Review: Graham Nash had a life colorfully lived
WILD TALES: A Rock & Roll Life. By Graham Nash. Crown Archetype. 368 pages. $28.
As with every other retelling, Graham Nash, in his new autobiography, “Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life,” recalls the moment that he joined in with David Crosby and Stephen Stills to create an impromptu three-part harmony on Still’s song, “You Don’t Have to Cry,” and it was sheer vocal magic. And while there are differing opinions of where this magic moment took place, Nash seems pretty sure of his memory.
Graham Nash, is of course the Nash of the supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash, who exploded into the rock music scene in 1969 with their performance at Woodstock.
Not all was magic with the supergroup. The clash of egos, and the drugs, booze, women, and fame, are all recounted in this breezy memoir.
Nash’s 1970 autobiographical song “Military Madness” begins, “In an upstairs room in Blackpool, by the side of a Northern sea, the army had my father and my mother was having me.”
Graham Nash was born Feb. 2, 1942, during World War II. His mother evacuated Salford to have her baby in Blackpool, a safer locale, as the docks in Salford were a regular target for Nazi bombings.
After the war, the family reunited in Salford where Graham was raised in near poverty. When he 11, his father spent a year in prison for allegedly stealing a camera. While Nash doesn’t say so explicitly, this trauma seems to have greatly influenced the passion against injustice that he has exhibited throughout his life.
In his early school days, Nash met and became fast friends with Allan Clarke. Nash and Clarke would begin making music together in their early teens, eventually founding the Hollies, the group that first cracked Britain’s Top 10 in 1964 and rode the second wave of the British Invasion, with songs hitting the Top 40 in the United States beginning in 1966.
Eventually, Nash evolved in very divergent artistic and cultural directions from his Hollies bandmates. It was a difficult decision for Nash to leave the band and his longtime friends, especially Clarke, but his music was being rejected by the group (there is, in Nash’s words an “awful version” of “Marrakesh Express” that the Hollies recorded at Abbey Road studios that he “hopes no one ever hears”).
So he left the Hollies and England and found a new life and loves in America, where he moved in 1968.
Settling in California, Nash fell in love and had a relationship with Joni Mitchell, while at the same time cementing his place in a group with David Crosby, who had been fired from the popular band, The Byrds, and with Stephen Stills of the recently disbanded Buffalo Springfield.
Crosby, Stills & Nash became a rock phenomenon. Nash recounts their genesis, which culminated in the famous performance they gave at the Woodstock festival in 1969.
Their first album broke the Billboard Top 10 and was hugely influential. But what started out as magic soon descended into clashes and petty squabbles.
Nash gives substantial time and space to his two partners, as well as to Neil Young, whose addition to the trio “was like lobbing a live grenade into a vacuum.”
He does not hold back on his bandmates or himself.
The book is a treasure trove of minutiae for fans of the band or rock music in general. We read how George Harrison turned down CSN to record on Apple Records and how they ended up on the Atlantic label.
The music scene in Laurel Canyon, Calif., is described in detail, and many of the famous and infamous get passing mention or more. And yes, there are generous amounts of sex and drugs as well as rock and roll.
Nash’s book does not read like a written composition; rather, it basically reads like a tape transcription. Sometimes this tone can be annoying, but there also is a conversational tone that is easy and informal.
Nash takes us through the dissolution of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and through the numerous reunions, breakups and variations. Through it all, he communicates a great affection for and loyalty to David Crosby, even in Crosby’s toughest times.
His relationship with Stephen Stills, while never as close as with Crosby, had many ups and downs, but Nash shows the greatest respect for Stills’ abilities as a musician.
His relationship with Neil Young is quite complicated, and in the end, Nash says that Young never was a part of the band and that Young used the bands he was in as springboards for solo work.
Nash describes his political activism from the Kent State massacre (and the CSNY song “Ohio”) to Occupy Wall Street, where he and Crosby showed up with their guitars and performed some songs.
Nash has often been an outspoken critic of various U.S. policies, which has not always endeared him to authorities here.
Nash also describes in detail his passion for photography, which began as a young boy. He has been a prolific photographer and collector of photos.
He auctioned his photo collection at Sotheby’s for $2.6 million to launch his company Nash Editions, which creates gallery-quality prints for many photographers and artists such as David Hockney and Francisco Clemente.
At 71, Graham Nash seems a long way from a finished story. A husband and proud father, he still is engaged in writing and performing music, pursuing his photographic work and speaking out for causes that he believes are important.
“Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life” is an apt title. It is a wildly entertaining insider’s journey through an immensely influential era in Rock music. As Graham Nash wrote in his song “Marrakesh Express” and as CSN sang, “All aboard the train.”
Reviewer Michael Nelson is a writer and editor in Charleston.