Friday, July 06, 2012

Just Songs: Discovering Joni Mitchell 40 Years Later

I drifted back to the 70s this afternoon, listening to songs by Joni Mitchell that I'd heard in the background in "rec rooms," if I'd heard them at all.   Now, 40 years later, I paid attention!  The songs were so rich and acute that I started the whole collection over again as soon as it finished, to pick up on some of what I'd missed.    (See my reflections on Sheila Weller's biography of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon.)

None of the songs in this collection were hit singles, but were chosen on merit by Graham Nash, Elvis Costello, Seal, k.d. lang, Herbie Hancock, and others.  Bassist Robbie Robertson, writing that he knows Joni's music "from the bottom up," observes that bass lines grew more important to her musical compositions as she matured.  Other comments mostly draw our attention to the acuity of the lyrics, which often give us character studies of people Joni (may have) met, including some that critique the artist's own character.. It seems typical of Bob Dylan, whose appeal to others has always baffled me, that he chose "Free Man in Paris" because it reminds him of -- what else? -- his own time in Paris, though he admits that has little to do with the song. 

I would choose "Free Man in Paris" because its distinctive woodwind riff and Joni's overdubbed harmony make sunny fun from a harried man's self-pity.   The man is some kind of music producer "stoking the star-making machinery behind the popular songs," but he could be Everyman nostalgic for the days when he was a "free man in Paris."  Now he deals with "dreamers" and "screamers" on the phone all day.  I've felt like him, and now, hearing Joni's pitiless portrait, I feel found out -- amused, but also ashamed. [Update, 8/7/2017: I've since heard that the song was specifically about producer David Geffen, at that time a closeted gay man, for whom the time in Paris was also a time when he felt free to express his sexuality.  That takes the whiny edge off the song and adds poignance.  I appreciate the song even more.]

"A Strange Boy" depicts another man who won't face reality, but this portrait is much more tender, and the boy/man is nothing like the one from Paris.  The song begins, wonderfully,
A strange boy is weaving
A course of grace and havoc
On a yellow skateboard
Thru midday sidewalk traffic 
and comments how "even the war and the navy / couldn't bring him to maturity," as all his talk is about childhood and school friends.   But when she tells him to grow up, he retorts, "Give me one good reason."  Something in his imagination captures hers,  "He sees the cars as sets of waves / Sequences of mass and space / He sees the damage in my face."  Sheila Weller's book tells us how Joni rode cross-country with a couple of men, and that the younger of the two was this one.   Real or not, he's real to me after hearing this sweetly ambivalent song.  As she sings that "he's a strange boy, a strange, strange boy" the refrain, and her feelings, stay up in the air.

A cheerfully breathless song, "Coyote" is "like a road movie," writes bassist Robbie Robertson.   The scenery did roll right by as I listened the first time, along with waves of emotion.  A cowboy drives "a hitcher" to the next motel, and then, though he has "a woman at home and another one down the hall," he wants her, too.  They dance.  That's explicit as it gets, but it feels much steamier.   She refers to him as "coyote," a metaphor that merges with the singer's childhood memory of a coyote's encounter with a hawk:
And a hawk was playing with him
Coyote was jumping straight up and making passes
He had those same eyes just like yours
Under your dark glasses
Privately probing the public rooms
And peeking thru keyholes in numbered doors
Again, Weller tells us the real-life germ of this song, though the song is good enough on its own.  It's about playwright / actor Sam Shepard on tour with Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and others ca. 1975.

Mitchell draws on another animal metaphor to reflect on a singer's career in "Black Crow."  The "ragged" bird, "black as the highway" that the singer drives on, flies from tree to tree, "diving, diving, diving" for any "shiny object."   Comments by k. d. lang highlight the way that Mitchell's guitar, strummed "in open tuning," creates the feeling of vast space in which the crow / singer keeps flying.

For the two  hours that I listened this afternoon, resting on the carpet with napping dogs beside me, fan going overhead, cicadas buzzing through the hazy green summer heat outside my open windows, I could have been 14 again, daydreaming about writing songs like Carly and Carole someday.  By 15, I was getting into music theatre and opera.  It's been a long time since I thought in terms of just songs.  Joni Mitchell's songs remind me just how rich just songs can be.
(reflections on songs collected by "friends and fellow musicians" of Joni Mitchell for a CD marketed through Starbucks.  Lyrics come from Joni Mitchell's website. )

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