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.
If Joni Mitchell never broke your heart, you maybe never even had one to begin with.
No one can make you feel like Joni Mitchell can. Her words fill your body with both immense, overwhelming joy and sorrow. They make tears sting your eyes, make you gasp for breath, make you feel the weight of them in your gut.
Nowhere can this be seen better than side B of Blue, perhaps one of the most perfectly sequenced and emotionally loaded sides of any album, ever. She coats her jagged lyrics with a syrupy sweet voice; her songs are sugar dusted knives — they stab at your heart, but they’re addictive. You still crave more, still can’t wait to flip the record and start all over, knowing full well how much it will hurt. Why else do you think we feel the compulsive need to listen to “River” around Christmastime?
Joni made it okay for women to be imperfect creatures, to write about their faults and failures with candor — I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad— made it okay for women to be unhappy and unsure — I’m just living on nerves and feelings with a weak and a lazy mind. Joni made it okay to make mistakes, to love deeply, to love the wrong person because sometimes your heart speaks louder than your brain — I see him in cafes, and I only say hello and turn away before his lady knows how much I want to see him. She made it okay to be honest. She made it okay to feel.
All human beings should be required to listen to Joni Mitchell, the same way we all have to read The Great Gatsby in the 8th grade. I can’t imagine a better way to learn about empathy, emotions, and the human condition. We should teach her lyrics the way we teach poetry (because lyrics are literature), should teach the significance of her unique chord progressions in music classes, should teach her impact and the multiple roads she paved for women in history classes.
We should teach our children about Joni Mitchell because she is Joni Mitchell. There was no one before her, and there will never be another one.
Carly said those words with such devastation, such disappointment, such despair. It was 7 on a Friday night and we were drinking vodka and gin and talking about Joni Mitchell instead of weekend plans and our love lives and gossip, things that 20-somethings theoretically should be discussing.
“Can we talk about Joni?” I had asked with a sense of urgency as we sat down to dinner. My mind pleaded that she had read the same earth shattering news I had earlier that day. I didn’t want to be the one to break it to her.
Joni had a brain aneurysm.
Weeks ago, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I got off the subway at Central Park and glanced at Twitter on my phone. My feed was flooded with news: Joni was in a coma, Joni was on life support, Joni was going to die. My head pounded and I sat down on a bench and tried to process what I was feeling. I blinked back tears. This couldn’t be happening, I thought. Our heroes and legends and visionaries are supposed to be immortal. We couldn’t lose Joni. Not yet.
When I was 8, I took a softball to the face. It was pitched straight at me, hitting the bridge of my nose at an alarming speed. It happened so fast. It was so unexpected. It left me gasping for breath, not only from the pain, but from the shock of it all.
Friday’s news felt kind of like that.
I read the headline at work. The rumors of death had been dispelled, giving everyone a false sense of security. Everything was okay. Everything was fine. Something so gravely serious as a brain aneurysm caught me off guard. I stifled a stunned sob and immediately double checked the source. It was no rumor, like the news a few weeks ago. I then wordlessly got up, slipped into the bathroom, and silently cried.
We have been conditioned to think that death is the worst fear of them all. Death is feared not because it is so finite, but because it reminds us of our own mortality. Every time someone we care about dies, yes, we hurt, we ache, we miss them terribly. We reminisce all of the memories and lament all of the could haves that will go unfulfilled. But we also think, somewhere in the back of our minds, of ourselves. We are reminded that that’s going to be us someday, maybe sooner than we expect.
What we fail to think about, and what we should consider, is that there are fates worse than death.
Our brains are full of arteries, powerful veins connecting the head and the heart quite literally. Nearly 20 percent of the blood flowing from the heart flows to the brain. With this much blood flowing, sometimes an artery can develop weak spots, spots that bulge and become deformed, spots that leave the already delicate brain even more vulnerable, only this time it’s our own bodies that can do the damage. Sometimes aneurysms cause no symptoms. Nearly 1 in 50 people in the United States alone have an unruptured brain aneurysm; it’s not terribly uncommon.
The heart doesn’t know that the brain has been weakened, and it beats madly on. Blood continues to pump through its course. Sometimes, as artery walls take on more wear and tear, the spot grows thinner, and blood, the blood that comes from our own hearts, pumping to our brain to allow us to think and write and speak and sing, becomes the enemy. Pressure increases, aneurysms can rupture, and that same blood escapes into the space around the brain.
A ruptured brain aneurysm requires immediate medical attention. There has been no confirmation that Joni did indeed suffer a ruptured brain aneurysm, but one might assume so from a two month long hospital stay. Unruptured aneurysms are generally treated and recovered from much sooner. It’s catching the time bomb before it goes off versus intense damage control.
Ruptured brain aneurysms are fatal about 40 percent of the time. For those who survive, about 66 percent will suffer permanent neurological damage.
“Speech is difficult, but she’s communicating,” a source says.
A person will never be the same after a brain aneurysm. Their emotions, behavior, and mood change. They’ve lost cognitive abilities they once had, abilities that once made them special. How do you go from being a master of language, able to communicate through words the way others cannot to this?
“Her greatest asset betrayed her.”
Carly’s voice echoed in my ears for days. Sad can’t even begin to describe the emotional weight of those five words.
How do we do that? How do we accept this fate that is worse than death? We of course rely on our brains for everything, for day to day life, but can you imagine really relying on it? Imagine your brain contained thoughts and poems and images that no other brain had, and suddenly, one day it was gone. That suddenly, there would be a day where you were no longer the brilliant, able-minded person you were before. You just were. Not dead, but certainly not alive.
Carly was right, and it stings to think about it. Joni’s brain is the organ that sets her apart from everyone else. It’s what makes every great artist different. It is, truthfully, an artist’s greatest asset. How shocking to realize that it can suddenly stop working for you, that it can attack itself mercilessly.
In his memoir The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby described the feeling of being a quadriplegic with locked-in syndrome following a massive stroke, the feeling of being a once-brilliant editor resigned to his blinking eye as the only movement his body would allow:
“In the past, it was known as a ‘massive stroke,’ and you simply died. But improved resuscitation techniques have now prolonged and refined the agony.”
Even without an official statement of how serious Joni Mitchell’s condition is, it has me thinking regardless. How do you believe that things happen for a reason when these things occur? How do you make peace with the artist that was and accept to live your future, however that may be?
We fear death the most.
We fear not that our own bodies, once our champion, can work against us, can sabotage all of the amazing things we’ve done with it, can imprison us within.