English musician Graham Nash is one of rock's gentlemen.
The 72-year-old singer and keyboardist has been making music since the early 1960s, first with his British group the Hollies, and more famously as a member of Crosby, Stills and Nash, a harmony-led group that plays what Jimi Hendrix once described as "Western sky music." Like Hendrix, the group gave one of the quintessential performances at Woodstock.
Nash always has been considered the sane one in a band full of bloated egos. He's been an activist against nuclear weapons and a well-known collector of photography, having started the first digital studio in the early 1990s. From his days living with Joni Mitchell in Laurel Canyon, to the downward drug spiral of fellow band member David Crosby, Nash stayed true to his friends while trying to keep the focus on the music.
He covers a lot of this in his new book, “Wild Tales: A Rock and Roll Life,” and he’ll be singing the musical history -- plus some new tunes -- when CSN kicks off its latest tour at the Carpenter Theatre next Tuesday night.Style caught up with him by phone from his home in Hawaii.
Graham Nash: It's gorgeous here in Hawaii. How's it there?
Style Weekly: Cold still. But pretty blue skies today.
Last time I saw your band, it was 1986 (I think) in Richmond and I was about 15. My aunt still tells the story that she asked me how I liked it and I responded: “It was fine, but I thought that fat guy was going to have a heart attack.”
[Laughs] That’s very funny. Well, we’re much better now.
But on a serious note, Crosby just weeks ago had another heart procedure [a stent], does that change this tour in any ways?
He’ll be fine for all the shows. I spoke to him yesterday, he’s feeling strong. The blockage is out of the way. He’s getting blood to his brain. He feels fine. He just needs to take it a little easier than normal during the hours before the show . . .
With Phil Everly passing this year, did that have you reassessing the Everly Brothers' influence on your music?
Phil and his brother Don were incredibly important in my life. I first heard them when I was 15 years old. “Bye Bye Love” killed me. I loved it. I was singing with my friend Allan Clarke – who formed the Hollies with me -- in 1957, when I was 15. I saw [the Everlys] play in Manchester in 1960 and met them that night on the steps of the Midland hotel. We told them we were two kids who loved to play their music and we wished we were in the business. Six years later, we’re recording with them, and they’re recording six of our songs for an album called “Two Yanks in England” . . . I actually contacted Phil a couple months before he died for permission to use a cassette I have of me singing “So Sad” in three-part harmony with the Everly Brothers in 1992. He gave me permission then a month and a half later, passed on . . . The song is going to be on the electronic version of the “Wild Tales” book.
You don’t hear protest songs on the radio anymore – I guess YouTube is where a song like “Ohio” would be released today.
Exactly. But they’re out there. If you go on Neil Young's website in the section Living with War, I checked it a few months ago there were 2,800 protest songs on there . . It’s by design that they're not played on the radio. The people who own the world’s media, you could probably count on two hands. They don’t want protest songs. They don’t want anyone rocking the boat. They want you to lie down, shut the fuck up, buy another pair of sneakers and another soda and shut the fuck up while [they] rob you. Its all bread and circuses . . . however if Bieber or Beyonce or Lady Gaga did a song like “Ohio,” that would get millions of views.
Are you surprised that the marijuana legalization movement is gaining steam in this country?
No, not at all. Do you know how many people have died from an overdose of marijuana? ZERO! How many people die from tobacco a year – 300,000!! I’m not suggesting people drive or run heavy machinery when they’re stoned. But man, in the privacy of your own home. Mankind has always wanted to explore a spirituality side – always throughout the ages, from the invention of beer to Ayahuasca, they’re always trying to get outside themselves. And this is part of that search. Even though the force is against it. I think it’s mainly the pharmaceutical industry. If you smoke a joint, you don’t need those pain pills. And private prisons, where 80 percent of inmates are young kids smoking dope. There’s a lot of money to be made in pharms and prison. I think next we’ll hear from the powers that be how somebody was stoned and had a car accident and killed people. But that won't stop it. Once people realize that Colorado alone might have a billion dollar industry in the first year – they’re going to go: "Holy shit!"
Speaking of drugs, how were you guys able to sing with all that coke dripping down your throat in the 1970s?
I have no idea [laughs] A lot of people say to us: Would you have made more music or better music if you were straight? There’s no answer to that question. Because what we did is what we did. The music we made is what we made. I think cocaine is a very bad drug. I’ve done my share in my life – haven’t taken it since Dec. 9, 1984.
What’s the status of the box set of CSNY live recordings from 1974?
Here’s what’s going on: I’ve finished it completely. It’s three cds, with a 184-page book all photographed by Joel Bernstein, and its got a DVD in there from the Cap center in Maryland. They were the only people in the world at the time enhancing their sports with video screens. It was hard, but we found the footage and I gave it to our friend Andrew Thomas who cleaned it up, and it has about eight songs on it. The footage is a little funky. We didn’t light our shows, sometimes its too red, or its too blue. But we didn’t care, it’s a historical document . . . And there are some videos from the Wembley Stadium show such as “Push it Over the End” by Neil.
