By Mr. Fish
Music is moral law.
The first time Graham Nash made me want to talk back to grown-ups was in the summer of 1977.
I was 11 years old at the time and my hair was finally long enough to look amazing when paired with leather sandals, a braided belt, my grandfather’s Hai Karate cologne and a mood ring. I couldn’t believe how cool and downright sophisticated I looked the first time I caught a glimpse of myself fellating a red, white and blue Rocket Pop in the front window of Hartnett’s Five and Dime. The sun was blazing and it was early July and I was wearing mirrored sunglasses and a beaded headband and had the cool, damp stem of a freshly picked dandelion tucked behind my ear, the tantalizing combination of everything being precisely what I imagined the neo-nouveau masculinity movement of the time was all about. Having already successfully petitioned my grandmother for a fringed suede vest and a peace sign medallion the previous Easter, I figured that all I needed was a pair of mesh bikini briefs, a pierced ear and a Dexedrine addiction but I didn’t know how to get any of those things onto my Christmas list without cueing the Santa Claus at the mall to gingerly lift me off of his knee as if I were a sleeping beehive and take my mother aside for the purpose of suggesting that a series of prolonged beatings with a closed fist might be a more deserving and character building alternative to what I’d asked him for.
It didn’t matter to me that practically everybody who looked at me from afar or at a glance saw me as just another pretty girl. In fact, the whole point of my look was to prove that I was so unabashedly cocksure in my manhood that to suggest I even had a cock would be admitting that I needed a prop in order to overstate what should have already been obvious: namely, that I was such a ladies man that, like a plastic, unblinking duck set adrift on a fetid, mosquito ridden pond, I was the decoy self-deployed to attract the warm breasts and elegant necks and amorous tail feathers of innumerable, unsuspecting fowl. I was the incessant quacking where there was no quacking at all, the purpose of my life to be determined by the number of flying Vs I would be able to pull down from heaven and have given wet bottoms.
To make myself all the more captivating to the opposite sex, I was also taking guitar lessons with a real hepcat named Denver Dragonetti, whose bacon grease comb over and Sansabelt slacks and wire frame glasses, which clung white-knuckled to lenses as thick as Lucite ashtrays, made him the grooviest 25-year-old I knew. “Let’s pick a song for you to practice,” he said to me one afternoon while closing the door to the tiny windowless room where, for 30 minutes every week, I came to furrow my brow and to stare hard at a music stand and Morse code out an emaciated translation of what I was reading on my guitar. “Let’s pick something for you to get really, really good at,” he said, sitting down on a stool next to me and bringing his ax onto his knee. “How about ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’?” he suggested, not waiting for me to answer before throwing himself full force into an eight-minute version that in no time had his nose running, his eyes closed and his Kermitty voice cracking with the sort of raw emotion that one typically associated with natural disasters and crime scene reporting.
“How about ‘Handy Man’ by James Taylor?” I suggested, while he dried his eyes with his sleeve and took a series of deep breaths in an attempt to regain his composure. I imagined myself pirouetting slowly at the center of a rotating playground merry-go-round, my guitar slung high across my chest and my face lifted to the sky in song. “Hey girls, gather round/Listen to what I’m putting down/Hey babe, I’m your handy man,” I’d sing. I saw myself surrounded on all sides by beautiful hippie chicks, the tiny tassels on the hem of my poncho flickering in the breeze like birthday candles begging to be blown, when Denver launched into Graham Nash’s “Teach Your Children,” the urgency of his singing sounding like somebody straining hard not to be misunderstood during a 911 call.
First, he pleaded with me to teach my children well and then he pleaded with me to teach my parents well and then he pleaded with me to teach my children well again and then he pleaded more about teaching my parents. Then he improvised a jazzy segue into an 11-minute instrumental of “Bye Bye Blackbird” that involved an unforgivable amount of whistling. Then he segued back into “Teach Your Children,” this time in Spanish. When he invited me to clap along I put my hands up and said, “Whoa whoa whoa.”
“Yeah,” he said, strumming louder and shifting into a clave rhythm, his smile stretched ear to ear, “that’s it, Darren!”
