Two-time Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer Graham Nash continues to impress with a late career surge filled with some of the best songs he’s written in decades. From the 2012 resurgence of Crosby, Stills & Nash to 2015’s darkly brilliant solo effort, This Path Tonight, on to his tour this year and last with Shane Fontayne, his voice is still impeccable, his pitch still perfect, plus he still looks, at 75, every inch the rock star.
You’re touring with just Shane Fontayne and it’s amazing how one doesn’t need bass and drums because the mind fills in the blanks. When I saw you at The MusikFest Café in Bethlehem, PA last year, you two rocked without a rhythm section!
That’s one of the magic things about music and quite frankly, once you strip a song down to the way you wrote it, be it on guitar or piano, you can find out pretty quickly whether or not you’ve got a good song.
Will you be performing just with Shane again this tour?
Yes but this time I have a bunch of songs I never got a chance to play live when I was with David, Stephen and Neil. With four songwriters in the band, how many of your songs can you get to play in a night? There’ll be a nice intimate feeling. I think you noticed that when you saw me last. I mean, hey, I’ve played to hundreds of thousands of people but these smaller venues are really a gas! The crowds have been great and I’m not Brad Pitt so it must be the music.
But you still look and carry yourself like rock royalty. I don’t how you do it.
I don’t do anything but live the best life I can.
My father was dead at 46 from liver failure in 1966. He didn’t drink or smoke. I thought I’d die young too. The day I lived longer than my dad, then another and another day, I stopped fretting about it and here we are. We lived in a pretty toxic industrial area just outside of Manchester [England]. There was always this funky smell in the air. Y’know the strange thing is, Mike, my dad looked old to me.
Yet you come out with one of the best damn CDs of 2015 [This Path Tonight] so that reservoir of compositional creativity certainly hasn’t dried up, yet I’ve spoken with songwriters who say it does, indeed, dry up [Merle Kilgore who co-wrote “Ring Of Fire” with June Carter Cash and others].
That hasn’t happened with me and I’ll tell you why. I’m much more than just a musician. I was a photographer first. I’m a painter. I’m a sculptor. I’m a collector. I am curious about the world. There’s no ending of things to write about. Human beings are unbelievably complex and, at the same time, unbelievably simple. It’s probably why we ended up with Trump.
You’ve always been such a political animal.
We cannot normalize this “president” and his “administration.” It’s not normal. We must resist.
I know. I’ve lost a dear friend over it. It’s very disheartening. When I saw you live in 2012, you sang your song for the then-Bradley Manning, “Almost Gone,” now Chelsea Manning, the transgender whistleblower who President Obama recently pardoned.
Please understand. The one thing she did was the releasing of information about how ugly America’s wars got, which included journalists getting shot down in the name of democracy. I have incredible admiration for somebody who has the courage to do that. To pull back that curtain. Chelsea has been a personal hero of mine for a long time. I hope to meet her one day.
Did you know she was transgender when you wrote the song?
I certainly knew she was conflicted about her gender since she was little.
That must be horrible to be trapped in a male body when you know you’re female.
Insanely horrible to go through that plus what she went through legally. She was in solitary confinement for almost two years in a 12-foot by 6-foot white room with the light on constantly with guards checking in every five minutes to see if she was alive. It’s an amazing story.
What are some of the favorite songs you’ve ever written that can be declared as being “ripped from the headlines”?
“Watch Out For The Wind” was written about Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Will you be doing these songs in Montclair?
As many as I can in two sets.
Can you give us an example of a song you might be performing that you have not performed for years?
I plan on starting with “Carrie Anne.”
Oh wow, the song you wrote in The Hollies about Marianne Faithfull, right?
I’m afraid so, yes.
She must have been such a hot piece because seemingly every rock star in the world lusted after her.
Of course! She was unbelievably attractive. We talked recently about it. I did a show in Paris and invited her as my guest.
The self-reflection in your new songs and their dark overtones combined with your public acrimony with Crosby lately, will you be writing any songs about the dissolution of friendship any time soon? You said you had enough of him to last a lifetime. You also said you write every day. The muse never leaves you. Did you write this morning?
I did, actually. Y’know sometimes when a song appears dark, you’re not quite listening to it in the right way. But, still, only because there’s so much more darkness to write about these days. There’s also so much light to write about and I vacillate between the two. I seem to be either completely pissed off or constantly falling in love.
