Blue” is the best,” “Court and Spark” was the breakthrough, and in between lies “For the Roses.”
I didn’t hear most of “Song to a Seagull” until the advent of Napster. Oh, I knew “Michael From Mountains,” not that I can remember exactly why. Must’ve been underground FM radio, for I knew no one who owned the LP. And, of course, I knew “Cactus Tree” from “Miles of Aisles,” but “Night in the City,” “Nathan La Franeer,” “Sistowbell Lane” and “The Dawntreader,” the best other cuts on Joni Mitchell’s debut, were new to me, even though it was the turn of the century. The best is “Nathan La Franeer.”
“I hired a coach to take me
From confusion to the plane
And though we shared a common space
I know I’ll never meet again
The driver with his eyebrows furrowed in the rearview mirror I read his name and it was plainly written ‘Nathan La Freneer'”
The mood of the song is reflective, you feel like you too are riding in the backseat of the car worried if you’re going to make it to the airport on time and…that was Joni’s magic, by being utterly personal, she ended up universal, but at this point only true insiders knew her and her music.
That was March of ’68, “Clouds” came out in May of ’69, it contained her versions of “Chelsea Morning” and “Both Sides Now,” but the reason I had to purchase it, after the fact, was to hear the original version of “That Song About the Midway,” which exquisitely opened Bonnie Raitt’s disappointing album “Streetlights,” the one that contained one of her signature recordings, a cover of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” but producer Jerry Ragavoy smoothed off all the rough edges of Raitt’s sound, possibly her signature element, Raitt was a woman of the soil speaking to the people, not a crooner. But the best song on “Clouds” is “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”
If you haven’t been here, you’ve never been in love, in a relationship. You’re wondering, do they feel the way you do, can you express your feelings honestly or will they be overwhelmed and run?
But the first time Joni was fully realized, banged the gong, truly established her place in the firmament, was with April ’70’s “Ladies of the Canyon.” It seems to have been forgotten, no one ever talks about it, but listen to the trio of “The Arrangement,” “Rainy Night House” and “The Priest” and you’ll find all the questions we used to ask ourselves that no one ever does anymore, used to be selling out was anathema, now it’s de rigueur, you don’t do what’s in your heart, but what’s expedient, you tamp down your inner flame, for fear it will steer you off track.
And then came “Blue,” in June of ’71. “Blue” was different, despite the title it was at times upbeat, full of exuberance that emanated from the disc right into your heart, if you weren’t already headed to the Golden State as a result of the Beach Boys, “California” sealed the deal…that’s where you could be free, where all your problems would be solved, and despite all the denigration, it’s still true, California is the land of freedom, three hours behind New York, no one’s in your business, you can be you. And unlike what came previously, there were no originals that had become famous via covers, “Blue” was brand new, yet you had to be on the trip to appreciate it, and there weren’t that many on the ride, dedicated followers of fashion knew who Joni Mitchell was but we were still licking our wounds from protests against the Vietnam War, we were just starting to become introspective, therefore possibly the best introspective album of all time took years to take hold, to the point when Prince covered “A Case of You” I was stunned he knew it, and appreciated it, then again, once again, you were either on the bus or off the bus, and obviously Prince was on, but not everybody was. Until, of course, “Court and Spark.”
It was slicker than had what come before, smoother, there were fewer rough edges, but who knew it would connect not only with Top Forty radio but seemingly every woman in America.
By this time the hype machine was firing on all cylinders, the press was focused on “Raised on Robbery,” which stiffed in the marketplace, and “Twisted” turned out to be a curio, who knew “Help Me” would become a monster? Even more of a surprise was “Free Man in Paris,” which cemented David Geffen’s image in the populace, before he dated Cher. But, once again, it was the darker, unheralded tracks, like “People’s Parties” and “The Same Situation” that truly resonated.
If “People’s Parties” doesn’t go through your brain every time you go to a Hollywood party… Then again, maybe you never have. In Los Angeles, image is everything, that’s the currency, your bank account is secondary, even today, it’s about fame and how good you look, and most people don’t look that good, but they do in L.A., because it’s one of the few places where you can build a whole career purely on your punim. And you walk through the door and you get anxious, you scan the room for someone you know and you make a beeline to them and get deep into conversation, trying to make it sustain as long as possible, for you know it won’t be long until you’re sipping your drink alone by the wall, wondering if you can hang in there, whether you have to leave, or whether serendipity will deliver what you came for, what you want, but what you too rarely get.
What happened after “Court and Spark” is an entirely different discussion. Of course there was the aforementioned cleanup double live album “Miles of Aisles,” but thereafter there was experimentation, at least in the minds of the audience, Joni kept moving and for a while the audience stood by her, but ultimately it peeled off, even though ’76’s “Hejira” is one of her best, with some of her most insightful lyrics.