“Whoa whoa whoa,” he sang, bouncing his head up and down. “Whoa whoa whoa! Great—now try this,” he hollered. “Hey Bo Diddley! Hey Bo Diddley! Now you answer me back! Ready?”
“Hey Bo Diddley!” he said.
“It’s Dwayne,” I shouted, “not Darren!”
“Go, Hey Bo Diddley!”
“Hang on for a second!” I said, tucking my hair behind my ears and watching him fall further into his excruciatingly Caucasian boogie fever, his magnified eyeballs rolled back in his head and his feet and elbows going every which way. “Mr. Dragonetti!” I yelled, through cupped hands. Nothing. “Stop it!” I commanded, starting to worry that if I didn’t do something soon I and everybody else on the block were liable to end up in a conga line behind this jackass. “Mr. Dragonetti!” I cried.
“Mama’s little baby loves short’nin’, short’nin’. Mama’s little baby loves short’nin bread. Mama’s little baby lo.”
“Shit!” I howled, standing up quickly enough to topple my chair.
Five minutes later I was walking down the street with my guitar case and the chord progressions for “Handy Man” written out illegibly in pen in the assignment workbook I had tucked up under my arm. I never took another lesson in anything ever again and never forgot what my first real experience with emancipation felt like and how I wanted to experience it again and again.
Thirty-five years later, I met with my friend—my liberator!—Graham Nash atop a fancy hotel in Manhattan overlooking a rainy Central Park to talk about “CSN 2012,” the first live performance DVD and CD set from Crosby, Stills and Nash in more than two decades.
Graham Nash: The reason why we’re on tour right now is because we’re there for Stephen. When the [Buffalo] Springfield did those six or seven shows in California [last summer] and Neil [Young] said to Stephen [Stills], “Hey, man, Springfield should go out next year, we could make some good music and make a lot of money.” Now, when you get that kind of commitment from Neil you arrange the rest of your life for that. But then when Neil calls one day and says, “Nah, I just don’t feel like it, man,” you’re fucked.
Mr. Fish: But isn’t that Young’s pattern? From what I’ve read, it’s legendary, him existing from moment to moment—from millisecond to millisecond.
GN: It’s always been his pattern, yeah. And it’s one of the most admirable and the most infuriating parts of Neil Young that I know. But that was devastating to Stephen, not just musically and spiritually, because he’s been a dear friend to Neil for many, many years, of course, but also financially because the loss of that potential can be devastating to a person. So when David [Crosby] and I heard that we went up to Stephen’s house and said, “You know what, we’re not going out just as Crosby and Nash this year. Let’s all three of us go out—we’re here for you, man.” And something happened. I think Stephen finally realized that me and David really care about him and love him. And he’s come to this tour with a vengeance. He’s really committed to making the best music that he can.
Fish: Let’s talk for a minute about the process of making art and how the act of creating it can be a radical act of dissent. Most art is conceived and created within a private space, away from the straight society and away from all the preconceived notions about what is politically correct and what should and shouldn’t be censored. When an artist makes a piece of art, he or she is not interested in serving social mores or some corporate or religious or political ideal that is externally imposed. More often than not, he or she is making art for the purpose of cutting through all that external bullshit in search of a deeper truth about the human experience. In that way, art is a radical act of dissent because it deliberately ignores convention and favors an alternative point of view.
GN: You got that right.
Fish: An artist cannot bullshit his art because the honesty demanded by the creative process won’t let him.
GN: And you can’t bullshit the HD camera that’s in your face, either. That’s why I’m so pleased with the new DVD, because it shows that there’s no doubt that we like each other and that we want to be there. It’s important for our audience to know that we’re not just going through the motions.
Fish: Which speaks to the artistry of performing too—the fact that while there is artistry in the initial creation of a piece of art, there can also be true artistry in the re-creation of the piece in a public performance. That’s why your live shows [never] come off as mere nostalgia trips.
