only joni

I’m not one for hoarding but there’s one cassette tape I’ll never throw away. It was compiled by a friend at Uni, from her personal collection of Joni Mitchell LPs and presented to me, beautifully filled in with handwritten lists on those paper inserts tapes had, so I would know which songs had been recorded from which albums. This was 1984 and already there were 13 Joni albums to choose from, so it wasn’t an easy task. The cassette was inscribed: ‘For Claire, who asked the impossible – some of my favourite Joni Mitchell songs’.

The song that had originally got in under my skin, as it wafted down our University corridor at all hours, was what I called ‘the gravy song’* with the bizarrely worded chorus: 

Some get the gravy
And some get the gristle
Some get the marrow bone,
And some get nothing
Though there’s plenty to spare.

It took me a while to unravel the metaphor, despite being an Eng. Lit undergraduate. Its power lay not only in the lyrics, but in the plaintive tune conjuring a harbour walk where Mitchell ponders the injustice in the world: 

I took my dream down by the sea
Yankee yachts and lobster pots and sunshine
And logs and sails
And Shell Oil pails,
Dogs and tugs and summertime… Listen to the song here…
it’s from For the Roses, and is titled: The Banquet – a powerful song about the inequity of resources that resonates more than 50 years later.

Having arrived at Uni with a mixed but rather selective bag of musical influences – ImaginationKid Creole and the Coconuts, and a great deal of classical piano exam pieces – Joni Mitchell was a complete revelation – a revelation which to this day I have never really recovered from.

From this treasured cassette tape, over the next 3 years I imbibed the best of Clouds (1969), Blue (1971), For the Roses (1972), Court and Spark (1974), The Hissing of Summer Lawns(1975), Hejira (1976) and Wild Things Run Fast (1982). It was like a whistle stop tour of all the brightest stars in a newly discovered universe. 

Songs like ‘I don’t know where I stand’, from Clouds. Didn’t it just capture the dilemma of romantic relationships where either you fancied some guy and it wasn’t returned; or he fancied you and ditto; or you’d both fancied each other but something had gone wrong…

Picked up a pencil and wrote ‘I love you’
In my finest hand,
Wanted to send it,
But I don’t know where I stand. Listen to the song here…

The joy of the cassette compilation was being able to mine the best of Joni across three decades, from the pure, high voice with solo guitar or piano, through fuller instrumental settings, to the jazz beginnings of Court and Spark, Hejira and beyond, to Wild Things Run Fast: Listen here for original LP sound of Wild Things, plus crackles.

I did occasionally meet a fellow fan(atic), like the scary guy with a glint in his eye at a party one year. ‘What’s your favourite early album?’ he asked. On recalling that early cassette, I plumped, not for Blue, but for For the Roses. He looked at me as though I’d just declared undying love. It was the right answer apparently. 

If pushed for my no. 1 track on that one, I’d have to pick ‘Judgement of the Moon and Stars’. Whatever she was railing about, it always seemed to me you could put your own situation right

in there and it would fit. She even poetically mines her own piano playing:

You’ve got to shake your fists at lightning now

You’ve got to roar like forest fire
You’ve got to spread your light like blazes
All across the sky
They’re going to aim the hoses on you
Show them you won’t expire
Not till you burn up every passion
Not even when you die

If you’re feeling contempt
Well then you tell it
If you’re tired of the silent night
Jesus, well then you yell it.
Condemned to wires and hammers
Strike every chord that you feel
That broken trees
And elephant ivories
Conceal. Listen here…

From Blue, ‘A Case of You’ was near perfection. Only Joni could mix images of love and consumption, the holy and the profane, and leave you feeling something akin to the transcendent.

You are in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet
Oh I could drink a case of you, darling
And I would still be on my feet. Listen here…
Organised religion came in for some bashing, but even as an enthusiastic twenty-something believer, I could see the things she was suspicious of could easily be (and had been) abused by various face-saving groups or twisted individuals down the years:

Lesson in Survival
Spinning out on turns
That gets you tough
Guru books – the Bible
Only a reminder
That you’re just not good enough
(‘Lesson in Survival’, For The Roses);


Like the church
Like a cop
Like a mother
you want me to be truthful
Sometimes you turn it on me like a weapon though
And I need your approval.
(‘The Same Situation’, Court and Spark).

