With the release of Reflections, a triple–CD anthology of music ranging from the ridiculously famous to the never–before–released, Graham Nash is a satisfied man.
“I’ve had an incredible life,” says the 66–year–old singer, songwriter and longtime least likely to implode member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. “I’m probably one of the luckiest people you’ll ever know. And the soundtrack to that life is on this box set.”
At 64 tracks, Reflections spans over 40 years of music — from the Hollies, started in 1963 by Nash and his boyhood chum Allan Clarke, to the big Crosby, Stills & Nash (and occasionally Young) tunes, the duo work with David Crosby, and from Nash’s stop–and–start solo career.
Over the years, Nash has become the official keeper of the key to the vast CSNY archive; he’s currently assembling five other CD projects, including a Stephen Stills box set, a Crosby, Stills & Nash demo collection and — at the specific request of Neil Young — a live album from CSNY’s first “reunion” tour, in 1974.
Professionally and personally, it’s been quite the tug o’ war, with Nash often the referee in a game of cocaine–fueled cross–purposes and bullying self-interest.
“Money, stardom and ego are a deadly combination if not handled well,” he says, and he should know.
Older and wiser — well, certainly older — Crosby, Stills and Nash have just begun a series of studio sessions for their first album in 15 years. Working with ace producer Rick Rubin, they’re covering songs from their favorite writers. It’s an all–acoustic project, with the focus back where it was in the beginning — on the amazing harmonic blend of their three voices.
They made a wish list of 20 or 30 songs. “My criteria was this: “It has to have a great melody, and it has to say something great,” Nash explains. “And most importantly, we have to own that song — we have to make it feel like we’d written it, and that’s us singing it.”
For this interview, I told Nash, I wanted to avoid re–hashing stuff everybody knows already — about Woodstock and “Wooden Ships,” pot–smoking and politics — and pull questions from somewhere deeper. Things the serious fan might have always wondered about.
“Go ahead,” he responded. “Ask whatever the fuck you want.”
So I did.
Bill DeYoung: I’ve always wondered about the culture shock that you, a hard–working British pop star, must have experienced when you fell in with those California hippie musicians.
Graham Nash: The Hollies were five kids from the North of England who managed to escape doing what their dad did, and what their grandfather did. Which was expected of us: ‘Go down the mine, or go to the mill — if it was good enough for your dad, it’s good enough for you, lad.’ Music was the escape mechanism. We were in a certain kind of culture there.
When we moved to London and started making records — hit records — that was another, incredible, culture. By the time I got to the end of my time with the Hollies, when they refused to record some of my songs, and I’d kind of lost my grip on the reigns of that horse, I’d met Cass Elliot and she’d introduced me to Crosby. He’d been in England with the Byrds. The promoter there was touting them as ‘America’s Answer to the Beatles,’ which pissed off a lot of people in England, so it was kind of a funky tour.
But Crosby came and stayed with me for a while during that tour.
Valentine’s Day, 1968: When the Hollies played L.A.’s famous Whisky A Go–Go, Crosby — at Cass’ urging — brought his new best friend, Stills. “We kind of blew a lot of people away; we were fucking great,” Nash remembers.
Crosby had just been sacked from the Byrds, and Stills knew Buffalo Springfield’s time was short — although there were some touring commitments to honor, Neil Young wanted a solo career and had already served notice. So together they’d made some demos, calling themselves the Frozen Noses (that’s a cocaine reference, folks, and a harbinger of things to come) and trying to make something happen.
Nash: I fell in love with Stephen and David’s music, and with them as people, because they were free, and sunny, and devoid of all the ‘Well, if you don’t know John and Paul, yer fookin’ no one, are ya?’ kind of vibe that was present in England at the time.
They were working together, but I’m not sure they had a plan. I think they felt instinctively that there was something missing. And when they came and saw the Hollies live, they realized that the missing part of the plan was me. And I think that Cass Elliot, God bless her soul, had instinctively realized, vocally, what that sound would be. She realized that what David and Stephen were doing was good, but it could be better.
