14

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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7

275: Sandy Bull, ‘Blend’

Posted by jeff on Dec 15, 2017 in New Acoustic, Song Of the week

Sandy Bull – ‘Blend’ (part 1)

Sandy Bull – ‘Blend’ (part 2)

I don’t know how many readers of this blog are geeks on the musical spectrum and how many are “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it” fans. This week we’re going to indulge in sharing a bizarre, wonderful world-music harbinger, psychedelic groundbreaking fingerpicking guitarist I’ve been listening to for years now, Sandy Bull (1941-2001).

Betcha you’ve never heard of Sandy Bull.
Betcha if I tell you he’s a folk-era world music fingerpicker bridging the Kingston Trio and Ornette Coleman, you just click the little X and go play mini-golf.
Betcha if you listen to him a bit you’ll really like him. Because if you’re following this blog, that means music is more for you than tinting the silence.

Sandy was parented by Harry (editor-in-chief of Town & Country) and Daphne (banking heiress cum jazz harpist). They divorced soon after he was born.
By 12 he had developed a habit for cough syrup.
By 15 he had taken up banjo, inspired by a Pete Seeger concert he heard in school, eventually studying under Erik Darling of The Weavers.
By 18 he had shot heroin with jazz musicians and been arrested for trying to rob a pharmacy.
By 19 (1960), he was playing the Cambridge folk scene with the likes of Joan Baez and coming under the sway of free jazz (via Ornette Coleman), Indian music (via Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan),
By 20 he was playing atonal banjo and guitar on the Greenwich Village folk circuit (before the arrival of Bob Dylan) and including a bagpipe segment in his set.

Hamza el Din

By 21, he was busking in Europe and coming under the sway of Nubian (southern Egypt) composer and oudist Hamza el Din (who later collaborated with the likes of Steve Reich and The Grateful Dead).

By 23 he had recorded his two albums of note, fingerpicking on acoustic guitar, banjo, electric guitar, oud, electric bass and foot cymbal. Oh, and tape recorder. Not just double-tracking in the studio, like other folks. He even appeared live on stage in tandem with his recorded self.
This is at the time when the rest of the world was listening to Tom Dooley, Twist and Shout, Baby Love and FunFunFun, not to mention The Sound of Music and Al Hirt (“Honey in the Horn” was the second best-selling album of the year.)

Billy Higgins

Musically, it was a mash of acoustic fingerpicking (a la Leo Kottke and John Fahey) and a veritable UN of musical inspirations (especially Indian and Arabic), utilizing modal open tunings which enable his deep involvement in the ‘drone’. Not those cool little flying vehicles, but an unchanging, continuous low note. Sandy: ”It is so simple an effect and yet there is something eternal about it, sort of a foundation of music. I find it–and the kind of undulating rhythms which go with it–very moving.”

Undulating it is, not to mention seriously entrancing and hypnotic. Many people (ok, that’s an overstatement—all of the very few sources I’ve found) have credited Mr. Bull with being a seminal originator of psychedelic music.

But what really got me hooked on Sandy was the eclecticism of these two albums. They are comprised of  two extended head trips accompanied by a jazz drummer, and pieces by or inspired by Carl Orff (contemporary classical), William Byrd (Renaissance), Scottish/Southern mountain folk, Ray Charles/Pops Staples, Bach, Louis Bonfa, 14th century Guilliaume de Machaut and Chuck Berry. Now, that’s eclectic.

1963 – “Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo”

‘Fantasia’ is a technical term from classical music, referring to a piece whose structure is a creation of the composer, rather than adhering to an accepted convention. Five ‘easy’ pieces:

  • ‘Blend’ (acoustic guitar and drums)– his pièce de résistance; a riveting 22-minute trip, the drone produced by a banjo-style open tuning (which he changes at about 9:40), accompanied by free jazz stalwart Billy Higgins. Part 1, Part 2.
  • ‘Carmina Burana Fantasy’ (banjo) – Bull’s “impression” of Orff’s popular and influential 1936 cantata, embraced by the Nazi regime. The American denazification authorities eventually changed his previous category of “gray unacceptable” to “gray acceptable”.
  • ‘Non nabis Domine’ (banjo, banjo and acoustic guitar overdubbed) – composed by William Byrd, a contemporary of Shakespeare
  • ‘Little Maggie’ (banjo) – a Southern mountain standard. The Scottish (think bagpipe) drone first cousin of the Arab and Indian music Bull was immersed in.
  • ‘Gospel Tune’ (Fender electric guitar, foot cymbal) – based on the Staples’ ‘Good News’ which was secularized by Ray Charles as ‘I Got a Woman’.

1964 – “Inventions for Guitar and Banjo”

‘Invention’ is the technical term for a short composition (usually for a keyboard instrument) with two-part counterpoint. The six pieces of silver:

  • ‘Blend II’ (acoustic guitar and drums) – a 24-minute sequel to Blend, incorporating (according to Nat Hentoff’s outstanding liner notes) themes from Ornette Coleman, Ali Akbar Khan, Pretty Polly, Lebanese music and North African popular song, and Oum Kalthoum. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.
  • Gavotte‘ (electric guitar) – from Bach’s “Suite No. 5” (I was unable to figure out what Suite this is. It’s not the French Suites, not the English Suites, not the Cello Suites and not the Orchestral Suites.)
  • Gavotte‘ (acoustic guitar) – from Bach’s “Suite No. 5”. Bull: “In a sense, it’s kind of a cop-out not to devote your whole musical life to Bach if you want to play his work.”
  • ‘Manha de Carnival’ (rhythm acoustic guitar, Fender bass, lead oud, overdubbed) – composed by Luis Bonfa for the 1959 Brazilian film “Orfeu Negro”, which marked the onslaught of the Bossa Nova craze. Here’s a whole SoTW on that phenomenon.
  • ‘Triple Ballade‘ (oud, banjo, guitar overdubbed) – written in the 14th century by ‘ars nova’ composer Guilliaume de Machaut
  • Memphis, Tennessee’ (rhythm electric guitar, Fender bass, lead electric guitar, drums) – Bull: Chuck Berry “may well be the folk poet of America today”. If you’re looking for prophets, this is years before the apocryphal quote of Dylan regarding Smokie Robinson.

But, heck, de Machaut followed directly by Chuck Berry? You gotta love the guy, even before you listen.

I remember being pleasantly surprised at how many readers reacted so positively to SoTW 092: Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Zakir Hussain, ‘Babar’ (“The Melody of Rhythm”), a somewhat analogous indefinable East-West mix (also including Southern mountain fingerpicking elements with Indian and Western Classical music).

C’mon, folks, give it a go. Pour yourself a long one of your choice, kick off your shoes, and give a listen to Blend. And if your partner walks in on you and shries “What the dickens are you listening to???”, just answer, “Oh, that’s Sandy Bull. Betcha you never heard of him.”

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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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