We’ve Got A File On You: Graham Nash
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
Graham Nash started his music career over 60 years ago. It’s mind-boggling to consider the radically different eras he’s been around for, from early days in English clubs, to the Hollies playing alongside the Beatles, to a whole other trajectory in America with Crosby, Stills, & Nash. Throughout, his crystalline voice has driven his own songs and elevated the songs of other musicians. This week, Nash is releasing a new live album — simply titled Graham Nash: Live — featuring full-album performances of his first two solo outings, 1971’s Songs For Beginners and 1974’s Wild Tales. Ahead of its release, we caught up with Nash about his long history as musician, collaborating with everyone from David Gilmour to, somehow, the cast of Trailer Park Boys.
The Hollies In It’s All Over Town (1964), Crosby, Stills, & Nash Releasing “Marrakesh Express” (1969)
Pretty early in the Hollies’ existence, you appeared in this movie It’s All Over Town.
GRAHAM NASH: We were fight kids from the north of England and we had escaped doing what our fathers had to do and our grandfathers had to do. Basically two things. You either went down in the mine to dig coal or you were in the mill to make woolen material. We managed to escape that. My mother and father loved my passion for music and didn’t mind that I didn’t get a real job, you know? We were the Hollies and we were asked to do this little video. It was probably one of the very first videos. There weren’t much that were earlier than that.
The way I’ve read about it, it seemed like you started to feel constrained in the Hollies — a lot of covers, they were pushing back on songs like yours like “King Midas In Reverse” and “Marrakesh Express.” Were there particular things you learned then that you carried forward through the decades?
NASH: It’s true. I wanted to keep pushing the Hollies forward sonically. Obviously I was listening to Pet Sounds and everything the Beatles had done, and I realized albums could be a journey rather than a collection of hits to make money for the record company. We knew how to make music and we knew how to make people dance. The Hollies were a really good live band.
Did you feel vindicated when “Marrakesh Express” became CSN’s lead single and one of its signature songs?
NASH: I did. Somewhere in the bowels of EMI at Abbey Road, there’s a version of “Marrakesh Express” done by the Hollies. Quite frankly, it’s a little lifeless. To me, the track should’ve sounded like an express train with tremendous energy. That’s what Stephen Stills brought to it with his beautiful electric guitar overdubs. I was feeling very different. I realized if I took what I had learned with the Hollies — the six years where I was with them, we could magically write a tune you couldn’t forget if you heard it twice, but the lyrics left a lot to be desired. And so, when I moved to America to join David and Stephen, I realized that if I could put better words to the tunes I’d learned to write, I’d have better songs. That’s what happened.
Songs For Beginners (1971)
Your new live album features a performance of your first solo album, Songs For Beginners, which also turned 50 last year. Those would seem to be heady days, to have the success of CSNY and then you all have these signature solo albums come out in the first couple years of the ’70s.
NASH: Absolutely. Here’s what happened. We’re songwriters, we had three, sometimes four, very strong songwriters and very strong musicians. We realized we had many songs left over because Crosby, Stills & Nash weren’t recording. We’d done that first record. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young weren’t recording, we’d just done Déjà Vu. What do you do with all those songs you’ve got left over? That’s why I started Songs For Beginners. They were pretty heady days.
At the same time you all had credits on each other’s albums. Was that you playing Wurlitzer on “On The Beach”?
NASH: Am I? I can’t remember. [Laughs]
It’s what the internet says, but sometimes the internet is wrong.
NASH: Sometimes it is. I certainly remember doing “Are You Ready For The Country?” on Harvest. I always love working with Neil. He’s a dedicated musician. He’s very dedicated to the muse of music. In Neil’s world, that means if it feels good he’s right there, and if it doesn’t feel good: Where’s Neil?
CSNY Reuniting For American Dream (1988)
After Déjà Vu, there was going to be another CSNY album that never happened, and you all used the songs for other solo projects. Then you guys did get back together for American Dream in 1988.
NASH: My memory is that CSN was in the studio in Los Angeles. We were four or five songs into a new record. Neil came to visit Stephen in the studio, and when we played Neil what he had, he wanted to join in. He’s a musician. You play a good song for a musician and the first thing they want to do is add to it — their part, whatever that might be. So he joined us and it ended up as American Dream, which we did at Neil’s ranch in northern California.
How do you feel about the ’80s and ’90s works relative to the ’60s and ’70s?
NASH: I don’t think like that. I don’t give a shit what we did. There’s nothing you can do about it. I’m only interested in what we’re going to do, what songs I’m writing now, what show I’m preparing for. I don’t care about the past, there’s nothing I can do about it.
Singing On Bonnie Raitt’s “Cry On My Shoulder” (1989), Warren Zevon’s “Looking For The Next Best Thing” (1982), And Elton John’s Blue Moves (1976)
Hopefully the internet is correct this time: You sang on Nick Of Time?
NASH: I sure did. David did as well.
I did one of these interviews with Bonnie recently and she was talking about a bit of history with you, No Nukes and such. Nick Of Time was such a turning point in her career. What was the atmosphere like when you got called in to contribute to that?
