IT WAS ANOTHER rainy January day in LA, with a drenching downpour that kept people from leaving their homes. But even flooded roadways didn’t keep Graham Nash inside. Nothing could. The 68-year-old was on his way to his buddy Stephen Stills’s place, where they were set to rehearse “Midnight Rider” before recording the song for their new album. David Crosby would be there; Neil Young, content with his solo career, would not.
For the first time in 10 years—and 41 years since the super-group of singer-songwriters broke out at Woodstock—Crosby, Stills and Nash are making new music together, lending their iconic three-part harmonies to a disc of covers. “When Columbia Records first came to us, it was a little shocking,” Nash said over the phone. “They did not want any CSN songs. They said: We want that vocal sound on songs you wish you’d written.”
That list includes James Taylor’s lilting ballad “You Can Close Your Eyes” and the classic sitar track “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” from the Beatles’ 1965 album Rubber Soul. Possibly some Bob Dylan and Allman Brothers, too. The album isn’t slated to drop until 2011, but CSN plans to tour Europe and the U.S. this year, with a stopover in Seattle—the second for Nash, who already visited in February to showcase his other talents: photography and digital printing.
“I’ve been making images longer than I’ve been making music,” Nash said. He was the natural choice to curate the EMP’s latest exhibit, Taking Aim: Unforgettable Rock ’n’ Roll Photographs. The collection of nearly 100 pictures spans 50 years of rock, with images by high-profile photographers such as Annie Leibovitz, Neal Preston, Jim Marshall, and Nash’s longtime friend Joel Bernstein. Some are iconic: Leibovitz’s portrait of a naked John Lennon entwined with Yoko Ono, or Charles Peterson’s shot of Kurt Cobain crashing into a drum kit. Others are lesser known, but no less intimate: Debbie Harry warming up in her underwear, Janis Joplin cradling a bottle of Southern Comfort. Nash chose a 1968 close-up of Aretha Franklin, eyes closed, belting a song, because “you can’t have a show on the history of rock and roll and not have a picture of Aretha!” He even included a few pictures of his own, moments captured backstage as CSN toured in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
How does it feel to be—touring, recording, curating, I was about to ask when he cut me off.
“Appreciated?” Nash finished. “It’s good.… There’s no reason to quit now. The truth is, CSN never stopped. The only time we didn’t tour was when Crosby was in jail.”
Read Laura Dannen’s extended interview with Nash on Page 2.
Is there one photo in this exhibit that tells a really interesting story?
Off the top of my head, I like the Joel Bernstein shot of Neil Young that was used as the After the Gold Rush cover. Because if you look at the full frame, I’m there. I was walking in Greenwich Village with Neil and Joel, looking for breakfast, and we both saw this old woman coming toward us. Joel took the picture and Neil used it—him and the old woman—for his cover. But the full frame shows me in there, and that’s kind of interesting. I have a toothbrush in my pocket. So weird.
Um, why did you carry a toothbrush in your pocket?
I knew you were going to ask that! And I knew I didn’t have an answer. [Laughs.]
There’s such a range of artists in this exhibit. How did you decide to add Aretha Franklin?
I was trying to pay a little respect to the history of rock and roll. And my goodness, you can’t have a show on the history of rock and roll and not have a picture of Aretha! She’s one of the best. She’s one of my favorite musical moments in my life—it was me and Crosby during the Grammys in the ’80s standing right next to Aretha as she’s playing the electric piano. She’s playing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” solo. I mean, wow.
You also have long-term relationships with most of the musicians photographed, and the photographers.
Yeah, I do…. I mean, people trust me. I don’t fuck around. I’m not interested in wasting people’s times. I only want the best out of every situation. My partners and my audience know that about me. I wouldn’t have to call Willie Nelson and ask if I can use this big, beautiful portrait that Annie Leibovitz took of him. He’d be proud to be in this book.
Are you still taking a lot of photos?
I am indeed.
If you could follow any band right now and shoot them, who would you follow?
Wow, that’s a really interesting question. I’d be very interested to see what Peter Gabriel is doing now. He’s always a little weird. He’s always a little strange, a little left. And I like that.
What do you like most about photography as an art form?
The unexpectedness of it. And the fact that, you know, beautiful images exist all around you. You just have to see. You just have to look. And that’s what I do. I don’t take pictures to match my sofa; I take pictures that will startle you or shock you into some kind of other realism.
What picture in the exhibit do you think is the most shocking?
Let me see, probably the one of Debbie Harry in the hotel room [tuning her guitar in her underwear]. I mean, wow, what a moment.
It’s a very intimate moment.
It is—I chose that because of the intimacy. You know, we have to get ready for a show. You’re not just stars up there. You have to warm up. You have to prepare. You don’t just walk out there and rock.
There’s an exhibit coming up at the Seattle Art Museum with mixed-media depictions of Kurt Cobain—paintings, sculptures, photographs. Make an argument for why photography is the chosen medium for covering rock and roll.
I think it’s the immediacy of it all. That shot of Hendrix—it’s not in the book, but the famous one of him burning his guitar? That’s historic stuff. That’s rock and roll.