Published: Dec 17, 2015
A few years after she recorded “Blue,” Joni Mitchell came to one of my parties. She was a pleasure to chat with — I wasn’t a fan, and so wasn’t struck dumb by her unexpected appearance.
What? Not a fan? My Lord, Joni Mitchell was huge back then. Everybody listened to her! Everybody revered her!
No. “Everybody” didn’t. Women did. All the women in my circle, anyway. They loved Mitchell’s trilly voice, naked lyrics, insistence on independence, her secondary gift as a painter — for them, Joni Mitchell was a role model.
Maybe I was threatened by such a gifted woman, by such a quicksilver spirit. Maybe I had only modest experience with women who operated out of honesty and innocence, maybe I sensed that women who lived like that were beyond me. What man would willingly look into a light that bright? Not many. Not me, anyway.
But you know how it goes. Life beats you up. And, eventually, the wind tunnel of experience knocks off your slick charm and easy certainty. And then an album that “everyone” was listening to in 1971 makes its way to your ears — 30 years late.
Not that the road to “Blue” was easy for Joni Mitchell. By 1970, she was weary of touring and recording and the life of the rising star. So she “retired,” the better to write: “I have to go inside myself so far, to search through a theme.” Ten songs later, she was ready to record. [To buy the CD from Amazon and get the MP3 download free, click here. For the MP3 download, click here. To read about Joni Mitchell in Sheila Weller’s epic “Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon — and the Journey of a Generation,” click here.]
There’s a sameness in “Blue,” but it’s the kind you want: “At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses, so there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals.” The instrumentation is in the same flavor: scarce. James Taylor. Stephen Stills. A few others. Which leaves the words — and the singer-songwriter — totally exposed.
There’s one song with news in it. When young and unknown, she had a daughter, and she doesn’t sugarcoat her reaction to giving the child up for adoption: “You sign all the papers in the family name/ You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed.” The rest of the songs are about the men she met on her travels in Europe. They’re dashing and romantic and verbally acute — and she is as much of a trial to them as they are to her: “I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad.”
These songs are love letters, of the greediest, most voluptuous kind. “I could drink a case of you,” she sings. “I want to be the one that you want to see.” But she’s restless, always moving on: “I’m going to make a lot of money, Then I’m going to quit this crazy scene, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”
“Blue” is a CD that’s in many collections but is, I suspect, not casually played; it brings up memories of unspoken longings, broken promises, failed romance, and who plays music for reminders of any of that? Answer: many, when the creator is passionately, dangerously alive. “Blue” is a blessing, eternally fresh.
Time is kind to art that aims for so much, and hits the mark.
“BLUE” IN FICTION
In my novel, Married Sex, the narrator gets email from his estranged wife. In the subject line: “You’ve got to keep thinking/ You can make it thru these waves.” His reaction:
It was from “Blue,” by Joni Mitchell, one of Blair’s favorites. I knew it well. And what followed:
Blue, here is a shell for you
Inside you’ll hear a sigh
A foggy lullaby
There is your song from me.
“A foggy lullaby” — it wasn’t late, but I wanted to go to bed, to imagine Blair’s goodnight kiss, the day’s last declaration of love, her warm breath in my ear. In the dark, I’d remember all the nights behind us and hope for the ones ahead. I’d recall cool sheets in summer, hiding under the duvet in winter, my hand massaging her shoulders as foreplay, her hair streaming across the pillow as she slept.