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Life Lessons From Graham Nash

‘I can only write songs for me. I can’t write them for you’

spinner image Musician Graham Nash poses with his guitar
Photo by: The Tyler Twins

Graham Nash, 81, is a singer, songwriter and member of Crosby, Stills & Nash, as well as a photographer. His forthcoming album is Now. Here he shares some life lessons with AARP's Rob Tannenbaum.

The best music begins with honesty

When you’re writing songs, you have to tell the truth. It’s every artist’s duty to reflect the times. Most of the choices I’ve made started with my mother and father telling me, “Follow your heart and you won’t go wrong.”

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Convenience and plenty beat inconvenience and scarcity

I came to New York City with the Hollies for the first time in 1965. It thrilled me. “Wait, I can have a cheeseburger delivered in five minutes? What a country this is!” I never wanted to go back to England, and I never did.

Make leaps of faith

spinner image Folk-rockers Crosby, Stills, and Nash sing together on stage
Crosby, Stills, and Nash singing together onstage.
Henry Diltz/Corbis via Getty Images

The first time I sang with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, there was no doubt what I had to do. I was already in a famous band, and we had been famous for seven years. People thought I was f------ crazy to leave the Hollies. “Give up all the women, the money and the fame?” They had not heard me, David and Stephen sing — but I had.

Make up as swiftly as possible

David was my best friend for over 50 years. I’ve always wondered whether I was enabling him by keeping him going, keeping him in rent — even as he said terrible things about Neil’s wife [Neil Young’s wife, actress Daryl Hannah] and others. When it’s uncomfortable to be around a friend, it’s time to move on. But his death [on January 18] was like an earthquake; you know that you’re in an earthquake, but then other smaller earthquakes happen afterwards. It was only two or three days after he passed that I realized he was actually gone. The fact is that we were getting a little closer at the end. He had just left me a voice mail saying that he wanted to talk, to apologize, and could we set up a time. And I heard from his son that he was ecstatic that we were going to reconnect. But then he was gone.

There’s no such thing as too many songs

I can only write songs for me. I can’t write them for you. In CSNY [Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young] we had what we called the reality wheel, which meant we only worked on songs all of us loved, no matter who wrote it. After we finished Déjà Vu, I had 20 songs left over — so did Crosby, so did Stephen — and we did solo albums. When you’ve got songs in your head, you’ve got to get them out into the world so there’s room for more songs.

Collab is good

I played “Teach Your Children” for Stephen when I’d just finished it. He said, “Pretty good song, Graham, but don’t ever play it like that again. You sound like Henry VIII doing ‘Greensleeves.’ This is how it should go.” And he played a beautiful guitar part that turned it into a hit.

In the long run, art is more important than quarrels

A documentary is being made on CSNY. We never thought Neil would want to be a part of it, but he did. When he was asked why, he said, “Look at how old we are. I don’t want this story to end with four old men shouting at each other.” We can really despise one another — it happened with me and Stephen — but the story is the music we made, not all this stabbing each other in the back.

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Your kids don’t always understand your choices

I was married to the mother of my children for 38 years. During the last eight years, I was not in love and neither was my wife. When I divorced her, my children thought I divorced them, too, and they won’t speak to me. It’s awful. You’re looking at the man who wrote “Teach Your Children,” and yet I didn’t do a complete job myself.

Know what you’re good at, and commit to it

I’m more prolific than ever now, because of focus. Figure out what you do best, and do it as much as you can, every day. I know what I do best: I can make people think, and I can make them shake their asses and dance. I’m pretty good at what I do.

A calm mind is within your reach

I regret that I didn’t learn how to meditate until three years ago. It calms me down and makes me self-assured. [Filmmaker] David Lynch taught me. We email each other every few weeks. He writes back immediately and always uses all caps. I don’t think he knows he’s screaming at people!

We can change the world, but not quickly

The momentum of this planet is incredibly difficult to move, but it is moving forward. It’s slower than we ever thought. In the late ’60s, we thought we could stop the Vietnam War if we riled people up with our songs. I absolutely still believe we can change the world.

In the end, we all go solo

The opening line of my new album is “I used to think that I could never love again / I used to think that I’d be all on my own.” At 80 years old, one has to think about these things. We’re all going to die alone, every single one of us, even though there may be somebody around.

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