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Two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Graham Nash has hits aplenty spanning his nearly six-decade career. But the 77-year-old singer-songwriter recently chose to perform a special run of shows featuring his lesser-known first two solo albums in their entirety, which together describe a crucial chapter in his personal and artistic life. Tom Casciato recently spoke to Nash to learn more.
Two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Graham Nash is famous for writing and performing classic rock staples like "Teach Your Children" and "Our House" with the band Crosby Stills, Nash & Young. But he recently played a set of shows centered around some music he's far less known for. NewsHour Weekend's Tom Casciato has more.
It's not just his fans who appreciate that Graham Nash is still going strong at 77.
Nice to be back.
So does Graham Nash.
At my age it's nice to be anywhere
But some of his recent shows might seem curious to those who know him only for his hits.
Hollies – "Carrie Anne"
People live and learn but you're still learning
He has decades' worth of chart-toppers to draw from.
CSN – "Just A Song Before I Go"
Driving me to the airport
But he recently did shows featuring his lesser known, first two solo albums in their entirety — and you have to wonder why.
There are certainly artists of your generation who go back and revisit their finest commercial moment if not their finest artistic moment.
I want to be as real as possible, I'm coming to the end of my life. I'm 77 years old right now. How much longer can this go on? I hope to be around for at least the next 30, 40 years. But I might drop dead in the middle of this conversation.
With no time like the present to do it, Nash kicks off the show with the opener from his first album, "Songs for Beginners."
In an upstairs room in Blackpool
It starts with his birth in the midst of World War II in Blackpool England.
The army had my father
And my mother was having me.
And what were you doing in Blackpool, which was not your hometown?
No, I lived in Salford, which is a small part of Manchester in the North of England. And Manchester was being bombed heavily. And pregnant ladies were evacuated out of the bombing area.
Was killing my country
"Military Madness" was an anti-war anthem, with social protest rooted in childhood memories. But it had the kind of engaging melody Nash was known for and even a kind of singalong feel to it.
You and a lot of your peers of that era were anti-war. But not all of them came upon that having grown up around bomb craters.
We were playing in buildings that could have collapsed on us at any moment. And if my parents would have found out, I woulda been in big trouble.
The album came out in 1971, Nash joining a list of confessional singer songwriters on the charts at the moment their genre hit the cover of time as the hot new thing. It followed the breakup of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and another breakup, with his live-in love Joni Mitchell. But on "Songs for Beginners," even lost love could ride along on a tuneful wave that took a bit of the sting out.
"I Used To Be A King"
And in my bed late at night
I miss you
Overall, the album came across as an affirmative, idealistic affair.
"We Can Change The World"
We can change the world
We can change
"Wild tales," released in early 1974, was something else again. It arrived at a moment when among Nash's peers, on the radio at least, confessional songwriting had given way to polished pop balladry.
"My Love" – Paul McCartney
And when I go away
I know my heart can stay with my love
"My love" by Paul McCartney, Barbra Streisand, "The Way We Were." You knew how to write love songs. And you knew how to write hits. And yet, with "Wild Tales," you didn't go in the direction of what was on the radio at the time. What was on your mind?
All the stuff that's in "Wild Tales."
Nash wasn't going for the gloss of pop-friendly radio.
"On The Line"
Don't the wind blow cold when you're hanging your soul
On the line
Again he mined his childhood for inspiration, but the memories hurt this time.
My father was an engineer. My mother had to look after three kids, of course. But she had to work also. We were very poor, but my father– had bought a camera from a friend of his at work. One day the police came to our door. They wanted to know where my father had bought the camera, because they think that a camera had been stolen. Well, in the north of England at that point, and I'm sure it's the same all over the world, you didn't, you don't rat on your friends. And so my father would, wouldn't tell them. And he actually spent a year in jail.
And what did that do to your dad? And what did that do to you?
I think it broke his heart. I think it was shameful — he felt ashamed that the police had come to the door. And he died at 46.
One day a friend took me aside and said I'll have to leave you
For buying something from a friend they say I've done wrong.
