Wild Tales from Graham Nash of CSN&Y

This article 1st appeared in The Prices Do DC – 10.14.13

If you are a fan of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young you should take a moment and thank Mama Cass Elliot, one of the 2 female singers in the hit-producing 1960s southern California group The Mamas and the Papas. Or at least that is what Graham Nash says. Here is the way Nash tells the story of his 1st meeting with David Crosby, a meeting that led directly to the formation of CSN&Y.

In 1966, Nash, then a member of the British Invasion band The Hollies was in California. He got invited to a studio where the Mamas and the Papas were recording. Nash said he definitely wanted to go. “Like everyone else, I wanted Michelle (the other female singer, the stunning Michelle Phillips) badly,” he says with a wink.

However, Michelle was busy recording a vocal part, so Nash stood outside the studio talking to Cass. Knowing that Nash was close to the Beatles, Cass asked “What do you think John Lennon would think of our music?” she asked.

He said the sardonic, satiric Lennon would probably make fun of it. “She began crying her eyes out; she had such a crush on John,” Nash said. So, feeling badly for what he had said, Nash readily agreed to Cass’ suggestion that he come with her to meet someone she was sure he would like.

When he arrived at the apartment with Cass, he encountered a young man in a blue and white T-shirt, laying on the couch, intently, but effortlessly, separating quality marijuana from stems and seeds, all of which was contained in a shoe box.  “That was the 1st time I ever met David Crosby and it was also the 1st time I ever got high,” Nash says.

It was also the beginning of what Nash calls “the most rewarding and the most difficult relationship” of his life, a life that Nash examines in his just-released memoir Wild Tales, which he talked about recently at an appearance at the Library of Congress. . “I loved him from the moment I met him. He was himself. He was so irreverent,” Nash explains. “I was writing songs with (chords) A, D. and E and I’m out of there. David was writing such intricate chord patterns. He had the words cognitive dissonance and antithesis in the same song lyric. I was writing ‘I want you now.'”

Crosby, then a member of the Byrds, introduced Nash to Stephen Stills, who at the time was a member of the Buffalo Springfield along with the enigmatic Neil Young. The trio decided to see how they would sound together. They started with a Stills song “You Don’t Have to Cry”. After hearing the song, Nash asked Stills and Crosby to sing it one more time. “We then hit that 3-part harmony and we all started laughing. It was great. What a thing to hear. Our sound was born in 40 seconds,” Nash said.

“From the moment I heard me and David and Stephen sing, I wanted that sound,” Nash said. “So what the hell was I supposed to do? I left my wife. I left my band. I left England and came to America”.

But Nash, who will be 72 on his next birthday, readily credits England, his family, and his friend (and later Hollies band mate) Allen Clarke (whom he 1st met in school as a 6-year-old) with his musical beginnings.

“I have a vivid memory of blackout curtains (used in British homes during World War II),” Nash said. “After the war, it was a very strange existence. As youngsters we had nothing to do. At the time, you were supposed to grow up and do what your Dad did. But my mother and father never let me fall for that. I knew from the age of 13 that I wanted to be a rock and roll musician. I’ve actually been a photographer longer than I have been a musician. But I knew I couldn’t get girls with a camera. That wasn’t happening. Nobody was saying that’s a sexy camera. But a guitar …”

One of Nash’s greatest influences were Don and Phil Everly. He and Clark found out they were performing in their city. “It was April, 1960 and we were dying to met them,” Nash said. So they went to the show and then staked out the hotel where they were sure the Everly Brothers were staying. Finally, at 1:20 a.m., the brothers came down the street. Nash and Clark approached them. “They were great. They talked to us for 20 minutes. We were so happy. In many ways, we are all trying to touch the flame of that which we admire”.  At the time, Nash never imagined that over the years he would actually get to perform and sing with his idols on several occasions.

Nash said he enjoyed his time with the Hollies, but came to disagree with their musical directions. The group wanted to continue focusing on making hit singles; Nash wanted more. “Being around those (California) people changed me. I learned you could write a song about real stuff and still sell records,” he said.

Another seminal figure in Nash’s musical development was Joni Mitchell. “How could you live with a genius and not have something rub off?” Nash said of the years he and Mitchell were a couple. In fact, Nash says he feels so fortunate to have found 2 great loves in life – Joni and his current wife of 37 years, Susan. “She keeps my feet on the ground,” he said.

And then, of course, there’s Crosby. “This guy never ceases to amaze me,” Nash said. “He’s probably on his 15th life, but I think he has finally realized that he is not invincible”.

In fact, an incident involving one of Crosby’s escapades was the only thing the publishers of Nash’s book questioned. “Legal called me and said I had to check on the story that David sold his Mercedes for crack (cocaine). It seems David wanted to get his car back so he went to the dealer’s house and found him dead from a drug OD (over dose). So David stole his pink slip back. When I asked him about the story, David said not only was it true, there was more. He actually resold the car again to get more crack”.

Nash said he is constantly grateful for the life he has lived. “My father was dead at 46 and so sometimes, I feel I’m living 2 lives,” he said. He said a few years ago, he asked his mother why she and his father had been so supportive of his choice to risk all with music. “You’re living my life,” she told him. After she died, Nash was playing a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. “I scattered some of her ashes there he said, adding that he still does that whenever he performs on a stage he believes his mother would have liked to have sung.

As for the political nature of much of his songwriting, Nash again cites Crosby. “Crosby has always spoken truth to power. I’ve always been for the underdog. I think the media wants us to focus on (Justin) Bieber’s monkey or the size of Kim Kardashian’s ass, but music is so much more than that,” he said.

Nash said that the political stands both he and the various configurations CSN&Y have assumed over the years, have effected the group’s popularity. On their last tour together during the George W. Bush years, the band played a song “Let’s Impeach the President”. In some southern venues, that stance caused some of the crowd to walk out.  “I mean they have the right to walk out, but Holy Toledo, if you buy a ticket to a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young concert, what the heck do you expect?”

Like so many other great songwriters, Nash cannot offer a formula for what he does. “Once I write a song, it has to make it through me. I only write for me. I have to be moved before I can write,” He explained. He did, however, note with a laugh, one time when the process was speeded up. “I was at a dinner party and somebody said, ‘you’re supposed to be a big star. I bet you can’t write a song before you go,” Nash noted. So he left the room and came back in about 20 minutes with a completed version of “Just a Song Before I Go”.  The song reached #7 on the Billboard charts in 1977, making it CSN&Y’s highest climbing hit. “Yes, I really do love what I get to do,” Nash repeats. “I know so many people that have had their dreams crushed, but I get to live mine everyday”.

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