Saturday, September 12, 2020

Flashback, September 1970: CSNY’s Mitchell-Inspired ‘Our House’ Released as Single

Fifty years ago this month, Atlantic Records released as a single “Our House,” the third and last song from the Deja Vu album to reach the top 100 in the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart. Following one month after Crosby Stills Nash and Young’s rushed release of “Ohio” as a stand-alone song and six months after “Woodstock,” this tender love song did not burn with combustible fervor as warm the heart—at least superficially.

As CSNY bandmate Stephen Stills had done the prior year with “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” Graham Nash was inspired to compose his song by a relationship with a folk music queen. But, while Stills wrote out of frustration over his seesawing romance with Judy Collins, Nash poured out his feelings at the zenith of his love affair with Joni Mitchell.

After eating breakfast on Ventura Boulevard, Nash and Mitchell stopped at a small antique store, where Mitchell purchased a vase, Nash later remembered: 

“It was a kind of a cold gray morning as it sometimes can be in Los Angeles, and I said, ‘Why don’t I light the fire and you put some flowers in the vase that you just bought.’ So she’s cutting stems and leaves and arranging flowers in this vase, and I’d lit the fire. Now, my and Joan’s life at the time were far from ordinary … and I thought, ‘What an ordinary moment.’ Here I am lighting the fire for my old lady and she’s putting flowers in this vase that she just bought.”

Nash promptly sat down at the piano in their home in Laurel Canyon and, within an hour to an hour and a half, wrote “Our House.”

The details evoked in the song—as well as the event that inspired it—represent an ideal of domesticity, at least in the home shared by Nash and Mitchell in Laurel Canyon—a community of friends who listened to each other’s music, dreamed of a better world—and tried to negotiate personal relationships enough to be close and intimate but not possessive.

Domesticity, as practiced by Nash and Mitchell, meant living together outside of marriage. Young people today might find this surprising, given that 7.5 million unmarried American couples now cohabit, but the concept was nearly nonexistent in 1960, according to a 2012 study by the National Institute of Health.  

Such relationships, however, had come into vogue in the counterculture. It especially suited a bohemian like Mitchell, much of whose subsequent work reflected her oscillation between emotional closeness and the personal freedom she required as an artist. “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city,” she sang in “My Old Man.”

The relationship between her and Nash came into existence not only because of personal attraction, but through their Laurel Canyon community’s ideals of friendship and freedom.

“I can only liken it to Vienna at the turn of the century or Paris in the Thirties,” Nash remembered in the documentary Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind. “There was this freedom in the air, this sense that we could do anything. We were scruffy kids that were, in some small way, were changing the world and changing the way we think about things.”

Mitchell had originally been involved with CSNY bandmate David Crosby, who yielded when he sensed the growing attraction between her and Nash.

“Our House” was not the only indication of Mitchell’s influence on CSNY: they also recast her quietly meditative “Woodstock” into an electrified anthem of the counterculture.

Mitchell's influence on Nash's work lasted longer than their relationship, however.

“I had sworn my heart to Graham in a way that I didn’t think was possible, and he wanted me to marry him," she noted years later. "I had agreed to it, and then I just started thinking that my grandmother was a frustrated poet and musician and she kicked the kitchen door off of the hinges on the farm…As much as I loved and cared for Graham, I just thought I’d end up like my grandmother.”

Nash got a telegram from Greece from Joni that ended, “If you hold sand too tightly, it will run through your fingers.” “It was Joan’s way of saying goodbye to me,” Nash recalled. The two would go on to other partners but would remain close friends.

The recording sessions for the Déjà Vu LP were among the most difficult in rock history, with the band members often nitpicking particular tracks. One wonders if even a seemingly simple tune like “Our House” elicited this same rough treatment.

Not everyone was enthused with “Our House.” Four years after its release, Rolling Stone’s Langdon Winner called it “a flyweight ditty with nothing to say and makes this clear through its simpering melody.”

But the song has become a staple of classic rock stations, and will probably endure long after Nash and the rest of CSNY are no more.

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