It’s called the Adagio for Strings. Written by the American composer Samuel Barber, it’s considered one of the most popular and moving pieces of 20th century classical music. It certainly affected a young lad in Manchester, England, who heard it the first time when he was 14.
For Graham Nash, the Adagio represented “the power of music. Music is probably why you can remember the first time you were kissed. The music playing in the background, when it reappears in your life your memory bank goes right down to that moment when you were first kissed.”
The piece sent Nash on a journey that would take him into rock and roll history first with the British band The Hollies and later into the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
These days Nash travels solo on his luxurious tour bus carrying his music and telling his stories. He’ll be in Ottawa at Centrepointe Theatre on Oct. 2. Before he arrives in town he gave ARTSFILE a few minutes of his time. It seemed appropriate to begin in the beginning.
Nash was in high school when he heard the Adagio. But he was also listening to American Top 40 music and was taking his first tentative steps towards a musical career.
“I was very susceptible to the powers of music. at a young age. I didn’t study it. None of my partners and friends who made music in that era could read or write music. It was just purely natural.” He went to university to study as a an engineer, but he left to pursue music. It’s certainly worked out.
“I started The Hollies with my friend Alan Clarke in 1962.”
Along with The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, The Hollies were a big part of the so-called British Invasion of the early 1960s, but Nash says he never felt like an invader.
“We were just so happy to be out of Manchester. What you were supposed to do in those days was what your father did … go down in the mine or go into the mill. All of a sudden American rock and roll came into my life.”
Fortunately for young Graham his mother and father “recognized my passion for the music and they did not dissuade me from that path. They didn’t force me to get a real job. They understood that I was totally and passionately in love with music, trying to get the blood off my fingernails and learn how to play guitar.” He says he will be forever grateful for his parents’ support.
The Hollies took Nash around the world.
“They sure did. The first thing you do when you come from where I come from is you have to conquer Manchester, musically of course, and then you have to conquer London. The next place you go was Los Angeles or New York.”
The Hollies went to New York where their first gig was in the the Paramount Theatre in Times Square in 1965. The Big Apple was the centre of the musical world in 1965. In 1966, he met a couple of Americans, David Crosby and Stephen Stills. By 1968, Nash had left The Hollies and, with Crosby and Stills, formed a new band. History was made that day. Soon enough the trio became a quartet when Neil Young joined.
Right away the band was hailed as a supergroup and had a string of hits, many written by Nash, including Our House, Teach Your Children, Marrakesh Express and Just A Song Before I Go.
The band was also reflecting on the agitated politics of the day as the U.S. was fighting in Vietnam and protests against the war were the order of the day for many young people. After living in the U.S. for more than 30 years and holding dual citizenship since 1978, Nash’s politics remain pretty steadfast. He is an outspoken supporter of Bernie Sanders and is disdainful of Donald Trump.
“As devious as Nixon was, he had a brain and a heart. Trump has neither. I think he is tremendously challenged.
“We deserve it, though. Forty-eight per cent of the people registered to vote didn’t.” They got what they paid for, he says.
One person who had a direct influence on Nash is Joni Mitchell with whom he lived for a couple of years. She even got him painting. Nash was already a photographer but he picked up a brush because of her.
“I didn’t start painting until I lived with Joni Mitchell for a few years. She painted, of course, and I watched her paint. It didn’t seem that difficult to me. So I started. It comes all the way through to today. I’ve done 16 paintings of complete chaotic fury over the Trump administration.”
She was also an influence musically.
“There is no way that you can be hanging out with David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Neil Young and Joni Mitchel and not be influenced by what they were writing and their style of writing.
“What happened is this: For the seven years I was with the Hollies we learned to be able to write a melody you probably couldn’t forget. But when I came to America I realized that my words needed to be better.”
For the past 14 years, he says, “I have been completely enveloped in the music of me and me and David and me and David and Stephen and Neil. I’ve produced, polished and put out 16 CDs in last 14 years. I did the CSNY stadium tour 1974 four CD box set; I did Stephen’s four CD box set, David’s three-CD box set. I did mine. I’ve been a busy boy.”
He also released a well-received solo album in 2016 called This Path Tonight.
“I think it’s one of the best albums I’ve made. It truly reflects the emotional journey going on in my life right now. People really need to hear how other people are dealing with life,” said the 75-year-old Nash. “That’s the job of the musician … to tell the truth and reflect the times in which we live.” As an example, one song is called Watch Out for the Wind and is about about the killing of black teenager Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer. Another song is about the murder of three American college students by the KKK in the 1960s.
CSNY was made up of two Americans, a Canadian and Nash from England. He believes he and Young brought “a little sanity maybe” to the band.
“The truth is I’m English. We had two world wars to deal with within 80 years with the same enemy. When you make it past the fact that you don’t know whether your house is going to be there tomorrow and whether your friends will be alive; when you make it through those world wars, you have a certain attitude about what is important. What is important is reality. What is important is the truth. Your coffee not being quite hot enough is not important.”
With three children and five grandchildren that ability to focus on the important things in life is where Nash is today.
“Look at what we are facing. We are on this ball and we are spinning through space and we are throwing bullets at each other.”
Nash has had a very public falling out with David Crosby that he detailed in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. “I haven’t spoken to Crosby in two years,” he says.
He does, however, talk regularly with Neil Young.
“The last conversation I had with Neil was about a month ago. I had breakfast with him in New York. I have collected a lot of his handwritten manuscripts over the years. I had the original manuscript for Heart of Gold and Needle and the Damage Done for example,” he said.
“I returned them to him. I had taken care of them for 30-odd years and he called and asked if I still had them. And I said that I did and he said, ‘How would you feel about giving them back to me?’ I sent them back immediately.”
He saved them because he knew they mattered.
“If you are looking down at the original lyrics to Heart of Gold, wouldn’t you think that was important?”
On Monday, he will play some songs and tell some stories.
“People are interested,” he says. They want to know what were you thinking when you wrote Our House. Music is a very powerful language and I’m very pleased to speak the language.”