GN: Right, although nostalgia is a part of the shows too. These songs mean a lot to people. I mean, it doesn’t mean anything for me to do “Our House” again, but it means a great deal to the audience. So, yeah, maybe I’m tired of the song. It was written 40 years ago—who gives a shit? I understand our responsibility to give them what they came for. There’s that, but I also realize that our audience loves us enough to be there for a song we might’ve written this morning.
Fish: Which, again, really speaks to that commitment you seem to have to the role of the artist in society—the role of existing in the moment and responding to life directly, not as a historian or a soothsayer, but as an active participant, as it happens.
GN: The moment we’re in is all we got, kiddo.
Fish: Right, and the fact that you have written a song about Bradley Manning [“Almost Gone”] and that you’re performing it in front of massive audiences who, I would guess, either don’t know who he is or, if they do, consider him a traitor and a dangerous criminal, speaks volumes about your credibility as an artist and social commentator. What you’re doing is, really, a terribly significant and important political act. Again, when it comes to modern-day folk heroes like Manning, it is going to take a troubadour to carry [Manning’s] story from hamlet to hamlet, city to city, to deliver the news that the dominant culture is either blind or indifferent to.
GN: We’re just a link in a long, long chain that stretches all the way back to a guy or a woman sitting in a cave and beating the fuck out of a log, all the way through to Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary—we’re all part of this big chain and [CSN] recognize[s] that.
Fish: You recognize that, but are there any members of the current roster of contemporary singer-songwriters who also recognize that? Is that chain in danger of being broken? After all, all traditions eventually die. Is the protest singer tradition dying?
Fish: So where are they then? Where are the songwriters who try to remind us that human beings are precious and fragile and deserving of a world that is environmentally sound, just as an example? Where are the poets to make beautiful the notion that we should not be victimized by the shitty foreign and domestic policies of our governments? Such subject matter seems much less apparent in contemporary popular music.
GN: It’s less apparent because it’s not being shown. It’s less apparent because the people who own the world’s media you can count on one hand. It’s less apparent because [corporations] don’t want protest songs on their radios and their TVs and in their movies. They don’t want to stir up the sheep. They want you to fucking lie there and buy another pair of sneakers and another Coca-Cola, shut the fuck up while we rob you blind. That’s what’s going on—“Bread and circuses, Part II.”
Fish: Which, I guess, brings us to the significance of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
GN: Right, it’s important for people to realize that they’re not alone and that they’re not crazy for thinking we’re fucked. [The movement] is about recognizing the division between the haves and the have-mores—it’s not even between the haves and have-nots. It’s between the haves and have-mores. That’s what’s going on here and people recognize that and they’re getting infuriated.
Fish: And it’s so obvious, this victimization of the 99 percent, that the whole thing came about as a mass realization, like you said. It didn’t require the emergence of a leader or a prophet to arrive on the scene and convince people of something they weren’t aware of.
GN: Exactly, there is no leader, which is a good thing. What happens with movements, historically, is there is usually a face, a leader, for the movement, and an enemy, if he’s smart, will attack that leader.
Fish: Kill him and vilify his intentions.
GN: Say that he slept with little boys in 1963, right. With [Occupy] there’s no one to attack—it’s just a movement. There’s no Martin Luther King or Gandhi to assassinate. It’s like trying to defeat terrorism—what the fuck does that mean? It’s an idea and you can’t kill an idea.
Fish: You can only add positive or negative energy to it, try to determine its trajectory.
GN: This Occupy movement is not dead. It may have disappeared from the headlines, but it’s not dead.
Fish: You’re 70 now and have been doing what you do for almost 50 years. Does the longevity of your own career ever overwhelm you?
GN: Nope. I’m not interested in looking back. I’m interested in getting up, being alive and getting on with the job.
Fish: Speaking of looking back, when was the last time you watched the BBC broadcast you did in 1971?
GN: (Laughs) With me and David [Crosby]—I saw it about a year ago.
Fish: What do you think when you look at something like that?
