Showing posts with label listening to joni. Show all posts
Showing posts with label listening to joni. Show all posts


listening to joni: #7: the hissing of summer lawns

The Hissing of Summer Lawns, 1975

Front and back covers:
The landscapes of the songs
Joni's seventh studio album (her ninth album overall) is both a continuation and a departure. The Hissing of Summer Lawns is rich and multi-layered, somewhat enigmatic, full of interesting images and sounds that are open to interpretation. When I'm in a certain mood, this becomes my favourite of all Joni's albums, surpassing even Court and Spark in my imagination, flooring me with its beauty and complexity.

Musically, on this album Joni continues to bring more jazz arrangements to her songs. But she also begins something new: the music is used very sparingly, sometimes only for rhythm, while the melody is carried by only one instrument, Joni's voice.

This is most pronounced in some of the album's most memorable numbers: "Edith and the Kingpin," "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow," "Shades of Scarlett Conquering," and "The Boho Dance". Listen to each of those songs and try to find the melody from the instruments: you can't. The instruments provide a rhythmic backdrop, harmonies, or counterpoints. The melody is almost entirely vocal.

Inside cover: Joni in the pool
I didn't notice this until I began to listen more to Hejira, the album that follows Hissing, where this idea takes full flight. Listening to these albums in order of release, time and again I've heard a musical expression in one album, then an expansion of that idea in the next. This project has been wonderful for that.

The vocals themselves are as rich and pure as anything Joni has sung to this point, her voice at its greatest warmth and range. She uses her "vocal acting" sparingly and precisely. In "Scarlett," there is "cinematic lovers sway" and "she likes to have things her way..."; in "The BoHo Dance, "....Jesus was a beggar" and "Don't you get sensitive on me"; in "Edith," "the wires in the walls are humming". If you can't hear those in your mind as you read them, go and have a listen.

Lyrically, although some of the themes of these songs are familiar, their forms and structures are very different. Joni goes seemingly to a new place, leaving the first-person for the third, from so-called confessional (a label she always rejected) to story songs, very nearly like traditional ballads.

Of 10 songs on this album, seven are stories, and another two can be read that way. Court and Spark has story-songs -- "Raised on Robbery," "Trouble Child," for example -- but the album as a whole retains a first-person feel. The stories on Hissing are like little movies. There is the couple in the title track, she nesting and lonely, he overworked and alienated. There is the gossiping women in "Edith," and Edith herself, with her dubious prize. The woman in "Sorrow," proud and angry but also resigned. The couple from "Harry's House" might be the same people from "Hissing," a little farther into their lives. In "The Boho Dance," Joni hands us the movie script: "A camera pans the cocktail hour / Behind a blind of potted palms".

Many images from these lyrics are indelible for me. "A helicopter lands on the Pan Am roof / Like a dragonfly on a tomb" and
His eyes hold Edith
His left hand holds his right
What does that hand desire
That he grips it so tight
There are many unhappy people in these stories, especially many women whose lives have taken bad turns or who have made bad choices, valued the wrong things. But the lyrics aren't biting or cutting, the songs don't condemn them. The woman whose moods and choices echo Gone with the Wind is cold and imperious, but she's also fragile and lonely. In the suburban world of "Harry's House" or the small-town glamour of "Edith," characters are searching, yearning, struggling, lonely. Joni views them with compassion.

On The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Joni's recurring theme of the conflict between art and commerce finds its greatest and most nuanced expression: "The Boho Dance". Here Joni sings to and about another musician. Whether this person is based on a real friend or is a composite of people she's known doesn't matter. This other musician has chosen the purist route, the life of small smokey rooms, creating music without fame or wealth, or even public recognition. The narrator, Joni's lyrical stand-in, sees the purity as a kind of conformity, a choice -- a dance.
And you were in the parking lot
Subterranean by your own design
The virtue of your style inscribed
On your contempt for mine
In this song, though, Joni doesn't condemn the dance, or dismiss it, or even envy it. She sees it for what it is, "an old romance," and knows it was not for her: "It's just that some steps outside the Boho dance / Have a fascination for me." The woman who wrote "he played real good for free" has seen much more of the music-making world now. She knows herself and accepts her choices.

The final two songs on the album depart from the stories. Joni uses a wider lens here, and becomes philosophical. "Sweet Bird" and "Shadows and Light" are both very different than the rest of the album, and unusual for Joni. "Sweet Bird" is the Sweet Bird of Youth, the title of a Tennessee Williams' play and movie.1, 2 The woman who wrote "it won't be long now, until you drag your feet to slow those circles down" now understands the brevity of those youthful circles in a more profound way.
Sweet bird you are
Briefer than a falling star
All these vain promises on beauty jars
Somewhere with your wings on time
You must be laughing
In this song, Joni declares our grasp of the mysteries of life "guesses at most". The older I get, the more meaningful this is to me. The more we know, the greater the wealth of our experiences, the more we see how little we know, and realize that in so many ways, we are blind and uncomprehending.

Then the album segues into "Shadows and Light," an unusual Joni tune, one that sums up her vision of the world -- one of contrast and duality. Art and commerce, love and freedom, joy and sorrow. She brings us the interconnectedness and commonality of humanity -- and perhaps an idea that our way of seeing and classifying the world is as imperfect and unknowing as we are. Maybe this is why I don't understand the harsh criticism of Joni: because I see the world this way, too.

Bad critic comment of the album

Hissing was received with skepticism and general disdain. There were some positive reviews, but most were dismissive. Many critics cited the lack of conventional melodies and "the problem" of setting poetry to music.

Hissing marks the end of most critics understanding Joni's music, at least for many years to come. Court and Spark was triumphal, and now it was time to start taking her down. (Aimee Mann: " a town where winning isn't sweet / And every win is the beginning of defeat".) I don't think Joni ever intended to be opaque or incomprehensible, but the boundaries of popular musical were too small and confining. Critics looking for popular tropes, by definition, will be disappointed.

