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259: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau: ‘Marcie’ (Joni Mitchell), ‘Don’t Think Twice’ (Dylan)

Posted by jeff on Mar 24, 2017 in Jazz, New Acoustic, Rock, Song Of the week

122815-r4-f3_wide-3f58a2451f6181b363e9f119d2fe83033cd14290-s900-c85Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — ‘Marcie’

Joni Mitchell — ‘Marcie’

Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’

Bob Dylan — ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’

I’ve made it a guiding principle of this blog to focus on music I love. Hence, you only know the jolly, positive, coddling Jeff.
Alas, there’s an alter ego lurking in the nether depths of my Critic’s Psyche: the censorious, condemnatory, disparaging, judgmental Jeff, the one those near and dear to me have the misfortune of suffering through.

maxresdefaultSo this week I’m going to share with you not one but two! new covers of great songs from not one but two! artists I greatly admire. Except I’m going to step on some toes and sour-milk some sacred cows along the way. Bear with me, I promise there will be a happy ending.

Chris Thile (b. 1981) and Brad Mehldau (b. 1970) just released a double CD. I have great admiration for the former, the preeminent jazz pianist around today; immense respect for the latter, a certified MacArthur wunderkind. But I find it a mediocre disk, even boring. I’ve listened to it maybe 25 times in the last two weeks, and most of it still just wafts past my ears.

Perhaps it’s something in the sound of the mandolin. Say what you want, it sounds to me like a toy guitar from the Ozarks, no matter how brilliant the notes are.

Perhaps it’s the fact that Mehldau tends to disappear in collaboration, displaying excessive modesty when he should be leading the band.
That’s why I always prefer listening to him solo. Nowhere to hide, Brad – it’s all painfully vulnerable, exposed, grave and seriously profound, whether he’s playing Bach or Radiohead.

However, there are two cuts on the album that made my head spin. Both are covers of great songs by great artists. And in one way or another, both improve on the original.

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11e499000e1ae934ee0afb385d9863ca‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, from Dylan’s first real album (of originals).

I don’t say that lightly. The very idea of someone improving on Dylan’s treatment of his own song is fundamentally questionable. “No one sings Dylan like Dylan.” In one of our first SoTWs we wrote about exactly such a case—Fairport Convention singing ‘I’ll Keep It with Mine’. But there, if you’ll pardon the hairsplitting, it’s more Dylan’s fault than Sandy Denny’s achievement. He wrote a gentle, intriguing song and shouted it out, banging on the piano. Fairport just laid back and gave it a suitable, straightforward reading.

Not so with ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, one of Dylan’s first ‘hits’ (popularized by the fine Peter, Paul and Mary cover from late 1963, half a year after the release of “Freewheelin’”). Dylan “borrowed” a lot of the song from fellow folkie Paul Clayton’s ‘Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons’, but the scathing, caustic dismissal of the girl (in retrospect, of course) and the relationship they did/didn’t have is all Dylan aged 22 par excellence. Dylan raised snide, furious, finger-pointing name-calling to a Nobel Prize-level art form.

Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is ironic. He doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t think twice. He’s beating her up verbally, machine-gunning her with his esprits de l’escalier, getting in all the last punches beneath the belt after the bell has rung. It’s all condescension and self-righteousness. He means that he’s going to leave her with a pummeling that will make her regret losing the wonderful Him 10,000 times a day while she’s recuperating.

Thile-Chris-07Chris Thile tells a very different story. It’s all insouciance, nonchalance, cool. What we adults call indifference. There’s no recrimination, no great regrets, because, really, who cares? Who needs a real relationship? Who wants commitment? We were together, it’s getting messy, I’m out of here before I get anything sticky on me.

When Dylan sings “We never did too much talking anyway”, the subtext is ‘little you wasn’t capable of entering a dialogue with wonderful me.”
When Thile sings “But we never really did that much talking anyway”, the subtext is ‘What’s the big deal? It’s not like we talked or anything.”

