Graham Nash: Songs for Survivors

Graham Nash
Songs for Survivors

In this gigahertz world of ABS, DVD, CIA, GNP, RBI, CDR, BIA, ISP, RAM, and PLO, it’s a beautiful thing to be reminded of what it means to be human, which is just what Nash’s disc aims to do. And, this is just what he has been doing for almost four decades now, during his tenure with three of the most notable bands in rock’s inchworm history — the Hollies; Crosby, Stills, and Nash; and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. In all this time, Nash’s human-friendly song writing has become that old pair of shoes back in your closet you don when you need something that fits “just right”, which is not to say that Nash is a formulaic songwriter. Rather, he is a songwriter who has always written with observation, compassion, and wisdom, qualities tempered by experiences that have run the whole emotional gamut.

Songs for Survivors is a smart, clear-eyed response to his first solo offering, Songs for Beginners, released in 1971. This time around, Nash approaches his task rather like a kindly village elder rising to quell a petty communal tiff. Yea, I know that’s a pretty cheesy comparison, but what else can you say about a man who participated in the British Invasion, ’60s counterculture, Woodstock, the hedonistic ’70s, the me-me-me ’80s (thanks a lot, Ronnie), the tempestuous ’90s, and the turning of the millennium? The ultimate message Nash brings us, is one that he’s tried to teach us over and over and over again, that we are more complicated, more fragile, and in possession of more beauty than our politics and institutions can admit to. The most ambitious and rewarding song of the disc, “Liar’s Nightmare” contains this succinct summation of his calling as a songwriter, photographer, and activist: “I can honestly tell you that I really care / I gotta tell you the truth about the sadness I find / I have opened my heart to you, and hope you don’t mind”. Coming from the pen or lips of any other singer/songwriter, these lines might come off pretty schmaltzy and insincere, but Nash has earned the right to be so blunt and . . . well, sentimental.

What makes Nash’s compassionate stance so authentic is the complexity of his vision; he not only testifies of the sadness that he finds, but also of the joy and the tormenting emotions in between. The second and third tracks may serve as an example here. “Blizzard of Lies” works hard to come to terms with those seasons when our lives are little more than a “maze of madness”. The cosmic vision of the song is ultimately positive, since in the midst of our stumbling, someone inevitably approaches us with “a sign” or “something clear”, yet the song is also a lament for those who do not follow these signs, these opportunities for temporary reprieve, if not salvation. Such people, unfortunately, walk “back into a blizzard of lies”, whether that blizzard is something as mundane as growing up or midlife, or as dramatic as drug addiction. The next song, “Lost Another One”, carries a fairly positive, upbeat melody, but lyrically mourns the passing of those who touch our lives, who carry those signs, or herald moments of clarity: “I turn my radio on / And in between the static and the headlines / I heard that you were gone / We lost another one”. The mournful tone here seems all the more poignant in light of the recent passings of John Entwistle and George Harrison.

Balancing these sentiments are songs such as “I’ll Be There for You”, “Nothing in the World”, and “Where Love Lies Tonight”. These songs are deeply personal evocations of different shades of love, from love for friends, to the love for a child, to that of a spouse/significant other. Paradoxically, these songs, in being so personal and apparently directed towards specific persons, invite us into the songwriter’s heart as well. When Nash utters lines like “I’ll be there for you, wherever, whenever, whatever for you”, “But there’s nothing in the world I won’t do for you”, and “When you walked into my heart my life just opened wide”, we are not only touched with the sane humanity of the man, but we begin to believe that we too can practice what he preaches.

Other songs on the disc remind us that our emotional lives are tangled in historical, political, and cultural webs that we must grapple with as we struggle to survive or possibly even rise above the gigahertz life. The discs opening song “Dirty Little Secret” throws a spotlight on the persistent, sometimes latent, sometimes overt, and often (unsuccessfully) suppressed racism in our culture. “Pavanne” presents the story of a woman who can finally no longer abide by the codes and practices of a culture that values the mistreatment of women, while “Liar’s Nightmare” is an eerie and timely rant about the violence and corruption that contemporary economic culture foists upon us.

The disc ends, however, on an affirmative note with “Come with Me”, an invitation to seek a life that is at once more in tune with others and with nature: “Old tree reaching upward, closer to the sky / Touch your face, saving grace, come with me”. What emerges from this disc is the mentality of an artist who recognizes the trouble in the world, but who has found a few keys to alleviating some of the suffering. This is a confident statement by a sane and humane artist, one of those albums that talks back to its historical moment with a voice of wisdom, subtlety, assurance, and hope. I dare assert, that this disc belongs on the same shelf as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? and Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto’s Getz/Gilberto which introduced the US to bossa nova and featured Astrude Gilberto’ inimitable rendition of “Girl from Ipanema”. Yea, it’s that good and that right.