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

Posted by jeff on Apr 14, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week
February 1969, California, USA --- Musicians David Crosby and Joni Mitchell travel to Big Bear Lake. --- Image by © Henry Diltz/Corbis

© Henry Diltz/Corbis

David Crosby, ‘Yvette in English’

Joni Mitchell, ‘Yvette in English’

David Crosby, ‘Arrows’

David Crosby/Phil Collins, ‘Hero’

CPR, ‘Breathless’

David Crosby is one elusive sonofagun.

At his best, he’s as magical as a perfect high (‘Guinnevere’, ‘Everybody’s Been Burned’).
At his worst, you want to find something high to jump off of (‘Mind Garden’).

To tell the truth, he’s not much of a songwriter. Almost all of his best music is written/performed/created in collaboration. He most frequently shines in the light reflected off a partner he’s enhancing, as happened so frequently in The Byrds (‘Eight Miles High’) and CSN. Sometimes, he’s the best harmony singer ever (CSN, SoTW 171, Jackson Browne’s ‘Something Fine’).

landscape-1483037434-david-crosby-1Left to his own devices, I’ve found him to be more often than not just annoying.

But when he’s on, he’s just so damned good that you keep going back for more. Then you get ‘Where’s the meat?’ frustrated, and you leave. Then you come back, looking for just a “little bit of instant bliss”.

I followed Crosby closely up through “Déjà Vu”, even that lovely contribution he made to Jefferson Starship’s first album, ‘Have You Seen the Stars Tonight?’ – co-written (no surprise) with Paul Kantner. But then I admit, I abandoned starship. I tried to keep an eye out for what he was doing, all the subsequent CSN and CSN&Y reunions, and most of the solo albums – 1971, 1989, 1993, 1995, 2014, 2016. I even read his autobiography, for which I should get extra credit point.

6a00e008dca1f0883401a510f5a5e2970c-400wiBut I just couldn’t generate the energy to really follow Crosby closely. There were always glimpses of magic, but in the morning I was left with a headache. The same with his buddy Stills, the same with CSN, not to mention &Y (for which I always had limited patience).

But then I recently had the urge to revisit some of Stills’ output over his latter decades, and discovered that Graham Nash had compiled box sets for each of C and S and N himself. The recent SoTW 258 on Stills was a result of checking out his 4-CD retrospective, “Carry On”. In short – if Stills were as sensible as he is talented, he would have been inside the pantheon instead of in the entry hall. Proof: SoTW 072, ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ (from “Just Roll Tape”). There’s an awful lot of shouting and carrying on in those latter decades, very little memorable music.

1043Crosby’s 3-CD retrospective, “Voyage”, is more enlightening and more satisfying. The first CD includes 3 Byrds cuts, 5 CSN/&Y, 5 from his 1971 solo album “If I Could Only Remember My Name”, 7 from early Crosby & Nash. The earlier stuff is great, the latter fine. The third CD is unreleased demos which, for me, might better have been left unreleased.

But that second CD? It’s Crosby. Maybe not at his very best, but at his very good. It’s like staring at a beautiful woman, or (they tell me) a chemically-induced hallucinogenic experience: it doesn’t mean anything, and it leaves no imprint on the memory or the soul. But it sure is lovely while it’s happening.

joni-mitchell-david-crosbyThere are three songs from the 1977 album “CSN” (‘Shadow Captain’, ‘Delta’, ‘In My Dreams’) and one from the 1988 CSNY “American Dream” (‘Compass’), then one from his 1989 solo album, ‘Tracks in the Dust’ . They’re lovely, but so blatantly lacking in the inspiration that made the early material an indelible part of our brains and our hearts that we’re left a bit depressed by the contrast.

Arrows’, from the 1990 CSN flop “Live It Up” fares a little better. But then come two cuts from a much disparaged 1993 “A Thousand Roads”, a collections of slickly produced cuts written for him mostly by mercenaries: Jimmy Webb, Marc Cohen, John Hiatt.

Hero’ is co-written with Phil Collins. It’s not a great song, perhaps more Phil than Dave. But at least it’s a song. It coheres, and I enjoy it every time I hear it. (And every time I hear it, it sounds like it came from Brian Wilson’s darned good new album “No Pier Pressure”.)

But then there’s one cut that made all this rather depressing work worthwhile, our SoTW, ‘Yvette in English’, co-written with one Joni Mitchell.

