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Three Graces Part 1 – Joni Mitchell

April 27, 2010
The Three Graces, Antonio Canova, The Hermitage

I. Tangled up in Blue

First there was Joni.

Here she is, spring of 1969, walking to a stage not ten feet from me, about to play a concert which would change my life.

WESLEYAN UNIVERSITY LIBRARY, Special Collections and Archives

Here’s how I describe that concert, in an excerpt from my memoir. It was a crazy time in my life, in a crazy year on the planet:

Into my muddy life, for a few hours, came an angel..

On a cloudless, unseasonably warm Sunday morning at the end of April

I sat cross-legged with the rest of the crowd, in the front row before a low riser. I already knew, and loved, a few of Joni Mitchell’s songs, and liked her first album. Still, I didn’t know quite what to expect.

She glided onstage in a long dress, hair gleaming gold in the sun streaming “like butterscotch” through the tall windows behind her, smiling bright as that sun. I didn’t know that the woman before me stood on the cusp of genius, her creative star about to burst from shining to incandescence.

The songs she sang were all about love. Her music was love itself, as with lips and strums on a wealth of strange tunings she poured out the contents of her big heart. And that voice–her range had grown by a couple of octaves, as if a normal range couldn’t contain the abundance of her feelings. After a time she put down the guitar and sat at a grand piano. Six strings could no longer contain what was inside and it needed

eighty-eighty. The new piano-based songs were revelations.

I was not ten feet from her, so close that I felt something of her come into me.

That was before I’d dreamed of becoming a composer. Before the previous fall my music had been folk and rock, starting with Peter, Paul and Mary, from whose records I learned acoustic guitar. Then came the Beatles, which got me my first electric guitar and a Beatle wig, which I wore performing in a gig in a Beatles tribute band. (I was 13.)

As I freshman in college in the fall of ’68, my newest love was the Jefferson Airplane. Music 101 turned me on to Bach and Beethoven, and turned me into a music major, but didn’t answer my question – what did that old stuff have to do with Dylan, Hendrix, which I still loved?

It wasn’t until I sat at Joni’s feet that I glimpsed the answer, that I sensed there might be some a connection between the music of those old dead white Germans and that of the idols of my time. It would be some years before I’d start writing music, but during that concert the composer in me was conceived.

Two summers later I was sitting in a house in Vermont with my band when someone showed us a new record with Joni’s face on the cover. She no longer beamed, but looked down with profound sorrow, from a background of dead blue. As I listened to Blue for the first time I realized that her many tricks that April morning had been only promises of what she was now fulfilling.  Her surprising modulations, the leaping melodies that as I found were impossible for ordinary singers to sing, the unlikely blending of blues and jazz to her classically infused style, had already been doing the real job of music – to touch the heart. Now she was using these tools to dig as deep as music can go.

A tentative riff on dulcimer then she was on her uncertain way, “I am on a lonely road and I am traveling, traveling, traveling…” and much of my generation and I were along for the ride. As we lived and loved through the ‘70’s in times of joy, but especially of sorrow, Blue was our soundtrack. First spinning on a turntable, and then in our heads, because we’d memorized it.

I haven’t heard Blue in a while, but I can quote without listening, and as I do my past wells up from the musty depths of 30 years ago – “Oh I love you some, I love you some, I hate you some…”  “Songs are like tattoos…” “Stay with him if you can, but be prepared to bleed.” “Part of you comes out of me, in these lines, from time to time ““Oh you’re a mean old daddy but you’re…outtasight!” Smell may be the most nostalgic sense, but music like that takes you back more completely, back to how it was and who you were.

And in the case of Blue, it takes me back to Joni’s past. I always considered “Little Green” the least song on the album. It was clearly from her earlier folky period. It took on sudden weight when I found that it was about Joni’s real daughter, and that they’d been reunited, and apparently happily – “Oh Green, have a happy ending.”

I’ve been talking about lyrics on Blue. Yes they’re very good, and blissfully married to the music.  But the music is what gave me the courage to write music. The courage to build a bridge between the folk and rock I was already comfortable with and that scary, complex, difficult classical music that was calling me on the other side of a gulf. I wasn’t afraid because I’d seen Joni go before me, doing her high wire act with a couple of toes hanging on a silken thread, arms outstretched like it was easy, and smiling like it was fun! The most fun in the world.

The three albums that precede Blue form a kind of crescendo towards it. Song for a Seagull is plain folky. The lyrics can be overtly poetic and somewhat removed from her heart. Yet in the light of her later disillusionment, it’s a testament to just how innocent and idealistic that still young girl really was. And the feeling of that girl’s joy spills over in “Night in the City.”

On Clouds that exuberance finds perhaps its purest expression in “Chelsea Morning, “ which was apparently enough for a future President and his wife to name their daughter after it. Trying to sing it recently told me why I don’t dare sing her songs. The spooky “Roses Blue” offers a bird’s eye view of the darkening of the counterculture. “I think I Understand,” which refers to Tolkien, has lost some of its charge as the years have passed since I read him. On the other hand, “Songs to Aging Children Come” hits me much harder now that I’m one. “Clouds,” also known as “Both Sides Now,” is a classic, and one I still sing even though I can’t.

I love Ladies of the Canyon, even though few songs stand out above any others. Her vignette of the counterculture in “Roses Blue” expands to a 3D picture of her life in that brief sunny countercultural moment in Laurel Canyon.  There’s of course “Woodstock.”  “Everywhere there was song and celebration,” but she sings the song sorrowfully, and I don’t think it’s just because she was stuck on the Dick Cavett show and didn’t make it there. Finally, “The Circle Game,” a song which like “Clouds” has its writer stepping back from her twenty-year old self, to see a whole life and time and aging.

