There isn't much mystery to Graham Nash.
Not that that's a bad thing at all. In fact, if you want to know how the British expat with the distinctive tenor vocals feels about anything - political and social issues, fellow musicians, his wife and children even religion - it's all right there in his songs. And in straightforward language.
Beginning with the Hollies and continuing through the revolving-door lineups of Crosby, Stills & Nash...and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young...and Crosby & Nash...as well as his own solo records, Nash has been nothing if not a prolific troubadour. And though he tends to get the least amount of publicity in CSNY, most of the group's biggest hits flowed from his pen: "Marrakesh Express," "Our House," "Teach Your Children," "Just a Song Before I Go" and "Wasted on the Way."
Now the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer finally gets the box-set treatment with Reflections (Rhino). Featuring 64 tracks on three CDs covering more than 40 years with extensive liner notes and rare photos, it's all bundled up in a cool faux worn leather book packaging. Reflections was released Tuesday, one day after Nash's 67th birthday. Monday night, he took part in a historic concert at the Surf Ballroom to mark the 50th anniversary of the "The Day the Music Died" plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly (Nash's musical hero), Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper.
Rocks Off recently spoke with the eloquent Nash about a wide variety of topics including the box set, the current political landscape and one very memorable show in Houston.
Rocks Off: Before we talk about the box set, you are a U.S. citizen, so I'd like your thoughts on the change in administrations.
Graham Nash: I tell you what, I feel honestly like I've been able to take a really deep breath, the first one in a long time. I didn't realize how upset and depressed I was about what had been going on until the blinding light came through the tunnel. The Constitution, our Bill of Rights, our standing in the world, it was all [suffering horribly]. I was a very early supporter of Obama. And I think he'll be able to get us out of this shit.
RO: Your feelings about the Bush administration and their polices were pretty evident on last year's CSNY documentary/concert film Déjà Vu. Did you, Stephen and David need any convincing to do practically all of Neil's Living with War songs in the show?
GN: Not at all. After we went to pick Neil up, he played the record for David and I. I think Stephen was out of the country. We went to the hotel, and I expected to have big speakers and an amplifier. Uh-uh - this is Neil. We're in his car!
By the time we heard the whole thing driving up the canyon, we were enthusiastic about helping him say what he wanted to say. Neil could have gone out on his own with Crazy Horse and done those songs. I believe that he knew if Crosby, Stills & Nash said those things too, he would reach a wider audience. And isn't that the point?
The film was brilliant in showing both sides, the people who loved us, and the people who stormed out of the shows angry. It was the only tour I've ever been on with bomb-sniffing dogs, for God's sake!
RO: I look at some of the songs on the box set - "Military Madness," "Immigration Man," "Prison Song," "Barrel of Pain" - they could have been written last year instead of decades ago. Does that make you proud, or sad?
GN: Both. It's strange to write songs so long ago that are still relevant about issues that haven't been resolved yet. But it makes me glad as a musician that I've touched upon something that's a universal truth.
RO: What made you think the time was right now for a box set? They're always seen as career summaries, even if the artist continues to make new music.
GN: I began to see that there was an incredible journey here, especially when I wrote the song "In Your Name" [the last track, which addresses killing in the name of God and religion]. I am so proud of this song. It's the only one I ever wrote I played for the first time to an audience, and I got a standing ovation after the end of the first verse. I knew I touched a nerve, and it was the closing chapter of a journey I started with the Hollies.
RO: "Teach Your Children" will probably go down as your most enduring legacy.
GN: It's wild, isn't it? I think when we made the record, we knew that we had taken my idea, lyrics and melody and had made something instantly acceptable to anyone who listened to it. The idea was so important to me to teach our children to be better than ourselves. Because if we don't, we're fucked.
I'll be quite frank, here's what happened: On a recent reissue of one of our records where we give you extra tracks, there's a demo of the song I made with just me. And I swear to God, I sound like Henry VIII with a fucking dulcimer (Nash appropriates the voice of a medieval English town crier): "Ooh, TEACH your CHILDREN well." And I played it for Stephen and he just looked at me and said "Don't you EVER play it like that again!" (laughs).