Writing in The New York Times, Henry Edwards found Hissing "nebulous and pretentious". After referencing a few of the Hissing characters, he claims: "Mitchell has refused to amplify these feminist perceptions with melody, and so they exist as nothing more or less than cocktail jazz-rock." Edwards found the album "eventually becomes numbing."

John Rockwell, one of the godfathers of rock criticism, declares the photo on the inside cover "narcissistic," the lyrics "saccharine," the music "brittle, rhythmically displaced". He dismisses the whole lot as "the same humorless self-absorption that has always marked Miss Mitchell's work". This is a real head-scratcher to me, since almost the entire album is about other people. I wonder, are all photographs of artists on album covers narcissistic?

Rockwell also includes this backhanded praise:
That said, "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" is a fascinating piece of work.3 The poetic interconnections, the musical idioms, the way Miss Mitchell expands her past styles (African drums, more synthesizer than ever) - all fuse into something unique in pop music. This really is the "total work" she tells us it is, and if that means she shows her warts, her warts are slicker, more glamorous and more interesting than almost anybody else's.
The album cover

Joni has drawn a pen-and-ink landscape, the world of the songs contained therein. In the foreground, the jungle line, and perhaps the boho dancers, make their way across a lush green. Two spots of pool-blue show us Harry's house, and the world where the lawns are hissing. Or maybe Joni's house, as inside, she is shown in her pool. The album cover is evocative and enigmatic, like the album.

Cacti or stockings?

This one leaves no doubt. We've got both the ripped stockings and the lace/stockings with the jeans.
But even on the scuffle
The cleaner's press was in my jeans
And any eye for detail
Caught a little lace along the seams
. . . .
A camera pans the cocktail hour
Behind a blind of potted palms
And finds a lady in a Paris dress
With runs in her nylons
Other musicians on this album

Many musicians played on this album, chiefly:
Electric piano, Joe Sample
Electric guitar, Larry Carlton
Bass, Wilton Felder
Bass, Max Benett
Drums, John Guerin
Horns, Chuck Findley
Keyboards and percussion, Victor Feldman

And also:
Electric guitar, Jeff Baxter
Horns and woodwinds, Bud Shank
Vocals, James Taylor (also guitar)
Vocals, Graham Nash, David Crosby
...and the warrior drums of Burundi

The rich vocals on "Shadows and Light" are all Joni and a Farfisa synthesizer.

Joni herself tells us:
This record is a total work conceived graphically, musically, lyrically and accidentally - as a whole. The performances were guided by the given compositional structures and the audibly inspired beauty of every player. The whole unfolded like a mystery. It is not my intention to unravel that mystery for anyone, but rather to offer some additional clues:

"Centerpiece" is a Johnny Mandel-Jon Hendricks tune. John Guerin and I collaborated on "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns." "The Boho Dance" is a Tom Wolfe-ism from the book, "The Painted Word." The poem, "Don't Interrupt The Sorrow" was born around 4 a.m. in a New York loft. Larry Poons seeded it and Bobby Neuwirth was midwife here, but the child filtered thru Genesis at Jackson Lake, Saskatchewan, is rebellious and mystical and insists that its conception was immaculate.
This is first time Joni has included notes of this kind on an album.

Note: I enjoyed writing this more comprehensive review. I'm thinking of going back to my posts on Blue and Court and Spark and fleshing them out a little more.

1. I don't know if Joni is referencing the title of the play or if both titles share a common origin.

2. "Shades of Scarlett Conquering" is often said to evoke Blanche DuBois, of Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. I've wondered if there's a connection.

3. Early "that said" sighting!


listening to joni: #6: court and spark

Court and Spark, 1974

Writing about the music of Joni Mitchell has been a huge challenge. My love of music and my writing abilities seem to live in separate spheres: I write with my brain, but I listen with my heart. If writing about Joni's music has been challenging, writing about Court and Spark feels impossible. The love and connection I feel for this music is impossible to put into words. So with that disclaimer, I will now attempt the impossible.

Court and Spark is many Joni fans' favourite album. I mentioned that fans over a certain age seem to choose Blue; fans under that age, those younger than the boomer generation, seem to gravitate towards Court and Spark.

Listening to this music in retrospect, you can follow the very clear musical progression from Blue to For the Roses to Court and Spark. But in its day, no one could have been prepared for this masterpiece.

On Court and Spark, Joni more fully realizes many threads that emerged on previous albums. The music itself is richer, more layered, more polyphonic than Joni has written before. Woodwinds, strings, brass, percussion, and vocal harmonies are all a major part of this album, often taking centre-stage. The lyrics are at once some of the most poetic Joni has written, but also among the most accessible, with some of her familiar themes elegantly fleshed out.

Inside Cover; the back is solid tan with music credits
Something unusual on this album is Joni's use of instrumental breaks to continue the story she's telling. The best example is on the album's centrepiece, "Down to You".

The first part of the song paints an image of depression. The subject of the song is lonely, alienated:
Things that you held high and told yourself were true
Lost or changing as the days come down to you.
She (I think "she", but it doesn't have to be) seeks solace in a one-night stand. Then,
In the morning there are lovers in the street
They look so high
You brush against a stranger
And you both apologize
You brush against a stranger and you both apologize: is there a more perfect image of loneliness and alienation?
Old friends seem indifferent
You must have brought that on
Old bonds have broken down
Love is gone
Love is gone
Written on your spirit
this sad song
Love is Gone
After the spiritual-sounding repetition of that line, there is a musical break. It starts out with slow, deep, somber notes, but the tempo picks up, the waves of strings give way to pizzicato, the piano shines through -- the dark bass notes give way to a more lighthearted treble -- and piano chords become triumphant. We have survived the dark night. Then at last the woodwinds signal: a new day has dawned. There's an oboe trill that completely takes me apart, every time I hear it.

