The British rocker reflects on his prolific career that’s spanned five decades and two continents.
Singer-songwriter Graham NashOriginally aired on November 8, 2013
Tavis: As co-founder of The Hollies and Crosby, Stills & Nash, Graham Nash has for more than five decades now been at the forefront of rock music. It’s been a fascinating life and he’s now written about those experiences, good and bad, in a new book titled “Wile Tales: A Rock & Roll Life.”
Before we get to our conversation, a quick reminder of how great those harmonies are from Crosby, Stills & Nash. Here’s a clip of them singing “Wooden Chips.”
Tavis: I guess one would expect a book written by a rock and roll star to have the obligatory chapters about sex and drugs and, to be sure, that exists in the book. And I suspect in the other conversations you’ll have about this book, they’ll get to the sex and all the drugs. There’s so much more, though, in the book that I want to get to in the time that we have tonight and I’ll leave the other talk show hosts to dig that stuff up.
Let me start, if I can, with the cover of this book. Put this cover back up for me, Jonathan, please? I don’t know if we have the front and the back cover, but here’s the front cover of a younger Graham Nash. And if you can flip to the back cover, you see a modern-day, contemporary Graham Nash, in both photos, obviously, a camera in your hand.
There is a fascinating and heartbreaking, frankly, story in this book about you got introduced to the camera and heartbreaking in the sense that your father who turned you on to the camera found himself imprisoned because of a camera and it had a profound impact on your life. Tell me about your dad, first of all, and then tell me more about the camera story.
Graham Nash: He was a poor, hardworking man from the north of England struggling with life after World War II, of course. His main joy was in taking photographs of me and my sister at the local zoo and then processing them in my bedroom. And he turned me on to the magic of photography when I was 10 years old. And the first portrait in my book of photographs, “Eye to Eye,” is of my mother that I took when I was 10.
And then the police came to the door which was unheard of in the north of England. The police coming to your door? That was what? They said that the camera that my father had bought from his friend at work had been stolen and who was it that sold him the camera? And my father wouldn’t tell and consequently spent a year of his life in a very brutal prison in the north of England for a $30 camera.
Tavis: Who goes to jail for a year for a $30 camera?
Nash: The people that can’t afford good justice, and that’s what happened to me. I had to be the father of my family. I had to be the man of the house when I was 14 years old. I had to grow up really fast. Our main breadwinner had been incarcerated, my father, and life was already very difficult after World War II. I got most of my clothes from the Salvation Army. When I was supposed to be cool and, you know, growing up looking for ladies in my life, I just wasn’t cool at all. So it had a very profound effect on my life.
Tavis: Let me talk about that profound effect and I want to ask two or three questions not to advance too far here. But one, what did that experience teach you about your father? I’ll come to the justice question in just a second, but your father doesn’t snitch on the guy who he got the camera from.
Tavis: But he ends up paying a heavy price for that. What did that teach you? What did that say to you about your father at 14?
Nash: That he had the courage to stand up for what he believed in. In the north of England – I’m sure it’s the same in most parts of America – you don’t snitch on your friends. You don’t. You know, it’s just part of street life. His life would have been more difficult had he told the police who it was. I’m sure that his life would have been, you know, much more difficult.
But he did. He stood up for what he believed and it made me realize all these years later that justice is possibly an item that can be bought and sold.
Tavis: You’re on the question I wanted to ask now. Tell me a bit more about what you learned from that experience by the notion of justice and how malleable it might be.
Nash: I realized that justice was a commodity and that poor people couldn’t afford it and rich people can. You know, it’s the reason why many, many rich people don’t go to jail for crimes that are committed. If you’re poor and can’t afford the good lawyers and be able to buy the system, you’re headed for jail.
And it’s becoming more and more true as I get older in my life. And I’ve always struggled to support the underdog. I’ve always been for the team that was two points behind. I’ve always wanted the underdog to succeed in my life.
Tavis: Let me jump forward and then I promise I’ll come right back ’cause, again, there’s so much in this book that I can’t do justice to all of it in even a full show tonight. Again, let me go forward and I’ll come right back. What did that experience – and, obviously, there are others – how did that inform your songwriting years down the road? That first experience with justice or the lack thereof?
And your lyrical content has been rich over the years speaking to the humanity of all kinds of people, but I’m trying to get a sense of what that experience did to put you on the road years later to the lyrical content.
Nash: I think a couple of songs that I’ve written explain that. First of all, the song I wrote in 1968 called “Chicago” in which they bound and chained and gagged Bobby Seale and put him on the stand and called it a fair trial. You know, you don’t have to be rocket scientist to figure, look, if you’re binding and chaining and gagging this man, how can this be a fair trial?
