Monday, 27 January 2014

Graham Nash and the Problem of Ego

Graham Nash has just released a memoir, Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life. 

I'm quite a fan of Crosby, Stills and Nash (and sometimes Young).  Their heyday was a bit before my time but Neil Young was the first musician to make me think that perhaps I could do that, as opposed to just think it sounded great.  (As it turned out I couldn't, but I'm still trying.) Of course once I cottoned onto Young it was only a matter of time until I followed the trail that led to his most famous collaborators.

I've seen CSN live twice in recent years - a good but not great show at Brisbane's River Stage in late 2007, and an electrifying set at the Byron Bay Bluesfest in 2012.  Sadly, one of the reasons the Brisbane show was a bit flatter was that they attempted to play some newer material.  Fair to say the audience didn't enjoy it much.  The Bluesfest set didn't include anything recorded after 1978.  Still, it's pretty impressive that they can still hit those beautiful harmonies in their 70s despite all the dangerous things they did to themselves in their youth.

Sadly, Nash's book is largely a disappointment.  He doesn't seem to have much to say.  You won't read anything much here that's not already on the public record, and even that is told fairly superficially. And despite being published in 2013 the story largely peters out after 1989.  If you want to read about this stuff in a really fascinating way, you'd be much better off finding a copy of David Crosby's 1988 memoir, Long Time Gone.  Still, there are a few gems here you won't find in Crosby's book, many of them unintentional.

Nash started his life as a working class lad from Manchester in the north of England, born during the second world war in an upstairs room in Blackpool later immortalised in his song Military Madness.  In his teens he started playing music with his childhood friend Alan Clarke, inspired by the harmonies of the Everly Brothers.  By 1963 this collaboration had blossomed into the Hollies.  Playing an infectious brand of pop music, the group had hit after hit through the 1960s and into the early 1970s, many co-written by Nash, Clarke and guitarist Tony Hicks.

By 1967 Nash was over the Hollies.  He wanted to write and play more musically and lyrically ambitious songs.  However, after his King Midas in Reverse had only limited chart success the rest of the band refused to go with him, preferring to stick with the pop formula that was earning them so much money.  The breaking point finally came when the they refused to record Marrakesh Express, a song which later appeared on CSN's debut album and is still part of their set list. 

There was more to it than that, of course.  On a Hollies tour of the USA Nash, unhappily married back home, met and fell in love with Joni Mitchell.  He also met various others of the Los Angeles Laurel Canyon set including Cass Elliott of the Mamas and Papas and, of course, David Crosby.  By the end of 1968 he had quit the Hollies (ending his friendship with Clarke in the process), called time on his marriage and decamped to LA where he moved in with Mitchell.  A year later Crosby, Stills and Nash were releasing their debut album and the rest, as they say, is history.

Apart from the music three things characterised CSN, CSNY and its various subsets - outsized egos, absurd levels of drug consumption and rampant promiscuity.

Their name tells you everything you need to know about the egos.  Superstar collaborations are of course quite common but even the most high profile musicians understand that in a band the individuals need to submerge their egos in the collective.  Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker and Rick Grech formed Blind Faith.  Years later The Travelling Wilburys incorporated such big names as Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison and Tom Petty.  However, Crosby, Stills Nash and Young elected to keep their individuality.

It's not even like they were that famous.  All of them had played in successful bands but none had solo careers to speak of - indeed, while they all eventually did solo projects only Young became a genuine star in his own right.  Yet they acted like they all were.  They rarely collaborated on songwriting, and negotiated hard to ensure equal exposure on the albums.  Their live performances included solo spots for each of them as well as band performances.  When Young was with them, he and Stills would compete on stage over who could play the longest and flashiest guitar solo.  And if Young wasn't having fun he would just go home and leave the rest to carry on as best they could.  One of the reasons their recording output was so intermittent was their chronic inability to fit all their egos into the same small 1970s recording studio.

Stills and Young are the usual candidates for the title of hugest ego.  When the blow-ups came, the depths of drug abuse aside, Crosby and Nash would always fall back on working as a duet.  But this memoir shows (although this might not have been his intention) that Nash is no slouch in the ego department either.  For one thing he claims that he, Crosby and Stills invented three-part harmony the first time they sang together at Joni Mitchell's house.  I can hear Bach, Beethoven and the Blind Boys of Alabama laughing in their graves (except that some of the Blind Boys are still alive) - not to mention that the Hollies themselves were already doing it.

