“I first met Joan in Ottawa, Canada in 1967. The Hollies were playing a show there and Joni was playing at a local club. There was a party thrown for us after our show, and when I entered the room I noticed a beautiful woman sitting down with what appeared to be a large bible on her knees. I kept staring at her and our manager at the time, Robin Britten, was saying something into my ear and distracting me from my quest. I asked him to be quiet as I was checking Joni out. He said “if you’d just listen to me I’m trying to tell you that she wants to meet you.” David Crosby had told me earlier that year to look out for Joni should I ever get the chance to meet her. Joni and I hit it off immediately, and I ended up in her room at the Chateau Laurier and she beguiled me with 15 or so of the most incredible songs I’d ever heard. Obviously I fell in love right there and then. She touched my heart and soul in a way that they had never been touched before.”
It would take two more years before they met again, but the second time was the charm. Graham moved to L.A. in order to form Crosby, Stills & Nash, and encountered Joni again. The two became an item, sharing Joni’s home in Laurel Canyon. Their love was idyllic, and the two songwriters shared the piano in the living room as they wrote their songs. Graham wrote “Our House” about this happy time, and it appeared on the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young megahit Deja Vu:
Joni returned the sentiment with songs like “Willy” (her nickname for Graham), which appeared on her Ladies of the Canyon album. But it was her album Blue that would provide the most insight into her relationship with Graham, as it chronicled the ups and the downs alike. “My Old Man” is a warm tribute to their love affair:
But as Joni was writing the songs that became Blue, something else happened. Graham recalls that time:
“Joni’s grandmother had always wanted to be a creative person. But in those days, you had to be a wife and a mother, and you had to bake and take care of the kids. You had to stay home while your old man went to work. She had never been given the chance to express herself artistically.
And Joni recounted to me that she remembered the story of her grandmother kicking the door viciously, out of frustration. Joni, I believe, saw that as one of the downfalls of marriage.
I also believe that somewhere in Joni’s mind she thought that I would demand that of her. Which is completely false. How in the hell could anybody with a brain say to Joni Mitchell, “Why don’t you just cook?”
So even though we talked about marriage, I think the reality of it — from Joni’s point of view — was very scary.”
Joni eventually travelled to Europe, alone. She sent Graham a telegram ending their relationship. “River”, from Blue, transparently shares Joni’s side of this struggle, with lines like “He tried hard to help me, you know he put me at ease/He loved me so naughty he made me weak in the knees/I wish I had a river I could skate away on/I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad/Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I’ve ever had”:
Completely devastated, Graham found solace in writing more songs. They became the backbone of his first solo album, the classic Songs for Beginners. “I Used to Be a King” was a reference to Joni’s “I Had a King”, and “Sleep Song” sadly recalled Joni’s leaving. “Simple Man” echoed the things he must have told Joni: “I just want to hold you, I don’t want to hold you down”:
He looks back on his time with Joni with great fondness, although the sadness still shows:
To have had the love of that woman was such an incredible feeling for me. I was flying. I was on cloud nine — no, I was on cloud 10! I felt insanely lucky. Many people have said “You know, when you and Joni walked into a room, the whole room lit up.”“Listening to “Blue” is quite difficult for me personally. It brings back many memories and saddens me greatly. It is, by far, my most favorite solo album, and the thought that I spent much time with this fine woman and genius of a writer is incredible to me.”