Songs For Beginners
4.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Graham Nash's very public affair with folkie idol Joni Mitchell was over. He'd left the orderly, safe confines of England and the solid gold success of The Hollies to take up with renegade rockers David Crosby and Stephen Stills in America, and was enjoying the type of obscene success associated with rock royalty. Yet Nash was homesick, still pining for a love that should have been. Instead of taking to the pipe (as most of his weak-kneed contemporaries did), Nash picked up his guitar and wrote three new songs. "I Used To Be A King" and "Simple Man" were lovelorn lessons learned in hindsight that detailed his broken relationship with Mitchell. Watching his partner Stephen Stills' relationship with Judy Collins (of "Suite Judy Blue Eyes" fame) disintegrate inspired Nash to pen "Wounded Bird." The songs kept coming, and Nash, didn't intend to release a solo album, soon had one. Since it centered on his getting used to be an ex-boyfriend and an expatriate, Nash called the album, "Songs For Beginners."
Rhino Records has remixed Nash's first and best solo album, and it's indeed a new beginning for anyone who's been pampering their old CD version of the album released way back in the 80s. The bass drum thwacks with authority (the percussion and bass were muffled in the original), the other instruments are crisp, and you can actually hear Nash inhale as he prepares to sing. All that clarity takes some getting used to, but you'll love the results!
Nash learned to craft hooks and catchy melodies during his half dozen years with The Hollies, a Top 40 hit machine he founded with lead singer and childhood buddy Alan Clarke. Along with guitarist Tony Hicks, Nash and Clarke co-wrote songs that still pop up on the radio forty years later, including the banjo-draped Farsi romp "Stop! Stop! Stop!" the flirty "Bus Stop," and "King Midas In Reverse," Nash's narrative about a man so luckless, everything he touches turns to dust. Nash found himself at odds with the group in 1968 when they opted to record an album of Bob Dylan covers instead of waxing new material. The Blackpool born Brit bolted when the group refused to record his composition "Lady of the Island," which they felt was too overtly sexual for their pristine pop image. Quitting the group after an American tour, Nash found himself harmonizing in California with rock refugees Stephen Stills (fresh from the Buffalo Springfield's premature demise) and David Crosby (tossed from The Byrds). The result was rock and roll kismet.
After Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young acrimoniously imploded in 1970 amidst ego clashes, power struggles, backstabbing and too much face time, each member released a solo album. Crosby's "If I Could Only Remember My Name" (2 out of 5 stars) was a rambling, ramshackle jam session with contributions from many members of San Francisco's rock royalty, including Greg Rolie and Michael Shrieve of Santana, the Jefferson Airplane (sans Marty Balin), the Grateful Dead (minus Bob Weir) and David Freiberg of Quicksilver Messenger Service. The relentless Stephen Stills released his eclectic first album (4 ½ out of 5 stars - see my review from August 2007) and Neil Young put out his penultimate album, "After the Goldrush" (4 out of 5 stars). Critics and fans expected Crosby, Stills and Young's albums to be chart-toppers; none of the trio were shy about their talents and their track records backed their swaggering egos. But Nash had come from The Hollies -- a pop group (albeit a very good one), and had written "Our House," "Teach Your Children," and "Marrakesh Express," for CSN, catchy tunes that were considered comparatively lightweight.
But with the release of his first solo album, "Songs For Beginners," Graham Nash shocked everyone. Nash proved himself equal to the workaholic Stills and on par with the poetic Young in his ability to create anthems for the Woodstock generation.
"Songs For Beginners" tunes are intelligent, topical (what's more ever-present than love and war?) and revealing. These are songs from the heart. True, Nash drew heavily from his Hollies background to create taunt tunes that emphasized melody, vocals and restrained instrumentation, but his battle plan was a strength, not a drawback. And despite "Songs For Beginners" being a solo album, Nash made his songs sound like everyone who played or sang a note had a hand in shaping the album's direction. Nash also wisely employed many of the same musicians Stills had gathered for his album: current CSNY drummer Johnny Barbata and past percussionist Dallas Taylor, bassists Chris Ethridge (Flying Burrito Brothers) and Calvin Samuels (CSNY, Manassas), Rolling Stones' sax player Bobby Keys, and pianist Joe Yankee (Neil Young, using an alias to avoid being sued by his record company). He also sprinkled in notable contributions from rock luminaries Jerry Garcia, Dave Mason, Phil Lesh and David Crosby and assembled a primo back up choir comprised of Rita Coolidge, Clydie King, Shirley Matthews, Pat Arnold and Vanetta Fields.
