Well, that was interesting. I searched through the blog looking for a couple of Joni Mitchell posts to paste end-to-end like the previous efforts with Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and it seems there aren't any. That's not strictly true, of course. I have mentioned or invoked Joni Mitchell far more often than either Dylan or Cohen, and also discussed several of her songs, but nearly always as a way of putting something or someone else in context. She is my gold standard, my benchmark, my constant star (but, hey, constantly in the darkness, where's that at?). In fact, there's really only one substantial post I can find, which I wrote way back in 2009.
Rather than simply re-post it, I've modified and expanded it quite a bit. Partly because I think I can write it rather better after these eight years of practice, and partly because I decided enough time has passed to be a bit more forthcoming, for example about the name and fate of the friend who is, I suppose, the true subject of this piece. Apologies if this one seems a bit long, a bit personal, and a bit self-indulgent, but I think, if nothing else, it's a demonstration of what I suggested about Dylan: that most true fans are not students of a musician's whole body of work, much less their life and deeds, but are people who have used that artist's work in their own lives, selectively, and adapting it to their own needs. It is that personal resonance, and the memory of those resonances, that is the real life and meaning of the music.
Warning: if you are not completely conversant with the Mitchell oeuvre, you may find some of my language in this piece a little odd. This is simply because I have used, unattributed, many bits of the lyrics and turns of phrase from Mitchell standards like "The Last Time I Saw Richard" and "A Case of You". If you really don't have these classic songs by heart, you know what to do.
Songs Are Like Tattoos
I realise that Joni Mitchell is not everyone's cup of tea. Her music is not so much an acquired taste as a hard-wired taste: something you either like or you don't like. Flip or flop, hit or miss, love it or loathe it. As a result, I find I own more copies of her album Blue, in various formats, than is strictly necessary, and have owned several more, simply because I have occasionally 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 won't love it no longer to 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. Clearly, most men are idiots, and I don't know what women see in us.
I first heard Blue in the company of 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, though: I like salted peanuts, single malt whisky, and the Welsh Borders. My appreciation of Mitchell is on a different plane altogether. What word to choose for it? Admire? Love, even? Well, the feeling is rather less than the love I might feel for a real person, one I have actually known in the real world, but definitely includes some of that mix of exasperation and devotion, dedication and repulsion that a real love for a real person inevitably stirs up. So "love" will do.
In fact, long ago I did have a sort of channelled love-affair with Joni Mitchell through the medium of someone to whom I was once very close, and who was also a Mitchell devotee. We met through mutual friends at that liminal age when you have left secondary school, and not yet started a new phase in your life, and we clapped together like two magnets. My home town was, in effect, one enormous council estate, with an unusually "flat" social profile – so much so, we thought our state secondary teachers were rather posh – but the father of my new friend Sandie Gill was a dentist (roughly equivalent to minor royalty, in our universe) and they lived out of town, in one of those satellite villages of North Hertfordshire which the progressive professional middle classes (Orwell's "sandal-wearing vegetarians") had made their own, long before the New Town of Stevenage was ever conceived and built.
To me, at 18, she was simply the most glamorous and intriguing person I'd ever met, from the most upscale family; what I was to her, I have no idea. Before visiting her home, I'd never seen a duvet, or eaten muesli, or – on a memorable occasion I will never forget – drunk fresh orange juice from a litre carton, cold from the fridge on a hot summer's day. Small things perhaps, but a first glimpse of another, more affluent and culturally-open world. To her family, the fact that I was headed for an Oxford college did not render me extraterrestrially weird, merely interesting. There are few things more seductive at that age than simply being accepted for who you are or, better, being seen for who you might become.
It was a rainy nightWhen she went away to university, a year before me, we would write frequent long letters to each other which riffed on Joni Mitchell themes. I would visit her there at weekends, either alone or with our tight 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 moods of For The Roses, released that year, but also by records like Jackson Browne's first album and David Bowie's Hunky Dory; "Bewlay Brothers" somehow captures it exactly. We got up to some wild times, a lot of which I recall, and a little of which I have chosen to forget, but I found that there was always a melancholy edge when we were alone together.
