6

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

Posted by jeff on Jun 20, 2019 in Rock, Song Of the week

Joni Mitchell, 1970 (Photo by Martin Mills/Getty Images)

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

“Hey, what about Joni Mitchell’s early stuff?” said the note I got from reader J.M. this week. Good question, J. I did write about her a relatively minor song from a relatively minor album: ‘Cactus Tree’, from her very first venture, “Songs to a Seagull”. Well, one can’t pay too much attention to Joni Mitchell, the unchallenged poetess laureate of popular music, so today we are going to visit her second, the much-more commercially successful “Clouds”.  And of course we’ll go for a lesser-known song, ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’.

“Clouds” is an album I don’t listen to often, populated by songs I know too well (‘Chelsea Morning’, the overly covered and abused ‘Both Sides Now’), songs I find inaccessible (‘Tin Soldier’, ‘Roses Blue’, ‘The Fiddle and the Drum’), and a number I find attractive but not overwhelming (‘The Gallery’, ‘Songs to Aging Children Come’). Still, I gave it a few serious relistenings, and reached the same old conclusion: damn, she’s one fine artist.

Self-Portrait

Even the songs I’m less drawn to – you look at them seriously and you find them brimming with impeccable craftsmanship, passion, humor, elegance, intelligence, wisdom.

Joni’s not a poetess, she’s a singer-songwriter. Poetry is a medium in which the words themselves are the materials. For a long time now we’ve related to poetry as words on the page, even though it was once a performance medium. Songs are a combination of words and melody and harmony and arrangement and recording and performance. The lyrics, fine as they may be, are not conceived to exist in a context devoid of at least some of those other elements.

Joni Mitchell, 1969

What about Dylan? Dylan’s a genius. He’s written some damn good prose poetry (the liner notes to “Bringing It All Back Home” and “John Wesley Harding” are both well worth spending a lot of time on). His lyrics are the standard by which serious lyrics are measured. But they’re not poetry. They’re an essential part of a complex called Song. Don’t try to sell ‘Chimes of Freedom’ on the page. It wasn’t written for the page, it was written to be nasaled and shouted and banged on the guitar.

What about Leonard Cohen? Well, he was a published poet before he became a singer/songwriter. “Suzanne Takes You Down” was from his first book, “Parasites of Heaven”. From my vague memory, there are discrepancies between the lyrics and the poems, but who cares? An exception to prove the rule, and let’s get back to the fairer Canadian.

Joni’s sometimes deceptive, because her songs are so often so darn pretty, and singable, and full of hooks and melodies and all that stuff that makes pop songs so attractive. But if we look beyond that, we’ll see just how much of an artisan she is. Each and every song is a carefully crafted work, the product of a mistressful artist who happens to possess a magnanimous soul.

Leonard Cohen (left) and Joni Mitchell, Newport Folk Festival, 1967

Let’s take for example “The Gallery” describing her painter-lover, three stanzas and a coda, a narrative of the curve of their relationship, deftly employing an extended metaphor. It’s clever and a half, even when forced (When I first saw your gallery/I liked the ones of ladies/Then you began to hang up me/You studied to portray me). Heck, she was only 26. But there are also lyrics that begin to transcend the cute and the clever and the honest: I was left to winter here/While you went west for pleasure/And now you’re flying bock this way/Like some lost homing pigeon/They’ve monitored your brain, you say/And changed you with religion. Now, that’s interesting! It’s also emotionally naked and a bit frighteningly honest.

They say that Joni’s intimates (and there were apparently many) were frequently shaken by the directness of the references to the details their lives. I’m no expert on Joni’s bio, but I was raised in the school of critical reading that says “I don’t really give a hoot about the relationship to the artist’s life, the work either stands on its own terms or it doesn’t.” I’m perfectly content to let my imagination wander through the very rich and evocative and intriguing and convincing world that Joni creates.

“Clouds” is a major step past “Songs to a Seagull”. Even ‘Chelsea Morning’, the song most reminiscent of the ebullient excitement of her new life in The City is more refined musically and artistically than anything on the first album. It’s a virtuoso performance vocally and instrumentally, showcasing among other elements her use of open tuning.

Guitars are usually tuned in such a way that you need to press down on strings to create a chord, but there are a variety of non-standard tunings make all six strings accord harmonically into, for example, a major chord. This enables the musician to strum more vigorously, to play a series of chords by simply barring the neck rather than fingering chords. This gives different voicings to the chords, including a distinct resonance from all open strings. It’s often used on slide guitars and in the blues; Keith and Brian Jones and The Allmans and even Dylan have used it in rock; but Joni uses it exclusively.

She’s also a stunning pianist, though these first two albums use only guitar (one cut excepted). I won’t be spoiling anything if I say that these two albums comprise her freshman year. Next will come “Ladies of the Canyon”, a treasure chest of widely varied songs thematically and stylistically. Less consistent perhaps, more exploratory. And then comes–yeah, you knew it before I said it–“Blue”. But we get ahead of ourselves.

Joni Mitchell, 1970 (Photo by Martin Mills/Getty Images)

There’s a lot of emotional growth here in “Clouds” as well. ‘Both Sides Now’, the iconic paean to disillusionment, is the underbelly of all that manic elation.  I have trouble with the song today. It’s hackneyed for me, it’s been performed to death. But truisms are true. Herbie Hancock won a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Solo on his treatment of the song in his tribute album to Joni, “River: The Joni Letters” (Thom Jurek says it “feels like it is being played from the inside out”). Note also Wayne Shorter’s contribution. So who cares if I have problems with the song?

Joni chooses to open “Clouds” with ‘Tin Soldier’, a love song on paper, a dirge in performance. There are songs about Viet Nam (‘The Fiddle and The Drum’), mental illness (‘I Think I Understand’), the lunacy of the nouveau-religious (‘Roses Blue’) and a quasi-traditional folk/art gem that defies description (‘Songs to Aging Children Come’)

One expression of that new maturity is our Song of The Week, ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’. It’s perhaps less of a showpiece in terms of craftsmanship, but it’s harrowingly honest, and it’s beautiful.

She has strong feelings towards him. She wants to express them, but she’s unsure of herself. I come back to one of my recurrent thoughts about Joni, quoting myself from SoTW 106: “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.”

‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ could never be written by a male. But it sure does give me a glimpse of illumination of that most profound of mysteries, what goes on inside a woman. Perhaps the persona knows not where she stands, but the artist certainly does.

Funny day, looking for laughter and finding it there
Sunny day, braiding wild flowers and leaves in my hair
Picked up a pencil and wrote “I love you” in my finest hand
Wanted to send it, but I don’t know where I stand

Telephone, even the sound of your voice is still new
All alone in California and talking to you
And feeling too foolish and strange to say the words that I had planned
I guess it’s too early, ’cause I don’t know where I stand

Crickets call, courting their ladies in star-dappled green
Thickets tall, until the morning comes up like a dream
All muted and misty, so drowsy now I’ll take what sleep I can
I know that I miss you, but I don’t know where I stand
I know that I miss you, but I don’t know where I stand

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

106: Joni Mitchell, ‘Cactus Tree’
 
259: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau: ‘Marcie’ (Joni Mitchell), ‘Don’t Think Twice’ (Dylan)
286: Joni Mitchell, ‘The Circle Game’

163: Joni Mitchell, ‘For Free’

177: Joni Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’

014: Woodstock, the event (Hebrew)

222: Joni Mitchell, ‘River’

215: Joni Mitchell, ‘Blue’

277: Joni Mitchell, ‘Electricity’

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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