NASH: The only memory I have is Crosby stole my part. He did his part first, we didn’t do them together. When David got there first, he took the part he thought he should take. It happened to be my part. So I had to sing underneath Bonnie and David, which is unusual for me. My voice can reach high notes. I loved that Bonnie loved what we did. I have such great respect for Bonnie.
Were you a bit annoyed with David for forcing you into a lower register?
NASH: Not at all. I look at it as an opportunity to find a more interesting part.
Another thing Bonnie and I talked about was working with Warren Zevon, who had some connections with your whole Southern California circle. You also sang with him, on The Envoy. What was he like to work with?
NASH: Intense. Quiet. He knew exactly what he wanted, and so we gave him exactly what he wanted. I had never met him until that night, and I never saw him afterwards.
You also sang on Elton John’s 1976 album Blue Moves. He was a star by then, but a young Elton John had some involvement with the Hollies.
NASH: The Hollies were playing the London Palladium. A very important London gig. Pete Seeger was the headliner. The Hollies did their soundcheck around 4 o’clock in the afternoon and the phone rang backstage. Our tour manager picks up the phone and he goes, “Mhm, uh huh, yeah, he’s right here. OK, hold on.” He starts to hand me the phone. I say, “Who is it?” He goes, “He says it’s Phil Everly.” I say… “Look, don’t fuck with me like this, that’s not nice.” He goes, “It’s Phil Everly!” I pick up the phone and say, “…Hello?” “Hey Graham, it’s Phil!” OK, great, why are you calling? He says, “Me and Don are in town, we’re going to record an album called Two Yanks In England. Do the Hollies have any songs they haven’t recorded yet?” We had plenty.
Me and Allan and Tony and Bobby go down to — I think it was the Ritz Hotel in London where the Everly Brothers were staying in their suite. The first thing I did, of course, was ask Don to play me the opening chords of “Bye Bye Love,” because they’re fantastic. We sang them a bunch of songs. I think we sang them 10 songs and they chose, I think, five of them for the record. We said, “That’s great you’re making this record, when do you start?” They said, “Tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock.” We went down there to help them do our songs. The sessions there had Reggie Dwight on piano — Reggie, of course, became Elton John — Jimmy Page on guitar, and John Paul Jones on bass. That’s when we met. I’ve been friends with Elton ever since. He was a session player on somebody else’s album, so he was just a piano player. He was a really good piano player, but he wasn’t Elton John then. He was Reggie Dwight.
Appearing In A Spinal Tap Reunion: The 25th Anniversary London Sell-Out (1992)
NASH: Every bloody musician in the world thinks that Spinal Tap is the absolutely greatest tour documentary ever made. I know it was a joke, I know it was a comedy, but it was so bloody real. Yeah, what an incredible time. Derek calls me and he goes, “We’re going to do a little thing, you live close by.” They were doing it in Encino. All I did was drive several hundred yards to the studio and I did my little bit.
Do you have any particularly bad Spinal Tap-esque tour memories from over the years?
NASH: No, everything in that movie had happened to us. Everything in that movie had happened to every other single band. It wasn’t that you could get specific. The entire thing was your life.
Obviously you guys were around for the original, and you had the song “Woodstock.” What do you remember from the 1994 iteration vs. 1969?
NASH: It became obvious to us that, first of all, it should’ve never taken place. You could never re-do the original Woodstock. The times were terribly different. They were selling bottles of water for $10. They were keeping people in the sun on concrete for acres and acres. We did a pretty decent job, but it was pretty obvious it shouldn’t have taken place, and we knew that.
That’s a little before festivals became such a mainstream big business in America. But it already felt like the corporate nostalgia cash-in?
To be in the band that performed songs like “Woodstock” or “Ohio,” do you ever see that spirit moving down the generations?
NASH: Yeah, I do. I still truly believe the majority of what hippies stood for. I still believe peace is better than war. I still believe that we have to take care of our individuals because that’s all we got on this planet. I still believe love is better than hatred. Just the basic principles of hippiedom, if you will.
Working With David Gilmour For “On An Island” (2006)
NASH: David [Crosby] and I were doing a show at the Royal Festival Hall in London. We did a great show. David [Gilmour] came to see us, and he came backstage after the show and said, “I’ve got two things to say.” We said, “Well, fantastic, what are they David?” “Well, first of all, I’m stealing your drummer.” “OK.” The second one was he had this song “On An Island” that he wanted me and David to sing on. What it was, basically, was David [Gilmour] had a studio on a boat that was parked on the Thames. It used to belong to Charlie Chaplin.
When we were singing at the microphone, at head height were small windows, and we could see swans swimming around right in front of our eyes. We were slightly below the level of the water because we were in the base of the boat. It was a great experience. I just love the guy. He’s such an incredible guitar player. I’ve yet to hear him play a wrong note, frankly. To be able to do that song with him, and also “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” which we did a little later at the Royal Albert Hall — it was beautiful. He knows what he wants, and he wanted me and David to sing on that track and we did and I think it was beautiful.
