Graham Nash After CSN: ‘Just Following My Heart’

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He talks about his CSNY bandmates and curating their history, his strong new solo LP and surprise… the election
Photo of Graham Nash by Amy Grantham

Photo of Graham Nash by Amy Grantham

[Note: This interview originally appeared in Sept. 2016.]

Go to Google News right now and type in “Graham Nash.” Go ahead, we’ll wait.

When you do, you’ll find articles saying the singer/songwriter will absolutely never work with Crosby, Stills & Nash again. You’ll find others a few days later saying he’d consider it if David Crosby turned up with an undeniably great song. He’s all over the map.

So what is it? Is it a day-to-day thing with the famously feuding trio? After all, Nash vowed decades ago to never work with Stephen Stills and Crosby again, especially after Stills and Neil Young wiped the Crosby/Nash vocals off of the aborted CSNY Long May You Run album in 1976 and put out some of those songs as the Stills/Young Band. That obviously changed in the ensuing years.


The longtime (and future?) collaborators

“It is a day-to-day thing,” Nash acknowledged. “Right now I don’t want to talk to any of them, especially David. My relationship with Stephen has always been fine. Also with David, we were best friends for 45 years. He has just treated me awfully the last couple of years and I’m just not going to stand for it.”

Nash is vague about the “awful” treatment, but he was very vocal about past transgressions in his cathartic 2013 autobiography, Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life. That tell-all caused some tension among the trio and was possibly the catalyst for Nash’s recent reevaluation of his life (though in fairness, Nash was far tougher on his own transgressions in that book than on his bandmates’—even the drug-fueled antics of Crosby).

Related: Neil Young says CSNY could get together again

That catharsis contributed to a divorce from his wife of nearly 40 years and making a whole new life, transplanted from the West Coast and Hawaii to New York City. He now has a girlfriend half his age (and yes, he knows how that looks and he doesn’t care). It was from New York that Nash took a few minutes recently to talk about the life changes and his strong new album, This Path Tonight. The recent news stories about Nash are spurred by his latest feud with Crosby, overshadowing at times the fact that the album is another milestone in his career.

Watch “Myself at Last,” which Best Classic Bands premiered, from Graham Nash’s 2016 album This Path Tonight

The CSN story has been told endlessly over the years, from biographies to the band members’ own memoirs and books (Crosby wrote three, Young two, Nash one, Stills none). The three members of CSN, recently departed from classic rock legends the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Hollies, famously harmonized in 1968 (the date and place are still in dispute) and discovered three voices that blended together almost as well as the Beatles’. The rest is truly history, from 1969’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” to 1982’s “Wasted on the Way,” as well as many classic albums, boxed sets and documentaries. The rush-recorded single with Young, “Ohio,” was a damning indictment of U.S. politics and brutality in 1970.

At the end of writing his memoirs, Nash reviewed what he’d written about his experiences and thought, “Hey, this guy sounds interesting.” Was the book cathartic?

“It was. It was an unloading, almost, an unburdening of what my life has been,” Nash told Best Classic Bands. “It was an incredible life. It’s still going on and I’m just looking forward to tomorrow.”

It has been 14 years since Nash’s last solo album, Songs for Survivors (a play on his much earlier album title, 1971’s Songs for Beginners). But with endless touring and a history to tidy up, Nash has been far from lazy. “That’s for sure,” he said. “I didn’t realize (it had been 14 years) either. The truth is I put out probably a dozen CDs in that 14 years. I did Stephen’s boxed set, Crosby’s boxed set, my boxed set, a CSNY boxed set. I’ve been a busy boy.”

Unlike some songwriters who feel they’re compelled to write fresh material, Nash doesn’t put out an album until he has something to say. This Path Tonight is intensely personal, with Nash outlining the sea changes in his recent life with the same passion he used in political protest songs like “Chicago” and “Immigration Man.”

Sample lyric from the hard-edged, introspective title track: “I try my best to be myself/But wonder who’s behind this mask … I may not know just where I’m going/But I’m on this path This path tonight.” Other titles tell more of the story: the gentle acoustic “Myself at Last” and the somber “Another Broken Heart.”

“These are the emotional changes I’m going through in my life for This Path Tonight,” he explained. “I can only write when I feel. I have to feel something before I can write about it, of course!” He added, “I’m having a great time with my life, as crazy as it looks right now.”

Graham Nash LP CoverThere are risks and benefits when you blow up your life, but Nash has always done what he felt he had to do. “I just have to follow my heart, kid. That’s all I’m doing. That’s all I’m doing with my life,” he said. “I’m doing what my mother and father taught me so well. I have to follow what my heart tells me is good.”

In 2015 he was 73 and had a supremely comfortable life, and a role as a rock elder statesman. He left that life, to put it mildly. The divorce was final in 2016. “It’s almost insane, what I did … ‘Holy shit, I’m almost 74 years old, what’s going on?’ But I have to be true to myself or else I can’t sleep,” he said.

Those are the benefits. The risks are sorely evident. “A couple of my kids aren’t talking to me. That’s not easy,” he acknowledged in a quiet voice. “And it’s always incredibly nasty—divorce—and expensive. But the sad thing is I didn’t divorce my children. I divorced their mother. That’s the only downside, a couple of them not talking to me. I’m sure they will eventually, but it’s painful right now.”