The Hollies had tried a bit of string-soaked psychedelia, with Nash’s “King Midas in Reverse,” and the single had flopped. One after another, his next songs — “Lady of the Island,” “Right Between the Eyes,” “Sleep Song” and even “Marrakesh Express” — were deemed “too weird” for the Hollies to record.
Nash: I was starting to doubt myself as a writer. I thought ‘Well, fuck, I guess they’re not that great.’ That’s when Crosby came along and said ‘No, no, no, no, wait a second. Let’s get real here. These are really fine songs. Don’t be put off, just keep writing.’ And in a way, he saved my life.
The Hollies had found a formula for writing pop songs. They didn’t want to change. They were great pop songs, but they weren’t very deep.
And then I see David and Stephen, who are writing “Long Time Gone,” “Guinevere” and “For What it’s Worth” and “Helplessly Hoping,” and I’m going ‘Holy shit! Now I get it.’
They just re–enforced the feeling I got when I started listening to Bob Dylan, and later Beatles stuff. There was more to making music than just getting a hit record. There was information, and emotions, to impart. There were feelings to be discussed. You could put your heart into a song, and turn it into a fine record.
It’s a famous story. At Cass’ house (or maybe it was Joni Mitchell’s) the Frozen Noses were impressing everybody, running through Stills’ new tune “You Don’t Have to Cry.” Nash listened carefully, then asked them to sing it again, and on the third go–round added a high harmony — and just like that, organically, a brilliant new sound was born.
Nash: I swear to God, in the middle of singing “You Don’t Have to Cry,” we all had to stop and start laughing. Because it was instant! That CSN sound happened instantly. Without any rehearsal or working on it for months. It happened within the space of half a song.
So I knew that I would have to spend years with these guys. I heard that sound. I wanted that sound. It was different that anything I’d heard before, and the Hollies and the Springfield and the Byrds were good harmony bands. But this was different.
So the decision to leave my home, and my first wife (we were getting divorced at the time), and my bank account and my band, it was a no–brainer for me. I knew in my soul that this could make incredible music.
Nash’s sprightly “Marrakesh Express” was the first single released from Crosby, Stills & Nash — rejected by the Hollies, it was the world’s introduction to the new trio’s acoustic–based, harmony–intensive hippie music. The album sold a bajillion copies, turned FM radio on its electronic ear, won a Grammy and inadvertently helped the “countercultural revolution” start turning a profit.
And you know the rest.
DeYoung: Were you the one who didn’t want to add Neil Young to Crosby, Stills & Nash?
Nash: I was. We had just discovered this vocal sound, and just made this great record. Obviously, we would have to go out and play it live, and although David and I are very decent rhythm guitar players, Stephen was used to being challenged by another lead guitarist. Because he’d spent years with the Springfield. After many discussions, after it was decided that Neil should be invited to join, I didn’t like the idea at first. Because I didn’t want to disturb that vocal sound. We were intimately linked, and we knew where we had to go with any particular piece of music. And that would all have to change with the addition of another voice.
I loved Neil; when the Hollies toured Canada, I’d brought a small record player with me, and the Buffalo Springfield Again album. I’d constantly play “Expecting to Fly” — it was one of the best records I’d ever heard in my life. I loved his voice, but I didn’t know how it would fit in with this three–part that was so strong in my soul.
And so I went to breakfast with Neil on Bleecker Street in Manhattan. And I swear to God, after that breakfast I’d have made him president. The guy was incredibly funny and very, very dry. I already knew his songwriting ability and sensibility. And after that, there was no doubt that he should join us.
Next came Woodstock, “Woodstock,” Big Sur, Déjà vu and Nash’s sunny singalong “Teach Your Children.” They were rock royalty; fans and the music press hung on their every word (they had become, in effect, “America’s Answer to the Beatles”).
The “Teach Your Children/Carry On” single was climbing the charts in June, 1970, when CSNY rush–released “Ohio,” Young’s spontaneously written and recorded reaction to the murder of four Kent State students by National Guardsmen.