Nash had become embroiled in American politics through his association with David Crosby, who was anything but shy and retiring about his views on government and his desire to see the hippie generation make a difference. After learning of the judicial railroading of the Chicago 7, (who were on trial for conspiracy and inciting a riot during the 1968 Democratic Convention), Nash penned "Chicago," a protest song first heard on CSNY's live "4 Way Street" album. Banging away on the piano (and becoming so transfixed he hit a few sour notes), Nash whipped the crowd into a hand-clapping, right-on-brother frenzy. The live version was inspired, passionate, and like I said, not exactly perfect, but Nash's raw sincerity electrified the audience. Nash later revealed that part of the song's message was a plea to Stephen Stills and Neil Young to "Please come to Chicago, just to sing." Activist/clown/nut bag Wavy Gravy had asked Nash to play a gig in the windy city to help raise funds for the Chicago 7's defense fund. Crosby immediately signed up, but Stills and Young yawned at the idea, until Nash cajoled: "We can change the world, rearrange the world. It's dying - if you believe in justice, It's dying - if you believe in freedom..." The quartet played the concert.
Nash revisited "Chicago" on "Songs For Beginners." Adding a chorus of enthusiastic singers gave the new version a holy roller revival flair. Much more polished in the studio, it lost some of it's us against them impact, but the chorus' community feel and gospel sway kept hippies in the 70s believing we really could change the world. (We couldn't.)
The other politically charged song is the album's leadoff cut, "Military Madness." "Military Madness" is a biographical sketch tracing Nash's childhood in war-torn Britain and his emigration to America, where he sees the seeds of warmongering that ruined his country taking root in ours. Written during the dark days of the Vietnam War, "Military Madness" seemed out of place and old hat during the relatively peaceful me-first 80s and 90s, but thanks to George W., its meaning is fresh again: "And after the wars are over, and the body count is finally filed. I hope that The Man discovers, what's driving the people wild. Military madness is killing your country. So much sadness, between you and me."
Riding a career hot streak, guitarist Dave Mason (exiled from Traffic for a third time), pulls out one of his all-time great solos, wah-wahing his way through the coda as the chorus girls chime "War! War! War!" Mason sounds like he's using a greased whip instead of his hands to beat the strings. If he'd been this inspired in Traffic, maybe he and Steve Winwood would have gotten along better.
The two protest tunes are balanced out by a pair of tender ballads. "Sleep Song," a tribute to Nash's first wife, Rose, features Nash on acoustic with Dorian Rudnytsky's tear-jerking cello. Nash wrote "Simple Man" for Mitchell and first performed it while she was sitting in the audience during a CSNY performance at the Fillmore East.
The ballad "Better Days" combines Nash's post-Mitchell heartache with his fish out of water adjustment to life in the U.S.: "You went to a strange land searching, for a truth you felt was wrong. That's when the heartaches started, though you're where you want to be, you're not where you belong." Accentuated by plunking piano executed by Young that echoes like a woebegone distress signal, and despondent wailing by Keys, Nash wants to believe in the healing power of love, and tells us to stay positive, but the hurt in his voice says he's not convinced: "When your love has moved away, you must face yourself and you must say, I remember better days. Don't you cry 'cause she is gone, she is only moving on. Chasing mirrors through a haze."
"Wounded Bird" is a solo performance with Nash on acoustic waxing sadly for Stills and Collins. Nash's lyrics and delivery are Dylanesque (except he can sing): "I've watched you go through changes, that no man should face alone. Take to heel or tame the horse, the choice is still your own."
The album's centerpiece and highlight is "I Used To Be A King," Nash's honest assessment of his blown up social life. Lyrically, it reads like "King Midas In Reverse" part two. With a whispering touch of pedal steel from Jerry Garcia (who could occasionally play the godforsaken thing), bone-thug bass by Phil Lesh, a narrative that goes from suicidal to hopeful, and an upbeat time change pushed by drummer Johnny Barbata, "I Used To Be A King" is a roadmap for everyone who's ever had their hearts crushed: "I used to be a king, and everything around me turned to gold. I thought I had everything, now I'm left without a hand to hold."
I suffered the biggest romantic beat down of my life prior to hearing "Songs For Beginners." "I Used To Be A King" spoke to me as if I'd written it myself, and there was one particular couplet I adopted that has served as my mantra all these years: "Someone is gonna take my heart, but no one's gonna break my heart again."
Nash wrote the uplifting sing-a-along "Be Yourself" with fellow Brit Terry Reid. Reid is best remembered today as the singer who turned down Jimmy Page's invitation to be Led Zeppelin's lead singer, but in the 70s, the leather-lunged Brit was an underground icon. CSNY had recorded Reid's "Horses Through A Rainstorm," for the "Déjà Vu" album, but it didn't make the final cut. (The song can be found on the CSNY boxed set released in 1991.) Reid suffered from a bad case of Steve Winwood-itis - he had a soulful, powerful voice with incredible range, but occasionally muddied up the lyrics, wailing as if he was trying to contact a lost loved one at a séance. Nash repaid Reid's contribution to "Songs For Beginners" by producing one of Reid's best albums, 1976's "Seed of Memory."