They say guys like you never make good family members because their family has to share them 24-7 with the public.
It does seem that way, yeah.
How do you reconcile your public and private lives?
I try and make every minute count when I’m home.
You’ve been already quoted as saying that you would, despite what David said about your book, and his ugly comments about Neil’s girlfriend, partner up with him again to play a benefit protest concert.
I still believe that. These petty differences that are keeping CSNY apart pale in comparison to the importance of going out there and making hopeful music for people.
Do Crosby, Stills and Young concur to your knowledge?
I couldn’t care less. I’m just telling you how I feel.
Do have any notion of whether or not they would agree to some reunion?
They’re smart people. Don’t forget that.
Any chance we’ll ever get to hear the album of covers CSN did with producer Rick Rubin before he butted heads with Crosby? That album was completed, no?
Not quite. We had, I think, seven songs done.
Is it possible we’ll get a commercial release of those seven songs as an EP?
The truth is, Mike, anything’s possible. People get angry and they say things they don’t mean and sometimes they say things that they really do mean. Anger is one thing but the truth is that we’re all getting older, the world is still spinning, we need to get over our anger and deal with what it is we can provide for the people. We’re in very dark times right now.
You’re an American citizen, right?
You were the one who hipped me to the fact that nowhere in the original constitution does it give private citizens the right to bear arms. The second amendment only gives private citizens the right to form militias, ostensibly to protect themselves from the British. [It wasn’t until 2008, in District of Columbia v Heller, that the Supreme Court extended that right to individuals.]
You’ve got to understand that the National Rifle Association (NRA) has done a brilliant but fucked-up job of making the second amendment say something it doesn’t say. It’s the very basis of their existence. If there wasn’t a second amendment, there would be no NRA with all of the terrible things they’re doing. America is a big joke right now, and we know why.
I see how in most civilized countries, people have their health care and education provided for them as a natural right.
Not only that but look at the trillions of dollars spent on war in the last few years. America is fighting wars on numerous fronts right now as you and I speak. There’s shit going on in Yemen, Somalia, so many battlefields, and that doesn’t include ISIS. The world is getting crazier. I’ve never seen it this nuts.
I respect the fact that you’re no Johnny-Come-Lately to the art of protest songs. You’ve been at it since the 1960s when you shelved whatever single you had on the charts when four protesting students at Kent State University were actually killed by the United States National Guard in 1970 and you rush-released Neil’s “Ohio.”
Yes, I agreed to shelve my own song, “Teach Your Children,” which had already made it into the Top 30 and was heading upwards on that fateful May 4. Crosby was in Northern California. Neil showed him the Life magazine cover with that iconic shot by John Filo of a 14-year-old runaway [Mary Ann Vecchio] screaming over the dead body of a 20-year-old student [Jeffrey Miller]. Crosby told me about it and was very intense about having me book a studio. When I asked him why, he just said, “We’re on our way. Just wait until you hear this song Neil’s written called ‘Ohio.’” We recorded it that night. We did the “b” side that night. [Atlantic Records President] Ahmet Ertegun was at the session. We mixed it. We gave it to him. We told him to put it out immediately. The original cover of the 45 was the Constitution of the United States with four bullet holes in it.
What did that do to “Teach Your Children”?
Ruined it! But we felt it was much more important to let people know that America was killing its own fucking children than having another hit record of which I had 18 when I was with The Hollies. That didn’t mean shit to me. I was totally in favor of killing “Teach Your Children” to get “Ohio” out NOW.
Brave move. But your whole career has been a string of brave moves. I will never forget the story that I read in your Wild Tales autobiography about how you left your band, your wife and your country when you fell in love with California, with the music of Crosby/Stills and with Joni Mitchell.
Once I heard David, Stephen and I sing together in Joni’s living room, I knew exactly what I had to do.
What was the song?
“You Don’t Have To Cry.”
Wow, to be a fly on the wall. If I remember correctly, you heard those two sing it. Asked them to sing it again, then, a third time, only with your high harmony atop David and Stephen’s harmony. Voila! The group was born.
It was a magic moment. Joni was the only witness.
Graham Nash will be performing in New Jersey at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair July 14, the Ocean City Music Pier July 24, and the Center for the Arts in West Long Branch September 23. He will also headline The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY July 15 and the Sherman Theater in Stroudsburg, PA September 21. For more information, go to grahamnash.com.