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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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1

265: Dion DiMucci, ‘Abraham, Martin and John’

Posted by jeff on Jun 23, 2017 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Dion — ‘The Wanderer’

Dion — ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’

Dion — ‘Kickin’ Child’

Dion — ‘Spoonful’

Dion — ‘I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound’

Back in my playwrighting days I used to tape a short note to the screen (it was the early days of word processors), right in front of my eyes, the key message I needed to focus on (“Put the girl behind the 8-ball! Keep the girl behind the 8-ball!!” or “He doesn’t take the gun out till the third act!” For this piece I resorted to that old habit: “Jeff, move it forward or you’ll never finish.” And of course I didn’t, and I didn’t’.

imagesI had hoped to cover the whole arc of Dion’s career here, but I of course got bogged down in his riveting, obscure years in the later 1960s and managed only the first 11 years (out of 49). That’s alright. Dion’s worth revisiting.

You all know ‘Runaraound Sue’ and ‘The Wanderer’. If you’re of a certain age, you might even know our ostensible Song of The Week ‘Abraham, Martin and John’. But chances are you’ve only scratched the surface. Our SoTW isn’t really about that song, it’s about Dion 1964-68, floundering careerly, knocking out lots of bold, innovative, relevant contemporary music during one of the most interesting periods in pop music – a legend languishing in drugs and obscurity.

Dylan (on “Kickin’ Child”): “If you want to hear a great singer, listen to Dion. His voice takes its color from all palettes–he’s never lost it–his genius has never deserted him.” You can’t always take Bobby’s recommendations at face value. This one I think you can. As a matter of fact, if you look closely, you might just reach the conclusion that Dion was the most respectable and successful and honest follower of his Columbia stablemate, both in covers and in original songs, as well as the entire nascent folk-rock sensibility.

c5dbf8747d64f5323c916ed993630d4eDion DiMucci is a really cool guy. A nice guy, a walking and talking legend who has been consistently (more or less) knocking out fresh, appealing music for longer than anyone else on earth, and deserves a whole lot of appreciation.

How many major recording artists from the 1950s can you name who successfully transitioned through the British Invasion to remain relevant, honest, creative musicians. I can name one. Elvis? He died in the army. Chuck Berry? Fats Domino? The Everly Brothers? No, no, and no.

Was Dion any different from Ricky Nelson or The Everly Brothers or Roy Orbison or Elvis Presley?
They all started as teen mega-idols in the late 50s. Their work has stood the test of time—they were the best of their era (excepting the great Buddy Holly, whose early death appears more tragic with each passing decade). These were never Fabians, but real creative artists (as far as that was possible in the Brill Building/Top 40 culture of the time. When the Brits came, they grew their hair and tried to remain au courant. Unsuccessfully. Each faded in his own way (Rick in a plane crash, Don and Phil in acrimony, Roy in personal tragedy, Elvis in pills and pitiful self-parody.)

dion-60s-2-500Dion sank into drugs in the mid-60s, disappeared from the public eye, struggled commercially for many years before finally attaining some degree of recognition for his ongoing musical achievements in his later years. But those struggles produced almost 30 original, interesting albums between 1967 and 2017!

I’ve been gorging myself on that corpus, but I’ve only partially digested it. He switched recording companies frequently, and some of his best work was never released or only in secret. But every single one is worth listening to (and talking about, thank goodness).

1957-60, Wop Doo Wop

Authentic doo-wop Bronxters, The Belmonts had hits with ‘I Wonder Why’ (“We sang ‘gna gna gna’ because the only lyrics we could think of all included ‘knockers’), ‘A Teenager in Love’ (Dick Clark’s audience painfully clapping on 1/3), ‘Where or When’ (from the 1937 Rogers and Hart musical “Babes in Arms”). In 1959, on tour in Iowa, he gave up his seat ($36 was a month’s rent for his parents) on the plane which crashed, killing Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper (‘the day the music died’).  Young Bobby Zimmerman saw a show from that tour, and if you’re wondering what effect it had on him, listen to his Nobel speech. By the next year Dion was being treated for heroin addiction.

1960-64 Tearing Open His Shirt

Where's 'Rosie'??

Where’s ‘Rosie’??

