Upon the release of his new greatest hits collection Over the Years, the songwriting icon of Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Hollies reflects on his classic canon
Graham Nash had just finished his autobiography, 2013’s Wild Tales, when a thought occurred to him — one that seems obvious to anyone familiar with his story. “I realized what an incredible life I’ve had. I read the first manuscript, got through it all, then I looked down and went, ‘Holy s—, I wish I was him!’ Because, having not looked back, it looked ridiculous. It’s been a ridiculous life.” It’s understandable that the singer, songwriter, activist, archivist, author, father, photographer, digital printing pioneer and very concerned citizen hasn’t had much of a chance to reflect — he’s been a little busy — but a brief highlight list reads like a rock ‘n’ roll history primer. He got vocal tips from the Everly Brothers as a teen, bested the primitive Beatles (Johnny & the Moondogs, technically) in a late ‘50s talent contest, and watched Little Richard chew out his flamboyant new guitarist named Jimi Hendrix. Of course, Nash made some legends of his own; first as a member of the Hollies, one of the biggest groups of the British Beat-era, and later in various permutations of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young — the ever-evolving supergroup that gave hope and harmony to the Age of Aquarius and beyond. “It went so fast. I feel so insanely lucky. I’m this poor kid from the north of England, and here we are after 76 years of life.”
His time on the planet has indeed been well spent, and he has the songs to prove it. A new two-disc collection, Over the Years, serves as a musical memoir, gathering 15 of his most enduring songs — from CSN through his most recent solo album, 2016’s This Path Tonight — with rare demos offering a fascinating look at his hits as works in progress. “There’d never been a greatest hits of my music and I thought it was time,” he tells PEOPLE. “Because of all the experience I’ve had on the road in terms of what people shout out and what I expect that they want to hear, I put these songs together that were fan favorites of mine. Then, to make it different, I put those demos on there.”
When played through, two distinct sides of Nash begin to emerge: the blissful romantic behind “Our House” and the sensual “Lady of the Island,” and the outraged dissident who penned politically charged anthems like “Military Madness,” “Chicago” and “Immigration Man.” The dichotomy is not lost on him. “I vacillate between being in love and being totally pissed off,” he admits. “There’s very little in between for me. People say, ‘Have you written a song about Trump yet?’ But it’s so difficult on so many levels. Every day, it’s a different madness.” Nash’s steely blue eyes, ordinarily vessels of affability and good will, flicker with a “don’t f— with me” intensity over the mere mention of the commander-in-chief. Mancunian by birth but American by choice (this August marks the 40th anniversary of his citizenship), he bolsters what he learns from the news with his own extensive reading and research. Needless to say, he doesn’t like what he sees. “I can’t wait for this administration to completely disappear,” he says solemnly.
Passion is fundamental to Graham Nash, and his voice brims with it whether he’s discussing the border crisis or the vocal gymnastics on “Wasted on the Way.” In whatever he does, his commitment and confidence is total, as if guided by a force only apparent to him. Over lunch in midtown Manhattan, a tattoo of an Icelandic compass symbol reveals itself on his right forearm. Does his music have a true north? “I have to please myself. You’ll never hear a song that I’ve written if it doesn’t turn me on. What’s the point?”
Over the course of the meal, Nash revealed the fascinating tales behind many of his classics — and in doing so told the story of his incomparable life. Pull up a chair.
“Marrakesh Express,” Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969)
The Hollies recorded a version of that. I thought it would have been a perfect song for them, but when I listened to the multi-track from Abbey Road [Studios], there’s no life in it. “Marrakesh Express” needs this train energy and it was just flat. They didn’t want to do it. Here’s what happened: I’d written a song called “King Midas in Reverse,” and even though we made a great record of it, it only got into the Top 30. And that pissed them off, because normally every record we had was a Top 10 at least. So after that tune they stopped trusting whatever energy and music I had. They tried [“Marrakesh Express”], it was awful and they never tried it again.
