GIRL IN THE SONG – PART 19 – Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash

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Our House (G Nash) CSNY 1970, and Simple Man (G Nash) – G Nash 1970, and River (J Mitchell)- Joni Mitchell 1970 and Carey (J Mitchell) – Joni Mitchell 1971.

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In 1969 the Summer of Love was in full flower in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles, where an artist colony of actors, writers, and musicians had lived for decades since the early days of Hollywood. Over the years Harry Houdini, Clara Bow, Mary Astor, Boris Karloff, Leslie Caron, and Errol Fynn were all stars who had domiciled in this exclusive neighbourhood. In the late 1960’s it was colonized by the rising stars of the hippie counterculture – Frank Zappa, John and Michelle Phillips and Mama Cass Elliot, Jimi Hendrix, Carole King, Jim Morrison, and other members of the Doors, the Byrds, the Monkees, Buffalo Springfield and Canned Heat – all lived there. Joni Mitchell’s light-filled timber home at 8217 Lookout Mountain Road was the hub for a close-knit circle of folk-rock musicians who would gather around the fireplace in her living room, squatting on cushions, drinking wine, sharing joints, and exchanging ideas and tunes into the night. Below L-R Joni and her home in Laurel Canyon, far right Stills, Nash and Crosby.

It was at one of these sojourns at Mitchell’s house that Graham Nash, singer/guitarist with the Hollies, visited and as well as falling in love with Joni, he started to harmonise with Stephen Stills and David Crosby for the first time, and all agreed that his distinctive high tenor was exactly what they were looking for, the following year Neil Young would come on board, and CSNY was complete. L-R – Clouds, Deja Vu, Art’s Deli on Ventura Blvd.

Nash and Mitchell were considered the golden couple of the folk-rock movement at the time, she was working on her album Clouds, and Nash was working on his songs for the CSNY debut album Déjà Vu. The couple would often have breakfast at Art’s Deli on Ventura Boulevarde, and on what was a grey, drizzly LA morning, as they were heading back to their car, they noticed a beautiful vase in the window of an antique shop, Joni loved it, Graham encouraged her to buy it, and she did. When they returned home, Graham said to Joni “Why don’t you put some flowers in the vase and I’ll light a fire… and I started to think, God, that’s an incredibly domestic scene … I love this woman, and this moment is a very grounded moment in our relationship, I sat down at the piano, and an hour later Our House, was done “.

From a really old-fashioned moment of shared domestic harmony, a song of great innocent elegance emerged, clearly the two were soul mates, and would remain so for another two years, but the free-spirited Joni did not share Graham’s idea of a conventional domestic arrangement, which she equated with subservience and drudgery. On the other hand Graham Nash was seeking a loving relationship like the one depicted in the movie The Enchanted Cottage, in which two damaged people, hiding from the world, fall in love, and find that all their scars become invisible, at least to each other. The song was released as the second single off the Deja Vu album, after Neil Young’s Ohio, and was a top twenty hit globally.

The warmth and intimacy of this song is palpable

In June 6, 1970 Mitchell and Nash parted, the day after he would write the song Simple Man just hours before Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were to perform at the Filimore East in NYC, where he sang this song for the first time. The celebration of the couple’s love and empathy captured in Our House only a year before was replaced by the melancholy heartbreak of this piano ballad, Nash was devastated “My whole world fell apart”, he said. Even more traumatic was the fact that Mitchell was in the audience that night, listening to Nash pour his heart out to lines like” “I never been so much in love / And never hurt so bad at the same time…” Simple Man finished up on Nash’s first solo album after the demise of CSNY, entitled Songs For Beginners, he accompanied himself on piano on the track, and Dorian Rudnytsky (cello), David Lindley (fiddle) and Rita Coolidge (backing vocals), provided classy support.

Nash looked and sounded anguished and heartbroken, David Crosby joined him with vocal support late in the song.

In 1971 Joni Mitchell released her seminal album Blue, she would become a shining star of the folk-rock movement, her split from Graham Nash after a two-year relationship, was precipitated by her interpretation of his proposal of marriage as a union founded on domestic conformity that would threaten her creativity and artistic freedom, others have described Nash as being “clingy”.

