5

222: Joni Mitchell, ‘River’

Posted by jeff on Dec 13, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week
Photo by Joel Bernstein

Photo by Joel Bernstein

Joni Mitchell – River

Howdy, SoTW readers. Merry Christmas to all my Christian fellowmen out there. 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 am pleased the higher they go.

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)

And here’s my favorite cover of River, by the Danish rhythm choir Vocal Line, a stunning arrangement by the wonderful Line Groth.

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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6

286: Joni Mitchell, ‘The Circle Game’

Posted by jeff on Jun 29, 2018 in Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

Joni Mitchell, ‘The Circle Game’

Nogah (aged 8) and Poppa, ‘High Hopes’

My granddaughter Nogah never ceases to amaze me.

Tonight’s her high school graduation, and I’ll be leaving the house soon to drive there, about 75 minutes away. It’ll be long and boring, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Nogah’s my first grandchild, so of course she occupies a special place in my heart. And now she’s all grown up.

These last few months have been a series of rites of passage:

  • her 18th birthday
  • her formal declaration of girlfriendhood
  • finishing her matriculation exams
  • graduating high school
  • deciding on her first steps as an independent major (she’s going to study Torah for a year at a girls’ seminary before joining the army for two or three years)
  • most importantly—her driver’s license.

 

She’s been deep in studying for her exams, so we haven’t had a chance to celebrate all these milestones properly. We probably never will. She’s too busy moving into that big future to stop and celebrate the past. She’s 18 and rocketing forward into the great unknown. The past is past. Let’s go, future!

I don’t have a problem with Nogah growing up. I look at her and see a young woman. Okay, I have looked on-line for ways to turn her back to being 4 years old—Aztec herbal medicines, quack elixers, New Age religions–but all in all, I’m cool with her growing up.

Even though, and I know this is a subject you’re not supposed to discuss, watching her reach adulthood entails some pretty grave ramifications for her granddad. But I’m sure that when I see her walk down the aisle to receive her diploma, my thoughts will be all on her.

I‘ll be remembering when my daughter told us that she was expecting. I can shed a tear at much less than that, so I’m guessing I made somewhat of a fool of myself there in the dining room at Mt Scopus.

I’ll be thinking of what my grandfather said to me when I told him I was going to make him a great-grandfather: “The sages tell us that each generation is like a strand. When a man sees the third generation of progeny, that forms a rope on which he climbs directly into heaven.”

I’ll be thinking of her at 3, and the CD I made for her. I never really liked singing kids’ songs, but—hey, this is Nogah. I just had to do it. Here’s my version of Peter, Paul & Mary’s version of Woodie Guthrie’s ‘Car-Car’. I really do like the CD covers, though.

I’ll be thinking of her at 8, the time I took her into a studio to show her how recordings were made, to see if I could encourage her to sing. We recorded Sinatra’s ‘High Hopes’. This is what Nogah and I sound like together. Ain’t she sweet?

I’ll be thinking of her at 12, when she stood up in synagogue to make her Bat Mitzva speech in front of several hundred people and gave a 12-minute talk (but who’s counting?) about birds in the Bible.

I’ll be thinking about her at 14, when she called me from a store: “Hi Poppa!” (with the honey dripping from her voice), “Mom said I could buy a new blouse for the holidays, and I’m in the store now, and there’s this really beautiful dress that I’m absolutely in love with…” She knows who’s an easy pushover.

I’ll be thinking about her at 16, wearing a beautiful opal-colored A-line dress to meet her grandfather at a fancy coffee shop in The Big City.

I’ll be thinking about her at 17, calling me to say: “I just had to tell you, Poppa, that I’m cleaning up my room. And do you know what I’m listening to? That James Taylor CD you made me.”

I’ll be thinking about her as a wise person, someone I and everyone who knows her consult with about interpersonal affairs, because she’s got people smarts and an emotional intelligence that surpasses that of most human beings.

I’ll be thinking about the fact that even though she knows she has me wrapped around her finger, and even though she knows I know she knows she has me wrapped around her finger, she takes advantage of it to just the right extent.

I’ll be thinking about conversing with her both eye-to-eye and old person to young person, simultaneously.

