By Brian Ives
Graham Nash is patient man. Not only has he acted as a mediator between his bandmates in Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young) for four-and-a-half decades, he also spends an insane amount of the time in the studio, curating their collective and individual legacies.
Over the past couple of years he’s produced box sets covering the individual careers of David Crosby, Stephen Stills and himself, and he’s put a lot of time in the studio listening to tape after tape from the band’s epic 1974 tour for their recently released live box set, CSNY 1974.
He spoke to us about the collective’s sometime’s tenacious relationship, what Neil Young brings to the mix, the continued relevance of his songs from the era (including tunes written about immigration, war and marijuana reform) and the elusive upcoming CSN album. And how he’s trying to help the military change its image.
Radio.com: Obviously you have lots of CSN and CSNY recordings to choose from. Why choose the 1974 tour for a box set?
Graham Nash: I wanted people to know that CSNY is a good rock ‘n’ roll band. And the bootleg of our show at Wembley Stadium didn’t show that. I want everybody to know that regardless of that particular show…I mean, that’s who we were that night. We did 30 other shows [on that tour], but I knew that that’s not what CSNY were. So I wanted people to know that we are a very decent rock ‘n’ roll band, from one acoustic guitar to the mayhem of all of us playing electric. There was such an incredible amount going on in society at the time: Vietnam coming to an end, Watergate with Richard Nixon getting found out. It was a tough time and I think the band, as human beings, were responding to what was going on it our world.
How much work was it for you to go through all the tapes and put the box set together?
It was a lot of work. I’m still touring with David and Stephen and I have a family, and painting shows, and photo shows, and book signings and stuff. It took me about four years [to do the box set], but I wanted to make sure it was right. I want people to know in a hundred years time, if they want to know at all, if they’re at all curious about who CSNY were, this box set really represents what we were. We wanted the best performance of every single song, that’s one of the reasons “Carry On” is not on the box set. It was one of our great songs from Stephen, one of our most popular songs, but I didn’t find a performance that affected me like the thirty-nine other tracks did, and I didn’t want to put it on and have it be not as good as the other stuff. I worked on four different versions of “Carry On” to try and put together the best half of this song and blah blah blah blah, and I couldn’t find it. And I told Stephen, “I can’t find it.” But he trusts me completely. He said, “If it’s not there, it’s not there.” And that was a great relief to me, that he was such a man about it.
You’ve produced solo box sets covering the careers of Crosby and Stills, as well as your own; what makes you such a good archivist?
I love what we do. You have to have a certain amount of patience. you have to have a certain view of history, and I’m the guy that does that. I’m busier than all of them put together, but I still have time to present CSN and CSNY. I care about what we do, I really love what we do and I want to keep pushing it forward.
Neil Young has a legendarily huge archive; do you have any urge to help him with his own “Archive Series?”
I don’t think I would have the patience to deal with Neil that way. Archivally, he has a certain sensibility that goes beyond mine, to a certain extent. I don’t think Neil needs my help in putting his archive together, he’s on top of it.
You always seem to be the mediator, the moderate voice, within CSNY.
I’m English. I wanna get the job done. When I was born, World War II still had three years to go. We didn’t know if our house would still be there tomorrow. I didn’t know if my friends would still be alive tomorrow. And there’s a certain attitude where, “Have a cup of tea, take a deep breath, it will be better tomorrow.” I want to get the job done, and I want to do it the very best way. That’s who I am.
I’ve known that with your British peers, growing up during the war, or even in the post-war era, hugely affected their outlook on life.
Of course, and I really truly believe that, God forbid, if New York had been bombed like London or Manchester were bombed, the American public would have a very different view of preemptive wars and how we get into other people’s business. And don’t forget, we were almost taken out of existence twice within 80 years with the same enemy. We have a different mindset about all of that, and I prefer mine. When bombs are falling from the sky, it affects you very profoundly.
When CSNY gets together to do concert dates, do you worry that it won’t last for the whole tour?
