Sunday, 19 May 2013

Albums for Life: 3: Joni Mitchell: Blue

I am on a lonely road and I am traveling
Looking for something, what can it be?

The simple poetry sounds like an entry from any young woman's diary.
The musical template is simple, understated: piano, guitar, dulcimer.
The musical hue is blue.
The message seemed simple enough too; this was an elegy to a lost bohemia.
At the turn of the 70s a sadness permeated American pop culture.
Introspective songwriters were everywhere. 
No-one did 'introspection' more compellingly than Joni.
The hippie generation had stumbled and wasn't getting back up, the 60s, that decade of musical innovation and innocence had had its heart ripped out by Manson, Vietnam, Bobby Kennedy's assassination and the disintegration of the Beatles.

In 1970 Joni was just back from a jaunt living in a cliff cave in Matala, Crete, probably with the Greek God Apollo's first commandment ringing in her ears:
'Know Thyself'.
That nirvana had been compromised by a local Greek entrepreneur who made the hippie haven into a sightseeing tour; concreting over the muddy town square to accommodate the tourists.
'They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.'
Joni knew that travel stimulated her muse and wanted to break free from the claustrophobic rigors of the music industryShe'd made 3 successful albums since 1968 and her apparently idyllic LA lifestyle as a lady of the canyon was starting to pall.
"I was being isolated, starting to feel like a bird in a gilded cage."
She took with her a mountain dulcimer on which she composed and played for her fellow cave dwellers. Her monastic environment colored her writing. 
'The wind is in from Africa'. 
The caves were on an arm of land that expended into deep water.
Joni was surrounded by one colour: deep blue.

'Blue' was not so much a love letter to the loss, more a mournful recognition that the ideal of the comforts of the Laurel Canyon community were a thing of the past. She'd had affairs with Graham Nash and James Taylor but her love life was tainted and tempered by an ever inquisitive, demanding, almost self destructive muse.

'Oh I hate you some, I hate you some, I love you
Oh I love you when I forget about me'

Joni laments lost love specifically but the fanciful sorrow is both introspective and projected. Here was a lady, alone, band less. What could she do but make her own way, muttering as she meandered, inquisitive and vulnerable. 'Will you take me as I am?' A mind in pursuit of meaning; she asks a lot of questions but recognizes that there aren't always answers. Sometimes it's enough just to ask the question and recognize the wonders of mystery and the inevitability of loss; acknowledging that "sometimes there'll be sorrow". Sure, Joni's lost and lonely, but there's adventure in her journey and she's meeting it head on and wide eyed. I love the dawning openness of Joni's expression in this photo taken at the time...

Those observations and the questions resonate so keenly because they are not original thoughts; she is everyman/everywoman here, reflecting on her loss and accepting her lot. Whether she spoke for the listener was dependent on the listener. Were we stepping into her world, or she into ours?

"The beauty as a listener is you have an option. Either you can see yourself and your humanity in the songs, which is what I'm trying to do for the listeners. Or you can say 'that's the way she is and equate the songs with me. The richest way, the way to get the most out of it, is to see yourself in it."

She colours her canvas carefully but here's no bile in the recognitions; just a big broken hearted sigh.
'Blue' strikes at the heart of introspection. 
What does that mean?
Blue, in Joni's own words 'gave melancholy its proper due.'
The fragility and intensity of the soul searching is compelling, touching, irresistible, unfathomable, because she articulates the bleeding obvious but wraps the songs in such delicate, specific personal observations that we can surely never grasp their full meaning. They are steeped in her own secret biography but she leaves just enough room for us to insert ourselves into the stories.

"What I did was bring just a little more detail to pop lyrics like 'I feel blue' for example, pairing it with more specific character and metaphors and making the music actually feel blue with what I call my chords of inquiry. I was trying to grow up the American pop song into an art song.'

