[5 February 2009]
Critics compare Graham Nash’s role in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to that of Paul McCartney’s position in the Beatles. They are the ones responsible for the sweet love songs and pop rock elements of the band whose sugary stylings needed to be counterweighted by the heavier, more intellectual and spiritual group members. Nash’s post CSN&Y work, like that of McCartney’s post-Beatle output, has some memorable and even sometimes stellar moments but is generally thought inferior to that of Nash’s work with the combo because of his tendency towards whimsy.
The comparison is an apt one, as far as it goes. Nash and McCartney both have written and performed their share of silly love songs, and no one will accuse either musician of being a serious thinker. But like all such evaluations, there are many exceptions to the rule. After all it was Paul, not John, who wrote “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road” and it was Nash that left the Hollies to join up with his North American mates because he wanted to experiment with new and revolutionary musical forms.
This new 3-CD anthology compiles bits from Nash’s 40-year career beginning with three mono Hollies tracks and extends into the present. The set includes a heavy does of unreleased mixes, alternate versions, and unissued songs. Still, there is something immediately familiar about all the tunes. Nash has a recognizable tenor voice. Whether he sings with bare accompaniment or alongside heavily synthesized orchestration, one immediately identifies Nash’s contribution.
The first disc is by far the best of the three, which is unfortunate in the sense that the tracks follow a loose chronology. This implies that Nash’s musical talents have diminished over the years. The sad truth is, well, that this is true. However, there are flashes and sparks of genius that occur on the latter two discs. And his comet burnt so bright at the beginning that perhaps expecting someone to maintain such a run would be unrealistic.
Nash was born in 1942 and hooked up musically with friend and former Hollies cofounder Allan Clarke before rock ‘n’ roll even existed as a socially constructed art movement in the mid-‘50s. Nash and Clarke started the Hollies in the early ‘60s, and the band rose in popularity in the United States during the British Invasion. Nash helped write and sing several of the group’s best known songs, such as “On a Carousel” and “Carrie Anne”, both included here. These tunes stand out from the Hollies’ repertoire because of their infectious and almost itchy melodies, full of sudden stops and starts. Nash was clearly doing something new, indicated more strongly by the third Hollies song here, the psychedelic “King Midas in Reverse”.
Unfortunately for Nash, this pretty piece of trippy pop did not sell as well as the Hollies’ usual efforts. He wanted to follow this musical road while his mates desired to stick to the Top 40 sound. Nash left the band in 1968 and soon joined up with his American friends David Crosby and Steven Stills. The three of them discovered that their voices bended together beautifully. The trio’s first eponymous album became an almost instant classic of the nascent laid-back sunny Southern California sound. Nash contributed two of the best-known songs on the record, “Marrakesh Express” and Lady of the Island” (both included here), as well as adding his vocal touches to every track.
CS&N quickly became rock superstars. Their success no doubt was aided by their second live gig at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969. Neil Young joined the band soon after, which added luster to the group‘s stature. Nash wrote two of the most popular cuts on CSN&Y’s only studio album, Déjà Vu, “Teach Your Children” and “Our House” (both here). The album was almost universally acclaimed as a rock masterpiece.
CSN&Y imploded after one national tour and Nash embarked on a solo career. His 1971 disc, Songs for Beginners is a delightfully crafted work of singer songwriter art and considered by many the male corollary to Carole King’s landmark Tapestry from the same year. Introspective tunes like “I Used to Be a King”, “Simple Man”, “Man in the Mirror”, “Better Days”, and “Sleep Song” revealed Nash to be a sensitive New Age man. He also bared his political views on tracks like “Military Madness” and “Chicago/We Can Change the World” (all of these tunes are included here).
However, these same cuts revealed Nash’s intellectual limitations. As Nash himself says on “Man in the Mirror”, “I don’t really have much to say / ‘Cause I’m living from day to day”. And his political analysis was less radical than emotionally felt: “We can change the world / Re-arrange the world / It’s dying—if you believe in justice / It’s dying—and if you believe in freedom / It’s dying—let a man live it’s own life / It’s dying—rules and regulations, who needs them / Open up the door”. Simpleminded lyrics like this explain why punks hate hippies for what they consider phony, deep reflections.
When Nash stuck to the personal (“I just want to hold you / Don’t Want to hold you down”) the heartfelt expressions seemed real and sincere more than haughty. He was also ably aided by splendid backup players, such as guitarists Jerry Garcia and Dave Mason, and fiddler David Lindley.
After Nash’s first solo effort, he joined former bandmate David Crosby for a couple of financially successful collaborations, CSN and CSN&Y reformed for different ventures, and Nash released several more solo records. The Hollies and Nash even got back together for a short time. While Nash and company (and solo) did make some terrific music, on the whole the output was more mediocre than good. The second two discs contain this work and about a third of the 40 tracks are well worth owning. Many of these cuts have not been previously available.
These include a new acoustic mix of Nash’s epic “Cathedral” by CS&N. The song, purportedly about an acid trip, contains soaring vocal harmonies and emphatic accompaniment that impressively builds to a rolling crescendo. There is also a previously unreleased version of Nash and Carole King on the tender “Two Hearts” whose harmonies echo those of Brian Wilson’s California pop classics from the Smiley Smile era. There are other treasures as well to reward a careful listener, but there are also many disappointing tracks. Consider CSN&Y’s “Heartland, for example, whose long guitar lines can’t obscure the lameness of Nash’s lyrics. The chorus of “In the heartland people everywhere / Try to share their hopes and dreams / In the heartland on any given day / You can find your way back home” is almost enough to make me want to move from my Midwestern residence. Nash can write better, and does elsewhere, but the inclusion of songs like this suggest the compilers of this 64-track collection were scratching the bottom of the barrel to make this a full anthology.