When the long instrumental break ends, we look around to discover we're in a totally different place -- one of acceptance, affirmation, maybe even transcendence. When the lyrics return, they celebrate that life is always changing -- that life is change -- and that we all hold all of human potential in our hearts.
Everything comes and goes
Pleasure moves on too early
And trouble leaves too slow
Just when you're thinking
You've finally got it made
Bad news comes knocking
At your garden gate
Knocking for you
Constant stranger
You're a brute you're an angel
You can crawl you can fly too
I can't imagine how many times I've listened to this song, yet as time goes by, it only means more to me.

Court and Spark is full of so many moments like this. Writing this post, I saw that on the cover of my original LP, in the lyrics to "People's Parties," two lines are underlined in blue pen.
I feel like I'm sleeping
Can you wake me
This is probably the only lyric underlined on an album cover in my entire collection. (I didn`t realize it was there until I wrote this post.) The girl with that blue pen was struggling with depression, and the continuing effects of an abusive upbringing, and the beginnings of her own liberation. I was waiting to wake up to myself. I related to the girl in the song:
One minute she's so happy
Then she's crying on someone's knee
Saying laughing and crying
You know it's the same release
There is much internal conflict in the lyrics of Court and Spark. The "art vs. commerce" conflict, this time round, is not hers, but someone else's -- in "Free Man in Paris," famously about Joni's close friend, the producer David Geffen. Poor Geffen was so deeply closeted, that he reportedly begged Joni not to release the song, feeling that it outed him as gay. There's really nothing in the lyrics that imply anything about sexual orientation. Geffen's fear speaks to the paranoia that comes with a life in hiding.

The other conflict, presumably Joni's, in Court and Spark, is career vs. love. From "The Same Situation":
Still I sent up my prayer
Wondering who was there to hear
I said Send me somebody
Who's strong and somewhat sincere
With the millions of the lost and lonely ones
I called out to be released
Caught in my struggle for higher achievements
And my search for love
That don't seem to cease
Joni hits us with this right up front, in the title track. Love has "come to my door" -- this love understood her so well, that "it seemed like he read my mind, he saw me mistrusting him and still acting kind" -- but she couldn't leave her life and her career in California.

Bad critic comment of the album

On (an amazing resource), I found some joker from the Oakland Tribune who clearly wasn't up to the assignment. In his opening paragraph, he accuses Joni of "tiptoeing in and out of love just enough to gather some material together for a new song." He writes that "Free Man in Paris" "infers" (by which he means implies) "that business responsibilities leave her cold" and in another song, "seems to be acknowledging the fact she may end up an old maid". All I can say is I'm glad my first juvenile attempts at writing aren't preserved on the internet.

For serious criticism, though, Court and Spark appears to have been universally acclaimed. But don't worry, the "bad critic comment" section will soon be very useful.

The album cover

Joni's Japanese-inspired drawing combines mountains, water, and an abstract wave that is also a lover's comforting embrace. Against a tan background, the title and artist's name embossed in Joni's own handwriting, it's understated and elegant. Inside, an abstracted photograph of Joni, eyes closed in what seems like musical bliss.

Cacti or stockings?

The most famous song on this album, Joni's "biggest hit" -- a strange concept to apply to this music -- was always my least favourite. But "Help Me" contains an iconic Joni image: "the lady with the hole in her stocking", who has by now become the Joni's stand-in, the lyric-persona Joni.

On "Just Like This Train," that lady with the hole in her stocking looks out the window at the "rocks and these cactus going by".

You know, even that hole in the stocking is a conflict. She wears stockings -- "a refinement" ("Ludwig's Tune") -- but she's also a bit unkempt, or more likely defiant, refusing to wear the proper clothes. Part of the glitz and the glamour, but apart from it, too.

Other musicians on this album

This is the first album for which Joni takes producing credit, knocking Henry Lewy down to "sound engineer". Lewy felt he had been her producer. Joni felt she has always been the producer, with Lewy merely a technician.

Drums and percussion, John Guerin
Bass, Max Bennett, Jim Hughart, Wilton Felder
Chimes, Milt Holland
Woodwinds & reeds, Tom Scott
Trumpet, Chuck Findley
Electric Piano, Joe Sample
Background voices, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Susan Webb, Cheech and Chong
Electric Guitar, Larry Carlton, with Wayne Perkins, Dennis Budimir, Robbie Robertson, Jose Feliciano
Joni: piano, clavinet, and background vocals
String arrangements by either Tom Scott, Joni, or both. The string musicians themselves are anonymous.


listening to joni: #5: for the roses

For The Roses, 1972

Front Cover
For The Roses is often overlooked, sandwiched as it is between two masterpieces. Fans who missed it might be surprised at its richness -- musically, lyrically, and emotionally. It has always been one of my favourites.

For the Roses sits between Blue and Court and Spark not only chronologically, but musically. There are the rich, deep piano chords of Blue, but heralds of another sound are mixed in -- woodwinds, reeds, and strings, Joni's own multi-track backing vocals -- hints here and there of what would be developed so astonishingly on Court and Spark.

Listening to this now, I realize that in the past, listening on LP, I must have strongly favoured side two, beginning with "See You Sometime" and closing with "Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig's Tune)". This re-listen was an opportunity for me to hear the first six songs with a fresh mind.

