous San Francisco studio and there’s Studio A, Studio B, etc., on up to D. We were in one, the Grateful Dead were in another and, as I remember, Jefferson Airplane were in another; all at the same time, all making albums. Now when I first played the demo of that song for Stephen, he told me, “That’s a really lovely song, Graham, but don’t ever play it like that again!” And I went, “What?” He said, “You sound like Henry the Eighth. That’s not how it should go.” And then he showed me how it should go. That’s Stephen! And he played that beautiful Stephen Stills finger-picking style that just transcended the song completely into a thing of beauty. So now we had the track and we recorded it that way but Stephen couldn’t quite figure out yet what the guitar solo should be. Crosby was a friend of the Dead, much more than I, and suggested Garcia who was right in the next room. “I hear he’s been playing pedal steel,” David said, to which I just said, “Wow. Go and ask him if he wants to play on this song!”
We played Jerry the track and he loved it. Played one take. One take! I said, “Fantastic. Thank you very much!” He said, “Nah, I f**ked up a little. Can I do it over again? A second take, please?” I said, “Absolutely, but I’m never gonna use it.” He goes, “Why?” “Because I just love that first take so much. It’s got spontaneity, it’s unexpected, it’s beautiful. You can do another track. Feel free. Go right ahead! I’ll never use it.”

GM: I never realized that “I Used To Be A King” is an answer song to “King Midas In Reverse.” And you’ve had so many songs reflecting upon your break-up with Joni Mitchell? Which ones resonate with you most?

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GN: Oh, I don’t know.

GM: Gotta be a good dozen of ‘em, no?

GN: Whatever.

GM: “Simple Man” says it all. And I know numerous of her songs are about you.

GN: We loved each other deeply.

GM: Then what the f**k happened? Two of the great artists of the 20th Century!

GN: Um, quite frankly, I, uh, wanted to marry Joan, y’know, but Joan’s version of that is this: she had a grandmother who wanted to be an artist, but who was kept down by her husband, so never became an artist, and kept telling Joan as a child that she was so infuriated at the unfairness of it all, that she would go around kicking doors. I have a feeling Joni thought I wanted her to give up her career for me, stop writing songs and just cook my dinner every night. That is so far from the truth and from what I wanted. I’m not quite sure what happened with us, to tell you the absolute truth, but we drifted apart. But I still didn’t believe it was over, until I got a telegram from her when she was in Greece. It said, “If you’re holding sand in your hand, and you squeeze it, it’ll run through your fingers.” That’s when I knew it was over.

GM: And how about when you had to play “Simple Man” at a big New York City concert with her right up front in the audience?

GN: Yeah, we did the Fillmore East for about a week and I had to sang “I just want to hold you, I don’t want to hold you down.”

GM: The muse has never left you, has it? “This Path Tonight,” from 2016, is just as haunting and beautiful as anything you’ve ever written. But it’s also darker than anything you’ve ever written.

GN: Well, my life was darker when I wrote it. It’s pure emotion. I was going through insanity. Divorce is not an easy process. Breaking up your family is not an easy process. Having your kids not talk to you because they’re angry you left their mother is not an easy process. Trying to figure out how much all of this will cost is not an easy process. My point is that I was in a very dark space when I wrote that whole album. I’d been going through f**king insanity. And I think “This Path Tonight” reflects that.

GM: Yeah, but it’s just so haunting and gorgeous. And you’re a freak-of-nature with that voice of yours still so supple and elastic at 76.

GN: I’m a lucky man. I never think about it. I have no vocal coach. I don’t do exercises. I just sing.

GM: Do you find yourself oftentimes quoting your own lyrics in conversations like these?

GN: Occasionally, yeah. They rattle around in my brain forever. But you have to treat the muse of music well. You can’t f**k with it or it will bite you!

GM: What would be an example of f**king with your muse?