Her suspicion of religion didn’t seem to stop her speculating that some higher power might be the answer to the broken heart, however: She ‘sends up a prayer’ in ‘The Same Situation’…

wondering where it had to go
With heaven full of astronauts
and the Lord on death row
While the millions of his lost and lonely ones
Call out and clamour to be found
Caught in their struggle for higher positions
And their search for love that sticks around.

There wasn’t a duff song on that overused cassette, especially not when it came to The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Her biting social commentary struck a chord with the slightly left of centre faith/political worldview I prided myself I was developing. The downside of the cassette, of course, was I didn’t see any album covers till I began collecting CDs in the 90s, when I fell in love with her artistic output all over again. On social commentary, there’s this, for example, on a subject she would elsewhere refer to as ‘possessive coupling’:

He bought her a diamond for her throat
He put her in a ranch house on a hill
She could see the valley bar-b-ques
From her window sill
See the blue pools in the squinting sun
And hear the hissing of summer lawns.

He put up a barbed wire fence 

To keep out the unknown
And on every metal thorn
Just a little blood of his own
She patrols that fence of his 
To a Latin drum
And the hissing of summer lawns. Listen here…

Hejira (1976) packed a punch on that cassette and had one of the most evocative covers of any of her albums. She said of it, ‘I wrote the album while travelling cross country by myself and there is this restless feeling throughout it…the sweet loneliness of solitary travel’. 

Songs like ‘The Refuge of the Roads’ and ‘Blue Motel Room’ always put me in mind of a bittersweet Barbara Kingsolver novel in which the heroine who doesn’t want to get pregnant, goes on a road trip and someone leaves an unwanted baby in her car while she stops during the night for petrol**. You try to escape, but you can’t escape. Only Joni could make a song where the seedy motel room motif segues seamlessly into something spiritual and universally applicable:

In the church they light the candles
And the wax rolls down like tears
There is the hope and the hopelessness
I’ve witnessed thirty years(‘Hejira’). Listen here for ‘Hejira‘, off Hejira.

33 years old and writing like a genius.*

My fandom was in arrested development till the early 90s, which was my ‘weaning’ stage, from her folk and early jazz onto, basically, whatever the woman wrote. 

I progressed from the gift of one cassette to owning three Joni LPs – Dog Eat Dog (1985), Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm (1988) and Night Ride Home (1991). The sleeves were sumptuous. Joni was burgeoning, tackling topics such as famine, fame, televangelists, the plight of the Lakota Sioux, and the failure of the American dream. She was prophetic about the environment before anyone else had really got going:

Last night I dreamed I saw the planet flicker
Great forests fell like buffalo
Everything got sicker
And to the bitter end
Big business bickered…
(‘The Three Great Stimulants’, Dog Eat Dog).

I didn’t hear about these things in church; it was her words and music that stirred them up in me. As far as I was concerned, she had every right to develop her style, and anything new she did (and Dog Eat Dog really did sound ‘new’) was just building on what went before. 

She continued to take artistic risks as her work matured like fine wine. She did a radio interview about ‘Ethiopia’, from Dog Eat Dog, where she explained at length how the song came into being. There are actual children’s cries, recorded as the production team went through the famine torn region in the 1980s. When they got back to the studio, they were amazed to discover the actual musical pitch of the cries matched the pitch of the song, even over a key change. After listening to her explain all this, and more, clearly fully engaged with the subject from multiple angles, the interviewer paused, almost lost for words, ending the exchange: ‘that’s the most detailed and thoughtful explanation of any recording of any song that I’ve ever heard’.

I became hardcore. I would meet fans who’d never progressed beyond her early folk phase and think uncharitable thoughts about them. Even recently, on reading that Zadie Smith thinks of herself as a fan, I find I can’t quite forgive her initial prevarication (even though she writes like a dream).

During the 90s I even inflicted her songs upon small children, playing tracks in assemblies; ‘Cool Water’ from Chalkmark in a Rainstorm, for example, to illustrate the importance of clean water. We would end with ‘There’s water, water of life/Jesus gives us the water of life’, of course, just to cheese off the atheist Deputy Head.

Joni was increasingly collaborating with some big names – Billy Idol, Don Henley, Tom Petty. Of her collaboration with Peter Gabriel, on ‘My Secret Place’ (Chalkmark in a Rainstorm) she said ‘The song’s about the threshold of intimacy. It’s a shared thing so I wanted it to be like The Song of Solomon, where you can’t tell what gender it is’ (interview with Musician Magazine). Listen here. Video seems very dated, almost cheesy, but you get the idea…

Night Ride Home ……..

