How Joni Mitchell had a hand in creating Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
Joni Mitchell is quite possibly the most mercurial songwriter that has ever graced the planet and her influence not only inspired the next generation of artists, but also made her contemporaries attempt to step up their game to match her immense level. In 1967, before she had even released a record, David Crosby was awe-struck by her greatness, a factor which helped him escape a creative snag which saw him exit The Byrds under a cloud. That said, thanks to Joni Mitchell, his career would blossom once more with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
The dispute that led to Crosby’s departure from The Byrds came after the band opted to snub his song ‘Triad’ in favour of a cover of Carole King’s ‘Going Back’ as they sought to repeat the commercial success they received two years prior. This creative clash was the final straw with founding members Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, later informing Crosby that he was no longer a Byrd, which knocked his confidence greatly. “If you give kids millions of dollars they’ll screw up,” he said on his departure from the group in 2018 with no regrets.
Perhaps the reason why Crosby has no regrets over his rocky exit from the group is that it allowed him to start a new adventure with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash before Neil Young later joined to make them the ultimate supergroup. After Crosby was thrown out of The Byrds, he stumbled upon a young Joni Mitchell performing at the Coconut Groove club in Florida and he was immediately blown away. The two have them then had a brief and volatile love affair, one which Crosby described as being “like falling into a cement mixer. She is a turbulent woman and very, very crazy.” It should come as no surprise, that the relationship didn’t last but the two of them still remain good friends even today. But under Crosby’s mentorship, he guided Joni to the bright lights of Los Angeles and helped her kickstart her career.
Mitchell was soon the talk of LA and was then quickly got snapped up by a label shortly after chasing her dream in the West Coast. However, the deal was created under the condition that Crosby would be the producer for her debut album, Song to a Seagull. His whereabouts of having already had heaps of success with The Byrds already meant that he could make sure that Mitchell was not chewed up and spat out by the industry. However, the emotional guidance that he gave to her was nothing in comparison to the creative inspiration that she provided him with.
Crosby reflected on this period with The Times in 2018 before he played London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire and revealed that he is still close as ever with Mitchell but, after her aneurysm in 2015, he tragically doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to play again. “It’s tough because she is the best songwriter alive, easily as good as Bob [Dylan] and ten times the better musician,” he praisingly noted before reminiscing on the times they shared together in the swinging sixties. “When she was my old lady I’d write something and go, ‘Listen to this!’ She’d say, ‘That’s lovely, Dave,’ and play me three new songs of hers that were far, far better than mine,” Crosby honestly admitted.
The year they spent together was dysfunctional, to say the least, and a learning curve in more than one way with Crosby revealing in the same interview that he “wouldn’t say fun was the word, but it was educational as hell. I liked all the complex chord inversions you hear in jazz, but I wasn’t good enough to play them, and then Joni showed me how to retune the guitar. Suddenly I was writing ‘Déjà Vu’ and ‘Guinnevere’.”
Those two songs were the sound of Crosby rediscovering his mojo thanks to Mitchell but he needed a new vehicle for his music. Over this period he began informally jamming with Stephen Stills, a person who had also found himself musically homeless following the disintegration of Buffalo Springfield and, although they were enjoying playing music again, there was still something missing.
In the summer of 1968, Graham Nash was in California with his band The Hollies and was invited over to Joni Mitchell’s house for a party in July 1968. The entertainment that evening was provided by Stills and Crosby who mesmerised Nash with their performance of a new song by Stills, ‘You Don’t Have To Cry’. Nash asked them to perform it again and joined them, improvising a third part harmony. The chemistry was immediately there between the three of them and the rest is history.
What impact that twelve months that Joni Mitchell and David Crosby spent together is impossible to calculate but remains a lesson in the power of fate. If Crosby didn’t stumble into the Coconut Groove that night in Florida then not only could Joni have been robbed of her getting the plaudits she fiercely deserved but he may have been devoid of making music with CSNY, which changed his career just like he did Mitchell’s.