The album opens with a political song, a song of social consciousness, which appear sporadically in Joni's work. The singer is at a party, an elaborate banquet, the banquet that is our world.
Tuck your napkins in
And take your share
Some get the gravy
And some get the gristle
Some get the marrow bone
And some get nothing
Though there's plenty to spare

Who let the greedy in
And who left the needy out
Who made this salty soup
Tell him we're very hungry now
For a sweeter fare
This profound and perhaps forgotten song sets the tone for the album, a somber minor key, even when a tune lifts and the lyrics are happier -- not unlike Blue.

Inside Side One
Is this the first time we hear Joni use her guitar as a percussion instrument? I'm not sure, but it's exciting to hear this signature sound in 1972.

The title track of For The Roses traces a familiar theme -- art vs. commerce. Her difficult relationship with the business that brings art to fans. Where the adulation comes from, and how fleeting it is.

Remember the days when you used to sit
And make up your tunes for love
And pour your simple sorrow
To the soundhole and your knee
And now you're seen
On giant screens
And at parties for the press
And for people who have slices of you
From the company
They toss around your latest golden egg
Speculation well who's to know
If the next one in the nest
Will glitter for them so
Another familiar theme -- love vs. freedom -- appears in "Let the Wind Carry Me".
Sometimes I get that feeling
And I want to settle
And raise a child up with somebody
I get that strong longing
And I want to settle
And raise a child up with somebody
But it passes like the summer
I'm a wild seed again
Let the wind carry me 
Inside Side Two
I remember reading an interview in which Joni was asked if she wanted to have children. She said she has thought of it, but feels that there should be two parents, at least for the first 10 or so years of a child's life -- and she didn't see being able to do that with any man. It seemed sad to me, but also strong, realistic, focused. Self-aware. She seemed (to me) to say it without judgement.

"Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" is about heroin. I always think of that "down, down, down the dark ladder" -- an arresting image of addiction.

"Blonde in the Bleachers" is written about a male musician and a girlfriend, but now I wonder if Joni changed her identity for this song, reversing the roles into a more familiar formula.

"Ludwig's Tune," about Beethoven, has always been one of my very favourite Joni numbers. It used to feel very personal to me: They're gonna aim the hoses on you, show them, you won't expire.... Joni identifies with Beethoven -- also with Van Gogh and Picasso. No false modesty for her, and that confidence in her own artistic worth was used against her in many an interview and review. More sexism, of course.

Joni was already experimenting with jazz sounds on this album, through Tom Scott's wind instruments and Wilton Felder's bass, through meandering outros and long instrumental bridges. You can hear this on "Ludwig's Tune," "Barangrill," even "Blonde in the Bleachers".

Joni's voice is fully developed by this time, not only the impressive range, but her unique phrasing and diction. I've seen it called "vocal acting" -- the ability to mine meaning from lyrics, often changing the feel of a song through a single word or phrase. This is one reason why covers of Joni's songs always feel pale and neutered.

Bad critic comment of the album

I actually couldn't find any.

I found many critics referring to Joni herself in ways I find annoying and sometimes offensive -- "the poorest little rich girl in Laurel Canyon" -- but the same critic would praise her honest self-reflection, her writing, her voice.

We're now in a period of incredible creativity and output for Joni: Blue (1971), For the Roses (1972), Court and Spark (1974), The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), Hejira (1976). I don't know when the backlash starts, but I know it's in full swing by the time Hejira is released.

The album cover

This cover is a really interesting mix. On the front, Joni dressed in deep earth tones, sitting on the ground in the woods. (It's actually taken at her BC hideaway.) Inside, an original painting, and a seascape with a nude photo.

Joni has said that her mother was upset and felt ashamed of the nude photo on the inside cover -- a bucolic, naturist image, and a tame one, not at all provocative or overtly sexual. This highlighted the distance, both literal and figurative, between Joni and her parents.

There's an คาสิโนออนไลน์ แจกเครดิตฟรี 2019often-told story about the artwork Joni originally drew for the cover, that Geffen wouldn't let her use, and which ended up as an L.A. billboard.

Cacti or stockings?

Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig's Tune): Long silk stockings on the bedposts of refinement, You're too raw, They think you're too raw...

Other musicians on this album

Woodwinds and Reeds, Tom Scott (listed as Tommy Scott)
Bass, Wilton Felder
Drums, Russ Kunkel
Percussion, Bobbye Hall
Strings, Bobby Notkoff
Harmonica, Graham Nash
Electric Guitar (Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire), James Burton
Rock 'n' Roll Band (Blonde in the Bleachers), Stephen Stills

Why my album covers look so bad

It was the summer of 1981, in one of my many Philadelphia sublets. I came home to find a pipe had burst and my bedroom was partially flooded. My albums were on the floor, and wouldn't you know it, the M's partially submerged -- Van Morrison, and Joni.

I oh-so-carefully separated every soggy cardboard cover, every sleeve and LP, and laid them out all over the apartment. I discovered you could buy blank album sleeves! I also bought some liquid stuff that was supposed to deep-clean the vinyl.

In the end, no music was lost.

I never could have guessed that within the decade, LPs themselves would become obsolete. At least when I play a CD I don't have to see those ruined album covers.


listening to joni: #4: blue

Blue, 1971

Front Cover
The back cover is solid blue. Inside, only lyrics and credits.
Ask people their favourite Joni Mitchell album, and you are very likely to hear Blue. In my experience, this is especially true of older fans who discovered the album in real time.

Blue is a masterpiece; there is no doubt of that. It is also the masterpiece that is more straightforward and accessible. When a Joni fan names Blue as their favourite, I wonder if this was the last stop on her journey with Joni's music. That may not be fair, but my experience continues to reinforce the theory.

In my post about Ladies of the Canyon, I wrote that in that album we hear foreshadowing of the future Joni. This is true. But after those first three albums, no one could have been prepared for Blue. With Blue, Joni rockets into an entirely different universe of talent. The music, lyrics, vocals, arrangements, the emotions and ideas expressed, are all light-years beyond what came before. Here Joni shows herself as a truly gifted artist and a musical pioneer.