It was in the midst of this unhappy episode that Nash flew to Los Angeles to visit Joni Mitchell, an up-and-coming singer-songwriter whose debut album had been produced by his friend, David Crosby. Mitchell and Nash had crossed paths briefly when the Hollies played a gig in her native Canada in early 1968, and the connection was instant. However, their reunion that summer at her (very, very fine) house in the artist’s enclave of Laurel Canyon would change Nash’s life in more ways than one.
I had come from London to spend four days with Joni. I got to the parking lot and heard other voices. I was kind of upset that there were other people there. I just wanted to spend time with Joan! But it was David and Stephen [Stills.] David had been thrown out of the Byrds and the [Buffalo] Springfield had broken up, and David and Stephen were trying to get a duo thing together — an Everly Brothers kind of thing. After dinner we smoked a huge joint and David said to Stephen, “Hey, play Willie that song that we’ve been doing.” They’ve been doing a two-part version of “You Don’t Have to Cry,” which was on the first album.
They sang it, and I loved it. I asked them to sing it again, I loved it even more, I asked them to sing it one last time and I had my harmony down. And we burst out laughing in the middle of the song because it was so stupidly delicious. And it wasn’t like, “We’ll rehearse for a couple of months and we’ll get the blend.” This happened immediately, with no rehearsals. That sound that we created happened instantly. That’s when I knew I’d have to go back and leave the Hollies, leave my family, leave my friends, my equipment and my money and come to America. And that’s what I did.
A lot of people say, “Wow, that’s so brave, were you worried?” They hadn’t heard what I heard. Once I heard that I went, “Holy s—, my life has changed dramatically. We have to form a trio and we have to find a record company and we have to make a record.” And that’s what happened. I played the last show with the Hollies on December the 8th. Crosby was there at the London Palladium for the last Hollies show. And on December 10th I was in Los Angeles with David and Stephen.
“Lady of the Island,” Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969)
There’s a big difference between smoking dope and drinking beer — a huge difference. I was smoking dope and the Hollies were all drinking beer. I was getting high at the Oulton Motel after this particular show in Leeds [in 1968], and I just wrote “Lady of the Island,” “Right Between the Eyes” and part of “Teach Your Children.” It happened all in one night.
When I was in the Hollies I learned how to write a melody that you wouldn’t forget if you heard it a couple of times, but the lyrics sucked. “Riding along on a carousel…” Come on. I love it, but the words weren’t deep. When I came over to America and I started working with David and Stephen and Neil [Young] and Joni, I noticed what words they were putting to their melodies and I realized that I would have to get serious about songwriting. I knew I could write melodies, but it was only after I came to America that I really got into changing the way I wrote songs.
I enjoyed my time in the Hollies. I spent my first 10 years with David and Stephen not talking about the Hollies. David didn’t talk to me about the Byrds and Stephen didn’t talk to me about Springfield. It’s like, you don’t talk to your new lover about your last lover — unless you’re crazy, you know?
“Teach Your Children,” Déjà Vu (1970)
I collected paper images. One of the first photographs I ever bought was by a New York photographer called Diane Arbus. It was called “Boy in Central Park with Hand Grenade.” It was this 7-year-old kid who had a plastic hand grenade in his hand, and the anger coming out of the kid was unbelievable. Later I lent a lot of the photographs I’d collected to a museum in Santa Clara, California. I never tell a gallery owner how to hang — they know their gallery way better than I do, right? I’m often pleasantly surprised by what image they put to what image. This time, next to “Boy in Central Park with Hand Grenade,” Arnold Newman had done a portrait of [Alfred] Krupp, of the German arms magnate family who provided all of the German war material for World War I and World War II. When I saw that, from the anger of the kid with the hand grenade to Krupp, I realized that if we didn’t teach our kids a better way of dealing with ourselves we were f—ed. We were in danger.
