SEX, drugs and rock ‘n roll... Graham Nash, of Crosby, Stills & Nash, makes no apologies for revealing all in a new autobiography. That’s just the way he wanted it, he tells Aidan Smith
1964 was a year of new sensations for the Hollies with their first Top Ten hits and self-penned ones at that. For their fans too, according to Graham Nash, who recalls a churning sexual undercurrent at shows, not least Glasgow’s Barrowland where “75 girls passed out and had to be lifted over the heads of the crowd”.
“Gigs in the north had an eerie war-zone quality,” Nash writes in his breathless, careering, naked memoir Wild Tales. “The girls up there got us into a lot of deep s***. Look, half the reason I got into music was to attract women but if some chick took a shine to the lead singer, you could bet he was going to get his ass kicked by the boyfriend and his thuggy pals. Those f****rs were tough. I can’t tell you how many buses I ran for. Playing those northern provinces was murder. One time I got my three front teeth knocked out.”
Today, wallies glistening, the 71-year-old Nash is at home in Los Angeles. The sun is shining and his trusty Leciaflex is by his side. “After we’re done talking I’m going to go out with my camera and I’m sure the universe will show me something fantastic,” he says, sounding an awful long way from the northern provinces. But before long “up” becomes “oop”. Memories from before his hippy supergroup are vivid: the outside toilet, the caning for skipping school to buy Bill Haley tickets, the shock of his father being sent to prison, the fact it was 75 girls, not 74. Oh, and he remembers most of what happened in Crosby Stills Nash & Young as well.
How come? I thought if you were a key player in the Swingin’ Sixties you couldn’t? “Well, I’m fortunate to have survived all the drugs and the craziness when friends didn’t,” he says. “So many of them lost their lives to stupidity and accidents and, you know, I could die on the freeway after this conversation and my beautiful, beautiful grand-daughter, who’ll be one in a week, will never know her grandfather. I had to write this book for her, and my three children, but I’ve given myself an ‘out’ with it, saying this is everything as I remember. People remember different truths. For instance, Stephen still thinks we first sang together in Cass’s kitchen. We didn’t!”
Stephen is Stephen Stills, Cass was Mama Cass, David Crosby is Croz, Nash is Willy … and Joni Mitchell is “a lovely, sylphlike woman with a natural blush, like windburn, and an elusive quality that seemed lit from within”. She used to be Croz’s lover and then she became Willy’s, and according to Nash it was at her place in Laurel Canyon that they minted the three-part supergroup harmonies to soundtrack the peace ’n’ love era.
Wild Tales has lots of them, such as Crosby receiving oral sex from two groupies at once, while on the phone to his drug dealer. Nash doesn’t skimp on the detail and narrates his story like the man he is: 71, unreconstructed, a rock star from a time when they believed themselves to be gods, when men were “cats” and women were sex objects. “Man, that baby felt good in my hands,” he writes, although here he’s actually talking about a guitar. He makes no apologies. “I wanted the book to be as honest as I could make it. Otherwise, what would have been the point? Time is precious and I don’t want to waste yours.”
His most lyrical descriptions are reserved for Mitchell. “Absolutely beautiful … long blonde hair cut in Cleopatra bangs, sapphire eyes. There was a Bible of some sort on her lap … who the hell carries something like that around? ... Man I wanted that woman.” Then when he gets her: “Joni and I shared everything: all the baggage, all the fantasies … She was like an Escher painting, with all its sharp angles, unexpected turns and mysterious depths.” He penned the classic, Our House, about their romance and thought he was going to be with her for the rest of his life. Poignant story, I say. “I know, but that’s how love goes. Sometimes it’s blazing, sometimes it smoulders.” What does his second wife, Susan, say to the book? “Not one bad word. She knows who I am, who I’ve been, who I’m going to be. I’ll probably be with Susan for the rest of my life. She’s an unbelievable woman.”
Nash had a whole other life, wife and band back in England, before all of this. His father, William, made Aston Martins in Salford, Lancashire, but his childhood was poor and tough, tougher still when the old man was jailed for possession of stolen goods when the lad was 11. His mother, Mary, he discovered later, had yearned for the fabulous life that came his way. “I asked her why she’d allowed me to go into music, which in the 1950s was some kind of madness. She said she’d always wanted to be on stage but had to give up those dreams for the war and the family.” Nash scattered her ashes at Buckingham Palace when he got his OBE, with the Queen inquiring: “How are the Hollies?”
His musical fate was sealed at six when the teacher introduced the new boy: “This is Harold Clarke, where’s he going to sit?” The new best friends – Clarke was known as Allan – greased their hair like Tony Curtis and harmonised the Lord’s Prayer during assembly and would go on to form the band who’d have hits with Just One Look, I’m Alive and Bus Stop. But then the Hollies couldn’t agree which bus to catch. Nash, into orientalism, wanted it to be the Marrakesh Express and when the others lurched towards cabaret he took his song to those cats, Crosby and Stills.
“Allan was – is – my oldest pal and me leaving put a strain on our friendship for a long time. But we’ve since made it oop,” says Nash. His new musical alliances would be just as testing; a 44-year-old soap opera, in fact.
While Crosby was “funny, brilliant [with] the best weed, the most beautiful woman and they would always be naked,” Stills was “brash, egotistical, volatile”. And then there was Neil Young –“utterly self-centered.” Nash reveals he recently wrote Young a long letter of reconcilliation. The response? “What a load of s***.” But since then Young has suggested a reunion show. The great saga rumbles on.
Meanwhile, the original trio are Glasgow-bound. Nash says: “We know the people will want to hear Guinnevere, Teach Your Children, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes, but we also want to play our news songs. Burning for the Buddha is about 128 Tibetan monks who’ve set fire to themselves protesting about the Chinese government.” He still espouses hippy values. “We still believe peace is better than war, that love is better than hate.” Probably not much chance of fainting girls this time, I say. “You never know. But I hope you get to pass them.”
• Wild Tales (Viking, £25). Crosby Stills & Nash play the Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow on Monday