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The songs Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash wrote for each other


Some 40 years after Graham Nash first met Joni Mitchell, he can still remember it with crystalising vividity. It was a meeting of two celestial songwriting talents yet the romance it spawned was anything but purely heaven sent, for all the sweetness, there were traces of hell in there too.

As Nash writes in the book 101 Essential Rock Records: “I first met Joan in Ottawa, Canada in 1967. The Hollies were playing a show there and Joni was playing at a local club. There was a party thrown for us after our show, and when I entered the room, I noticed a beautiful woman sitting down with what appeared to be a large bible on her knees. I kept staring at her and our manager at the time, Robin Britten, was saying something into my ear and distracting me from my quest.” 

Nash continues, “I asked him to be quiet as I was checking Joni out. He said, ‘if you’d just listen to me I’m trying to tell you that she wants to meet you’. David Crosby had told me earlier that year to look out for Joni should I ever get the chance to meet her. Joni and I hit it off immediately, and I ended up in her room at the Chateau Laurier and she beguiled me with 15 or so of the most incredible songs I’d ever heard. Obviously, I fell in love right there and then.  She touched my heart and soul in a way that they had never been touched before.”

Nash then goes on to eulogise Joni Mitchell’s scintillating 1971 record Blue, to which he posits, “I watched her write some of those songs and I believe that one or two of them were about me, but who really knows?”

Such is the nature of candid songwriting, even the most brutally honest and singular songs can carry the impetus of multitudes in its wake. A song that seems to contain the DNA of another in the ink with which it was written is not always a singular affair. That being said, the source that stirred the songs up from the gut of feeling is often a noteworthy thing indeed.

The sweet beginnings of the pair’s courtship is epitomised in Graham Nash’s romantic singalong folk epic ‘Our House’. It is a track that captures the sanguine miasma of the Laurel Canyon adobe that the couple shared in an idyllic blossoming romance. Nash even wrote the song on the piano in the living room of their charmed L.A. home. 

The sweet nature of Nash’s sentiment was echoed in the Joni Mitchell track ‘Willy’, from around the same period, which was her nickname for Nash for unknown but probably innocent reasons. 

After this sweet exchange, and a few other smitten tracks on Mitchell’s Blue (Specifically ‘My Old Man’) and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà vu that may well have been penned with each other in mind, the tranquil azure turned towards a darker shade of tempestuous grey. 

It was Nash’s belief that this was brought about by the inherent itchy feet of marriage, which Mitchell seeming loathed because of the frustrations that her grandmother faced after she had to relinquish hopes of a creative career for matrimony conservatism. 

As Nash told Goldmine magazine, “I also believe that somewhere in Joni’s mind she thought that I would demand that of her [A ‘wife stays at home’ marriage]. Which is completely false. How in the hell could anybody with a brain say to Joni Mitchell, “Why don’t you just cook?” So even though we talked about marriage, I think the reality of it — from Joni’s point of view — was very scary.”

Thus, Mitchell packed up from the home that once seemed so idyllic and travelled to Europe alone. Therein, she sent Nash a telegram explaining that the relationship was over. Her ambivalent feelings at the time are summed up on the gut-wrenching track ‘River’ that contains the lyrics, “He tried hard to help me, you know he put me at ease/He loved me so naughty he made me weak in the knees/I wish I had a river I could skate away on/I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad/Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I’ve ever had.”

Fortunately, the pain that both subsequently suffered through was transfigured into beautiful songs of melancholic poetry that offered both the pair and legions of listeners far more of a cathartic outlet than the drunken text messages that most people have to contend with. 

Nash turned to the studio to work on his first solo effort, which formed a conduit for his feelings and a way to let any reticent emotions cascade in song. On Songs for Beginners, ‘I Used to Be a King’ was a reference to Mitchell’s ‘I Had a King’, ‘Sleep Song’ elucidates his feelings upon the moment that Joni left for Europe, and Simple Man’ is as candid as a private message made public by mistake, with the lyrics, “I just want to hold you, I don’t want to hold you down”. He also wrote ‘Letter to Cactus Tree’, which contains the line, “Competing with a poet for your favours,” which may well be a reference to Leonard Cohen with whom Mitchell had previously had a relationship. 

In the end, however, time has healed the wounds of parting and Nash is able to conclude that Blue is, “by far, my most favourite solo album, and the thought that I spent much time with this fine woman and genius of a writer is incredible to me.”