I can't imagine how many times I've heard this album, yet listening to it for this project, Blue was as alive and meaningful and stunning as ever -- maybe more so, now that I hear it through my own life experience. (Incidentally, my Blue LP has always had a pernicious skip. Although I re-purchased it on CD as soon as possible, I still half-expect to hear the skip.)

I've mentioned that I love piano in rock. Blue is all piano -- not literally, but the richness of the piano lingers in my memory, overshadowing the sounds of any other instruments. For many listeners, the emotional quality of the music and lyrics have a similar effect: people remember this album as profoundly sad, as if the songs all reflect the album title. Yet "All I Want", "My Old Man", "Carey", and even "California" are celebratory, life-affirming, even ebullient. That's four of 10 songs that are not sad. But for many listeners, the effect of those other six songs is more abiding.

Rolling Stone chose Blue as #30 on its
500 Greatest Albums of All Time list,
but its treatment of Joni through the years
was brutal and sexist.
"River" has become a holiday-radio standard, so it's likely people don't really hear it anymore. I'm glad I don't listen to the radio, because for me this song is as gorgeous and meaningful to me as ever. In "River", Joni walks the path of Irving Berlin, a Jewish man from Brooklyn who penned the most famous Christmas song of all time while surrounded by the palm trees of southern California. By imagining skating on a river, Joni is wistfully recalling the winters of her youth: "...but it don't snow here, it stays pretty green, gonna make a lot of money, then I'm gonna quit this crazy scene". Shortly after Blue's release, she did just that, retreating to a cabin in British Columbia, and into isolation and a profound depression.

"River" is surely the saddest Christmas song of all time -- the godmother of "2000 Miles", another beautifully sad Christmas song, written by a huge Joni fan. "River" is also a tour de force for Joni's vocals -- here, at last, warm and rich and supple, used not as histrionics or to display technical ability, but to convey emotions: a feeling of flight, escape, abandon. "I wish I had a river so long, I would teach my feet to fly...". The same is true on "The Last Time I Saw Richard": "Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away." In both songs, the word fly soars on the sustained note.

When I was a teenager, "Little Green" was one of my musical obsessions. When the news broke that Joni had reunited with the daughter she surrendered for adoption, her fans instantly remembered this song. From David Yaffe's book, I learned that Kilauren's original name was Kelly -- a shade of green. Although Blue was released in 1971, Joni wrote this song in 1967, when her daughter was two years old.

If you know the Wilco song "Dash 7", I've always thought that it was influenced by "This Flight Tonight". Joni's song echoes the classic romantic comedy cliche -- "...turn this crazy bird around, I shouldn't have got on this flight tonight" -- but here, it's too late. The lover has already made the mistake, and it can't be undone.

Blue is chock-full of favourite lyrics. I'll mention only one more: "On the back of a cartoon coaster, in the blue tv-screen light, I drew a map of Canada -- oh Canada -- with your face sketched on it twice...". I see this scene so vividly in my mind that it's cinematic.

Blue is not only one of Joni's best albums, it's one of the greatest albums of all time.

Bad critic comment of the album

I've got two crazy critics for this one, one clueless and one disgustingly sexist, both from Rolling Stone magazine.

Timothy Crouse: "The pretty, 'poetic' lyric is dressed up in such cryptic references that it passeth all understanding." Really, Tim? You couldn't figure this out? We all knew what it was about.

In a feature article the year this landmark album was released, Rolling Stone dubbed Joni "Old Lady of the Year," tantamount to dismissing her as a muse to famous men.

It gets worse. Stay tuned for 1979.

The album cover

Even the cover of Blue was a departure. No self portraits or original Joni artwork here, just a shadowed silhouette photograph, revealing little while still unmistakably Joni, plus the deep rich royal blue.

On the back, only blue. And inside, only lyrics, white type on blue background.

If you're keeping score

I wanna wreck my stockings in some jukebox dive... -- "All I Want".

I'm not sure the waitress in fishnet stockings from "The Last Time I Saw Richard" counts.

I believe these are the first references to stockings, and we've got one cactus from the first album.

Other musicians on this album

Stephen Stills, bass and guitar on "Carey"
James Taylor, guitar on "California", "All I Want", "A Case of You"
Sneaky Pete, pedal steel on "California", "This Flight Tonight"
Russ Kunkel, drums on "California", "Carey", "A Case of You"

You should know all these musicians, so no links are necessary, but just in case: Peter Kleinow.


listening to joni: #3: ladies of the canyon

Ladies of the Canyon, 1970

Original Front Cover
I put this album on for the first time in probably three decades, and I thought, ah, here's Joni.

Ladies of the Canyon, Joni's third album, is the first time we hear the seeds of the future Joni, the first glimpses of elements in her music which would become old friends.

It's the first time we hear her on piano. The first time she has arranged horns, strings, percussion, and background vocals. The first time we hear several of the themes she would explore in much more depth and beauty in the future: the conflict between art and commerce on "For Free," and the bleakness of bourgeoisie life on "The Arrangement".

On Ladies, we also hear the beginning of her distinctive guitar voice, more of the range of her actual voice -- and her peculiar and distinctive diction and phrasing.

I love piano in rock (Nicky Hopkins, Roy Bittan, Chris Stainton, Dr. John) and piano in blues (Pinetop Perkins, Professor Longhair, Memphis Slim), and then there's piano by Joni. Her piano makes my heart soar, makes me weep, strikes "every chord that you feel".

On this album, we hear some of the beginnings of her lyrical wordplay -- "She would wake in the morning without him, and look out through the pain," a play on window pane, or "You called me beautiful, you called your mother, she was very tan," setting up the word called and then changing its meaning. These are tiny examples, of course. In the future she'll evoke whole worlds with unexpected changes in lyrics.

