Graham Nash

by Greg Prato

The stories behind some of his famous songs and photos.

Although he'll forever be best known for his musical contributions (as a member of The Hollies, CSN/CSN&Y, and his solo work), Graham Nash is also an extremely talented photographer who has been documenting his life and surrounding subjects for decades.

And with the arrival of the book A Life in Focus: The Photography of Graham Nash, some of his best images have been collected. Many are faces you'll recognize: Jackson Browne, Mama Cass Elliot, Alice Cooper, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell... lots of Joni Mitchell. But there are also shots of everyday people and places made extraordinary through his lens.

Nash spoke with Songfacts shortly before the book's release to discuss the stories behind some of the most striking photos, which you'll see below. One that stands out is Neil Young looking like he's about to either write a brilliant song or smash his guitar over Nash's head. As Nash explains, he later found out that Young was moonlighting on his After The Gold Rush solo album at this time.

Along with a breakdown of the photos, Nash also tells the stories behind some of his classic songs, including "Teach Your Children" and "Wasted On The Way." And, he gives a very candid account of how he felt when listening to Mitchell's 1971 album, Blue, written soon after their breakup.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): You give a lot of visual detail in your songs - "Marrakesh Express" is a great example. Can you talk about how your eye for photography influences your songwriting?

Graham Nash: I want to capture moments in both music and in photography. I want to be invisible. I want people to smile when they're listening, or looking at an image.

I want to bring joy to people. I am not interested in negativity and bad comments. I'm not interested in any of that. I'm almost 80 years old – in three months, I'll be 80. And I always wanted to be curious about the world. I've always wanted to make people feel better about themselves, and I'll do that until the day I die.

Songfacts: What's a song you wrote that was influenced by a photo?

Nash: I had a show at a museum many, many years ago. I never have told any gallery owner how to hang my images. They know their space way better than me, and I'm always curious as to how they put images together. And in this particular show, two images had been put together. One by a woman named Diane Arbus of a boy in Central Park with a [toy] hand grenade. And the other next to it was an image of Krupp, who was the German arms manufacturer for both World War I and World War II, who were in a way responsible for millions of deaths.

And these two images together made me realize that if we didn't teach our children a better way of dealing with our fellow human beings, we were fucked. Humanity was in great danger. So, I had just finished "Teach Your Children." And when I saw how this gallery owner had placed these two images together, it made me realize that I was on the right track.

Songfacts: When Songfacts interviewed Bill Withers, he talked about how you were in the studio offering support when he recorded "Ain't No Sunshine." What do you recall about that?

Nash: I was in the studio where we cut the first CSN record – it's on the corner of Selma and Cahuenga Boulevard in Los Angeles. I was taking a break, probably smoking a joint outside, and I heard this music coming from one of the other studios. I was curious, and I walked in. And there was this African American with a guitar, sitting on a chair, with his foot on a box. That was the rhythm he was creating.

He finished the song, and I said, "Who are you, man? That's a fantastic song! What's going on in your life?" And he says, "Well, I'm kind of giving up. I can't seem to break through. Nobody seems interested. Maybe I'll just give up." And I said, "Wait a second. I don't know who the fuck you are, but you cannot give up. What you have is an incredible gift. You should recognize that and get on with it."

And he loved that. Twenty or 30 years later, I was filmed with Bill in my house in Encino talking about that moment. But yes, I did encourage Bill.

As Nash recalls, the first time he sang with Stephen Stills and David Crosby was in Joni Mitchell's living room (Stills places it in Mama Cass's dining room). Mitchell and Crosby had dated, and he also produced her debut album. Soon after Crosby, Stills & Nash formed, Nash and Mitchell started dating. They moved in together in a house in Laurel Canyon, the setting for Nash's CSN&Y song "Our House."

Nash and Mitchell broke up on June 6, 1970. He remembers the date because he wrote a song about it right away and played it the next evening at the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young show at the Fillmore East with Joni in the audience. That song, "Simple Man," appeared on Nash's first solo album, released in 1971.
Songfacts: There's a lot of Joni Mitchell in the book. She's a painter,1 and also a very visual songwriter. How do your songwriting styles compare?

Nash: I would never, ever try to compare any of my work with any of Joni's work. I think she's a genius. I think in a hundred years' time, when people are looking back at this century and what happened in music, they are probably going to remember The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and they're definitely going to remember Joni Mitchell.

Songfacts: What is Joni Mitchell's greatest song?

Nash: There are so many brilliant songs. I tend to go towards a simple song, and one of my favorites is "A Case Of You." I think it's an unbelievably beautifully recorded, simple folk song. It's beautiful.

Songfacts: How did you feel when you heard her song "River"? I've heard that the song was influenced by you.

Nash: It took me a while to listen to Blue again after the first time because there's two or three songs on there that I'm part of. And "River" is a beautiful, beautiful song: "I wish I had a river I could skate away on."

When Joni and I were breaking up, we both knew it was going to be difficult. We both loved each other tremendously. We had spent a couple of years lighting up rooms when we walked in. It was painful. It took me a while before I could re-listen to Blue.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind CSN's "Wasted On The Way"?

Nash: How much time the three – sometimes the four – of us had wasted. We had wasted a lot of time arguing with each other and debating how we should do this or do that, and that's what I wanted to say: We wasted a lot of time. CSN&Y only did what, three albums?2 We had wasted a lot time, and I just wanted to make my partners realize that.

Songfacts: "Better Days." [From his 1971 debut solo album, Songs For Beginners.]

