Wild Tales, by Graham Nash

nash

Honestly, Graham Nash has always kind of annoyed me. He seemed to be the weakest member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, though most of their hits were written by him. Even more than David Crosby, Nash was the “hippie” in the band. He could sing beautifully and his harmony vocals were never short of amazing, but there was just something that seemed very lightweight about him. Maybe it was hearing the execrable “Marrakesh Express” one too many times when I was growing up that made me anti-Nash. Or maybe it was just that he was the quietest, most laid back member of a group notorious for their egos and volatility.

At the same time, I absolutely love The Hollies, the band Nash formed in England in the early 1960s. Yes, they were strictly second-string in the British Invasion, and their filler-to-fabulous ratio is a bit high, but The Hollies’ Greatest Hits is one of the most flawless pop albums ever released. It shines in its perfection. So when a friend of mine lent me Nash’s autobiography I decided to read it to learn more about The Hollies as much as for any other reason. Surprisingly, I’m less anti-Nash now.

He’s still annoying. The political tangents he goes off on throughout the book are unbelievably strident and reveal a man who doesn’t so much think about these issues than absorb and parrot whatever his fellow travelers and friends tell him. Nash also has an ego the size of Jupiter and he’s not shy about his talent. The book is full of bragging about his vocal abilities and songwriting. On the first of these, his bragging is justifiable. Nash does have a great singing voice and is as good a harmony singer as anyone in the business. On the latter, his songwriting, his boasts are a bit much. Nash has written some really good songs and a few great ones. He’s also written a lot of junk. Despite his claims to the contrary, only Neil Young went on to do considerably greater work after CSNY released Deja Vu in 1970.

Nash is a musical figure so locked into the 1970s it’s hard to picture him beginning in much the same way the Beatles or Stones did. Nash met Allan Clarke in grade school and they discovered that they could sing together. In forming the Hollies, they combined their talents with a love of the Everly Brothers. Nash’s stories here are charming, especially the one about how he and Clarke staked out the hotel where the Everlys were staying in England and actually got to meet them and talk to them. Nash’s love of music is readily apparent, and he makes it very clear that what he always loved most was harmony. In the early days of the Hollies Nash and Clarke perfected two-part harmonies but when guitarist Tony Hicks joined the band, and proved he could sing equally well, they branched out past the Everly Brothers and started working on three-part harmonies, which created a very different dynamic and sound. In this sense, the Hollies were the perfect training ground for Nash.

When Nash met David Crosby, another singer deeply versed in harmony singing from his time in The Byrds, and Stephen Stills, a multi-talented musician, songwriter, and singer, he was able to instantly blend his voice with theirs. Their vocal tones were so perfectly complementary that they sounded like nobody else. It was harmony singing, but a style and level of ability unheard in rock music.

Shortly after they recorded the Crosby, Stills & Nash album, Ahmet Ertegun floated the idea that Neil Young join the band. Nash protested vehemently, afraid that Young’s voice would not blend and worried that Young’s reputation as a somewhat mercurial character would upset the balance. It was only after Nash met Young that he agreed. But in some ways, Nash was right. Neil Young was far too beholden to his own instincts to be a good member of any band. While Young brought a harder edge and some truly great songs to the band, he was far too difficult to work with.

It sounds like a really big deal, but the truth is that in 1969 Neil Young was far from being famous. He’d left Buffalo Springfield and was floating around doing session work and his first, unsuccessful, solo album. Today, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young is considered a “supergroup” but then Crosby, Stills, and Young were journeymen. Arguably the biggest star in the band was Graham Nash, and his star shone brightest in England.

For a band that did very little work together in the 1970s (they released only two studio albums and one live album), they remained hugely popular. Their 1974 tour was the first stadium tour in rock music. They toured and recorded in various permutations. Stills recorded an album with Young, Crosby and Nash worked together and apart. This was how Nash originally envisioned the band: CSNY would be a home base that they could all return to while being free to make music in any other outlet they wished. But through it all, none of the side projects carried the same weight as when three or four would collaborate. The 1977 album CSN was meant to be the followup to Deja Vu, but ended up the sequel to 1969’s Crosby, Stills & Nash after Young dropped out of the sessions. Neil Young didn’t record with the band again until 1988’s American Dream (and the less said about that godawful mess the better). At this point, the band is thought of as CSN and sometimes Y.

