May 20, 2024, 06:29AM

The Overrated Soft-Rock Pop Star

Graham Nash was always a lightweight, who never wrote a half-way decent song.

R 733075 1485768637 8561.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

I was re-watching an old episode of the James Spader vehicle The Blacklist last week, a 10-season series that’s one of my favorites, even if it’s entirely implausible and the key question isn’t resolved by the finale. That hardly matters, for Raymond Reddington’s soliloquies—before shooting an enemy between the eyes—as the “concierge of crime,” are delightful even on a fourth viewing. There are drawbacks, like the mediocre acting by half the cast, but what rankles me most is the abominable soundtrack. I guess music isn’t one of The Blacklist’s creator Jon Bokenkamp’s main interests.

One of the songs I heard was Graham Nash’s putrid “Our House,” from the 1970 record Déjà Vu by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, an LP I eagerly bought in Manhattan one weekday while my ninth-grade journalism class was receiving an award at Columbia University. (The commendation was, looking back, a precursor to the “participation trophies” that my sons received for Little League in the late-1990s and promptly chucked in a closet.) Like any fan of Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds and Hollies, I was captivated in the summer of ’69 with the band’s initial release, and was only slightly disappointed by Déjà Vu. No excuses: although I’ll never play those two records again—with the exception of “Wooden Ships” (the Airplane’s version was better), the collection of songs are slight and “hippy-dippy” to the core—I was a teenager and they fit in with my fervor for “country-rock,” even if Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo and the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Gilded Palace of Sin are the templates for a genre that turned sour in the early-1970s.

Anyway, I’d forgotten how overrated Graham Nash still is today. Maybe because of the feuding members (only Neil Young forged a brilliant career, and not with CSN&Y) Nash appeared to be the nicest guy. I’ve no idea, or interest in whether that’s true, but you’d have to be a real shit to rival David Crosby. When the Hollies, the band Nash co-founded, sort of exploded in the mid-1960s, I’d assumed that it was Nash who was the lead vocalist on two almost perfect singles, “Bus Stop” and “Look Through Any Window.” Not so, as I’ve learned from YouTube videos. “Our House,” and the equally treacly “Teach Your Children,” were staples of “classic rock” FM stations when people listened to the radio, and are featured in scores of movies and TV shows. Talk about “soft-rock”! The chorus is laughable: “Our house is a very, very, very fine house with two cats in the yard/Life used to be so hard/Now everything is easy ‘cause of you.” And then 30 seconds of sickly-sweet “la, la, la, la, la” that makes 1969’s “Hey Jude,” with its never-ending “la la” refrain, which marred a very decent late-Beatles tune, sound like Paul McCartney’s “For No One” or John Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping” in comparison.

Coincidentally, I read a long (by today’s standards) story by Lindsay Zoladz in The New York Times about Cass Elliot—her daughter, Owen Elliot-Kugell has a new memoir out now, My Mama, Cass—the funny and flamboyant singer in the Mamas & the Papas, who died 50 years ago. The group didn’t last long, but three songs—“California Dreamin’, “I Saw Her Again,” “Creeque Alley” and especially “Twelve Thirty” outpace any of the CSN(Y) songs. As Zoladz recounts, when Mama Cass died in London in 1974, the immediate word was that the large woman choked on a ham sandwich. I believed the story, which was concocted to mask her drug dependency, and didn’t give it much thought, since I disliked her solo songs, like the hit “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” and next to the premature deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman and Gram Parsons, which were shocking—Hendrix and Parsons overdosed, and Allman, killed in a motorcycle crash, was also on the spike—and though I wasn’t cavalier (as I recall!) about Cass slipping into eternity, it was a “one-day story” for me.

She’s a key figure in the movie and CD recording of 1967’s Monterrey Pop Festival, and listening to her “flowers-in-your-hair” enthusiastic patter, which is funny and historical, it’s my guess that had she lived, Cass would’ve gone in and out of fashion, but probably making appearances on TV, a pop music ambassador at awards shows, and maybe a celebrity spokeswoman as well. And likely a lot funnier than scolds like “progressive” Barbra Streisand and Rob Reiner. (I give the marvelous actress Susan Sarandon a pass, not only because I love her movies, but she’s at every fucking “fuck the United States” rally, and even if I find her views batty, she appears a lot more sincere than her contemporaries who’ve threatened to leave the United States since Ronald Reagan was first elected in 1980.)

“California Dreamin’” and “12:30” captured a brief era—when “the Golden State” was still expanding in population, and overtaking New York as the country’s entertainment hub—before Haight-Asbury in San Francisco became a shitty neighborhood more known for bad drugs than flowers. Mamas and the Papas lyricist John Phillips (married briefly to the gorgeous Michelle) went that route and after the group broke up never really mattered again, except as a Trivial Pursuit question. The other Papa, Denny Doherty, didn’t even make that cut.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023

  • I once heard that Murphy Brown wasn't shown ad nauseum in reruns because of the cost to license the music. Royalties were paid by the number of times the episode was played, not as a one time fee. I wonder if that still applies.

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment