FMQB Retro-Active: Ken Sharp Chats With Graham Nash About His New Book, Songwriting, and Musical History
January 20, 2014
Two-time Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Graham Nash knows a thing or two about chemistry. As a founding member of The Hollies and CSN/CSNY (or various iterations of the same), from "Carrie Anne" to "Our House," his delicate voice has helped create some of the most magnificent harmonies in rock & roll. Nash's latest project, the bookWild Tales: A Rock and Roll Life, lives up to its name, detailing a colorful life marked by picture perfect moments of beatific harmony alongside raw snapshots of disharmony. "I wanted you to hear my voice while reading the book," observes Nash. "I wanted it to feel like I was just sitting in your living room talking to you." Frank and intimate, Wild Talespulls no punches, chronicling in vivid detail a musical and personal journey that unfolds like an unfinished song, and by story's end, winds up as a beautiful symphony. Retro-active'sKen Sharp spoke with Nash.
Doing the book, what did you learn about yourself and your fellow band mates? I really believe that I like people. I love David (Crosby), I love Stephen (Stills), I love Neil (Young), and I love Joan (Mitchell). I really like these people. In doing the book, when I looked down at the manuscript after I read everything that I put down, I thought, "Oh my God, I wish I was him? (laughs) because it's been such a wild life. It's not only about sex, drugs and rock and roll, which sells books of course, but it's about loyalty and friendship and love."
You grew up in Salford, England. You said “dreams were often the only way out.” What were your dreams as a kid? I've known since I was 13-years-old that I wanted to be a rock and roll musician. At school I wouldn't be doing my homework, I'd be drawing drum kits and Fender guitars and practicing my autograph.
You wrote “King Midas in Reverse” for The Hollies. Please recount writing and recording the song. Could you sense it was an artistic breakthrough?
It was kind of one of the reasons why I left the Hollies. We had an agreement where whatever we wrote it was always split three ways. I was starting to write songs where they didn't contribute anything and I was still sharing it, and it upset me. I had to stop that. I thought I'd written a pretty decent song with "King Midas in Reverse." It was very emotional for me, I was talking about myself of course and I did think we cut a great record of it. I'm still very pleased when I hear the record. I think it was definitely a step in the right direction for me as a writer. I began to realize that songs are more than just "Moon, June, screw me in the back of the car" kind of songs. I've got nothing against those kinds of songs and I wrote many of them myself (laughs), especially when I was with The Hollies. But I began to realize that there was a lot going in the world that needed to be spoken about and needed to be examined and have some sunshine lighting it up.
Take us back to your fateful meeting with David and Stephen and singing for the first time, you asked them to play “You Don’t Have to Cry.”
I'd come from London to Los Angeles to meet with Joni Mitchell, who I was going out with at the time. We were in her living room and David and Stephen were there. We finished dinner and David said, "Hey Stephen, sing Willie that song." It was the song "You Don't Have to Cry," which I personally think is a really brilliant song. They sang it and it sounded great in two part harmony. I said, "Sing it again," so they looked at each other and said, "Okay" and they sang it again. Then I said, "Okay, well bear with me now, sing it one more time" and I had my harmony down. Whatever vocal sound that CSN has was born in that first 40 seconds.
Once you joined CSN your writing took a great leap forward from your work in The Hollies. What precipitated that evolution? Was it simply a case of you trying to up your game surrounded by other incredible writers ala Stills with "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes?"
I wasn't trying to up my game. I was witnessing the way Crosby wrote and the way Joni wrote. Unbelievable songwriters. They were very different from what I had been trained to do with The Hollies, writing these two and a half minute pop singles that you can't forget, unfortunately. But when I watched David and Stephen and Neil (Young) and Joni write, obviously you get affected by witnessing such great stuff. I started to get really serious about songwriting. Not that I wasn’t serious before, but I realized there's a lot going on in the world that needs to be spoken about.
With CSN, you established a democracy only doing songs that you loved.
We have kind of an unspoken rule with me, David, Stephen and with Neil and that is this: if I play you a song and you don't particularly react, you'll never hear that song again. But if I play you a song and you go, "Oh man, I know what to do in the choruses," or Stephen and Neil go, "We can work out this guitar line," now we're interested. So that's kind of an unspoken rule with us and we call it strangely enough, "The reality rule."Is the song good enough to exist? Is it good enough for the other people to be involved?
How has a band that’s all about harmony managed to survive all these years dealing with many moments of disharmony?
We have a great sense of survival and I think that we all know the music's the most important part of our relationship. So we've always tried to concentrate on that in spite of all the stuff that's been going on and in spite of all those stories in my book, Wild Tales. We knew that the music was the most important thing.
Your role in CSN and CSNY has been as the diplomat, is that a fair description?
I think that's a pretty good representation. I like an easy life. I like us to keep on the path of going where we're supposed to be going. I try to keep myself concentrated on that path and whenever we go astray I keep reminding them just how important the music is and how it affects the lives of millions of people.
Working with three vocalists in CSN on harmony parts, discuss how the addition of Neil to the mix proved challenging for the group.
Because three-part harmony is different than four-part harmony. It's very very different. You have to change the tonal structure of the whole thing and it sounds different. But so what! We sing well with Neil, wait until you hear some of the live stuff on the [forthcoming] CSNY 1974 live album. It's tremendous: I'm thrilled with it musically.
Why was it called “The Doom Tour?"
I didn’t call it that, Crosby did. From what I'm putting together right now, I’m only 11 mixes from the end of this collection; I think there might be 40 songs on this box set. It soars to me. David called it "The Doom Tour" because he kept trying to sing "Guinnevere" with one guitar and two voices to 100,000 people. It just didn't work. It's too big. That's why David called it "The Doom Tour." I didn’t think it was "The Doom Tour"; I had a great time myself. I think the music will show people how good a time we were having.
Tell us more about the live ’74 CSNY box set.
In 1974 CSNY did a series of shows in stadiums and basketball arenas. We played 31 venues and recorded nine of them in multi-track. Me and my friend Joel Bernstein listened to every single inch of tape, every second of music that we had made on multi-track and put together this album that is thrilling me. I'm not unthrillable but I'm certainly hard to move, and this music is a great representation of who this band is.
Listening back almost 40 years later, was it better than you thought?