Our house is a very, very, very fine house
With two cats in the yard
Life used to be so hard
Now everything is easy, 'cause of you
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Joni Mitchell, at home in Laurel Canyon, c 1970
Maybe it’s just me, but CSN&Y’s “Our House” has always brought to mind a very particular image of a conservative '60s couple, probably somewhere in New England, wearing enormous sweaters as they sit at a piano in a sprawling house and sing together in praise of their traditional domestic comfort. It was quite surprising, then, to learn that the song was actually written in 1969 about a house in Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon—a place that, in that time, was a hotbed of drugs, debauchery, and revolutionary politics. Hell, it was a major stomping ground of everybody’s favorite psycho, Charles Manson.
The romantic couple of interest was composed of one Graham Nash—the “N” in CSN&Y, if’n you don’t know— and Joni Mitchell, of “Big Yellow Taxi” fame. The two musicians were an item at the time, and the story behind the song is really a rather simple one. One dreary, wet Los Angeles morning, at Nash's encouragement, Mitchell bought a pretty vase from an antique store. They took it to Mitchell’s home in Laurel Canyon. Nash made the comment, “I’ll light a fire. Why don’t you put some flowers in that vase that you just bought?” From that common exchange, the song “Our House” was born. It was written in less than an hour. Nash would later joke that he was sick of the song the very next day, but it went on to become one of the most enduring tunes he ever wrote and one that he continued to perform for decades to come.
Mitchell’s “Our House” house also happened to be the place where Nash first met and sang with David Crosby and Stephen Stills. Mitchell’s experiences in the house and surrounding Canyon also inspired her 1970 Ladies of the Canyon
The pigtails-and-penny-loafers naïveté of the song seems beautifully, strangely out of place when imagined in the Laurel Canyon scene of that time. Frank Zappa, Jim Morrison, Neil Young, and dozens of other music and movie stars lived there. They lived the kind of lifestyle that has since been mythologized as part of the '60s scene—drugs, swapping sex partners, and dabbling in overthrowing the existing political order. Music stars are still known for excess, but these early rockers were living on the very crest of the wave of celebrity excess. They were oftentimes dealing directly with dangerous underworld figures. They were also rebelling against the kind of “archaic” social constructs that monogamy and marriage represented. Yet, out of this came one of the most hopelessly optimistic songs of domestic bliss ever written—perhaps THE most hopelessly optimistic song of domestic bliss ever written.
Graham Nash, c 1976
(thanks, David Gans)
Mitchell and Nash lasted together for two years, a rather remarkable length of time for two music stars in the '60s, especially considering that Mitchell also happened to be a romantic fantasy woman for many people of that time, including other superstars. Reportedly, she was the “queen without a king” that Robert Plant pines for in Led Zeppelin’s Going to California.
“Our House” hit #30 on the Billboard Hot 100. No matter how cynical the times grow, something about the song continues to endure. Perhaps it’s because no matter how jaded we become, it’s almost impossible not to get caught up in the celebratory contentment of the song. For two minutes and fifty-nine seconds, it seems possible that everything really will be easy for the rest of our days, because we’ve found our love. The song’s been derided by many, both common listeners and music journalists alike, but 40+ years of making people lose their woes for a while in a story about soul mates and easy living? That can’t be all that bad.
~ Jeff Suwak
Songplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He also writes for The Prague Revue. He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at beyondthetempestgate.com.
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