When Dylan sings “I gave her my heart by she wanted my soul”, he’s accusing her of predatory rapaciousness.
When Thile sings it, with a wonderfully expressive squeal, he’s saying ‘Hey, she tried to scratch my Teflon, man! I’m out of here!’

Now, the question is whether the song holds the potential for both readings. Admittedly, Chris has the distinct advantage of coming from a generation that doesn’t give a fuck about anything.

Want to hear my opinion? I have a lot of respect for Chris’s reading. Dylan’s is a perfect example of why I admire him so much and have no affection for him. He’s really quite obnoxious in his self-righteousness. Chris? He may be as uncommitted as a jellyfish, but at least there are no pretentions about it.

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joni&doug

Photo: Rod Pennington

‘Marcie’, from Joni Mitchell’s first album

I’ve written a series of postings about Joni’s early albums: ‘Cactus Tree’ from the first album; ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ from the second; ‘For Free’ and ‘Woodstock’ from the third; ‘Blue’ and ‘River’ from the fourth. Someday I’ll get to the enigmatic, elusive ‘For the Roses’.

The first album occupies a place in my heart for a number of reasons, as I wrote in SoTW 106: She was unknown, she was mine. It was the first collaboration of David Crosby (producer) and Stephen Stills (bass), a harbinger of things to come. It was the music she was singing when I met her in Nashville with Bob Dylan on the Johnny Cash show.

It’s a groundbreaking album. Together with Laura Nyro (who released her first album in February, 1967, and her masterpiece “Eli & the 13th Confession” the same month as Joni’s first, March 1968) they gave a new voice to the nascent new womanhood.

But most of all, it’s just a very fine album. Every song on Joni’s first album is a perfectly crafted gem of a vignette from her first taste of independence as a newly liberated woman, Greenwich Village.

I sat up straight and smiled broadly when I first heard Chris Thile’s ‘Marcie’. It was for me an utterly refreshing look at an old friend. It’s a fine example of the justification for covers, shining new light on great music. Not a revelation, perhaps, but certainly a revealing of truths I had previously not seen.

hqdefaultIf ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is all about Thile’s plinky mandolin, here it’s Brad’s elegant, legato accompaniment that carries the arrangement. Even Thile’s vocal is serving the tone set by Brad.

Thile/Mehldau’s reading isn’t so different from the original. It’s the same girl with the same predicament – living her life, but thinking only of the man not calling. But it does shed light some of the limitations of Joni’s music. That’s not a criticism – Joni’s reading is full, convincing, unassailable, memorable. But you’ve always got the road not taken – every choice you make means passing on the alternative, never to be explored. At least until someone comes along and covers your song.

Chris’s treatment is so much more intimate, fraught with so much empathy. In contrast, Joni sounds removed, distant. As painfully confessional as Joni is at her best, the exposure is in the lyrics. Her carefully controlled tremelo sounds just a little standoffish in comparison with Chris’s candor. She is here at her most precious –just a little too delicate, too refined. She’s presenting a finely crafted portrait. Chris is lamenting the predicament of a Marcie he feels for.

Still, he’s singing Joni’s song. It’s the difference between a creative artist and a performing artist. You gotta give the nod to creator. You just got to.

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You don’t need “Chris Thile/Brad Mehldau” to justify the standing of Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. People will be singing their praises and their songs “somewhere ages and ages hence”. But they are not the end of even their own story. They’ve given us – and Brad and Chris – a legacy to explore, to build on, and maybe even here and there to serve as an inspiration for genuine and new readings that amplify and enhance the originals.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Brad Mehldau SoTWs

Chris Thile SoTWs

Bob Dylan SoTWs

Joni Mitchell SoTWs

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3

222: Joni Mitchell, ‘River’

Posted by jeff 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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5

215: Joni Mitchell, ‘Blue’

Posted by jeff on Apr 3, 2015 in Rock, Song Of the week

Joni Mitchell – ‘Blue’

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Joni Mitchell, 1969 Photo: Rod Pennington

Joni’s hospitalized, and what better way to cheer her up than to talk about one of her finest songs?