Throughout the book Nash is almost exactly how you imagine him to be. He’s still very much enamored of the hippie mentality and still pays a lot of lip service to that long ago ethos. The political lectures scattered throughout the book are annoying, even if you admire Nash’s exuberance and beliefs. Graham Nash is a musician who was at the beginnings of the English rock scene (The Hollies played Liverpool’s Cavern Club more than any band except the Beatles). He played at Woodstock and was at Ground Zero for what became the California sound of the 1970s. More Woodstock, fewer lectures about nuclear power, please. (His lectures might have been more palatable if he didn’t sound like all of his information came from a Greenpeace pamphlet.)

The book is somewhat misnamed. A better title might have been Mild Tales. The truly wild tales of decadence and licentiousness were the ones starring Crosby. Long Time Gone, the autobiography of David Crosby, is a far better book, both for his musical reminiscences and for the genuinely terrifying portrait of drug addiction Crosby paints. In fact, the wildest tales in Nash’s books are the ones about Crosby’s descent into an unparalleled Hell of addiction. Graham Nash had a taste for women and drugs, but never seemed to really lose control. He was remarkably self-possessed and self-assured as a young man breaking into the music business and remained so for his entire career. This, and his basic charm, make him likable (although it also fuels his unlikable ego). His love of music and photography, and his restless creative spirit are also abundant. The book makes a nice companion piece to Long Time Gone, and I’d be curious to see a good autobiography of Stephen Stills, another character blessed with musical genius and titanic ego. (Neil Young is too eccentric to write a decent autobiography, but Shakey by Jimmy McDonough is a fascinating biography.) Separate and combined, their lives are one of the most interesting rock stories ever written, spanning almost every music scene from England’s 1950s to Greenwich Village in the early 1960s to Los Angeles in the late sixties and throughout the seventies. For now, only Crosby and Nash are speaking up.

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The Listening Post: June 2011

The sounds of summer begin.