Nash turned experience to a plea for prison reform, long before such sentiments hit the mainstream.
So now I'm bidding you farewell for much too long.
And here's a song to sing for every man inside.
Meanwhile, the troops had left Vietnam the year before, but that didn't stop Nash from writing a song called "Oh! Camil"
Scott Camil was one of the most highly decorated soldiers in the Vietnam War, many, many medals for absolute bravery, gung-ho, into it. And then he had a, I guess a come-to-Jesus meeting with himself where he realized that what he had been doing all these years was wrong.
"Oh Camil! (The Winter Soldier)"
Will you tell all the people about the people you killed
Not for God but for country and war
Nash was inspired by Camil's having testified in a war crimes forum sponsored by the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
And if people were in the villages yelling and screaming we didn't help them we just burned the houses as we went. It wasn't like they were humans. Like we were conditioned to believe that this was for the good of the nation, the good of our country, and that anything we did was ok.
Oh Camil! (The Winter Soldier)
Oh Camil tell me what did your mother say
When you left all those people out in the fields
Rotting along with the hay?
Unlike his earlier anti-war song, "Oh! Camil" was no singalong.
Did you show her your guns?
Did you show her the ears that you wore?
"Did you show them the ears that you wore" … I didn't know what that meant when I first heard that song.
Some American soldiers in the Vietnam War were gung-ho enough to when they killed their enemies that they would cut off their ears and make a bracelet of them to wear.
Will you tell all the people about the people that stand up for God
Not for country or war.
His lost love Joni Mitchell made an expressive painting of Nash for the album's back cover. And it was her haunting, wordless vocals that brought the record to a close on a tune called "Another Sleep Song."
It sounds like you're writing about being flat out depressed.
In that song.
I was avoiding the day. I was avoiding sunlight. I was almost, almost like a vampire.
"Another Sleep Song"
All I need is someone to awaken me
Much of me has gone to sleep
The melodies were there and the words were deeply felt. But "Wild Tales" was Graham Nash's first commercial — though not artistic — failure.
You made an album where you had sympathy for incarcerated people, where you wrote vividly about war crimes. And you ended the record with a song about being thoroughly and utterly depressed. Looking back, can you see why it might not have been one of your big hits?
I do. I definitely understand. I was depressed, you know? And the music shows it. But that's all I've ever written about is what's happening to me. I've got money. And I've got fame. And I've got, all those other, you know, things, you know, that I never wanted in the first place. But I'm still this person that feels very deeply about many things.
"There's Only One"
We can heed the call
We can trip and fall
Which brings us back to why he's singing these songs at this moment. To be, in his words, as real as possible with no time like the present.
Let the ashes fall
Upon us all or not at all
It's in us all.
Watch the Full Episode
Tom Casciato is an Emmy award-winning director, writer, producer and television executive who has created critically acclaimed nonfiction projects that have appeared on PBS, ABC, NBC, TBS, Showtime and more. He recently directed and produced two stories within episodes of the second season of the Emmy Award-winning climate-change series, "Years Of Living Dangerously." His 2013 film with Kathleen Hughes and Bill Moyers for Frontline series, "Two American Families," was called by Salon “... one of the best and most heartbreaking documentaries” of the year. Tom previously worked at WNET from 2006 until 2012, serving variously as director of News & Current Affairs and executive producer of two PBS series, "Wide Angle" and "Exposé: America’s Investigative Reports."
Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
Connie Kargbo has been working in the media field since 2007 producing content for television, radio, and the web. As a field producer at PBS NewsHour Weekend, she is involved in all aspects of the news production process from pitching story ideas to organizing field shoots to scripting feature pieces. Before joining the weekend edition of PBS Newshour, Connie was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand where she trained Thai English teachers.
Mori Rothman has produced stories on a variety of subjects ranging from women’s rights in Saudi Arabia to rural depopulation in Kansas. Mori previously worked as a producer and writer at ABC News and as a production assistant on the CNN show Erin Burnett Outfront.
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