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The Story Behind The Song: Neil Young's heartfelt message to Graham Nash, 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart'

Before the dance-infused Saint Etienne version or the dreamy Psychic TV cover, Neil Young’s brilliant original ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ was born out of sincerity and heartbreak. A touching tribute to the pitfalls of love and relationships, lyrically the song is critical, and the concise account of love that the title provides us with is a testament to just how perceptive Neil Young is as a man and songwriter.

The third track on his third solo studio album, After the Gold Rush, ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, is a folk-rock ballad of the highest order. However, given just how personal but universal the song’s message is, you’d be forgiven for thinking the song to be wholly autobiographical.

There might be flecks of lived experience in the song from Young’s perspective. Many suggested the track was originally written about the break-up of his supergroup, however, the song is actually about the end of the relationship between his CSNY bandmate, Graham Nash and Canadian folk heroine, Joni Mitchell.

Given that Young is typically a rather opaque gentleman when it comes to discussing the origins of his songs, it is not surprising that the origins of the classic have always been a point of hot discussion. The song and album were recorded by Young after the raucous CSNY Déjà Vu album tour, and because of this, in tandem with his apprehension at discussing the song’s roots, many originally thought that the classic was actually written about the cocaine-addled Stephen Stills. Notoriously, he had alienated his bandmates by referring to them as his “back-up singers” one night on stage and the suggestion Young’s break-up anthem was directed at him has never truly been shaken off. 

However, seemingly worn down by the number of questions regarding the song’s origins, Young did eventually concede that the song was about Nash and Mitchell. The track stemmed from the period where each component of CSNY was struggling with significant interpersonal problems, such as the death of David Crosby’s girlfriend Christine Hinton in a tragic car accident, and where the negative effects of hedonism were starting to wear the group down, eroding the rock at the centre of the group. 

Nash was left heartbroken by the end of his and Mitchell’s relationship. Together from 1968 to 1970, the relationship started almost overnight and fell apart seemingly as quickly. After first meeting at a show in Canada, and being entranced by Mitchell as a “sylphlike” beauty and “genius” musician, Nash and Mitchell’s relationship was one of the most iconic of the entire era. 

The two countercultural heroes lived together in LA, and Nash was so happy with his lot that he wrote the CNSY classic ‘Our House’ about their relationship. The lyrics of the chorus demonstrate this perfectly: “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”.

Ironically, it was actually Mitchell who first set the wheels in motion for the formation of CSNY. It was she who first introduced Young to David Crosby, with whom she also had a fast and furious relationship. When producing her debut album Song to a Seagull, Mitchell told Crosby: “You’ve got to meet Neil Young.” This impetus was because Stills and Young’s first band, Buffalo Springfield, were recording next door. Mitchell said to Crosby: “I know him from Canada. He’s in the Springfield. He’s so funny. You’re going to love this guy.” Later that year, CSNY would form.

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Returning to Nash and Mitchell, their relationship was incredibly healthy for a time, but as excess and “orgiastic” touring got in the way, the two started to drift apart. The relationship soon descended into a chaotic and hate-filled association. Allegedly, Nash even proposed to Mitchell, but she declined, thinking that he wanted a wife solely to cook for him “and so on”. 

After a huge row after a show in Copenhagen where Mitchell “poured her cornflakes and milk” over Nash’s head, the writing was on the wall. Nash embarked on a 3,000-mile boat trip with the grieving Crosby between Fort Lauderdale and San Francisco, during a stop in Panama where they disembarked and met up with Mitchell, the two argued once more and Mitchell swiftly caught a flight back to LA.

When he returned home, one night Nash was lying on the kitchen floor he received a telegram from Mitchell which read: “If you hold sand too tightly in your hand, it will run through your fingers. Love, Joan.” That was the end and Nash was heartbroken. 

Recalling when Young wrote the song, Nash told Uncut: “That song means a lot to me because Neil wrote it about me and Joni. It’s such a beautiful song. I knew it was about me the day Neil played it for me at Stephen’s house in Laurel Canyon.”

He continued: “It’s a beautiful song and it was incredibly important for me to hear what Neil had said because he was dead right, it is only love that can break your heart. We are strong, mankind, but these love things can really trip you up. He was only 24 when he wrote that.” 

“It’s incredible how prolific he was”, Nash appended. “I personally feel that Crosby, Stills & Nash and Crosby, Nash, Stills & Young are two completely different bands because of his talent and the difference that it makes.”

Nash’s assertions, in addition to Young‘s lyrics, “But only love can break / Your heart / Try to be sure / Right from the start”, drench the song in the sinking feeling of heartbreak that we all know very well. A saddening but realistic song, Young tell’s Nash that next time he has to be sure his love interest will be in it for the long run to avoid further heartbreak. It’s a lesson a lot of us could do with hearing. 

Listen to ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ below.