“I try to find the very essence of what I am trying to say, make it as simple as possible to let people know what I am feeling … that’s what I do, I’m a writer.” – Graham Nash
There’s no denying that Graham Nash’s work with The Hollies helped define the sound of British rock and roll, but by the end of the 1960s, it was clear that they were moving in different directions. It wasn’t for lack of trying, though. When he offered up songs like ‘Lady of the Island’ and ‘Teach Your Children’, the band was less than receptive. When he tried recording ‘Marrakesh Express’ with The Hollies at Abbey Road Studios in 1967, the sessions failed to capture the right vibe for the song.
A fateful encounter – facilitated by Cass Elliot – with David Crosby and Stephen Stills in the Summer of ‘68 would provide the vibe he was after, ultimately sealing Nash’s future with the folk-rock supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash, and later Neil Young. That December, he set out for sunny California. “I was twenty-six years old and came with basically nothing, just my guitar, a small suitcase, and a few of my favourite things… I had no money to speak of,” Graham Nash said in Wild Tales.
That first CSN record included the aforementioned ‘Marrakesh Express’ and ‘Lady of the Island’. For the follow-up, Déjà Vu, Nash contributed ‘Teach Your Children’ and ‘Our House’, two of the group’s most enduring songs. At 28, Nash was one of the most successful songwriters in rock and roll, and as it turns out, he had a lot more to say. “I’d been cutting tracks for my solo album for some time and finally had enough good material to give it the requisite weight,” he commented.
That album is Songs For Beginners, and it turns 50 this year. Released on May 28th, 1971, the album was conceived over the course of two years in between CSNY’s manic recording and touring schedule. It’s a window into the new life Nash had built for himself stateside and a reflection of his development, both personally and professionally. Nash was stepping out into new territory, and it shows.
Production on Songs For Beginners was divided between Wally Heider’s Los Angeles and San Francisco studios. Heider’s studios were famous for giving artists the freedom to create. Engineers were on site to simply facilitate the creative process. The concept fostered a vibrant atmosphere where artists often bounced between studios, collaborating on multiple projects. The Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh reflects: “Some of the best musicians around were hanging there during that period,” he said as part of his book Searching For the Sound, before adding: “When you’d finished up your work on one track, you only needed to stick your head into the next room to find some outrageous collaboration wailing away.”
Naturally, Nash brought along some of the brightest stars in the business. Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Neil Young, and Rita Coolidge all lend their talents, colouring the record with folk, rock, and country textures. But make no mistake about it, Songs For Beginners is undeniably Graham Nash. The beauty of the record lies within its raw, candid moments and the history behind them.
‘Wounded Bird’ was written to console friend and bandmate Stephen Stills after his break-up with Judy Collins. In ‘Better Days’, Nash sings: “Though you’re where you want to be, you’re not where you belong,” responding to the fallout between him and Stills over Rita Coolidge.
‘Simple Man’ is a heartfelt reflection on the end of he and Joni Mitchell’s relationship. Nash penned the line, “I just want to hold you, I don’t want to hold you down,” after receiving Mitchell’s terse break-up telegram that simply read: “If you hold sand too tightly in your hand, it will run through your fingers. Love, Joan.” Nash famously debuted the song with CSNY at the Fillmore East, learning only moments before taking the stage that Mitchell was in the third row.
‘I Used to Be a King’ was also inspired by his break-up with Mitchell. The song, a play on ‘King Midas in Reverse’, one of Nash’s earlier Hollies tunes, is a standout track on the record. In it, he reflects back on that fateful telegram singing, “It’s because I built my life on sand; and I watched it crumble into dust,” he says, before diving into the song’s powerful declaration: “Someone is going to take my heart but no one is going to break my heart again.” His voice never sounded more raw and real.
“All told, I was pretty proud of that album,” Nash once commented. “As a writer, I thought I’d come a long way since the Hollies. In the interim, I had learned a lot about myself, and working with these accomplished people taught me a damn sight more.”
Nash expands on the themes of self-reflection and growth in ‘Teach Your Children’ with ‘Be Yourself’ and ‘Man in the Mirror’, the latter written while sailing past Cuba with David Crosby on a three thousand mile trek from Ft. Lauderdale to San Diego, California. He returns to his roots in Blackpool, England, during ‘Military Madness’, a song that draws parallels to World War II and Vietnam, building on his passion for activism. ‘Chicago’, Nash’s response to the trial of the Chicago Eight, digs in, pleading to bandmates Stills and Young, who had other commitments, to “please come to Chicago or else join the other side.”
Songs For Beginners went gold, peaking at number 15 in the United States and number 15 in the UK. Nash steps into his own as a songwriter, offering something altogether more personal and reflective. For those that question the album’s title, given the songwriter’s success with The Hollies and CSNY, Nash clarifies its meaning in 2017 for BBC’s Mastertapes, saying: “I wanted it to be that everyone can begin something.” Nash is certainly no stranger to new beginnings.
In 2010, indie-folk artists like Will Oldham of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Brendan Benson, and Vetiver came together to release Be Yourself: A Tribute to Graham Nash, a faithful reproduction of Songs For Beginners. Nash’s daughter, Nile, even lends her voice, singing on ‘Wounded Bird’ and ‘We Can Change the World’, adding yet another layer to the album’s story. It’s proof that Nash’s songs are as relevant now as they were back in 1971.