Inside Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: Wild Tales by Graham Nash
Review: Stories of excessive egos in the Laurel Canyon songwriter scene of the 1960s
Graham Nash (left) with fellow Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young band member, Neil Young in 1999. Photograph: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life
‘Afterwards, I left with Stephen and David, which The Hollies thought was a little strange. We spent an hour or so tooling around in Stephen’s second-hand Bentley, which he called the Dentley, everyone smokin’ it, talking about the show. They’d loved The Hollies, how we had it all together onstage, but they especially loved the way I sang harmony . . . seemingly able to hit any intricate note. Finally, stopped at a red light, Stephen turned to David and asked the question on everyone’s mind: ‘Okay,’ he said, ‘which one of us is going to steal him?’ ”
Graham Nash has experienced that most unlikely of rock-star opportunities: two bites of a very large, very juicy cherry.
A second World War child from northern England inspired by Bill Haley, Elvis Presley and The Everly Brothers, he set out with his childhood friend Allen Clarke to do what almost every austerity-ridden British teenager in the 1950s must have wanted to: skip school and the nine-to-five routine for a much more liberating life.
Nash and Clarke had no small level of success with the pop group The Hollies. Nash took matters even further with his involvement with the US supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. But the way Nash tells it the journey was fraught with titanic egos, Caligula-like debauchery, well-intentioned if ultimately failed hippy optimism and the consumption of many, many drugs.
Nash’s background as a working-class Salford lad is of the poor-but-happy variety. Authentic-sounding tales of collecting coal in a pram to bring home for the fire, of his weak relationship with his father, and of the latter’s spell (for receiving stolen goods) in Strangeways are decent settings for subsequent stories of experiencing a cultural epiphany on seeing Phil and Don Everly for the first time. “It was like the opening of a giant door in my soul,” writes Nash, “the striking of a chord, literally and figuratively, from which I’ve never recovered.”
The beginnings and increasing success of The Hollies and the Bacchanalian glory days of CSNY (one of the most important of the US counterculture groups of the late 1960s) are related in Nash’s methodical style. It is this normality of manner that is equally the strength and failure of Wild Tales. It’s a pleasure to read a stylistically unadorned rock’n’roll story without the author using his failings (or superiority) as a person or a musician as a crutch, yet there are many times when a touch more insight and a hint more narrative flair wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Such flaws arise perhaps more clearly when he details his departure from Britain and The Hollies (“poetry and mature experiences seemed to be outside their scope”), his arrival at the Laurel Canyon home of Joni Mitchell (“she was a free spirit, a complicated woman”) and his introduction to her two house guests, Stephen Stills and David Crosby (“guys who could explode in an instant; you’d never see it coming and then – boom! – a stereophonic shit storm”). Nash’s considered reserve (“I simmered like an English tea kettle before letting off serious steam”) doesn’t go much beyond stating the obvious.
But when he arrives in dappled, drug-soaked California the book slots into fifth gear. Insider details about the primary characters of Stills, Crosby and, particularly, Neil Young make this essential reading, not just for CSNY fans but also for anyone with an interest in the Laurel Canyon songwriter scene of the 1960s.
Crosby receives much consideration, coming across like a spoilt if likeable figure with an apparently insatiable desire for sex and drugs (preferably at the same time), yet who is, underneath all the bravado, a lonely man nursing deep psychological wounds. Nash characterises Stills as an intensely insecure, incredibly competitive person whose intake of cocaine was mind-boggling (and who, quite viciously, responded to Nash not being able to hit the notes on a song he was working on by slicing the master tapes). The villain of the piece, however, is Young, whom Nash likens to a live grenade being lobbed into a vacuum. “Neil was a guy,” he writes, “with immense talent who was utterly self-centred. Bands for him were merely stepping- stones, way stations to a personal goal.”
Nash’s story continues thus: the break-up with Mitchell and the formation of the money-loving hippy supergroup that laid the foundations for the kind of singer-songwriter who would lay bare their soul – as well as the perilous state of the nation – for the benefit of the listener.
Nash is a solid storyteller, even-handed throughout. From his expansive home in Hawaii – a long way from the coal-gathering days of Salford – he remains something of a hippy at heart and, even at this point in his life, is still ever so slightly wary of Neil Young.
Wild tales, wise man.