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Mr. Fish in Conversation With Graham Nash

Posted on Apr 3, 2010
Graham Nash

Barack Obama, Green Day and the New Marxism: A Conversation With Graham Nash

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“They got guns, we got guns, all God’s chillun got guns!” So sang the Marx Brothers during the frenzied buildup to the ridiculous war that finally erupted at the end of the 1933 anarchic comedy, “Duck Soup.” What has always struck me about that film, beyond its satirical strengths and punchy one-liners, was the fact that it was released during the worst year of the Great Depression, after the GNP had fallen a record 13.4 percent and unemployment had risen to 23.6 percent. It was as if Hollywood were attempting to provide the public with a much needed escape from the agony of the massive financial crisis by allowing them the chance to remember, with some fondness, how preferable war, even a farcical one, was to staring the economic calamity clear in the face. If only a plunging dollar could be bayoneted and ballooning interest rates could be strafed out of existence; to have a mortal enemy to kill is always preferable to having a wound, stabbed into the back and out of reach, that bleeds the strength out of one’s optimism.

I’d gone to Atlantic City in August of 2009 to see Crosby, Stills and Nash to be reminded of the exquisite outrage that they, along with Neil Young, had so famously hurled into the hellish maelstrom that was the Vietnam War and to reapply its relevance to my own opposition to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, desperate to forget how poor I was becoming, how many bills I’d be unable to pay at the end of the month and how the current financial crisis, like the one almost 80 years earlier, was slowly dimming the lights on every other calamity in the world and making American self-pity the only agony worth woeing over.

Atlantic City in August, while indeed funky—and no stranger to brown acid or vast amounts of illicit sex between strangers—is no Yasgur’s Farm. Sure it is thrilling to approach by air-conditioned car, this metropolis of magnificent lights, skyscraper hotels, insomnia made jubilant by a gazillion flashing light bulbs, all of it pressed right up against the black ocean, but outside of the car it is abscessed New Jersey, the air damp and over-inhaled and brackish, smelling like a drunk octopus riding a horse through stale popcorn. And then you enter any one of the casinos and immediately find yourself surrounded by the repulsive yin to the outside yang. Thusly, walking into the Borgata Hotel Casino for the CSN show, I found the air to be overly polite, like it had been blown through an Easter basket. And then there was the geometrically cacophonous carpeting as convincing of elegance and luxury as a 300,000-square-foot toupee; Tourette’s woven into a nauseating aesthetic. And then there were the cheap sonsabitches walking around in loud shirts and crisp white sneakers trying to buy a million dollars with pocket change, their telepathy horse-trading so hard with Jesus Christ that their lips were moving.

With incontinent classical muzak dribbled through the PA system and making me feel more like I was waiting for a teeth cleaning than a mind blowing, I sat down in my assigned seat and, looking at the empty stage before me and the great hive of drums hanging amid a ridiculous contraption of chrome scaffolding and the fake candles wicked with four-volt bulbs placed here and there and the Flying V resting on a guitar stand, I began to worry that the men who I’d come to see might no longer exist; at best, like the candles, they might be poor parodies of themselves, having become so waterlogged by their own celebrity over time that the only thing left linking them to the glory of their past was the names on their drivers licenses. I had to wonder if I’d made a huge mistake believing that, given the adoration of enough fans, an alligator bag might learn how to swim gracefully again; or that Muhammad Ali might be able to stop shaking just long enough to snatch a fly out of the air and be beautiful again; or that it could be 1969 again. Then the lights went down. Then the trio of legendary sexagenarians took the stage, Stills in pleated black dress pants, Nash in bare feet and Crosby in an outfit one might throw on to clean out the garage. (Uh-oh.) Then the familiar harmonies were blended. Then, almost immediately, a mood as perfect as a pearl was fashioned right in the middle of all that superfluous and muculent funk surrounding us all.


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It was breathtaking.