She amazes me every time I see her.

I really do think she’s an amazing young lady. And I’m not biased, really! Empirically speaking, she’s ambitious, she’s colorful, she’s dramatic, she’s engaged, she’s idealistic, she’s moral, she’s responsible, she’s sensible, she’s sensitive, she’s sentimental. I’m so happy that she’s going to be bearing my genes into the future, long after I’m gone.

And what did she do today to amaze me? She called and asked me to write a Song of The Week about her and her graduation. No-brainer, Pumpkin.

I know half a dozen coming-of-age songs off the top of my head: Harry Belafonte’s lovely ‘Turn Around’; ‘Try To Remember’, from “The Fantastiks”; the Beach Boy’s ‘Graduation Day’ and ‘When I Grow Up’; Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’. I even checked out Kanye West’s ‘Graduation Day’, but those lyrics wouldn’t have a chance of passing the local censor.

Easy choice: we’re going with that very beautiful Joni Mitchell song, ‘The Circle Game’, which she wrote when she was still an unknown, but didn’t put it on an album until her third one, “Ladies of the Canyon” (1970).

I think the lyrics are straightforward and familiar enough so that you don’t need my help with them.  But they’re as touching as ever, and certainly are worth revisiting.  So why don’t you just read along while Joni sings them. You can even sing along with her, if you want.

Me? I have to go get ready for Nogah’s graduation. And while I’m watching her get her diploma, I’ll try to avoid thinking about the fact that just as she’s growing up, I’m growing down. I’ll try to keep in mind that “There’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams, and plenty”, and hope that I’m around to cry at a couple more of these, the milestones of our lives.

 

Yesterday a child came out to wonder

Caught a dragonfly inside a jar

Fearful when the sky was full of thunder

And tearful at the falling of a star

 

And the seasons they go round and round

And the painted ponies go up and down

We’re captive on the carousel of time

We can’t return we can only look

Behind from where we came

And go round and round and round

In the circle game

 

Then the child moved ten times round the seasons

Skated over ten clear frozen streams

Words like “when you’re older” must appease him

And promises of someday make his dreams

 

Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now

Cartwheels turn to car wheels through the town

And they tell him take your time it won’t be long now

Till you drag your feet to slow the circles down

 

So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty

Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true

There’ll be new dreams maybe better dreams and plenty

Before the last revolving year is through

 

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8

277: Joni Mitchell, ‘Electricity’

Posted by jeff on Jan 26, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week

Joni Mitchell, ‘Electricity’

106: Joni Mitchell, ‘Cactus Tree’

141: Joni Mitchell, ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’

163: Joni Mitchell, ‘For Free’

177: Joni Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’

222: Joni Mitchell, ‘River’

215: Joni Mitchell, ‘Blue’

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

260: David Crosby/Joni Mitchell, ‘Yvette in English’

Photo by Norman Seeff

Joni Mitchell isn’t relevant for the 21st century. It’s tragic, I cry over it, but it’s true.

She used to evoke such admiration for her precision craftsmanship and such affection for her emotional stripteases, among the people of the era whose epithet she helped coin—The Woodstock Generation. And of course she’s spawned already several generations of introspective singer-songwriters, strong younger women building on the ground Joni broke, all of whom credit Joni as their soul-mother.

But she was of a different generation, and no matter how much the young ‘uns may pantheon her, I don’t believe they have an inkling of the world of which she speaks.

Let me take one song, try to explain why it was so relevant and meaningful back then, and then why I think it’s so irrelevant to the 21st century: ‘Electricity’, a fine, overshadowed song on a fine, overshadowed album, “For the Roses” (1972), wedged between the masterpiece of intimacy (“Blue”) and the large-canvas grandeur of the orchestral (“Court and Spark”).

The song employs an extended metaphor of love as electricity, the two lovers grappling with the throes of shorts and frayed wires, Joni at her most literary. Methinks the lady doth protest too much at the critics relating to her songs as mini-romans a clef, but that’s disingenuous. She must enjoy sprinkling her songs with all those intriguing, intimate details such as James Taylor’s suspenders in the preceding song, ‘See You Sometime’. It’s a signature device–deny it as we may, we all revel in Joni’s juicy (or even gooey) autobiographical details.

