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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15

107: The Association, ‘Everything That Touches You’

Posted by jeff on Dec 20, 2017 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Hey, y’all, join me this week for a walk on the wha? side, a stroll along the tightrope between the sublime and the embarrassing, an exploration of the no-man’s land between refined taste and that which makes our blood bubble and our minds swoon. The confection of adolescence, The Pop Song.


I once took a paying job, helping a very untalented, Miss Piggy-clone wannabe pop diva (with wealthy, well-connected, criminally persistent parents) translate her lyrics into proper popper English. The music was so bad that—well, let’s just leave well enough alone, it was really bad. And after a week of working on it, I found the tunes sticking to my mind. Skipping through my synapses while I was shaving, ringtoning my brain while I was reading Rilke, subliminially muzaking beneath my consciousness while having a Meaningful Discussion with my Significant Other. And this was some terrible, terrible music. We’re talking stuff that makes Britney Spears sound like Baruch Spinoza.

So I said to my friend EG that perhaps they’re not such bad tunes if they stick to my brain like that. “Bubblegum,” he answered. “Your brain sat on a big pink pre-masticated wad of Bazooka. That don’t make it good. It makes it inextricable.”

Clearly, I think I learned something from that experience. Think back to the Top 40 songs of your Junior High School incarnation. I remember thinking – nay, feeling – that ‘Theme to a Summer Place’ was sublime, that ‘Enchanted Sea‘ was the pinnacle of exotica, that ‘Bernadine’ was about as sexy as a song could get.

Given, prepubescent imbecility, including my own, is an easy target. The strange part, what’s puzzling me now, is the obverse side of that swooning, the songs that I am not inclined to stand up on a soapbox and praise as unacknowledged masterpieces, but yet that I’m also not ready to dismiss as pop pablum. I’ve called certain songs masterpieces without blushing, such as Smokey Robinson’s ‘The Tracks of My Tears’ (SoTW 28) and Burt Bacharach/Dionne Warwick’s ‘Walk On By’ (SoTW 34). But what about The Fleetwoods’ ‘Mr. Blue’, Skeeter Davis’s ‘End of the World’ or ‘It’s All in the Game’ by Tommy Edwards (SoTW 23)? I called the latter a “very beautiful, touching ballad that has been playing over and over in my head for almost half a century now”.  No gainsaying that these are pop fodder. But they’re also indelibly carved in our hearts and our musical minds, not mere wads of Bazooka.

Pat Boone in the film ‘Bernadine’

Fast forward to 1968, when the music, the world, and Jeff were all presumably more mature, sophisticated and discerning. “There was music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air.” A lot of very fine music. It seemed that every week, two or three albums were being released that demanded and justified repeated listening, some for weeks, frequently for months and years. Many for decades. Almost fifty years on, so much of the music of the late 1960s still speaks strongly and convincingly. Much of it is still inspiring and instructive. I listened this week to the first two albums by Love, who have a rabid following here in our little corner of the Middle East half a century on (found the first one weak but the second quite respectable), and to Moby Grape’s first (a 5-star album the day it was released, and still is today).

Um, Jeff, this is Song of The Week, right? Wanna get to the point?

Ok. The point is that the border between fine music and cheap pop is sometimes fuzzy, even to me, subjectively. So here comes a song. I’m not sure whether I should be shouting its praises or not speaking of it to anyone whose opinion I value.

The Association. They formed in 1965, one of the numerous California early rock groups with roots in the folk movement, bringing with them close harmonies and consciousness of the poetic potential of lyrics—The Mamas and the Papas, The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, many others. The niche of The Association, a new term I just learned this minute, was ‘sunshine pop’, characterized by a cheerful attitude, close vocal harmonies and sophisticated production, the sound track of California escapism, including groups such as The Mamas and the Papas, The Beach Boys, and other lesser lights such as The 5th Dimension, Harpers Bizarre and Spanky and Our Gang.

Their first single, ‘Along Comes Mary’, was a charter member of the club of songs whose lyrics were reputed to obliquely refer to Devil Marijuana, such as ‘Eight Miles High’ (SoTW 226), ‘Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35’, ‘Mellow Yellow’ and even ‘Puff, The Magic Dragon’. ‘Along Comes Mary’ (live from the Monterey Festival) has Dylanesque long phrases, 60% More Words!! crammed inside a single breath. What happens if an infinite number of stoned teenagers spend an infinite number of hours trying to grab the words “Andwhenthemorningofthewarning’spassed, thegassedandflaccidkidsareflungacrossthestars, Thepsychodramasandthetraumasgonethesongsareleftunsungandhunguponthescars…” ‘Along Comes Mary’ was released in July 1966. “Sgt Pepper”, released a month earlier, was the first album to include lyrics. So stick your ear right up close to the speaker, kids, and write fast.