“It was on the street 12 days after it was recorded,” Nash says proudly. “We killed our own single. We didn’t give a fuck. We love upsetting apple carts.”
Just a Song Before I Go
Nash and Joni Mitchell had linked up in ’68, before the first CSN album was in the can. For more than a year, they lived an idyllic artists’ life, and wrote songs about how happy they were. Nash’s “Our House,” with its comfy–cozy, two–cats–in–the–yard scenario, was all about Joni.
Then, on her Ladies of the Canyon album, Mitchell described the relationship — and why it was doomed to failure — from her perspective. The song took Graham’s nickname — “Willy” — for its title.
Nash: Every word is true. It’s a heartbreaking song for me. To be in love with Joni Mitchell, and have that love come back at you, even to the point of marriage — to lose that was devastating for me. I’m old enough now to realize it was a long, long time ago and I can admit that I was heartbroken.
Joni’s grandmother had always wanted to be a creative person. But in those days, you had to be a wife and a mother, and you had to bake and take care of the kids. You had to stay home while your old man went to work. She had never been given the chance to express herself artistically.
And Joni recounted to me that she remembered the story of her grandmother kicking the door viciously, out of frustration. Joni, I believe, saw that as one of the downfalls of marriage.
I also believe that somewhere in Joni’s mind she thought that I would demand that of her. Which is completely false. How in the hell could anybody with a brain say to Joni Mitchell, ‘Why don’t you just cook?’
So even though we talked about marriage, I think the reality of it — from Joni’s point of view — was very scary.
To have had the love of that woman was such an incredible feeling for me. I was flying. I was on cloud nine — no, I was on cloud 10! I felt insanely lucky. Many people have said ‘You know, when you and Joni walked into a room, the whole room lit up.’
Nash’s first solo album, Songs For Beginners, arrived, unannounced, in May of 1971.
Nash: Those songs were written with CSN or CSNY in mind. I’ve always been more comfortable being a member of a band. It’s just the way I grew up.
By that time, Stephen and David were making their solo records. There were no plans to record, but I had these songs. So what the fuck do you do with them? I started out to make a very simple record; almost a record of demos. I just kept writing, and recording, and then I thought fuck, I guess I’m in the middle of my first solo record.
Perhaps because of his relationship with Mitchell — which had just skidded to a painful halt — Nash’s lyrics on Songs For Beginners were much more personal than ever before. “I’ve saved millions of dollars in psychiatry bills because I talk to myself constantly,” he says. “It’s my way of exorcising my demons.”
Oh — the world didn’t know it, but as a group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had already ceased to exist. It wasn’t pretty.
Crosby’s ’71 solo tune “Cowboy Movie” detailed the break, using violent Wild West imagery: Eli the Gunner (that’s Stills) comes to blows with the Duke (Nash) over the affections of an Indian maiden (this turns out to be session singer Rita Coolidge).
Fat Albert and Young Billy (Crosby and Young) can only watch and hold on tight; the outlaw gang will never be the same.
DeYoung: “Cowboy Movie.” How true is that?
Nash: It’s very true. The relationship between the four of us was a very strange one. We were a band, and yet we were four incredibly strong individuals with our own way of thinking about things. When you fuel that with cocaine, and you fuel that with fame and money, and people thinking that every decision you make is brilliant, that’s a recipe for disaster.
Stephen and I met Rita Coolidge on the very same night, when we recorded “Love the One You’re With.” I fell for Rita, and so did Stephen. I’ve always been a shy person, so I didn’t make the move that I wanted to on Rita. But Stephen did. And they were together for a few months.
That line in “Better Days” — ‘Though you say you’re where you want to be, you’re not where you belong’ — was about Rita. I always wanted to be with her.
One day I found out from Rita that she also wanted to be with me. And I said ‘We have a problem here, because you’re Stephen’s girlfriend right now, and there’s no way we can be together, with a good heart, unless we face Stephen and tell him ourselves.’
So we went to Stephen, and told him that we wanted to see each other. Stephen wasn’t very happy. Actually, he tried to spit on me.