He recorded a string of hits which still are still utterly convincing today – ‘Lonely Teenager’ (this live acoustic version is so reminiscent of Buddy Holly’s apartment tapes; it’s delicious to imagine how John Lennon would have reacted to this), ‘Runaround Sue’ (time capsule material), ‘The Wanderer’ (more swagger than Jagger), the knockout ‘Little Diane’ (darkest, most manic kazoo ever), ‘Lovers Who Wander’ for the little Laurie label. He then moved to Columbia (their first ‘rock’ signing), where he had a string of moneymakers, including the oh-so-cool Leiber-StollerRuby Baby’ (originally by The Drifters) and ‘Donna the Prima Donna’, despite a burgeoning heroin addiction.

Dion wrote or co-wrote most of his material, an anomaly at the time. No one had yet dreamed of the term ‘singer-songwriter’.

1965-67 The Harbinger Unnoticed

Looking to leverage his pop success, Mitch Miller of Columbia tried to make Dion (“Last of the One-Name Singers”) into a Las Vegas crooner. But he was coming under the sway of producer John Hammond, with a pronounced predilection for the acoustic blues (e.g., ‘Spoonful‘) which he maintains till today.

05813584d5af614f7ff971bf79e73349Then he hooked up with Tom Wilson, the Columbia producer he shared with folkie Dylan. Conventional wisdom says that Wilson made Dion sound like “Bringing It All Back Home” Dylan. It seems at least as likely that Wilson made Dylan sound like Dion. Think about it. Who of the three of them really knew electric blues and rock and roll (Wilson’s background was avant garde jazz)?

On December 8, 1964, with Dylan out on tour, Wilson recorded Dion with the expressed purpose of trying to imagine what Dylan would sound like in an electric context. Here’s ‘So Much Younger’ from that session.

Then Wilson took Dylan’s ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and overdubbed a rock band on it. Dylan liked it so much he recorded immediately recorded the electric tracks for BIABH (January 13-15, 1965). (Wilson would pull the same trick on folkies Simon and Garfunkel, electrifying their acoustic ‘Sounds of Silence’ in abstentia with studio musicians.)

dion050710wDion’s 1964-65 discography is rich, intriguing and murky. Most of it wasn’t released at the time. Compilations were made in 1991’s “Bronx Blues”, 2007’s “The Road I’m On”, the 2015 box set “King of the New York Streets”, and the recently released “Kickin’ Child: The Lost Album 1965” (given a glowing 5-star review by All Music’s Thom Jurek: “It’s absolutely one of the greatest folk-rock records ever”).

During mid-1965, Dion and Wilson (with help from one Al Kooper) recorded the tracks on “Kickin’ Child”. They include some of the most honest readings of Dylan songs I’ve ever heard, some of them obscure gems: ‘Baby, I’m In the Mood for You’ (Dylan’s version), ‘Farewell’ (Dylan), and ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ (Dylan). There are also Dion-penned cuts that, to be honest, aren’t all that distinguishable from ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ et al, such as ‘Kickin’ Child’, ‘My Love’, ‘Two Ton Feather’.

728b3454c652aa8016efdf36c61414c7You have to remember that Dylan was being heard only by folkies, and there was tremendous pressure by The Suits to capitalize on his potential in the pop market (“Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan”). There was also a desire by some of the more open-minded folkies to explore the lands discovered by The Beatles. Thus was born folk-rock, the dominant aesthetic in serious popular music for the past two or three generations.

Cher, The Turtles, Them, The Byrds – all of a sudden everyone was generating hits from Dylan songs cast in a rock context. They all were of course misdirected. Does The Byrds’ ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (also electrified in the studio) illuminate Dylan’s original? I think not. I think it’s a commercially-successful, historically significant but artistically insignificant gesture.

pepperdionColumbia and McGuinn/Clarke/Crosby/Hillman should have understood – let Byrds be Byrds, not Dylan wannabes. Dion was never a bandwagoner. He was a rocker before The Beatles (of enough stature that they’d put him on the cover of “Sgt Pepper”; together with Dylan, the only live Americans to be so honored).  Dion’s Dylan recordings are genuine, honest, and as opposed to all the aforementioned hits—totally legitimate readings.

Most of the recordings went unreleased at the time, so Dion reunited with The Belmonts on ABC records in 1966-67 for another musically ambitious album very much of the era, “Together Again”.  The album tanked in the US, but generated a number of charted covers in the UK, including the flower-power ‘My Girl the Month of May’ (covered by The Bunch, including Sandy Denny and Richard and Linda Thompson) and ‘Your Own Backyard’ (a minor 1970 hit, a confessional account of his ongoing struggles with H, successfully covered by Mott the Hoople).

