“At the core of his life has been a passion for making music.” By Des Cowley.
Wild Tales: a Rock & Roll Life – By Graham Nash (Viking / Penguin Books)
Let’s face it: Graham Nash always seemed like the nice one out of Crosby, Stills & Nash. His beautiful, gentle, soaring voice appeared to miraculously unify the more grounded voices of Crosby and Stills, allowing the three of them to become more than the sum of their parts. His own songs – aside from a few classics like ‘Chicago’ and ‘Teach the Children’ – often struck me as the weakest link in the songwriting chain. And yet, as his book Wild Tales confirms, his presence was critical to the survival and longevity of CS&N and CSN&Y. Though the body of recorded work may be relatively small, chances are, without Nash, the sum corpus may not have extended beyond their classic second album Déjà vu.
Nash certainly knows how to reel in the reader from the outset. He begins his book in August 1968, in Laurel Canyon. He’d come to America to “see my new girlfriend, to be with Joni”. At her house, he meets up with her friends David Crosby and Stephen Stills. The pair play Nash a new song, and at the end of it, he asks: “Would you mind doing it again?” By the time they play it a third time, Nash spontaneously joins in: “I put my harmony above Stephen, and off we sailed… What a sound! We were locked in, tight as a drum. Flawless three-part harmony.” They’d never heard anything like it before. A few days later, Nash is on a return flight to London to “untangle the first twenty-six years of my life… I knew my life would never be the same”.
The first third of Nash’s book recounts those first twenty-six years. Given his fame as a member of one of the most popular and beloved groups in American music over nearly half a century, it’s easy to forget that Nash had a whole other career prior to CS&N, playing with famed English sixties band the Hollies. In many ways, this is a key element of Nash’s story. While he might look the part of a quintessential American hippie in early CS&N photographs, the truth is far different – for much of his life in the US, Nash was a transplanted Englishman. His formative experience, far from a world of counter-culture and free-love, was in fact the grimy streets of conservative post-war Manchester.
Nash first met Hollies cohort Allan Clarke while in school, and the pair soon discovered a shared passion for singing harmony. It was the mid-fifties, a time when skiffle music reigned, and the first faint stirrings of rock & roll were in the air. The two teenagers began performing songs by the Everly Brothers, and they would later adopt a similar harmony structure – expanding it to three parts – when first performing as the Hollies in 1962. As part of a new wave of British bands emerging out of Manchester and Liverpool, the Hollies were soon picked up for a recording contract after EMI’s Ron Richards saw them playing at the famed Cavern, home to the Beatles. Over the next few years, the band would release a string of hit singles, including ‘Bus Stop’, ‘On a Carousel’, ‘Carrie Anne’, and many others. Despite their phenomenal success, however, Nash was urging the band to expand its musical horizons. The commercial failure of the largely Nash-led album Butterfly, in 1967, however, left him both disappointed and uncertain about his future with the band.
During a Hollies tour of America, Mama Cass took Nash to meet her friends in Laurel Canyon. There he was introduced to David Crosby, footloose since departing the Byrds, and the pair proceeded to get ripped on dope together. Finally, in America, getting stoned with Crosby, Nash was able to catch a glimpse of the wider horizons he had been searching for.
The remainder of Nash’s book, as could be expected, centers on his long-term musical partnership with Crosby and Stills. While it’s a story that has been told before, Nash’s account provides a unique personal take on that history. It’s a tale of frustration, broken promises, wasted opportunities, childish petulance, and straight-out stubbornness; that, and a deep musical friendship and love. At the heart of it is his close relationship with Crosby, which has survived to this day, despite Crosby’s dark years of drug addiction. Nash is somewhat more circumspect about Stills, who comes across as a less generous, more ornery character, but who nonetheless remains an integral part of the musical partnership. Neil Young, on the other hand, remains a shadowy figure, drifting in and out of the story randomly, never really coming into focus. It was Atlantic label founder Ahmet Ertegun who initially advocated Young’s inclusion in the band, a move Nash likens to “lobbing a live grenade into a vacuum”. Even at the book’s end, Nash leaves a question mark around the relationship: “The jury is still out on my long, strange trip with Neil Young”. Truth is, for much of his life, Nash has valiantly fought against the self-destructive tendencies of those closest to him, often with little effect.
Nash, with good reason, believes he has led a charmed life. Aside from his musical career, and copious amounts of drugs and sex, his book references his long-term second marriage to Susan, his children, relationships with Joni Mitchell, Rita Coolidge and others, his house in Hawaii, his passion for photography, painting, various business interests, his politics. When he reflects on all of this good fortune in the book’s final pages, his prose teeters toward saccharine, but perhaps that is just reader-envy. His nature is perhaps best expressed in the lyrics of a song he wrote in response to his break-up with Joni Mitchell: “I am a simple man, and I sing a simple song”. His book largely follows these principles: it is simply and honestly written, without undue flourish. At the core of his life has been a passion for making music, for writing songs, and for singing with Crosby and Stills. His epitaph is best expressed in the book’s final words: “It all comes down to the music”.