The Palladium Presents: A Conversation with Graham Nash
Writer // Janelle Morrison Photography // Amy Grantham
The Center for the Performing Arts will present An Intimate Evening of Songs and Stories with Graham Nash on Friday, March 22 at 8 p.m.
From his start with The Hollies through his years with Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young), a historic appearance at Woodstock and decades of social activism, this British singer-songwriter with the high tenor voice is one of the great survivors and elder statesmen of the rock era.
A two-time inductee of both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Grammy winner Nash has penned such classics as CSN’s “Teach Your Children,” “Our House” and “Wasted on the Way.”
I had the incredible privilege of speaking with Nash about his humble beginnings, his remarkable success with CSN, the relationships he had throughout his career and where he is at in his personal life today, half a century after his first lead vocal on the original Hollies song, “To You My Love.”
*This interview was modified for print publication purposes and is presented below-uncut. Contains mature language.
How is life for you these days? How are you spending your time?
First of all, I wake up, and I realize I’m alive and I start there. Secondly, I am lucky enough to be able to fill my day with creating, writing music, making images with photographs and collecting [art]. On the 2nd of February, I turned 77 years old, and I feel fantastic. I’m trying to do the best with this life that I was given.
It has been an incredible life, has it not?
No, shit. Excuse my language but no, shit. [Laughs]
As an aspiring musician, what impact did American rock ‘n roll and singers like the iconic Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis have on you?
Oh, not much. It just changed my life. [Laughs]
What happened after WWII, kids 13-16 [years old] had nothing to do in the north of England. Industry had ground to a halt because of the war. There was rationing for food and fuel. Then this man, Lonnie Donegan, a Scottish guitar player who came to America in the mid-50s and hung out with Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, came back to England and presented this music known as “skiffle”. Every band from England that became famous, or probably 99 percent of them, were in a “skiffle” group at one point. It was cheap and easy to do if you had a cheap acoustic guitar, your mother’s wash board for drums and metal thimbles on your hands for the rhythm. For the bass, you connect a cardboard box, a broom handle and a piece of string. It was something for us to do. Not only that, when we learned songs from Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, and Elvis, girls loved us!
What kind of influence did the Beatles have on The Hollies, and how did they open doors for bands such as yours?
Here’s what was going on. If you draw a line across the middle of England, everybody south of that line spoke the King’s English as it was at that point. Very proper. Very posh. Everybody north of that line was considered to be peasants. When the Beatles first hit with their first song “Love Me Do,” everybody in London started to talk with a Liverpool accent because it was so cool. Record companies sent all their A&R [artists and repertoire] people up to the north to check it out. One day, The Hollies were playing an afternoon show at The Cavern [Club] in Liverpool, and one of the A&R men who was a partner of George Martin, called Ron Richards, saw us, loved us and invited us to EMI to record. And we never looked back.
How did you come to meet Cass Elliot [Mama Cass] who became a friend of yours and introduced you to David Crosby who then introduced you to Stephen Stills?
(Nash explained that The Hollies were thrown a party by their record company in L.A. where he met Rodney Bingenheimer who later became a famed disc jockey on the L.A. rock station KROQ.)
Everyone was standing around with a plastic glass of cheap wine trying to figure out what the name of the promoter’s wife was. You know, one of those kinds of meetings. Toward the end, this 15-year-old kid [Bingenheimer] comes up to us. He knows everything about The Hollies – all the records, all the B-sides. He asked what I was doing after the party. He said he had some friends [The Mamas & the Papas] recording down the street and he thought I’d want to go see an American recording studio.
(John Phillips, Denny Doherty and Michelle Phillips were in the studio recording. Cass Elliot was standing outside in the hallway when Nash was introduced to her.)
She [Elliot] asked me, “What do you think John Lennon would think of our music?” I said, “Well, knowing John a little, he would probably put you down at first and keep you at arm’s length until he trusted you and let you in his inner circle.” I looked up, and she was crying her eyes out. I thought, “Holy s***, I’ve only met this woman for 10 minutes, and she’s crying.” I didn’t realize that she had a crush on John. I straightened it out because I’m an English gentleman, and she asked me what I was doing later. I said, “Wow, you American people always want to know what the f*** we’re doing later!”
(Elliot picked Nash up the following day in her Porsche convertible and took him to meet “a friend of hers” who lived in an unfurnished apartment that contained a guitar, a sound system and a barefoot David Crosby.)