Let’s cut to all these years later, my song about Bradley Manning that I wrote with my friend, James Raymond. Same thing. I wasn’t particularly interested in whether he was guilty of the charges brought against him, Bradley Manning being the whistleblower that released all the diplomatic and military cables to WikiLeaks. But to be incarcerated in awful, awful conditions which the United Nations equated to torture for 1000 days before his trial was not fair to me.
That’s why I wrote “Almost Gone.” That’s why I’m convinced that we need to spread light on some of these cases. We need whistleblowers in this world. We need a little more transparency from our government and from our military.
Tavis: Now I’m going back. Tell me about your mother. We talked about your father and you referenced your mother. As a matter of fact, you dedicate this book to both of your parents and I don’t want to leave your mom out of this conversation. So tell me about your mother and the influence she had on you.
Nash: Two years before my mother died, I asked her why was it she had encouraged me in my passion, my search, for life in music when a lot of my other friends, their parents were dissuading them from their passion for rock and roll.
My mother didn’t and I asked her why and she said that because she thought that she had a good voice and she wanted to be on the stage. World War II came along, she married my father, my father and my mother had three children of which I was one, of course, and life was over for her. But I was living her life and I didn’t know it until all those years later.
And I think in the early 70s, either 1970 or 1971, Crosby and I were playing at Carnegie Hall in New York City. And for some reason, he has to leave the stage. He has to go to use the bathroom or something like that. But I’m still talking to the audience.
So I start to tell them the story of why I’m standing there in front of them. And as I’m telling them the story about my mother’s encouragement, I reach my hand into my pocket and I take out a pinch of my mother’s ashes and I sprinkle them on the stage at Carnegie Hall knowing full well if she had attained her life dream, she may have been singing on stage at Carnegie Hall instead of me.
Tavis: That raises the obvious question of what were your mother’s ashes doing in your pocket onstage at Carnegie Hall?
Nash: Every great place that I played that I think my mother would have loved to have sung at had she been a singer in her life, I’ve spread her ashes, including, you know, the Royal Albert Hall in London, including beautiful places that I play and including Buckingham Palace.
Tavis: It’s a powerful story. What has that experience meant or done for you to spread your mother’s ashes in these places?
Nash: I think it behooves us and it enriches our lives to honor our parents and their parents and all the people that have lived in the Nash family that brought me to this point of talking to you right now. I think it’s important that we acknowledge their work and their dedication to make life better for their children. That’s why I’m here now. My mother wanted a better life for me than she had after World War II.
Tavis: It’s one thing for your mother, Graham, to have dreams and wishes and aspirations of being an artist herself. You’ve realized that for her and for yourself. But when did you know that music was your vocation, that it was in fact your calling?
Nash: I was 13, 14, 15 years old, a kid trying to figure out what to do with his life. Several things came together at a certain point in my life which drove me forward. One of them was the Bill Haley concert in Manchester, England in 1957. Another was the Everly Brothers concert in Manchester in 1960.
And all these things that affect you at a certain moment really do move your life forward and that’s what happened to me. I was walking across a ballroom floor when I was 15 years old attempting to catch the eye of a girl that I liked across the ballroom.
Allan Clarke and I, who was my dear friend since I was six years old and we formed The Hollies together, heard “Bye Bye Love” by the Everly Brothers come over these huge speakers and it changed my life. I wanted to make music that did for me what the Everly Brothers did for me at that moment in my life when I was 15 years old.
Tavis: Was it the Everly Brothers or was it the song? I know the two go together, but was there something about that song that spoke to you or was it their performance? I’m trying to get a sense of – that’s a great song. I love that song. It’s been covered a thousand times.
Nash: A million times, yes. The truth is, I was fascinated with how those two voices blended together. I know that Don and Phil were brothers. I know they’re from Kentucky. I know that they have these beautiful voices. But when they came together and raised their voice as one, that affected me.
I had never heard anything quite like that. I never heard two voices so seamlessly blend together to make one voice and that’s what I tried to do with the rest of my life. That’s what I do with David and Stephen and sometimes with Neil also.
Tavis: I was about to ask what impact that had on – ’cause obviously there’s a connection here – on your appreciation for harmonies.
Nash: I was in a band, The Hollies, that were considered a pretty decent harmony band. They…
Tavis: That’s an understatement, but go ahead, yeah [laugh].
Nash: David Crosby was in The Byrds, also a great harmony band. And Stephen and Neil were in The Buffalo Springfield, also great harmony bands. But when David and Stephen and I put our voices together for that first time in Joni’s living room, it changed all of our lives instantly. Whatever sound Crosby, Stills & Nash has vocally was born in less than a minute.
We didn’t have to rehearse it. We just had to start singing. And it was unbelievably good to us as musicians. We had to stop and start laughing in the middle of the song ’cause it was silly. It was silly how these three voices came together instantly to create something much bigger than themselves.
