Thursday, March 30, 2006

Lessons in Survival

She made pain
A high, high window;
She made hope
A long, long fall.

- Joni (2004)

Will someone please explain to me why more people don't listen to Joni Mitchell? Or if they do, why nobody ever got around to telling me about her? Oh, I'd heard of her all right - I even had a couple of recordings of her with Hancock. I just never realised that this nice-ish jazz singer was also the most incredible songwriter ever. It took 24 years of my life before I finally stumbled upon a copy of Blue while browsing a neighbourhood music store, and decided to buy it (how these little things can change your life!) purely out of curiosity.

So there I was. CD duly unwrapped [1], new batteries in discman (this was a point in my life when I was living out of a suitcase on a permanent basis - a discman is all I had - and even that was borrowed from a friend), the grimy glow of a Mumbai dusk all around me. And I press the 'Play' button and that haunting voice comes on singing "I am on a lonely road and I am travelling, travelling, travelling / Looking for something what can it be?" and I know I'm hooked. Something about the sound of that first line - its solitariness, its restlessness, its sense of journeys undertaken not out of hope but driven by a mix of weariness and curiosity - felt genuine, felt honest, felt right. It was like that one starting line could be a summary of my whole life.

As I listened more the song delighted me by being both unpredictable and accurate - I found myself relating to every line, but every time I tried predicting what would come next, I found I'd got it almost, but not quite, right, and the very off-beatness of this enchanted me. What astonished me, as I listened to the album, was the combination of intelligence and sympathy that Mitchell brought to the music - here was music that seemed to understand me, but insisted on being understood in turn. "Truth is beauty, beauty truth" Keats said - in Joni Mitchell's songs I could hear both.

And what songs they were. All I really want was followed by the gentle, strumming poetry of Green ("Call her Green and the winters cannot fade her / Call her Green for the children who've made her / Little Green, be a gypsy dancer); by the lyrical intensity of Blue; by This Flight Tonight, that captures so perfectly the instantaneous nature of regret, of that moment when you suddenly know that you've done the wrong thing, and which, aside from being a wonderful metaphor for the impossibility of turning back time, is so precise a reflection of the anxiety I always feel when my plane is coming in to land, the thought that says 'did I make a mistake by coming here?'; by the amazing Last Time I Saw Richard - a song I've listened to endlessly, especially that bit at the end ("only a dark cocoon before I get my gooooorgeous wings and fly away / Only a phase / These dark cafe days"). [2]

And then, of course, there's River. The faux Jingle Bells starting, the defeated melancholy of a voice that can turn so simple a line as "It don't snow here / It stays pretty green / I'm going to make a lot of money / Then I'm going to quit this crazy scene" into an authentic expression of being trapped in the everyday, in the ordinary. River is one of the most heartbreaking songs I have ever heard, and one of the most achingly perfect.

And at any rate, by the time I'd heard Blue straight through for the third time in a row, it had already taken on the quality of a revelation. Over the next couple of weeks I listened to that one album (and only to that one album) 2-3 times a day every single day, and when I finally decided that this was getting ridiculous, I went out and bought another Joni Mitchell album (For the Roses) just so I could alternate. This is how obsession begins.

If there's one thing I've never been able to make up my mind about when it comes to Mitchell - it's which album I like better - Blue or For the Roses. On the whole, I think Blue is the more overwhelming album, but For the Roses is more consistently brilliant. For the Roses features the glorious surrealism of Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire (don't you just love the way that last line of the refrain shifts from "You can come now or you can come later" to "If you come now or if you come later" to "You're gonna come now or you're gonna come later") and Electricity (which has to be the most amazing conceit in all of modern song); the quirky humour of You turn me on, I'm a radio; the glorious lyrics of For the Roses ("In some office sits a poet / and he trembles as he sings / and he asks some guy / to circulate his soul around") and Woman of Heart and Mind ("After the rush / when you come back down / always disappointed / nothing seems to keep you high"); the dark irony of Blonde in the Bleachers (that awesome drumming coming in at exactly the right moment); and that most passionate of all tributes to Beethoven's music - Judgement of the Moon and Stars ("you've got to shake your fists at lightning now / you've got to roar like forest fire").

You know (or should have figured out) the rest. Ladies of the Canyon followed (with Morning Morgantown, Woodstock, Big Yellow Taxi, the Circle Game and that most underrated of all Joni's songs - Willy). Then Clouds (with Tin Angel, Chelsea Morning, I Don't Know Where I Stand and, most importantly, Both Sides Now). Then Court and Spark (Same Situation, Down to You and the hilarious Twisted). And then, finally, all those years later, Both Sides, Now - the voice so smoky you don't dare inhale while she's singing, the world-weariness of the sound.

