"Songs, they have to be recorded or they drive you crazy just being inside your head."
- Graham Nash, summer 2019
Stephen Stills had the gift, the ability to reel off the entire side of a record without putting down his acoustic guitar. David Crosby was the teddy bear with a bad boy wink, an angelic tenor with a flair for going AWOL. Then there was Graham Nash, the lone Brit and Crosby, Stills and Nash's secret weapon. Whether writing early hits such as "Teach Your Children" or later top-10 hits, including "Just a Song Before I Go" and "Wasted on the Way," Nash held the fragile trio together.
But in the summer of 1970, Nash, then 28, decided to focus on himself for a change. He went into Wally Heider's studio in San Francisco to record his solo debut, "Songs for Beginners." The album featured guests spots by Crosby, Neil Young, Jerry Garcia and Rita Coolidge, but its magic was in the spare arrangements and subject matter, from soul-baring ballads to fiery protest songs. For Nash, "Songs for Beginners" wasn't a choice. The Vietnam War was on and his intense relationship with Joni Mitchell was off. When the songs are coming, they have to be recorded.
Now, nearly 50 years later, Nash will be performing for the first time the entirety of "Songs for Beginners" and his 1974 follow-up, "Wild Tales," in a special run of shows in South Orange, N.J., Manhattan, Albany, N.Y., and Boston. We spoke to the 77-year-old musician recently about what drove him to create his debut by focusing on some of the album highlights.
"We talked to each other through songs. 'Cowboy Movie' by Crosby [is] really his version of the breakup of CSNY in one of its earlier forms. I wrote 'Wounded Bird' for Stephen and Judy [Collins] about the pains he was going through in that relationship, just as Neil writing 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart' was for me because of what was going on with Joni. Sometimes it's easier to get your thoughts across in music, especially with this band."
"Germaine Greer, who is one of the forerunners of the Me Too movement, thought there is an astoundingly profound line: 'I just want to hold you, I don't want to hold you down.' " This photo shows Nash in June 1970 at the Fillmore East as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young played a multi-night run. He performed "Simple Man" live for the first time, with Mitchell in the audience. When Nash looks at the photo, he says, "I see somebody having written a brand-new song about the end of the relationship having to sing it with the object of that relationship sitting in the third row. Which I didn't expect. I didn't know until I was standing onstage about to do the song."
"I met Rita during the recording of 'Love the One You're With,' Stephen's great song. Rita and I made a date to go to a swap meet, and Stephen called her and said I was sick and couldn't go and that she should go with him. And so she spent a couple of weeks with Stephen. But Rita and I were very attracted to each other. Being somewhat of an Englishman and a gentleman, I couldn't even kiss Rita without letting Stephen know we wanted to be together. And so I picked up Rita one morning and drove to Stephen's house in Laurel Canyon. I said that Rita and I wanted to spend time together and I wanted to let him know before anything sexually happened between Rita and I. He didn't take it well. As a matter of fact, he tried to spit on me and missed. Obviously, it was a very awkward moment and became an argument between Stephen and I for several years."
The album opener tells the true story of Nash's birth in 1942 in Blackpool, England, during an evacuation, with his father away at war. "When I wrote that there was only really one war - World War II. But now there's, what, 14 wars as we speak. There's Yemen, Syria. I was thinking about Vietnam and what I'd gone through. You've got to really understand. When you nearly have your entire country bombed out of existence twice within 80 years from the same enemy and you overcome that and you are alive after World War II, you have an attitude of, you know what, if we can face that, we can fucking face anything. And don't give me a problem about your coffee being too cold."
'I Used to Be a King'
Nash says that for this song, he was playing off "King Midas in Reverse," a song he wrote with the Hollies. He and Mitchell were breaking up, and she sent him a telegram from Greece. "It said, quite frankly, 'If you hold sand too tightly in your fist, it will run through your fingers.' That was Joni's way of telling me that whatever love affair we had together was over. . . . I loved being with Joan. I thought that Joni and I had the ability to light up a room. But I had just come out from a marriage that really soured me on marriage. . . . As a matter of fact, in her song 'Willy,' you can date [the breakup]. Because she says in one of the lines, 'At the face of the conquered moon.' And it was only the week before that the moon had been conquered by setting foot on the moon."
This song was inspired by the anti-Vietnam protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the trial of the Chicago Eight, who were arrested for their roles in the events. The song opens with a reference to Bobby Seale, who was gagged and chained in the courtroom. "When you're being accused of what he was being accused of, no wonder he shouted. Maybe he was screaming, maybe he was out of it, but this was not a fair trial." In the chorus, Nash sings: "We can change the world/ rearrange the world." "I thought we could change the world. And it's the same today. I think musicians can change the world. Now then, the momentum of this planet is so huge that to move it a millimeter takes years of energy sometimes and I realize that now. But then we thought, 'Hey, we can help stop the Vietnam War. We can entice all the people to write to their congressmen and their senators and their president. We can do this, we can change the world.' And I still believe it, too."
On Joel Bernstein, the photographer and Nash's friend
"Joel Bernstein has a brilliant mind, a magnificent memory, and is an archivist, but most of all, he's a brilliant photographer. He's one of those people like Jim Marshall and Gered Mankowitz and myself who like to be invisible and only take one click of the Leica and hope that it's not loud enough to disturb anybody. He doesn't want his personality to be in the photograph at all. I met him on February the 1st of 1969, which was Joni's first time playing Carnegie Hall, and we've been best friends ever since."
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