FMQB Retro-Active: Ken Sharp Gets Up Close with Graham Nash and Tom Petty
July 28, 2014
In terms of sheer popularity, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young never flew higher than in 1974. It was the peak for the band.The three-hour-plus shows, combining an electric-acoustic-electric set, remain legendary in fan circles and take on an almost mythic standing in CSNY lore. Now 40 years later,CSNY 1974, a definitive new multi-CD/DVD set, is available in several low to high end configurations. The 40 performances are spectacular, offering unassailable proof of the quartet's fine-tuned artistry and timeless music. Graham Nash, in partnership with archivist Joel Bernstein, oversaw the project and has the battle scars to prove it. Listening back to this monumental body of work goes a long way to demonstrating that in 1974, CSNY rightfully earned their crown as peerless musical innovators. Retro-Active'sKen Sharp spoke with Graham Nash for the lowdown on this long-awaited release.
What made ďCSNY 1974Ē the most difficult and rewarding project in your career? Graham Nash: Iím really thrilled with this record. We set a very high bar for the music and I think that Joel (Bernstein) and I and Stanley (Johnston) pulled it off.
Difficult and rewarding could also apply the CSNY's entire career. That's true, but this is different; with CSN itís only three people, two of whom trust me completely. When you add Neil (Young) it gets a little more difficult. It wasnít difficult personally at all because obviously I kept Neil in the loop about every stage of what was going on. But it was difficult technically. For instance, of the nine shows that were multi-tracked, there were five different buildings of five different sizes of five different audio trips. To make it sound like you were sitting in the same hall through 40 songs was very difficult.
Was it a mind trip to go back and revisit those shows from 40 years ago? I saw a bootleg of our show at Wembley Stadium from '74 and quite frankly it was not a great show by us. One of the reasons why we didnít release a live album 40 odd years ago was because that was the show that we listened to. And we thought, "Oh my God, we were just horrible!" and everyone kind of lost enthusiasm for it. But I realized if I dug deep enough we'd find some really good shows because I knew we played some shows really excellently. I knew that somewhere on these tapes there was a great show to be had. So thatís how I stared working on this project. I said to Neil, "Listen, I donít want our fans to think thatís who we were from hearing this bootleg of us at Wembley." Yeah, we did that then but we were too coked out of our minds and we were playing too fast. We were too excited because it was my hometown. So I didn't want our fans to think thatís who we were. I wanted to expose them to the really great music that we did. So I started from a very basic premise and focused on getting the very best performance of each song and the best performances that knocked me on my ass and I found them.
What were the greatest challenges CSNY faced playing stadiums? Well, we knew we could do it. We were full of ourselves and thought we were a fine band. We knew we had four fine singers and four fine writers and it was just a question of getting the job done. So we knew we could play to that many people because we had done Woodstock. We had played "Guinnevere" with one acoustic guitar and two voices to several hundred thousand people, so we knew we could do it.
How did playing for huge crowds impact the set list and approach to the music? The main challenge was how to reach the people in the front row and how to reach the people in the back row. When youíre dealing with a 10,000 seat hall or a 2,000 seat theater, itís relatively easy. But when youíre dealing with our average audience on that tour, which must have been 60 to 75,000 people, it becomes much more difficult. I think thatís one of the reasons David called it ďthe Doom Tour,Ē because weíve got to be able to look in the eyes of our audience and know that weíre emotionally connecting with them. Now letís talk about the set. Neil Young hit a writing spell that was unbelievable. Thatís the reason why Neil has more songs on this record than I do or David or Stephen. Itís just the fact. Going from the high bar that every song has to knock me on my ass, I couldnít throw out "Hawaiian Sunrise," I couldn't throw out "Don't Be Denied" or "Pushed It Over the End." They had to go in because the performances were fucking killer. But the biggest technical challenge was trying to make it sound like you were in the 12throw right in the middle of one hall and you stay there for the 40 songs.
