Graham Nash discusses the unique exhibition of his photography in the new issue of Uncut, dated May 2013, and out now – in this archive feature from Uncut’s April 2009 issue (Take 143), the silver-throated former Holly tackles some prickly subjects – dissing Dylan, breaking up with Joni and playing peacekeeper in CSNY… Interview: John Lewis
Graham Nash is telling Uncut about the last time he went carol singing… “It was a couple of Christmasses ago, in the Valley. There was a whole bunch of us – John David Souther, Linda Ronstadt, me, [David] Crosby, I think Jackson Browne might have turned up, too – and we all went door-to-door in Encino. We turned up at one house and I remember Jimmy Webb answering the door, with a gun in his hand just in case we turned out to be robbers. I think he was pretty surprised to see us all there…”
You can forgive Nash for this shameless piece of name-dropping, because that’s the world he lives in. After touring the US with Manc popsters The Hollies in 1968, he quickly relocated to the States and has spent the past four decades hobnobbing with legends – partying with Mama Cass Elliot, pioneering protest rock with Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, trading influences with Paul Simon and nearly getting married to Joni Mitchell. Oh, and he found the time to become a respected photographer and form the world’s first rock supergroup with David Crosby and Stephen Stills.
Now 67, Nash spends most of his time at home in Kauai, Hawaii, with his wife Susan and three children Jackson, Will and Nile, although the Salford vowels are still in place, mixed with some Californian consonants. He’s spent the past few months touring the world and putting together a three-CD boxset of his songs, as performed by The Hollies, as a solo artist and in various permutations of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. “I had completely forgotten about dozens of these tracks,” he says. “But then again, I’m not one for looking backwards. I’m much more interested in the future than the past.”
In his book, Chronicles, Dylan writes of performing “Lay Lady Lay” at Johnny Cash’s house before handing you the guitar. What did you play and what memories do you have of that evening?
Andrew Poulsen, Christchurch, New Zealand
I hate to contradict Bob, but he remembers it wrong! He would never have gotten up to play first. Never in a million years! Him and his wife, Sarah, were sitting on the stairway – a stairway that led up to the second floor of Johnny’s house off the main dining room – and he didn’t play until the end of the evening. I actually got up first. Because nobody knew who I was then, so I didn’t give a shit. I’d just recorded “Marrakesh Express” so I played it, accompanying myself on acoustic guitar. I remember coming to the end of the song, feeling pretty good about how I performed it, and then standing up and walking into a lamp. Which was a bit embarrassing.
Who would win in a fight between Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young?
Chris Webb, Birmingham
Me and Neil. We’re still pretty thin. We’re fitter. We can run away. David can’t run away from anything!
What are your memories of Salford from your childhood?
Guy Garvey, Elbow
A friendly place, cold and damp and then brilliantly sunny for a few minutes every year. I had good friends, lots of people who I could kick a football around with. But it was definitely a place to get out of. From the age of 13, I wanted to be a rock’n’roll musician, and at the time that meant going to London. I think it’s fantastic now that people from around the world go to Manchester to make music! That was unheard of in my day. When was the last time I went back? That was seven months ago, for the funeral of my second-born sister. Now I have one sister in Manchester, and her children.
You have a reputation as being a very calming, no-nonsense figure. Do you think you’re good at resolving conflict situations?
Zoran Tuckar, Zagreb, Croatia
Oh yeah. I put that down to my background in Salford. You gotta remember that England was devastated twice by Germany in 25 years. English people of my generation tend to just get the job done while they can. Like everyone in England, I had to deal with the aftermath of World War II – all the old clichés, rationing, not being able to get coal for the fire, not being able to get food and stuff, the sense that tomorrow might never come – which none of my American friends experienced. You had to remain cheerful about it. So I think that equipped me for dealing with Americans who might have been getting stressed unnecessarily. That’s part of the role I’ve played in CSN. I think it would have flown apart much more often if I’d not been there to steady things down!
How do you guys record harmonies? They sure put a tingle up my spine!
We have tried every way possible! One mic, three mics, six mics, two mics each, we’ve tried everything. We’ve even tried doing them separately, track by track. But we’ve found that you get the best results when you sing harmonies together, around just a couple of microphones. I don’t pretend to understand the physics involved in it, but I’m sure there’s something that happens to the way in which the soundwaves from two or three voices, singing in harmony, interact with each other before they reach the microphone. There’s no question about it. That’s the best way to do it.
Have you ever sung karaoke?
Alexia, Hitchin, Herts
Unfortunately, yes. My son made me do it, honestly! It was at a sushi bar in Hawaii. I did “Wasted On The Way” as it was one of the CSN songs they had on their list. I think I did a good job!
Songs For Beginners – your first solo album from 1971 – is one of my favourite albums ever. Every track seems to say exactly what a woman would want to hear from her boyfriend! Were you in a happy place when you wrote it?