The Association’s material came from a number of sources, none of the band members providing a real auteur voice. Perhaps the strongest presence was producer Jerry Yester (brother of guitarist Jim), who went on to replace Zal Yanovsky in The Lovin’ Spoonful and contribute masterful arrangements to some of John Sebastian’s greatest compositions, such as ‘She’s Still a Mystery’ and ‘Six O’Clock’.

‘Mary’ hit #7, and was soon followed by three consecutive #1 hits: ‘Cherish’ (the beautifulest/shlockiest song ever recorded), ‘Windy’ (a sunnier version of New Yorker Paul Simon’s overcast ‘Cloudy’/’Feeling Groovy’) and ‘Never My Love’ (according to BMI, the second-most played song in the twentieth century!). In my ears today, they’re all respectable— memorable melodies, good harmonies, strong hooks, distinctive arrangements–but not songs I would put on my desert island playlist.

The song that’s been on my mind for the last couple of years is the last and commercially least in their string of hits, the runt of the litter, ‘Everything That Touches You‘. Written by vocalist/wind instrumentalist Terry Kirkman (also ‘Cherish’), the song is a rich pastiche of drums and bass and guitars and keyboards and chorus, an exuberant, loving melody, soaring harmonies, a hook-laden bass, a devotional love song, a hippie anthem.

I revisited and became preoccupied with this song a few years ago when I was doodling over a screenplay project imagining an almost unknown band from the late 1960s whose one minor hit achieved an unpredictable posthumous grassroots cult following many years later (inspired by the true story of Eva Cassidy—see SoTW 029). You can read those doodles here. I needed to write lyrics for their one hit, which I imagined as a ‘hippie anthem’. Looking for a model, my first thought was ‘Let’s Get Together’ by The Youngbloods and the pre-Grace Jefferson Airplane. Apocryphal description from Life’s coverage of Woodstock: “There was a small car that drove very slowly with the throngs of young people walking along the road. A hippie girl sitting on the roof of the car with a little, battery operated record player kept playing The Youngblood’s version of this song over and over and over again; supplying a solid contribution to the ‘peace and love’ vibe that permeated the whole magical weekend.” I don’t know if it’s literally true; but I was there, walking down that very road, and I can attest that that’s the most truthful image I can conjure of the entire festival, more than anything that took place onstage. But I wanted a more commercial model. ‘Everything That Touches You’ wheedled its way into my consciousness, where it’s stayed since.

I’ve been listening to the song regularly for a couple of years now. Is it sophisticated bubblegum music that my brain sat on? Is it an elegant, inspiring pop gem? I really can’t decide, and I’d be most grateful to y’all if you’d contribute your thoughts and comments right here in the Reply box below.

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4

274: Tim Hardin, ‘Reason to Believe’

Posted by jeff on Dec 1, 2017 in Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

Tim Hardin’s ‘Reason to Believe’ has always struck me as The Perfect Song.

It’s a completely realized emotional vignette, life on a 45 (1966, pre-FM rock radio). He knows she lies to him. But he also knows that she’s the very essence of love, and he consciously chooses to close his eyes to her deceit.

The structure of the song, the lyrics the performance, the arrangement – all precise and wrenching. No dramatic shows of emotion, no fireworks. Everything is direct, to the point, sans histrionics. “Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, by use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.”

It seems to me that the juxtaposition of the searing emotion and the restraint of the presentation are the key. The guy is falling apart. What does he wear on his sleeve? The second time he sings “knowing that you lied” he takes it up an octave. Well within his range, no strain. Just a little bleep on the emotionagraph. But his voice cracks from the weight of the pain.

Less is more.

Tim Hardin has perhaps the finest career I know of based on the fewest accomplishments. Two significant LPs in his mid-20s, a drug-ruined mess by 30, dead at 39, far fewer than a dozen great songs. But there is that handful of great songs that are so incontestably fine, beautiful gems, that he earned himself a place in the rock pantheon way before he started burning himself out. ‘Misty Roses’, ‘If I Were A Carpenter’, ‘How Can We Hang On to a Dream?’, ‘Black Sheep Boy‘, ‘Lady Came from Baltimore’, and ‘Reason to Believe’. His songs are AM-length, barely two minutes long. But he managed to do more in two minutes than many others did in decades of writing and recording.

Each song is a paragon of honesty and restraint. Beautiful and precious, but without a millitrace of the maudlin. I guess it was hard to be so honest.

