“But only love can break your heart/ Try to be sure right from the start/ Yes, only love can break your heart/ What if your world should fall apart” — Neil Young
Joni Mitchell’s influence within music stretches far beyond her own work. Not only did her exciting and enthralling confessional style inspired countless other artists in pursuit of their own perfectly balanced output, but Mitchell often acted as the muse for songs too. In fact, since Mitchell made her name in the sixties, there have been over 50 songs written about the singer-songwriter. Most of them, it has to be said, were written by her ex-lovers.
Neil Young, as far as we know, isn’t counted as one of those, however, he did produce two songs written about Joni Mitchell in his time. One track is pretty on the nose: ‘Sweet Joni’, one of Young’s tender compositions, performed on only a handful occasions makes special reference to the acclaimed Candian singer. But there was one other song written about Joni Mitchell, though not specifically written for her. No, this one was written for her ex-boyfriend Graham Nash, in a bid to mend his broken heart.
Joni Mitchell and Neil Young have operated in the same circles for some time. Allegedly meeting in Toronto as part of a special evening of singers, Young and Mitchell didn’t have much contact as they both pursued their careers. By 1968, a lot of time had passed and the two Canadian stars had grown immensely in a relatively short time. While Mitchell had gotten married and divorced, moved to Britain and been furiously writing, Young went south to the US and began work with Stephen Stills and Buffalo Springfield. Mitchell would reconvene with the singer around this time and make a connection that would benefit his career forever.
Having moved to Florida, Mitchell set about integrating with the rock ‘n’ roll set and fell in with David Crosby’s crowd. Crosby even agreed to produce her next album and, on the first day of recording, were in the parallel studio to Buffalo Springfield. “You’ve got to meet Neil Young,” said the singer to the former Byrds man, before adding: “I know him from Canada. He’s in the Springfield. He’s so funny. You’re going to love this guy.” It was the first meeting of Crosby, Stills and Young and the start of their iconic band.
Of course, there was one man heavily connected ot the band who, in this story, acts as the link between the two artists — Graham Nash. The former Hollies man came to know Mitchell through Crosby and, after a brief romance with The Byrds singer, began dating the Blue singer. The two shared a fast and furious relationship and considered one another soul mates for a period of time. In fact, Nash had a hand in writing 13 songs about Mitchell during his career. It’s clear he was devoted to Mitchell and completely in love, meaning when their relationship did finally end, Nash was left broken-hearted.
As a sure-fire way to help lift his friend and sometime bandmate out of the depths of heartbreak, Young decided to pen Nash a song of his own, about his long-lost love, the truly astounding ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’. Though many have suggested that the song was written about Stephen Stills, Young later admitted to the track being about Mitchell in his biography Shakey. However, he has never seen fit to elaborate on the stories at hand.
Instead, the track has gone down as one of his finest and his first to break into the top 40 as a solo artist. Taken from the acclaimed After The Gold Rush album, the track has been routinely covered ever since and has taken on a universal tone. As such, it would be remiss for Young to add any firm interpretation to the track but, checking the history books; it’s easy to see how this song was written as a way to mend a broken heart.
As break-up songs go, it’s one of the best and deserves to be heard whether you’re in a relationship or not. Check out the song Neil Young wrote about Joni Mitchell for his heartbroken friend, Graham Nash, below.