With the new album and an upcoming live release on CD, DVD and Blu-ray, Nash is going all-in on his new musical life as well. “You have to. You have to embrace the technology, because the technology is shortening the distance between my mind and my audience,” he said. “It’s incredibly important. I was just in Florida at this radio convention and I was telling these radio people who were there—they’re important. How else are we selling records nowadays?”

This one should sell itself in a perfect world. Besides the impassioned songwriting, Nash is working with a crack crew including drummer Jay Bellarose (Robert Plant and Alison Krauss) and guitarist/cowriter Shane Fontayne (Lone Justice, Bruce Springsteen).

Fontayne has become Nash’s closest collaborator since, well, Crosby. “Absolutely. It’s very difficult working with people, especially for me. I’m always uncomfortable writing with people. But the only way I can put it to you is writing with Shane is like writing with a mirror,” Nash said. “He’s English, of course. We both go way back in English rock ’n’ roll. I just feel very comfortable with him. I trust him completely. It shone through, because we wrote 20 songs together.”

So as for his side job: Why is Nash the archivist for the three—sometimes four—CSN(Y) songwriters? “I’m the one who really realizes how valuable the tapes are,” he said. “I know it’s only rock ’n’ roll and it’s only music, but it’s a certain part of the history of the culture. It needs to be protected. It’s like fabulous paintings from centuries ago that still look beautiful. I love the fact that much of the history of CSNY is written on tape. That’s why I’m the archivist. That’s why I have two-inch tape machines that don’t exist anymore, because we’re on two-inch tapes. We need something to play them on. I’ve always been that guy.”


This terrific collection, produced by Nash and Joel Bernstein, was released 40 years later

Stills, in particular, was thrilled with his 2013 Carry On box set, curated by Nash and Joel Bernstein. Nash was the one who insisted that box needed to be four CDs, not three, to tell the story properly. The live 2014 four-disc box, CSNY 1974, salvaged amazing tracks and footage from a tour that was rife with performances and vocals messed up by drug use. Yet Nash dug through the existing recordings to find moments of pure magic, electric and acoustic (and liberated a number of unreleased Young songs in the process).

Related: A look back at CSN&Y’s classic album, Déjà vu

“I didn’t make these boxed sets for me or Stephen or Neil. I made these boxed sets for history. I wanted that, in 100 years’ time, if someone was curious about who Stephen Stills was, all you had to do was put on the boxed set that me and Joel Bernstein made for him. Then you’ll know what a great musician he is. I did this for history. I wanted to prove once and for all to America that CSNY were a great rock ’n’ roll band.”

What’s next? What holy grails are still in those archives? “There’s much more to be done, unfortunately!” he said with a laugh. “I just need to take a break before I start the next project. There’s an album I’m trying to put together for the past few years with Crosby and me singing with famous people. With James Taylor and Bonnie [Raitt] and Jackson [Browne] … it’s a great album; we sang on many of the hits of those people. When I have a rest from my music I’ll get to it.”

Fans were surprised when a track from the aborted Human Highway turned up on Stills’ box set. Is there anything else to salvage, or did Stills/Young truly wipe those tracks back in the day? “Nope. It’s gone. It’s, it’s….yeah. Gone.”

“I think there’s a lot of good music in this. Shane and I together reduced the songs down to the way we wrote them,” Nash said of the acoustic performances he and Fontayne did. “People are responding very well. They’re responding to me talking about where I was in my head when I wrote ‘Our House’ or ‘Teach Your Children’ or ‘Immigration Man’ or ‘Chicago.’ People are very interested in how songs get created.”

While he kept the bulk of This Path Tonight focused on his personal journey, he couldn’t resist—as always—a foray into politics. To keep the two from cross-pollinating, three bonus tracks are available only as digital bonus tracks, including an aching “Mississippi Burning.” It’s the story of the 1964 Deep South murders of three students working in the Civil Rights movement. The grisly killings were linked to the Ku Klux Klan, but no one was prosecuted for decades. One man is now in prison, but the case was finally closed just this past June. Nash felt it was important to keep the story alive, just as Bob Dylan had written about Emmett Till’s 1955 murder back in the ’60s.

“I’ve known about the three students,” he said. “But the moment I took absolute notice was when my friend Bonnie Raitt paid for some damage that had been done to the grave of the black student. When I heard that I began to really realize how important their deaths were in terms of bringing civil rights to the forefront of the conversation. I think we should always remember the sacrifice of many people, kids, that goes unnoticed sometimes. I didn’t want their deaths to go unnoticed.”

In researching the killings he also uncovered some stomach-churning details of the hate-crime. “One of the sad things is that when they were looking for these three students they threw back a dozen black bodies,” he said somberly. “They had dug out the remains of over a dozen black people while searching for these kids. And they just threw the bodies back.”

And, of course, there’s the election. “I think we’re actually becoming the laughingstock of the world,” said Nash, who is a very politically involved U.S. citizen despite his British birth. “I’ve never…I’ve been here, what, almost 50 years? I have never seen it so crazy. It got crazy with Reagan and with Bush but I have never seen it this crazy. Never seen presidential campaigns start out with figuring out the size of your penis. I’m of course a big Bernie Sanders fan and I will vote for Hillary because she’s the Democratic nominee. I will never, ever, ever consider voting for Donald Trump.”

Despite Nash’s personal changes, some things never change.

Who’s that in the brown vest and mustard-colored pants?

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Mark Brown
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  1. Mike Cote
    #1 Mike Cote 4 February, 2017, 07:28

    Great interview, Mark. Glad you still get to do this. I love how Nash calls you “kid.”

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