GN: A sad example would be Wind on the Water. That record (has) a chorale piece written by Crosby called “Critical Mass.” At the height of his anger with me, Crosby called my manager and told him he didn’t want me performing that “Critical Mass” intro ever again. I had been doing just that onstage, playing a beautiful “Critical Mass,” with its echo and its gorgeous melody, and when it got to the right part (sings it), the band would come in and start playing “Wind on the Water.” That’s how we did it. Fans loved it. I loved it. But I cannot and will not do that anymore.

GM: Just because he said not to?

GN: Yeah, I have to respect the writer. But he’s f**king with the muse of music! That’s my point. He might be angry at me but why f**k with the music? That’s not right.

GM: It’s a damn shame with you and him. Didn’t you share a life-altering sea trip with him on his boat that stretched out for weeks and covered thousands of nautical miles, where you wrote songs and even encountered a whale? Most mortals don’t get to experience that. It should’ve bonded you two for life.

GN: There were three or four of us, as I recall. Our tour manager Leo was there. Joni actually came for about a week, too. We started off in Fort Lauderdale. Crosby had asked me if I wanted to go sailing. I thought it would be only for the afternoon, smoking a joint on the water, and coming home again, but it lasted nine weeks. Florida to California. I wrote “Man in the Mirror” and “Wind on the Water” while at sea.

GM: Two other tracks from disc one have Dave Mason playing electric
guitar (“Immigration Man” and
“Military Madness”).

GN: I’ve known Dave a very long time. We’re English together! In the early days of British Rock, I saw what he was doing in Traffic. I’ve been a huge fan of his, too, for a very long time, and I’ve sung on several of his records.

GM: The thing about you, most importantly, is that you’re still alive!

GN: Yes! Thank God. I think about Glenn Frey, David Bowie, Tom Petty, Prince...

GM: You’re going to tell me good living, right? That’s what people say when I broach this subject.

GN: I take of myself, sure. I walk three or four miles a day. I live in Manhattan so it’s great to walk the city. I eat well. It’s been three years since my last piece of meat. I don’t smoke, other than a little dope occasionally. I’ve never smoked cigarettes. I’ve never been a drinker, apart from the year that I took Crosby around Europe drinking every night when his (girlfriend) Christine was killed (in an automobile accident). We went around the world together getting blind drunk every night.

GM: Such good friends…and it’s come to this.

GN: I know. I know.

GM: You guys were fine for that unbelievably great 2012 tour. I’ll never forget when I first heard your “In Your Name” and Crosby’s “Radio.” I wish “In Your Name” could’ve been included on Over The Years.

GN: You could play that game forever wanting this song or that song to be included.

GM: Yeah but that song gives me goosebumps. Especially today with what’s going on in the world.

GN: I wrote it the night Coretta King was being buried. I was watching the funeral service on television. It made me realize what Rev. King stood for. As I tried to illuminate in “Cathedral,” most of the world wars have been based on religion. Religion has been responsible for killing millions and millions of people throughout the ages. That’s why it took me so long to write “Cathedral.” Hell, I wrote “Just a Song Before I Go” in an hour. I wrote “Our House” in an hour and a half. It took four years to write “Cathedral.” Hey, when you’re talking about people’s religion, you’re under a great responsibility to make sure every f**king syllable, every word, is right.

GM: Well, in 2012 you guys were obviously all right. David was cracking wise as usual. Stephen was playing some of the greatest lead guitar I’ve heard him play.

GN: True. Stephen is one great guitar player. He’s turning into this blues artist with the gruff voice. I hear his show with Judy (Collins) is pretty nice. I haven’t seen it yet.

GM: In his boxed set, he plays the blues until there’s some laughing going on in the crowd over something unrelated. He stops, mid-song, and says, “One thing the blues ain’t, is funny.” That’s a gem of a line.