That’s basically what “Cowboy Movie” was about.
Stills, meanwhile, had casually referred to Nash and Crosby as ‘My backup singers’ in a Rolling Stone article, keeping the wound open. This led, indirectly, to the album Graham Nash/David Crosby, and the launch of a creatively and commercially lucrative second career for the duo — Nash’s “Immigration Man” and “Southbound Train” became hit singles.
Nash: One profound reason why I love David is his sense of musicianship. He’s a completely unique individual, and I’ve always known that my simplicity and his strangeness would make an interesting combination. It remains true to this day.
DeYoung: Tell me about the single “War Song” you made in ’72 with Neil, the George McGovern election song.
Nash: I’m in my house in San Francisco, I’m getting’ high, phone rings. HEY WILLY. I GOT THIS SONG, MAN, I THINK I NEED YOU FOR THIS SONG. WOULD YOU DRIVE DOWN HERE?
So I drive the hour or so to his ranch, and there he is. He plays “War Song” for me and goes What d’you think, Willy? I said fuck, that’s a great song. ‘You think you can do it?’ I said fuck, get out the way!
It’s a really fine piece of music. I loved him for including me so equally in that. He could have said ‘Neil Young’ — but he didn’t, it was a ‘Neil Young & Graham Nash’ record.
Barrels of Pain
DeYoung: The four of you tried to re-convene in 1973. What happened?
Nash: Same old shit. I remember at one point, Stephen was so high — in my home studio, we were working on one of his songs called “My Angel” — and he asked me to sing a major melody through a minor set of chords. Instinctively, my body wouldn’t do it. I’m very good at what I do, but I couldn’t do it. I kept getting halfway through the phrase, and it just sounded so horrible to me that I had to stop. I did that two or three times, and I said ‘Stephen, I just can’t do this.’
Well, we ended up having a flaming row. He actually found the master of “Wind on the Water” and cut it in half with a razor blade.
I called a friend of mine, who lived next door, to throw Stephen out of my house.
By 1974, the quartet hadn’t been seen together in public for four years. The pressure was intense. That summer, they became the first rock act to play exclusively in stadiums, for big crowds, for big money.
Things had changed since the days of the Frozen Noses. After the massive success of his Harvest album, Young had become the superstar and the major draw — and his manager, Elliot Roberts, took control of the proceedings early on.
And Crosby, Stills and Nash didn’t have a lot of say in the matter.
Nash: Elliot had dollar signs in his eyes, and persuaded us to throw away our whole production team and go with Bill Graham. So everything kind of changed.
Then Neil didn’t want to travel with us, and drove himself across America in his own little tour thing. He was kind of isolated from us.
There was too much cocaine around.
Even in the blizzard of lies, as I call it, we were pretty good. I’m going through all the two–tracks right now, but I can hear the drugs screaming off the tape. There are some good things, and I’m sure I’ll be able to find a good record … but it makes me so uneasy to listen. It makes me crazy to listen to it. It’s part of why I wrote “Wasted on the Way.” We wasted a lot of time and a lot of music behind ego and drugs.
At tour’s end, another attempt at a studio reunion failed, and the four again went their separate ways. Stills recorded and toured with his new wife, French vocalist Veronique Sanson, while Young took off on an extended road trip with his trusty backup band, Crazy Horse.
Crosby and Nash made Wind on the Water, their second album together. “We thought, we have all these songs, and if Stephen and Neil aren’t into them, fuck ’em, we’ll do them ourselves.
“We fell back on a situation that was much more controllable, and much more sane.”
Wind on the Water was a critical and commercial success in 1975. As Crosby and Nash were in San Francisco working on the followup, Whistling Down the Wire, Stills and Young were hunkered down together at Miami’s Criteria Studios, making a project of their own.
Young turned up unannounced at Nash’s door with a cassette of four songs — including “Midnight on the Bay” and “Long May You Run” — he and Stills had roughed out for their first-ever duo project. Why not fly down, he said, and make this a full–blown CSNY record?