I sold my collection at Sotheby’s in 1990. When you have an auction at Sotheby’s, the night before the VIPs come in and check all the stuff out before the auction the next day. I was attending that, and this kid comes up to me and goes, “Do you know who I am?” I said, “Well I do have a pretty good memory for people but I don’t think we’ve ever met.” And he says, “But you know who I am.” I said, “OK, this is getting weird, what the f— do you want?” He said, “I’m the boy in Central Park with the hand grenade.” And I looked at him and I recognized him. I said, “Holy s—, you are! Ok, you’ve gotta tell me about that moment.” He told me that his mother used to take him to Central Park every Saturday morning and he would play with all his soldiers. He would bring his army of soldiers and line them all up and he would have this mock battle. But he said, “One morning I must have pissed my mother off because she wouldn’t let me take my soldiers and I could only take this hand grenade.” What can you do with one plastic hand grenade? You can’t have a battle, right? So he said, “This short lady, dressed in black, came up to me and said, ‘Son, can I take your picture?’” And he said, “Yeah, you can take my—” Click!
Now, you look at something like the tragedy in Parkland and energy that those 15-year-old kids have. If they keep that energy up they could bring down the NRA. They really could. I hear that they’re going on bus tours to register people to vote in midterms. Fantastic power that they have. So there’s a lot to learn from our kids, as well as teach them.
The song features a spirited pedal steel guitar solo from none other than Captain Trips himself — Jerry Garcia.
Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco has like four or five major studios in the complex. When we were doing Déjà Vu, we were in one studio, the Jefferson Airplane were in another studio, and the Dead were in another studio. And so we were all hanging out. We got to “Teach Your Children” and we put our voices on it and Stephen goes, “You know, a guitar solo doesn’t feel right for this.” Crosby said, “Hey, I heard Garcia is playing pedal steel. Why don’t you ask him to try a pedal steel solo? But play him the song first.” If he likes the song he’s probably going to want to do it, right? So he brought his pedal steel in, he set it up, we recorded the first track and I said, “That was f—ing great, fantastic.” He said, “You know, I f—ed up a little in the chorus. Can we do a second take?” I said, “Absolutely, we can do a second take. But I’ll tell ya, I’m not going to use it. Your joyous expression on the pedal steel on ‘Teach Your Children’ is so beautiful to me — you did it! One take, fantastic. So go ahead, do another take, Jerry, but I’m not going to use it.”
“Our House,” Déjà Vu (1970)
I had taken Joni to breakfast to Art’s Deli on Ventura Boulevard. We’d had breakfast and it was late winter. It was a s—ty day, rainy and cold and foggy. We left Art’s and were walking back to Joan’s car and we passed an antique store. We were looking in the window and she saw this vase she wanted to buy. It was 10 inches high with some kind of painted flowers around the edge and it was cheap. I think Joni Mitchell still has the first dollar she ever earned — she spent very little money on herself — but she bought it. It was a really cold day, so when we got back to the house in Laurel Canyon I said, “Hey Joan — how about I light a fire and you put some flowers in the vase you bought today?” Well, if that’s not an opening verse, what is?
I think everybody’s had that moment where you settle down with a new partner and you’ve got pets — the two cats, you know? Everybody’s had that moment I had of falling in love and creating a song out of love for this woman. Who the hell is not in love with Joni Mitchell?
The album Déjà Vu would see an addition to the collective moniker. The newly added “Young” belonged to Stills’ former Buffalo Springfield bandmate, Neil Young. The pair had parted company under less-than-harmonious circumstances when the group dissolved less than two years earlier, but necessity — and talent — drew them together once again.
Stephen Stills played most of the instruments on the first record. We maybe played our rhythm guitar on our songs, but Stephen played lead guitar, he played piano, he played B3, he played bass, he played percussion. When we finished the record and handed it over to Atlantic, we realized two things: One, that it was probably going to be a big hit, and secondly, if it was a big hit we were going to have to go out on the road — and who the f— was going to play all that s—? So we needed somebody. David and Stephen were having dinner in New York with [Atlantic Records co-founder] Ahmet Ertegun while I was in Los Angeles. Ahmet said, “I know who you should get.” Stephen said, “Who?” Ahmet said, “Neil.” Stephen said, “Holy s—, you want me to go through another two years of madness with this guy?!”