To explicate ‘Electricity’ in the broadest of strokes, there’s a couple dealing with an electricity problem/outage which symbolizes their relationship. It’s all a mess (“She’s got all the wrong fuses and splices”; ”The masking tape tangles, It’s sticky and black”), and neither they together nor she alone can “fix it up too easy”. It’s a real, undeniable problem–the circuit just keeps shorting.

There are two difficulties in parsing the song. First, the chronology is chopped up. To put it in order (but you know this already; we’ve all experienced the same arc in a transitory relationship):

1.  We were in love. (we floodlit that time)

2. He sang her soothing songs that (still) run through her circuits like a heartbeat

3. He moves to a different place (with a good dog and some trees, but his heart over-icing) where she doesn’t fit (She don’t know the system, she don’t understand)

4. The relationship short-circuits (The lines overloaded, sparks flew, wires lashed out.)

5. She holds a flashlight for him, to fix the fusebox/relationship.

6. She even holds a (non-electric) candle for him, begging him to fix things.

7. She’s left with love (heartbeat) unfixed (heartbroken).

 

But the ending is all the Joni we know and love: No rancor, elle ne regrette rien. Just stoking the star maker machinery, grinding out indelible songs one after another. It’s that Joni Mitchell territory we know and love so well—she begs him to show her how to fix it, but he won’t. He just leaves her with his song coursing through her bloodstream. Okay, James has gone and married Carly, but I got a good album out of it.

Joni’s canonized today as a harbinger of a new perception of the female of the species, and justifiably so. I know lots of young musicians of the female persuasion who place Joni’s bust on the mantle of their heroes and heroins, right alongside Jim, Jimi, and Janis.

Worship of certain of the Gods of My Generation has become canonized. Praising J, J and J has become a knee-jerk genuflection. I admit that I sometimes take advantage of that superstition. More than once in conversation with a Millenial have I taken a cheap short-cut to garnering Street Cred.

I do it more and more frequently as I despair of creating any meaningful dialog. I simply flash my “I was at Woodstock” badge, or just shove into the conversation “I saw the Beatles perform” and watch their jaws drop. It works for a while, but I know they’re worshipping false gods. The Paul McCartney touring today isn’t the Paul of ‘Penny Lane’. Bob Dylan singing ‘That Old Feeling’ or ‘As Time Goes By’ (better them than ‘The Best is Yet to Come’) is not Bob Dylan singing ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’, or even ‘Forever Young’.

Remember the Y2K bug? (I know, it was 17 years ago, so how could anyone under 35 be expected to remember it? Well, I remember it well. I took it half seriously—that at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999, the world would collapse. Not just the computers of the world–the world itself. The sun would extinguish. The earth would stop spinning. FACEBOOK WOULD COLLAPSE IRRETRIEVABLY! (Launched in 2004, I know, but still.)

Then

But it passed, and nothing seemed to happen, so everyone thought Doomsday was a marketing ploy.

It wasn’t. The Y2K bug passed. But unbeknownst to all, the seeds of the Millennium Plague had been planted. It was the night when humanity as we know it was infected by cannibal electrons.

I always preferred young people to those my age. They were vital, creative, excited and exciting. You could well attribute it to arrested development. I preferred to think of it as fuel for my creative bent.

I’ve worked with young people all my life. In my 20s and 30s and 40s I surrounded myself with teenagers, as a teacher and dramatist. They invigorated me. I actually learned to speak their language (teenagerese), and wrote successful plays in it. In my 50s and 60s I worked in hi-tech. When I started, my colleagues were in their late 20s; despite all the rumors about ageism, we got along just fine.

Now

At social gatherings over all these decades, I’d look for an excuse to sit at the young peoples’ table. The girls were prettier, they guys were handsomer, and there was a lot more laughter going on.

But recently it’s fallen to my lot to be involved with Generation Y or Z or whatever, those who spent their formative years staring at screens, those who got their first iPhone before their first kiss. I tell you authoritatively: these creatures are post-Woodstockian zombies.