Nash: David agreed that they were great songs, and we knew we had good songs, since we were in the middle of a record. So we went to Miami to sing with Stephen and Neil. We completed the record — it was done. We sang on every single track. And then we went back to finish Whistling Down the Wire.
Well, they decided to take me and David’s voices off, and put it out as a Stills/Young record. Because they needed a piece of product to promote on the Stills/Young tour, which they’d already booked.
And to this day I can’t get an answer out of Neil’s camp as to whether the tapes with our voices even exist. It was 16–track then, and I know they would’ve needed the tracks to complete a Stills/Young record. But they must have made safeties.
I was so pissed. Because the chances to makes a CSNY record are few and far between, the vocal blend between us all was fabulous. And there was no reason that it shouldn’t have been a CSNY record, except for greed.
It’s been such a sore point that we have never talked about it with Stephen and Neil. We have never brought it up.
DeYoung: A year later you were back in Miami with Stills, making the CSN album. How could you look him in the eye?
Nash: Because it’s music, and that’s what we live for. When you’re pissed at Stephen, and he plays you a song that breaks your fuckin’ heart, you’ve got to forget it. If you cling on to negative stuff, you won’t get anywhere. Especially not in this combination of people.
I remember very clearly working on the final mix of “Shadow Captain.” And it was a fabulous piece of music. One of the engineers comes in and says ‘Hey, there’s some old man pissin’ in the bushes outside!’ And it was Neil. Now what the fuck he was doing in Miami, and taking a piss in the bushes outside of Criteria, I have no idea.
But he came in and he listened, and he realized that CSN was still a force to be reckoned with.
The next Crosby, Stills & Nash album, 1982’s Daylight Again, arrived in the middle of Crosby’s notorious love affair with the crack pipe. “We did that whole record, with me and Stephen, and Michael Finnegan doing the third part,” Nash says. “We handed it in to Atlantic — they said ‘It’s really good, but for marketing purposes, we need Crosby. Where is he?'”
Although he was bloated and glassy–eyed, Crosby could still sing, when he worked at it. “But he didn’t want to work at it,” Nash says. “He was much more interested in smoking.”
And it wasn’t just Crosby and Nash’s professional relationship that suffered.
Nash: I had been calling David’s house. I called 37 times, to be told that he was at the beach. Now, I’m a patient man … but I began to realize there was no fuckin’ beach. Maybe he had a beach in his closet. I realized that the drugs had totally taken over his life.
But we were faced with a problem. So Stephen and I made the decision to undo the entire album and fit Crosby in where we could. David’s voice sucked at the time. It was fucked.
We did they best we could with it. Somehow we managed to disguise it as a Crosby, Stills and Nash record — but it really, really wasn’t.
DeYoung: I remember Crosby saying that music gave him something to live for.
Nash: Oh yeah, he’d be dead. To give him credit, even though he was forced to do it, when he walked barefoot into the FBI office in Miami, that was him saying ‘I thought I could control this thing, but it’s controlling me and I’d better do something about it.” With all due respect, I think jail saved his life. That’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s true.
Wasted on the Way
Ever since the early ’70s, when Young’s star ascended rapidly past those of Crosby, Stills and Nash, he’s called the shots. Whenever there’s been a “reunion” album, tour or one–off benefit performance, it’s been because Neil wanted it, and wanted it on his terms only. When he says jump, they ask how high.
DeYoung: That’s got to suck.
Nash: Yeah, but you either walk away from it and never play that music again, or you just deal with it. Neil is, by far, the most selfish person — in certain aspects — that I’ve ever known. He is a complete slave to the muse of music, and I have great admiration for him for doing that.
However … He can be seen by some people as being so selfish that he doesn’t give a fuck about anybody else’s feelings. For example, he’ll say to Crazy Horse, ‘Yeah, we’re going to England in six weeks.’ Then the week before he’ll say ‘No man, I just don’t feel like it. The music’s not talking to me.’
When you’re a musician and you have finances and kids to send to school and bills to pay, and you make a certain amount of money because you’re in Neil Young’s band — and then it gets canceled the week before, with no compensation, that sucks. And that has happened a lot in Neil’s life.
