GRAHAM NASH – ” Songs For Beginners ” Released on May 28th 1971

Posted: February 2, 2023 in MUSIC
Tags: , ,

Graham Nash writing songs in the house he shared with Joni Mitchell. 'From the moment I first heard her play, I thought she was a genius. I'm good at what I do, but genius?' he said

On an August evening in 1968, the sun was sinking in the western sky as the cab crawled up Laurel Canyon, bathing the Hollywood Hills in a golden flush of summer. Graham Nash stopped in front of a small wooden house on Lookout Mountain Avenue. Inside, lights glowed and I could hear the jingle-jangle of voices.

I leaned on my guitar case – the only baggage I’d carried off the plane at LAX – and considered again where I was and what I was doing here: leaving my country, my marriage and my band, all at once. It was August 1968, and the Hollies and I had come to an impasse. We had grown up together and enjoyed incredible success, but we were growing apart.

The same with my marriage: Rosie was off in Spain chasing another man, and I was in Los Angeles, the city that already felt like my new home, to visit Joni Mitchell, who had captured my heart. I was an English rock star – I had it made. I had co-written a fantastic string of hits with The Hollies. I was friends with the Stones and The Beatles.

Suddenly, Joni was at the door and nothing else mattered. She was the whole package: a lovely, sylphlike woman with a natural blush, like windburn, and an elusive quality that seemed lit from within. Behind her, at the dining room table, were my new American friends David Crosby and Stephen Stills – refugees, like me, from successful, broken bands. I grinned the moment I laid eyes on them.

I had never met anybody like Crosby. He was an irreverent, funny, brilliant hedonist who had been thrown out of The Byrds the previous year. He always had the best drugs, the most beautiful women, and they were always naked. Stephen was a guy in a similar mould. He was brash, egotistical, opinionated, provocative, volatile, temperamental, and so talented. A very complex cat, and a little crazy, he had just left Buffalo Springfield, one of the primo LA bands. That night, while Joni listened, the three of us sang together for the first time. I heard the future in the power of those voices. And I knew my life would never be the same.

Joni and I had first met after a Hollies show in Ottawa, Canada in March. I’d seen this beautiful blonde in the corner by herself, and I’d shuffled over and introduced myself. ‘I know who you are,’ she said, slyly. ‘That’s why I’m here.’ She had invited me back to her room at a beautiful old French Gothic hotel, where flames licked at logs in the fireplace, incense burned in ashtrays and beautiful scarves were draped over the lamps. It was a seduction scene extraordinaire.

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. That evening with Crosby and Stills at Joni’s, five months later, was the first time I’d seen her since. From the moment I first heard her play, I thought she was a genius. I’m good at what I do, but genius? . She was finishing her “Clouds” album and writing songs for what would become Ladies Of The Canyon.

After that, I moved out to Los Angeles for good, as soon as I had messily extricated myself from The Hollies.

The plan was to crash at Crosby’s house, where a party was always in full swing: beautiful young women all over the place, some clothed, some not so clothed. Music pulsing through the place. It was Hippy heaven.

CRAZY LOVE: Graham Nash first met Joni Mitchell after a Hollies gig - within months he left the band and moved in with her in LA

On my first night, in the midst of the party, Joni appeared. Taking me by the arm, she said: ‘Come to my house and I’ll take care of you.’  I moved into Joni’s and never made it back to David’s. Joni had a great little place, built in the 1930s by a black jazz musician: knotty pine, creaky wooden floors, a couple of cabinets full of beautifully coloured glass objects and Joan’s artwork leaning discreetly here and there.

We both wrote whenever the spirit moved us, but in Joni’s house, when it came to the piano, I always gave way. If she was working there or playing guitar in the living room, I’d head into the bedroom with my guitar or simply take a walk. Occasionally, I lingered in the kitchen, just listening to her play. I wrote there too. On one of those grey days in LA that foreshadows spring, Joni bought a vase on the way home from breakfast. When we got back, she gathered flowers in the garden, and while she was away from the piano, I wrote “Our House”, capturing that little domestic moment.

Early on, Joan and I went to visit her parents in her Canadian hometown of Saskatoon. I can’t describe what her childhood room looked like because I wasn’t allowed within 20 feet of it. Bill and Myrtle were a very straight, religious couple, and they weren’t about to let a long-haired hippy sleep with their daughter under their roof.

Joni represented one aspect of my new life in LA; Crosby and Stills the other. Crosby and Joni had been lovers not long before, but he wasn’t the possessive type. He had fallen in love with a beautiful girl named Christine Hinton, Crosby had far worse problems. His girlfriend Christine was taking the cats to the vet, when one escaped in the van. Veering into the opposite lane, she was hit by a school bus and killed instantly. I watched a part of David die that day. He wondered aloud what the universe was doing to him. And he went off the rails; he was never the same again.

When David, Stephen and I flew out to The Hamptons for our first serious Crosby Stills & Nash rehearsals, we rented a wooden chalet by the lake and invoked the ‘no women’ rule. We were finally free from our previous bands.

We had a hell of a time, cementing our friendship, getting wasted, working up the first CSN album – three hippies wired to their eyeballs in a snowbound cabin for a month.

We recruited Stills’s old bandmate Neil Young as our fourth member and played our first show in Chicago. Now, I know a few things about crazy tours. At our height, the Hollies’ shows had been insane: wall-to-wall teenage girls, screaming their heads off in a sexual frenzy at these young, good-looking guys playing loud rock ’n’ roll.

At one of our shows in Glasgow, 75 girls fainted during the Hollies’ set and had to be passed hand-over-head, like in a mosh pit. Some of those gigs had an eerie, war-zone quality. If a chick took a shine to the lead singer, you could bet he was going to get his ass kicked by her boyfriend and his pals after the show. I can’t tell you how many buses I ran for after concerts. One time, I got three front teeth shattered.