…….is like a long drink from a deep fountain. ‘Passion Play’, track 2, is stuffed full of biblical images; the redemption of Mary Magdalene, the conversion of Zacchaeus, the agony of crucifixion (‘the killer nails are ringing’). The refrain seems to be a question, perhaps to the devil, about what will happen when this special man, this ‘diver of the heart’ has done all his redeeming work: 

Who’re you gonna get to do the dirty work

When all the slaves are free?

What with that and her brooding rendition of WB Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming, ‘Slouching towards Bethlehem’there was plenty of spiritual and 
intellectual fodder. 

I progressed onto CDs in the mid 90s, purchasing her first and third albums***, which I didn’t even know about in those innocent pre-Google, cassette tape days, along with Turbulent Indigo, (1994), on which her own Van Gogh like paintings feature extensively. Pretentious? Yes, unless you’re a genius…

And her subjects did continue to be turbulent. One minute she’s decrying the moral judgmentalism in which the Church is sometimes complicit, for instance in ‘Magdalene Laundries’,  

I was an unmarried girl
I’d just turned twenty seven
When they sent me to the sisters
For the way men look at me.
Branded as a Jezebel
I knew I was not bound for Heaven
I’d be cast in shame into the Magdalene Laundries

the next, she’s delving deep into the agony of Job himself in ‘The Sire of Sorrow (Job’s Sad Song)’ (final track).

Music, art AND spirituality. When so often the contemporary worship scene offered nothing beyond a vague feel good factor, and traditional church served up outdated hymns that didn’t move me, I would occasionally return from Sunday worship and spend 30 minutes listening to Joni just to reset my spiritual compass. 

I thought I knew all the songs on Night Ride Home, then almost from nowhere, nearly two decades after buying it, I started listening afresh to the last track, which seemed to have passed me by before.

‘Two Grey Rooms’ documents the unrequited love of Rainer Fassbinder, a German Cinema Director, for a young male lover who broke his heart. By then, I wasn’t just ‘going to church’ I was going INTO the Church. Between my growing realisation of the Church’s terrible ambiguity towards gay relationships, and the power of the song to illustrate obsession, I could only listen in short bursts. Men loved women; men loved men; some love was unrequited or forbidden. Between track 1, a simple celebration of being with your loved one for a long weekend (‘Night Ride Home’) and the rediscovery of this devastating final track, 18 years later, I suppose I must have grown up a bit.       Listen here…

Because love was messy. Love was young; it matured; it died. Things could go wrong, frequently did. Hearts were broken. All this she knew well. It became the subject for her 21st, orchestrated and retrospective album, Both Sides Now (2000), which has my favourite Joni self-portrait on the front, unashamedly smoking and drinking and being gloriously miserable (aka thoughtful).

My collection of albums lapsed through the noughties, though I did fork out for Shine (2007), if only to marvel at yet another art form in which she had become engrossed (this time, amazingly, ballet). Her voice is low, sultry, very different from the high purity of the 60s, still powerful and suggestive.

Having started out with one (illegal) cassette tape, and journeyed through various LPs and CDs, I can’t imagine downloading anything of hers – where would be, literally, the art in that? Where would be the paper lyrics to take out and pore over, the paintings to savour? 

I may complete my CD collection some day (18 albums down, 9 to go) – it’s always useful to have something to ask for at Christmas. I’ve never gone out and sought her music like an avid collector, happy for it to come to me instead. I used to be afraid that I’d get all the albums, know all the songs and there’d be nothing left to discover. But not anymore. I know how to savour. I know there’ll be some new layer of meaning, some new insight.

Listening comes in seasons. After immersion I usually need a period of abstinence.

Returning to her songs feels like sinking into a well-worn armchair, something you love that will hold you while you realign yourself, something that is at the same time, old comforting friend, and an impelling, ongoing, hopefully lifelong invitation to discover something new.

Happy Birthday Joni.

*Further evidence for genius status: She writes a poem, a diatribe against the poison of fame, when she is SIXTEEN years old. See here: six mins into the interview:
**The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver, 1988
***Song To a Seagull, 1968 & Ladies of the Canyon, 1970.

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