On Joni Mitchell’s 70th birthday, Michael Langan takes a look at what it is about Joni that makes her one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time.
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Today marks an important moment in popular music – the 70th birthday of Joni Mitchell, one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time. Like all the best artists, working in any medium, Joni Mitchell’s songs tell you about your self through the truthful expression of their own selves. Each listening can be a fresh experience, as well as feeling like a homecoming or a meeting with an old friend, and a song that you’ve heard before but haven’t really responded to can take on an unexpected significance. Her folk roots and particular use of traditional instruments such as the dulcimer, as well as her singing voice, can make many of her songs seem innocent or naïve. Closer listening reveals them as rather more cynical, offering an unflinching examination of the difficulties of relationships while retaining a sincerity and, most importantly, an optimism that cuts through like a siren.
When I was 18, I got a very mixed bag of A-Level results and the upshot was that I didn’t get into any of the universities I’d applied to. I decided to take a year out, but this was well before the concept of the gap year – where I came from ‘travelling’ had no real meaning beyond two weeks a year in Spain – so my options were signing-on, or working, and I did a mixture of both while I waited to get on with my life.
My local library – Birkenhead Central, a 1930s neo-classical building that smelled of wood shavings and Brasso, old paper and damp wool – had always been something of a sanctuary for me, both as a depository for books and as a place of rare quiet. The library had a not-very-extensive collection of vinyl records and I took to borrowing two or three at a time (this was 1986 – the CD had appeared on Tomorrow’s World but not on the high street). I don’t remember why but, one week, I took home Joni Mitchell’s album, Court and Spark. I do remember the beige, gatefold sleeve and the drawing on the front of a rainbow-coloured landscape, mountains and two large figures embracing in the foreground. I think perhaps I’d heard of Joni before, but I’m not sure. Maybe I opened it out the sleeve to read the lyrics and liked them. Whatever the reason, it was listening to Court and Spark that started my relationship with Joni.
From the opening echoing piano chords of the title-track and the album’s first words,
Love came to my door,
With a sleeping roll,
And a madman’s soul –
I was sold on a sound and a way of seeing that I’d never experienced before. It said something about America, and California specifically, that was a very long way from Birkenhead. Behind Joni’s sweet, high voice and the piano, string and woodwind arrangements, there’s a lot of anxiety – about love and ambition and how you feel when your hopes and dreams don’t tally with reality or those dreams vanish altogether. This culminates in the track ‘Down to You’ – the album’s core – which examines the individual trying to negotiate their way in the romantic and material world,
Everything comes and goes,
Marked by lovers and styles of clothes,
Things that you held high, and told yourself were true,
Lost or changing as the days come down to you,
Down to you, constant stranger,
You’re a kind person – you’re a cold person too,
It’s down to you. It all comes down to you –
Later on, in an achingly bittersweet juxtaposition, Joni uses her own multi-tracked voice to sing the line “Love is gone” like a choir of angels chorusing a hallelujah.
Blue (1971) was my university album and was one of the first CDs I owned. I played it over and over. Blue is the album of Joni’s that appears on all those greatest album lists and is most people’s favourite – maybe even the only one some people know. I can understand why it’s so popular – it’s a very accessible album and the songs have so much beauty in them, so much poetry, heartbreak and joy that you’d have to be dead not to respond. Blue also includes what many consider to be her finest song, ‘A Case of You’ – I’m not going to argue with that assessment. It contains some of the best song lyrics ever written by anyone, especially the famous refrain,
Oh you’re in my blood like holy wine,
You taste so bitter and so sweet.
Oh I could drink a case of you darling,
Still I’d be on my feet…
I would still be on my feet –
Whenever this song plays there are times I feel I’m receiving the best hug ever, and times I find it so unbearably sad I have to skip over it.
If I had to pick a favourite album at this moment in my life, For the Roses would just edge it. This 1972 album is still firmly in Joni’s folky-style of writing and singing, before her voice and arrangements had begun to thicken, and before she went so far down the jazz-fusion road she left me behind. And if I had to choose just one track from that album it would be ‘Let the Wind Carry Me,’ a song about the complexities of relationships with parents and feeling the need to strike out on your own. The song that precedes it, ‘Lesson in Survival,’ ends on the piano’s tentative ascent after the lines,
I will always love you.
Magnet and iron.
The souls –
and the beginning of ‘Let the Wind Carry Me’ runs on without a break (these are records made when the relationship between songs was integral to the warp and weft of an album’s texture and emotional impact).
The piano resolves and warms as she begins to sing,
Papa’s faith is people, Mama she believes in cleaning.
Papa’s faith is in people, Mama she’s always cleaning.
Papa brought home the sugar, Mama taught me the deeper meaning.
It’s easy to assume that she’s singing about her own parents and her own life, such is the directly personal nature of the music and lyrics,
She don’t like my kick-pleat skirt,
She don’t like my eyelids painted green.
She don’t like me staying out late in my high-heeled shoes,
Living for that rock ‘n’ roll dancing scene.
Papa says leave the girl alone mama,
She’s looking like a movie queen.
There’s a long instrumental break in the middle that’s like thinking, the passage of time a processing of what’s been said before. It’s about the pang of recognising what your parents have done for you alongside the knowledge that you want different things from them and that you have to leave them, at least for a while, if you’re to live your own life:
Mama thinks she spoilt me.
Papa knows somehow he set me free.
Mama thinks she spoilt me rotten,
She blames herself,
But papa he blesses me.
It’s a rough road to travel,
Mama let go now,
It’s always called for me.
Sometimes I get that feeling,
And I want to settle,
And raise a child up with somebody.
I get that strong longing,
And I want to settle,
And raise a child up with somebody.
But it passes like the summer,
I’m a wild seed again,
Let the wind carry me.
At this point the piano dissolves into uncertainty of what the future holds. As a song about growing up and growing apart from your parents, about struggling to be who you are and having to leave to find yourself, a lot of people can relate to it, but that’s maybe even more true when you’re gay.
The last few years I’ve found within myself the maturity to appreciate albums like Hejira (1976) and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977), but I must confess Joni still loses me after that. Having said that, I’m totally on board with the more recent Both Sides Now (2000) and Travelogue (2002), on which the songs are arranged for full orchestra and combined with so-called ‘standards,’ thereby placing her own works in the context of classic American songwriting. There’s a version of ‘A Case of You’ on Both Sides Now sung over lush strings and a gliding saxophone that’s utterly gorgeous and, given the wealth of lived experience apparent in her now husky, smoke-infused voice, it becomes a song about the memory of loves lost long ago that linger in the mind and on the body, infusing a whole life with sadness and joy in equal measure.
Joni’s music has been ever-present in my life for almost twenty years. Like the greatest art, her music evolves and changes as you yourself evolve and change. I’ve filled myself with it in ways that sustain in every way – feeding, lifting, teaching supporting, holding. She’s not your (stereo)typical gay icon, but she means a lot to many of us because of the emotional sincerity of her work, her brilliant storytelling and delicate poetry. She deserves all the tributes paid to her as a great songwriter, singer and poet, who captures and expresses the vagaries of life in music that’s direct, honest and true.