John Mayer’s “Born And Raised” (2012), Playing With Yo La Tengo (2018)
So far we’ve talked about collaborations with a lot of your peers. You also sang on a song with John Mayer in 2012. Out of all the younger artists, what makes you gravitate and say, “Yeah, I want to be involved with this guy.”
NASH: Two things. One, Don Was. Don Was is a great producer. He has great ears. He asked us to do it and we heard the song. That’s the second part. The song was a fabulous song. David and I knew we could add to the song with the vocal sound we would create, in the choruses and maybe in the last verse. John was incredibly kind to us. He had no “You guys are old guys and I’m the young star.” He had none of that ego at all. He was really a delight to work with.
You also ended up onstage with Yo La Tengo in 2018. In general how much do you feel yourself keeping up with new music or younger artists?
NASH: I don’t do a lot of listening to new music. I’m so involved in my music, and me and David and Stephen, and me and David and Stephen and Neil, etc., etc. All the tapes we’ve used and all the shows we’ve recorded. But I know great stuff will find me. For instance, “This Is America” by Childish Gambino? What an incredible video that is. There are people who are talking the talk, you know? Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine. Fleet Foxes in their early days.
The truth is, the people that own the world’s media don’t want protest songs on the radio and on their television shows. They learned. They learned from Vietnam. You can’t piss off the people, because they start to ask questions like, “What the fuck are we doing here?” We try and talk about real stuff that happens to us. We’re ordinary people. Yes, we do something different with our lives. Yes, we’ve been musicians for over 60 years. I know all that stuff. We try and get on and talk about real things and I think our audience loves us for that.
Cameo In Trailer Park Boys (2016)
You have an appearance in a Trailer Park Boys episode, and they also came onstage with you.
NASH: In Amsterdam. I’ve always loved Trailer Park Boys. It’s a sitcom out of Canada and it’s brilliantly done. I’ve always loved their sense of humor. One of our crew members knew them and we had talked about me loving it. Crosby & Nash were playing a show in Amsterdam, and they arranged the three stars of Trailer Park Boys to come to Amsterdam and sing with us. Unfortunately, David was not happy about that. He had never seen Trailer Park Boys and he had no idea what a great joke it was. They took advantage of that situation, that David didn’t want to be there. They set up a little thing backstage where me and Stephen are singing with them and it sounds really good and then they go, “Well, what about David?” and I go, “I’m not sure about David.” That was the little bit they came up with that ended up on the show.
The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” Video (1967)
You were in the room when the “All You Need Is Love” video was recorded.
NASH: Obviously musicians on a Saturday night are partying. I was no different. I hadn’t gotten to bed until about four in the morning, and at about nine in the morning on Sunday, my phone rang, which was unusual. It was Paul. He said, “Hey, me and the boys are doing this thing at Abbey Road later today, do you want to come?” I said, “What is it?” He goes, “Well, every country in the world is putting forward a musical act that represents their country.” For the UK, of course it was the Beatles. I think, “Boy, that sounds great, I’ll see you down there.” I went and sat and watched them do that. It was beautiful to be in the audience. There were many people there: Keith Moon and Mick Jagger and Eric [Clapton]. Bunch of people. I had a great time and it was very kind of Paul to invite me.
“Our House” (1970)
I’ve lived with the album Déjà Vu for a long time, and I think in particular the songs you wrote for that album were in the atmosphere when I was growing up. “Our House” seems like one of the standards you’ve given to the world.
NASH: Today, when I sing it, I know people want to hear. I know they want to hear “Teach Your Children” and “Immigration Man” and “Chicago” and “Military Madness.” I try and generate the same passion in delivering the song to them as I did when I wrote the song. I think my fans deserve that. They deserve my best.
Do you ever get a sense of what makes those songs catch on and become more universal than others?
NASH: I have a feeling it was a way I learned to write tunes with the Hollies — like I said, you couldn’t forget them if you heard them a couple times. I’m incredibly grateful and also very pissed off with the fact that… my music has lasted 50 years, at least. At the same time, we haven’t learned from history. I actually changed the beginning of my tour this time. I just finished a tour. I usually start with something like “Wasted On The Way.” It was a minor hit, you know. It settles people down, they take their jackets off, they get ready for the show. Because of what’s been going on between Putin and Ukraine, I told them I had to change the beginning of my show. I started the show with an a cappella version of “Find The Cost Of Freedom,” followed by “Military Madness.” Our audience know they’re going to get as real as possible a performance from me. So far, the shows have been just fabulous. I am most happy with the way they’ve been going down.
Back to “Our House” for a second: That was written when you were living with Joni Mitchell. She’s another artist you collaborated with over the years. What was that dynamic like?
NASH: Joni is a brilliant woman. She’s obviously one of the best of our kind of songwriting. It was very obvious from the first night I met her, when she played me 15 songs that knocked me on my ass. I had never heard music like that. I had never heard two or three songs that knocked me on my ass, and I had never heard 15 songs knock me on my ass. She wrote songs for me, I wrote songs for her, I wrote songs about falling in love with her, I wrote songs about breaking up with her. She was an important person in my life. I loved her dearly, and I love her to this day.