Thursday, October 31, 2013

Graham Nash: Wild Tales, A Rock and Roll Life

The photographs on the front and back of Wild Tales: A Rock and Roll Life, Graham Nash’s autobiography, were taken by Nash himself, in mirrors. The front cover shows him circa 1972; the back is more current. In between the two photos is another self-portrait, in words. The story begins with him leaving the place of his birth, walking away from his wife, his band (The Hollies), and his bank account and discovering a new world of music with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, new love (Joni Mitchell) and a new bank account in the USA. The text which tells his story is bracketed by two sentences. He begins “It always comes down to the music,” and concludes, some 345 pages later, “it all comes down to the music.” And that is pretty much Graham Nash’s philosophy.

Wild Tales, which came out last month, will not grab people the way some rock’n’roll autobiographies do. Nash is too nice a guy, too gentle, too caring to hang his friends out to dry. He’s too organized to tell a story in the same abstract “Jackson Pollock” way with words that his buddy Neil Young did in last year’s Waging Heavy Peace. Even though he promises to tell Wild Tales, the stories Nash shares are not as shocking as he (perhaps) thought they were. We’ve heard many of the stories before, in the newspaper. He does offer details of specific incidents but even then they don’t surprise. David Crosby had such a bad drug problem he was willing to leave his girlfriend at the mercy of a motorcycle gang. Hmmm. I’m not surprised. Stephen Stills is a control freak, but not compared to Neil Young. Really? Nash had a love affair with Joni Mitchell. Well we heard all about it in “My Old Man” and “Willy” and in Nash’s own songs.

His early years are covered in some detail, going to school, listening to the Everly Brothers, getting a guitar and trying to be the Everly Brothers with school chum Allan Clarke. The Mancunian pals even meet the Everly Brothers, when after the show at the Free Trade Hall Allan and Graham rushed over to the best hotel in Manchester where they waited. Eventually Don and Phil arrived. They were hardly speaking to each other in those days, but they took the time to stop and chat with their fans. Nash “swore to [him]self that if [he] ever became famous” he would treat his fans exactly the same way.

Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969
The Hollies took off, becoming one of Manchester’s answers to Liverpool’s Beatles, and another part of the British Invasion in the mid-Sixties. They had a string of hits, often written by Nash, with Clarke’s lead vocals and Nash’s harmonies. The harmonies were the thing with The Hollies. The ability to blend was exactly the skill that Nash needed for the next part of his career. Long-time friend or not, when Allan Clarke wanted to lead the Hollies into the studio to record an album of Bob Dylan covers, Graham was gone. He had met David Crosby earlier and went to look him up. One day at Mama Cass’s house Nash watched Crosby roll the perfect joint while carrying on a conversation. It was Graham Nash’s first taste of grass, and he “…wanted to see where marijuana might take me, how it could open me up.” He had come to the right place. Crosby was just the man to lead him down that road. Fortunately the ex-Hollie was able to steer a straighter path than the ex-Byrd although they stayed together going in the same direction musically. When the voices of Crosby and Nash meshed with Stephen Stills everyone heard magic.

Nash writes a very detailed report on the ups and downs of Crosby, Stills and Nash (and later Young) musically, politically and pharmaceutically, and it is a complicated ride. From trio to quartet, quartet to duo, back to trio, quartet, solo, trio, and duo, your head spins. Throughout it all you see the steady decline of Crosby, who suffers tragic loss and copes by sinking deeper into drug culture until he is arrested (more than once), and ultimately cleans up due to the efforts of his best friend Graham Nash. One never gets the sense that Nash is looking for a pat on the back for his efforts, he’s simply telling it the way it happened.

Along the way Nash discovers a second love, photography, and develops a business called Nash Editions. It relates back to his father, who was in possession of a stolen camera and sent to jail for it. He was the same kind of loyal friend that his son became, not turning in the thief and taking punishment on his own shoulders. It led to Nash’s early interest in photography, and lifelong hobby. Nash Editions continues to be a leader in fine art printing.

I haven’t mentioned Nash’s lovers, but they’re all here including Joni Mitchell and Nash’s wife Susan, but there are few intimate details; after all, it all comes down to the music. And music is what Graham Nash’s Wild Tales talks about most. In the midst of all the loving and dope and in-fighting there are the songs. Songs like “Dear Eloise,” “Bus Stop,” “Teach Your Children,” “Marrakesh Express,” “Our House,” “Military Madness” and more have a half-life far greater than that of the private stuff. Not the greatest story ever told perhaps, but Wild Tales is an honest remembrance of the times by a genuinely nice guy. And it does tell a lot about the music.

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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