There's only one questionable cut on the album, the ironically titled "There's Only One." Preachy, it's made more so by the hallowed choir humming along as if they're providing pious affirmation for a speech by Billy Graham instead of backing up a song by Graham Nash. "There's Only One" plods like a Catholic Mass parlayed by a stuttering priest, with much finger-pointing by Nash. It's made palatable by Keys' reedy bursts on sax.
The country waltz "Man In The Mirror" (far superior to Michael Jackson's song of the same name, thank you), once again features head Deadhead Garcia on steel guitar. This time Jerry's a bit more intrusive, but Nash's self-effacing narrative shows that despite attaining mega-stardom and losing Mitchell, (and, to a degree, Stills), Nash wasn't about to give into rock and roll excess.
The unexpected success of the album and ongoing rifts between Crosby and Stills, and Nash and Stills - and Stills and Young, kept America's super group in stasis. Stills and Young had a competitive sibling rivalry dating back to their days in the Buffalo Springfield, when Stills wrestled control of group away from his Canadian cohort. Stills and Crosby were hard-headed and passionate about just about everything, making them natural and frequent combatants. Stills' beef with Nash centered around Joe Cocker's backup singer, Rita Coolidge. (Coolidge appeared on Stills' 1970 self-titled solo album, then was employed by Nash for "Songs For A Beginners" a year later.) After ending his heart-wrenching romance with Judy Collins, Stills pursued Coolidge. Ending his idyllic relationship with Joni Mitchell, (which was documented in CSNY's "Our House"), Nash also cast his eye on Coolidge. Coolidge already had one public and rock and roll rollercoaster love affair under her belt, having dated drummer Jim Gordon while they were touring together with Cocker, so she was wise to be gun shy. Gordon was a brilliant percussionist, but undeniably schizophrenic (which drove him to murder his mother in 1980), and his unpredictable angry outbursts and insatiable appetite for eight balls drove Coolidge away. Coolidge dumped Stills for Nash, with Stills citing Nash's backdoor romancing as a contributing factor in the first break up of CSNY. It would take nearly four years for Stills to forgive Nash, who felt he had no reason to apologize. Coolidge didn't stick with either the southern hotheaded gentleman Stills or the sophisticated horndog Nash, opting for tempestuous bad boy Kris Kristofferson. In the end, everyone lost. Coolidge's marriage to Kristofferson survived only seven booze-damaged years.
Nash would continue to record solo albums, but none equaled the brilliant of "Songs For Beginners." His follow up, 1975's "Wild Tales" (3 out of 5 stars) was solid, but lacked the poignancy of "Beginners." As a result of Nash expending his best material for the first Crosby & Nash collaboration in 1972 (2 ½ out of 5 stars, thanks to Crosby's blathering), "Wild Tales" was also a short album, clocking in at about half an hour. Nash attempted to recreate the family vibe that propelled his first album, utilizing many of the same musicians, including David Lindley, Tim Drummond and Johnny Barbata, and coercing Neil Young (Joe Yankee), Joni Mitchell and Dave Mason into making cameos. But because of personal problems, (the death of a girlfriend and an aborted attempt to get CSNY back together in Hawaii for the album "Human Highway"), the songs are more despondent and pessimistic than before. You can gauge the tone of the album by glancing at the cover. A bearded Nash's looks up from a thick book of runes looking stunned and weary. But Nash still had the ability to create memorable hooks, delivering the protest songs "Grave Concern," "Oh Camil (The Winter Soldier), and "Prison Song," a song dedicated to all the innocents thrown in the jug for dealing.
Nash had proved himself as the more talented (as well as more sober and focused) member of his partnership with David Crosby on their first self-titled album. "Immigration Man," his snide poke at the customs official that stalled his entrance into the U.S., boosted the album's popularity, as did the sweeping, melancholic ballad "Girl To Be On My Mind," and Nash's foray into soft-country, "Southbound Train." Nash continued his partnership with Crosby, and the pair recorded two more exceptional albums, despite Crosby's increasingly problematic coke addiction. 1975's "Wind On the Water" (3 ½ out of 5 stars) was Crosby and Nash's critical darling, a credible, insightful blend of tight harmonies and first-rate musicianship supplied by "The Section": drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Leland Sklar, keyboardist Craig Doerge, guitarists Danny "Kootch" Kortchmar and David Lindley and charter members Tim Drummond, Levon Helm and Carole King. Part of the album's strength lay in Crosby steering clear of his stream of unconsciousness form of writing, opting for actual songs. "Carry Me," the teary-eyed tale of Crosby's mother's passing set the bar high, but Cos was able to use his downward spiraling life for fodder, penning two of the album's best cuts, the harmonically stunning "Bittersweet," and the prophetic "Homeward Through the Haze." Nash had his rockin' shoes on, castigating fat cats (and former bandmates) with "Take The Money And Run," and taking a jaundiced look at relationships with "Love Work Out," which featured Kootch and Crosby on "warpath guitars" and the normally sedate Jackson Browne shouting out in the background.
