Saturday, May 15, 2021

The Albums of 1971: Graham Nash: Songs For Beginners


Release Date: May 28, 1971

Written and Produced by Graham Nash

Contributors: Pretty much everyone on the California scene at that time! (David Crosby, Rita Coolidge, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, and many more)

Side One: Military Madness; Better Days; Wounded Bird; I Used to Be a King; Be Yourself (Co-written with Terry Reid)

Side Two: Simple Man; Man in the Mirror; There's Only One; Sleep Song; Chicago; We Can Change the World

All members of Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young released solo records in 1971. Songs for Beginners marked the solo debut of Graham Nash who had written many hits for The Hollies including "On a Carousal" and "Carrie Ann." Deja Vu from 1970 had proved a massive hit for CSNY and skyrocketed the careers of all four members. Song for Beginners benefitted from a parade of the best session musicians on the West Coast dropping in to make contributions. The tracks on the record are mostly personal with a few commenting on the political scene, the personal and political converge nicely on the opening track "Military Madness."

The melodic intro opens with an autobiographical verse:

In an upstairs room in Blackpool
By the side of a northern sea
The army had my father
And my mother was having me

In the next verse Nash reflects on moving to America in the midst of the Vietnam War and seeing its emotional toll on his generation and a "solitary sadness" creeping over him. In the next verse he reflects:

And after the wars are over
And the body count is finally filed
I hope the The Man discovers
What's driving the people wild

It's a sentiment that connects to any time period, living in war or pandemic.

"Chicago" and its refrain "We Can Change the World" reflect on the 1968 Democratic Convention and the Chicago 8 trial. The song presents those events as a precipice for a generation, "We can change the world/it's dying/to get better." Nash was in Chicago for the convention which adds a personal touch to the universal message common to music of this era. 

Nash had been in a relationship with Joni Mitchell and many of the songs reflect on its end. "Better Days" is about the sadness of it ending, but accepts the other is moving on. "Wounded Bird" is an acoustic number addressed to Stephen Stills, was also dealing with a breakup. "I Used to be a King" reflects on loss, building from a morose mood to an uplifting coda. The introspection of "Be Yourself" sounds similar to a Neil Young song era is the best produced track on the album.

"Simple Man" and "Sleep Song" are both gentle songs of longing, "Man in the Mirror" reflects on how to live and the tension between turning inward out outward. "There's Only One" muses on the fate of his generation with a sense of trepidation and hope.

Songs for Beginners stands alongside all the great music coming emerging from the west coast during the early 1970s. The album proved influential on many indie rock bands evidenced by the tribute album recorded in 2010 that featured Robin Pecknold, Bonnie Prince Billy,  and Vetiver. Graham's daughter Nile Nash performed "Wounded Bird."

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