California’s Laurel Canyon. Renowned in the late ’60s and early ’70s as a “creative hub” of free thinkers, artists, musicians and “turned-on” individuals. The Eagles! The Monkees when they weren’t funny anymore! Jackson Browne! Sundry other stoned, middle-class brats! Laurel Canyon certainly birthed much that was horrible about early-seventies soft-rock, but powerful, world-changing music also gestated here among the trees, dirt tracks and log cabins – the area boasts Joni Mitchell, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Carole King among it’s alumni.
There hasn’t been a book about the “scene” for at least three months, so here comes Graham Nash’s memoir to redress the balance. Nash is perhaps best-known as one-third of Crosby, Stills and Nash (or one quarter of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), but was also a founding member of The Hollies. He grew up in Manchester in the aftermath of World War II, and with every rocker of a certain vintage contractually obliged to describe “playing in the rubble of the bombed-out streets”, and hearing Elvis for the first time, he doesn’t disappoint. The problem is, we’ve heard all this before. We know London in the mid-60s was a magical time. All six million books about the Beatles have told us, as did Keef two years ago in his book. And Townshend. And Mick. Blah Blah Mary Quant, blah blah LSD, blah blah Carnaby Street.
However, what we didn’t know, is that The Hollies were equally as important as The Beatles in changing the face of popular music. How do we know this? Because Graham tells us! It’s right there on page 77: “…we were adding to the sound of rock n roll. It wasn’t just us, of course, but we were leading the way”. Hardly. Freddie & The Dreamers with slightly better tunes is more like it. A mere two chapters later, Graham leaves The Hollies because he’s outgrown them and their simple musical forms.
Reading “Wild Tales” is akin to reading a biography by Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap. Nash surely is the “lukewarm water” between the fire of Stephen Stills and the Ice of David Crosby. There are plenty of “Wild Tales” in the book, but most of them involve Nash as a bystander. Sure, he steals the odd girlfriend or two, and took a fair amount of drugs, but he doesn’t have the gun-totin’ jailbird fascination of Crosby, the ruthless careerism of Stills, nor the follow-the-muse-at-any-cost aspect of Neil Young. He was just “there”. Also, sometimes he comes across as a bit, well, silly. At one point, he rants about being stopped at Vancouver Airport by an immigration official. Stills, Crosby and Young are waved through, but Nash was held for a whole 30 minutes! So incensed was he at this treatment, that he wrote a song called “Immigration Man”, the lyrical highlight of which is “I got stopped by the immigration man/He says he doesn’t know if he can/let me in. Let Me In Immigration Man”. The fact that Nash wasn’t actually an American citizen at this point matters not a jot to his indignation. On another occasion, he delivers a solo album to Columbia Records, but due to the record company putting a bar code over the end of the rainbow on the cover, (the symbolism, Maaaaan) he releases it through Capitol Records instead. This old hippy sure has an ego. What can’t be in doubt though, is Nash’s utter dedication to his music. Difficult dealings with various bandmates upset him primarily because he worries that the music is suffering, as opposed to any personal aggravation.
There are some revelations in the book. Generally, David Crosby comes across as a thoroughly nice chap. Affable, friendly and generous, his drug addiction and jail time elicit pity, and Graham’s obvious adoration for him is genuinely touching. Nash also tells us that the three-minute piano coda at the end of Eric Clapton’s “Layla”, though credited to Jim Gordon, was entirely the work of none other than Rita Coolidge. However, the last thirty years of the band is dealt with in less than a hundred pages, with the story of 1988’s “American Dream” reunion album poorly served. To give him his due, Graham Nash is one of the few drinking-and-drugging stars of the sixties and seventies who has survived with all his marbles intact, and that in itself is impressive. However, the best thing about this book is that it’ll pique your interest in checking out a book about David Crosby, for he is undoubtedly the star of these “Wild Tales”.
This review originally appeared in edited form in Ireland’s Sunday Business Post newspaper