Songwriting has been good to Graham Nash, co-founder of the Hollies and Crosby, Stills & Nash (CSN), member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and one of the few rock legends left walking among us. His knack for a catchy, well-written tune is borne out by the fact that many of CSN's biggest hits, whether Neil Young was around or not, came from Nash's pen. "Our House," "Teach Your Children Well," "Just a Song Before I Go," "Marrakesh Express," and "Wasted on the Way" were all written by Nash, and they helped the trio and/or quartet sell 70 million records worldwide.
But on his new tour, spurred on by both his recent memoir, Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life, and his newest album, This Path Tonight, which revolves around his divorce after 38 years of marriage, Nash is in the mood to dissolve the mystique about songwriting. The tour features just Nash and his longtime collaborator Shayne Fontayne, stripping both his best-known songs and newer material down to simple two-guitar or guitar-and-piano arrangements. In between songs, Nash tells stories about how they were created.
"I find that people who don't write music or have music driving them crazy as it does in my mind, they find that it's quite mysterious," Nash says. "But what I try to explain to them is that I'm an ordinary human being, exactly the same as them, and these are the changes I went through."
As an example, Nash begins discussing the origins of one of his most popular songs.
"With 'Our House,' for instance, I tell the story onstage about how I took Joni to breakfast one day and we passed an antique store going to her car," he says. "And she saw a vase that she wanted to buy, so we bought it. It was an awful, cold miserable fucking rainy Los Angeles morning, and when we got back to her house in Laurel Canyon, I said, 'Hey, Joni, it's really cold in here, so why don't I light a fire and you put some flowers in that vase you bought today?"
And from that moment of unassuming domestic bliss came a song.
"What an interesting ordinary moment in two people's lives," he says. "It was an ordinary, glorious moment in my life, and that's what I explain to people. If you see something that affects you, do something about it. Paint a picture, write a song, write a poem, make a sculpture: do something creative with life."
Of course, it makes the moment a little less ordinary when you remember that the "Joni" in this story is Joni effin' Mitchell, but you get the point.
Nash says that by paring his songs down to a couple of instruments and one voice, both he and the audience learn a lot about them.
"When you strip a song down to just how it was written, you find out quickly if you have a good song or not," he says. "That's because there's nothing to hide behind. There's no background voices, there's no girls moving in slow motion in the video: it's just the song. And the response I've been getting to the new songs has been remarkable to me. I understand if I sing 'Our House' and I do a good job of it, people are going to clap. With a song like 'Myself At Last,' (the centerpiece ballad on This Path Tonight) I've been getting them on their feet with a song they've only heard once."
The album is a nakedly intimate series of reflections on Nash's own mortality and the end of his marriage, but, partially because of his audience's strong response, he says he feels exhilarated by the process of performing the songs onstage.
"I always try to turn a negative experience into a positive one," he says. "That's the way I've been all my life. You expose your soul to hundreds or thousands of people at the same time with these songs, and you have to have the courage to sing about the bad stuff that happens and the good stuff. And that's life, isn't it? And there's certainly enough going on in this world to keep writing about."
Unfortunately, Nash has a point there. He's always written just as much about social and political concerns as he has his own life, and many of those songs, like "Military Madness" (from his solo debut Songs For Beginners) and "Immigration Man," (from his 1972 duo album with David Crosby, Graham Nash David Crosby) are more relevant now than ever.
"Isn't that sad?" he says. "We've got a dozen wars going on all over the world. 'Immigration Man,' that's still going on today. The momentum of society is incredibly powerful but it's slow-turning, and to be able to change people's minds is a very minute part of what we try to do. I'm not out to change anyone's mind; I'm out to tell people how I feel. And America is the perfect place. I'm not sure that in another country that the stuff that me and David and Stephen and Neil did would be allowed to happen. But we do live in America, and we have the God-given right to express our opinions. Nobody has to agree, and nobody has to listen, but my God, I have to say something."
That urge to communicate through art is something Nash is still passionate about, whether it's through his music or through his memoir.
"You have a responsibility as an artist," he says. "To tell the truth as much as you can, and to talk about the environment and the age in which we live. That's how history is created — by writers, poets, and musicians talking about the world they live in at that moment. That's how we get history."