Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and the Heartbroken Colleague Who Inspired It

Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” punched its listeners in the gut when he first released it on ‘After the Gold Rush,’ but those lovelorn feelings pale in comparison to those that the song’s muse felt when he first heard it during an impromptu house jam at Stephen Stills’ house.

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Although Young has always been vague about the specific meaning behind his songs, he acquiesced to revealing more details about the 1970 track—perhaps because of how highly the song’s inspiration spoke of it.

Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” Was About A Bandmate

Alternative theories about the meaning behind “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” include the possibility that the song was about Young’s departure from folk rock supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. While this ended up not being the case, the theory isn’t far off. Young did write the song about one of the members of CSNY; it just didn’t have to do with the band breaking up.

On the contrary, the song refers to a breakup of a different kind: that of Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell. Nash and Mitchell, both musical superstars in their own right, began dating in 1968 in a whirlwind romance that ended almost as quickly as it started. By 1970, Nash’s drug use had become too much for his Canadian heroine girlfriend, and Mitchell broke up with Nash via a telegram that read, “If you hold sand too tightly in your hand, it will run through your fingers.”

Joni Mitchell’s abrupt departure marked a devastating low in Nash’s life, who had previously been enjoying the hedonistic perks of the rockstar life. When you were young and on your own, how did it feel to be alone? Young’s song begins. I was always thinking of games that I was playing, trying to make the best of my time. Then, Young offers a reality check in the chorus: But only love can break your heart. Try to be sure right from the start. Yes, only love can break your heart.

Graham Nash Immediately Knew The Song Was About Him

Part of the beauty of Neil Young’s lyricism is that any listener can reasonably assume the straightforward lyrics were about their own experiences. But for Graham Nash, he didn’t have to assume. He just knew. I have a friend I’ve never seen, Young sings in the second verse. He hides his head inside a dream. It didn’t take much effort for Nash to connect the dots.

“That song means a lot to me because Neil wrote it about me and Joni,” Nash later told Uncut. “It’s such a beautiful song. I knew it was about me the day Neil played it for me at Stephen [Stills’] house in Laurel Canyon.” Indeed, one can imagine Young, Stills, and other contemporary musicians hanging around their Californian Laurel Canyon bungalows, playing music with and to one another, wondering where their long-lost pal Nash was.

Someone should call him and see if he can come out, Young continues in the second verse, try to lose the down that he’s found. “It’s a beautiful song, and it was incredibly important for me to hear what Neil had said because he was dead right,” Nash continued. “It is only love that can break your heart. We are strong, mankind, but these love things can really trip you up. He was only 24 when he wrote that. It’s incredible how prolific he was.”

Photo by RB/Redferns

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