222: Joni Mitchell, ‘River’

Posted by on Sep 11, 2015 in Rock, Song Of the week |
Photo by Joel Bernstein

Photo by Joel Bernstein

Joni Mitchell – River

Howdy, SoTW readers. How y’all doing? I do hope all’s well by you and yours.

One of the reasons I enjoy writing this blog so much is that (according to the charter I wrote myself) I can write and say whatever I want, without being concerned about pleasing the audience. But I admit that I do peek at my stats on occasion, and I do indeed get a bit stressed on the unusual occasions when readership drops below 100 a day.

I’ve figured out over the years (I’m slow, this should have been obvious before I started) that people like to read about what they know. I’d do the same. Normal people prefer familiar music. So a post about ‘Twist and Shout’ is going to garner more hits than the one about the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Women’s Choir.

f3e1e3d32ff93437dd15cc304ba6859fAnd guess who has been the most popular subject on Song of The Week over the years? Joni, not surprisingly. If you’ve been following closely, I’ve been walking through her albums, picking one song or two to pontificate on:

In the posting about ‘Blue’ I described how daunting it is to take on a masterpiece. It took me a long time to work up the courage to approach “The Band”, and I’m still working myself up to “Pet Sounds”. But having broken the ice with ‘Blue’, we’re going to treat ourselves to address at least one more of the ten glorious tracks. So we might as well go for the very best (without diminishing a whit the wonders ensconced in ‘All I Want’, ‘Carey, or any of the others) – ‘River’, a song about ‘skating away’. Careful, Jeff; careful, Joni; the ice is broken, you don’t want to fall in.

adc535077eb429d2fc81b8880db90931A few live performances by James Taylor (the aforementioned heartbreaker) and by Joni:
James Taylor at the Joni Mitchell Tribute Concert, 2001
James Taylor (unattributed)
Joni Mitchell – Live, with lovely photos and videos of Joni in the snow
Herbie Hancock (piano), Joni Mitchell (vocal)

Joni’s ‘River’ is a moving piece of music. I don’t know many people who would disagree. It juxtaposes Los Angeles vs Saskatchewan, green vs white, noise vs silence, public festiveness vs private grief, desire for the other vs preservation of self. It’s a song about heartbreak and homesickness.

What do we have? “Jingle Bells” played in minor, the simplest joys couched in pain, the irony in the very first chords setting the stage for this vignette of defeat and resignation.

ChristmasCardRiver1“It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees.”
“They’re putting up trees” would have scanned just as well. But Joni’s December is a killing season, a termination of vitality. Nobody’s sad during Christmas season. Except for those with a broken heart. Within that painful contrast resides her sadness.

“They’re putting up reindeer”. Plastic ones, Made in LaLaLand. In Saskatchewan we have, if not reindeer, then deer, elk, moose and caribou. Real ones. “Singing songs of joy and peace.” They are. Not me. I’m singing Jingle Bells in minor.

What are you doing there, Joni? What keeps you in LA? “I’m going to make a lot of money, then I’m going to quit this crazy scene.” But this year it’s going to be California, “stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song.”

“I wish I had a river I could skate away on.“ What an evocative image. A frozen river, its source somewhere in northern Saskatchewan, flowing those 2000 miles down to the city of fallen angels. But there is no such river. The Saskatchewan River itself flows eastwards for a mere 340 miles, emptying into Lake Winnipeg.

10864825_1533269443599960_2073203298_nWho among us – even the non-skaters – has not longed for that selfsame river? To escape ‘this crazy scene’, to flee back to the innocence of childhood, security, unconditional love. Did Hamlet not long to “shuffle off this mortal coil”, to escape “the whips and scorns of time”? Did Keats’ Nightingale not seek flight?

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades.

But we all know it’s a fiction. There is no river that will take us ‘back to where we once belonged’. If we were fortunate enough, we found a love “so naughty made me weak in the knees”. But Joni has “lost the best baby that I ever had”. Lost him why? “I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad.” She knows the score. “I made my baby say goodbye.” No recriminations of him or herself – that’s not the point. Nothing but loss and sadness.

Much ink has been spilled discussing the resonance of “Blue”, its “excruciating candor”, the profound effect it had on women in 1971, on songwriters, on everyone. “If you looked at me [during the recording sessions], I would weep; we had to lock the doors to make that album. Nobody was allowed in.”

From a 1979 interview: “The ‘Blue’ album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.”

ca0e11adc57f38b8ccca0a0e8221d773Joni often skates on that thin ice, risking the ridiculous to achieve the sublime.  Think about this phrase.  She does indeed transcend, take wing, defying gravity.

She has created for herself and for us a river so long that our own feet can fly us away from this troubled world.

Oh, Joni.

It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees,
They’re putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace .
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on

But it don’t snow here, it stays pretty green.
I’m going to make a lot of money, then I’m going to quit this crazy scene.
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on

I wish I had a river so long I would teach my feet to fly.
I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
I made my baby cry

He tried hard to help me, you know, he put me at ease.
He loved me so naughty made me weak in the knees.
Oh, 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 ever had.
I wish I had a river I could skate away on

Oh, I wish I had a river so long I would teach my feet to fly.
I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
I made my baby say goodbye

It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees,
They’re putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace .
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on…

 

 

 

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3 Comments

Ze'ev
Sep 11, 2015 at 2:04 pm

Great choice, eloquent review.


 
Mark L. Levinson
Sep 11, 2015 at 3:13 pm

I remember bringing home a new Joni Mitchell album, Shadows and Light, and thinking “Hey, a lyrics sheet. Great, because there’s no Internet yet. I know she writes good lyrics, so I’ll read the lyrics in advance and then I’ll appreciate the songs better.” Reading, I was greatly disappointed; there seemed to be too much ego. Look how cosmopolitan I am, I can write about the Champs Elysees. Then I put the record on, and I heard the Champs Elysees mentioned (in “Free Man in Paris”) with an overemphatic high note that injected irony and I said to myself “Well, that’s okay then.” I mention it because “River” has a similar ironic high note when it mentions the songs of love and peace. The note returns on “quit this crazy scene” as if to emphasize that making a lot of money and quitting the scene may not be likely and may not even solve anything.


 
Marc
Sep 11, 2015 at 6:01 pm

I really appreciated the clip with Herbie Hancock since I haven’t really followed, nor desired to, the latest Joni Mitchel thing. Watching and listening to her singing a live set in the “classic” jazz style gave me a whole new level of respect for her musicianship. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing it was a stretch for her to sing one of her songs this way.
(Saturday Night Live – now let’s sing it in the style of Reggae, Rap, Bach, Schonberg? – only kidding.)


 

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