And he put that country sound on it, and it became a hit record. [Note: That's Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead on the song's memorable steel guitar intro, the first time he'd ever played the instrument on record.]
RO: I'm really glad that here you've finally recorded "Try to Find Me," which is, I think, one of, if not your most, touching songs. [Partially inspired by Neil Young's handicapped son, Ben, it's about finding the real person and their active mind inside a crippled body]. I remember seeing CSN perform it here at a Houston show close to 20 years ago.
GN: It's a difficult song to sing, and it's very emotional. Neil and David and Stephen have been aware of this song for 15 years, we just never got around to singing it.
RO: Of all the Houston shows you've done, the one that really sticks out was the 1986 gig at Rockefeller's with David right after he was released from prison in Huntsville.
GN: I'd gotten him out of prison I think the previous day. I knew he was out. He knew he was out. I knew I was doing a show at Rockefeller's. He knew I was doing a show at Rockefeller's. So I did ten songs or so and then they started to play "Critical Mass," which is followed by "Wind on the Water." I told him "OK, while the lights are down, you come walking out."
It was an electrifying moment. People went crazy! Once they pulled that curtain back, seeing David was like seeing Alfred Hitchcock. You know that profile! It was joyful for us both. I had my friend back, and we were making music together. What more could you ask for?
RO: You're closer to him personally than Stephen or Neil. But in his book [Long Time Gone], he talks about how you held all your resentment toward him in to the point where you were going to burst, and that you tend to do that with others as well.
GN: That may have been true then. But we have been smart enough to realize that the music is far more important than any relationships. These songs will hopefully far outlast these bags of flesh.
RO: I do think it's hilarious that, after all these years, you still can't agree between whether you blended your voices for the very first time together in Joni Mitchell or [Mama] Cass Elliott's house.
GN: I know where it was, and David knows where it was [they contend it was Joni's], but Stephen's the only who doesn't!
RO: Maybe he'll come around eventually.
GN: I don't think so. It's a deep one, this is! I've seen [David and Stephen] almost at each other's throat about it. I mean, who gives a shit??
RO: No matter what has or is written about CSNY, you are always cast as the nice guy, the peacemaker between the other three.
GN: I just want the music, and all of them know that's all I'm interested in. I rarely have an agenda. I just want to get the fucking job done!
RO: I read a lot of rock history books on the '60s, and you could go to a club in Swinging London like the Speakeasy or the Ad Lib and literally have the Beatles drinking in one corner, the Stones in the next, the Hollies and Kinks in another, and Clapton hanging around, all interacting socially. It was the same scene in the '70s in Laurel and Topanga Canyons where you'd all just drop into each other's houses and jam for hours. Was that fun, or were you always looking to one-up each other?
GN: Oh no. I think the majority of musicians operate on a real level. It's only the idiots who think they're King Dick. We realize that we're lucky to be where we are, [making music] is a serious endeavor, making people shake their ass and maybe think. I feel so lucky to have been on this journey, and that was made plain to me what I was putting together this box set. I mean, I went through 44 versions of the track list!
RO: So what is on the agenda for 2009?
GN: Wow, lots of things. On my birthday, I get to play Surf Ballroom, 50 years after Buddy Holly's last show there. I talked to Peter & Gordon yesterday, and we'll all be there to sing some songs and make it a party on behalf of one of my heroes. Beyond that, I'll rehearse with David and Stephen for a week, and then we're presenting songs to Rick Rubin, who is producing our next record.
RO: Well, he's got a good track record for sort of reviving classic artists. Look what he did with Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond.
GN: Yes! It's fun working with him. He's a very strange man. But incredibly focused.
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RO: One last question. David wrote his autobiography more than 20 years ago. When are you doing yours?
GN: Oh, I'm not old enough yet. Really, don't you do that when you're 90?
RO: Hey, you're by far the healthiest guy in CSNY, but you could have an accident tomorrow and be dead!
GN: Yeah, you're right. Maybe I need to get on that.