Tavis: You tell this story in the book and, of course, you could not have written a book without talking about the role that Joni Mitchell, one of the greatest songwriters ever, has played in your life, the relationship that you all had. But what was the occasion that brought you all together in Joni’s living room?
Nash: I had met Joni a couple of months earlier in Ottawa, in Canada. We had made a vow to each other that we would see each other if we could. I flew from London to Los Angeles to be with Joni. David and Stephen were at dinner that night. David asked Stephen to sing me that song that they just finished rehearsing in two-part harmony.
Great song, play it again. Oh, yeah. Really a great song. Do me a favor, one more time. And I had my part down, I had my harmony down, I had my recognition of their body language, how they’re breathing, how they’re moving. I had it down in that third take and that was the thing that made us laugh so deeply because I realized that I would have to go back to England and change my entire life.
I had to leave the band that I started. I had to leave my friendship with Allan Clarke that I started when I was six years old. I had to do some drastic thinking. But the power of that music that me and David and Stephen created was big enough for me to move my entire life.
Tavis: It was big enough for you to move your entire life, Graham, and yet you acknowledge in the text that you didn’t have – my word here – that you didn’t have the courage to tell the band and the band found out in an interesting sort of way that Graham Nash was no longer a part of The Hollies. Tell me more about that.
Nash: I must confess that I do feel a little guilty having not had the courage to tell the directly to their face. A lot of it was due to the fact that Allan was my oldest friend. I loved him dearly. You know, we had come up through music singing “The Lord’s Prayer” at assembly and, you know, in certain shows. So it was difficult for me to tell them.
And the way that they found out was, unfortunately, a reporter from a local newspaper had asked me a question and I’d answered it kind of flippantly that I wasn’t gonna be there too much longer. And that’s how they found out. And to this day, it upsets me that I didn’t have the courage to tell my friends.
Tavis: What did you learn from that about yourself or about how to handle matters like that into the future?
Nash: That I can’t procrastinate anymore. When I need to get something done, I do it. You know, I’ve never been busier in my life. I’m now 71 years old and it’s all good stuff and I’m not complaining at all.
But my life is incredibly busy. I have to create every single day in one form or another, be it photography or painting or music. I have to create every single day and I have to speak my mind. And I’m fortunate enough to live in a country, the United States of America, which I’ve been a citizen for over 30 years.
I’m so proud to be a member of this society where I can get to speak my mind. Half the stuff that me and David and Stephen and Neil have written about in our past lives, we may not have been able to get away with in a different country. But I live in America and I’m allowed to speak my mind. Nobody has to listen, but I’m allowed to speak my mind.
Tavis: You’re right about the fact that, at 71, you ain’t slowing down. I’m sure you’re leaving here to go do a show somewhere. You’re always on the run. But talk to me about this need – ’cause I respect this and I think everyone of us ought to have this as a goal, that every day before we go to bed, we ought to be able to look back on our day and see something that we created that day.
Tavis: If it’s a note you wrote, a line, a high cool, a picture you took. I mean, every day presents us an opportunity to create something. I thank God that every day I get a chance to create I hope what is good conversation with guests.
Nash: Yeah, indeed.
Tavis: I want to put something into the universe. But what is that notion about for you of having to create something every day, no matter what it is?
Nash: I think I have to give back and I have to recognize the fact that I’m an incredibly lucky man. I follow the muse of music and the muse of creation every single day. I kind of expect the universe to put me in a place where I’ll see magic.
I wake up every day and I look in the mirror and I go, okay, what’s life gonna show me today? There’s something out there that’s gonna be mind-blowing for me. And I put myself in that position. It doesn’t happen 100% of the time, of course, but I put myself in that position that the universe is here to support me and to love me.
I don’t think the universe is out to screw me over and I think I have a good relationship. I’m not a big believer in organized religion, but I’m a very religious man. I recognize the fact that there is some incredible energy out there that’s running this entire universe and I want to be on its good side.
Tavis: You’ve now raised once again the other issue that I wanted to get to. Earlier in this conversation, you referenced your getting started years with your friend, Allan, singing “The Lord’s Prayer.” Now you say you’re not, you know, a fan of organized religion, but you are a religious person.
Is it really religion or is it more spiritual? Because as I’ve talked to you over the years and hung out with you a little bit here and there and read your stuff, I get a sense that there’s something spiritual about what you do for you.
Nash: I hope so.
Tavis: Even more so than religious. Does that make sense?
Nash: Yes, it does, absolutely. I am more spiritual than I am religious. Religious has been put into this pigeon hole of faith and I truly recognize that people need faith in our lives to be able to make it to tomorrow.
That’s one of the things I learned being an Englishman after World War II. Have a nice cup of tea, take a deep breath. I know it looks terrible right now, but it will be better tomorrow. And this notion of being better tomorrow has followed me all my life and I’ve always gone down that path when faced with a choice.