They engage in nothing. You could get dirty. Word of the Century: “Whatever”.

They commit to nothing. They are way too cool for that. Jobs, bands, relationships.

They feel nothing. Emotions are so passé. Give them shots and apps.

They won’t even talk. There’s a 40-year old colleague who shows sparks of caring, with whom I’m trying hard to cultivate a creative relationship. I recently texted him, all fired up, “I got this really cool idea, when can we talk?”, to which he responded in all his Millenial jaded phlegmatism “I don’t have time to talk. Text me.”

Of course I didn’t bother to respond. I’m learning.  Slowly and painfully. I may not be ready to give up my belief in communication and caring, but at least I’ve begun to figure out that it’s a gene they lack. I’m even starting to stay at the adults’ table.

They no more believe in pain and love and human intercourse than they do in the need to know how to do long division by hand or to remember telephone numbers by heart.

What do they believe? They believe fervently that Bill Gates created the world in six days. They believe that Wonder Woman is a profoundly true representation of a new social reality. They believe that there is no distinction between Facebook and the real world.

These kids, they don’t know from fuse boxes any more than they know of the human heart. Electricity ain’t no thang, as long as the iPhone is charged. But they even have external energy packs for that.

We denizens of the 20th century know why we can’t hear as well over a cell phone as we can over a landline. It’s because the bits and bytes are compressed, and the frequencies cut off at the knees and at the shoulders. You get only the bare binary data necessary to process the speech. We also know that our hearing isn’t what it once was.

What the Millenials don’t realize is how much of their humanity is lost in the restrictions of that digital compression. Emojis replace emotions. Write nothing other than the obvious and the factual in your text messages, because ‘everyone knows there’s no nuance in email’. Well, you can always add a smiley.

These Generation Whatever kids, they may idolize Joni, but they will never begin to really get her. You and I know that. Joni is the one who created for us a world of passion and pain, of knowing that you’re going to get burned but throwing yourself into the throes of a doomed relationship. Feeling and caring, no matter what the cost.

Joni knows she will not fix everything ‘so easy’, but that electric passion is her heartbeat. It will keep her going for as long as she’s alive. She will never write a song entitled ‘Electronics’.

We all know that the Millenial zombies will rule the world after she (and we) are gone. In the meantime, I guess all we have left to do is to listen to Joni. Over and over. And to bewail and bemoan the emotional holocaust this generation is wreaking upon us. Perhaps if they would only really listen to her…

The Minus is loveless, he talks to the land,

And the leaves fall and the pond over-ices.

She don’t know the system, Plus, she don’t understand,

She’s got all the wrong fuses and splices.

She’s not going to fix it up too easy.

The masking tape tangles, it’s sticky and black.

And the copper proud-headed Queen Lizzie
Conducts little charges that don’t get charged back.

Well the technical manual’s busy, she’s not going to fix it up too easy.

And she holds out her flashlight and she shines it on me.

She wants me to tell her what the trouble might be. 

Well I’m learning–It’s peaceful, with a good dog and some trees

Out of touch with the breakdown of this century.

They’re not going to fix it up too easy.

 

We once loved together and we floodlit that time–

Input, output, electricity.

But the lines overloaded and the sparks started flying,

And the loose wires were lashing out at me.

She’s not going to fix that up too easy.

But she holds out her candle and she shines it in,

And she begs him to show her how to fix it again,

While the song that he sang her to soothe her to sleep

Runs all through her circuits like a heartbeat.

She’s not going to fix it up too easy.

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22

106: Joni Mitchell, ‘Cactus Tree’

Posted by jeff on Nov 16, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week

Joni Mitchell, Nashville, 1969 (Photo: Rod Pennington)

I often judge the quality of my state of mind in inverse proportion to the size of my New CDs folder–the larger it’s grown, the higher my stress level. Right now there’s a debilitating 16 Mb in there. Ok, some of it I’ll never get to (the 10-CD set of the Kronos Quartet, some Brazilian pre-bossa nova pop compilations); some I really should (36 CDs by artists I’ll be seeing in two weeks at a jazz festival); some I will just out of compulsiveness and contrariness (Meredith Monk’s ‘extended vocals’ – she’s won two Guggenheim Fellowships, a MacArthur “Genius” Award, and she makes Yoko Ono sound like Diana Krall; Uri Caine’s inexplicable but engaging reworking of Gustav Mahler’s Jewish themes in a free jazz setting replete with hazanut and Three Blind Mice); and some I actually enjoy (my new infatuation, a 40-year old alto sax player/composer named David Binney, with his cohort pianist Edward Simon).