For the Roses, has its moments, but seems like mostly misses, as though she’s taking a breath before blasting out her last great album, Court and Spark. It deserves its own post.  To me it is the very last great record of the ‘60’s (though it came out in 1974.) Her musical toolbox has expanded to now include a full rock band, Tom Scott’s great multi-winds, Larry Carlton’s electric guitar wizardry, and an orchestra. She tone-paints as well as she does with brushes, and her voice has never been more virtuosic.

But emotionally…it’s as though those clouds that blocked the sun in Blue, which only a few short years before “poured in like butterscotch” in “Chelsea Morning,” now cover the sky, and are here to stay. To our horror she seems to have succumbed to the fate Richard warns her of at the end of Blue –“All romantics meet the same fate…” That she was actually writing about herself.

The depths of Blue are precisely so deep because you know her sun somewhere still shines so bright. On Court and Spark I sense no joy. When I first heard the record I couldn’t comprehend why she chose to end it with the bizarre “Two Heads,” a recreation of an old Lambert, Hendricks and Ross jazz thing, the epitome of what we in the rock rebellion were rebelling against.  Now I think she was being prescient. It’s a flip song about being crazy, her way of exiting her immortal spot at the end of a great period in musical history, and of acknowledging that she’s only the last to leave the stage, and why not with a joke instead of a dirge.

Try as I did, I couldn’t follow Joni after that. What’s wrong, starting with “Hejira,” is not musical. I sense a deeply unhappy person, one whose unhappiness no longer transmutes into gold in song. She herself has become “old, and cold, and settled in (her) ways.”

But I owe her far too much to begrudge her anything she might choose to do. She’s influenced my music such that I could often say myself of her, “Part of you comes out of me in these lines from time to time.” I don’t care if she makes a record of psychedelic polkas, or as Dylan recently did, croaks out Christmas Carols. I just wish she weren’t so damned unhappy.

Joni at least is still of interest. Just last week I saw two posts about her on open Salon, both of which were well commented:

What ever Happened to Joni Mitchell?

Joni Mitchell v. Bob Dylan: Battle of the Folk Heavyweights

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11 Comments
  1. Yes! Excellent insight John! ‘Blue’ is a much deeper anthem of our generation than ‘Sergeant Pepper’ or just about anything. (Hendrix, aside) So many good compositions on that one. I agree with your take on her later work like, Hejira. I think she wanted to shed her folk persona and go after her personal summit, which I think was ‘the grizzled jazz player’ (Mingus). Perhaps Jaco’s tragic slide and death really got to her. It got to a lot of us who never even knew him-just his music. I really like her ’91 release-“Night Ride Home”. Lots of good stuff and great lyrics. “Rays Dad’s Cadillac” sticks out in my mind.

  2. Tara permalink

    Excellent post – beautifully written and thought out. As a life-long Joni fan and one-time music major who spent her younger years still able to hit all the high notes, I appreciate your analysis; I always love finding more Joni fans where once I felt alone among the limited tastes of my high school classmates who had no idea who she was (I was not a child of the 60s). But I must urge you to re-visit Hejira. I know you say there is nothing “wrong” with it musically – and it is just its sadness that deters you – and I understand your point. Hejira is certainly not a “happy” album. But personally, I have always considered it her best work of art as a complete whole. It’s a tough call between Hejira and Blue, if one must pick a “best” album, but Hejira works from start to finish — the theme, each song individually and as part of a whole, with no weak links, (as if!) and even the album art is of the highest order. Coyote, Amelia, Furry Sings the Blues, That Strange Boy, the title song — so many unbelievably wonderful songs — almost all with a kind of throbbing, pulsing rhythm that suggests continued movement along the “white lines of the freeway…” When I first converted to buying compact discs, “Hejira” was the first CD I bought, because I deemed it worthy of the honor of what I considered a monumental change in my life at the time. And I had many to choose from just among Joni’s catalog.

    One more thing – If you’re not a Mingus fan either, as I suspect you might not be – at least try the track called “The Wolf that lives in Lindsay.” It’s hauntingly beautiful. (And “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines” is a lot of fun.) 🙂

    • Thank you for thoughtful comments! You know, the album that really bummed me out was “Hissing of summer lawns,” (though I loved the title.) As I remember, I liked Hejira OK. So, game on – it deserves a listen after 30 years. Never enough Joni to go around. (And BTW, if you haven’t checked out Grace No 2, she’s worth a shot.)

    • AFAICT you’ve covreed all the bases with this answer!

  3. I haven’t read all the comments yet, but this is just perfect for me. Joni’s music keeps her in aspic to a degree, and holds a section of yourself with it. It is very upsetting to see her move past that, becoming less spectacular, more obviously damaged. Thank you for commenting on my post on forfolkssake, it’s good to get a conversation going with such personal subjects!

    Best
    Alice

  4. Alexandra permalink

    I was wondering whether you knew the source of this image? I’m actually intending to use it as a case study for my dissertation. I realise this is a candid shot from an audience perspective but would you happen to be the photographer? thank you. Alexandra

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Three Graces (Part 2 of 3) « Luminous Muse
  2. Ten ’60s albums that changed everything « Luminous Muse
  3. Open Salon, R.I.P. | Luminous Muse

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