A Simple Man: Graham Nash to Play at Tarrytown Music Hall in July
By W.B. King—
If the weather was just right, Radio Luxemburg’s signal could beam across the English Channel finding its way to a radio situated in the modest living room of Graham Nash’s childhood home in Manchester, England.
“I was supposed to be in bed on Sunday nights at nine o’clock and getting ready for school the next day, but that’s when American Top 40 came on. My bedroom was right above where the radio was. The BBC only had two channels then,” Nash said in a phone interview with The Hudson Independent in advance of his July 16 performance at the Tarrytown Music Hall.
“If I put my ear to the bedpost, I could hear the music,” he continued. “My mother and father encouraged me in my passion for music and here we are 60 to 70 years later talking about music.”
A two-time Rock and Roll of Fame inductee, Crosby, Stills and Nash (1997) and The Hollies (2010), respectively, Nash was first attracted to skiffle, a musical genre steeped in American folk and blues.
“Lonnie Donegan was an Irish folk singer who went to America and saw some people [play] like Lead Belly and he brought this music back from America…it was cheap [music] to do if you had an acoustic guitar, a washtub base and one of those things your grandma would use to wash the clothes for drums,” Nash recalled. “It was easy to do, so a lot of kids [like me] were making music. It happened to The Beatles, too, who obviously owe a great deal of gratitude to Lonnie Donegan.”
Two years after his first paying gig at age 14, Nash had a life-changing experience. In February 1958, Bill Haley and His Comets played a show in Manchester, which was a rare experience in the post-World War II city Nash called a “slum” — a place where most everyone was equally poor.
“In my life, I have lost houses. I have lost wives. I have never lost my ticket to the Bill Haley show. I have it in my wallet as we are speaking right now,” Nash said, adding that he attended his first rock and roll concert with childhood friend and co-founder of The Hollies, Allan Clarke.
“It brings me back to that moment. When we heard Bill Haley, it was incredible. You know that moment when the lights go down in a theatre…I love that moment and I think most people do,” he said. “We were in the balcony…a little spotlight hit the center of the curtain. The curtains opened and my life has never been the same since.”
Trusting the Artistic Process
Originating as a skiffle duo inspired by the harmony stylings of The Everly Brothers, The Hollies, named after both Buddy Holly and Christmas, was formed in 1962 by Nash and Clarke. Soon area musicians joined the fold. The band, which became known for its three-part harmonies, would go on to receive praise for songs such as “Bus Stop,” On a Carousel” and “Carrie Anne.” By 1968, however, Nash’s songwriting interests were diverging from his bandmates.
“In the bowels of EMI at Abbey Road [Studios], there is a track of The Hollies doing ‘Marrakesh Express’ — not with any vocals just the track — and quite frankly it is lifeless. When I wrote it and was thinking of recording it, I wanted this churning, driving kind of steam train sound,” Nash said. “I had written a song called ‘King Midus in Reverse’ and we made a very decent record of it but instead of going to the Top 10 immediately as most of The Hollies songs did, it only got to the Top 30 and that’s when they started to not trust my musical direction.”
During a tour stop at The London Palladium, The Hollies played a benefit show for “Save the Children.” Among those in attendance was David Crosby, a founding member of The Byrds.
“I played Marrakesh Express for him [afterward] and he said, ‘Wait a second, they don’t like this? This is a decent song and we could make a great record of this,’” Nash recalled.
Crosby, a then acquaintance, gave Nash the confidence he needed to trust his artistic process and inform a difficult decision: possibly leaving The Hollies.
“The worst thing you can do to an artist or musician is to give them doubt about what they do,” Nash said. “Crosby kind of saved my life and I will always be grateful for that.”
As Nash was mulling over his decision as what to do next, he flew to Los Angeles to visit his then girlfriend Joni Mitchell. The celebrated singer-songwriter resided in Laurel Canyon, a happening artistic enclave recessed in the hills behind Sunset Boulevard.
“The night I arrived, David [Crosby] and Stephen [Stills] were having dinner with Joni, which kind of pissed me off because I just wanted to spend time with Joan of course,” he said.
Nash explained that The Buffalo Springfield had disbanded leaving Stills, who wrote hit songs like “Bluebird” and “For What It’s Worth,” a free agent. Crosby, he said, had been recently “kicked out” of The Byrds.