But when those 16 Mb become just too overwhelming (the pressure! the pressure!) I sometimes take refuge in an old, familiar friend. Which is what I’ve been doing for the past few days, Joni Mitchell’s first album, “Song to a Seagull” (1968), especially the last song, ‘Cactus Tree’.

Don’t ask me why that song. Just because it’s beautiful music.

Rebellious young Joni Anderson left Saskatoon, Saskatchewan at 21 for Toronto, to become a folk singer. She got pregnant, gave the baby away for adoption, married a folk singer named Chuck Mitchell, and began playing around Detroit and the East Coast. A prolific songwriter even then, a number of her songs were picked up in 1967 by well-known folkies – Tom Rush (‘Urge for Going’), Judy Collins (‘Both Sides Now’, ‘Michael from Mountains’, ‘Chelsea Morning’), Buffy Saint-Marie (‘The Circle Game’), Fairport Convention (‘Eastern Rain’). In early 1967 her marriage dissolved, and she moved by herself to New York City. David Crosby, recently expelled from The Byrds for overall weirdness, heard her singing in a club in Coconut Grove,Florida, and convinced lean and hungry Reprise Records to let him produce her in an acoustic album.

Joni Mitchell, ‘Urge for Going’, CBC, 1966

Joni Mitchell, ‘Eastern Rain’, England, 1967

David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, 1969

What was brand new when her album was released? “The Notorious Byrd Brothers”, “The Graduate” soundtrack, the first Blood, Sweat & Tears, Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay”, Vanilla Fudge’s “The Beat Goes On”, the Mothers of Invention’s “We’re Only In it For the Money”, Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding”, Traffic’s “Mr Fantasy”, The Stones’ “Their Satanic Majesties’ Request”, Laura Nyro’s “Eli and the 13th Confession”, Leonard Cohen’s first album.

What excited me when I first saw “Song to a Seagull” on the shelf? Not the mother-earth hippie queen look (Judy Collins had already ruined that niche), not the music (I’d vaguely heard of ‘Urge for Going’, and Judy Collins’ ‘Both Sides Now’ was cloyingly diabetes-inducing). It was the small print on the back of the album, Produced by David Crosby, Bass by Stephen Stills (the driving force behind the still-extant Buffalo Springfield). The best member of The Byrds collaborating with the best member of Buffalo Springfield? Both with a melodic, acoustic bent? Wow, that could be a really fruitful partnership. This was months before I read a blurb in Rolling Stone that the two of them were hanging out with an ex-Hollie, thinking of forming a new group. Of course, CS&N, together with Joni Mitchell, would soon form the core of a Laurel Canyon social and sexual circle which would produce some of the best music in the last half century.

Joni Mitchell & Johnny Cash, ‘Long Black Veil’ (“The Johnny Cash Show”)

Joni Mitchell, ‘Both Sides Now’ (Johnny Cash Show)

I saw and met Joni Mitchell once—in Nashville, outside the Grand Ole Opry, on June 17, 1969, where I had driven with my friend and photographer (now author) Rod Pennington to see Bob Dylan make his first announced appearance in two full years, on The Johnny Cash Show. We were the only two long-hairs in the entire Confederacy. We were hanging around the artists’ entrance when Joni drove up. I was virtually the only person in Tennessee who had ever heard of Dylan, let alone Joni Mitchell. I was chatting with her when The Man drove up. Rod tells me I jettisoned Joni in mid-sentence to run and catch a glimpse of the living legend, and that she looked rather hurt.

I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize in public, Joni. I hope and assume you’ve forgotten the incident.