I assume that all my regular readers picked up on the fact that I’ve been walking through the Joni discography album by album, chronologically (as is my wont): SoTW 106, ‘Cactus Tree’ (from her first album); 141, ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ (“Clouds”); 163, ‘For Free’ and 177, ‘Woodstock’ (“Ladies of the Canyon”). Y’all know what the fourth album is. Hence the hesitation.

The album “Blue” (1971) is daunting. The New York Times chose it as one of the 25 turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music. In 1999 it was granted a Grammy Hall of Fame award. It’s everyone’s “Greatest Relationship Album”. What do I have to add? But it’s next on the list, and just as Dr. Johnson didn’t miss touching a single fencepost, so will Jeff not flinch from a challenge.

The song ‘Blue’ reminds me of Suzie C., the stunning blonde from my high school class, who was actually a very sweet girl but was left dateless for the senior prom because everyone was afraid to ask her out. The unapproachable. No one wants to deal with it head-on. It’s so much easier to chart and plot the (albeit transparent) biographical details, to talk about her breakup with James Taylor and his habit, than to deal with the song as a work of art mano a mano.

54cc08c4fde9250a6c41710c_imageMade the mistake with Suzie, ain’t gonna do it again. Besides, I’m not really worried that Joni will say ‘no’. So let us roll up our sleeves, gird our loins, and join a combat of love with the title song of one of the cultural icons of my generation.

I’ve read a couple of biographies of Joni recently. (I tend to read mostly musical biographies these days.) One had a beautiful cover and a vacuum within that made me cry for the tree that sacrificed its life in the book’s manufacture. The other had a pretty hideous cover but lots of very convincing facts about who walked in on whom sleeping with whom and as a result wrote a song that topped the Hit Parade.

I can’t retain all those details, and I readily admit that there are armies of kids brighter and fresher and boreder than me who know the details of Joni’s life better than I remember my own. So I’m going to hark back to a trick I learned in college.

James Taylor & Joni Mitchell, 1971 Photo: Joel Bernstein

James Taylor & Joni Mitchell, 1971
Photo: Joel Bernstein

I had to pick a major. None of the subjects I was interested in (sleep, Beatles, girls, marijuana, Hitchcock, girls, beer, Dylan, in approximately that order) was offered. So I chose English Lit. I figured it would be easier to read than to actually study. I quickly learned that Ulysses (either one) and Tristram Shandy were more like driving a forklift than watching Dobie Gillis. So I specialized in poetry. Do you know how much less time it takes to read a sonnet than an epic? Freeing up the rest of the night for [enter item from list above].

But some of that poetry was really hard. Beowulf and Paradise Lost and all that? Forget it. So I sub-sub-specialized in Modern American and British poetry. That’s where I met Yeats and Auden and Frost and Eliot and Pound. They were okay, if class didn’t start before 11:00 and the professor talked really slowly. It was there that by some remarkable osmosis, I learned this magnificent trick that has held me in good stead these many years: Close Reading. It’s an approach developed by the New Critics from around the 1930s which has greatly impacted all forms of literary investigation till today: Forget the history surrounding the poem, forget the biography of the poet, forget his other works; just concentrate on the work before you and see if it stands on its own terms.

Crown and Anchor

Crown and Anchor

Or in my interpretation: No homework! Let’s go get a beer!

Well, I’ve mellowed and matured immeasurably since then, but Close Reading still vibrates for me as the legitimate approach to reading a poem. Or examining the lyrics of an iconic Joni Mitchell song.