I’m always concerned that it’s gonna last for the next five minutes. You never know with CSNY what’s gonna happen. We’ve done tours where we got there and played a the first show, didn’t like each other and then left.
Were you worried that the intimacy of places like the Fillmore would be lost in stadiums?
We had that showbiz thing: You gotta reach the person in the last row. When you’re playing to a hundred thousand people, that gets a little weird. I think that we did pretty good, considering what we were undertaking. Nobody had ever done that before. The Beatles did Shea Stadium and the Rolling Stones did a couple of great gigs in Hyde Park for a lot of people, but nobody had done a tour of that size. We banded together as four people to create music that would reach way beyond the front row. Everybody’s important. We really care about our audience, we try to be the best we can be. I think my experience with the Hollies kind of stood me in good stead. By the time I left the Hollies we had fifteen or sixteen top 10 hits and played to fans that were so loud that we couldn’t hear ourselves play. We’ve already been through all of that. So it was no big deal for me. Stephen said that we were scared at Woodstock. Maybe he was, but I wasn’t.
How did you make up the setlists?
We learned about just over eighty songs and were able to choose between those eighty songs. We always knew we wanted to start with [Stills’ solo song] “Love the One You’re With” and end with an acoustic set once the crowd had calmed down a little, and we always knew we would rock out in the end. So we made an entire map of every song we played in what order in every single show, and we noticed certain patterns. So I used that pattern as a guide to present the show to you as an ideal show.
Talk about your song “Field Worker,” which is on the box set. It still resonates today.
I had been to the 40th birthday party of a friend of mine, who was an incredibly powerful and rich man in Beverly Hills. The party was enjoyable and extravagant. After that party I drove to Delano, in northern California. And I checked out the food store where the farmers shopped, and there was nothing in there but a few bags of rice and a few cans of beans. And the dichotomy between those two things inspired me to write “Field Worker.” I used to live just north of Santa Cruz and the braceros, I could see them every day, working. And they were treated horribly. They weren’t even allowed to use a long hoe because you can rest on a long hoe, if it’s short you have to keep bending down.
A lot of the songs on this album still seem relevant.
You know, it’s really weird how many of those songs are pretty relevant today. What about “Immigration Man,” what about “Military Madness,” you know? It’s wild, eh? Especially in the military point of view. I have a friend who is an Englishman who does a very famous military magazine called Jane’s. It will show you ever weapon that’s ever been developed, every plane, every machine gun in high detail. And he maintains that, when you say the word “military,” it’s always a bummer, it’s always a negative thing. And he wants to convince the military that they could be the heroes of this planet. All the money that they spend on weapons of war, some of it can be spent to solve some of our problems, of water, of energy, and they could actually be heroes. And I think that’s a very interesting idea. And although I’m not a huge fan of the military, I do wanna help this guy change the image. Why can’t they be seen as heroes? Everybody wants to be loved, even the military. They wanna be loved, they wanna be appreciated. And — this is down to basics — but they can make more money being heroes than not being heroes.
Back to the tour: Neil had a lot of new songs from his On the Beach album.
Well, one of the great things about Neil, especially on the 1974 tour, he was writing like a crazy person. That song “Goodbye Dick,” he wrote that in the morning of the show. Listen to Stephen and Neil playing together, listen to Neil’s guitar on “On The Beach.” Neil, on this particular tour… I was very impressed listening to all the tapes. Just how well he played on everybody’s songs, not just his own. He played fantastic with everybody’s songs, and that just shows you what a great musician he is.
How much does Neil change the dynamic?
Everything sounds different when Neil’s there. He adds a certain edge, a certain mystery. It’s very different when Neil plays with us, and he knows it, and we know, too. I used to stand in the middle of those two guys [Stills and Young] and they were, you know, prodding each other and pushing each other to do better. I stood in the middle of all that madness and was just amazed at their musicianship. I gotta tell you that once we got on that stage, the bulls–t fell away. Because by far, the most important thing about of our relationship is the music, and we’re smart enough to know that.
Another of your songs on the album is “Prison Song,” about a kid who went to jail for marijuana. At least we’ve made some progress there.