We took a taxi to your mother's home
She went to Florida and left you
With your father's gun alone
Up on her small white bed
I fell into a dream
You sat up all the night and watched me
To see who in the world I might be
Rainy Night House
Gradually that darkness intensified. 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 the conflicted, compacted emotions she always seemed to be struggling with. Once, she copied out these lines from "Lesson In Survival" and sent them to me in a letter:
I went to see a friend tonightAnd because she struggled, I struggled, too. I was confused. I simply lacked the maturity to disentangle truth from fiction, to tell where Joni ended and Sandie began. It began to occur to me that we might actually be toxic for each other, and that our already slightly odd relationship might be heading for a bad ending.
Was very late when I walked in
My talking as it rambled
Revealed suspicious reasoning
The visit seemed to darken him
I came in as bright
As a neon light
And I burned out
Right there before him
I told him these things
I'm telling you now
Watched them buckle up
In his brow
When you dig down deep
You lose good sleep
And it makes you
I will always love you
Hands are like
Magnets and iron
Nonetheless, she and I went travelling in Europe together in the summer of 1973, through Paris, Rome and Athens, ending up deep in the Greek Islands. It felt as if Ladies of The Canyon and Blue had come to life, although that original party had passed through some years before. There was an outbreak of cholera that year in southern Europe, but we had taken the precaution of getting inoculated and had certificates, so were able to stroll like red-carpet VIPs past a seething mob of angry, uncertificated, would-be travellers held back by armed police, and sailed for Greece on a half-empty ferry, so self-obsessed that we failed to notice that a military coup was taking place.
Although we didn't rent us a grand piano in Rome, we did get invited to crash in a Greek pop star's flat in Athens, who insisted on repeatedly playing us Tubular Bells, that summer's musical sensation. I can never hear its chilly complexities now without being conjured back to that airy apartment, with its ultra-chic interior decoration, a row of bushy cannabis plants growing on the balcony, and the Acropolis tastefully deployed on the horizon beyond.
After some further adventures in Athens and on Mykonos, we arrived at the tiny island of Ios, which was very remote back then. From the port you had to ride a donkey up the steep track to the main village, Chora, where we rented a place without electricity next to a lively bar. Wandering further up the coast, we ended up sleeping on the sand of the (then) even more remote Mylopotas beach, infamous for its casual nudity and, um, party spirit. That beach and its surroundings acted as a sort of quarantined asylum-cum-hostel for the island's youthful blow-ins. There, sitting one late afternoon rather self-consciously unclothed on the sand, in one of those astounding moments that prove everything and nothing, we saw approaching, traipsing along the water's edge, another travelling pair of friends from our home town, the red-haired male half wearing his partner's long red Laura Ashley dress to relieve extreme all-over sunburn. In those days, this sort of improbable encounter somehow seemed expected and inevitable.
Come on down to the Mermaid Café and I willI was keeping 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 bits of Keats and Shelley. (My biographer?? I know...). I rediscovered it recently, and was disturbed to find large chunks of our adventures had vanished from my memory, like blackouts. It seems that, although we were having the time of our lives, in fact we were also spending a lot of time being scared, bored, or angry with each other. At the end of the summer Sandie had a rendezvous to keep with a penfriend somewhere in France, and I returned home alone, with pockets still dribbling sand, and a strong sense of an ending.
Buy you a bottle of wine
And we'll laugh and toast to nothing and smash our empty glasses down
Let's have a round for these freaks and these soldiers
A round for these friends of mine
Let's have another round for the bright red devil
Who keeps me in this tourist town
Then off I went to university myself. Court and Spark came out, an album I have never much enjoyed, and it somehow helped to break the melancholy Mitchell-inflected spell I had been living under. Sandie came to stay a couple of times, but we were clearly drifting onto separate tracks. Joni Mitchell still kept me company in my quiet hours, but I was mainly going noisily upbeat and cynical with the likes of Steely Dan, or tripped-out and futuristic with Can, Terry Riley, and jazz fusion. I was intoxicated by a heady mix of political protest, cultural theory, Marxism, anarchism and Zen, argued over and explored late into the night with a cadre of new soulmates, while she, mystifyingly, seemed to have graduated with her ambitions set no higher than waiting tables in the most fashionable restaurant in town. We still both felt obscurely angry with each other, culminating in a bizarre, drunken argument one night in 1977 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.
You criticize and you flatterAnd thus came to an end one of the most important friendships of my early life. We quickly lost touch, which was so easy to do in those pre-internet, pre-mobile phone days; a few changes of address was all it took. Besides, I had already met another infuriating-yet-intriguing woman, who was challenging pretty much everything I thought I already knew, and with whom I was having an on-again, off-again relationship of even greater intensity. She, too, liked Joni Mitchell, though – a good sign, I hoped, though I was pre-prepared to bleed.