Thought I saw him walking along a hill...

Thought I saw him walking along a hill…

In 1968, following another period of cleaning up his habit and getting reacquainted with the Church of his youth, he went back to the little Laurie label to record a mix of (again) forward-looking contemporary covers. It includes a soft, acoustic ‘Purple Haze’; a very cool ‘Loving You is Sweeter Than Ever’ (this is years before James Taylor or anyone else gave intelligent, gentle white readings of Motown power classics); songs by Canadian brand-newcomers Joni Mitchell (‘Both Sides Now’) and Leonard Cohen (‘Sisters of Mercy’); and a mash-up of the Dylan gem ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’ with Fred Neil’s ‘Everybody’s Talking’ (a year before Nilsson’s version), as well as a few respectable originals – very similar to Judy Collins’ influential album of covers from the year before “In My Life”.

But little Laurie had a caveat – Dion had to include ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, inspired by Martin Luther King’s and Bobby Kennedy’s assassinations (tied to those of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy), perhaps the last patriotic song to come from ‘our’ side of the fence before the shit hit the fan several weeks later in Chicago.

hqdefaultThe song was written by Dick Holler and produced by Phil Gernhard, who had worked together back in Baton Rouge, Lousiana, where Dick led The Rockets (later The Holidays), a local band that included at times Jimmy Clanton, Dr John Rebennack and Johnny Rivers. Holler had a minor hit with ‘A Double Shot of My Baby’s Love’ (better known as the cover by the Swinging Medallions) and a major one with ‘Snoopy vs. the Red Baron’ as recorded by The Royal Guardsmen.

‘AM&J’ was a major hit, still covered today. Perhaps not Dion’s most typical song, but respectable, touching. (Who among us is not profoundly saddened by those assassinations and the change they wrought on our world?) Okay, that harp is just a bit gushy (Dion added some classical guitar just to class it up a bit–gee, we never even got to talk about what a fine guitarist he is.)

Ah, there’s so much more to tell. But my time has run out, as I’m sure has your patience. So I’ll just have to leave y’all cliffhanging till the next installment of that long, tortuous road Dion has travelled, and the fine music he’s made along the way.

We hope to continue the Dion saga. In the meantime, you can keep yourself busy with his unknown masterpiece, SoTW 082, “Sit Down, Old Friend“.

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3

262: Bob Dylan, ‘Went to See the Gypsy’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

Posted by jeff on May 12, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week

Dylan1970‘Went to See the Gypsy’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

‘Went to See the Gypsy’ (“New Morning”)

‘Spanish is the Loving Tongue’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

‘This Evening So Soon’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

‘Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

‘Pretty Saro’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

From 1963 to 1967, Bob Dylan released the seven consecutive great albums (eight if you count the then-unreleased Basement Tapes. No one else, not even The Beatles, has made seven consecutive records that are at the absolute top of their game. It can legitimately be argued that no one else has made a single album that can stand with these eight, but that’s a different question.

Then came the motorcycle crash, two years of silence, and “Nashville Skyline” (1969), a clichéd, crooning bewilderment to his fans. I remember its reception well. There were those who said it was great, beyond our grasp; there were those who said it was regrettable schlock; the majority of us are still scratching our heads.

71wTIJj+1ZL._SL1280_Then came “Self-Portrait” (1970), a hodgepodge double album of covers of contemporaries (‘The Boxer’), traditional standards (‘Copper Kettle’), and sub-standard live cuts (‘She Belongs to Me’). Greil Marcus’s Rolling Stone review of the album opened “What is this shit?” It was Dylan’s first commercial and universally critical failure.

Four months later, he released “New Morning”, a laid-back paean to family life. In my opinion, it stands in line with his great works. Not everyone agrees.

In the late 60s, some anonymous hippie entrepreneurs began printing up “bootleg” recordings of Dylan, featuring cuts from the Basement tapes. I was a proud owner of ‘The Masked Marauder’ and ‘The Great White Wonder’, the first and most famous bootlegs. In 1975, Columbia convinced Dylan to capitalize on the great public interest in these recordings, and released a double LP.