Not Yvette

Not Yvette

It’s a lovely, enigmatic bossa nova vignette. Like so many of Joni’s finest songs, it rings patently autobiographical – full of precise, evocative details, seeming to allude to real people, real events. I don’t know the back-story here. Joni recorded it a year after David, and the other persona in the song is a male. So my imagination draws Joni watching a French girl with short hair in a short skirt and black tights (I keep thinking Brigitte Auber from “To Catch a Thief”, but upon checking, that’s wrong; I guess Grace Kelly addled my visual memory there) sidling up to him and offering him some heavily-accented mind-altering substance.

When Joni’s songs work best, then entice you into connecting the details. That’s pleasure enough for me, but if someone out there knows The Facts, I’d be glad to hear them as well. From past experience, the real versions do not diminish the imagined ones.

rs_1024x759-150627081143-1024.mitchell-crosby.cm.62715How many other songs has Joni co-written? I can think of none.
But she certainly owes Crosby. In late 1967 she was just starting to attract attention as a solo artist. Even though her success today seems inevitable, Crosby was instrumental in jump-starting her career.

He ‘discovered’ her in Florida in 1967. They hooked up, he took her back to LA, got her a manager Elliot (Rabinowitz) Roberts and a record deal (including artistic control, a rarity for a rookie), produced her first album, and brought in his buddy to play bass, the recently unemployed (Buffalo Springfield) Steve Stills. The rest is history. Well, the rest for the 3-4 few years, anyway. After that we have 50 years of non-history.

So in 1993, with Crosby floundering in drugs and jail and sundry shit, Joni did him a solid, wrote him a song/poured a bucket of cold water on him to get him to co-write a song for his covers album. She recorded ‘Yvette in English’ a year later, on “Turbulent Indigo” – not one of her standouts, produced by Larry Klein shortly after their divorce. Still, it’s got soprano sax from Wayne Shorter.

600003790Then Crosby got a new liver and a new son-bandmate. James Raymond, a young musician Crosby had fathered but didn’t know (as Joni wrote about her abandoned daughter, “my child’s a stranger/I bore her/But, I could not raise her”). They formed a band, CPR, which did little to resuscitate his career (sorry, couldn’t resist), but I’m sure gave him a lot of paternal pride. “Voyage” contains 5 songs by CPR—they’re mostly lovely, all forgettable.

Crosby’s had somewhat of a comeback recently. In 2015, Michael League, leader of Snarky Puppy, just about the hippest act in music these days, invited him to perform a song with them, ‘Somebody Home’. It may not be ‘Triad’, but it’s pretty darned affective. League then gave Crosby a butt-kick, inviting him to record together “Lighthouse”, a quickie album (Crosby was used to belaboring recordings to death), including 5 co-written songs.

“Lighthouse” won’t get Crosby inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as he was twice (as a Byrd and as C. But like so much of his corpus, it’s limpidly perfect one moment, annoying as stepping in dog-do the next.

Well, he’s still alive, happy, making music. That’s a pretty remarkable feat in and of itself. And if we look hard enough, we can still find some gems like ‘Yvette in English’ to remind us of just how pure a talent he was and, in his own unique 75-year old way, still is.

 

He met her in a French café, she slipped in sideways like a cat
Sidelong glances, what a wary little stray, she sticks in his mind like that
Saying, “Avez-vous une allumette?” with her lips wrapped around a cigarette
Yvette in English saying, “Please have this little bit of instant bliss”

 He’s fumbling with her foreign tongue, reaching for words and drawing blanks
A loudmouth is stricken deaf and dumb in a bistro on the left bank
“If I were a painter, “Picasso said, “I’d paint this girl from toe to head”
Yvette in English saying “Please have this little bit of instant bliss”

 Burgundy nocturne tips and spills, they trot along nicely in the spreading stain
New chills, new thrills for the old uphill battle. How did he wind up here again?
Walking and talking, touched and scared, uninsulated wires left bare
Yvette in English saying, “Please have this little bit of instant bliss”

 What blew her like a leaf his way? Up in the air and down to Earth
First she flusters, then she frays, so quick to question her own worth
Her cigarette burns her fingertips, as it falls like fireworks she curses it
Then sweetly in English she says, “Please have this little bit of instant bliss”

 He sees her turn and walk away skittering like a cat on stone,
Her high heels clicking, what a wary little stray.
She leaves him by the Seine alone with the black water and the amber lights.
And the bony bridge between left and right.
Yvette in English saying, “Please have this little bit of instant bliss”

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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’

179523_4194936875096_2006460270_n

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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