Back Cover
So all this is happening today, for a fan retrospective, but in its time Ladies was much loved. I think it's been overshadowed by the masterpiece that came next.

This album ends with three of Joni's most famous songs: "Big Yellow Taxi," "Woodstock," and "The Circle Game". When Ladies came out in 1970, "Big Yellow Taxi" and "The Circle Game" were already well known, made famous by covers. "Woodstock" would soon be a hit for Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Now whole generations know BYT from newer covers and sampling.

It was strange hearing these three songs again. In BYT, I had forgotten the original lyric of the final stanza, the taxi of the title that "took away my old man". The more familiar lyric -- "a big yellow tractor pushed around my house, took away my land" -- was coined by Bob Dylan in a live show. Joni liked it and adopted it.

"Woodstock": I had forgotten how slow this original version is, how plaintive Joni sounds. Could that have been because she wasn't there -- the Woodstock concert event -- and so is imagining it from a more philosophical point of view? It's so easy to be cynical about the social revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, to see it all as fashion, or posturing, or naivete. I get that -- because I've done it, too. I'm glad I shed that cynicism. Today, when I hear that plea for peace --  "I dreamed I saw the bomber jet planes riding shotgun in the sky, turning into butterflies above our nation" -- it just breaks my heart.

"Circle Game" is one of those songs that seems to have always existed and has never lost its meaning, like Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind". For me, the song is attached to a painful childhood memory, not in the sense of "this song brings back memories" -- but in a much deeper way. The song begins, and I am instantly in tears, before I even understand what I'm hearing. It's a trauma trigger. I have only one other song like that, an Aimee Mann tune that immediately puts me back to the shock and sadness of losing our dog Buster. Funny thing about music, and our consciousness.

I must have listened to this album a lot at some point. I used to think a line from "Blue Boy" -- "Sometimes in the evening he would read to her / Roll her in his arms and give his seed to her" -- was so melancholy and romantic, like something out of Wuthering Heights. It seems stilted now, maybe even creepy.

But overall, listening to this album has been like re-connecting with an old friend.

Inside Cover
I couldn't find this image anywhere,
so you get to see the water damage on my copy.
Bad critic comment of the album

This album seems to have been universally loved. I can see why. It's accessible, there are a range of emotions, the stellar arrangements are new and fresh, and Joni's voice is developing beautifully. But of course, nothing is universal. The famous music critic Robert Christgau hated Joni's "vocal gymnastics" and found her wordplay on this album "laughably high school". He must have gone to some kinda high school!

The album cover

This is again a self-portrait, and a view -- on a skirt, or perhaps a quilt -- from her home in Laurel Canyon. I think the geese are from Canada. The house -- where Joni lived with Graham Nash, one of the great loves of her life -- was the inspiration for the "very very very fine house" of Crosby, Stills, and Nash fame.

Detail of inside cover.
One of the times I saw Joni in concert, we sat near a woman who was wearing a white denim jacket that she had embroidered with this cover art. It was amazing. I went to compliment her and chatted briefly with her and her friends. It was like the Community of We Love Joni.

Joni's notes on the cover art are here, and you can see all her paintings on her website.

Other musicians on this album

Teressa Adams, Cello
Milt Holland (a pioneer and a legend), Percussion
Paul Horn, Clarinet and Flute
Jim Horn, Baritone Sax (another legend)
Background vocals, "The Saskatoons" (i.e., multiple tracks of Joni) and "The Lookout Mountain Downstairs Choir" -- James Taylor, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash


listening to joni: footnote #2

I decided to solve the problem of over-interpretation of lyrics in Reckless Daughter (described here) by putting down the book. I'll go back to it in the future. For now the listening project is more interesting and absorbing to me than reading the biography.

This means I'll review the two books on the nonfiction book group blog without having finished the second book. Don't tell anyone. Then I'll write new reviews for wmtc.

Next up: Ladies of the Canyon.


listening to joni: footnote #1

Reading the biography Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell while doing this re-listening project is proving to be an obstacle.

In general I'm enjoying the book. I love learning more about the artist who created some of the most meaningful music in my life, and about the woman I have always considered a personal role model. I love the stories of how albums were recorded, and even how they were received. What I don't like -- and don't want -- is author David Yaffe's pronouncement of what a song is "about".

Art is always open to interpretation. In fact, art is not complete without interpretation. All art -- novels, film, theatre, visual arts, music -- is incomplete until the receiver (viewer, listener, reader, etc.) experiences it. And that experience is unique to us as individuals. I don't experience art exactly the same way you do, because we each bring our own unique experiences and consciousness to that art. Our interpretation may be conscious or subconscious. It may be intellectual or emotional or, likely, a combination of those. But it is unique to us.

I always say that if I really love a book, I will not see the movie, because I'm almost guaranteed to be disappointed. I want my own interpretation to live in my mind, and if I see the movie, I'll never be able to do that again. The filmmaker's interpretation will taint -- or at least supplant -- my own.

This is what's happening with Reckless Daughter. I don't want to know who or what these songs are "about," because they're not about one thing. I have been listening to and loving this music my whole life. I loved this music without knowing who "Willy" is (Stephen Stills) or which heroin addict in Joni's life inspired her to write "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" (James Taylor). I'm currently listening to Ladies of the Canyon, so soon I'll be moving into music that means a great deal to me -- not one album, but many -- and I don't want someone else's interpretation mucking up my personal experience of this art.

I wish I could read the book with some kind of filter on.


listening to joni: #2: clouds

Clouds, 1969

Clouds, front cover
Listening to Clouds was a strange experience for me: I didn't know the album! I know every note of every album Joni has recorded since then, but this one was foreign.