I’ve been puzzling over a certain aspect of my own mind/life that I’d like to share with you. Perhaps by trying to explain it, I’ll understand it a bit better. Or perhaps you’ll find it interesting, or even identify with it a bit. Or maybe you’ll find it the issue really obvious and you’ll explain it to me.

It’s certainly not the text. I’ve never been lied to by a lover. My many disappointments in life do not include having been deceived. Tim Hardin’s story has nothing to do with me on an experiential level.

But the color of the emotion? That’s me.
Like in Stanislavski’s Method Acting—you need to portray Romeo’s loss of Juliet? Draw from your sadness over your cat that OD’d on chocolate last week. Find an emotional corollary. It doesn’t have to be the same experience. Just to have the same color.

I know that in my days as a playwright, I always strove for the understated in all facets. I even loved the engineering character of being a “playwright”: literally, a builder of plays. My producer/director buddy (Hi, Howie!) would always push me to paint in stronger colors. To push conflicts more towards the fireworks that the stage and the audience love so much. And I would always respond that a silence can always be so much more eloquent than words.

I always felt that I fell into playwriting by mistake. I should have been a lyric poet cum guitar, a Tim Hardin or a John Sebastian or a James Taylor. The great understaters. To emote and die just a little in my closed room, just me and guitar. But circumstances sometimes trump inclination.

My favorite color? Brown. My wardrobe pretty much ranges from amber through buff and chestnut and khaki and tan all the way to umber. Earth colors. I guess I somehow equate restraint with honesty.

My mother passed away almost ten years ago. She was a strong personality, opinionated, gregarious, public in her deportment, a writer. Me, too. She was a successful newspaper columnist for many years. My style of writing is much more similar to hers than is comfortable for me to admit.

I resemble her physically, mentally. But she was a very difficult person, so much so that I think that perhaps the greatest drive in my life has been to differentiate myself from her. To avoid some of her modes of behavior that are my natural inclination, but of which I disapprove. My disdain for certain ways that she behaved and thought and spoke and wrote is so strong that I can’t comfortably allow myself to appreciate even those traits that I know were indeed admirable.

Hyperbole, for example. In my writing and speech, I often exaggerate. Greatly. But my intention is that the exaggeration is so patently false that the reader will understand it and be amused. My mother would exaggerate less flagrantly, but she meant it. I feel she was trying to get away with bullshit. Successfully. She had about ten thousand times more readers than this blog does (without exaggeration). Her hundreds of thousands of readers bought it. But to my mind, she was speaking falsely, and I disapprove of that.

My question to myself is this: To what degree am I – the abstract skeleton of my mind and my heart and my soul, the most real me – formed by the musics, the books, the films and television that I am drawn to?
To what degree are the emotional and moral and behavioral choices I make in my life – the acts which comprise and define me in the real world – dictated by my aesthetic sense?

I have a hunch that I spend more time examining artistic creations of different sorts, especially music, than most people. I don’t necessarily deem that a good thing, just a predilection that I’m reconciled with, because it’s who I am. I’m pretty sure that there are many intelligent, sensitive people who enjoy music more than I do, even if they ‘know’ less. Because they know less. Because they’re capable of turning off their research brain and just enjoying it, which has always been a weakness of mine. I’ll stand on the side and analyze the band, maybe go backstage and chat with them about the arc of their oeuvre, rather than get out on the floor and dance.

If I’m playing with my grandchild with Bill Evans in the background, I’ll work to focus on the kid, because I deem that more important. But it’s a struggle, because my mind’s inclination is towards music. That’s the internal dialectic I’ve worked with all my life.

Do I go where I go, seek what I seek in life because that restraint in Tim Hardin’s creation is an aesthetic I choose to emulate and practice?

Or do I think ‘Reason to Believe’ is a perfect song because it conforms with the values of the person I am?

I really don’t know. I’m not even sure if the question is clear to me, let alone the answer. If it makes sense to you, let me know. I’m puzzled.

In the meantime, I’ll try to listen to some music I value – like ‘Reason to Believe’ – while trying to lead a life according to the principles I believe in. Quietly, with restraint, hopefully honestly.

 

If I listened long enough to you, I’d find a way to believe that it’s all true,
Knowing that you lied straight faced while I cried–
Still I look to find a reason to believe.

Someone like you makes it hard to live without somebody else.
Someone like you makes it easy to give never thinking of myself.

If I gave you time to change my mind, I’d find a way to leave the past behind,
Knowing that you lied straight faced while I cried–
Still I look to find a reason to believe.

(break)

If I listened long enough to you, I’d find a way to believe that it’s all true,
Knowing that you lied straight faced while I cried–
Still I look to find a reason to believe.

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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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