GN: Well, first of all I think it’s an incredible piece of history, in a musical sense. Second, I loved our courage. “What do you want to do?”—we’re on fucking live television on the BBC—“What do you mean ‘what do you want to do’? What do you want to do?” We didn’t rehearse anything before we went on, but that’s who we were and who we are. [We’re about] what do you want to do right now? I have to tell you, though, we were so fucking high. We had smoked a big one and that’s hard to do at the BBC.
Fish: OK, while we’re talking about music, let’s talk about some other people from your musical generation. I’m always curious to find out what old guys like you think about your peers.
GN: (Laughing) Old guys? Fuck you.
Fish: So, are there any voices from your musical generation that you really miss?
Fish: Somebody like Joni Mitchell, for example. I really miss her poetic insights and her particular sort of honesty in popular music.
GN: I miss Joni too. I talked to her a couple months ago. She’s had a hard last four or five years with a disease [Morgellons syndrome] that she thinks she has and that many people know she has and that doctors don’t think she has. So she hasn’t put pen to paper or brush to paint in a long time, but she’s coming out of it. When I talked to her she said that she’s over [Morgellons]. She thinks it’s a negative part of her life and she wants to turn more positive. I’ve seen a couple pictures of her lately with Bonnie [Raitt] and Jane Fonda where she looked fucking stunning. I can feel her getting angry about life again and not just concentrating on this one thing that’s pissing her off about personal stuff. There’s no way that Joni Mitchell won’t write again and there’s no way in hell that when she does write again that she won’t fucking knock us on our ass. She’s a brilliant, brilliant writer.
Fish: What about Bob Dylan’s most recent work?
GN: Personally, I think Bob is our best writer and our best singer. There are people who say to me, “Are you fucking kidding me? [His voice] is worse than Neil’s!” But, no, Bob is it for me. I love what he does.
Fish: Well, speaking of Neil—what about Neil?
GN: I have a little difficulty with Neil right now and here’s why. I think we all need a balancing voice in our life. There has been no one in Neil’s life since David Briggs died and since Larry Johnson died who can tell him, “No, no, no—that’s fucked! You can do better than that.” We all need those people in our lives and Neil, to me, doesn’t have anybody in his life like that. So to have a Canadian do all these American folk songs with Crazy Horse [“Americana”], it just leaves me cold. And the movie that he made for “Americana” is not very good. It’s actually kind of boring. The best thing about it is Shepard Fairey’s art. But, still, you can’t count Neil out. He’s a tremendous musician and a fantastic writer and who knows what’s going to come out tomorrow. But I was not happy with Neil’s latest record.
Fish: Did you have much interaction with John Lennon?
GN: Sure. John was an interesting man. He always had, in my experience, this underlying anger that was only the thickness of a coat of paint away. I don’t think he took his father leaving him very well. I don’t think he took his mother dying in front of him in a car accident very well. Of course, one of the saddest things to think about is wondering what the fuck was in John’s mind when he was killed. What songs were in John Lennon’s mind that could possibly change the world for the better? It’s so, so sad to me.
Fish: David Crosby said this in 1970: “On one side you got a set of values that’s doom, death, degradation and despair being dealt out like cards off the bottom of the deck by a gray-faced man who hates you. And on the other side you got a girl running through a field of flowers, half-naked and high and laughing in the sunshine. And you offer those two [alternatives] to a child—a child is too smart to make [a] mistake. [A child] is not going to go for that gray-faced dude with the cards.”
GN: That’s right.
Fish: Now, what strikes me about that quote is how logical it is and how it presents pacifism and humanitarianism as the obvious choice in an equation that asks us how we want to live as a species.
GN: And it’s even true today.
Fish: Especially today—and even though it is an equation that makes incontrovertible sense, the gray-faced men are still everywhere and they’re even allowed to marry our high and half-naked and laughing daughters. How is that possible?
GN: Well, you know the Frog Theory.
Fish: What’s the Frog Theory?
GN: You put a frog in a pan of boiling water he’ll immediately jump out. You put a frog in a pan of cold water and slowly turn up the heat the frog will stay in the pan and let himself be boiled to death. You get used to it and the gray-faced dudes are so brilliantly cognizant of how to manipulate people with media and how to spend millions of dollars to, you know, make Scott Walker seem like a great guy. I mean, Citizens United? It’s fucking insane.