Thinking about it, what makes Mitchell so special to me is the way her music connects to something within me, the way her songs seem to speak not to, but for me. Other songwriters may write more beautifully, but my admiration for them is aesthetic, impersonal; not to love Joni Mitchell would be not to love myself. Mitchell's songs feel both essential and familiar precisely because they are superior echoes of that voice in my head that I've been hearing all these years, often without knowing it. Mitchell sings "You could have been more / Than a name on the door / Of the thirty-third floor / In the air" and the shock of recognition is immediate; she sings "Friends and kin / Campers in the kitchen / That's fine, sometimes / But I know my needs / My sweet tumbleweed / I need my quiet times / By the river flowing" and she might as well be talking about me.

Not that these are easy songs, mind - they are songs about failure, songs about loss; they are songs about all the things that I am afraid or ashamed of, all the things the frustrate or defeat me, all the things I am too frightened to acknowledge. If there is comfort in them, it is only in knowing that someone out there understands how you feel, that someone out there feels the same way. Listening to Mitchell is a deeply intimate, deeply emotional experience, in much the way that an evening spent talking to a friend is (Mitchell sings: "He comes for conversation / I comfort him sometimes / Comfort and consultation / He knows that's what he finds" - that's it, exactly).

Eliot writes: "But what have I, what have I, my friend, / to give you? what can you receive from me? / Only the friendship and the sympathy / Of one about to reach her journey's end". That is exactly what Joni Mitchell offers, and it's a lot. Because we all know "how rare and strange it is, to find / in a life composed so much, so much of odds and ends.... to find a friend who has these qualities,/ who has, and gives / those qualities upon which friendship lives".


[1] Is it just me, or does it take everyone else ages to unwrap a CD as well? The little tag on the side saying pull here first almost always never works, and then I spend hours prying away at the plastic wrapping, rather like a monkey trying to figure out how to peel a banana and get at the good stuff inside.

[2] Blue also features, of course, A Case of You, a song whose beauty I only appreciated after I heard the version of it on Both Sides, Now.

Categories: ,


Tabula Rasa said...

"Will someone please explain to me why more people don't listen to Joni Mitchell?" you ask. You answer yourself: "Not that these are easy songs..."

Beautiful post. Have you seen Joni's cameo appearance on The Last Waltz? Helpless and Coyote -- highlights of an all-time great slice of history.

babitha said...

I am glad I got you to read 31 songs. I am loving the rock posts, in a row, that too. Keep at it, pls.

And to think you were claiming sometime back that you are not a rock person...

Falstaff said...

tabula rasa: Thanks. And no, I haven't . Sigh. The list of things I've missed just keeps getting longer.

babitha: No, no, thank YOU. (*grin* I've always wanted to say that!). Next up, rock and politics.

Anonymous said...

Thanks dude. even i hadnt heard Joni mitchell before reading your post. Ignorance on my part as usual. But yeah you are right. amazing songs with so much intensity in the voice that it hits you like a thunderbolt.{pardon me for being slightly melodrmatic}.

Anirudh said...

I haven't even heard of this lady. You've made feel (rockaciously) inadequate. Damn you!

(Will listen to her songs now though and for that, change the "damn" to "thank").

Falstaff said...

anonymous / anirudh: No, Thank You (twice in one post! yaay!). I actually managed to get someone to listen to Joni Mitchell. Now I can die happy, knowing that my life has had meaning.

A word of warning, though - these are amazing songs, but they're not easy. And if you're expecting something along the lines of Metallica (or even of Joplin) you're going to be severely let down. But if, like me, you love Simon and Garfunkel then you can't go wrong with this stuff.

Vishal Gandhi said...

Joni Mitchell definitely needs to be heard more. Hissing of Summer Lawns is my favourite.

shakester said...

i discovered Joni Mitchell with Night Ride Home - purely by chance. I love the album. It makes for beautiful dark, solitary nights with whisky and, melancholy and helplessness.

I've also heard the Coyote version on The Last Waltz, but only just got Both Sides, Now. have not got beyond being swept by the general feel of the album yet....
looks like Blue must be the next buy (though when that will be is, alas, not known)

shakester said...

oh, I also have Travelogue archived somewhere but haven't really heard it much

? said...

as one of the fortunate few who chanced upon joni mitchell whilst still in my teens (quite a few years) - shes changed my life in very many ways - helped me "see both sides now", been there when ive been "blue" and at happier times when theres been "coffee and conversation".

she is gorgeous.

az music lyrics said...

Hi Fellow! I was just searching blogs,and I found yours! I like it!
If you have a moment, please visit my az music lyrics site.
Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Cool blog, interesting information... Keep it UP Does cialis have side effects business health indiana insurance small

Buy Levitra said...

Great article! Thanks.

Phentermine said...

Thanks for interesting article.

Anonimous said...

Excellent website. Good work. Very useful. I will bookmark!