Sunday, 5 April 2009

Songs Are Like Tattoos

I realise that Joni Mitchell is not everyone's cup of tea. She's not so much an acquired taste as a hard-wired taste: something you either like or you don't like. I own several copies of Blue in various formats, and have owned several more, simply because I have more than once made the offer: "Buy it, and if you don't love it, I promise I'll buy it off you." I now know that enough people don't like it to no longer make this foolish offer. I have quite enough spares, thanks.

I also realise it's more unusual for a man to have that wiring than a woman. I first heard Blue played by a friend's older sister in 1970, and have liked Joni Mitchell, in an on-again/off-again relationship, ever since. "Like" is a silly word to choose, really: I like salted peanuts, Greene King Abbot Ale, and the Welsh Borders. My appreciation of La Mitchell is on a different plane altogether. What word to choose for it? Love? Well, the feeling is rather less than the love I might feel for a real person (come on, I've never met the woman, or even seen her perform live -- for all I know, she's really a collective of bearded yodelling counter-tenors living on a farm in Bavaria), but definitely includes some of the exasperation and devotion, dedication and repulsion that love might involve.

In truth, long ago I did have a sort of channelled affair with Joni Mitchell through the medium of a friend to whom I was once very close, and who was also a Mitchell devotee. We met through mutual friends at our schools, and clapped together like two magnets. To me, she was the most exotic person I'd ever met. In our town -- in effect, one enormous council estate -- a teacher was regarded as the epitome of professional achievement. Sandie's father was a dentist, however, and they lived out of town, in one of the satellite villages of North Hertfordshire, which the progressive professional middle classes (Orwell's "sandal-wearing vegetarians") had long ago made their own. Before visiting their house, I'd never seen a duvet, or eaten muesli, or -- on a memorable occasion I will never forget -- drunk fresh orange juice, in a litre carton cold from the fridge, on a hot summer's day. Small things perhaps, but a vision of another world.

When she went away to university a year before me, we would write frequent long letters to each other which riffed on JM themes. I would often visit her at weekends, either alone or with our little gang of friends. Those were joyful but also strange and sometimes dark times, when drugs and androgyny had slipped their aristocratic-bohemian leash and gone mainstream, perfectly recalled by the mood of For The Roses, and also David Bowie's Hunky Dory ("Bewlay Brothers" is an overlooked masterpiece, I think). I think I had always known Sandie was unhappy, that at some level she nursed a deep hurt, but it was dismaying that it seemed to get worse, not better, as time went by.  Any number of Joni Mitchell songs express quite precisely the complexity of those conflicted, compacted emotions she struggled with.

Then she and I travelled in Europe together in the summer of 1973, through Paris, Rome and Athens, and ended up on Ios, deep in the Greek Islands. It felt as if Ladies of The Canyon and Blue had come to life, although the original party had passed through some years before. Although we didn't rent us a grand piano in Rome, we did crash in a Greek pop star's flat in Athens, who insisted on repeatedly playing us Tubular Bells, that summer's sensation. We also held a drunken ceremony of sorts in the rain on the beach at Rapallo for Shelley's drowned shade. There was an outbreak of cholera that summer in Southern Europe, but we had taken the precaution of getting inoculation certificates and sailed for Greece on a half-empty ferry, so self-obsessed that we barely noticed that a military coup was taking place.

On the (then) remote Mylopotas beach on Ios we slept on the sand, and -- in one of those astounding moments that prove everything and nothing -- encountered another travelling pair from our home town traipsing along the waterline, the red-haired male half wearing his partner's long red dress, due to extreme all-over sunburn.  "Carey, get out your cane..."  I kept a journal, convinced, as only an idiotic 19-year old can be, that my biographer would be amused by the cunning way I'd woven together lyrics from Blue with Keats and Shelley. (My biographer?? 'Fraid so).  I discovered it recently, and found large chunks of this adventure had vanished from my memory, like blackouts.

Then off I went to university myself. Court and Spark came out, an album I have never much liked, and it somehow broke the spell. Sandie and I drifted onto separate tracks. Joni Mitchell sat out the following years, as I went upbeat and cynical with Steely Dan. I discovered political protest and a swathe of new, even more exotic soulmates, while she, mystifyingly, seemed set on a self-destructive course, with her sights set no higher than waiting tables in the trendiest restaurant in town. I think we both felt obscurely angry with each other, culminating in a bizarre argument at an after hours "lock in" drinks session at her latest waitressing gig, which ended with me physically ejected onto the street by the owners.