Of course I know the famous songs from this album -- "Chelsea Morning," "That Song About the Midway," and "Both Sides, Now" -- but I had no memory at all of the other songs. The one exception was the a cappella "The Fiddle and the Drum," about the US's war-making -- but that's because not long ago, we saw Joni perform it on an episode of the old Dick Cavett Show, filmed right after Woodstock had taken place. But the actual album? It felt like I was hearing it for the first time.

This must mean that my sister and I didn't play Clouds. Maybe we didn't own it and filled it in later, when Joni's music had gone way past this stage. I really don't know. I'll see if my sister has any idea.

Even more surprising, I had a mixed reaction this album. 

On Clouds, we hear the true beauty of Joni's voice. Her voice sounds so much richer and fuller than it does on Song to a Seagull. This must be a consequence of production. According to biographer David Yaffe, David Crosby's production of Song was a bit bizarre. Although Clouds was only her second album, Joni already was through with producers, and would fight throughout her career to produce her music herself, working only with a sound engineer. On Clouds, her voice is beautiful -- still those crazy high notes, but also a whole range of full, supple sound.

Clouds, full cover, opened
When this album was released, Judy Collins had already covered "Chelsea Morning" and "Both Sides, Now" on her album Wildflowers. I'm not a Judy Collins fan, and if I had heard only her version, I would think the songs were banal. But both songs come alive on Clouds. Incidentally, if the media was still looking for Joni The Folksinger, "Both Sides, Now" would tick that box.

"That Song About the Midway," I know chiefly from Bonnie Raitt's excellent cover, and I prefer Raitt's bluesy swagger and full production to this girl-with-guitar version. Joni supposedly wrote "Midway" about Leonard Cohen, something I wouldn't have known at the time -- considering I wouldn't know who Leonard Cohen was for at least another 20 years. (The biography is full of revelations of what songs are "about" or who inspired them. It's only 1969 and it's already bothering me.)

The most significant development on this album is the beginning of Joni's talent as a poet. The lyrics are beginning to display her prowess for offering unexpected descriptions and metaphors. "...You stood out like a ruby in a black man's ear..." Many people mistake this line for a description of the man she is singing about wearing a jewel in his ear. But no, it's a picture for the listener.

Other than "Chelsea Morning," "Both Sides, Now," and "Midway" -- three great songs -- the rest of the songs are maudlin, and the album overall feels morose. Not somber. Lots of good music is somber. But -- speaking of Leonard Cohen -- morose is wallowing in somber. Morose is one-dimensional. Yaffe says that many of these songs were written years earlier, then gathered on this album, and represent different scraps of thought and styles that Joni was trying on and discarding. While the lyrics are simply too good to call them filler or throwaway tracks, the songs do feel like aberrations -- some alternative not-Joni.

The best example of this is "I Don't Know Where I Stand," which sounds like something from the crooner era, a la "Send in the Clowns", the kind of music Joni frequently mentions as her earliest exposure. The song has been covered by more than 30 artists, including Barbra Streisand and Fairport Convention. It's not a bad song, but the lyrics, structure, and arrangement seem old-fashioned. It feels completely out-of-sync with any of Joni's music.

So in the end, I don't have much of a personal connection to this album. Joni's voice is beautiful and the songs are beautiful, but girl-with-acoustic-guitar feels thin.

Bad critic comment of the album

In the Reckless Daughter anthology, about "Both Sides, Now," some music writers wonder how then- 24-year-old (when she wrote it) Joni had looked at life or love from "both sides, now", the implication being she was too young to have known much of life at all. So let's see. By 24, Joni had: survived polio, living alone in a hospital without her parents for months, re-learned how to walk with only minimal rehabilitation, left her conservative prairie town, arrived in Toronto with a few dollars in her pocket, found a way to support herself, became pregnant, gave birth and tried to support herself and her daughter, surrendered her daughter for adoption, got married, traveled and performed with her husband, left her husband, lived in New York City, and traveled and performed thousands of miles for months at a time on her own.

Did anyone ever question if 24-year-old Mick Jagger really had a woman under his thumb? Mick and Joni are the same age. Sexist crap.

The album cover

Joni's cover art -- a self-portrait over a sunset-coloured sky -- doesn't match the album's mood. But the artist portrays herself as somber and composed. That would come to be a theme.

Other musicians on this album

None. This is just Joni and guitar.

Allan suggests that I link to videos and reviews from the relevant period, but for me that would feel like a chore, and unnecessary. contains every album, every song, album notes, and reviews. This, for example, is the Clouds  page. 


listening to joni: #1: joni mitchell (song to a seagull)

This is my first post in my re-listen to the music of Joni Mitchell in chronological order of album release. These posts come with all kinds of disclaimers, chiefly that I don't know what I'm doing.

I wanted to write about the two Reckless Daughter books before starting on these posts, but I'm ready to move on to the second album, and haven't yet finished the books. So here we go.

* * * *

Joni Mitchell (Song to a Seagull), 1968

Song to a Seagull, front cover
I hadn't listened to this album in a very long time -- probably not since childhood. I am the youngest of three siblings, and got into music much earlier than my peers, listening to anything my older siblings had. My sister and I adored Joni and listened to her obsessively. Of course in the present, all the songs came back to me immediately (long-term memory is amazing) and I knew many of the lyrics.

The songs on this album hang together as a whole, which was very common in those days. The album is also thematically divided by sides: "Part I: I Came to the City", and "Part II: Out of the City and Down to the Seaside".

Joni Mitchell's early music is usually referred to as folk or folk rock. As I listened to this album over the past weeks, I kept thinking, This is not folk. There is nothing folk music about it. I was glad to see my view validated by Joni herself: in the anthology, in separate interviews over much of her career, Joni insists that she never recorded folk music. At the start of her career, she performed folk music in clubs and at festivals, but once she recorded her own music, it was never folk. But, she says, she looked the part -- female, long hair, acoustic guitar -- and no one knew what else to call her music, so they slapped on the folk label. Twenty, 30, and 40 years later, journalists were still referring to her as "folk music turned jazz singer" and the like.