Joni has said that this song is about her relationship with James Taylor and his relationship with heroin. James has said it. Everyone has said it. If I were a strict adherent of The New Criticism, I’d talk about The Narrator and The Addressee. But I’m not a strict anything, so for the sake of sanity and lucidity, let’s just call them Joni and James.

Crown & Anchor Tattoo

Crown & Anchor Tattoo

What do we have here?

  • The narrator, Joni
  • The addressee, James, but a case could be made to see Blue as blueness, the world of downhood
  • The dialog between them
  • A shifting collection of sea-related metaphors
  • A context for the dialog (stanza 3)
  • The narrator’s stated attitude towards and intentions regarding the context (stanza 4).
  • A real song (‘Blue’ itself).

Let’s start with stanzas 3, 4 and 5, because they seem to me more straightforward. Stanza 3 is saying many of our/your social group are indulging in profligate behavior (stick in a couple of words like that and you already got yerself a passing grade) which is clearly threatening and likened to waves.

Joni explicitly disapproves of this licentiousness (we’re up to a C with that one), not just the ‘I don’t think so’, but also the ironic, diminishing repetition of ‘lots of laughs’.  It’s not funny, she’s saying. Yet despite the inherent dangers, she remains—because she loves him. Will she partake? Or just indulge in voyeurism? ‘I’m gonna take a look around it’ is rather tossed off. The issue of the degree of her involvement or commitment in ‘the scene’ is marginal. The significant point is the art, the foggy lullaby she writes for him.

Ink on a pin underneath the skin

Joni, after all, is a consummate (C+) artist. Let’s go have a painful experience, maybe we can get a good song out of it. I think that approach is explicitly expressed here. ‘There is your song from me.’ That’s the ultimate point.

What is foggy? The songwriter? The song? The addressee? Well, we know what the song is—it’s this one, ‘Blue’. It’s a shell—organic, found, rather than a work of active creation. A sigh. If I had to try to tie that all together, I’d say her ties to ‘him’ are as natural, inevitable, as the movement of the waves and the sound emanating from the shell. A resigned embrace. She’s unhappy with her love for him, but it’s undeniable. He is her drug. So she cradles him, sings to him, in acceptance of his ultimate absence, his loyalty to that other thing he’s addicted to. We’re left with an image of the Madonna cradling the bleeding Jesus.

Okay, now let’s tackle the first two stanzas, which for me are the outstanding ones of the song, some of the most stunning lyrics she’s written.

1253_user1_100222-112250Songs are like tattoos.

What tattoos? A crown and anchor tattoo, the traditional mark of seafarers, based on elements from the C&A dice game played in the British Navy.

But Joni is one humdinger of a wordsmith. Crown and anchor me—tattoo me, but also elevate me and secure me. Like lovers do.

What songs are like crown and anchor tattoos? Well, this one. Because it’s the mark of a seafarer, one who has ‘been to sea before’, one who has traversed the deep and stormy waters of drugs, drink, sex and violence. And it’s her lullaby to him, that which tells of her love, elevates and secures him.

Or let me sail away–either give me ‘love’, with its passion and its security, or let me move on to someone who will do so. But in the end, we see the threat, the complaint isn’t pursued. She capitulates to him quickly. She only gets him in a fog, with his ultimate allegiance to the needle. Still, she cradles him.

And here’s my favorite verse, the one that really bowls me over. Here is a song for you–

MADONNA_AND_JESUS-1289824712Ink on a pin. My ‘tattooing’ of you is by writing this song with a pin/pen. This is how I mark you, I brand you, I lay a permanent claim over you. But my songs—this song—is no mere ditty. It abides underneath the skin. A Cole Porter cliché? Oh, no, that’s just the starting point. Just as the tattooists pin insinuates ink underneath the skin, so my song will mark you permanently in that most intimate of places. You’re of a particular breed, James, you have an empty space beneath your skin, a hollowness, a void, a place of need. As a sailor needs adventure, as a junkie needs his fix, as a person in a relationship needs to lay claim to his partner (at least for the moment) and to be laid claim to—that’s the place my tattoo/song will occupy in you.

