Rock legends spend a bit of time revisiting the glory days of their past, usually at the prodding of journalists and fans. Sometimes a reissue project requires listening to outtakes from the vaults and sifting through the archives. But singer and songwriter Graham Nash, who plays Greensboro’s Carolina Theater on Aug. 5, might do even more retrospective ruminating and recollecting than most. On some level, that self-reflection prompted Nash to shake up his life, divorcing his wife of nearly 40 years and moving to New York City from Hawaii.
Nash’s work and life captured the attention of music fans, as a member of British Invasion hitmakers the Hollies, as a lover of Joni Mitchell, as a bandmate of David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Neil Young in different configurations of CSN and CSNY. Nash has had a lifelong interest in photography, so his rock ‘n’ roll journey was documented on film by himself even more extensively than most artists who are routinely trailed by the press. Nash released a solo record last year, This Path Tonight, his first in over a dozen years, and that followed the 2013 release of his autobiographical memoir Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life, the writing of which required extensive probing of past relationships and achievements. Adding to the remembrances of things past, Nash also presided over a multi-disc boxed set showcasing the massive stadium tour that Crosby, Still, Nash and Young did in 1974, complete with coffee-table book, rare photos and remastered rarities.
“When I finished Wild Tales, I realized that I had had an incredible life, and I actually wasn’t that happy at the time,” Nash said, who spoke with me by phone from a tour stop in New Jersey. “I had to do something to be reasonably happy.”
At 75, Nash is engaged in the challenge of making sense of things and getting what he wants from his remaining years, and if any of that — his late-blooming new romance, his candor about the demise of his relationship with Mitchell, or of the ways that drug problems undermined the lives of his Crosby Stills and Nash bandmates — bothers people, but Nash isn’t inclined to apologize.
“I’m trying to come to terms with life, just life itself,” he said. “How much time do I have left?” he asks later in the conversation, alluding to his drive and desire to stay busy.
The title track from his recent solo record suggests there’s an ongoing quest for meaning, for understanding what constitutes identity and personality.
“I try my best to be myself but wonder who’s behind this mask,” sings Nash on “This Path Tonight.”
Singing, and particularly singing with other singers, making sweet, tight vocal harmonies — has been central to Nash’s career. Crosby, Stills and Nash took shape because of the particular blend of their voices and how big and airy that combination sounded. Nash said he started playing music because he wanted to imitate the impeccable vocal harmonies of the Everly Brothers, and in CSN and CSNY, Nash routinely flew his vocals atop the rest of the singers, adding a pure and clear upper layer to the voices. Over the years, Crosby and Nash served as a kind of hit-squad harmony team, adding their paired voices to recordings by Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, and many others.
It’s not like Nash doesn’t have a much-loved back catalog of his material. His solo debut, 1971’s Songs For Beginners, inspired a tribute album among folk-leaning bands of the 21st Century. But if singing with others has defined his career, Nash finds playing solo shows, (like the one he’ll do in Greensboro) with the voice and guitar accompaniment of his friend Shane Fontayne, to be a gratifying challenge, revealing aspects of the songs that might not shine through in a full-band, multivoiced setting.
“What we’re doing is stripping all the songs down to kind of exactly how they were written — a little guitar and a little piano,” Nash said. “Pretty soon you find out if you have a good song or not.”
Nash said that the audience response to the newer, less widely known material is all the more meaningful in that context.
Some of Nash’s efforts in recent years have focused on maybe shedding new light on old material in other ways as well. He’s referred to the archive-hunting, selecting, annotating, remastering and presenting of the recordings from the mammoth CSNY box set as one of the biggest challenges of his creative life. Part of the goal was to reveal that the group — known as they were for their sweet blend of vocals — was a solid and rugged live band.
“I’ve always wanted the world to know that CSNY was a really fine, fine rock ‘n’ roll band,” Nash said. “We could really play.”
In addition to the chops and energy of the group, the 1974 collection reveals that the band was very much engaged in the events of the day. A given set might have included Neil Young’s blistering “Revolution Blues,” a sort of dark, brooding hangover from the hippie dream off his cult-classic On the Beach album released that same year. Nash’s “Military Madness” and “Chicago” fit right in with the spirit of music that was protesting any number of things, including war, political corruption and the violent suppression of student demonstrations.
Nash, who was born in England, has been an American citizen for almost 40 years now, and he’s remained involved in protest music, to a degree; he and Crosby showed up to sing to the Occupy Wall Street activists in 2011 in New York City. But these days Nash — who is disgusted by the current president — is channeling his political rage into painting canvases “out of frustration with the Trump administration.” Nash said he’d painted some ever since the early 1970s when he was inspired by Mitchell (who was a prolific visual artist as well as a singer/songwriter and performer).
Some artists are reluctant to criticize political figures in a time that routinely gets glossed over as “divided,” but Nash jumps into the subject without coaxing.
“I’m stunned that he’s our president,” he said. “I don’t particularly look at him as my president. I think he’s an awful man. Quite frankly this is an incredibly great country, and we deserve better than this.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.