Monday 18 December 2017

Teach your rock stars well

Wild Tales: A Rock 'n' Roll Life, Graham Nash, Viking, €25

California Dreamin': Graham Nash with Joni Mitchell
California Dreamin': Graham Nash with Joni Mitchell
With Stephen Stills and David Crosby in 1969
Signing a copy of his autobiography at a recent book launch

George Byrne

There's a certain consistency to the early days of English rock musicians who came to prominence in the 1960s, and Graham Nash is no exception.

Post-war austerity, followed by redemption on hearing rock'n'roll or the blues set many a young man on the way and that generational experience is again recounted here.

Born in Blackpool in 1942 and growing up on the bombed-out streets of Salford, Nash developed an early interest in photography but quickly discovered he had a natural ability when it came to vocal harmonies, one which would carry him far from the greater Manchester area and into the dark heart of 1970s rock excess.

Along with his schoolfriend Allan Clarke, Nash was besotted by Gene Vincent, Bill Haley and, particularly, the Everly Brothers, the duo playing in pubs, clubs and talent contests throughout the northwest of England until they expanded the line-up and morphed into The Hollies. These early days are recalled with a gleeful enthusiasm, although this period of his life is clouded by the fact his father was imprisoned for a year for receiving stolen goods – having bought Graham's first camera from a fellow factory worker – and had come back a broken man who died at the age of 46.

The rise of The Hollies – always one of the most underrated British groups of the 1960s – seems almost too easy. With a core of Nash, Clarke and guitarist/arranger Tony Hicks, they were signed after their first audition for EMI, began having hit singles almost immediately and by 1965 made their first trip to New York. Which is where the first cracks began to show.

Nash is eloquent at describing how he was simply blown away by America, the sheer dazzling scale of the place and the endless possibilities it offered. Equally, there was the fact that American girls were considerably more uninhibited than their English counterparts, something the recently married Nash was more than happy to avail of.

The following year was arguably the most crucial one in Nash's life as, on another trip to the US, he was introduced to the Mamas and Papas (his primary goal being to sleep with Michelle Phillips) and Mama Cass Elliot in turn introduced him to David Crosby. Recently departed from The Byrds, Nash's first impression of the man who'd become his lifelong musical partner was that he was "harmless and agreeable" (ahem, moving swiftly along), the mood also being enhanced by the Salford man's first spliff.

With The Hollies reluctant to change their winning formula and Nash's love of marijuana at odds with the band's 'eight pints a night' idea of relaxation, 1968 saw him leave without even telling Allan Clarke, something he regrets to this day, grabbing a guitar and taking a plane to Los Angeles.

What followed is the stuff of rock'n'roll legend. Having been smitten by Joni Mitchell several months previously (although she subsequently had a brief fling with Crosby – this sort of thing was all the rage back then apparently) he went to her house up in Laurel Canyon, met with Crosby and Stephen Stills as the trio worked on a song called 'You Don't Have to Cry', realised that they had a unique vocal blend and began working on an album.

This sounds like one of the happiest times of Nash's life. He's completely in love with a marvellously talented songwriter and artist, is creating the best music of his life, smoking weed until it comes out of his ears and really living the life. What could possibly go wrong? Well, your record company boss could utter the words "You guys need Neil Young".

I get the impression that Nash is too much of a gentleman to really let fly on his relationship with the volatile Canadian, but there's plenty to read between the lines as Crosby, Stills & Nash became Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and entered into the drug-fuelled excesses of 1970s rock superstardom with considerable gusto. Cocaine and "insane amounts of weed" were being consumed from the off and while Nash claims that he was able to walk away from the white powder at any time he wanted, Stills and, particularly, Crosby were entering some very dark places.

The concern on the page is palpable as Nash watches his musical soulmate deteriorate over the years, spending millions on drugs before finally winding up in prison in 1985. By this stage Nash had met and married Susan Sennett after the best part of a decade of gadding about (the book isn't too indiscreet on such details but there's enough of the old hippy sexism in evidence to prove yet again that one gender had it particularly good during the 'free love' period) and was settling down with homes in Hawaii and California.

Despite its title, Wild Tales isn't up there with Hammer of the Gods or the Motley Crue biog The Dirt when it comes to stories of utter debauchery. Granted, it leaves you in no doubt what was going on, but overall it's a very thoughtful, well told account of an interesting musical and personal journey.

Irish Independent

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