The metaphor is impressive by any standards, in its technical mastery, in its controlled passion, in the ideas it’s presenting.

Joni is a consummate artist. She works at her songs, she crafts them. A metaphor such as this doesn’t plop down out of the sky in a fit of ecstasy. A lot of pieces of crumpled paper were left in its wake. It’s fine, it’s refined, it’s artistry. It’s also passionate and painful. You know what? It really is a great song.

Feel well, Joni.

 

 

Blue, songs are like tattoos.
You know I’ve been to sea before.
Crown and anchor me
Or let me sail away.

Hey Blue, here is a song for you–
Ink on a pin
Underneath the skin,
An empty space to fill in.

Well there’re so many sinking now
You’ve got to keep thinking
You can make it thru these waves.
Acid, booze, and ass,
Needles, guns, and grass,
Lots of laughs. Lots of laughs.

Everybody’s saying that hell’s the hippest way to go.
Well I don’t think so,
But I’m gonna take a look around it, though.
Blue, I love you.

Blue, here is a shell for you.
Inside you’ll hear a sigh,
A foggy lullaby.
There is your song from me.

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6

177: Joni Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’

Posted by jeff on Aug 16, 2013 in Rock, Song Of the week

Forty-four years ago today, I was driving away from the Woodstock festival. Bill and I slogged our way through the traffic and the masses and the mud, were present at the first night of the show, and prudently (cowardly) took our leave for more sanitized pastures. Not that we weren’t transformed or transfixed. We were merely cutting out early from a mind-boggling festival. Had we known that our presence at The Mythical Event would be a major claim to fame for the rest of our lives, we might have stuck it out.

Joni Mitchell, 1969 (Photo Rod Pennington)

As far as the music went, I believed then as I still do today – the best of it can be better heard after a shower and a good meal, under headphones in a comfortable chair.

When I tell younguns about The Day, I focus on the social context. It was a Nixonian world. The WASP establishment ruled the airways, the record companies, the universities, and the Department of Defense. They were waging a war I then perceived as imperialist and trying to send me – ME!! – there to be killed. I was less than enthusiastic.

The counterculture, the hippies, the rock music fans, the anti-war demonstrators, were the seditious opposition. The establishment saw us as beyond the fringe. But through 1968 and 1969, just as the monthly body rose, so did the numbers of naysayers, marijuana smokers and record sales.

The Monterey Festival of summer, 1968, had 35,000 attendees. Woodstock had half a million. Our feeling in July 1969 was that we were illegitimate, disenfranchised pariahs. We saw an ad for the festival, we drove to upstate New York, and – mile after mile of car, rivulet joining rivulet into a stream and then a torrent and then a flood of long-haired freaks – we discovered that we were in fact a nation. It wasn’t just a music festival. It was the birth of a new option for living our lives.

I was walking along a country road on my way down to Yasgur’s farm

My most vivid image of the festival wasn’t the half-million on the hillside, the mud, or the music. It was approaching the site. The radio was reporting massive traffic snarls. We parked at the side of the road only a couple of miles from the turnoff (we got there early afternoon Friday). I remember the distance from the road to the site as an hour’s walk, but I wouldn’t bet the family farm on the veracity of that. It was that walk to Yasgur’s farm that’s indelibly engraved in my mind. All those hippies, all those hippies, all those hippies. Crawled out of the woodwork to form a new nation.

The story of the composition of the song ‘Woodstock’ is well-documented. Joni Mitchell’s consorts Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young reached the site by helicopter and a stolen truck hot-wired by Young. Dick Cavett wanted to feature Joni on a show about the festival, and her managers David Geffen and Elliot Roberts thought that an hour of national TV was more important than risking her getting stuck at the ‘muddy love-in’, and so kept her in New York.