Another Self Portrait_1In 1991 Columbia began releasing official “Bootleg Series” CDs, of uneven quality and interest. To the utter amazement of many, there were indisputable gems among the dross, such as the brilliant ‘Blind Willie McTell’, inexplicably excluded from release on the mediocre+ 1983 “Infidels”.

In 2013, they laid on us “Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10”– mostly outtakes from “Self-Portrait”, with a few uninteresting alternate takes from “Nashville Skyline” and a few abysmal ones from “New Morning”with horrifying orchestration by the once deified Al Kooper. Outtakes from “Self-Portrait”? C’mon Bob – wasn’t the original bad enough?

But Dylan is Dylan, and there’s a reason he won the Nobel Prize. “Another Self Portrait” contains a number of unqualified, indisputable wonders that somehow justify the original disaster. As Rolling Stone put it, “a great record lurked inside all along.” I’m gonna chew the fat about a few of my favorites here.

  • The Road

    The Road

    Pretty Saro’is an English ballad that originated in the early 18th century, disappeared for a hundred years, resurfaced (via oral tradition in the Appalachians) in the mid-20th century, as recorded by Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Bert Jansch and Mr Z himself.
    Dylan’s version is more direct, heartfelt, compassionate, and downright pretty than you’d believe. It’s just a heartbreaker of a song.

  • ‘Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song’ was written and recorded by Tom Paxton in 1970.
  • ‘This Evening So Soon’ is Dylan’s version of Bob Gibson’s “Tell Ol’ Bill”, here performed by Dave Van Ronk (yes, the subject of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’), an old cohort of Dylan’s from the Village days.
  • The words of ‘Spanish is the Loving Tongue’ were written as “A Border Affair” in 1907 by the Poet Laureate of South Dakota, Charles Badger Clark and set to music in 1925 by Billy Simon (a real cowboy!). It was originally recorded by Tex Fletcher (1936), but the best we could come up with is Texas Jim Robertson’s 1941 version. Sue me. Bob’s version is—oh, Bob! That piano! That voice! Oh, Bob!
  • Well, Well, Well -- Elvis (foreground), Dylan (hidden)

    Well, Well, Well — Elvis (foreground), Dylan (hidden)

    And our SoTW, ‘Went to See the Gypsy’, which we’ve known and loved since it appeared on “New Morning”. The song has often been parsed as Dylan’s depiction of a meeting with Elvis in a Las Vegas-ish hotel – which never took place. They never met, in reality. But this fictitious non-meeting is memorable, both the released version (Dylan on piano, Kooper on organ, the whole band keeping the tempo moving forward) and the bootleg (Dylan on acoustic, probably David Bromberg on acoustic lead).

So it goes like this:

  1. I went to see the gypsy. I met him, but nothing happened.
  2. I snuck out on the pretext of making a phone call.
  3. A go-go girl caught me and said, “Try again, he’s a real guru.”
  4. I watched the lights on the river.
  5. I went back upstairs to his suite, but he was gone.
    (I went back downstairs to look for her, but) the dancing girl was gone as well.
  6. I thought about my childhood.
Meeting of Titans--Dylan (l), Presley (r)

Meeting of Titans–Dylan (l), Presley (r)

One other point that’s always intrigued me about the song. We’re at the height of drama, the meeting of titans, on the edge of our chairs, and what happens? “I went down to the lobby to make a small call out” (in both versions). A ‘small’ call, nothing that couldn’t have waited.

What does all this mean? I have no idea. If I were being paid to teach sophomore English, I could make up some sort of scenario that encompasses all that, but it would leave a bad taste in my mouth, and make the kids hate college even more than they already do.

Rescue Team

Rescue Team

There are differences in lyrics; nothing in the league of the “Blood on the Tracks” material, but telling nonetheless:

Bootleg: “He smiled when he saw me coming, and he wished me well.”
Official: “He smiled when he saw me coming, and he said ‘Well, well, well!’”
Giant win for O.

Bootleg: “How are you?” he asked of me/And I asked the same of him.”
Official: “How are you?” he said to me/I said it back to him.”
Giant win for O.

Official: “Outside the lights were shining on the river of tears/I watched them from the distance with the music in my ears”.
Bootleg: “Oh, the lights were on the river shining from outside/I contemplated every move, or at least I tried”.
A tie. Both are strained, underwhelming.

