SONGS FOR BEGINNERS – Graham Nash – Atlantic Records – 1971
The year is 1970. America is in the midst of political turmoil: the Vietnam War faces extensive grassroots backlash, four students are killed at Kent State University in Ohio, and women strike for equality in New York. The music world is not without its share of anguish: the Beatles announce their breakup, American Top 40 is about to make scoring a hit record even more important to artists, and both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin overdose and die within weeks of each other. Graham Nash is dealing with his own personal unrest. Fresh off of two breakups, romantically with Joni Mitchell and professionally with Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and politically charged, Nash takes to the studio to record his debut solo album, Songs For Beginners.
Assembled with the assistance of a slew of members of the crescendoing Laurel Canyon music community, Songs For Beginners succinctly captures the trifecta of traits that have defined Nash’s songwriting: gut-punches of raw emotion, crafted with a pop sensibility in mind, and full of rallying cries for social and political activism. Nash openly and unabashedly shares his most personal feelings, whether they are intimate depictions of heartbreak or outraged shouts, in a manner that will influence folk-rock and indie singer-songwriters for generations to come.
In this episode, we examine Graham Nash’s powerful lyrics and their lasting impression on society, discuss the wealth of music released during the Laurel Canyon era and the importance of creative incubator communities, and get deep into our feels about the relationship between Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell that fueled this album.
(and hey, while you’re at it, please rate and review us in the iTunes store so more people can discover us and we can all be pod friends who talk about music together!)
Episode notes and postscript corrections
- We are concert freaks and we saw some really great shows this week, all from artists you should really check out, that we have to call out: Lulu Lewis, Mokoomba, Roya, Wooing, Ryan Adams, Angelique Kidjo and Friends (some of which we aren’t going to talk about or mention).
- On that note: Hello. Here’s a gentle, diplomatic reminder from your friends at the ‘77 Music Club: Bands are the sum of their parts. Please remember this. We have a lot of opinions (have we met?), but we’ll leave it at that.
- See our further watching section for a great short doc of Graham Nash’s history with the Hollies.
- We love the music of Laurel Canyon. Here’s a playlist.
- We long for the days of creative incubator communities. Here are some great articles about the Laurel Canyon scene, New York’s punk/post-punk/new wave scene, the Omaha indie rock movement, and the Market Hotel scene in Brooklyn worth checking out if you feel the same way.
- SO. MANY. PEOPLE. play on this album. Check out the personnel list below. It’s stacked.
- Pop music doesn’t have to be meaningless, algorithm-pleasing, saccharine drivel. Pass it on.
- We are going to talk so much about Joni Mitchell and feelings on this episode, so get ready.
- Here’s something tiny and lovely about Joni and Graham that will make your heart swell.
- Blue is Joni’s own breakup album, and it heavily features her relationship with Graham. It is one of the most perfect, heartbreaking, profound albums ever. (Sorry if you disagree, but also, if you do, who are you and has your heart been replaced with a cold battery?)
- For those of you wondering what “shook” or “shooketh” means, here’s a brief definition.
- Follow our master soundtrack playlist on Spotify to hear how King Midas is a recurring character in Graham Nash’s songwriting.
- Also, it’s worth noting that CSN songs about Joni Mitchell often use royal, fairy tale language. See: “Guinevere.”
- A short history of Jerry Garcia just randomly deciding to play pedal steel guitar.
- David Crosby and Graham Nash both dated Joni Mitchell and remained good friends. They are not friends now. We don’t have nearly enough time to cover their petty drama right now, but the headline on this article about the current state of their relationship is quite entertaining.
- Here’s a definition of what the “silent majority” is, in case you weren’t alive for Nixon’s presidency or just didn’t pay attention in history class.
- Preach, DeRay.
- This is exactly how we feel when we listen to “Simple Man.”
- Also, this.
- “If you hold sand too tightly in your hand, it will run through your fingers. Love, Joan.” It’s fine. We’re fine.
- Graham Nash is a grown man who unapologetically displays all of his feelings and we love him so much for that.
- Will never be over this photo of Joni and Graham, truly.
- See the further watching links below for a fantastic interview with Graham from the Library of Congress. His anecdotes on love at first sight are around 45:20.
- Obviously, they’d never work out, because Joni is the “Cactus Tree.”
- Okay, pause us for a minute to feel your feelings before the next song. We’ll be here when you get back.
- Let’s talk about “Chicago.”