But I’ve had a long and intense musical relationship with Joni for these 40-some years now. In each of the first eight years of her recording career she created a masterpiece. Some were love at first hearing, some took me even decades to embrace. One thing I’ve learned with Joni Mitchell – the more you focus and dig and concentrate and delve, the more you discover. You always get more than your money’s worth.

“Song to a Seagull” is one of her more elusive albums. The next two albums, “Clouds” and “Ladies of the Canyon” were chock full of memorable songs–’Both Sides Now’, ‘Chelsea Morning’, ‘(He Sang Real Good) For Free’, ‘Woodstock’, ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, ‘The Circle Game’. But this first album had only three songs which reached out to grab even a serious listener, the first three cuts on the album, all energetic, melodic, thematically clear, accessible, even memorable. But then comes a series of six minor songs in minor keys. Then our SoTW, ‘Cactus Tree’, the last track, hiding behind that six-song string of bummers.

Live on the BBC, 1970: ‘For Free’, ‘My Old Man’, ‘Chelsea Morning’, ‘Big Yellow Taxi‘, ‘Cactus Tree’:

The album is a series of thematically connected vignettes. The liner notes indicated that the 10 songs were divided into two cycles, “I Came to the City” and “Out of the City and Down to the Seaside”. The auteur speaks in a clear, distinct voice throughout, spinning her tapestry of events and relationships in the cusp of freedom; her home and her child and her marriage, even her initial struggle for recognition left behind. Now she’s in New York, she’s getting acclaim, she’s having relationships. Even the weak songs combine to give a rich picture of this life. ‘Marcie‘ a solitary, anonymous young woman, lost in the city. ‘Nathan La Franeer’, her encounter with a rapacious cabbie. ‘Sisotowbell Lane’, an idyll of domestic bliss, replete with rocking chairs and curtains. Dawntreader, which sinks in the obscurity of “peridots and periwinkle blue medallions”. ‘The Pirate Of Penance’, a seafaring allegory. ‘Song to a Seagull‘, strong lyrically, but underdeveloped melodically.

Joni Mitchell’s Website, videos by decade

Mama Cass, Mary Travers & Joni Mitchell – I Shall Be Released

But before them we have the three gems that open the album. ‘I Had a King’, a declaration of independence from her ex-husband, moving on with determination, without regrets or recriminations (“There’s no one to blame/No there’s no one to name as a traitor here”). It’s immediately followed by ‘Michael from Mountains’ an exhilarating paean to new-found love, a beautiful, weaving melody, a stunning performance, a moving song. And then the best song on the album, ‘Night in the City’. It’s the only really produced song on the album, Joni on guitars, Joni on tinkly piano (the only cut to use a keyboard), a great vocal canon, Stills’ knockout bass, giving an impetus to the mix that renders drums unnecessary.

Much of the little I understand of the female psyche I’ve learned from Joni Mitchell. I don’t take her to be emblematic of Womanhood. She’s an individual, with a unique vision of the world, but one that is profoundly female. She has thoughts and feelings and desires and disinclinations that seem to me engendered in that other side of the fence, visions and versions that would never cross my testeronic landscape.

‘Cactus Tree’ is a catalogue of her ex-lovers. She’s new to the city, untethered and unbridled, liberated, exploiting to the fullest the sexual freedom just becoming available to the fairer sex circa the spring of 1968. The imagery is seaside hippie throughout, the schooners and the beads and the flowers and the harbors. And her endless list of lovers, almost bragging about her promiscuity.

The first three verses talk about one man each, him wanting her, her valuing her freedom too much to commit. Remarkably, she presents the view of the relationship through the men’s eyes, not through her own. It’s such a personal, intimate song—yet she chooses to spend most of it looking through the male eyes, perhaps to define her ‘self’ via her lovers.

At the beginning of the fourth verse, our narrator appears casually, almost obscured in the crowd of her lovers – “There’s a lady in the city and she thinks she loves them all.” ‘Love’, Joni? She has a genuine affection towards each and every one, albeit transient. But we’re talking about a girl who knows how to have a good time. Every night, a new good time.