The period between the fall of 1970 and the summer of ’71 was an auspicious one for America’s prime supergroup, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.  Each of the individual members released crucial solo albums within a year and a half of Déjà Vu’s arrival: Stephen Stills’ released “Stills 2”, David Crosby’s first outing of his own, “If I Could Only Remember My Name” and Neil Young’s career-defining “After the Gold Rush” and along with Graham Nash’s initial individual offering, “Songs for Beginners”. In many ways, Nash’s album, released on May 28th, 1971, was the most anticipated effort of all. Stills and Young had proven their muster with earlier efforts, while Crosby’s previous behaviour negated any great hope for significant achievement. Nash’s work, on the other hand, had heightened expectations, given a lengthy early résumé that included his tenure with the Hollies as one of the group’s chief singers, songwriters and original architects. After all, his high harmonies were an integral element in the band’s biggest songs “On a Carousel,” “King Midas in Reverse” and “Carrie Anne,” to name but a few—and indeed, when he joined forces with Crosby and Stills, his songs and singing helped define the sound of that union as much as anything else brought to bear by his colleagues.

Given his signature style, he already had all the elements needed when it came to plotting his long-awaited outing. Not that he was going it alone; like his partners, Nash took a populist approach, inviting the same friends and fellow travellers that populated the prodigious post-’60s West Coast music scene: Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, fellow expatriate Dave Mason, Jackson Browne accompanist David Lindley, his then-current paramour Rita Coolidge, and, of course, his erstwhile compadres Crosby and Young. Consequently, while Nash naturally takes centre stage, any one of these songs could easily have found a fit in the CSNY repertoire. The highly charged anthem written in support of the so-called Chicago Eight, “Chicago” proved the point after making its debut on “4 Way Street” the year before.

Like the album’s lead-off track “Military Madness,” Nash’s autobiographical narrative on the futility of army conscription, “Chicago “was rooted in the anti-war stance that fully ignited within the band following the student killings at Kent State and the rush-release of their single “Ohio” in its immediate aftermath.

That said, the majority of the album could be considered an emotional salve of sorts, given that the songs were written in the immediate aftermath of Nash’s breakup with one-time lover and subject of the song “Our House,” Joni Mitchell. Indeed, Nash makes little attempt to hide his tattered emotions, especially as they’re reflected within such songs as “Better Days,” “Sleep Song” and “I Used To Be a King.” The latter is especially telling, a distraught attempt to reconcile his heartbreak with the serenity and security he thought he once attained: “I used to be a king and everything around me turned to gold/I thought I had everything and now I’m left without a hand to hold…” The lyric becomes even more explicit as Nash conveys his sentiments in the resolute yet remorseful chorus:

“And in my bed where are you Someone is going to take my heart But no one is going to break my heart again”

The feelings of heartbreak and happenstance morph into words of advice in the emotional thrust of the bittersweet ballad “Better Days,” in which Nash attempts to impart lessons learned into abject advice for others:

Back in the U.S., with Crosby torturing himself over Christine’s death, he and I took his boat and embarked on a trip from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to San Francisco: 3,000 miles, seven weeks at sea, with a bottomless supply of weed and coke. Joni met us just outside Panama, and it wasn’t pleasant. A row broke out, Joan yelling that I hated all women. Things had turned ugly between us. She decided to leave us and fly back to LA.

When I got home, Joni decided she needed a break. I was laying a floor in her kitchen when a telegram arrived from her. It said: ‘If you hold sand too tightly in your hand, it will run through your fingers. Love, Joan.’ I knew at that point it was truly over between us.

That’s how things were by 1973. But Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were a habit I couldn’t kick, and we jumped at that 1974 tour. We made $12 million, though David, Stephen, Neil and Nash only got $300,000 each. Plenty of people took their cuts off the top, while we picked up the tab for the decadence.

We were our own worst enemy. Put the four of us in a room, and anything could trigger a fatal blast. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young wouldn’t tour together again for 26 years.

On David Crosby (far left): 'He always had the best drugs, the most beautiful women, and they were always naked,' said Graham Nash (pictured right). Also pictured: Stephen Still and Neil Young

It was the biggest tour ever staged. The Beatles had played Shea Stadium and the Stones had done some big dates, but until Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young hit the stadiums and arenas of America in the summer of 1974, no rock band had ever played to that many people, night after night, for two-and-a-half months.
Everything was going to be first-class. Travel was in private planes, helicopters and limousines with police escorts. There were hand-embroidered pillowcases in every hotel with Joni Mitchell’s drawing of the four of us silk-screened in five colours on the front. That same logo was burned into the teak plates we all ate from.
It was a wild, profligate, orgiastic, self-indulgent tour. David Crosby, our resident free spirit, took two beautiful young women on the road with him.
Some nights, we’d have great parties, with strange people all taking the weirdest things and eating the best food – all paid for by us. Other nights, the excess would overwhelm. Tensions between us crept up all the time.
It was six years since Crosby, Stephen Stills and I had first sung together and discovered a flawless three-part harmony that came naturally to us.
Our first album caught fire and went burning up the charts; our second show was Woodstock. We were in love with each other and in possession of something magical.

By 1974, things had changed. Music, drugs, talent, ego, excess, stubbornness – mix them together and it’s a powerful explosive.

We hadn’t been out on the road for a while and all of us had expensive lifestyles. We liked to play small venues, where you could see the audience’s eyes. That’s difficult with 50,000 people. So we did it for the money. We’d fallen for the rock ’n’ roll bull**** in a big way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.