The duo's third effort, 1976's "Whistling Down The Wire" (3 ½ out of 5 stars) capped their short but successful run divorced from Stills and Young. As the photo on the back cover of a rock-solid Nash and a cowering Crosby shows, David was shoving most of his creativity up his proboscis. (Nash recalled an incident during the recording of the album when Crosby stopped a jam because his crack pipe fell off the piano. That was when he realized Crosby's priorities had gone up in smoke.) Crosby still had enough in the tank to admonish his escalating bad habits in "Foolish Man," and to create "Dancer," a delicate instrumental - but the fact he hums his way through it and couldn't come up with any lyrics speaks volumes. The duo facetiously renamed The Section "The Mighty Jitters," a honking hint that the band's rampant use of anything mind-altering was becoming a vocation instead of a hobby.
Much of "Whistling Down The Wire" was recorded during the marathon sessions for "Wind On The Water," but the album's shining moments were inspired by Nash. His wife-to-be, Susan, was sculpting a statue of a bird when Nash snuck up behind, put his hand on her shoulder and whispered "I love you." The bird's head promptly fell off as if on cue. Thirty plus years later they're still married, but that unnerving moment pushed Nash to create the fragile "Broken Bird" (which he completed with Crosby). Nash resurrected "Taken At All" from the wreckage of the aborted CSNY "Human Highway" album and it remains the duo's most sincere, touching, and richly harmonic moment: "Were you looking for signs along the way? Can you see by your lonely light of day? Is this road really the only way? Can this road be taken, taken at all. We lost it on the highway, things were out of sight. You were going your way, trying to make a light...along the way."
With Stills nursing his own addictions and turning into a serial spouse, it was Nash who took over the reigns of head ego and wagon master for CSN, organizing and guiding the group through their top ten comeback albums, 1977's "Crosby, Stills and Nash" and 1982's "Daylight Again" (in which Crosby was so addled and absent, Stills and Nash originally sought to release it under their names). Nash remained the group's good will ambassador and producer into the 90s, when age and sobriety finally allowed the trio to work together without a referee. He released two more solo albums -- the crunchy granola, save the trees "Earth and Sky" in 1980 and the obsolete techno rocker "Innocent Eyes" in 1986. "Innocent Eyes" is apparently so weak that it was only recently released on CD domestically. I owned a copy of the LP when it came out and recall it was very grating save for "Chippin' Away," a song about bringing down the Berlin Wall. Nash's most recent solo work, 2002's "Songs For Survivors" (4 out of 5 stars) is his other must own album - a companion piece to "Songs For Beginners." With the wisdom that comes with age, Nash fashioned some strong lyrical content, including "Lost Another One," his tribute to his deceased rock and roll comrades, "Nothing In The World," a song of dedication and love written for his family, and "Dirty Little Secret," about a seldom reported race war in Oklahoma in 1921.
More Nash Nodules... The Extras
It should be enough for Nash followers that his landmark album is being reissued in a CD/DVD format with high resolution 5.1 digital surround sound. But "Songs For Beginners" now contains a variety of special features, including a 2008 interview with Nash, photos and song lyrics.
Nash's interview focuses on his interest in photography. Nash has been an amateur photographer as long as he's been a musician, and collected his favorite images in his book "Eye To Eye." His first shot was a photo of his mother taken in 1953: "It captured a side of my mother I hadn't seen." He credits Joni Mitchell with getting him to share his photos. Mitchell had a show of her paintings in Japan in the early 70s and encouraged Nash to display his photos, among them are striking photos of David Crosby (of course), a shot of a young girl sitting on a counter next to a machine gun, and a wet paper towel on a floor that Nash views as a Madonna in white: "I love to see angels in garbage," he says. "They live there quite a lot." The interview tells us a lot about Nash's positive attitude toward life: "My parents said, go out into the world, trust what's in your heart and have the best time you can."
If "there's only one" Graham Nash album in your collection, you'll have plenty of "better days" if you pick up the remastered version of "Songs For Beginners."