Kitchenette

Kitchenette

But the way he picks that up for the knockout ending? He couldn’t find the pretty dancing girl, “So I watched the sun come rising on/in that little Minnesota town.” Yow. Where did that come from?

But it fits so well with the dreamlike, non-sequiturial goings-on. In tone, and even in sense – with a mind-tingling stretch of the imagination. ‘What am I doing here, I’m just a boy from Hibbing?’

But what the heck? This isn’t James Taylor talking about Carolina or Joni Mitchell talking about Canada. Dylan doesn’t go back to Minnesota. He’s deleted it from his memory map. He changed his name, invented a new biography. So where did this suadade come from all of a sudden in 1970? Ladies and gentlemen, meet Bob Dylan. Then wait 20 seconds and you get to meet another one.

dylan24n-5-web

Tracks

Official: “From that little Minnesota town” is repeated, with a resolution in major on the second phrase.
Bootleg: He says it only once, leaves it hanging in an unresolved minor chord, with a lovely, long instrumental outro.
Big win for B.

Both versions are convincing renditions of an enigmatic, intriguing song.  If I had to choose a favorite between the two, I’d choose both. But if you’re trying to make sense of all this, you’re barking up the wrong Gypsy. Welcome to Dylanland.

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

Posted by jeff on Mar 24, 2017 in Jazz, New Acoustic, Rock, Song Of the week

122815-r4-f3_wide-3f58a2451f6181b363e9f119d2fe83033cd14290-s900-c85Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — ‘Marcie’

Joni Mitchell — ‘Marcie’

Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’

Bob Dylan — ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’

I’ve made it a guiding principle of this blog to focus on music I love. Hence, you only know the jolly, positive, coddling Jeff.
Alas, there’s an alter ego lurking in the nether depths of my Critic’s Psyche: the censorious, condemnatory, disparaging, judgmental Jeff, the one those near and dear to me have the misfortune of suffering through.

maxresdefaultSo this week I’m going to share with you not one but two! new covers of great songs from not one but two! artists I greatly admire. Except I’m going to step on some toes and sour-milk some sacred cows along the way. Bear with me, I promise there will be a happy ending.

Chris Thile (b. 1981) and Brad Mehldau (b. 1970) just released a double CD. I have great admiration for the former, the preeminent jazz pianist around today; immense respect for the latter, a certified MacArthur wunderkind. But I find it a mediocre disk, even boring. I’ve listened to it maybe 25 times in the last two weeks, and most of it still just wafts past my ears.

Perhaps it’s something in the sound of the mandolin. Say what you want, it sounds to me like a toy guitar from the Ozarks, no matter how brilliant the notes are.

Perhaps it’s the fact that Mehldau tends to disappear in collaboration, displaying excessive modesty when he should be leading the band.
That’s why I always prefer listening to him solo. Nowhere to hide, Brad – it’s all painfully vulnerable, exposed, grave and seriously profound, whether he’s playing Bach or Radiohead.

However, there are two cuts on the album that made my head spin. Both are covers of great songs by great artists. And in one way or another, both improve on the original.

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11e499000e1ae934ee0afb385d9863ca‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, from Dylan’s first real album (of originals).

I don’t say that lightly. The very idea of someone improving on Dylan’s treatment of his own song is fundamentally questionable. “No one sings Dylan like Dylan.” In one of our first SoTWs we wrote about exactly such a case—Fairport Convention singing ‘I’ll Keep It with Mine’. But there, if you’ll pardon the hairsplitting, it’s more Dylan’s fault than Sandy Denny’s achievement. He wrote a gentle, intriguing song and shouted it out, banging on the piano. Fairport just laid back and gave it a suitable, straightforward reading.

Not so with ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, one of Dylan’s first ‘hits’ (popularized by the fine Peter, Paul and Mary cover from late 1963, half a year after the release of “Freewheelin’”). Dylan “borrowed” a lot of the song from fellow folkie Paul Clayton’s ‘Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons’, but the scathing, caustic dismissal of the girl (in retrospect, of course) and the relationship they did/didn’t have is all Dylan aged 22 par excellence. Dylan raised snide, furious, finger-pointing name-calling to a Nobel Prize-level art form.

Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is ironic. He doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t think twice. He’s beating her up verbally, machine-gunning her with his esprits de l’escalier, getting in all the last punches beneath the belt after the bell has rung. It’s all condescension and self-righteousness. He means that he’s going to leave her with a pummeling that will make her regret losing the wonderful Him 10,000 times a day while she’s recuperating.

