Every musician has a musical soulmate. Mine is my buddy Zach, whom I first connected with at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 2000. Years later, after both of us wound up in New York City, we formed a band and played the club scene together. Zach and I have this cosmic rapport when it comes to songwriting and guitar playing that I’ve never experienced with any other musician; we “complete” each other’s songs. And we’ve turned each other onto a number of great bands and artists in our time. Case in point: For my 21st birthday, which I celebrated in Scotland, Zach gifted me two albums that would completely change my life as songwriter and guitarist: Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush (1970) and Harvest (1972). I remember sitting in my Pollock Halls dorm room playing “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” (from the former) and “Old Man” (from the latter) over and over and over again until I was able to teach myself my own versions. When they finally clicked, I couldn’t fathom being able to write one, let along two songs that were that good. And I still haven’t even come close.
Graham Nash, on the other hand, has written more than a few songs that rival Neil Young’s in brilliance—and aside from being an old friend and bandmate of Young’s—he, too, has his own musical soulmate in David Crosby. Nash and Crosby have this unmistakable melodic unity, which was put on display in the most public of ways on August 17, 1969, when Nash, along with Crosby, Young and Stephen Stills played their second show ever as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in front of more than 400,000 fans at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in Bethel, NY. (Young did not appear on Crosby, Stills & Nash’s [CSN’s] eponymous 1969 debut, which had been released just three months prior; the group’s first show as a foursome was the night before Woodstock at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre.) Remembers Nash of the group’s set on the 17th, which kicked off at the ungodly hour of 4am: “[We flew in] over an immense crowd of people in the dark and the rain in a helicopter. Crosby put it best when he said it looked like an encampment of the Macedonian army. Seeing all those people was an amazing feeling.” Three songs into the quartet’s set, Nash and Crosby, who had really only been singing together for about a year, duetted on Crosby’s “Guinevere,” one of the most haunting numbers on CSN’s debut record, a complex latticework of harmonies that was just “one acoustic guitar and two voices and a half-a-million people,” says Nash. That moment might as well have sealed their musical marriage for the masses.
Now, as far as I can remember, Zach and I never had a serious falling out. Sure, we’ve butted heads before in the past, but we’ve never gone more than a few months without talking. Nash and Crosby, on the other hand, haven’t spoken in almost three years. This stems from a yet-unexplained chasm between the two musicians that materialized around March 2016, prompting Nash to tell Billboard that “I don’t want anything to do with Crosby at all. It’s just that simple. In my world there will never, ever be a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young record and there will never be another Crosby, Stills & Nash record or show.” Three years later, the wounds haven’t seemed to heal in the least. “I [used to speak] to [Crosby] on a regular basis—not daily, but certainly three or four times a week—and [now] I haven’t spoken to him in two or three years,” says Nash. “Our friendship is over, and that’s the way it is, and if we never made another note of music, [you’d still have] what we did in the last 50 odd years.”
As sorry as fans might be to never hear Nash and Crosby’s ethereal voices intertwined again—let alone jigsawed together with their compatriots Stills and Young—Nash does make a valid point. Besides “Guinevere,” the Crosby-Nash (or Nash-Crosby) recorded oeuvre alone is a mind-blowing, prodigious group of tracks (and full albums) that includes nuggets such as “Lady of the Island” (Nash with Crosby), “Lee Shore” (Crosby with Nash) and “Song with No Words (Tree with No Leaves)” (Crosby and Nash)—and of course, there is a seemingly endless supply of songs the two produced with Stills and Young, such as “Ohio,” “Helplessly Hoping” and “Teach Your Children,” which is arguably, Nash’s signature song. In regards to “Teach Your Children,” Nash says: “[In Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young], we had a ‘reality rule’: If I sat down and played a song for David and Stephen, and they didn’t react, you’d never hear that song again.” When Nash first played “Teach Your Children” for Stills, he didn’t have an entirely favorable reaction to it. “Stephen looked at me and said, ‘That’s a really great song, but don’t ever play it like that again,'” says Nash. (The original demo is more of a shuffle than a country-pop song.) It was Stills’ rearrangement of the song that turned it into a hit, says Nash.
Just two years prior to the release of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s debut, Déjà Vu (1970), which included “Teach Your Children” and reached at No.1 on the album charts, Nash had been a founding member of British Invasion band The Hollies, which scored a string of hit singles in their own right, including “Bus Stop,” “On a Carousel” and “Carrie Anne.” “When I was in The Hollies, I had learned to be able to write a pop song that the melody of which you probably couldn’t forget if you’d heard it a couple of times,” says Nash. But after Nash’s own tune “King Midas in Reverse” performed poorly on the UK charts—although it reached the Top 20, in the era of singles, it was deemed a “failure”—his Hollies bandmates began to reject his contributions. When he offered his upbeat “Marrakesh Express” as a possible new single, they all but ignored it. Nash soon saw the writing on the wall, moving to America, where he linked up with Crosby and Stills—and started dating and moved in with Joni Mitchell—singing with the pair for the first time in 1968 in an informal setting, and soon after, recording CSN’s eponymous debut with them, which peaked in the Top 10. The lead single? “Marrakesh Express,” which hit Billboard‘s Top 40. Nash would go on to contribute a number of the band’s most memorable, upbeat songs, including “Pre-Road Downs,” which (fun-fact alert!) is the only song on the Crosby, Stills & Nash album to feature a voice other than Crosby’s, Stills’ or Nash’s (Cass Elliot, from the Mamas & the Papas, provides a harmony vocal on the word “roaches” in the chorus); and “Our House,” a saccharine sweet love song about Nash’s then-girlfriend Mitchell, which also hit the Top 40.
