Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.
It’s entirely fair to say that Graham Nash is one of the most prolific and successful songwriters of his generation. Whether as a member of the British Invasion band The Hollies, the folk-rock supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash &Young, or as a solo artist, Nash is responsible for writing and recording some of the biggest and most impactful songs of the late 1960s and ’70s, among those include his paean to his onetime love Joni Mitchell, “Our House,” the top-10 hit, “Just A Song Before I Go,” as well as a bevy of socially conscious tracks like “Chicago,” and “Immigration Man.”
This year, Nash decided to collect all of his fan’s favorite songs together for the first time for a collection titled Over The Years. And if that weren’t enticing enough, he’s also gone back through his archives and pulled out a variety of early demos and live recordings of some of the same songs, which offer new insights into his own creative process, while stripping them down to their very base elements. The 1968 home recording of “Marrakesh Express,” is particularly revelatory.
Recently I had the chance to speak to Nash and get a little bit more insight about his most beloved musical compositions, while also getting an update about the status of his relationship these days with his estranged partner David Crosby.
What made you decide now to revisit some of your songs for this Over The Years compilation album?
I realized that there’s never been a so-called greatest hits of my music. Quite frankly, I wrote most of our [Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s] singles. I realized, obviously, if I put 15 of my fan’s favorite Graham Nash songs on an album, a lot of people had already bought them on CSN records, on our solo records; they would have already had a copy of that. So I thought, “How could I make it more interesting?” That’s when we decided to put demos on the album. I think people that love music, but don’t write it or are not in a band, or even if they are in a band, I think they’ll find it fascinating to hear my original expression of a song, and then listen to the actual record of those songs, particularly something like “Our House” or “Teach Your Children.” I did “Teach Your Children” on an acoustic guitar in my apartment in London and when you play that, and then you play the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young” version, you know, light bulbs are gonna go off in people’s brains.
That’s interesting. Now that I think about it you’re right, most of the Crosby, Stills, Nash &Young singles were your songs. How did you pull that trick?
It was just the songs. It started with “Marrakesh Express.” Somewhere in the bowels of the tape vault of Abbey Road in London is a version of “Marrakesh Express” that [Nash’s Pre-CSN band] The Hollies did and I hope that you never hear it.
Because it sucks!
Why did they pass on that song? To my ears at least the demo version that you included on Over The Years is arresting. Just your voice and a guitar poring over those chords, it really is a revelation.
I guess they stopped trusting me after a song I wrote called “King Midas In Reverse.” Normally The Hollies, everything they did went into the top-10 or top-5. In the six years I was with The Hollies, we had 15 top-10 hits, right? So that’s what we all expected, so when “King Midas” came out, I thought we made a great record out of it, but we only made it into the top-30 and that pissed The Hollies off and they stopped trusting my musical direction. I played them “Marrakesh Express,” we tried it, it was flat, there was no energy; it sucked!
Their loss, as history as shown.
Yes, I guess so. But you have to remember about The Hollies, after I left they had two No. 1 records. F*ck them!
I mean, you did pretty okay for yourself though too if we’re being fair!
Yes, I did. That’s why I can smile when I say that.
I was thinking we might be able to go through some of these songs and you could provide a little backstory or context for how they were written.
Let’s start off with one that I think resonates more than the others in this day and age, and that’s “Immigration Man.”
That’s one of the things that’s quite interesting. It thrills me and it pisses me off at the same time, and that’s this: The stuff we were talking about when I wrote “Chicago,” or where I wrote “Military Madness,” or “Immigration Man,” those topics are still at the forefront of people’s minds today. There are more wars going on in the world than there ever were 40 years ago. Don’t tell me that the immigration issue hasn’t gotten better. We’re separating kids from their f*cking mothers right now! And I’m an immigrant. 90% of the people in this country descend from people from other countries. It pisses me off that I still have to sing them, but it’s thrilling my music has lasted this long.
You mentioned a song I was going to bring up, “Chicago.” Can you talk about how you wrote that one?
I got a call one day from Wavy Gravy. Wavy was a stand-up comic in the Village here in New York in the ’50s and early ’60s. He was the guy who took care of all the people who got a little f*cked up at Woodstock. He has an organization now called SEVA that’s saved the eyesight of 5 million people through the years. He’s a hero of mine. He called me one day [and said], “You know, these seven kids have been busted here in Chicago and they’re about to go on trial, is there any way CSNY could come to Chicago and play a concert to raise money for their defense fund?” I wanted to go. Crosby wanted to go. Stephen [Stills] and Neil [Young] wanted to go, but they couldn’t. They had prior commitments that they couldn’t get out of, and so “Chicago,” is actually my song to Stephen and Neil saying, “Can’t we just go to Chicago just to sing?”
Speaking of Chicago, the first CSNY live gig ever took place at the Auditorium Theater there in 1969. What do you remember about that particular concert?
There’s two things I remember most. First of all, we couldn’t get the truck into the back-end of the theater. Our truck driver, Jimmy DeLuca, who drove our stuff for many years, deflated the tires on an 18-wheeler and depressed the tire pressure enough that it lowered it the four-inches he needed to get the truck in there. The second thing I remember, and more importantly, is that we had the balls to ask Joni Mitchell to open for us. Are you f*cking kidding me? [Laughs]. Actually, another thing I remember was that there was a young, 15-year old kid who saw us and thought, “That’s what I want to do with my life,” and his name was Dan Fogelberg.