GN: When Joel Bernstein and I were putting together the CSNY 1974 set for CD release in 2014, I found Neil Young’s Nixon song (“Goodbye Dick”) that’s only about a minute and 20 seconds long. Back then, the band was totally transfixed with Watergate and Nixon resigning. We were in that frame-of-mind. So Neil, at one point, just sang this little song and never did it again...ever! But I found it when I was investigating the tapes. It was fortunate when I called him and he said, “You can use that.”

GM: Do you feel part of your job is to comment upon current events? There are those fans who say—even of yours—sing your hits and shut up about politics. What do you have to say to those fans?

GN: Nothing. I don’t talk to them. But I’ll tell you what I would say to them: I’m a f**king human being and this is pissing me off and I’m talking about it because in America you can speak your mind. It’s one of the reasons why I love this country so much. I’ve been an American citizen now for almost 40 years. I’ve always wanted to be a part of this great country. I didn’t want to be throwing songs like hand grenades from the edges. I wanted in...all the way. And we deserve better than what we’re getting right now with Trump.

GM: Don’t get me started. At this point, I consider myself a Southern Canadian. But I applaud your decision to put the beloved studio versions of all those wonderful songs on disc one, rather than fill it with live performances where the audience gets in the way of my aural pleasure.

GN: That, right there, was one of the more interesting dilemmas of doing the CSNY 1974 set. It was all live and, of course, people are going to react. So what do you do for the CDs? They’re all clapping. When do you fade that? Do you not put it in? Applause is a strange thing to deal with, in that sense. One of the technical things about the ’74 album that Joel, Stanley Johnson and I found was that we had done 36 shows, I believe, but the venues were huge stadiums and indoor basketball arenas, Sonically, they were all different, yet our job was to make the listener experience it as one show in one place. So how do you do that when each venue has sound differences? Wasn’t easy but I think we did a good job.
The last show of that tour was a Wembley Stadium. We were all coked out of our minds. I’m not sure but I think the coke we scored that night wasn’t right and we wound up playing too fast and a little out-of-tune. Listening to it years later, we decided we didn’t like that show. But, somebody had done a bootleg. It was filmed for the BBC. I thought, “Y’know what? We don’t sound like the great band I know we are. I need to do this.” That was the impetus for that release. I wanted to prove to America and the rest of the world that CSNY was a fine rock ‘n’ roll band. They were more than just four singer-songwriters taking turns singing interesting songs with good voices. We were a damn fine band! We kicked ass.

GM: I keep coming back to CSN 2012 though. That’s where I first heard Crosby’s great “Radio” and your topical “Almost Gone” about Chelsea Manning. Plus you pulled off “Suite:Judy Blues Eyes” like never before with Stills referencing George Harrison in his amazing solo.

GN: If it wasn’t for my son, we might not have done “Suite: Judy Blues Eyes.” He said, “You’re filming this for a DVD and you’re not doing the suite? Are you nuts?” I said, “But we haven’t done it in years!” He said, “Well, it’s 4:30, you don’t go on until 8:00.” So we rehearsed it once and we did it that night.

GM: I assume you enjoy smaller venues now.

GN: You’re so right. I do. There’s a reason. As performers, we have to do several things. First of all, we have to give them value for their hard-earned money. It’s not easy to earn a dollar and when they pay ticket prices today, I want to make sure they believe that they got value for their money. As a musician, you have to talk the truth and you have to reflect the times in which we live. This is history. When you hear Nina Simone, she reflects the time in which she lived. That’s what I try and do.

GM: And you feel you can get that truth over easier in a smaller venue?

GN: Yeah, because there’s more contact with the audience. I can look in their eyes! If I sing a song with a line I particularly thought was good, I can confirm that just by looking into the eyes of the crowd. There’s a contact there that isn’t there when you’re playing “Guinnevere” to half a million people at Woodstock.

GM: Woodstock must have freaked you the f**k out!

GN: No man, it didn’t.