Five months later I found myself sitting down with Graham Nash at the Waldorf Astoria in New York to talk about both his recent induction, as a Hollie, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the publication of his new book of photography, Taking Aim, a collection of candid photographs of musicians, past and present, some taken by Nash himself, all of them chosen by him, his commentary captioned on nearly every page. Predictably, when you have a conversation with somebody as dynamic as Nash it’s easy to ping-pong wildly off topic, which we did. Despite being almost 70, up close his eyes appeared to be brand new and curious about everything. Typically closed when he sings, and he’s been singing for a long time, it made sense to assume that his eyes have probably seen less, though contemplated more, than the average person and, like coins with limited exposure to the outside elements, are now bright and shiny enough to practically emanate their own light.

Mr. Fish: Let me start things off with a quote by photographer Robert Frank: “When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of poetry twice.” I mention that quote because I think it expresses what is uniquely special about how you seem to approach both your photography and your music, which is with a great respect for the vulnerability of a particular moment.

Graham Nash: It’s all about communication. It has to communicate—that’s all I want to do. I don’t want everybody to agree with me—if they don’t agree with me, that’s fine. I’m just trying to communicate, it’s that simple. And I don’t want to waste your time, because that’s all we’ve got. When you boil it all fucking down, it’s your family and time, that’s what you have and you deal with it however you want. If I’m fine and my wife is fine and my kids are fine, the rest is a fucking joke. And I can play this game—life—I know how to do it. I’m old. I’m 68 years old, right, and I know how to do this and I don’t want to waste your time. Same thing happens with a song—I do not want to waste your time with a song. Why waste three minutes of a person’s life that they can’t get back by singing them a song that sucks and doesn’t say anything? Why show somebody a photograph that’s a picture of nothing?

M.F.: Right, and that’s precisely what I mean about your focus and the moments you capture—you do have this reverence for time as an incremental measure of a meaningful life. Your best work, like “Our House” and “Simple Man,” “Lady of the Island” and others, reminds us how precious, how sacred, simple experiences can be when they’re unguarded and stripped of pretense.

G.N.: Yes—that is what I try to do, and I can only try.

M.F.: And your photography reflects the same reverence.

G.N.: I think a still photograph has an amazing ability to move. Of course it doesn’t physically move, but it moves you. If I put an image in front of you I want you to be thinking, I want you to be getting angry, I want you to be getting sad, I want you to fucking react—I want you to wake up! And if I’m writing a song like “Chicago,” I want you to be angry because when you bound and chain and fucking gag a man and call it a fair trial you’re fucked! This is America, for God’s sake. We have a Constitution. We have respect for humanity. I don’t give a shit what Bobby Seale was doing in that courtroom—you cannot bound him and chain him and gag him and call it a fair trial. And when those kids got killed at Kent State, fucking Neil was furious and the way he dealt with his anger—same as you deal with your cartoons, you fucking pour it onto the page—we pour it onto the page of tape. And, again, we don’t want to waste your time.

M.F.: Which I think is what differentiates an artist from, say, a mainstream journalist or an anchor on the 7 o’clock news [who] want to waste our time and to pacify our anger and to keep us from dissenting against power. An artist’s main responsibility is to be honest and to not bullshit, which is contrary to the job of a politician or somebody whose objective is to preserve the status quo.

G.N.: Absolutely true.

M.F.: Now, just to illustrate what you said about the power of a good photograph, I read somewhere that your song, “Teach Your Children,” was inspired by your reaction to the Diane Arbus photograph, “Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park.”