They were serious about inviting him to join us, but I’d never met him. I knew he was a good writer and a good singer, but I didn’t know him. How can you invite someone into the band that you’ve never even met? So I went to breakfast with Neil on Bleecker Street and at the end I would have made him king of the world. He was incredibly funny, and he was self-assured. I said to him, “Why the f— should we invite you into this band?” And he said, “You ever hear me and Stephen play guitar together, man?” That’s all he said. “OK. All right, you’re in.”
To be standing onstage in between Neil Young and Stephen Stills talking to each other on guitars? Magical moments, many of them.
“Simple Man,” Songs for Beginners (1971)
I got many compliments on that song from feminists: “I just want to hold you / I don’t want to hold you down.” I think CSNY were playing the Fillmore East in the Village and I decided to sing it even though I’d just written it. I look up and there’s Joni sitting in the third row. I got through it and managed to sing the song, but it was weird because we’d just broken up and that’s always a weird time.
A tender meditation on love, loss and longing, “Simple Man” would become the emotional centerpiece of Nash’s debut solo album, Songs for Beginners — an ironic title considering he had just spent the better part of a decade logging hits with the Hollies and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
I was walking up the steps to the Roxy one night and Carole King was right behind me. She looked at me and she said, “Yeah, Songs for Beginners…right.” [rolls eyes] I love Carole. I loved that album. I had a lot of songs in my mind — we had just done Déjà Vu, but it was years between that and the next CSN album. What do you do with all those songs? You’ve got to get them onto tape so you can get them out of your system and be done with them. I had a lot of songs, and that’s why I started Songs for Beginners.
“I Used to Be a King,” Songs for Beginners (1971)
That’s a song that I wrote after I broke up with Joan. She affected me deeply. She’s a brilliant woman and a lovely woman and a very talented person. She had a very deep effect on me. Those couple of years I spent living with Joni were some of the best times of my life.
In addition to Jerry Garcia, who reprised his role as a pedal steel virtuoso, the recording featured his Grateful Dead bandmate Phil Lesh on bass and David Crosby on electric guitar. Piano was provided courtesy of Neil Young, who preferred to be credited by a distinctive nom de plume: Joe Yankee.
“Joe Yankee? Er, ok, if that’s what you want me to call you…” I think Neil Young is the strangest of all my friends. He’s definitely out there, but he’s dedicated to the muse of music and I love that about him. He can’t make music when he doesn’t feel it.
“Military Madness,” Songs for Beginners (1971)
I’m proud that my music has lasted this long, but it’s a pain in the ass that I have to keep on singing “Military Madness.” There are more wars now than there were when I wrote that, and I wrote it about my father going off to World War II! It doesn’t seem as if we’ve learned anything. Amazing. It’s an amazing country, this. It’s mad. Totally mad.
“Chicago,” Songs for Beginners (1971)
I got a call one morning from Wavy Gravy and I said, “Wavy, it’s like eight in the morning. What, what?” He said these seven kids had been arrested in Chicago for disrupting the  Democratic National Convention — would CSNY go and play a benefit to raise funds for their defense? I could go and David could go, but Stephen and Neil couldn’t go, they had a prior thing. This happened immediately and they couldn’t get out of what they were doing. So I wrote “Chicago” for Stephen and Neil: “Can’t we please go to Chicago just to sing?”
It affected the whole f—ing world when you saw Dan Rather getting pushed around and the cops beating up the people and stuffing them into vans. It was the point that the American public realized that the government is running this entire thing and f— you, we can do what we want. It was the start of people realizing just how much the government runs their lives. A lot of kids have always said that politics is for old people, but the kids in Parkland are realizing that the politicians are ruining their lives and they’re doing something about it. I’m very proud of it.
