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

Posted by jeff on Jul 20, 2012 in Rock, Song Of the week


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

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

“Hey, how come it’s been so long since you’ve written about Joni Mitchell?” said the note I got from reader J.M. this week. Turns out he’s right – I’ve written about her only once, and that about a relatively minor song from a relatively minor album: ‘Cactus Tree’, from her very first venture, “Songs to a Seagull”. Well, one can’t pay too much attention to Joni Mitchell, the unchallenged poetess laureate of popular music, so methodical we are going to visit her second, the much-more commercially successful “Clouds”.  And of course we’ll go for a lesser-known song, ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’.

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


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

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

Joni Mitchell, 1969

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She has strong feelings towards him. She wants to express them, but she’s unsure of herself. I come back to one of my recurrent thoughts about Joni, quoting myself from SoTW 106: “Much of the little I understand of the female psyche I’ve learned from Joni Mitchell. I don’t take her to be emblematic of Womanhood. She’s an individual, with a unique vision of the world, but one that is profoundly female. She has thoughts and feelings and desires and disinclinations that seem to me engendered in that other side of the fence, visions and versions that would never cross my testeronic landscape.”

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

Funny day, looking for laughter and finding it there

Sunny day, braiding wild flowers and leaves in my hair

Picked up a pencil and wrote “I love you” in my finest hand

Wanted to send it, but I don’t know where I stand


Telephone, even the sound of your voice is still new

All alone in California and talking to you

And feeling too foolish and strange to say the words that I had planned

I guess it’s too early, ’cause I don’t know where I stand


Crickets call, courting their ladies in star-dappled green

Thickets tall, until the morning comes up like a dream

All muted and misty, so drowsy now I’ll take what sleep I can

I know that I miss you, but I don’t know where I stand

I know that I miss you, but I don’t know where I stand


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

106: Joni Mitchell, ‘Cactus Tree’
087: Bob Dylan, ‘Black Diamond Bay’
SoTW 15: Tracy Nelson (Mother Earth), ‘Down So Long’

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