Joni colours her characters and metaphors artfully with an obvious sense of compassionate responsibility. There's no saccharine in the nostalgia. Neither is there bitterness or self pity. She doesn't harangue or bang on. She risks all, unveils her mysteries, makes herself vulnerable, strips herself bare and asks 'will you take me as I am?' In laying her soul bare, confession is a major part of the process. She sublimates herself to achieve the sublime. Shame surely leads to salvation. At the time her contemporaries wondered at her revelations. Was she revealing too much?

"They were embarrassed for me. Because the popular song had been about posturing. It had been self-aggrandizing. The feminine appetite for intimacy is stronger than it is in men. So my songwriter friends listened and they all shut down, even Neil Young. The only one who spoke out was Kris Kristofferson. 'Jesus Joni,' he said. 'Save something for yourself.'"

This is as genuine and as generous as it gets.
As she sings, so the songs become her.
She recognizes her moment, acquaints herself with her (gulp) inner self...  and moves on.
It's almost as though the song itself is a baptism.
Holy water is seemingly everywhere.
'River' always reminds me of the Ted Koosner poem 'Skater'.

She was all in black but for a yellow pony tail
that trailed from her cap, and bright blue gloves
that she held out wide, the feathery fingers spread, as surely she stepped, click-clack, onto the frozen
top of the world. And there, with a clatter of blades,
she began to braid a loose path that broadened
into a meadow of curls. Across the ice she swooped
and then turned back and, halfway, bent her legs
and leapt into the air the way a crane leaps, blue gloves
lifting her lightly, and turned a snappy half-turn
there in the wind before coming down, arms wide,
skating backward right out of that moment, smiling back
at the woman she'd been just an instant before. 

I'm realizing that 'Blue' is important to me because it helped me to understand women.
There's a difference, a difference that needs to be celebrated daily.
Here was another blithe spirit, kindred but different.
Our journeys are similar.
We're both searching for meaning.
We're both searching for love.
We're both searching for home.
We can see the signs better if we have another perspective.
Blue flows beautifully and is imperfectly perfect because, for all of its undeniable progress, it is unresolved; not quite long enough; the river doesn't quite reach the sea.
Yet still, the raw, tender beauty of Joni's artfully nuanced song unwinds like a river.
There's serenity on the surface, but the river is deep and, ultimately, unfathomable.
And that river is blue.


  1. Great record and heartfelt piece, Trevor. She's in my shadow list, album undecided. Thanks for all the background, which I've never really bothered with before.

    1. I love Joni Seamus. Court and Spark and Hejira were close too.

  2. Beautifully written profile and analysis of a fearless artist. Another icon that I've never fully appreciated. Initially I had slotted 'Travelogue' into my list, but when I withdrew Smiths' 'Hatful Of Hollow' realized it too was bending the rules. I love the orchestral arrangements and particularly Joni's smoky, mature voice on 'Travelogue' & 'Both Sides Now' completely recasting many of her classics. Would be in my Top 30...

    Love the photo of Matala. brings back so many sweet memories...

    Also, I finally picked up Ted Kooser's, 'Delights and Shadows' on a recent jaunt to TO. It's a pretty slim volume for $20, but certainly worthwhile. I also bought Theodore Roethke's 'Straw For The Fire' which is a scattershot collection of the writer's random thoughts & observations, quotes, poetry fragments, bon mots, journal entries etc. Great "on the john" reading...

  3. Travelogue is probably my most listened to Joni these days. I tried to find a way of sneaking in... the interpretations are so different. The luxuriant orchestrations are a bit rich for some but I love it; you're right about her voice; I think that all of those fags (cigarettes to you) have thickened up her bottom end (so to speak). Those early tones could be shrill (Di thinks that she sings for dogs...) My favourite is the reinterpretation of 'Amelia' which is sonic heaven to me...
    'Delights and Shadows' is my bedside book in Corsica. 'Straw for the Fire' shall be added to the 'john' there. I will be quoting from there as the 'crapper rapper'.... I'll start with:
    "If you can't think at least sing...'

  4. Again I've got nothing by her , haunted by that prejudice of youth when I lumped a whole lot of American artists together and labelled not for me, and then for some reason not picked up when I got older and wiser, making do with a lot of "inspired by"s instead. So Blue will be my first purchase and first listen