Graham Nash has a few more songs before he goes

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Graham Nash has a few more songs before he goes
Graham Nash in New York, April 5, 2023. At 81, the singer-songwriter admits his time could be short, especially after losing David Crosby — but in the meantime, he’s got plenty to say and sing. (Daniel Arnold/The New York Times)

by Grayson Haver Currin

ALEXANDRIA, VA.- Graham Nash was slow to smile on a recent Wednesday afternoon, sitting in early spring sunshine on the porch of a cafe near Washington, D.C.

The night before, the 81-year-old singer-songwriter had bounded onto the stage of the Birchmere, a folk bastion, and wooed the sold-out crowd with his tunes that long ago became generational standards, like “Teach Your Children” and “Military Madness.” He shared the songs and candid stories of longtime pals like Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell, landing expertly practiced punchlines.

But he’d awakened in the daze of emotional hangover. Exactly three months had passed since the January death of David Crosby, his best friend and closest collaborator since they first harmonized together in August 1968 at the cottage that Nash would soon share with Mitchell in Laurel Canyon, in the Hollywood Hills.

“It is like an earthquake,” he said, his English accent softened by nearly 50 years in California and Hawaii. “The shock was terrifying. Then I see his face, and it makes me really sad.”

The day’s aftershock stemmed from a video tribute Nash recorded for Neil Young and Stephen Stills to use at an autism benefit. It was another unwelcome opportunity to contemplate all that Nash and Crosby left unsaid during the prior decade, as the pair traded barbs in the press, left an album with Rick Rubin unfinished and rarely spoke. In early January, Crosby emailed Nash to say he wanted to talk, then left a voicemail telling him he wanted to apologize for, as Nash remembered, “all the stupid things I said about you and, particularly, Neil.” After Nash set a time, Crosby stood him up. Three days later, he was dead.

“David was a very interesting couple of people: He was generous, funny and the most unbelievably great musician. On the other hand, he could make an entire room feel bad with two words,” Nash said, making his way through the first of three lunchtime lattes. “I wanted to remember the good music we made and the great times we had, let that satisfy you. But he’s gone.”

Nash is now a member of the rarest class of living rock legend: old enough to have witnessed the genre’s genesis and eager to talk about his wild days, but also inspired enough by his current work to rave about new songs. This year, he reunited with a childhood chum, Hollies co-founder Allan Clarke, for the sentimental and charming album “I’ll Never Forget,” singing backup on most songs. And on May 19, Nash will release “Now,” 13 tracks about American unrest and the renewal inspired by his third marriage and a move to New York.

Still, several of his favorite former musical partners, like Crosby, drummer Jim Gordon and multi-instrumentalist David Lindley, have all died since January. He knows his life’s work is increasingly a race against mortality.

“I tried to be the best husband, the best friend, the best musician, but I’ll never make it,” he said. “I’m still healthy, but so was David. I could drop dead in the middle of this conversation.”

Nash’s life story reads like a rock ’n’ roll fantasy. He was raised working class in Salford, near Manchester, and first heard hints of the stateside musical revolution by pressing his ear to his bedpost on Sunday nights. As his parents listened to Radio Luxembourg downstairs, the sound traveled through the wooden beams of their close quarters, sparking his imagination.

“My mother and father didn’t tell me to get a real job because music’s not going to last,” he said by phone during an earlier conversation from his Manhattan recording and photography studio. “My mother always said to me, ‘Follow your heart, and you will always make the right choices. Life is just choices.’”

Already playing the proto-rock of skiffle, Nash skipped school to score tickets to see Bill Haley & His Comets with Clarke days after his 15th birthday. The duo soon beat the Beatles (before they were the Beatles) in a talent show. Three years later, they stalked the Everly Brothers to their hotel, where they received the encouragement they needed to start the Hollies: “Keep doing it,” Phil Everly said in the rain. “Things’ll happen.”