G.N.: I’d actually written the song right before seeing the Diane Arbus, but when I saw that image…what had happened was I’d been collecting photography from 1969 onwards and in a particular show at the de Saisset Gallery in Santa Clara, which was the first show of images I’d collected, I put the “Hand Grenade” photograph next to a picture [by Arnold Newman] of [Arnold] Krupp, who was the German arms magnet whose company was probably responsible for millions of deaths. It was an eerie photograph, a portrait, and the lighting is weird and his eyes are dark—a great image. And looking at them together I began to realize that what I’d just written [Teach Your Children] was actually true, that if we don’t start teaching our children a better way of dealing with each other we’re fucked and humanity itself is in great danger. I mean, look at what’s going on in the world today—look at the Obama administration. What a pile of shit we gave him to deal with, now he’s trying to deal with it all on many fronts and he’s getting shit for not concentrating on one thing.

M.F.: Well, frankly, I don’t think it’s the job of the -resident to solve many of the problems most threatening to us. I think it’s a mistake to think that the Office of the Presidency of the United States is a humanitarian position. Rather, [the presidency] is a job for somebody with a business mind—somebody who honors the traditional power structures and upholds the absolute authority of multinational corporations and who can manipulate information in such a way as to prevent regular people from noticing how little control they really have.

G.N.: And the dance between them all is insane.

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By T. A. Madison, April 7, 2010 at 11:05 am Link to this comment

Few people in the music business addressed the horrors of our times more effectively than Graham Nash and CSN &Y. Their songs are classics, even now, because they are resources not just entertainments. One major context that is different than it was in the 60’s and 70’s is that now only 5% of the population possesses the equivalent of the other 95% of the national wealth (according to Michael Moore).  While there is so much to grouse about people should keep in mind the need to build alliances to cultivate creative alternatives to the tide of corporate greed and violence. Nash is living proof that when we keep our outlook and works true and beautiful the result is effective and lasting.

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By camnai, April 7, 2010 at 5:30 am Link to this comment

I wasn’t really expecting great insight from Graham Nash, who is famous because
he was born with a great tenor voice and a talent for schmoozing, and he doesn’t
disappoint here. He didn’t like what was being done to the Colorado River so
he…moved to Hawaii. Boy, that’ll show ‘em. I expected more from Mr Fish, though,
than a conversation of two choir members preaching to each other, without a
single idea that isn’t utopian, ancient, vapid, or all three. Eisenhower warned
about the military-industrial complex in 1959. Adding ‘commercial’ is redundant.
Obama is working within a political system, and he couldn’t just decree that the
national language will be Swedish, even if he wanted to.  If we don’t use nuclear
energy, what suggestions do they have for cutting down on carbon emissions? Is
Mr Nash going to canoe over from Hawaii the next time he needs to accept an
award? If this is the best the hippies (and I consider myself one) can do, no
wonder that we never accomplished anything.

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By LostHills, April 4, 2010 at 7:21 pm Link to this comment

Great conversation. I’ve seen CSN 4 times over the long course of years and it was
always special and always like an earth day fair. Saw csn&y in the temple of
materialism right after 9/11 when everyone was still driving around with american
flags on their cars and the first song Nash did was Military Madness. He’s more
cheritable to our new president than I am, but he knows where he stands and he
knows that compromise is for fools. No Nukes, Brother! And I hope to see you live

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By Jon, April 4, 2010 at 1:58 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr. Fish, allow me to get in on this quasi circle-jerk: not only are you a great cartoonist, but you’re a hell of a writer. I loved the intro. Did I correctly sense some Hunter S. Thompson in there?

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By Bronwen Rowlands, April 4, 2010 at 7:38 am Link to this comment
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“Muculent funk.”  Love it.  More of Mr. Fish’s writing, please.

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By ofersince72, April 3, 2010 at 10:48 pm Link to this comment

Hey, Russian Paul

all one needed to note was…

Alantic City, Borgata Hotel Casino…

screw Graham Nash.!!!!!!!

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By Anarcissie, April 3, 2010 at 5:54 pm Link to this comment

Aw, gee, Russian Paul, people need their illusions, sinners hugging their spectres of repose if I may misquote George Meredith.  And I was greatly entertained by Mr. Fish’s writing, even if Mr. Nash was somewhat predictable.  Yes, let us just hope against hope Mr. O’s fancy footwork makes all the bad things go away, at least for the duration of the song.