Wow. That sounds like a pretty consequential show.
You mentioned Joni Mitchell and I have to bring up the song you wrote while living together “Our House.” It’s such a touching love song and I’m curious what it means to you so many years later?
I think it’s a very decent song. I think I was able to pin a certain moment in a romance that probably everybody has experienced. Who has not experienced falling love and setting up a home with a partner and getting a dog or having “two cats in the yard.” Who has not been through that moment? I thought I pinned that emotion quite well.
I would agree! Have you kept in touch with Joni? Do you know how she’s doing these days?
Absolutely. How could I not keep in touch with Joni? I saw her a couple of months ago. I had dinner at her house with her. At that time, she was just starting to walk again after her brain aneurysm. You know, she wasn’t found until a couple of days later on her kitchen floor. She was talking, she was lucid, she was funny and she has a great crew of four or five medical assistants who are helping her re-learn how to walk and re-learn how to talk. It’s been a little slower than we thought, but I do believe that Joni Mitchell will come roaring back.
That’s so good to hear. I’ve heard through some folks that she still has the vase you describe in “Our House.” Do you know if that’s true?
Yes, she still has the vase.
Another song I wanted to bring up was “Just A Song Before I Go.” Was that written about a specific person?
Yeah, that was written about my wife Susan who I was married to at the time. I was on vacation in Maui in the Hawaiian Islands and I had a couple of hours to kill before I had to catch a plane back to Los Angeles to the studio with David and Stephen. I was at the home of a friend of mine. He was a low-level drug dealer in Hawaii. Just pot. Nothing heavy. He was my friend, but he had no respect for me, and said, “You’re supposed to catch a flight out of here, I bet you can’t write a song before you go.” I said, “What?” He said, “I’ll be you $500 you can’t write a song just before you go.” “Really,” I said. I still have his $500.
Can you talk about your songwriting process a little bit? Do you work melodies first or words? How does it all come together for you.
I have to feel something first. Once I do, as a songwriter, I have bits of music in my head, I have bits of lyrics in my head and as I see something I feel strongly about, I’ll see if I can find a title that is the essence of what I’m trying to say. Once I do that, then I can put it together with little bits of melodies or words that I already have that apply to the situation. That’s how I write. I’ve written songs in every way you could imagine. I’ve written songs where I’ve had a kick drum and that’s all. Some songs, like “Just A Song Before I Go,” come out completely finished. Some songs like “Cathedral,” took me four years to write, because I have to make sure that every word it right when you’re talking about people’s relationship to God.
I know you’ve taken good care of the archive of your material. You’ve stored the tapes and kept up with them. How long did it take you to go through material that makes up the second, demo-based disc of Over The Years, and how did you decide about which takes of which songs to include?
Between my partner Amy Grantham, who did the artwork for the album, and my manager Mark Spector, and most of all my lovely friend Joel Bernstein who’s been my producer for all these years, we put it together pretty quickly. All I had to do was realize what my fan’s favorite songs of my music and then try and make it different by finding demos. It was very quick. Less than a month.
Something I know you might have in your vaults that I’m personally dying to hear and see is the entire run of shows that CSNY performed at the Fillmore East in 1970. Do you think might get an official release at some point?
That will be the next major project that we do. We recorded two nights on multi-track and we filmed two nights at the Fillmore East and it was some of the best music that we ever made. In my perfect world, after I take a rest and get these couple of tours out of the way, me and Bernstein are going to try and put that entire album together.
I have to tell you, I personally think the box set you put together from the CSNY 1974 tour is one of the greatest live concert recordings of all-time. The amount of material you guys performed on a nightly basis from that run is just astounding.
The reason I put that record together was because I wanted people to know that Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were a very decent rock and roll band. And technically it was quite interesting from this point of view. We recorded every single night of the 36 shows on two-track, but there’s nothing you can do with a two-track except maybe EQ it to bring out the sharpness of the voice or the deepness of the bass, and etc. But there’s nothing you can do about moving the drums to the left or whatever. It’s fixed. But, we recorded 10 shows in multi-track. But those 10 shows were recorded in places as different as a giant outside stadium with 80,000 people, or Wembley Stadium with 100,000 people or an indoor basketball [arena] and sonically they’re completely different. My job was to make sure you thought you were listening to one concert, in one place.
I think you more than accomplished that goal.
I have no doubt we did.
Something I was hoping to know more about is the status of your relationship these days with David Crosby. What are your feelings right now when it comes to him, and the prospect of maybe reconciling at some point?
I’m not talking to Crosby. Stephen’s not talking to Crosby. Neil is not talking to Crosby, so what do you think?
I’d say it doesn’t look very good.
No. I doubt very much we’ll ever play again together. And the truth is we were offered $100 million to tour.
It doesn’t matter. We don’t like each other. And if we don’t like each other, we can’t play great music. We can fake it, but all four of us would know that it was fake, and we can’t do that after 45 years of reasonably truthful music.
I understand that completely. Are you getting along with Stephen and Neil pretty okay?
I talk to Stephen every week. Especially because he’s having a great time out there [on tour] with Judy Collins. I had breakfast with Neil at the Carlisle Hotel here in New York City a couple of months ago. We are fine. Nobody wants to talk to David.
I know you just put out a new album of music last year, This Path Tonight, but are you continuing to write new music?
Of course! I’m a writer. Look what’s going on in this world. There’s so much to write about.
Over The Years will be out 6/29 via Rhino Entertainment Company/Warner Music. Get it here.