As to the music, boringly, I like the albums everyone else likes: everything (except Court and Spark) up to and including Hejira in 1977, particularly what has come to be know as Joni's "Blue Period". There followed that big gap when she became entranced by jazz-lite sounds and lost touch, lyrically and emotionally, with the Zeitgeist and her original fanbase. As we fans faltered, broke stride, and hit the sofa or the bottle (ideally both), swapping our shining nights for disposable nappies and kids' TV, Joni glided far overhead, still serenely self-obsessed, "everything first class..."  Her late return to form with Night Flight Home got me back in the fold, but I'm afraid the slow decline into mannerism as her vocal range declines with age and cigarette smoke hasn't yet delivered a classic Late Period to compare with that Blue Period, for me at any rate.

Given how sublime so many of her songs are, it's interesting how little covered they have been.   Other than a couple of early hits, Mitchell covers are both infrequent and usually unsuccessful.   Other singer-songwriters have written songs which others can perform, often better -- even great stylists in their own right, like Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen -- but JM is almost literally inimitable.

The main, obvious reason is her voice. Her unique range and style -- full of grace notes and octave-swooping decoration -- are integral to her tunes, her phrasing inseparable from the lyrics. It's almost impossible to sing a JM song without a degree of mimicry amounting to parody. You can't cut them loose from that voice. The estimable K.D. Lang has one of the best and most distinctive voices in popular music, and her album of covers of Canadian songwriters, Hymns of the 49th Parallel, is one of my favourite albums. But even she fails to own and recast the two Mitchell songs she covers.

There is also the accompaniment. She has evolved a dizzying repertoire of guitar tunings, and a unique notation system to help her remember them. As with the voice, the resonance of certain open-tuned chords is somehow built into the songs. Then there is her piano playing. There is a kind of dark, hanging, unresolved chord that she uses, that you hear nowhere else in popular music. Add to that her intensely personal and private range of reference -- her songs can be like reading someone else's diary (or perhaps it's that our diaries have come to resemble JM songs) -- and you have a uniquely expressive body of work, which is so much "of a piece" that it's virtually impossible to disentangle any single song and reinterpret it without damage.

Kids today are awash in music, and perhaps undervalue it. It's become a disposable, free commodity. But at the time I fell under Joni Mitchell's spell, I must have owned ten LP records, tops. When Sandie gave me her copy of Song For A Seagull not long after we met, it was a powerful, definitive gesture. Music is important, music is a declaration of allegiance, a tribal tattoo. As I sit here surrounded by clattering heaps of CDs, it's easy to forget how precious it can be when you're young.

Youth, of course, is famously wasted on the young. You're free to lay waste your brain cells or rampage on the streets or simply idle away the time, with nothing yet to offer the world beyond youthfulness and promise, innocently unaware of the stake you already have in what you are kicking against. Songwriters like Joni Mitchell may be the thoughtful side of rock and pop, but are still limited in the range of emotions and issues they can address unless they can escape the confines of an essentially youthful, essentially innocent artform. JM's use of jazz inflections in that "middle period" never quite shifted her songwriting into adult territory, but later work like "Two Grey Rooms" or "Nothing Can Be Done" is fully grown-up music, I think. At her best now, she inhabits the territory of those who have finally understood but not quite reconciled themselves to the cycle whereby certain kinds of reward and regard always go to the young, never to the old. Not surprising, given "The Circle Game" was one of her earliest and most enduring hits.

But, for me (and perhaps for you, too, if you've had a similar journey) Joni Mitchell is now an infrequent indulgence, and almost unbearably poignant. I can hardly listen to, say, "A Case Of You", "The Last Time I saw Richard", "Emilia", or "Cold Blue Steel & Sweet Fire": they all reduce me to tears or brown study introspection. This can be very enjoyable, but is not something you want to do in front of the kids.

In the end, the terrible, boring truth is that we seem to be fated to become those socially-compromised characters we despised in the songs we loved when we were young.

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.

"The Cactus Tree"
But songs are like tattoos, and I've still got a few on my arm -- faded blue reminders that I, too, once had a Blue Period.

i.m. Sandie G., 1954 - 2005


Mauro Thon Giudici said...

Could not resist. See this.

Anyway I'm another to put on the list Joni Mitchell fans :-D

Anonymous said...

Brilliant essay and an utterly devastating revelation at the end.


Borborygmi said...

I stumbled onto this blog via a tangled chain of links about photography... that was a couple of hours ago. There's lots of good stuff here, but this post, most particularly, got under my skin: Music, Joni's brilliance, the passage of time, 'crabbed age and youth' and loss, and loss again--a coda that, well, gutted me. Bravo, sir.

Gustaf Erikson said...

What a great post! Thanks a lot.