Fish: And Bradley Manning is the bad guy.
GN: Because [the facts] are kept out of the press.
Fish: And the only comment that [President] Obama has on the subject is that Bradley deserves to be imprisoned and tortured because “he broke the law.” Obama’s cowardice on the issue is beyond heartbreaking.
GN: Of course, no military judge is going to go against his commander in chief. Manning doesn’t stand a chance because WikiLeaks and Julian Assange cannot be allowed to win. That’s why you’ll hear very little about this trial. Nobody will report on how [the Obama administration] is railroading this guy and making sure he’s in jail for the rest of his life.
Fish: And Daniel Ellsberg is left to run around and wave the Pentagon Papers in the air, begging people to recognize the importance of whistle-blowing and nobody will pay attention.
GN: The strange thing is that the documents that Ellsberg released were really top secret. None of the documents that Manning released were top secret. Some were secret and some were “for your eyes only,” but none were top secret. But the game is different now. The new game is to kill these fucking whistle-blowers now!
Fish: So who’s to blame for the loss of our democracy? Is it the power brokers who put the whistle-blowers in jail and slander brave and truly patriotic citizens, or is it the people who are too afraid to speak in contempt of the power brokers and who willfully ignore [the propagation] of injustice? I guess what it all comes down to is learning how to develop and nurture a language of dissent. We need the language of dissent because without the language we cannot talk about a course of national action away from subjugation.
GN: And we have that language. It’s called music. Because of music, I’m allowed to talk about somebody like Bradley Manning, night after night, and how we tortured this fucker for no good reason. It’s amazing that I can get away with it.
Fish: What would you say is the percentage of people who come and see the shows who are hearing about Manning for the first time?
GN: It’s news to about 90 percent of them.
Fish: And I’m assuming that we’re talking about the true story of Bradley Manning. People probably know his name, at least.
GN: We just played a show in Wolf Trap, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C., and I said [to the audience], “I’m going to do a song about Bradley Manning,” and we got booed. I said, “Wait a second, you fuckers. How can you boo a song you haven’t even heard?” It was shocking to me that there are people who are so close-minded that they won’t even allow themselves to think there’s another way to look at something. Same thing happened during our 2006 tour. [Our audience] would sit through almost three hours of CSNY music and the minute we started to sing “Let’s impeach the president” they booed and walked out. I mean, what about the rest of the shit we just played and all the political stuff we just talked about and you’re pissed about just this one thing? I’d love to be able to get ahold of every fucking one of them now and ask them, “In hindsight, what do you think of [George W.] Bush now? What do you think about what he did to this country? Are you going to boo me now?”
Fish: What a hollow victory that would be, too. [It’s] like standing in the middle of doomsday and dancing around because you predicted it and the assholes didn’t.
GN: Right, you don’t want to do that. It’s like with Fukushima—no anti-nuke wants to say, “I fucking told you so!” No, fuck that. Let’s get on with trying to figure out what happened and fix it so it doesn’t happen again. Did you see the report that came out this morning? About the irradiated ocean? In two years the entire Pacific will be radiated. Where is the outrage? This is something that’s affecting our kids, that’s affecting our future, genetically. You don’t hear about it. You want to know why? Because about 83 nuclear power plants in this country are built on the same fucking design as Fukushima. There’s a tremendous weakness in our nuclear program that we can’t talk about because of the money we’d lose shutting them down. If we could save the 11 percent through conservation that nuclear power puts into our grid, we wouldn’t need nuclear power.
Fish: Unfortunately, though, everything is based on the corporate model of deliberate shortsightedness. If you can maximize your profits day by day, minute by minute, rather than year by year or decade by decade, you win day by day and minute by minute, fuck the future.
GN: That’s right.
Fish: All right, maybe we should talk about something more positive.
GN: But it is positive because we’re trying to bring awareness about certain issues. Sure, the subject is pretty negative, but the fact that we’re trying to deal with it is not.