BWW Reviews: WILD TALES - A Rock and Roll Life
In the interest of full disclosure, I've been a Graham Nash fan since Nixon was president; maybe even Johnson, if you include his first band, the Hollies. But then, he was just one of a group. It wasn't until 1969 when - in my mind at least - he became an individual musician/songwriter. That was when the stars aligned to create one of the first rock supergroups: Crosby, Stills, Nash and (sometimes) Young.
Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life is Nash's travelogue of his life, and oh, baby, what a life it's been so far.
Beginning with his more-than-humble beginnings in Manchester, England, even die-hard fans may be surprised to learn of the events that shaped the man who would become a rock star: the tragedy of his father's life, his mother's abandonment of her own performing dreams, the sad inevitability of life in his neighborhood. It wasn't until he offered a seat to the new boy in school - Allan Clarke, with whom he would found the Hollies - that his love of music took hold of him, giving him a way out of the life that had stifled his parents.
As with many memoirs by rock and roll stars, there is no shortage of sex and drugs. Nash is one of the lucky ones because he was able to stop his cocaine use before it destroyed him. By then he'd seen too many friends - Hendrix, Cass Elliot, and nearly David Crosby - leave us too soon. You could call it name-dropping when he mentions the unknown guitarist that Little Richard screamed at (Jimi Hendrix) or that Paul Simon invited him to sit in on a recording session with Art Garfunkel. But the 60s especially were a magical time to be part of what was really a small community of artists who were reinventing music.
Nash is not one to burn bridges, though he is the first to admit that the way he left the Hollies was awkward at best. His passion for music and photography and social justice issues is not just obvious but admirable. He has the courage of his convictions, and lives them every day. That's why you see him with his friends as headliners at benefit concerts around the world, including an impromptu performance at Occupy Wall Street's encampment at Zuccotti Park. Remember, this is the group that brought you "Chicago" and "Ohio".
One might say it was an accident of fate in 1969 that brought him together with David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and, with some reluctance on Nash's part, Neil Young. Four talented, opinionated, strong personalities could hardly be expected to get along well all the time. And they don't.
I read some of the tales of their interactions - on and off stage - and wondered what a psychologist would make of them. Like most fans, I knew of the competitive nature of Stills and Young's relationship, dating back to Buffalo Springfield. But I was shocked by the depths of Crosby's addiction, not just selling possessions to score cocaine, but even selling rights to his songs. There's no doubt in my mind that Nash's friendship with Crosby was not only dysfunctional then but enabling, making sure there were enough drugs backstage to keep Crosby going through their performances. But the man my friends and I call "the grownup" of the group finally reached his limit. It wasn't until Crosby finally got clean and sober - sometime after his stint in prison - that their relationship settled down. "We make up for each other's stupidities," Stills told an interviewer once. Nash reveals the truth in that time and again.
Why so much intensity between these men? I believe the kind of music they make is responsible. Mostly without the pounding drums and throbbing bass guitars like most of their contemporaries (although all are accomplished guitarists), their music is rooted in the almost other-worldly beauty of harmony. Other groups - including Nash's idols, the Everly Brothers - made two-part harmonies popular. But it wasn't until Crosby, Stills and Nash first opened their mouths at Joni Mitchell's house that three-part harmony was introduced to rock and roll. Try; just try, to replicate the haunting "Guinevere" or the wistful "Wasted on the Way". To sing that perfectly together you have to have absolute trust in the others on stage with you. A little love doesn't hurt either.
Wild Tales is a remarkably intelligent and entertaining book, a must-read for anyone who loves rock and roll. I do have one criticism, however.
I've seen Nash in concert many times over the years - solo or with Crosby, Stills and sometimes Young. There's one thing he does onstage that I've always wondered about and I hoped he'd explain it. But he didn't.
So, Graham, if you're reading this, why do you perform barefoot?