Despite her obvious physical attraction to Nash, she was looking for a way out, and her song River eloquently expressed those feelings “He tried hard to help me/You know, he put me at ease/And he loved me so naughty/Made me weak in the knees/ Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on…”. Whether she actually intended for River to become a Christmas classic, the opening lines ultimately sealed the deal “It’s coming on Christmas/ They’re cutting down trees/ Hanging up reindeers/Singing songs of joy and peace/ Oh, I wish I had a river, that I could skate away on…”, and the fact that musically Mitchell’s original piano accompaniment borrowed heavily from the 19th century favourite Jingle Bells.
Certainly Joni Mitchell was dealing with the grief of a shattered relationship, and perhaps inadvertently she gifted us with a big, icy blue, Christmas wish, to just skate away from memories and emotional entanglements, but all the while knowing that the residual sadness would remain. River reminded us that we love and we’re loved, we hurt and we get hurt, we forgive and are forgiven, but the memories remain, and maybe we revisit them every Christmas, when we seem to be more emotionally invested in the things that are happening around us.

A Joni Mitchell heartbreaking classic, which has become a wistful Christmas snowglobe of a song.

Following the split Joni Mitchell travelled to the Greek island of Crete, and took up residence in one of the many limestone caves along the cliff in the Cretan fishing village of Matala, spaces which had been converted from Roman burial crypts into hippie flophouses in the 1960’s.She would live there for two months between March-May in 1970, and it was here that she would write songs for her 1971 album Blue, and first perform one of her best-loved songs, Carey, dedicated to the man with whom she shared the cave. It was here that she met Cary Raditz, an American cook, citizen of the world, and self-styled iconoclast, who worked at the Mermaid Café, and befriended Mitchell and kept the local hippies at bay, who were fixated about Joni and wanted to adopt her.

Live performance in London, accompanied herself on dulcimer and apologized for being rusty, which she wasn’t, lilting, engaging vocals made it hard to believe she started smoking when she was 9.

Joni wrote Carey as a birthday present for the twenty-four-year-old Raditz, deliberately misspelling his name and describing his broken shepherd’s crook as a “cane”, her description of the flame-haired Raditz was impressionistic “…the bright red devil/ Who keeps me in this tourist town”, and dispatched in several lines “Oh, you’re a mean old daddy/ But I like you” – yet he remains one of the most charismatic figures to appear in a song, and unlike the lovers who bookended his time in Mitchell’s affections (Graham Nash and James Taylor), we know almost nothing about him. Below – Joni Mitchell and Cary Raditz in Matala in 1970.

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In many ways the song is surprisingly literal; there was a Mermaid Café, five minutes’ walk across the bay, run by Stelios Xagorarakis, who was in the cave when Mitchell played Carey for the first time (it was Raditz’s birthday). If we have an unusually strong impression of him, it’s because he also appears in another single released from Blue California: “I met a redneck on a Grecian Isle Who did the goat dance very well/ He gave me back my smile/ But he kept my camera to sell/ Oh that rogue, that red red rogue/ He cooked good omelettes and stews/ And I might have stayed on with him/ But my heart cried out for you.” Below – Cary Raditz 2021.

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In 2021 Cary Raditz recalled his time with Joni Mitchell, a relationship that had been re-ignited several times in the years after their sojourn on Crete, and regretted that he had felt defined by the song, rejecting Joni’s assertions that he was a redneck and that he stole her camera, and describing his role in their freewheeling relationship as one part muse, one part buffer against the pressures of Mitchell’s celebrity, one part security personal, and one part soulmate. For her part Mitchell usually described Raditz as emotionally detached, standoffish, grumpy, bad-tempered, and at times misogynistic, but also as someone who helped her to maintain a balance between the domesticity of normal life and the trance-like state of creativity of a gifted artist. The song was recorded with Stephen Stills on bass guitar and acoustic guitar, and Joni accompanied herself on an Appalachian dulcimer, played in her distinctive style of striking the strings with the flat of the palm of her hand, it was not a big hit, but has become a live performance favourite since its release. Below L-R Joni and Larry Klein, Ladies of the Canyon, Graham Nash and Susan Sennett.

Mitchell would marry bass player Larry Klein, 1982-94, and she also wrote about her relationship with Nash in the song Willy (Nash’s nickname), on the Ladies of the Canyon album, released in 1970. In 1997 Joni was re-united with Kilauren Gibb, the daughter she had adopted out after falling pregnant at university in 1965 to fellow art student Brad MacMath. Graham Nash had been briefly married to Rose Eccles (1964-66), who inspired the Hollies song Jennifer Eccles, and after he and Mitchell parted, he married actress Susan Sennett, 1977- 2016 and subsequently artist Amy Grantham. Below L-R – Brad MacMath and Joni in 1965, Joni and Kilauren Gibb in 1997, Graham Nash and Amy Grantham attending an anti-Trump rally in Union Square (NYC) in 2016.

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