“She has brought them to her senses” –  not ‘brought them to their senses’, because she’s done the opposite, she’s confused them. How has she done that? With her womanly passion, by making love to them, by taking them to her sensual place, the place of her senses. “They have laughed inside her laughter”, profoundly intimate, but don’t take it too seriously. “She rallies her defenses”. You can come inside me, you can laugh with me inside me, but only for a little while. Then you have to go, because I have to go. “For she fears that one will ask her for eternity–and she’s so busy being free.”

“She will love them when she sees them,” each and every one on his own terms. For the time that she sees him. Till she moves on. And if they try to hold her, they lose her. Don’t forget, this was March, 1968—the very dawn of the sexual revolution. Prior to this, women did not have sex outside marriage. Certainly not with innumerable partners. And they certainly didn’t talk about it.

And then that evocative line, ‘you know there may be more’. On the recorded version, there’s catch in her voice–second thoughts? Regrets? Confession? It’s certainly not ‘matter-of-factual’.  She has doubts about her butterflyness? The vestiges of her mother’s moral system? Self-criticism that this is her limited and limiting modus operandi?

“She only means to please them”. That’s the key line for me. A man’s ultimate goal is to achieve pleasure. A woman’s ultimate goal is to give pleasure. It’s hardwired into our brains and our psyches and our genitalia. But “Her heart is full and hollow like a cactus tree”. Who knows if a cactus tree really is full and hollow? Go ask a botanist, but who cares? Joni knows, and that’s all that matters.

Two years later, in this stunning performance on the BBC, there is no catch in her voice. But the melody is so melancholy. So what’s the point? My gut tells me that she’s undercutting the validity of the narrator’s point of view, that we aren’t meant to buy into it without reservation, that there’s an implicit self-criticism, the speaker towards her life, Joni toward her song, the listener towards the work of art. That she’s too busy being free. Joni’s a consummate enough artist to work on that level of complexity. But that’s certainly arguable here. Indeed, 43 years later, I continue to debate it with myself.

And this is just the first album. “And you know there may be more.” Well, there were, another seven or so masterpieces. And her relationships deepened, and she got her very large heart broken. Over and over. And in her magnanimous femininity, she invites us in to partake of it all. She brings us to her senses. Thanks, Joni.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

260: David Crosby/Joni Mitchell, ‘Yvette in English’

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

222: Joni Mitchell, ‘River’

215: Joni Mitchell, ‘Blue’

177: Joni Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’

163: Joni Mitchell, ‘For Free’

141: Joni Mitchell, ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’

 

014: Woodstock, the event (Hebrew); Joni Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’ (in English)

Cactus Tree

There’s a man who’s been out sailing

In a decade full of dreams

And he takes her to a schooner

And he treats her like a queen

Bearing beads fromCalifornia

With their amber stones and green

He has called her from the harbor

He has kissed her with his freedom

He has heard her off to starboard

In the breaking and the breathing

Of the water weeds

While she was busy being free

 

There’s a man who’s climbed a mountain

And he’s calling out her name

And he hopes her heart can hear

Three thousand miles he calls again

He can think her there beside him

He can miss her just the same

He has missed her in the forest

While he showed her all the flowers

And the branches sang the chorus

As he climbed the scaley towers

Of a forest tree

While she was somewhere being free

 

There’s a man who’s sent a letter

And he’s waiting for reply

He has asked her of her travels

Since the day they said goodbye

He writes “Wish you were beside me

We can make it if we try”

He has seen her at the office

With her name on all his papers

Thru the sharing of the profits

He will find it hard to shake her

From his memory

And she’s so busy being free

 

There’s a lady in the city

And she thinks she loves them all

There’s the one who’s thinking of her

There’s the one who sometimes calls

There’s the one who writes her letters

With his facts and figures scrawl

She has brought them to her senses

They have laughed inside her laughter

Now she rallies her defenses

For she fears that one will ask her

For eternity

And she’s so busy being free

 

There’s a man who sends her medals

He is bleeding from the war

There’s a jouster and a jester

And a man who owns a store

There’s a drummer and a dreamer

And you know there may be more

She will love them when she sees them

They will lose her if they follow

And she only means to please them

And her heart is full and hollow

Like a cactus tree

While she’s so busy being free


 

 

 

 

 

 

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