Tavis: So back to the music. Crosby, Stills & Nash are doing well. There’s a decision made to bring in Neil Young, a great artist in and of his own right, of course. Give me the top line of why that decision was made and how that impacted the work.
Nash: When we first made the first Crosby, Stills & Nash record, Stephen Stills played most of the instruments. Yes, David and I played rhythm guitar in our songs, but Stephen played lead guitar, he played piano, he played bass, he played B3 organ. When we finished the record and we realized we have to go out on the road and play this live, how do we do that if Stephen played most of the instruments? So we knew that we had to get another musician in there.
But when Ahmet Ertegun, our dear friend from Atlantic Records who was the owner and the power that be at Atlantic, suggested that we get Neil Young, that was kind of shocking to me because we had created this beautiful album that we thought created unique music in terms of harmony. We were very satisfied with it. Why do we need another person and why do we need another writer and why do we need another singer?
I understood basically why we needed it, but I’d never met Neil. I didn’t know if I could hang out, if I could talk to him, have a decent conversation. I had no idea who he was. I knew he was a great writer because I’d checked out The Buffalo Springfield stuff. But until I’d had breakfast with Neil and gotten to know him a little, we couldn’t make that momentous decision.
So I had breakfast with Neil, after which I would have made Prime Minister of Canada [laugh]. He was incredibly funny, he was self-assured, he knew exactly what he wanted. And after that breakfast, it was okay for me that he came to join.
Tavis: And still there’s nowhere you get that many great talents in a room together, much less on stage together, much less on the road together, and not have some egos and some attitudes that clash from time to time. And you talk about that as well.
Nash: Yeah. It’s like Crosby said. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young is like juggling four bottles of nitroglycerin [laugh]. Everything is totally fine as long as they’re all in the air. But once you drop one, oh, my God [laugh].
Tavis: And yet you guys survived it, though.
Nash: Yeah, and even so, we just finished the Bridge concert in order to – Neil and his wife Peggy have an organization that helps children with special needs that we have supported since the day one, which was, I think, 27 years ago.
He has done 27 of these concerts. They’re called the Bridge School Concerts and they’re a wonderful, wonderful experience to be at and to be able to help these kids. So we were there a week ago. So things look pretty good.
Tavis: Yeah. When you look back on those years and on the work that you all created as a group – let me start with Crosby, Stills & Nash before we go to & Young. What do you make of your discography, of your corpus of work?
Nash: There are times when I look back at what we’ve done. I’ve never been a man to look backwards too much because there’s not much you can do about it.
Tavis: That’s fair.
Nash: But in doing the book, I’ve had to, of course, relive my life. I begin to think two things. One, would we have made more music or would we have made better music had we been straight? I don’t think there’s an answer to that question because it was what it was and to this day, you know.
Tavis: But you do argue, though, Graham, quickly, you do argue in the book – not argue. You made the point in the book that you think that your creativity was heightened when you weren’t using drugs.
Tavis: And you’re not the first person to say that.
Tavis: About their own artistic…
Nash: Right. I’m not condoning taking drugs on any level, but it was good for me at that point in my life. I don’t think that we’ve made enough music. I think that our egos and our drug problems probably kept us away from each other too long. But it is what it is. We have made all the music that we have made and there certainly is much more music to come.
But I look with happiness at what I’ve done with my life. I tried my best to make my life better and to make your life better and to make our kids’ lives better.
Tavis: Yeah. You dedicate this to one of your – your granddaughter, in particular.
Nash: Stella Joy.
Tavis: Yeah. Why Stella Joy?
Nash: Because she’s only a year old right now and, you know, at 71, how much longer can this life go on? I mean, I could drop dead in the middle of this conversation.
Tavis: I hope not [laugh].
Nash: I hope not too.
Tavis: That Tavis killed last night [laugh].
Nash: Although ratings…
Tavis: Yeah, the ratings would be…yeah.
Nash: But I’ve lost many friends in even stranger circumstances. So I began to realize that, if she’s a year old and I’m 71 and I don’t know how long this life is going to continue for me, I hope many more years to come, but you never know.
I wanted Stella Joy to understand who her grandfather was and how he got here and what struggles he went through in his life that she may be able to learn from.
Tavis: And what she’ll learn is the same thing all the rest of us already know is that you have enhanced our lives in myriad ways because of the gift that you have shared and continue to share with us. His name, of course, is Graham Nash and he has finally gotten around to writing his own memoir. It’s called “Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life.”
And as wonderful and rich as this conversation has been, I still have not scratched the surface on all that you will find in this text. Graham, I’m always delighted to have you on. We always have a great conversation. Thank you for your time.
Nash: Thank you.
Tavis: Good to see you again.
Nash: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. As always, thanks for watching, and keep the faith.
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