Nash: "Better Days" was written for Rita Coolidge. I first met Rita the night that me, David [Crosby], Rita, and a couple of other people put the vocals on "Love The One You're With." I asked Rita out and she said yes. Then Stephen [Stills] called her and said, "That date that Graham made with you, he can't do it because he's sick. But I'll take you."

"Better Days" is about my relationship with Rita Coolidge and Stephen.

Songfacts: "Wounded Bird." [Also on Songs For Beginners.]

Nash: "Wounded Bird" is a song I wrote for Stephen and Judy Collins. When Judy and Stephen were together, it made perfect sense to us all, but I wanted to just insert a word of caution that sometimes love goes in a different way than you think it does. And so it's just a word of caution to my friend Stephen about his relationship with Judy.

Songfacts: Let's discuss some specific photos from your book, starting with the self-portrait of you at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.

Self-portrait at The Plaza Hotel, 1974. New York City.

Nash: That was taken in September of '74. It was at the end of the CSN&Y tour of stadiums.3 We were about to go to London to do the final show at Wembley Stadium. I had been doing a lot of drawing and snorting a lot of cocaine – the same as everybody else. It was a tense time and a strange time.

I was drawing a picture of myself in the bathroom at my suite in the Plaza Hotel, and then I realized that what I was looking at would make a great picture. So my girlfriend, Calli Cerami – a beautiful woman – I asked her to bring my camera in, and I worked out the exposure and worked out the composition and said, "Would you do me a favor? Stand right here and just take that picture that I can see."

So, she actually pressed the trigger. It's my self-portrait because I set the whole thing up, but Calli actually took that picture. So, I've been plaguing myself with, "Is that a self-portrait? What is that exactly?" But it is my idea and my composition and my exposure settings, so I'm taking it as a self-portrait.

Songfacts: The photo of Mama Cass.

Mama Cass Elliot of The Mamas & the Papas

Nash: That's Cass on the phone to Crosby. I was visiting her at a house just off of Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. You know, in a really strange way, Cass is the reason you and I are talking right now – she understood what David and Stephen were trying to do.

David had been thrown out of the Byrds, [Buffalo] Springfield had broken up, and she knew I was unhappy in The Hollies. And she knew what I sounded like. I believe in her mind, she knew what we would sound like if we sang together, and I have a feeling that is one of the reasons why she introduced me to Crosby, who introduced me to Stephen. And on every album since, we have given a special shout-out to Cass.

Songfacts: The photo of Joni painting.

Joni Mitchell painting, 1969. Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles.

Nash: That's her painting a portrait of me. Which, if I turn my chair around – which I just did – I am looking at that portrait of me. I have it.

Songfacts: The photos of Neil Young rehearsing for the Déjà Vu album.

Neil Young rehearsing for the Déjà Vu sessions at Stephen Stills' house, 1969. Studio City, Los Angeles. The bass string on his guitar is vibrating.

Nash: I'm a courageous photographer. I like to be invisible and I have courage. But I'm always a little apprehensive of shooting pictures of Neil. I know how private he is, I know how weird he is, I know how strange he can be. I know all that. But I wanted to take some pictures, and those pictures that you see were taken in five minutes. What I didn't know was that Neil would rehearse with us for several hours on Déjà Vu, then leave, go to the studio, and start making After The Gold Rush. Fantastic. What a musician.

Songfacts: CSN seems to get credit for being one of the bands that set the stage for what is known as "yacht rock." I wrote a book about it a while back, and some of the interviewees agreed. What do you think of that term?

Nash: I don't know what you're talking about, so I don't have anything to say. I haven't heard anything. What's it like?

Songfacts: It's a style of music that has very prominent vocal harmonies and has a lot of subject matter pertaining to boats and sailing. From CSN, it then led to such artists as Steely Dan, the Eagles, the Doobie Brothers, Christopher Cross – artists that had that similar approach and sound.

Nash: Got it. Well, we were only trying to do what we could do best. We knew that we had good songs, we knew that we could sing, we knew that we could make records, because The Byrds, Springfield, and The Hollies were good record makers. But I was very proud of the work that I've done with David and Stephen, and with Neil.

I'm obviously getting to the end of my life, but I'm very proud of what we did. I'm always trying to make music, make you feel how I felt when I very first heard The Everly Brothers in 1957. When I first heard "Bye Bye Love," my life changed instantly. I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and so did my friend, [Hollies co-founder] Allan Clarke.

November 17, 2021

Order A Life in Focus: The Photography of Graham Nash at insighteditions.com.

Nash will be discussing the book further at two appearances: December 5 at 92Y in New York City, and December 8 at Bookends Bookstore in New Jersey.

Further reading:

Graham Nash interview from 1989
Crosby, Stills & Nash Songfacts entries
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Songfacts entries
Interview with Roger McGuinn
Excerpt from The Yacht Rock Book
Danny Clinch: The Art of Rock Photography

Photos by Graham Nash, provided courtesy of Insight Editions, except the top photo of Nash, which is by Amy Grantham.

Footnotes:

  • 1] Joni Mitchell painted many of her album covers, as well as the 1974 Crosby, Stills & Nash compilation, So Far. (back)
  • 2] After adding Neil Young for their second album, Déjà Vu, in 1970, the band parted ways and worked on other projects, including solo albums. They didn't release another album until 1977 - without Young - then were dormant until 1982. (back)
  • 3] CSN&Y did indeed do the first stadium tour, a strange fit for a band high on harmony and low on pyro. But there was huge demand, and stadiums were the only way they could fill it. Feelings were hurt when they pared down the setlist - by this time they had lots of hits together, as solo artists, and with other permutations. They started work on an album after the tour, but didn't get very far before calling it off. (back)

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