By the time Nash released his first solo record, Songs for Beginners, in May 1971—almost exactly a year after Déjà Vu hit the streets—a lot had happened to the musician. His band was one of the biggest in the world; Woodstock, which helped make that happen, had come and gone; as had the antithetical Altamont Free Concert in California, at which Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had performed and where chaos had ensued and a young fan had been murdered; Nash’s relationship with Mitchell had disintegrated; and Vietnam War protests were reaching a fever pitch, following the Kent State Massacre in May 1970 (this being the basis for Young’s famous protest song “Ohio”). All that, and Nash’s ability to write songs had changed dramatically. “When I came to America to join David and Stephen and Neil and was living with Joni, I began to realize that if I put better words to my melodies, I would have better songs,” says Nash. “That’s exactly what happened.” But the Nash you find on the album isn’t the young songwriter marveling at the freedom of touring Morocco via train (“Marrakesh Express”) or spinning a picture-story as a lovestruck balladeer (“Lady of the Island”), but rather one that’s grown introspective and at times, dispirited, depressed and downright angry. As luck would have it, the more off-the-rails Nash gets, the better a songwriter he becomes.
For the uninitiated, Songs for Beginners, which certainly has its fair share of breakup songs on it, also comes trip-wired with a powerful statement of anti-war protest, beginning with album opener “Military Madness” (about his father leaving to fight in World War II) and swinging into high gear with “Chicago,” a Top 40 hit in the US, which addresses the violent protests during the 1968 Democratic Convention in the same-named city (it was written for Stills and Young, trying to coax them to come play a benefit show for the seven young protestors arrested at the convention). What’s maybe most incredible about that latter song is that it even made it onto wax as a single—and eventually, the radio. (The same could be said of CSN&Y’s “Ohio.”) Nowadays, you’ll find nary an anti-war or -president anthem making a play for the top of the Billboard singles charts. Do you think we’re living in a post protest-song era? I ask Nash. “No,” he responds, firmly. “I think the people that own the world’s media, which you can probably count on two hands, don’t want protest songs on their airwaves—radio, TV. They learned from Vietnam. They learned that when [CBS Evening News anchor] Walter Cronkite was telling us at 6 o’clock every single night how many American men and women had died in Vietnam, it obviously pissed off the people, and it was the people that put the pressure on their congressmen and senators and president to stop that war. But [the powers-that-be] learned.”
Three years after Songs for Beginners, Nash released a second solo set, Wild Tales, which found the musician battling the blues of another breakup, this time, from then-girlfriend Rita Coolidge, a relationship that had also created tensions within Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (she had had a brief dalliance with Stills as well). Soon after, CSN&Y itself would break up. After all, it was a group featuring four lead singers and songwriters, all of whom had ego clashes throughout the years—and had been members of incredibly famous and famously combative bands in their own right (Nash had co-helmed The Hollies, Stills and Young were co-leaders of Buffalo Springfield, and Crosby had been one of three lead singers in The Byrds, who had been making a play for the lone frontman gig when he was unceremoniously fired in 1967 prior to the release of The Notorious Byrd Brothers album). Once again, Nash’s songs took a turn for the dark—and in many ways, got even better. This was largely due to the influence of one of his bandmates. “Hey You (Looking at the Moon),” “And So It Goes” and “I Miss You” sound like they could’ve been outtakes from Young’s bestselling Harvest, for which Nash had been a part of the sessions (he provided backing vocals on “Are You Ready for the Country?” and the masterful “Words”). “You can’t exist in this world, standing next to Neil Young, and not be affected; he’s like a virus,” says Nash. “Neil is very serious about music, he’s very committed to the muse of music and will only move when the music makes him move. He brought a slightly darker edge to [Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s] music—’Ohio’ being a perfect example. But there’s no way that you can be in a band with Neil Young and David Crosby and Stephen Stills and living with Joni Mitchell and not be affected by these people.” The album also included another protest song in “Oh! Camil (The Winter Song),” about soldier-turned-activist Scott Camil.
This fall, the 77-year-old Nash, who’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice (once with The Hollies, once with CSN), along with his touring band, will be criss-crossing the country—including stops at The Egg in Albany on September 28 and Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in Bethel, NY (the site of the original Woodstock festival) on October 15—playing his first two solo albums, front to back. “I’ve always liked Songs for Beginners and Wild Tales,” says Nash. “Obviously, because I’m a solo artist, I get to play songs that I never had a chance to play [in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young]; when you’re in a band with four strong writers, there’s only so much room.” (He acknowledges the influence of his wife, Amy Grantham, in making the string of shows happen, too.) Nash also tells me that he’s working on a follow-up to his 2016 solo album, This Path Tonight. “I’m a writer,” says Nash. “There’s so much to write about. I can’t stop. As long as I’m writing songs that I feel are worth sharing with people, I’ll continue to do that.” And if you’re wondering whether the septuagenarian songwriter’s been thinking about hanging it up, quips Nash: “I can’t even spell retire.” Count me among the local fans that just breathed a sigh of relief there. And while I can’t write Nash and Crosby back into the same room together again, I will send them some good vibes via loving-kindness meditation. Because while the world would still turn if Zach and me never played another note together, I’m not sure the same applies for Nash and Crosby.