You imitate the best
And the rest you memorize
You know the times you impress me most
Are the times when you don't try
When you don't even try
Woman of Heart and Mind
Still, we're burning brightlyAs to Joni Mitchell's music, boringly, I like the same albums everyone else likes: everything (except Court and Spark) up to and including Hejira in 1977, the recordings of what has come to be known as Joni's "Blue Period". There then 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 wild and shining nights for disposable nappies and kids' TV, Joni glided far overhead, still serenely self-obsessed, "everything first class..." Her return to form in the 1990s with Night Flight Home and Turbulent Indigo did get me back in the fold, but good as those later albums are, she never quite delivered a classic Late Period to compare with that Blue Period, for me at any rate. Although I was bowled over by some of the orchestral arrangements by Vince Mendoza, and in particular this performance of "Both Sides Now" from 2000. Incredibly, she was 23 when she wrote that song in March 1967, but by 2000 she really had seen both sides, several times over, her voice dropping an octave in the process.
Clinging like fire to fuel
I'm grinning like a fool
Stay in touch
We should stay in touch
Oh! Stay in touch
Stay In Touch
Given how sublime so many of her songs are, it's interesting how little covered they have been by mainstream artists. Other than a couple of early hits, and a few songs from Blue which have become "standards", Mitchell covers are both infrequent and usually unsuccessful. Other singer-songwriters have written songs which others can perform, often better – even idiosyncratic 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 Joni Mitchell song without a degree of mimicry which amounts to parody. You can't cut them loose from that voice. The estimable K.D. Lang is one of the best and most distinctive singers in popular music, and her album of covers of Canadian songwriters, Hymns of the 49th Parallel, is one of my favourite albums. But even though she can find and reveal the soul of Neil Young's "Helpless" and Leonard Cohen's much-covered "Hallelujah", she fails to own and recast the two Mitchell songs on the album. It can be done, however: this version of "River" by Madeleine Peyroux and K.D. Lang is pretty darn good, and I enjoyed discovering this fado-ized version of "A Case of You" by Portugal's Ana Moura.
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 Gill gave me her own copy of Song For A Seagull not long after we met, it was a powerful, definitive gesture. Shared music was important, a declaration of allegiance, a token of affection, a tribal tattoo. As I sit here surrounded by clattering heaps of CDs, with all the resources of Spotify a keystroke away, it's easy to forget how precious it was when we were 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 your youthfulness and promise, naively unaware of the stake you already have in whatever you happen to be kicking against. Pop music is essentially innocent music, concerned with the pure drives and simple difficulties of the young, and with no time for the grey compromises of age. Singer-songwriters, as the thoughtful wing of rock and pop, are less limited in the range of emotions and issues they can address, but still struggle to escape the confines of the form and find ways to express adult concerns for a mature audience. Joni Mitchell's use of jazz inflections in that "middle period" was a bold move in this direction, but never quite worked – I think she mistook the sizzle for the sausage – but later work like "Two Grey Rooms" or "Nothing Can Be Done" is surely fully grown-up music, matched only by the best work of other long-game survivors like Leonard Cohen and Jackson Browne. At her mature best, she stands with those who have understood but not quite reconciled themselves to the cycle whereby certain kinds of reward and regard properly belong to youth (not just love, though love is Mitchell's primary subject and metaphor) but are only truly appreciated (although sometimes too late) in later age. Not surprising, given "The Circle Game" was one of her earliest and most enduring successes.
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, strong, and single-minded. And, sad to say, virtually none of us will be needing a biographer, however boldly we first set out on our path.
There's a man who's sent a letterBut a few years ago (actually, I now realise, a whole decade ago) I was curious. Whatever did happen to Sandie? Was she still out there busy being free, or was she drinking at home now most nights with the TV on, and all the house lights left up bright? Lacking any other point of contact, I approached the alumni organisation of the university we had in common, the University of East Anglia. To my profound shock, I discovered that she had died the year before. I was put in touch with a friend, who told me the rest of her story: two marriages, three children, a full and happy life, then a losing fight with a brain tumour. Yes, the friend knew who I was; Sandie sometimes talked about me and her other old friends from home. Did I want to get in touch with the family?
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
Well, on reflection, no, I thought it probably best not to. What grieving family would want to hear from some guy who all-too-briefly knew the bride when she used to rock'n'roll? It was enough to know that she found her happiness in the end. 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.