Crosby and Stills were working on duo material aimed at creating soulful harmonies. After dinner, Nash listened as they played a new tune, “You Don’t have to Cry.” After the first listen, Nash thought it was “fantastic” and “beautiful.” He asked them to sing it again.
“When they got to the end the second time, I said, ‘Bear with me and don’t think I’m crazy, but sing it again.’ During the third time, I added my harmony and after about 45 seconds we had to stop and laugh. The Springfield, The Byrds and The Hollies were decent harmony bands but when me, David and Stephen made our three voices into one, it became this sound…the moment we heard that, Crosby, Stills and Nash (CSN) was formed.”
You, who are on the Road
After the three troubadours had their collective musical epiphany, Nash knew big changes were headed his way.
“I realized I would have to go back to England, leave The Hollies, leave my equipment and my money,” Nash said. “I came to America with my acoustic guitar and a suitcase and I never went back.”
Magical moments like the forming of CSN were frequent occurrences in Laurel Canyon at the time, Nash said. Among its residents were musicians Frank Zappa, Jim Morrison, Carole King, Cass Elliot, who Nash called “The Gertrude Stein of Laurel Canyon,” and Neil Young.
“It was full of sunshine…full of music…full of friends…full of beautiful women and full of interesting drugs,” Nash recalled fondly. He was inspired to write “Our House” while living there with Joni Mitchell.
In early 1969, Crosby, Stills and Nash began work on their self-titled album that included “You Don’t have to Cry” and resulted in two Top 40 hits, “Marrakesh Express” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” The latter song, written by Stills for his then girlfriend and singer-songwriter Judy Collins, would become emblematic of the band’s unique, career-defining harmonic abilities.
Later that year, CSN welcomed Neil Young to the band. Formerly of The Buffalo Springfield where he and Stills thrived, Young, who would be an on-again-off-again member for many years, was at the time also pursuing a solo career.
The new folk super group, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSNY), played its second official gig at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair on August 18, 1969 in Bethel, NY. The band began their historic 60 minute set at roughly 3 a.m.
“We could hardly hear ourselves, and the sound of the audience was enormous, even if they weren’t saying anything. It was their energy, which thrummed like an engine,” Nash recounted of the generation-defining concert in his 2013 memoir, Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life.
Throughout the remainder of 1969, CSNY began writing and recording material for the album Déjà Vu at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco. The Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead were also on location working on respective albums.
“We were all together at the same time making music and being interactive and watching what they did and they were watching what we did,” Nash said. “When we did the track of ‘Teach Your Children,’ Stephen [Stills] said he thought he had done an awful lot of solos on the record and asked us to think of something different.”
As Nash recalls, Crosby mentioned that Jerry Garcia had been learning pedal steel guitar and said: “Maybe he would do the solo.” Liking the idea, Nash asked Crosby to take a two-track recording of “Teach Your Children” down the hall to the Grateful Dead’s studio.
“Jerry liked it and brought his pedal steel into the studio,” Nash said. “He did the first take and it was magical to me. It was exactly what the song needed.”
Garcia — believing that he screwed up three or four notes — thought he could record a better version. Nash gave him the go-ahead for a second go-around.
“I loved what he did on the first take…it was so spontaneous and free. We did repair those three or four notes, but we used his first take,” Nash said, adding that the two bands would share many concert bills over the forthcoming years. “His death [in 1995] was insanely sad. He was such an unbelievably great person — a true musician.”
Released in March 1970, Déjà Vu would earn the band three Top 40 hits, “Woodstock,” written by Joni Mitchell and “Teach Your Children” and “Our House” both written by Nash. Other classic tracks include, “Helpless” written by Young, “Carry On” written by Stills and “Almost Cut My Hair” written by Crosby. The platinum album has sold over eight million copies to date.
More Lessons to Learn
CSN and CSNY have long been known as political bands responsible for protest songs like Young’s “Ohio,” which recounted the 1970 Kent State shootings at a campus peace rally opposing the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. A confrontation with the Ohio National Guard left nine unarmed college students injured and four dead. Nash said he is disheartened that certain related history lessons have yet to be learned.
“The fact that songs I wrote like ‘Chicago’ and ‘Immigration Man’ are so relevant today is disturbing to me,” he said. And whereas Nash thought the 1960s and 1970s were some of the darkest times in recent American history, he now believes differently.