And he only calls us when he needs us for something. He has very rarely called me as a friend.
It’s not a friendship. I have great, un-ending admiration and respect for Neil Young, and I think he respects the hell out of me too.
DeYoung: After Crosby got out of prison, clean and sober, the four of you made the album American Dream. As the saying goes, the world waited with baited breath. It’s just an awful record, Graham. Nobody I know likes it.
Nash: Neither do we. I think it didn’t work for a couple of reasons. We actually had a great time making it. They were some good songs on it. We may have over-harmonized some of them. We kind of over–compensated.
My feeling — and I think David agrees with me — is that Neil over-indulged Stephen on that record. He put a couple of Stephen tracks on there that should not have been on there at all. And left out a version of CSN doing “Climber,” that was written by David, that was just stunningly beautiful.
It was decided to take that off and put on “Driving Thunder,” which to me is a piece of shit. In an effort to please Stephen, I think Neil made some wrong choices.
There’s a small story you should know about this. The shot on the album cover was actually a shot of me, David and Stephen, with Neil photo–shopped in. There were two versions — in one, Neil’s wearing a white hat, and in the other he’s wearing a black hat.
And that is exactly why American Dream didn’t work.
Young did another “Come to Jesus” in 2006. He’d done his anti–Bush Living With War album, and, realizing that the songs would play to more people if Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were singing them, he organized another “reunion” tour, giving it the umbrella title “Freedom of Speech.” It’s chronicled in the 2008 film CSNY: Déjà vu, which Young himself directed.
Nash: It was a great idea. Neil did a brilliant job of staying on message. He realized that some of the songs we’d written in the past — “Military Madness” “Déjà vu,” “For What It’s Worth” — were hits, but were relevant to what he wanted to say right then.
We are slaves to our hits. We’ve tried to do the dance of balancing brand new songs with “Teach Your Children,” that we’ve been playing for 40 years. It’s always been a prison, and we try and escape our shackles as much as possible.
But here was an opportunity to only play a couple of those hits.
DeYoung: What about Stills? You two seem to have weathered a lot of storms, yet you’re still working together.
Nash: There’s always been a part of me that really loves Stephen. I recognize his genius, and I recognize his difficulties. And in my relationship with Stephen I’ve always tried to amplify and concentrate on the good parts rather than the fucked parts.
This last tour (summer/fall 2008) was one of the most fun tours I’ve had with Crosby, Stills & Nash in probably 20 years. A couple of things: He is clean, and he has a hearing aid. And it makes an incredible difference, because now he’s part of the conversation. He isn’t paranoid that me and David are talking about him. We’d be saying ‘Do you see that pretty girl in the front row?’ and Stephen would come over and say ‘You’re talking about me, aren’t you?’
He’s singing better in tune. He’s singing on his guitar instead of just playing the stock solo that Stills would normally play. He was much better this tour than in the last 20 years, and I think if you talked to David, David would agree.
I’ve always known that Stephen showed glimpses of genius. I think he’s always been in Neil’s shadow.
He suffered from an upbringing that from all accounts was fucking horrific — his father leaving home, Stephen being tormented by the women in his family — his mother and his sister — because their father left. Military upbringing. The poor kid never stood a chance. And I completely understand that once he got a sense of his musical power, he would run like fuck to escape all that.
At the end of the day, always, there’s Crosby; with the exception of that ugly crack pipe period, he and Nash have been virtually joined at the hip for more than four decades.
DeYoung: Why has this relationship succeeded so consistently?
Nash: The combination of our voices and our songwriting is insane to me. I love it dearly.
You must understand something. I know everywhere David’s going to go, musically. When I stand next to him onstage, the entire side of my body that’s facing him is open. Every pore is open.
I know him so well that many times I know that he’s going to make a mistake on the next line, and I make the same mistake with him so the audience doesn’t think there was a mistake made. That’s how intimate I am with David.
Working with Crosby, what a thrill. I’m a musician, for God’s sake, and I get to make music with him? This is fantastic.