Well in hindsight, you have to really realize how far we’ve come in that particular issue. When I wrote “Prison Song,” I got a letter from a kid who had been caught with a couple of joints, and sent to ten years in jail. So when you take that kind of incident, and you come and see that it’s completely legal in Colorado and Washington state and maybe even Alaska, all these people begin to realize that we fell for the propaganda against marijuana and basically it’s changed so much. And I’m very glad about it. I don’t advertise, or advise taking drugs at all, but I never knew anybody who wanted to smoke a joint and get in a fight. 88,000 people roughly die every year from alcohol abuse and getting into accidents. How can you sleep at night when you know that the product you’re producing does that? How can tobacco industries sleep at night when they know full well that 300,000 people die every year from their product?
Your cover of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” is on the box set, and it’s one of the songs that you’ve talked about recording for the next CSN album.
It’s a fantastic song, it’s a brilliant melody. What we have to do when we take somebody else’s song is to make it so it looks like we wrote it. We worked on the new album with Rick Rubin for a while, we did seven or eight tracks for Sony Music, and then Rick and David Crosby started to not see eye to eye and the sessions became tense and not fun so we had to stop that. Of course Sony owns those records, but they need our permission to release them, which we’ll never give. But we went back into Jackson [Browne]’s studio, and we recorded a bunch of them. So, we’re about a third of the way through that record and as soon as we stop going on the road, we’re gonna go back to the studio and finish it.
When I spoke to David Crosby a while back, he was raving over the Neil Young song “Pushed It Over the End” that’s on the box set.
It’s one of the highlights. I think there’s a lot of highlights on there, but “Pushed It Over the End” was a great song, very different. Neil was going through a lot of things personally, as we all were. I wasn’t married at the time, but Neil was, and some of his relationships were going a little weird and in an effort to sothe his own soul he turns it into music, as we all do. And “Pushed it Over the End” is a brilliant song that we couldn’t wait to sing the chorus on. Neil Young is a very impressive musician.
CSN has been playing a bunch of new songs in concert in the past year or two.
We’re constantly writing, it’s one of the things that keeps us alive. As long as we’re singing and writing well there will always been new music. And the first thing you do when you write a new song is that you play it for your old lady, you play it for your family, and once it gets past them you play it for your bandmates and then the audience. I have a couple of dozen brand new songs. I know David is still writing even though he just put out a record [Croz]. He’s kind of upset that he wrote a couple of great songs after he put out his record. But we’re constantly writing and there will always be new music, but there’s so much archival stuff. I’ve been recording CSN for the last 40 years.
You always have a lot going on: what are the next couple of projects that you have planned?
Right now I’m excited about a record I’m putting together with David. David and I, over the last 30 years, have been pleased and honored to have sung with incredible people on some incredible singles. So I thought people might want to hear that. So I’m working on an album [of previously released tracks] with me and Crosby singing with incredible people. I want to work on remixing [CSNY’s 1970 album] Deja Vu, remixing it. We faded the volume [at the end of the songs], but in the studio we kept playing like crazy people and some of it is very interesting so I would like to work on that. I’m working on an acoustic album of me and David from 1993 that is a wonderful piece of music. Obviously CSN is going to come out next year because we love playing to people. And I’m hoping, in my dreams, that in 2015 CSNY go out for a world tour. Now that’s only my dream, only what I want but we’ll see.
Any chance you would do anything with your former Hollies bandmate, Allen Clarke?
I’d like to do a Greatest Hits of the Hollies from me and Allen’s point of view. With all due respect, Tony Hicks and Bobby Elliot are great players, and they were with us a long time. But they’re not the original Hollies. And my relationship with Allen is very strong right now. It was very painful for me when I left the Hollies to join David and Stephen. Allen Clarke was my best friend since 6 years old and it was very painful to leave. But I think we got over it finally, especially when we got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
CSNY 1974 is out now. Crosby Stills & Nash is on tour through early October, while Neil Young is currently doing dates with Crazy Horse and has some solo acoustic shows lined up in October.