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Exploring Joni Mitchell's doomed relationship with Graham Nash

Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash’s relationship was a whirlwind. Like lightning trapped in a bottle, it was a thing of honest beauty before it was eventually uncorked, and the magic quickly dissipated, unfolding into bitterness. Involving two of the counterculture’s biggest stars, it gave us two of the era’s most enduring songs and many an anecdote to boot.

As a side note, it was actually Mitchell who set the wheels in motion for the formation of CSNY. She first introduced Neil Young to David Crosby, as at the time, Mitchell was in another whirlwind romance with the latter. Crosby was producing her debut album, Song to a Seagull, when one day Mitchell told him, “You’ve got to meet Neil Young”, as he and Stephen Stills’ band, Buffalo Springfield, occupied the studio next door. Later that year CSNY would form, and one of their most iconic songs would be about her.

Of the first time he met Mitchell, Nash wrote in his autobiography Wild Tales: “She was the whole package: a lovely, sylphlike woman with a natural blush, like windburn, and an elusive quality that seemed lit from within.”

Mitchell and Nash first met after a Hollies show in Ottawa, Canada, in March 1968, just as the Salford band were coming to an end. Nash immediately noticed Mitchell sitting in the corner of the room by herself and went over to introduce himself: “‘I know who you are,’ she said, slyly. ‘That’s why I’m here.'” The two got talking, and quickly they found themselves back at her hotel, where the fire was roaring and incense burned in ashtrays dotted around the room. Nash described it as “a seduction scene extraordinaire”. He recalled: “She picked up a guitar and played me 15 of the best songs I’d ever heard, and then we spent the night together. It was magical on so many different levels.”

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The two would go their separate ways until later that year, and they crossed paths again at a party David Crosby was hosting. Appearing out of nowhere from amongst the scenes of colourful hedonistic abandon, she took Nash by the arm and said: “Come to my house and I’ll take care of you.” The dye was cast, he moved in with Joni straight away.

What followed can only be described as a period of utter bliss. They wrote music, Mitchell crafted her visual art, and seemingly nothing could break this intense bond the two songwriters shared. One day, Mitchell was gathering flowers in the garden, and sensing a songwriting opportunity, Nash captured the “little domestic moment.” He wrote the song ‘Our House’, and the following lyrics were pulled from that actual scene: 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. An instant classic, it became the third single from CSNY’s debut album Déjà Vu.

Towards the end of the decade, sometime before Woodstock in 1969, things were still going well between the pair. They discussed the thought of marriage, but Nash was hesitant as he had already been married once before, to Rose Eccles, and it had fallen apart after three years in 1966.

Joni could sense his hesitancy, and after that, the cracks started to show. Allegedly though, some sources claim that Nash did propose to Mitchell, but she declined, thinking that he wanted a traditional wife to cook for him “and so on”.

Sometime later, the supergroup undertook a short tour in Europe alongside Mitchell, and “it went weird in Copenhagen”. A few days prior, they had played a show in Stockholm, Sweden, and while on stage, the band talked about politics, with a “gentle anti-American slant”, discussing the Vietnam War and the Kennedy assassination. For some unknown reason, this upset Mitchell. Back in the hotel room, Nash asked her why she was so upset: “You keep slagging America after it gave you all this opportunity,” she said. “Why are you biting the hand that feeds you?”. A titanic argument ensued, which resulted in the Canadian folk heroin pouring her bowl of cornflakes and milk over his head. 

Then it got super “weird”. There was a maid cleaning the room at the time, and she was asked to leave. Directly from the mouth of Nash: “Then I put Joni over my knee, and I spanked her. With all due respect, she took it very well. It was over within 30 seconds.”

A celebration at Big Sur, 1971. (Credit: Alamy)

A horrific scene. Regardless, soon after the tour finished, they then returned to the US. At this point in time, when the group were recording Déjà Vu, David Crosby had endured what was arguably the worst moment of his life, something no one should suffer. His girlfriend, Christine Hinton, had been killed in a car accident after taking the cat to the vet. Unsurprisingly destroyed by the tragedy, it is said a part of Crosby died that day, and he would break down in fits of tears during the recording sessions for the record.

Wanting to help his buddy out and needing some time apart from Mitchell, Nash accompanied Crosby on his boat, The Mayan, on a 3,000 mile trip from Fort Lauderdale in Florida back to hippiedom’s spiritual home, San Francisco. They spent seven weeks at sea with a “bottomless supply of weed and coke”. During a stop in Panama, Mitchell met the drug-riddled pair. Before too long, Nash and Mitchell were arguing once more, and it became so fraught that she yelled at him, telling him he hated all women, then things turned “ugly”. She left and flew back to LA. 

Upon returning to LA, one night, when Nash was alone lying on the kitchen floor, he received a telegram from Mitchell that read: “If you hold sand too tightly in your hand, it will run through your fingers. Love, Joan.” That was the end. It’s not surprising. Nash’s behaviour was abhorrent even back then, and Mitchell doesn’t seem like she was the sort of person to take it. Frustratingly, there are no takes out there from Mitchell regarding their time together.

The relationship inspired many moments on Mitchell’s 1971 magnum opus, Blue, including ‘A Case of You, ‘My Old Man’ and the classic heartbreaker, ‘River’. On the other hand, Nash’s bandmate, Neil Young, penned the incredibly emotive ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ as a means of helping to ease the heartbreak suffered by his bandmate. This would become one of the most iconic songs he would write.

Highly characteristic of the time, a fast-paced and explosive relationship, Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell‘s relationship proved to be somewhat of a juxtaposition. It was both a highly fruitful and fruitless experience that, by the end, was characterised more by internal strife than it was happiness. Some things just aren’t meant to be. We hope Nash treat his girlfriends better moving forward.

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