The set Ė electric, acoustic and then back to electric Ė showed off all sides of CSNY. That's what we've tried to do and thatís what weíve always tried to do. Weíve always known that we have a lot of songs. Weíve always known that we have to communicate with the audience on a very direct level. So with audiences of that size you canít start out your show acoustic. So we went out there balls to the wall with "Love the One You're With," a kick ass song right off the top and then through the first set. Then there's an intermission and we let everybody settle down and play acoustically and then add drums and add bass occasionally. Then we take another break and come back for the last electric set.
Hearing for so many years that the CSNY '74 tour was not good, itís a wonderful surprise to prove that history was wrong. I wanted our fans to know that we were a very good rock & roll band and that we are human beings with our weaknesses and our strengths. I wanted to make sure our fans understood just how excellent we were.
How did the CSNY 1974 lineup come alive onstage vs. the studio records? I relate it to my photography. Sometimes when you want to shoot a still life or three apples in a bowl with a big negative and a big camera, it takes a while to get it; the exposure is long and the preparation is long. When you play live itísnow!Thereís no time to waste, those people are waitingnowand you better performnowand thatís the difference. I must tell you, thereís not one overdub on this entire box set. Not one.
There's always been combustibility about CSNY, both personally and musically, and you can hear that on CSNY '74. That's true. If youíre not on the edge youíre taking up too much room. We loved to be on the edge. There's a song that was a new one of mine for my girlfriend at the time called "It's Alright." I wrote it one morning and I played it that night and David, Stephen and Neil had never heard it. On the tape, Stephen yells out to me, "Hey Willy, what are the chords to this song?" I start to ramble to Stephen, "Well, it starts in D and then goes to B minorÖ" Then we do the song. The reason why itís not on the album is because the song wasnít finished. I later put a chorus in there and I changed a few of the words. But thatís what I mean by being on the edge. When Neil said, "I want to do this song called 'Goodbye Dick'," I was like, "Fine." I mean, who the fuck are we to tell Neil Young he canít sing a new song? (laughs) It doesn't matter how many people are out there.
That same combustibility exists between Neil Young and Stephen Stills as guitar players who brought their history playing together in BuffaloSpringfield to the table. I can't tell you what a thrill it is for me as a minor musician; Iím certainly not the musician Crosby is or Stephen or Neil is. I can play acoustic guitar or electric guitar or piano to satisfy my own writing needs but Iím not a great musician at all. And for me to stand in the middle of the stage and watch the musical entity that is Stephen Stills and Neil Young playing guitar against each other and sparking each other into higher and higher musical forms is a great part of what we love about our relationship with Neil and obviously it was a great part of Buffalo Springfield. To watch Neil and Stephen approach each other, not only physically, not only with incredibly intense eye contact but with the music they each bring out of their own separate guitar playing was amazing to me. It was just amazing; I was in awe because Iím not that good. When you hear a guitar conversation between Stephen and Neil, as you do many times on this record, thatís an incredibly strong part of what it is that we do, but it is also very fragile. For instance, Neil Young, God bless his cotton socks, is only interested in the best music as I am and David is and Stephen is. But sometimes it doesnít work. On a couple of those earlier CSNY tours, we got to the first night, played the first show and knew it was horrible and quit the tour that night. So it is a very fragile thing. But fortunately on this tour, I donít want to brag, but I thought we were excellent.
Tom Petty photo: Andy Tennille
GOT MY EYE ON YOUÖIn support of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' new record,Hypnotic Eye, Gainesville, Florida's favorite musical son Tom Petty has his own SiriusXM channel, called Tom Petty Radio, on SirusXM's "Classic Rewind" channel 25. The channel will exist for an exclusive two-week run comprising music from Petty's entire career, solo and with the Traveling Wilburys, as well as interviews with Petty and the Heartbreakers and live cuts culled from Petty's last tour.