  • Just Roll Tape: April 26th, 1968Stephen Stills. The title says it all. On 4/26/68, Stephen Stills crashed a Judy Collins studio session and, when it was over, bribed the engineer to stick around so he could record some demos. “Just roll tape,” he said, and then sat and played 13 songs that he’d been working on but had not yet recorded. It seems hard to believe in 2011, but back in 1968 Stephen Stills was one of rock music’s best songwriters. Floating between the dissolution of Buffalo Springfield and his hooking up with David Crosby and Graham Nash, this is Stills performing loose, ragged, acoustic versions of his new material, some of which would become rock standards. There are beautiful versions here of “Wooden Ships” (minus the verses that would be added by Paul Kantner and David Crosby), “Helplessly Hoping,” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (which sounds nearly fully formed. There are also songs that would pop up on solo albums and with Manassas. The problem with the album is its roughness. By the third song his guitar is drifting in and out of tune. All of the songs on this album are good. The problem is that the majority of them are available in far superior versions elsewhere. Why listen to a rough pass at “Black Queen” when you can get a fully realized version on the first Stills solo album? As interesting as the early version of “Wooden Ships” is, it pales in comparison to the CSN version and doesn’t belong on the same planet as the Jefferson Airplane version. Which leaves the tracks that aren’t available anywhere else. Of those, the opening “All I Know Is What You Tell Me” is the best, a great track performed beautifully. The others (“Judy,” “Dreaming Of Snakes,” “Bumblebee,” and “The Doctor Will See You Now”) are good tunes that might have been great when recorded properly and fleshed out with further instrumentation and vocals. Just Roll Tape is an interesting album to listen to a few times, but it remains nothing more than a curio for obsessive fans.
    Grade: C+
  • John, The Wolf King of L.A.John Phillips. If there is a more screwed up person in the history of popular music than John Phillips, who allegedly had an incestuous affair with his daughter that lasted for years, I can’t imagine who it could be. But while the very mention of his name is guaranteed to bring shudders of revulsion, the fact remains that the guy wrote some great music, at least until the drugs and alcohol turned him from a musician into a full-time reprobate with tons of money. Phillips’s ear for harmony and vocal arrangement may be unparalleled in rock music. The best of what he did with The Mamas and The Papas are triumphs of songwriting and arranging. When he released John, The Wolf King of L.A. in 1969 Phillips was at his peak as a songwriter. This was his first solo album and he put aside the folky stylings of The Mamas and The Papas in favor of a more country/Byrdsy sound. Wolf King was clearly influenced by the growing popularity of country music in rock circles, as shown by albums like Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, Bradley’s Barn, and The Gilded Palace Of Sin. Young, stoned, and filled to the brim with talent, this was also the last music Phillips released that was worth anything. The drugs took him that quickly. But this album is a minor masterpiece of country rock from the gorgeous opener “April Ann” to the epic closer “Holland Tunnel.” The album is California to the bone with songs like “Topanga Canyon,” “Malibu People,” and “Down The Beach,” and serves as one of the cornerstones of what became both the California sound and the singer/songwriter movement in the 1970s. While it didn’t do all that well on the charts, it’s clear that people like Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Jackson Browne, and Linda Ronstadt were paying close attention. Phillips isn’t as strong a singer as Papa Denny Doherty, but his rough voice fits the material well, and the instrumentation is top-notch, courtesy of studio pros like The Wrecking Crew, and contributions from James Burton on guitar and Darlene Love on backing vocals. A very good album, mellow with a solid groove that prevents it from getting boring.
    Grade: B
  • Reckoning (Deluxe Edition)R.E.M. The second album from R.E.M. stands as one of the great albums of the 80s. For a long time it was considered to be nothing more than a little brother to Murmur, but it’s really every bit as good as their first LP. On the 25th anniversary of its release, it was remixed and rereleased with an additional disc featuring a live concert from the Aragon Ballroom in 1984. The live disc features tunes from both Murmur and Reckoning and their debut EP Chronic Town, as well as versions of the as-yet-unreleased “Driver 8” and “Hyena.” There’s also a nice cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale.” The problem with live albums…all live albums… is that they must meet certain criteria to be considered as anything more than tour souvenirs or contractual obligation releases. In order for a live album to truly achieve the type of greatness a studio album can attain some, or preferably all, of these standards need to be met: 1) for the majority of songs the live versions are better than the studio versions of the same songs, 2) there are unreleased songs (or cover songs) that are available nowhere else, 3) the live versions are noticeably different than their studio predecessors (acoustic versions, different arrangements, etc). A live album where there is precious little difference between the live tracks and their studio counterparts is, frankly, pointless. Consider the original version of the Who’s Live At Leeds, largely thought to be the greatest live rock album of all time. Six songs: three of the songs had no studio counterparts (“Shaking All Over,” “Summertime Blues,” “Young Man Blues”), one song had only been available as a single (“Substitute”), and the other two were presented in radically altered form (“My Generation” and “Magic Bus”). None of this is true on the live show packaged with Reckoning. The songs are presented in a very similar way to the studio versions. The “unheard” songs that were performed that night are now part of the R.E.M. canon. There are lots of missed notes and flubbed lyrics. At times they sound like they’re not really sure what song they’re performing. Because of this, there’s actually a certain charm to the recording. This is really live, warts and all. The songs are all played with the reckless abandon of a band that is not ready for the arena circuit. My guess is that this would have been a great concert to see, when the excitement generated on stage and the immediacy of the music would allow you to overlook flaws. But as a recording, preserved for posterity, those flaws are very evident. Still, there’s simply no denying the songs here. From “Femme Fatale” to “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” there isn’t a single song on the disc that isn’t great. Extra points awarded for a band that’s got this many great songs on a live disc, especially when it isn’t that horror known as the “Greatest Hits Live” album. At 54 minutes, it also falls short of the other monstrosity, the “Double Live” album. But as enjoyable as the ramshackle nature of the live disc is, it’s simply not essential listening, unlike the studio Reckoning.
    Grade: A+ for the original album
    Grade B+ for the bonus live disc