“Quite frankly, we might be witnessing the end of the American empire. Empires rise and fall…the Egyptians thought they were great,” he continued. “The Russian empire thought it was great. The British Empire thought they were great. And they all failed. There is so much division in the country. I’m not optimistic right now.”
What Nash makes clear, however, is the liberties America has afforded him and his fellow bandmates.
“The great thing about this country is that you are able to speak your mind,” said Nash, who became a U.S. citizen in 1978. “I’m not even sure if any of CSN or CSNY would be able to do what we did had we lived in a different country, but we live in the United States and in the United States you are allowed to say what you think.”
What’s old is new Again
When Nash and his band take the stage in Tarrytown on July 16, 2022, he said people can expect to hear songs that span his career — from The Hollies to present day.
“What I want the people to know is that I want to be there. I’m there for them,” Nash said. “Even though I have sung songs like ‘Our House’ and ‘Teach Your Children’ a million times, I’m singing it with the same passion as when I wrote these songs.”
Aside from CSN and Hollie songs, he will also be pulling material from his two solo albums: Songs for Beginners (1971) and Wild Tales (1974). In 2019, Nash performed these albums in entirety which became the recently released album, Graham Nash: Live (2022). Tracks include fan favorites such as “Military Madness,” “I used to be a King,” “Simple Man” and “Chicago/We Can Change the World,” among others.
Revisiting these songs conceptually has been on Nash’s mind for years, but it was his wife Amy who convinced him to finally take the project on. She told him simply: “I want to see that show. I think it would be a great show.” The wheels began to turn. Nash enlisted his current touring bandmates, guitar player Shane Fontayne and keyboardist Todd Caldwell, to put together a larger band, which they did. The tour was a success.
“I love those two albums and many of those songs I never performed live at all. We did four shows where I did Songs for Beginners from start to finish took a break and did Wild Tales from start to finish,” he said. “I chose the best performances of each of those songs and when I got to the end I realized this could be a really good live album.”
At 80, Nash shows no signs of slowing down. Last year, he released A Life in Focus: The Photography of Graham Nash. The camera, he said, was his first love.
“I have been a photographer longer than I have been a musician. The portrait of my mother that is in the book is a shot I took when I was 11,” he continued. “Photographs don’t affect my lyrics but they do affect what I see. I realized that I see a lot of what people don’t see. I think there is beauty everywhere — in the gutter and in the clouds and everywhere between.”
Nash also recently reunited with former Hollies co-founder Allan Clarke for an album of Clarke’s songs that will feature Nash’s vocals. The album, which brings the childhood friends and bandmates back together for the first time in many years, is slated for a late 2022 release.
And early next year, Nash, who calls Manhattan’s East Village home, plans to release a new original solo album, which he has been recording remotely with musicians from coast-to-coast as well as points between.
“It sounds fabulous. I’m so proud of this new record,” said Nash, tipping his hat to the musicians, engineers and producers who helped bring these new songs to fruition. “It’s astonishing to me that I’m still this alive and still this creative.”
Hope: A Great Attitude
After wrapping up his spring tour earlier this year, Nash was struck by the will of concert goers who didn’t let the pandemic thwart their desire to be a part of live music. Many fans told him that instead of opting for a refund for the postponed shows, they kept their tickets for nearly two years and redeemed them for the rescheduled dates.
“That means hope to me. They saved their tickets because they thought it would be better in the future and that’s a great attitude to have,” Nash said.
As for his old bandmates with whom he toured the world over numerous times and released many seminal albums, he is in regular contact with Stills and Young, but hasn’t spoken to Crosby in a few years. When asked if a turbulent political climate and the ongoing war in Ukraine might give rise to a reunion tour promoting unity and peace, Nash vacillated.
“The truth is we have to love each other [again] to make music like we did. We have to like each other as people and right now we don’t. Neil [Young] has his complications with David [Crosby] as I do and that’s the way it is,” he continued. “Our true fans know we have to care for each other to make music the way we did. And if we never make another note of music, look at what we did in 55 years.”
When reminded of CSN’s last tour in 2015, which included a successful stop at the majestic King’s Theatre in Brooklyn, Nash proudly reflected on the performance: “We were good, you know.”
For ticket information, visit: www.tarrytownmusichall.org.