But, once again, “For the Roses” came between the twin peaks of “Blue” and “Court and Spark,” and except for the single, it was dark, as if California hadn’t solved all Joni’s problems, she’d retreated to Canada, to lick her wounds, soothe her soul, to plumb her insides to make sense of where she’d been. “For the Roses” was an LP a fan immediately got, but also one that revealed more and more insight as you peeled the layers back. The best track is “Woman of Heart and Mind,” which you can listen to many times before its message truly penetrates, whereas “Barangrill” was more lighthearted, those three waitresses wearing black diamond earrings…Joni was caught up in the starmaker machinery, the waitresses were not self-conscious, they had hopes and dreams like us all. And “Blonde in the Bleachers” jumped out of the speakers, because of the f-word, because of the viewpoint, insight into the male rock mind by someone who played in that world, who was doing her best to stay true to herself as opposed to being caught up in the maelstrom.
And then there was the single, “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio.”
It was a hit. Joni’s first. But she was on a lark, she was going to show the bigwigs who demanded one that she could deliver one, and it was, a hit, not that it was the best song on “For the Roses,” far from it, but you needed something light to break through on Top Forty in those days when it was a backwater, all the action being on FM, but some people still didn’t have FM in the car, or were completely out of the loop.
“If you’re driving into town
With a dark cloud above you
Dial in the number
Who’s bound to love you”
It sounds like a radio commercial. Self-congratulatory, even though at this point radio was the heartbeat of America, TV only had a few channels, radio had a cornucopia of them, you could find something that aligned with your identity, or at least close thereto.
“Oh honey you turn me on
I’m a radio
I’m a country station
I’m a little bit corny
I’m a wildwood flower
Waving for you
Waving for you”
It sounds like the bottom of the barrel scrapings purveyed on today’s country radio, bland, giving everybody what they want, with absolutely no soul, we’re all good here, isn’t life loverly.
“And I’m sending you out
This signal here
I hope you can pick it up
Loud and clear
I know you don’t like weak women
You get bored so quick
And you don’t like strong women
‘Cause they’re hip to your tracks”
Wise words, known by all boomers as a result of airplay, exacting wisdom is contained in what heretofore seemed like a mindless ditty. That’s what men want, especially as they become more powerful, a woman who gets all the jokes, who knows what they talk about, but who will be submissive and obedient, but they’re almost impossible to find, it’s a fruitless search, so they settle for the photo beauty, but they don’t want to marry her, and if you’re not good-looking enough you’ve got no chance and the guy thinks he will always be on top of the world but in most cases after his brief window of power and fame he finds himself kicked out of the game. Must be tough to be a woman. Your sisters berate you if you employ your feminine wiles, but if you act just like a man that serves no one. And it still is a patriarchy, we’ve got a long way to go.
“It’s been dirty for dirty
Down the line
But you know
I come when you whistle
When you’re loving and kind”
Women can hear a song once and digest and understand the lyrics, whereas many men think they know a song by heart but…if they even remember the lyrics, they’ve got no idea what they mean.
So I was upstairs, in the club above the Rainbow, it was the fall of ’74, I’d sold a punching bag to the doorman so I had free access, and this was before I was worn down by rejection, I was still game, so I struck up a conversation with this blonde-haired woman, there was no physical intimacy, but I figured if we started with intellectual intimacy I had a chance, and in the middle of our banter she slips in…”dirty for dirty.” I was wowed, speechless, there was a deeper point of connection than I believed, this woman was sharper than I’d previously thought, we shared the same reference points, but we never shared the same bed.
“But if you’ve got too may doubts
If there’s no good reception for me
Then tune me out, ’cause honey
Who needs the static
It hurts the head
And you wind up cracking and the day goes dismal”
Wait a second, in this seeming ditty, all over the airwaves, is buried insight, gravitas and darkness. Then again, if you don’t like a strong woman, sending you a strong signal that they’re game, they’re going to move on, they don’t have the time.
On “Court and Spark” Joni would be more direct, she didn’t have to speak in metaphor, she succeeded on her own terms, not that it was foreseen, but it’s hard to keep this level of talent down, after all it rarely comes along, we’ve never had a new Beatles and we’ve never had a new Joni Mitchell.
That’s where our wisdom used to come from, songs, made by artists. That was enough. There was no penumbra of perfumes and privates, no branding. And it’s funny how it’s these acts that have survived and those who played the game did not. You see credibility is everything, but you’ve got to have the goods to get in the arena.
So Joni Mitchell dropped pearls of wisdom so profound that her words and music never go out of style, they’re continually picked up by subsequent generations, because where else are you gonna get this honesty and depth.
“If you’re lying on the beach
With the transistor going
Kick off the sandflies honey
The love’s still flowing
If your head says forget it
But your heart’s still smoking
Call me at the station
The lines are open”
Follow your heart, not your head. This is what true artists do, which is why we resonate with them and their work, they channel truth, and no one has ever done it better than Joni Mitchell.