Thursday 17 January 2019

'It's been a wild band. I don’t think anyone can tell the whole story'

Graham Nash talks to Johnny Rogan about his rift with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young bandmate David Crosby and why Trump has set America back 50 years

Graham Nash: Photo by Scott Gries/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock
Graham Nash: Photo by Scott Gries/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Fifty years ago, Graham Nash underwent a life-transforming experience. At the time, he was married, an established pop star in the Hollies and a developing songwriter. He was also restless, idealistic and artistically ambitious. On a US tour with the Hollies, he had established a musical rapport with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, and was never the same again.

"You can just imagine what a feeling in my heart it was when David, Stephen and I first sang together in Joni Mitchell's living room. An unbelievable moment in my musical life, that's for sure. I had never heard anything like this. The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Hollies were pretty decent harmony bands but trying to make our three voices sound like one was very exciting for all of us."

By the end of 1968, Nash had left his wife, Rose Eccles, his home, his country, his management, his friends in the Hollies and relocated to LA, where he romanced Joni and formed Crosby, Stills & Nash. It seemed akin to a religious conversion.

CS&N was the perfect musical union, a fusion of talent greater than anyone could have imagined. The vocal combination was unique, the songwriting articulate, the arrangements exceptional and the playing highly accomplished. Their self-titled debut album established them as the undisputed masters of the acoustic ballad in the golden age of the singer-songwriter. Nash provided the pop sensibility with the catchy single 'Marrakesh Express', a touch of Tennyson on the erotic 'Lady of the Island' and a brisk rocker with 'Pre-Road Downs'.

"Stills played almost every instrument on that record," Nash points out.

"David and I played rhythm guitars on our songs, of course, but Stephen played piano, electric guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, the B-3 organ and percussion. Stephen Stills is a quiet genius."

By the time their debut was released, CS&N had recruited Neil Young, a decision that was to have serious implications for the remainder of their career. The massive-selling Déjà Vu, which included Nash's 'Teach Your Children' and 'Our House', established them as rock's ultimate supergroup, a living embodiment of what the press termed the Woodstock generation.

Once the public heard the four together, a mythology was created that alternative permutations of the classic line-up would struggle to equal. Nash became known as the great mediator when egos inevitably clashed. Their triumphs and conflicts sometimes reached soap-opera levels. The wonder is that all four are still alive.

"It's been a wild band," Nash marvels. "I don't think anybody can really tell the entire story of CSN&Y."

Flash forward to 2014. News filters through that Nash has left his wife of 38 years, Susan Sennett, moved from Hawaii to New York and his new partner is Amy Grantham, an artist, photographer and filmmaker in her mid-thirties. It's also announced that CS&N is over as Nash revives his solo career with a remarkable writing spree that will culminate in the release of This Path Tonight, his most illuminating work in ages.

What happened? "Life takes over and you've got to figure out what you're going to do. Well, you have to make decisions and life is full of choices. I had to follow my heart."

For a man in his seventies, this was raging against the dying of the light in extremis. It was as if he was channelling the 26-year-old rebel of 1968, abandoning everything in pursuit of his dream.

If song sources provide any clue to his state of mind, then 'Carried Away', composed decades ago, now sounds oddly prophetic. The lyrics fantasise about leaving a relationship in search of new possibilities.

"To be honest, it wasn't a fantasy," Nash now admits. "It was real. It was a woman I saw and really flashed on but she had a boyfriend so it wasn't happening, but that's what I was feeling. And 'Carried Away' was the first indication that my marriage was not in good shape."

The song was actually released in June 1977, less than a month after his wedding to Susan Sennett. Clearly, it was composed some time before the ceremony. Yet there was nothing noticeably shaky about his second marriage, which lasted for decades, produced three children and several key compositions inspired by his wife, including 'Broken Bird' and 'Song For Susan'.

If Nash's marriage break-up came as a shock, fans were even more amazed to learn of a terrible rift with his long-term bandmate and best friend David Crosby.

"He tore out the heart of CS&N and CSN&Y in the space of a few months," Nash announced.

This was no exaggeration. First, Crosby disparaged Neil Young's new partner, Daryl Hannah, in an interview, then criticised Nash for sexing up his autobiography Wild Tales with allegedly inaccurate accounts of David's sexual exploits. Some scathing emails followed and the two have not spoken since. The fall-out seemed strange, given all they've been through. Odder still, Nash's book revealed little or nothing that Crosby had not related even more explicitly in his own autobiography.

"It's personal between me and Crosby," Nash concludes. "The truth is whatever we did in the 45 years or so we were together, we made some pretty good music and we made people happy."

On a lighter note, there is a lingering hope that one man might be capable of bringing Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young back together. Step forward Donald Trump. It might sound crazy until you consider CSN&Y's history: in 1970, they savaged Richard Nixon in the protest song 'Ohio'; four years later their celebrated stadium tour coincided with his impeachment; the 2006 Freedom of Speech tour demanded the impeachment of George Bush. Presidential crises and CSN&Y reunions are synonymous, a focus and panacea for whatever divides them.

Nash laughs at the notion of Trump as the foursome's unlikely nemesis and saviour, then turns serious. "The truth is we have to speak out against this administration. He's putting America back 50 years, particularly with women's issues, and his outright demand that people fear other people of different colours and different religions. He is stoking differences in this country that should not be."

Nash's 2018 European tour concludes with a concert at Dublin's NCH.

Although he has appeared in Ireland before as part of CS&N and the Hollies, this is his first billing here as Graham Nash. He will be joined by guitarist and songwriting partner, Shane Fontayne.

"I'm now 76," Nash says, "and I feel incredibly healthy and I'm still passionate about music and really looking forward to the visit. When we come to play for you in Dublin, that will be our last show of the tour."

He already has songs ready for another solo album, with more to follow. "While we're here we'll be in the back of the bus after the show figuring the next record. And it won't be a 14-year wait, I can tell you that."

An Intimate Evening of Songs and Stories with Graham Nash comes to Dublin's National Concert Hall on July 31

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