And I read this was going to be released on a new audio format?
That’s right. It’s going to be 24-bit, 192khz on Neil [Young]'s new Pono system. I would imagine if he’s going to introduce it at South by Southwest, it’s going to be available soon after that. I’m telling you the music is fabulous . . . I’ve kept Neil in the loop at all times. He’s with it, he loves the mixes, our choices. So we’re off and running. Joel Bernstein and I co-produced it with our engineer Stanley Johnston. I took it to Neil’s ranch a couple years ago and he loved it.
So will he tour with you to support it?
[Long pause] You know . . . why not?
Who inspired your song “King Midas in Reverse” – some loser character down on his luck?
I did. It’s an autobiographical song. My world was turning to shit at that point. I was on top of the world, we [Hollies] had 16 or 17 top ten hits, but I was feeling shitty. We made a great record of that song but it only got into the top 30, and the Hollies were always expecting their songs to go into the top 10. So they started to not trust me and not record my songs, “Marakesh Express” being one of them. So I wasn’t feeling that great about my life. It was all turning to shit, it wasn’t turning to gold, it was turning to rust.
Did you learn much from writing your autobiography?
I got to the last page of the first manuscript and seriously, I got to the last page and said, “wow, I wish I was him.” I’ve had a fantastic life and it doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.
That time in the '60s and '70s in Laurel Canyon – what were some moments of watching other performers at house parties that were truly breathtaking as an observer? Maybe at Peter Tork’s parties-
First of all, the first time Dave, Stephen and I sang in Joni [Mitchell]'s living room, that will forever be emblazoned on my soul because once I heard that sound I realized I had to change my entire life. I had to leave the Hollies, leave England, leave my bank account, and move to America to follow this golden sound that we discovered. Another time, I think it was in Wisconsin, and Bob Dylan came to the show and played a lot of the early tracks from "Blood on the Tracks." Incredible. Bob to me is our best singer and best writer, for sure.
Wow. Best singer, huh?
Also, I’ve got to tell you it was great being sandwiched between John [Lennon] and Paul [McCartney] who played me a new song of theirs called “Misery.” It was in the early '60s, in a place just south of Manchester called Stoke.
And of course, you lived with Joni Mitchell- what was her greatest gift?
I think her greatest gift was she could penetrate your soul with a very long, very thin blade. She penetrates your soul. Historically, in 100 years time, I think people will really remember Dylan and Joni.
What happened with the CSN covers record with Rick Rubin a couple years ago? That didn’t pan out?
Yes. It didn’t quite work out with Rick, he has a different recording style than we’re used to. We did about eight things with him. You can’t tell us what to do, we’ve been making records for 50 years. Sure you can suggest anything, give ideas, and we’ll be happy to hear them, but you can’t tell us what to do. Rubin, god bless him, is a genius producer and he’s a friend – but he tried to tell us what to do. We wanted to put two Beatles songs on the record, “Blackbird” and “Norwegian Wood.” He told us no, “they’ll only be one.” Crosby was like, “What do you mean? They’ll be two on our record.” From that moment on, he was done.So we went back to Jackson Browne’s studio in Santa Monica and recorded about six things that we’re happy with. As soon as we get finished this tour, we’ll probably go back and finish that record.
Speaking of recording, do you have a favorite microphone for harmonies?I do have a favorite recording microphone. The Neumann U57. But live we use whatever our monitor mixer Lance Caldwell – who has been with us 30 years – tells us. We sing into whatever mic is put in front of us.
I read you had the first digital photography studio in the world.
Pretty amazing. It was a selfish endeavor. I wanted to be able to print a show for a gallery in Tokyo and they wanted them five feet by four. Who has a darkroom that big? So I found that printer with my friend Mac Holbert in ‘88 and we did a couple years development on that machine and we opened in 1990. Now that first printer is in the Smithsonian.
Are you still collecting photos [Nash sold his first collection for over $2 million in the early 90s at Sotheby's, then the largest amount ever paid for a photography collection]?
I haven’t been collecting paper images, but I have been collecting daguerreotypes. Ive shown my own photos many times around the world, but never these. That said, I’ve been asked to take part in a daguerreotype image show at the Getty Museum in 2015, and I’m seriously considering it.
Cool. I've only got time for one more question: When you guys are on stage now, what’s the same and what’s different?
The same thing is that we still enjoy playing. That’s always at the heart of this. We’re affluent enough not to have to do this if we don’t want. We’ve got a bunch of new songs we want to play but you can only be onstage for so long. We’re in our 70s, for god’s sake. Normally our set is about two and half hours – and its work just picking that out. So you have to get rid of some stuff to play those new songs . . . But we have an incredible job, we get to play music, be friends, engage other people’s hearts, and our audiences always leave smiling. What a job!
Crosby, Stills and Nash performs Tuesday, March 4 at Carpenter Theatre at Richmond Centerstage. Tickets are $97.50. $1 per ticket goes to charity.