But Crosby and Stills did make it back in time for the show, together with the Jefferson Airplane. Stills famously showed the cameras his mud-caked jeans.

The Macedonian Army — Bethel, NY, August 1969

Cavett: “Would you consider the festival a success?”
Crosby: “It was incredible. It was probably the strangest thing that’s ever happened in the world. (Audience applause.) Can I describe what it looked like flying in on the helicopter, man? It looked like an encampment of the Macedonian army on the Greek hills, crossed with the biggest band of Gypsies you ever saw.”

It was indeed a watershed event.

Stephan Stills’ Real Woodstock Mud

By the time they got to the Dick Cavett show, Joni had written what would become the theme song of the festival. “The deprivation of not being able to go provided me with an intense angle on Woodstock,” said Joni. Crosby said that she had captured the feeling and importance of the Woodstock festival better than anyone who had been there.

It became a hit in CSN&Y’s raucous version (#11 in the US, the only song on “Déjà vu” in which they all played simultaneously), then commercialized even further by Matthews Southern Comfort (#1 in the UK). But of course we’re going to talk about Joni’s enigmatic original, predictably overshadowed by the more palatable treatments.

Billion Year Old Carbon, Murray-Dodge Hall, Princeton University

Perhaps some of my regular readers have noticed that I’ve been walking through Joni’s discography chronologically. We’ve discussed ‘Cactus Tree’ (the first album), ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ (the second album) and ‘For Free’ from “Ladies of the Canyon”, which is by all accounts a mixed bag, a collection of vivid songs, less cohesive than her first two albums, yet far more mature artistically, containing songs a league beyond almost all her previous work. Half of the songs could have fit comfortably into either of the first two albums, mostly ‘relationship songs’ (‘Morgan Morningtown’, ‘Conversation’, ‘Willy’, ‘The Arrangement’, ‘Rainy Night House’, ‘The Priest’, ‘Blue Boy’), albeit with a much more adventuresome sound palette. She plays piano on five of the album’s cuts, as opposed to on only one cut from the first two albums. She employs strings, woodwinds and stylized backing vocals (her own), admirably expanding her aural canvas.

We Are Stardust — Murray-Dodge Hall, Princeton University

For my money, every one of the other songs is superior to those seven. ‘Other’ songs, each one individual, all of them exploring new subject matters outside the realm of the strictly personal: ‘For Free’, ‘Ladies of the Canyon’, ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, ‘Woodstock’, ‘Circle Game’. Each one an autonomous gem. It seems Joni had to go outside herself to hone her craft. It is this command of her lyrics, music and sound production that she employs so successfully a year later in her masterpiece “Blue” to explore her inner landscape with such acute, painful precision.

But we get ahead of ourselves. ‘Woodstock’ is ostensibly a celebratory anthem, a paean to the birth of a nation. Why does she couch it in a minor key? Why is the basic sound plaintive, pained, even anguished (the lead vocal, the tremolo Wurlitzer electric piano, the backing chorus of Macbeth’s witches)? Why? To tell you the truth, I have no satisfactory answer.

It is clear to me that Joni was strongly influenced by the Appollo 11 moonwalk three weeks earlier. And I can tell you that the metaphor of planes metamorphosing reoccurs as the central image in her song ‘Amelia’. And I fell in love with ying-yanged granite stump made of billion year-old carbon in front of the staid Murray-Dodge Hall at Princeton University.

Joni’s treatment of ‘Woodstock’ is intriguing enough to have inspired some 251 documented covers of the song (according to the official Joni Mitchell site). I admit it remains an enigma for me. A riveting, beautiful, inspiring enigma, proving that the true Woodstock is in our minds.

I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try an’ get my soul free

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who I am
But you know life is for learning

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation

We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

The Dick Cavett ‘Woodstock’ Show
Songs of The Week about Joni Mitchell
072: Stephen Stills, ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ (“Just Roll Tape”)

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