Graham Nash’s unique rock-and-roll odyssey

September 16, 2013

While America mulls over another foreign war, Graham Nash mulls over another set list.

That song he still loves to sing but wishes he never had to? He’ll play it fifth. “Military Madness.” The first track from his first solo album. A story about being born into wartime blight and eventually following the rock-and-roll breeze to Laurel Canyon, where perfect rays of sunshine still couldn’t calm his anger over a hyper-militarized planet.

That fantastic arc blooms in the pages of Nash’s new autobiography, “Wild Tales,” out Tuesday. “I’ve always known that I’ve had an interesting life,” he says backstage at the Birchmere, a few hours before his Sunday night concert. “I wanted the book to feel conversational. I wanted it to feel like I’m talking to you right now.”

Eyes shining a cool blue, the 71-year-old is clearly still savoring his odyssey. As a founder of the Hollies, he enjoyed the spoils of the British rock invasion. As a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, he helped forge the shape of American protest music. His life has been filled with a dazzling cast of lovers, collaborators, friends and rivals. But tonight, it’s just him. More than five decades into his career, Nash is on his third-ever solo tour. “I like being a team member,” he says, “but I can do anything I want here.”

Which means there’s room in Sunday night’s set for songs about Chelsea Manning (“Almost Gone”) and the scores of monks who have protested China’s occupation of Tibet through self-immolation (“Burning For the Buddha”). Nash says the urge to transpose his dissent into melody has always been a physical reflex: “I have to respond when my body says, ‘Hey, this is not right.’ ”

But over the decades, his songbook has struck a rare and brilliant balance between the personal and the political, each lending more gravity to the other. His voice — still an incredibly handsome instrument in 2013 — evoked both the horrors of Vietnam and the domestic bliss of being Joni Mitchell’s boyfriend in fine detail.

Simplicity has always been his goal. “If they’re thinking about the first line, they’re missing the second line,” Nash says of his lyrical approach. But harmony is something else entirely — a magical force he learned from the Everly Brothers, honed as a member of the Hollies and mastered while huddled around microphones with Stephen Stills, Neil Young and, especially, David Crosby.

“It’s the epitome of people coming together,” Nash says. “It’s the epitome of friendship. It’s the epitome of one human being affecting another human being and creating something bigger than both of them. That’s what harmony does for me. It’s very simple. My life is incredibly simple.”

Today, maybe. “Wild Tales” posits Nash’s nearly unbreakable optimism as the epoxy that held an infinitely complicated cluster of individuals together.

Like Mitchell, who broke Nash’s heart via telegram: “IF YOU HOLD SAND TOO TIGHTLY IN YOUR HAND, IT WILL RUN THROUGH YOUR FINGERS. LOVE, JOAN.”

Like Young, who mysteriously materialized at the recording session for 1977’s “CSN” album uninvited, urinating in the shrubbery outside the studio.

Like Stills, who once spit at Nash after Nash announced that he had snatched singer Rita Coolidge from beneath his bandmate’s arm.

Like Crosby, who once took Nash on a blurry, nine-week boat ride from Fort Lauderdale to San Diego, who once shot at a man in front of his house for trying to steal his hubcaps, who many times betrayed Nash’s trust yet remains his best friend.

“I was very attracted to Crosby. To this day, he’s still irreverent. He’s still a punk,” Nash says. “And nobody makes music like David Crosby.”

Bursts of enthusiasm

This May, Nash awoke to an early morning phone call from his childhood chum and Hollies co-founder, Allan Clarke. “Happy birthday!” Clarke said.

But Nash’s birthday was in February. Turns out, it had been 50 years since the Hollies released their first single, “(Ain’t That) Just Like Me.” Now Nash, a late-rising breakfast-skipper, was wide-awake. “Fifty years!” he shouted back into the receiver. “Fantastic!”

Those bursts of enthusiasm flare throughout “Wild Tales,” particularly when Nash is rewinding through his early years in dreary Salford, Manchester, discovering the ecstasies of guitars, girls and rock-and-roll. Moments before their first gig, his bandmates decided to name their new group after their hero, Buddy Holly, and before long, the Hollies were floating up the charts with “Bus Stop” and “Carrie Anne,” songs that would one day help land them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But pop tunes about puppy love held Nash’s interest for only so long. “There was a moment for me around the end of 1964 when the Hollies wrote a song called ‘Too Many People,’ ” Nash says, citing a single inspired by the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. “That moment is when I realized there were many things to write about. You can look around anywhere and see something that needs to be put right.”

So he followed his wanderlust to California, where he co-founded Crosby, Stills & Nash in 1968, bringing his gift for melody and pith with him. “It comes from me being from the North of England,” Nash says of the immediacy of his lyrics. “There was no time to use lots of words to get your point across. . . . Bombs were dropping.”

He also brought a sense of optimism that would keep CSNY connected through ugly drug addictions and colossal clashes of ego. At times, Nash had to revert to communicating through song, especially to Crosby, whose crippling cocaine addiction made national headlines well into the ’80s. (Once an avid user, Nash writes that he was never hooked on coke and gave it up for good in 1984.)

“Talking to David on this personal level sometimes doesn’t get through,” Nash says. “But you can’t deny music. We definitely talk to each other through our music, because sometimes conversation doesn’t work.”

In 2006, the communication lines were healthy enough to get CSNY out on the road again. But this time, the band that captured the political tumult of the early ’70s with “Ohio” — CSNY’s indelible response to the shootings at Kent State — was pushing a message that sent some fans toward the exits, specifically during a Young screed titled “Let’s Impeach the President.”

“I didn’t take it as a negative reaction,” Nash says. “The people who walked out had the right to do that. But I wish I could talk to those people and hear what they think of George Bush now. . . . We must have touched a nerve. We must have moved them. I wish they would have moved over to our side, but at least they were moved to move.”

His words carry a pinch of ire and an abundance of gratitude.

“Thank God I live in a country that will allow me to speak my mind,” says Nash, who became an American citizen in 1978. “Half of the [stuff] that CSNY have said over the last 40-odd years — we would have never been allowed to say those things in other countries. We would have been silenced or killed.”

Floating melody

On the tour bus a few nights before arriving at the Birchmere, Nash’s tour manager handed him a brown paper bag. Inside, he found a gushy fan letter and a smooth white stone with the word “love” chiseled into it.

“So I start thinking, ‘Stone Love,’ ” Nash says. The melody that had been floating around his head for the past week came rushing back. Some words started showing up in his mouth. Nash says this is how he’s always written songs. And they’re still coming.

At his home in Hawaii, where Nash has lived with his wife, Susan, for more than three decades, he works on other projects — photographs, paintings, sculptures. He also maintains a voracious appetite for the news and enjoys a regular e-mail correspondence with Christopher Dickey, the Middle East editor for Newsweek and a former Washington Post reporter.

“You can’t get away from the world,” Nash says. “What Hawaii gives to me is a certain peace in which I can think about it all. I keep in constant contact.”

He’s still in contact with Crosby, Stills and Young — some relationships are closer than others — and says he’s looking forward to a pair of benefit concerts CSNY is slated to play in California next month. After scrapping a stalled CSN recording session with renowned producer Rick Rubin in 2012, Nash says he’s busy assembling a CSNY boxed set that he promises will “stun people” when it arrives, hopefully, next year.

With his life story finally on the bookshelf, he’s back to pondering a more perpetual concern — wondering if, how and to what degree his songs might shape the future.

“I think our music will make people feel less crazy, less lonely,” he says. “I want them to realize that we were normal people. We just did something special with our lives. We were observing the world and turning it into music. But we were normal people.”

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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