Thile-Chris-07Chris Thile tells a very different story. It’s all insouciance, nonchalance, cool. What we adults call indifference. There’s no recrimination, no great regrets, because, really, who cares? Who needs a real relationship? Who wants commitment? We were together, it’s getting messy, I’m out of here before I get anything sticky on me.

When Dylan sings “We never did too much talking anyway”, the subtext is ‘little you wasn’t capable of entering a dialogue with wonderful me.”
When Thile sings “But we never really did that much talking anyway”, the subtext is ‘What’s the big deal? It’s not like we talked or anything.”

When Dylan sings “I gave her my heart by she wanted my soul”, he’s accusing her of predatory rapaciousness.
When Thile sings it, with a wonderfully expressive squeal, he’s saying ‘Hey, she tried to scratch my Teflon, man! I’m out of here!’

Now, the question is whether the song holds the potential for both readings. Admittedly, Chris has the distinct advantage of coming from a generation that doesn’t give a fuck about anything.

Want to hear my opinion? I have a lot of respect for Chris’s reading. Dylan’s is a perfect example of why I admire him so much and have no affection for him. He’s really quite obnoxious in his self-righteousness. Chris? He may be as uncommitted as a jellyfish, but at least there are no pretentions about it.

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joni&doug

Photo: Rod Pennington

‘Marcie’, from Joni Mitchell’s first album

I’ve written a series of postings about Joni’s early albums: ‘Cactus Tree’ from the first album; ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ from the second; ‘For Free’ and ‘Woodstock’ from the third; ‘Blue’ and ‘River’ from the fourth. Someday I’ll get to the enigmatic, elusive ‘For the Roses’.

The first album occupies a place in my heart for a number of reasons, as I wrote in SoTW 106: She was unknown, she was mine. It was the first collaboration of David Crosby (producer) and Stephen Stills (bass), a harbinger of things to come. It was the music she was singing when I met her in Nashville with Bob Dylan on the Johnny Cash show.

It’s a groundbreaking album. Together with Laura Nyro (who released her first album in February, 1967, and her masterpiece “Eli & the 13th Confession” the same month as Joni’s first, March 1968) they gave a new voice to the nascent new womanhood.

But most of all, it’s just a very fine album. Every song on Joni’s first album is a perfectly crafted gem of a vignette from her first taste of independence as a newly liberated woman, Greenwich Village.

I sat up straight and smiled broadly when I first heard Chris Thile’s ‘Marcie’. It was for me an utterly refreshing look at an old friend. It’s a fine example of the justification for covers, shining new light on great music. Not a revelation, perhaps, but certainly a revealing of truths I had previously not seen.

hqdefaultIf ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is all about Thile’s plinky mandolin, here it’s Brad’s elegant, legato accompaniment that carries the arrangement. Even Thile’s vocal is serving the tone set by Brad.

Thile/Mehldau’s reading isn’t so different from the original. It’s the same girl with the same predicament – living her life, but thinking only of the man not calling. But it does shed light some of the limitations of Joni’s music. That’s not a criticism – Joni’s reading is full, convincing, unassailable, memorable. But you’ve always got the road not taken – every choice you make means passing on the alternative, never to be explored. At least until someone comes along and covers your song.

Chris’s treatment is so much more intimate, fraught with so much empathy. In contrast, Joni sounds removed, distant. As painfully confessional as Joni is at her best, the exposure is in the lyrics. Her carefully controlled tremelo sounds just a little standoffish in comparison with Chris’s candor. She is here at her most precious –just a little too delicate, too refined. She’s presenting a finely crafted portrait. Chris is lamenting the predicament of a Marcie he feels for.

Still, he’s singing Joni’s song. It’s the difference between a creative artist and a performing artist. You gotta give the nod to creator. You just got to.

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You don’t need “Chris Thile/Brad Mehldau” to justify the standing of Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. People will be singing their praises and their songs “somewhere ages and ages hence”. But they are not the end of even their own story. They’ve given us – and Brad and Chris – a legacy to explore, to build on, and maybe even here and there to serve as an inspiration for genuine and new readings that amplify and enhance the originals.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Brad Mehldau SoTWs

Chris Thile SoTWs

Bob Dylan SoTWs

Joni Mitchell SoTWs

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