I hated Nixon, but at least I thought he had a brain and somewhat of a heart. This administration has no brain and certainly no heart. I think this administration is purely about greed. I think it’s purely about Donald Trump’s wallet. I don’t think he gives a f— about any of us. I don’t think he cares at all, and I think it’s very obvious. I think it’s the worst thing that’s happened to American in 50 years. I’ve been here 50 years and I’ve never seen anything like this. This is insane what they’re doing, and it culminates with them separating a couple of thousand kids from their parents. Did you hear the audio of those kids crying, “Mommy”? “Well it’s the Bible and the law and Sessions…” Madness.
“Immigration Man,” Graham Nash/David Crosby (1972)
I would really have loved the perspective of the astronauts. To stand on the fucking moon and look back at the Earth — how beautiful, right? But when you see the first photograph of the Earth Rise, there’s no boundaries. There’s no borders. There’s no f—ing walls. There’s just this blue marble in space.
It’s really funny because a lot of people think that space is out there, but as we’re eating our lunch, we’re in space. So that’s why I put that photo on the sheet music. I wanted people to know. How many countries are in the world now? No, no, it’s just one planet!
“Just a Song Before I Go,” CSN (1977)
I was catching a flight from Hawaii to L.A. with David and Stephen and I was at the home of a friend of mine. He sold pot on the island — that’s probably why we were friends! As I stood up to leave he said, “You’re supposed to be some big shot songwriter. I bet you can’t write a song just before you go.” “How much?” “Five hundred dollars. I bet you $500 you can’t write a song.” I framed the check at one point. I don’t have it anymore, it’s somewhere in my archives. It was the biggest hit we had as a single. It’s like Joe Walsh’s line about “Rocky Mountain Way”: “Man, if I knew ‘Rocky Mountain Way’ was going to be such a big hit, I would have written a better song!”
“Wasted on the Way,” Daylight Again (1982)
Me and Stephen were in a studio on Oahu in Hawaii working on Daylight Again and Crosby was out of his mind behind the addiction and he wasn’t a part of it. We delivered the record to Atlantic and they said, “This is not the record we want. We want Crosby, Stills & Nash.” So I kept calling Crosby to come over to put vocals on and stuff like that, and he was always “at the beach.” Crosby’s never been to the beach! Seriously, come on. (Of course he has, but…) So I wrote “Wasted on the Way” and I wanted to put it down. It was me, Stephen and [former member of Poco and the Eagles] Tim Schmidt on the high part on “Wasted on the Way.”
I try not to waste time. I think time is our only real currency. It’s the only thing that people like Bill Gates can’t buy one second of. Warren Buffett, Zuckerberg — not one second of time can they buy, no matter how rich they are. I always tried to utilize my time the best I can, but I was talking about the four of us [in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young] and the amount of time that we wasted arguing with each other, drugs, egos, women, whatever. And that’s why I wrote “Wasted on the Way.”
“Myself at Last,” The Path Tonight (2016)
We had booked the studio for a Monday so on Sunday, the guys take all the equipment and drums into the studio. Then the band has to play something to make sure it’s all plugged into the board. “Myself at Last” is the first attempt at the first song we tried. And that became the master. One take.
I finally began to realize that I’m worth a s—. I’ve been in this band with three geniuses. David Crosby is an incredible musician. I don’t know anybody who creates chords and progressions like David does. And Stephen and Neil are brilliant, brilliant people. I’ve often wondered what the f— I was doing there, you know? But I think if I take anything away from what I’ve done, I think I really brought happiness to people with my music. People love me, and I’m finding it out and I’m embracing it rather than wonder why.
The cover of This Path Tonight, that was the first photo Amy [Grantham] ever took of me. The first shot. She’s done the cover of Over the Years, too. It’s a collage that she made. She’s great. I love this woman. You know I’ve been with some pretty smart women in my life. She’s unbelievable.