The Hollies’ suave R&B covers and bittersweet originals made them pop sensations, part of the Beatles’ global sea change. During their first U.S. appearance, they shared a bill with Little Richard and the young guitarist he scolded for upstaging him, Jimi Hendrix.

But soon after his father’s 1966 death, Nash tired of the group’s strict parameters. When he first sang with Stills and Nash in California, he knew his future lay in its libertine lifestyle. He fell in love with Mitchell. His mother didn’t realize he had left the Hollies, his first marriage and England altogether until a copy of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s debut LP arrived, a chart-topping postcard home. The split blindsided Clarke, especially because Nash refused to tell him directly.

“He was my brother, really, and he had gone and fallen in love with someone else,” Clarke said, shrugging in a video interview. “I had a family, and I was devastated. What was going to happen to me now?”

That ceaseless need for reinvention — bordering perhaps on an obsession with relevance — has threaded together Nash’s career and life. He indulged drum machines and synths for his lampooned 1986 album, “Innocent Eyes” (perhaps not coincidentally, his final solo album for 16 years). He used augmented reality for a prescient but lambasted high-tech concert series a decade later. A zealous photographer and art collector, Nash was an early adopter of fine-art digital prints, an enduring side enterprise.

He was a self-professed cad during his first marriage, ultimately leading him to Mitchell. He has always believed he should have proposed to her in the early ’70s, but she worried that he wanted her to play housekeeper to his rock star.

“Am I going tell Joni Mitchell not to write?” he scoffed, loudly, in the cafe. “Get real here.”

In the half-century since they split, he’s never forgotten to send her birthday flowers.

But for the final eight years of his 38-year marriage to actress Susan Sennett, he was not in love, something he said they both acknowledged. In 2014, he met artist Amy Grantham, four decades his junior, backstage at a Crosby, Stills & Nash show during one of their final tours. In that first moment, he realized that happiness was again possible. He told Sennett about the attraction, and they split two years later. Sennett died soon after Nash and Grantham’s 2019 wedding in Woodstock, New York.

In the acrimonious annals of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Nash generally seemed the best-adjusted, least controversial member. He quit hard drugs relatively early and devoted decades to charity. For some, his divorce and remarriage represented a heel turn. But, he reiterated, it was worth it.

“I’ve never been upset with any major decision I have made,” he said, noting that he did regret missing his parents’ deaths. “I have enjoyed my life and made some incredibly correct decisions for me. I hope to be going on for a few more years yet.”

After a lifetime of restlessness, “Now” feels remarkably content, as if Nash has slipped into a favorite old overcoat to find a cache of new tunes stuffed inside a pocket. There are political jeremiads that decry “MAGA tourists,” plus a next-generation hymn that echoes “Teach Your Children.” He wrote “Buddy’s Back,” a glowing celebration of the Hollies forebear, for Clarke; they cut different takes for their respective albums, joyously closing a broken boyhood circle.

Love songs for Grantham shape nearly half the album, gentle and guileless tunes that glow. “It Feels Like Home” is “Our House” recast for the East Coast, Nash walking through the door to find “the answer to a prayer.” He apologizes for lashing out during “Love of Mine,” a true-to-life mea culpa after Grantham told him to stop clogging Manhattan sidewalks. “Now” unspools in hard-won tranquility.

“I really believed, in my mid-70s, ‘I’m coming to the end of my life. It’s all finished,’” he said. “In many ways, Amy saved my life. I wanted to wear my heart on my sleeve, as I try and always do.”

As Nash relaxed on that sunny porch, he pulled up the sleeves of his black T-shirt to reveal three tattoos. There was the Hindu god Ganesha below his left shoulder, his ex-wife below his right. He lingered longer on his left forearm, where the black ink of the vegvisir, often called the “Viking compass,” was fading.

“It’s so I don’t get lost,” he said, lifting his gaze and grinning. “But it might be upside down, so who knows?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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