Interview: Graham Nash

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At 11 a.m. on Labor Day, the front door of Graham Nash's anonymous house on an unassuming street in a beach community near the Los Angeles airport was wide open. From the outside, the house looked like a cottage out of a nursery rhyme—the kind where three bears eat porridge or the grandmother of a red-caped girl lives. Just as I was about to knock, I saw Graham through two rooms sitting at his kitchen table in front of his laptop facing the door. Graham wave hello and jumped up, inviting me in. When I offered to kick off my shoes, he said, “No need at all, come on in."

Graham was dressed artist-casual. Barefoot, he was wearing green canvas pants and a black T-shirt, which set off his snow-white hair The house, he said, is the second oldest in the area, which was evident from the sizable rustic fireplace made of large round local stones and cement. “You want coffee? I'm making myself a cup," Graham said. I passed, but asked him about the large bottle of BP Sauce on one of the counters. Graham, an American citizen since 1980, laughed, since BP Sauce is as ubiquitous in the U.K. as Heinz Ketchup is here.

Coffee mug in hand, Graham sat down at his kitchen table and asked me to sit. For the next hour and a half, we talked about his upcoming solo tour, his new memoir—Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life—and the California folk-rock sound he created with David Crosby and Stephen Stills in 1968 and '69 and with Neil Young in 1970. You'll find the results of our conversation in today's Wall Street Journal (go here or please pick up the paper).

During our chat, Graham told me that Neil Young had called him several weeks ago and invited Crosby, Stills & Nash to join him in concert for a benefit next month at his Bridge School charity near San Francisco. Graham also told me that with a new boxed set coming next year of CSN&Y's fabled 1974 stadium tour, Young would likely reunite with CSN for a concert run if their Bridge School get-together went well. Then Graham cued up Hawaiian Sunrise on his laptop and let me hear the track by Young that will be included on the new upcoming box. Young sounded clear and strong, and the fidelity was terrific.

CSN (and sometimes Young) was folk-rock's first supergroup—meaning a band made up of former stars from other groups. David Crosby had been with the Byrds, Stephen Stills and Neil Young had been with Buffalo Springfield and Graham had been with the Hollies. All were formidable songwriters and instrumentalists. But what made the group truly special was how their singing voices came together. Graham was a big fan of the Everly Brothers, and his church-trained high-tenor voice could ride on top of the others with ease.

Between Simon & Garfunkel's Mrs. Robinson in 1968 and the emergence of the Eagles in 1972, CSN and CSN&Y pioneered a West Coast psychedelic folk sound that captured the hearts and imaginations of a generation. The last band to go on at Woodstock on the third of four days, CSN&Y returned to New York, where their friend Joni Mitchell was 80% along with the writing of Woodstock. She wrote it in her hotel room while watching TV after choosing to remain behind in New York to appear on The Dick Cavett Show instead. Mitchell sang the song at the Big Sur Folk Festival a month after Woodstock, but the version we know best was by CSN&Y, after Stills gave it a wicked slow-boil rock twist.

Like many of their fans, CSN&Y were voracious users of drugs, and their sound still makes fans think of VW vans, sunny fields, protests, skinny dipping and easy sex. Interestingly, CSN and CSN&Y recorded just two albums in 1969 and 1970 before touring, bitter rivalries and solo projects kept them out of the studio. CSN didn't record in the studio again until 1977, and Young wouldn't record with CSN again until 1988.

Graham and I also talked about the events that changed his life—including his father's passion for photography, his meeting Joni Mitchell and moving in with her in 1968, the death of David's girlfriend Christine Hinton [pictured with David Crosby above] and the depression that followed, and Graham's long-running and often successful serial battles to re-form CSN and CSN&Y. If it wasn't for Graham, we probably wouldn't have seen the re-grouping of CSN at all or the likely reunification of CSN&Y next year.

After our chat, Graham took me out to his studio and showed me his work. In addition to being a superb guitarist and songwriter, he's a stunning photographer, painter and sculptor. Many people also aren't aware that Graham was a pioneer in digital fine-arts printing and today runs Nash Editions, a firm many fine artists use for their prints. We also talked about jazz and Miles Davis, who dug CSN and covered David's Guinevere in 1970 on Circle in the Round (1979).

Before I left, Graham gave me a tight hug that reminded me what his generation was all about: Music, art and honesty—and all the commitment and personal risks that accompany going for it and telling it like it is. [Photo of Joni Mitchell listening to music by Graham Nash]

JazzWax interview: For my conversation with David Crosby about his schooner, the Mayan, go here.

Pages: You'll find Graham's Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life (Crown Archetype) here.

Tour: For more information on Graham's solo tour, go here.

Tracks: For a wide-ranging box set of Graham's Hollies and CSN and CSN&Y work as well as solo tracks, my favorite is his Reflections box here.

Clips: Here's Joni Mitchell singing Woodstock at the Big Sur Folk Festival in 1969...



And here's CSN&Y's Woodstock. The folk-rock arrangement was by Stephen Stills...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.

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