And then there's the matter of drugs.  Nash makes no secret of the fact that all of them, including backing musicians, support staff and a large entourage of hangers-on, took ridiculous quantities of drugs - particularly marijuana and cocaine.  He credits these drugs along with a little LSD with opening up his mind and allowing him to create more adventurous music - standard excuse of addicts the world over.  He also records the day in 1984 when he finally decided to stop taking cocaine, when during a riotous end of tour party he looked at all the people coked out of their minds and realised how fake their jollity was.  No tales of therapy and withdrawal here - apparently after almost 20 years of absurdly heavy use he stopped, just like that.  Excuse my scepticism.

He is also extremely coy about the long-term impact of all this use on him and those around him.  He certainly talks about Crosby's life-threatening addiction and dramatic fall from grace.  Then again, Crosby has already spoken frankly of these things in his own book, so there's really nothing left to reveal. Indeed the accounts are so similar that it seems likely Nash has used Crosby's book as a source.  You can understand that he's more coy about Stills and Young.  Stills was apparently an alcoholic while it's impossible to be sure about Young, but both have so far kept the details to themselves.  Given that Nash still works with them it's understandable that he wouldn't spill the beans.

However, it would have been a little more authentic if he'd been more open about his own use.  The closest he comes is his 1984 revelation, and his comment about how much of their earnings had gone to drug dealers over the years and what huge rocks of cocaine they consumed so absurdly quickly.  Yet he seems to want us to believe that in his case he could do this without consequence.  What part did his own state of mind play in the regular tensions, bust-ups and misjudgements that litter CSN's history?  And did it never occur to him, as he watched his best mate come as close as you can to death without actually dying, that it might help if he himself didn't have the stuff constantly on hand?  This seems to be taking the ethos of individuality a little to far.  No man is an island.

Which brings me, finally, to promiscuity.  Once again, Crosby's sexual proclivities are the most famous.  He even wrote a song called Triad about the joys of the ménage a trois.  Yet as with drugs Nash doesn't seem far behind.  In 1964, at the age of 22, he married a nice Manchester girl called Rosie Eccles.  However, the Hollies played over 200 shows a year and after every concert they had young girls throwing themselves at them.  It doesn't seem to have occurred to Nash to say "no" and even now, when you could expect him to be older and wiser, he remains unrepentant.  He is equally unrepentant about decamping to LA and moving straight in with Mitchell, and about untold encounters between then and 1977 when he married his current wife Susan.  At that point the curtain falls and we can only speculate on the cause of his vague allusions to later marital problems.

Crosby's book, once again, is much more enlightening.  Where Nash's memoir is conventional, written entirely in his own voice, Crosby gives room to a large cast of participants in various aspects of his life.  Hence, in the midst of his boasting about his youthful sexual prowess and his ability to satisfy two women at once he inserts some words from a former girlfriend who quickly gives him the lie about her level of satisfaction. 

Such a glimpse is all too rare in the testosterone-filled world of CSN, and completely absent from Nash's book.  Generally, if the men are happy, the women are assumed to be so as well.  Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is to play you two songs written by Stephen Stills.  The first is one of his most famous, that anthem of the free-love 1970s, Love the One You're With.  The key line, "if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with", requires little explanation.

The various members of CSNY did just that all around the world, apparently with not a single twinge of compunction and in fact with a good deal of pride as they encouraged others to do the same.  However, it seems to have been a different matter if their wives and girlfriends chose to follow suit. 

To show you what I mean, here's another song by Stills, not quite so well known, called Change Partners.  Apparently when wives and girlfriends feel the need for a change and choose the one they're with over the one touring constantly on the other side of the world and loving the one he's with, this is a sign of a deficiency in their upbringing. 

And so it goes.  These men made beautiful music, but the harmony was all on stage.  Off stage, they left a trail of broken hearts and broken lives.  The closer you got to them, the more likely you were to get hurt.  You could be a sacked manager, a jilted lover, a companion fed cocaine until you collapsed, or a collaborator destroyed mercilessly to feed someone else's outsized ego.  If Nash is any sign, to this day they seem to have only the haziest understanding of what they did.


Jay MackG said...

Enjoyed this! Well done, whoever you are.

Jon Eastgate said...