After years in the music business, Graham Nash still gets moved by things, particularly by the state of the world we live in today. As a member of The Hollies, Nash sang about brotherhood on “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” In Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young), Nash delivered beautiful vocals and penmanship to songs like “Teach Your Children,” “Cathedral” and “Our House.” As a solo artist, Nash talked about organized violence on “Military Madness” and the 1968 Democratic Convention riots on “Chicago.”
Nash’s April release, This Path Tonight, is a reflective look back at the world as it was and, particularly, as it has become. A bonus song on the deluxe version of the album, “Watch Out for the Wind,” addresses the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Nash helped establish the countercultural music of the ’60s, and it’s somehow a relief to hear him talk about how things still suck, as opposed to just resigning himself to rehashing hits for aging crowds. Nash is a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, as part of CSN&Y and The Hollies. An accomplished photographer, agitator, and musical history collector, Nash also has one of the greatest harmony voices in the history of contemporary music.
Nash recently paused during his busy day to talk to Folio Weekly Magazine about his wild ride, recording the CSN classic “Ohio,” and the influence that hot-bed of harmony, Bulgaria, had on his own sound.
Folio Weekly Magazine: From that upstairs room in Blackpool to where you are now, what kind of ride has it been?
Graham Nash: It’s been the wildest ride I could’ve ever imagined. When I decided that I wanted to be a musician, way back when I was 13 years old, I didn’t really know where this would end up; I only knew what it was doing to my heart and my soul, fulfilling me as a creative person. I never thought it would last this long. Holy shit, was it Mick Jagger who said, “Never trust anyone over 30”? Come on, I’m way past that now.
You’ve achieved so much as part of The Hollies, and of course with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and as a solo artist. The Hollies, at the time, were quite popular. What led you to CSN? A different dynamic? A different challenge?
No, it was the music. Once I had heard what David and Stephen and I sounded like when we sang together, it was over for me. I knew what I wanted. My heart said, “This is incredible music, you need to do this.” So I was left with a decision and, quite frankly, it was a courageous decision. I left my country, I left my bank account, I left my band, I left my first wife, who I had just divorced. It was an incredible decision that I will never, ever regret.
Throughout your career, you’ve always been part of great harmony work.
I love harmonies; I’ve always loved the harmony part of music. A lot of that’s due to Phil Everly, from whom I learned a lot. He was a dear friend in real life, he was always very great to me, and he was one of the greatest harmony singers ever.
So The Everly Brothers heavily influenced you. Anybody else?
Oh, yes, they were right at the top. Also, when I came to the United States in 1966, Paul Simon gave me an album of the music of Bulgaria, which was a record of the National Women’s Choir of Bulgaria. It was made by people that came out of the field and were used to singing all day, and it was a record of insane harmonies, I’m talking eight-part harmonies. It’s one of my most favorite records. Since Paul gave it to me, I must’ve bought and given away several hundred copies of this album.
In “Myself At Last,” a song on the new album This Path Tonight, you ask poignant questions, like, “Is my future just my past?” What does that mean to you? You’ve accomplished so many things, been so many places and done so much.
I know, but to a certain degree, creativity is an escape from the real world. I find that’s true for me, when I write. I get upset about things that happen and I have the ability to sit down and write about it. It’s been an incredible life; I wake up every morning and get on with my life. I react to what happens around me, and I’m fortunate I have several different ways to express myself.
Another song, “Golden Days,” sounds like a tribute, a harkening to an earlier time.
David Crosby called me one day and he said, “Find Stephen and book a studio. Neil and I are coming down tomorrow.” I said, “Book the studio?” He said, “Yeah, book the studio, book the band, let’s go. Neil has written a song called ‘Ohio’.” So I booked everything and everyone came in and we recorded “Ohio” in about an hour-and-a-half. We gave it to Ahmet Ertegun, the head of Atlantic Records, and told him to put it out immediately. He was concerned because we had “Teach Your Children” in the Top 20 and it might kill our own single. But it’s what we wanted to do. It was way more important than having another hit single, the fact that America is killing its own children at school was way more important than me having another bloody hit single.
It’s a powerful song, with parallels to what’s going on now in America. Is the music’s message as important to you now as it was in the ’60s?
Yes, it is for me. I can’t speak for other people, but it is for me. It seems to me like it’s getting crazier, and a song like “Golden Days” reflects on an earlier, gentler, less-chaotic time, and it was that. It was a more peaceful time. I’m sure crazy shit was going down, but it seemed manageable somehow. Today it doesn’t seem manageable to me. It’s crazy; we’ve told 300 million Americans that they all deserve the same rights as everybody else, and when they ask for those rights, we turn into a police state.
Changing gears: I read about your fantastic memorabilia collection. What’s your favorite thing you’ve acquired over the years?
One of my favorite pieces — and I have everything from James Dean’s first movie contract to Richard Nixon’s resignation letter to Henry Kissinger — is a piece of fence. Me and Crosby have been JFK assassination conspiracy buffs for years. I went to the grassy knoll while I was on tour in the early ’80s. I studied the Zapruder film and read every book, so I wanted to stand behind the grassy knoll fence. I stood there and I thought, “The guy shot from right here,” and I decided that I’d take a sliver of the fence as a memento. But it was so rusty that an entire five-foot section came off in my hands, and I started looking around to see if anyone saw what happened. My tour bus was right there, so I just walked it right onto the bus. That’s in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame exhibit of my stuff right now.
“Our House,” a great song, was a big hit. If in that house, if it existed now, you had to have a roommate, would it be Crosby, Stills or Young?
Oh, that is tough. That’s a very difficult question to answer. Normally, my answer would be Crosby; we’ve been dear friends for many, many years. But then I think about all the shit that comes with Crosby. Then I think about Stephen and I think about Neil, who’s one of my strangest friends. Maybe I don’t want a flatmate. It would be just me and the cats in the yard.