Sometime, hopefully not soon, Joni Mitchell will die, what will reaction be?
I think I first heard of Joni Mitchell when Judy Collins had her monster hit with “Both Sides Now.” The irony was the hook was the instrumentation and the changes, the lyrics were secondary, then again it’s said that women get words first, and men, sometimes not at all. It was years before I heard Joni’s take, which is radically different, slowed down, meaningful, but that was because no one I knew owned the LP. At this point I’m enamored of “Clouds,” maybe because I got deeply into it in the eighties, long after its debut, long after Joni Mitchell peaked, when I found a cut-out copy at a store in Los Angeles, record buying was an adventure, I miss that aspect of it, the hunt, the surprise, but I wouldn’t want to go back to those times, when you were a victim of inventory and you only had a limited number of dollars in your pocket. “Chelsea Morning” was also a Judy Collins staple, but the winners on “Clouds” are the darker tracks, like the opener “Tin Angel” and the number covered in the movie “Alice’s Restaurant,” “Songs To Aging Children Come.” And if you’ve ever questioned your status in a relationship, a late night listening of “I Don’t Know Where I Stand” will blow your mind and if you’re familiar with Bonnie Raitt’s more famous version you’ll enjoy “That Song About The Midway,” it sounds like a waif being blown by the wind on the prairie remembering what once was, it’s so intimate, Joni Mitchell was always so intimate.
But I got on the Joni Mitchell bandwagon with “Ladies Of The Canyon.” I went to see James Taylor at Harvard in the spring of 1970, just after “Sweet Baby James” came out, and he sang “For Free,” they were in a relationship then, it was so rare that someone covered the song of another, artists were too busy selling what they’d recorded, but it resonated, it was not something I forgot. But then my sister, the one I’d visited in Boston, came home from college early, after all it was right after Kent State, revolution was in the air, finals were cancelled, and she bought “Ladies Of The Canyon.”
“Ladies Of The Canyon” contains “The Circle Game,” a well-known song at this point in time, something sung in youth group, as well as the trifle “Big Yellow Taxi” which has become famous for its couplet “They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot,” but the heart of the album is much deeper, and once again, darker. Be sure to listen to “Rainy Night House,” especially on a rainy night, it’s like Joni is speaking just to you, that was part of her magic, she wasn’t playing to everybody, just somebody, and “The Priest” is equally haunting but the killer is “The Arrangement.”
You could have been more
Than a name on the door
On the thirty-third floor in the air
More than a credit card
Swimming pool in the backyard
This was back before everybody was playing it safe, society being so rough, having killed themselves to get into a good school, they didn’t go for the brass ring, but in the sixties and seventies people were in search of themselves, of enlightenment, today everybody’s in search of middle management, otherwise known as the bank. But back then our heroes were not boasting that their lives were better than ours, rather they were looking inside and revealing their personal truth, which you turned over in your brain before you made your own decisions, before corporate rock, before disco, before Reagan legitimized greed and MTV made it about image.
Then came the apotheosis, “Blue,” which was chiaroscuro, alternately dark and light, depressed and exhilarated, and at this point “A Case Of You” is well-known but none of the tracks made the radio, but every time I return to the Golden State “California” plays in my head, I want to kiss a Sunset pig, I’m glad I’m back in the land of the enlightened and free. The same people who elected our new President denigrate my adopted homeland, but at this late date it’s where it still happens, Governor Moonbeam is back in office and most of the gadgets you’re enamored of were invented here, and there’s no better place to be in these days of turmoil, after all Joni sang “They won’t give peace a chance, That was just a dream some of us had,” I don’t know how we got here but I’m gonna do my best to soldier on, life went on after Nixon, it will continue after Trump.
Then came “For The Roses.”
It was eighteen months after “Blue,” the end of the year, and for the first time Joni Mitchell had a hit, “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio,” but its sunniness was not in evidence on the rest of the LP, then again, despite coursing along with a certain relentless drive the lyrics were a bit more complicated, with a turn of the phrase beyond anything you’ll hear on the radio today.
I know you don’t like weak women
You get bored so quick
And you don’t like strong women
‘Cause they’re hip to your tricks
Must be complicated if you’re a woman. Men are all about looks. But if you’re subservient to them they treat you like crap, and too often if you’re yourself they reject you. Meanwhile, the guys you know keep protesting they’re looking for someone real, someone who’s not a Barbie doll. And everybody’s judging each other all the time and even back then we were all worried about image, what will satisfy us…frequently nothing, makes me believe we were better off in the days of arranged marriage, truly.
And the song that follows “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio” on the LP goes even deeper on this topic, “Blonde In The Bleachers” talks about the perks of fame, the “Lovin’ ’em and leavin’ ’em” that ultimately leaves you empty. But the heart and soul of “For The Roses” comes next, “Woman Of Heart And Mind.”
I am a woman of heart and mind
With time on her hands
No child to raise
You come to me like a little boy
And I give you my scorn and my praise
No one can have it all, neither women nor men. Some of us choose not to have children. While you’re sleep-deprived, changing nappies as you ponder where your progeny will go to school, the rest of us are less selfless, we want to make it all about us, and when you encounter a person like this not only have they thought about where they’re coming from, they’re ready to engage, ready to go mano a mano, and it’s everything you’re looking for and yet sometimes too much. (Now at this late date we know that Joni Mitchell had a child, whom she was not raising, but this was before the internet, this was before everybody knew everything about everybody.)