- Oh my God, you guys. We are such nerds and we have always been such nerds, stanning for the ‘60s and ‘70s since at least the age of 12. Thank you for liking us.
- Here’s a summary of the Chicago Eight (later reduced to seven) trials.
- This core theme — we must stand up for what is right and fight this systematic injustice — is still so unsettlingly relevant. Can we pause and think about that for a second?
- Read Graham’s thoughts about that changed “rules and regulations, who needs them?” lyric.
- Go see Graham Nash live, if you can. “Chicago” is still a showstopper.
- “Woke bae” is a thing, and Graham Nash is definitely one of the originals.
- Seriously, we cannot put our finger on what iconic protest songwriter said something in the vein of “people still do write protest songs, the problem is that mass audiences haven’t heard them because of how fragmented the music industry is.” Please hit us up if you end up being better at Google than us. It’s driving us crazy.
- Let’s try to make “We Can Change The World” the next march song. (We wish we didn’t have to say this right now.)
- Graham Nash’s influence on artists can be seen anywhere from M. Ward to Fleet Foxes to Bon Iver (watch this live cover of “Simple Man” if you want to feel feelings) and is vast. See 2010’s Be Yourself: A Tribute to Graham Nash’s Songs For Beginners to see just how sweeping.
- Graham Nash is still “shooting his mouth off” through art, whether it’s touring, recording new albums (his most recent, This Path Tonight, is quite good), painting, or photography. His philosophy is one we are behind 100 percent and one of the reasons why we have a great deal of respect for him: “This is what I do with my life. I get up in the morning and create. What an incredible life I get to lead. [….] I just want to make sure that, with every second I have left of my life, I need to be creating.”
- Ask yourself: Why did you love music in the first place, and what can you do to add to the story? We’re trying to answer that question every day.
- As always, hit us up with your thoughts on today’s episode or just to say hey. Like and follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or drop us an email.
Favorite track(s): Simple Man and Better Days (Carly) | Chicago (Carrie)
Least favorite track: There’s Only One (Carly) | There’s Only One (Carrie)
Graham Nash — vocals; guitar all tracks except “Better Days” and “Simple Man”; piano on “Better Days,” “Simple Man,” “Chicago” and “We Can Change the World”; organ on “Better Days,” “There’s Only One,” “Chicago” and “We Can Change the World”; paper and comb on “Sleep Song”; tambourine on “Chicago” and “We Can Change the World”
Rita Coolidge — piano on “Be Yourself” and “There’s Only One”; electric piano on “Be Yourself”; backing vocals on “Military Madness,” “Better Days,” “Simple Man,” “There’s Only One,” “Chicago” and “We Can Change the World”
Jerry Garcia — pedal steel guitar on “I Used to Be a King” and “Man in the Mirror”; piano on “I Used to Be a King”
Joe Yankee — piano on “Better Days” and “Man in the Mirror”
Dorian Rudnytsky — cello on “Simple Man” and “Sleep Song”
Dave Mason — electric guitar on “Military Madness”
David Crosby — electric guitar on “I Used to Be a King”
Joel Bernstein — piano on “Military Madness”
Bobby Keys — saxophone on “There’s Only One”
David Lindley — fiddle on “Simple Man”
Sermon Posthumas — bass clarinet on “Better Days”
Chris Ethridge — bass on “Man in the Mirror,” “There’s Only One,” “Chicago” and “We Can Change the World”
Calvin “Fuzzy” Samuels — bass on “Military Madness,” “Better Days,” and “Be Yourself”
Phil Lesh — bass on “I Used to Be a King”
Johnny Barbata — drums on “Military Madness,” “I Used to Be a King,” “Be Yourself,” “Man in the Mirror,” “There’s Only One,” “Chicago” and “We Can Change the World”; tambourine on “Chicago”
Dallas Taylor — drums on “Better Days”
P.P. Arnold — backing vocals on “Military Madness”
Venetta Fields, Sherlie Matthews, Clydie King, Dorothy Morrison — backing vocals on “There’s Only One,” “Chicago” and “We Can Change the World”
Graham Nash — producer
Bill Halverson, Russ Gary, Larry Cox — recording engineers
Doug Sax — mastering
Gary Burden — art direction
Joel Bernstein, Graham Nash — photography
Graham Nash Talks Life After Divorce, CSNY’s Future | Rolling Stone (August 2016)
Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life | Graham Nash’s memoir (2014)