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Mr. Fish in Conversation With Graham Nash
Posted on Apr 3, 2010
By Mr. Fish
Barack Obama, Green Day and the New Marxism: A Conversation With Graham Nash
“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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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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