You think I’m like your mother
Nothing turns off a woman more. They say they want to take care of you, but not in this way. They don’t want you to cry on their shoulder, despite protesting that they want you to reveal your feelings, the truth is they don’t want you to reveal weakness, but they will give you a chance, but don’t disappoint them.
Drive your bargains
Push your papers
Win your medals
Fuck your strangers
Don’t it leave you on the empty side
You’re out being a Neanderthal, competing in the business world like you did in sports, claiming your trophies, but the women you desire most are unimpressed, these are not the games they play, especially those not looking for a sperm donor, but a companion. But when they call you on it you run away, you hate to be revealed, but you’re drawn to their truth, ah, the conundrum.
So what works?
You know the times you impress me most
Are the times when you don’t try
When you don’t even try
Oh, how times have changed. Used to be boasting was unseemly. Now we’ve got a whole paradigm based on that, known as social media. A President-to-be who employs Twitter to tell us how great he is, no wonder he marries mindless foreigners, who else would put up with this? Why are we putting up with the pretenders of today’s music scene? Who believe dues are for pussies and are willing to sell their souls to the highest bidder all the while purveying their fake stories of how great their lives are. Didn’t used to be that way.
Maybe it’s still not that way.
That’s the story of this year, the disconnect between what we’re sold and reality. And maybe the reality is most of us don’t care about models frolicking on the beach, and have no desire to listen to most of the music on the hit parade. Maybe you should lead with your reputation, your good deeds, your efforts, maybe that’s enough, but society keeps telling us it’s not. You’re supposed to be selling 24/7, not only your product, but yourself. Self-improvement is the name of the game, read books by nincompoops giving advice for those who are not you while you get plastic surgery trying to impress somebody who doesn’t exist. The truth is we’re all flawed, perfect doesn’t exist, but with all these people yelling how great they are we end up feeling inferior, which is just how they want it, it’s a kind of mind control and we used to depend on artists to combat it, to speak the truth, but that paradigm is gone, as soon as anyone gets traction they play by the rules, hell, they’re obeying the rules from the get-go, whereas true artists question authority and convention, but with elected officials putting down arts majors no one wants to be the other, we all want to fit in, whereas the truth is none of us do, all of us are square pegs, you’ve got to stop looking for round holes.
The breakthrough came a year later, in January ’74, with the release of “Court and Spark.” The sound was slicker, radio embraced the sunny songs and suddenly Joni Mitchell was the beacon for women all over the world, even though she’d begun a decade before. Not that men didn’t cotton to her too, it’s just that she was the guiding light for women who were looking for someone who could speak to their experience, who they thought got them, who could lead the way.
And then Joni Mitchell took a left turn. She refused to be what she was, what people expected of her. She embraced jazz influences, she released her 1976 masterpiece “Hejira” with no singles but more truth than any mixtape. She continued, playing her own game. To the point where a few decades on she stopped, she decided to paint instead.
And Joni Mitchell recently experienced a health scare, but she’s still here. As is her music. But no one ever talks about it. This is not Leonard Cohen, an outsider who came back late in his career and went on tour because he needed the money, no, Joni Mitchell is taking no victory lap, except for Herbie Hancock’s covers album that won that Grammy that probably worked against her as opposed to for her, after all, the victory was undeserved, there was much better product in the marketplace.
But none of it as good as Joni’s best work.
She had a streak.
They talk about the Beatles, they talk about Stevie Wonder, but Joni Mitchell released five killers in a row, and hit peaks thereafter. But everything she represents seems to be done.
Paying your dues, doing it your way, not sacrificing, not playing anyone’s game… There are people who say they do this today, the only problem is none of them are half the songwriter Joni Mitchell is.
So now what?
Our heroes have been passing with scary regularity. To the point we honor them for a week and then move on, we just can’t handle the pain. But a lot of the records they made are period pieces, whereas Joni’s output sounds as fresh today as it was yesterday, there’s wisdom in these tracks, stuff people need to hear. Because sometimes it’s the human condition that confounds us most, that confuses us and we need guidance with regard to, that’s what Joni Mitchell did, she illuminated her life which made clear our life, she posited all the questions, it was up to us to come up with the answers.
David Geffen is still in the news, giving away his money, but one thing I know is every time I go out a Joni Mitchell song plays in my head.
That’s right, when I go to people’s parties I’m on guard, everybody seems so comfortable and part of me wants to run while I contemplate navigating the scene.
But the truth is the photo beauty, the banker, the elected official, they’re no different from me or you, Joni Mitchell told us this, not to put everybody else in their place but to level the playing field, and the key is to play, if you stay home nothing unexpected happens, and it’s the unforeseen, the unanticipated that makes life worth living.
Maybe laughing and crying are the same release. Maybe that’s why we crack jokes after someone dies. Maybe we need music to help us get through. Maybe we don’t hear about Joni Mitchell on a regular basis because she’s baked into our consciousness.
She’s baked into mine.