GM: Don’t take this the wrong way—you know I love CSN—but when Y joins the fray, there’s an extra bit of magic.

GN: You’re absolutely right. Neil Young is one fantastic musician. On the first CSN album, Stephen played most of the instruments. Sure, David and I played our acoustic guitars but it was all Stephen on electric lead guitar, Hammond B-3 organ, piano, bass guitar and percussion. But when you get to the point where you know you have to go on the road, what the f**k are you going to do? Stills played most of it! What do you do? You have to get somebody else. David and Stephen were in New York City having dinner with Ahmet Ertegun, our dear friend who owned Atlantic Records, and Ahmet at one point during dinner said, “I know who you should get,” Stills says, “Really, Ahmet? Who should we get?” “You’ve got to get Neil.”
Stephen freaks out. He had been through madness with this guy in Buffalo Springfield, not going on The Ed Sullivan Show, not showing up at concerts. I thought, “Geez, we just found this incredible vocal blend where we could turn our three voices into one, I’ve got to put up with Neil Young coming into the band? I never even met Neil Young! I know he’s a great writer. I know he’s a fine singer. I know all that. I love his work with Buffalo Springfield. I love his solo albums. But I never f**king met him. And we three just discovered a magic. A magic so special you don’t mess with it!
So now I know I must meet this guy. How do I even know if I can be his friend or if I can share secrets with him or if we can laugh or if we can have a beer together or smoke a joint together? I don’t know these things! Before we invite him into this band, a band I left my country and family for, I’ve got to at least meet the f**ker.
I wound up having breakfast with Neil on Bleecker Street in New York. He won me over so much that I would’ve made him King of the World. He was charming, funny, self-assured and at the end of the meal I said to him, “Ok, look me in the eye and tell me right now why we should invite you into this band.” Hey, what did I have to lose, right? He looked at me and said, “You ever hear me and Stephen play guitar together, man?”
He, of course, was right.

GM: You four guys are still alive. C’mon man! A CSNY tour would be the biggest thing ever!

GN: Such is life, my friend.

GM: I don’t accept that. Can’t you guys figure this out?

GN: We’re smart but we’re not that smart. We’ve already been offered $100 million. It’s not that. We’d have to like each other again.

GM: No you wouldn’t! Emerson, Lake & Palmer used to arrive in separate limos.

GN: I don’t give a f**k about any of them. With CSNY, we have to like each other to make fine music. AND WE DON’T. You can’t say all that sh*t about Neil Young’s girlfriend and expect Neil Young to like you. You can’t say that my autobiography is full of lies and expect me to like you.

GM: It was one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll memoirs of them all.

GN: I tried my best. Have you heard the audio version? I’m reading it myself. It took three and a half hours to read the whole book. I sing certain parts when I refer, for instance, to Stephen playing “Helplessly Hoping.” I wanted it to sound like I was in your kitchen talking to you over a cup of coffee.

GM: When I saw you at The Sherman Theatre in Stroudsburg Pennsylvania, you only had one guy with you but I swear I could hear the bass and guitar in my head.

GN: Of course, because you know where they go so, in effect, they’re already there. When you strip a song down to the very essence of how it was written — usually on acoustic guitar or piano — you know immediately whether you’ve got a good song or not. There’s no hiding behind background vocals, drums, bass, 12 synthesizers, dancing girls, smoke or mirrors. There’s no hype. You’ve either got a good song or you don’t. And you know pretty well from the audience reaction exactly what it is you’ve got.

GM: It helps to have a master musician like Shane Fontayne up there with you.

GN: Let me give you a little bit of Shane. When he was 12 years old in 1964, he saw me in London with The Hollies. More importantly than the fact that he’s an unbelievable guitar player, he wants the song to live, not his solos. He supports the construction of the song itself. After five weeks in Europe, I’ll be touring America again later in the year with Shane but this time also with CSN B-3 man Todd Caldwell. I’m loving these small theaters.