Here was this kid in a blue and white striped T-shirt, a pair of jeans, no shoes, no socks and no furniture in the apartment. He didn’t know who I was. We smoked a lot of dope – to be very frank with you – and we became friends. He told me if I ever met this woman called Joni Mitchell to tell her that I am friends with “David,” and she’d talk to me.
So, cut to Ottawa in early ’67. The Hollies are playing there. Once again, there was a party afterward with the promoters and cheap wine, and my tour manager, Robby [Robert] Britton, was talking constantly in my ear. I kept telling him, “Robby, please shut up. I’m trying to catch the eye of this beautiful woman across the hall here.” And he said, “If you’d only listen to me, I’m trying to tell you that her name is Joni Mitchell, and she wants to meet you.” And that’s when I met Joan [Joni].
You each brought your own skillsets and talent to the table, but what was it about you, Crosby and Stills that made CSN so incredible and unforgettable?
I think it was the combination of our musical styles. I had been trained by The Hollies to be able to write melodies that you couldn’t forget if you heard them twice. Stephen had this blues kind of base of his music, and David was a jazz guy. And he had all these weird tunings and different time signatures. I think it’s the combination of those three kinds of music with the songs that we had that made it so big.
What were the circumstances behind recording with David Gilmour, guitarist and vocalist with Pink Floyd? What is your favorite Pink Floyd song?
Gilmour had given us passes to come and see him after [his] show. After the show, he [Gilmour] comes into the dressing room and says, “I have two things to say to you.” I said, “Okay, Gilmour. What are they?” And he said, “First of all, I’m going to steal your drummer.” Which he did. Then he said, “Secondly, I have this song called, “On an Island” and I need a harmony on it. Would you and David come and sing?” So, we [Crosby and I] carved out the time and went to David’s [Gilmour] studio. It was on this beautiful barge on the Thames River that he [Gilmour] turned into a floating recording studio. When you’re standing at the microphone, looking through the window, these f***ing swans just go by. [Laughs] The truth is, I have never heard David Gilmour play a wrong note yet. He is a superb musician and demands the best. We [Crosby and I] gave him our best.
My favorite Pink Floyd song is “Money”. It’s really a protest song that is relevant today even more than anything. That was a brilliant song.”
Speaking of protests, what are your thoughts on the current political climate having witnessed many global events and political ebbs and flows throughout your lifetime?
There is so much pain and so much suffering and I just want it all to go away. It’s one of the reasons why I completely despise [President] Trump and what he is doing to this country. I’ve been here [United States] for over fifty years and I’ve been an American citizen for over forty years, and I have never seen this place like this, and I went through Nixon, and I went through [George H. W.] Bush. It [the climate] is so awful here, right now.
Self-expression through the arts is clearly important to you, but how important is arts/music education to the development of our youth and to preserving our humanity?
I think we have a big problem in this country, and it is the education of our kids. I don’t believe that the powers that be who rule this world want an educated populace. They want sheep. Lie the f*** down and shut up while we sell you another Coca Cola or another pair of sneakers. It’s “bread and circuses” all over again. I know that the Romans invented bread and circuses, where they would give the populaces a little bit to eat, some bread and something to look at-like the current day Kardashians-to control the populaces. That’s what’s going on today. We have to rethink the way that we are educating our children.
You have launched a new album, “Over the Years,” a 30-song compilation of your best-known songs and more than a dozen previously unreleased demos and alternative mixes. What is the story behind “Myself at Last”?
The story is this: It sounds strange to sometimes hear it, but sometimes you go on the road to lose yourself. A lady that I met called Amy Grantham, who actually became my wife a few months ago, helped me find myself again. You see, the worst thing you can do to an artist is to give them self-doubt. We’re sensitives, and if somebody puts you down, you think about it for days and what you can do to put it right. And she made me realize that I was worth a s***. Maybe it’s strange after all this time to question myself, and quite frankly, I’m still waiting to get found out. I don’t understand why this kid from the north of England is in this beautiful apartment in NYC with a beautiful wife and an unlimited future. I don’t know why I’m here. It’s strange, yeah?
Strange for sure, but if you had it all figured out at this point you wouldn’t still be doing it, right?
That’s right. There is so much to do in this world.
You’ve said that you enjoy playing more intimate venues these days. Why?
That’s correct. When they [the audience] is 10 feet in front of me, I can see them smiling. That communication is very important to me right now. I want my people to know two things: One, and most importantly, I want to be there to make music for them. I sing the same songs that I’ve sung thousands of times with the same passion because I owe it to my audience. The second thing is I want to see them smiling on their way out, so I know I’ve done my job.
To purchase tickets, visit thecenterpresents.org.