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By rollzone, April 3, 2010 at 5:47 pm Link to this comment

hello. Ms. Fish, that was a beautiful article which filled my soul. as Mr. Nash so benevolently passed along, it takes courage to stand against the machine. during my lifetime as people got too powerful they were assassinated. conviction willing to challenge assassination takes courage indeed, and a great amount of motivation to risk the comforts of home. there will be a tipping point, and leaders will emerge: or it just will be unnecessary. speculation about water and other controlled crisis are just theories until they occur, and at that time the sheeple will again demonstrate to multinational corporations the power of boycott and peaceful resistance and how the customer is really in control.

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By Russian Paul, April 3, 2010 at 3:41 pm Link to this comment

What’s disturbing here is Nash’s apparent ignorance of Obama’s fluid
continuation of every single one of Bush’s policies. He thinks Obama is walking
a “brilliant line” on nuclear policy? What about offshore drilling? Watered down
health care “reform?” The fact we are waging war on 5 muslim countries
(including our operations in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen)? Support for Israel?
Support for military coup in Honduras? Continued use of spying, rendition,
torture? Sorry to go down the list, but does Nash really believe Obama is just
walking a “brilliant line” to appear as if he supports these issues? Or is Nash
completely out of touch with what’s going on the world today?

“I knew about his relationship with Exelon in Chicago and I knew he got money
from them, so I wanted to know what the hell his stance was.”

Um, he takes money from Exelon, that’s his stance! Follow the money and see
that Obama’s corporate sponsors are the same as Bush’s. Same administration,
nicer smile.

I have great respect for the movements that occurred in the 60s, but at a
certain point I feel this nostalgia turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy that we
can never regain the same momentum. That’s bullshit, things are tepid now
because Obama is a friendly, placating figure, but as the division between rich
and poor grows even greater, as these wars continue to get out of control, as
inflation rises, the anger will return.

And by the way, as a musician, it really sickens me to hear Nash’s praise for
Green Day. They are not activists, they’re a generic, corporate pop/punk band.
There are very few examples of authentic anti-imperialist bands breaking into
the mainstream nowadays. Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down,
K’Naan are a few examples - they come with their own hypocrisies/corporate
sponsorships, but I guess that’s the only way to make it mainstream. However
Green Day has no authentic voice, they are not informed on current affairs, they
are a brand, how unfortunate that a man like Nash can’t see through such a
commercial veneer. No wonder Billy Joe was surprised by Nash’s comments, he
knows his music is just pop drivel.

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By skulz fontaine, April 3, 2010 at 11:42 am Link to this comment

“...American self-pity the only agony worth woeing over.” Ah, Mr. Fish. So
eloquent and erudite and my personal hero. Seriously. Yeah, it’s a ‘man-crush’ and
I’m man enough to admit that.  You rock Mr. Fish and I’m thinking that the chance
to interview Graham Nash is an honor. I’d like to interview Lou Reed. Yeah, that’ll
happen but probably not in this life. I did get to interview Lt. Col. Karen
Kwiatkowski. Possibly not on the same level and I can admit that. Well done sir. I
mean that.

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By gerard, April 3, 2010 at 11:22 am Link to this comment

Yeah!  “It’s called old age and death ... but we want to encourage them” (the generation coming up), says Nash. 

G.N.: Another important lesson that came from the 1960s was the fact that it isn’t necessary to go to every march and to every demonstration and every sit-in and to be an expert on every bit of legislation that might be moving through Congress to be political. I think the notion that you require a vast understanding of every issue in public circulation can become a deterrent to people getting involved in dissent, like they’re not smart enough.

But—there’s 50 years of insidious commercial brain-washing between Nash and Now, based largely on “getting what you want out of life,” and it’s had an effect.  How to counteract it is a big part of our problem.  Yes?  No?

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