Full cover, opened to show back (left) and front (right)
I read various descriptions of what comprises folk, folk-rock or folk revival, but didn't find any clear definition. To my own ears, folk and folk rock music usually have fairly simple lyrics, simple guitar chords, basic melodies (often a stock melody used for many different songs) and are full of repetitive choruses or refrains. Taken together, these elements make folks songs easy for anyone to play and conducive to sing-alongs -- hence folk, which means people.

Song to a Seagull has none of those elements. Musically, Joni is already using the open tunings for which she will become famous, her playing already distinctively Joni. The melodies are complex and often unpredictable -- or almost nonexistent. The lyrics are dense and intricate.

Repeated refrains or choruses are absent, too. In most songs, the closest thing to a refrain is one repeated line -- "And she's so busy being free" (Cactus Tree) or "My dreams with the seagulls fly / Out of reach out of cry" (Song to a Seagull) or "All his seadreams come to me" (The Dawntreader) -- or a line that changes a bit in each stanza -- "We have a rocking chair" (Sistowbell Lane) or "Red is..., Green is...." (Marcie). "Night in the City" has an actual refrain, but Joni's impossibly high notes render it impossible for most singalongs.

The most quintessential Joni song on this album is also, for me, its best song: "Cactus Tree". It is only 1967, and Joni is already exploring what would become one of her central themes: the conflict between love and freedom. Each time the line repeats -- "she was off somewhere being free" -- it is sung with more urgency. In the Reckless Daughter anthology, every review mentioned this song. Many critics hear it as laced with regret, but I hear it as a wistful understanding. It is also a bold disruption of the popular image of women waiting for men to settle down and marry them.

After three stanzas about the different men who court her, the song turns to the woman herself.

Inside Cover
There's a lady in the city
And she thinks she loves them all
There's the one who's thinking of her
And the one who sometimes calls
There's the one who writes her letters
With his facts and figures scrawl
She has brought them to her senses
They have laughed inside her laughter
Now she rallies her defences
For she fears that one will ask her
For eternity
And she's so busy being free

The woman is full of love, but she knows that commitment, for her, will be poison. Perhaps the next, final verse signals a tinge of regret, as she describes the woman's heart "as full and hollow as a cactus tree" -- not exactly an image of warmth and comfort. (This is the first of many cacti in Joni's songs.) But the cactus is also strong, a survivor, and the heart is not only hollow, it is also full. She knows "they will lose her if they follow". She knows herself well, so she "rallies her defences".

Other great songs on this album are "Michael From Mountains," "Night in the City," and "Marcie". Some of the songs also have a kind of pompous feel. In "I Had a King" -- said to be about Joni's brief marriage to Chuck Mitchell -- lines like "he's taken the curtains down" and the repeated "they never can" with the big flourish finish, seem too much like proclaiming. Such was 1967.

This is an astonishing debut, especially when we consider it doesn't contain some of her best-known early songs. Judy Collins had already become famous for Joni's "Both Sides, Now", "Urge for Going" had been covered by both Tom Rush and George Hamilton IV, and Joni herself sang "Circle Game", "Chelsea Morning," and "The Song About the Midway" in clubs and festivals. According to biographer David Yaffe, in those days it was not uncommon for an artist to release only one or two major songs on their debut album, and save the really amazing stuff for their second album, once they had built a following. Bob Dylan is a great example of that, and Joni clearly did it, too. Yaffe says that by the time Joni went into the studio with her then-boyfriend and nominal producer David Crosby, she had enough original material to fill three albums.

The album cover

Although the title "Song to a Seagull" is clear in the photo (above), on the album itself, it's barely visible. It's written in the Vs that are birds in flight. I always assumed the album was called "Joni Mitchell," and I think many others thought so, too.

The cover art is Joni's own drawing, and it references all the songs in the album, along with two fish-eye photos of Joni in a city, and some Hirschfeld-esque drawings of her own name.

Other musicians on this album

David Crosby is listed as producer, but apparently what he did most was keep others from ruining the music. Stephen Stills plays bass. Everything else is Joni, including background vocals and a bit of piano on "Night in the City".


listening to joni: a new wmtc feature

Two new books about Joni Mitchell have come out, with -- strangely -- the same title.

Reckless Daughter: A Joni Mitchell Anthology, edited by Barney Hoskyns, is a collection of stories about Joni* and reviews of her work. It's part of an ongoing collection called Rock's Backpages, which looks at rock through accomplished music writers of the last 50 years. I'm reading this now.

Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, by David Yaffe, is a biography of the artist and her music. It's especially noteworthy because of the unusual access Yaffe had to his subject. I'm going to read this after I finish the anthology.

While reading reviews and impressions of Joni's earliest performances and recordings, I realized how long it's been since I've heard her early music. In some cases, at least her first two albums, I probably have never played as an adult! I decided I would listen to all her albums in chronological order, starting from the beginning. I'm going to try to write about the listening experience on wmtc.

I don't know how this will go. I don't think I have anything particularly insightful or interesting to say about these albums, and I've never been able to write very well about music.

My response to music is very emotional -- not intellectual, not analytical, and not verbal. My love for Joni Mitchell and her place in my consciousness is intense -- profound -- and thus very difficult to articulate.

But if I'm going on this musical journey, wmtc is coming with me. 

Your comments, as always, will be very welcome.

* I normally hate when female artists and athletes are referred to by their first names, often in contexts where men are referred to by their last names. But to her legion of devoted fans, Joni is Joni.