We’d just recorded Déjà Vu with CSNY, the sessions for which ran the gamut of emotions, from thrilling to soul-destroying – it was a painstaking, difficult time for all of us – so it was kind of a relief to get away and do my own thing. Like Crosby and Stills, I’d recently gotten over a difficult break-up, in my case with Joni, but it was a matter of just getting on with it, staying positive. And I’m proud of every track there. I suppose it’s an object lesson in writing a happy, positive album!
What is your relationship like with the other Hollies these days? Would you consider a reunion if Allan Clarke was to come out of retirement?
Alex Day, Leeds
I did rejoin The Hollies for a bit in the 1980s – 1982, 1983 – and if Allan was there I might consider doing a record with them. But I don’t think Allan’s coming out of retirement. Yes, I’m still in touch with Allan – he is my oldest friend and I’ve known him since I was five years old! I also speak to Bobby [Elliott, the drummer with the Hollies] a lot, because he was the archivist in the band. Since I’ve been putting together my boxset, I needed certain facts and figures that only Bobby would know.
Pop seemed to get very political in the late ’60s and then again in the early ’80s. Are people still making protest songs now?
Ali Campbell, UB40
If you go to Neil Young’s Living With War website, there are 2,500 protest songs on there. The thing that’s different is that the people who own the world’s media – who you can probably count on two hands – don’t want those songs on their radio any more. They don’t want you stirring up the sheep. They don’t want you talking about what’s wrong with the country. They just want to rob us in peace. A lot of broadcasting companies are owned by people who make profits from the war machine. So they don’t like dissent. So you won’t hear protest songs on the radio stations. Kids in America in the 1960s were angry about an immoral, unjust war, just like the one that we’re in now. I don’t see what’s changed!
I find it inspiring that, after all these years, you still seem to retain the same friendship with Stephen Stills, and especially David Crosby. What’s so special about your friendship that has made it endure so long?
David Bruce, Scotland
They’re crazy people! I’ve always known it. They’ve always been out of the ordinary, they’ve always thought outside the box, they’re just very strange people and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed their company over that time. We started out when we found that we had a certain sound and we made a couple of really fine records. Then you start to get comfortable with stardom, money and fame, and then you come back to being normal. And that’s what we’ve been good at doing – staying normal.
Do you remember the first song you sang together with Crosby and Stills? And did it take you long to nail those perfect harmonies?
Amadou Bagayoko, Amadou & Mariam
With me, David and Stephen, we knew the first time we sang together – we did a version of The Beatles’ “Blackbird” – that it sounded special. And, in the recording studio, there were some things that we did in one take. “Lady Of The Island” – one take, took us four minutes! Other tracks, like most of the ones on Déjà Vu, took us absolutely ages… hours and hours. But, generally you want to get it right, and nobody knows when it’s right except the three of us.
In a 1966 NME interview – with Keith Altham at your flat in Marble Arch – you say, “With Dylan I can’t reconcile the man who writes ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ with rubbish like ‘Subterannean Homesick Blues’.” Did you really mean that?
Ha! I can’t have done. I think at the time I was cynical about The Hollies wanting to do an album of Dylan songs in a way I didn’t appreciate. I think my comments about Dylan were more a reflection of that, rather than about Bob. I always appreciated Bob, he’s a brilliant singer and a brilliant songwriter, probably the country’s best. But The Hollies wanted to do an album of Dylan covers with Las Vegas-style horn arrangements. And it just didn’t sit with me well at all. I cut “Blowin’ In The Wind” with them and then after that I’d had it, I couldn’t do it at all. I think you can tell in that 1966 interview that I really was just straining to leave the group and leave the country.
What’s the first gig you went to?
It was Cliff Richard at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, in about 1960. It was phenomenal. I don’t remember screaming at the stage, I just remember staring at everything with awe and wonder for two hours. Cliff was so damn cool in those days. I distinctly recall wanting to be Cliff Richard for a while. And The Shadows were fantastic. They really, really rocked like hell!
You and David Crosby famously started a campaign to run as “joint president” in 2004. How did you feel about Obama’s victory and where were you on that night?
I was sitting on my tourbus watching the results come in. We had just done a show in the Midwest, I think it was Tiffin, Ohio. Me and Crosby had booked a tour where every date was in a key swing state. We’d go to the Barack Obama headquarters and say hello to the campaign staff and volunteers who were working so hard. I was very impressed by them all. It was a very well run, energetic organisation, and I’m very proud of Obama. I was amazed and thrilled that he won. Right off the bat it was a historic event. Thing is, we have given him a bucket of shit and we’re hoping that he’s going to make biscuits out of it, you know? It’s a very difficult job he’s got. But I also believe he can turn this thing around. We should all try our best to make sure he can do it.