Tuesday, November 5, 2013


'Because Elvis gave them cars
You think I'm cheap...'


                                              Night Ride Home
I DISCOVERED Joni Mitchell late, at an unfortunate time. It was in the early 80’s and the 80’s wasn’t, in my opinion- others will differ- a kind decade for her. The 70’s were, alternatively, a glorious time. It culminated in the more experimental records like ‘Mingus’ and ‘Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter’ which were triumphs of courage as much as anything. She knew, and the record producers were telling her, that she would lose a lot of her loyal ‘Court and Spark’ and ‘Hejira’ fans, simply because these albums were risky and breathtakingly different. Perhaps the 80’s albums were different too, but I have never been able to get into them. They include ‘Dog Eat Dog’ and ‘Chalk Mark in the Rainstorm.’ I suppose Joni Mitchell’s career threatened to suddenly end then. A great period from the late 60’s, when she began, and a brilliant decade throughout the 70’s, and then music oblivion. This would be different to her contemporaries, like Van Morrison, who, in my opinion, had a decade in the 80’s very much as successful and creative and full of wonder as the 70’s.
Thankfully, there were three excellent records created by Joni in the 90’s, as a kind of comeback from unsuccessful 80’s experimentation. The first of these, ‘Night Ride Home’, from 1991, has been on my record player a lot lately, as I sit at the long table in the kitchen, or the leather couch in front of the stereo. I find myself humming the tunes all the time, and thinking about them, lyrically especially, as lyrically is probably all I can do. Don’t expect me to be discussing harmonic palettes, or dominant and non-dominant chords, for that matter.
‘Night Ride Home’ has ten songs, and is quietly inspired. It is produced by Joni and her then husband, bassist Larry Klein, and guest artists include Michael Landau and Wayne Shorter. The first song, the title track, is a relaxed and lovely paean to a simple night drive next to the person you love. The chorus features the simple refrain: ‘I love the man beside me/ We love the open road.’ It is the 4th of July holiday and the couple have been on the road, escaping from the madness of being weighed down by phones-‘No phones till Friday’- which is reminiscent of ‘Court and Spark’s song ‘The Same Situation’ where the speaker is ‘tethered to a ringing telephone.’ The imagery is smooth, and relaxed, and lovely, as the poet recalls the various highlights of their trip away- the surreal ‘big blue moon’, the fireworks and ‘the ukulele man’, the way the powerlines gleam silver from the beams from the headlights, and (my favourite image), the majestic and mysterious ‘big dark horse’: ‘Red taillights on his side/ Is keeping right alongside/ Rev for stride.’ This is the most gentle and assured of all the songs on the album, with its absence of any noticeable tension. There are even soft, sibilant sounds of chirping crickets on the soundtrack. It is a mature couple’s celebration of peace and fulfilment.
Several tracks later ‘Nothing Can Be Done’ appears, and with it all the tensions that can exist in relationships. Joni shares the vocals with somebody with a young, strong voice called David Baerwald. The lovely surreal blue moon has been replaced bed as being y ‘graffiti ruins.’ A tender and loving heart is now described as ‘a smoking gun.’ The speaker’s lover suddenly leaves in anger, running red lights, accompanied by ‘trash-can-rock-band-pounding.’ Middle age is uncertainty is creeping in- ‘Oh I am not old/ I’m told/ But I am not young/ Oh and nothing can be done.’ This song has a harder edge, the male vocal emphasising a certain kind of moodiness and soft aggression. A part of it seems to be about regret. The words are quite simple, but the arrangement is interesting with the layered vocals and heavy percussion.
‘Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac’ is probably the weakest song, but it’s fun, and a return to the lightness of mood. It is the second last song on the album and has a catchy refrain, based around its title. There are a couple of songs on this album that conjure up the past. Here, the singer sings of her rock ‘n’ roll days, of romance in the back of the Cadillac, and the ‘pink fins’ of the car ‘in the falling rain.’ Ray’s dad, it seems, is her ‘math’ teacher and she is no good at math. Her mind is on other things, rather than school. She wants to escape. She dreams of ‘blue runways’ and ‘Blue lights out on airport road’ and the bolts and ‘tire treads’ of low planes. For Joni, the past is often about romance, and music, and dreams of escape- an ‘urge for going’ which she often explored.
The past, and boys, and romance comes up again in the longest song, the charming ‘Come in From the Cold.’ In ‘Turbulent Indigo’, recorded a few years later, and one of Joni’s best records, she sang and wrote mostly about contemporary issues, like domestic violence and natural justice. On ‘Night Ride Home’ Joni is still singing about the past and reminiscing about rock ‘n’ roll and her youth when she was discovering new things. This song, ‘Come in From the Cold’ is an excellent example.
The listener is transported back to 1957 where potential young lovers were kept ‘a foot apart’ at dances by adults holding rulers ‘without a heart.’ These ‘wise guardians’ were unable to prevent the occasional touch of a fingertip, or legs touching under the table, and the sensation of experiencing something innocent but still forbidden is captured beautifully by Joni when she sings of contact with another making ‘our circuitry explode’ and how she feels ‘renewed’ and ‘disabled’ by these ‘bonfires in my spine.’ In ‘Down To You’ from ‘Court and Spark’ the touch starved adult is startled by the close proximity of another: ‘In the morning there are lovers in the street/ They look so high/ You brush against a stranger/ And you both apologize…’, however this experience is different. It’s all about innocence and new experiences, and finding your way and discovering who you are. There is an echo of Van Gogh (like there is on ‘Turbulent Indigo’), when Joni talks of being ‘flesh and blood’, and ‘not some stone commission/ Like some statue in the park.’ Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo with similar complaints about his desperate need for affection and intimacy from another human being. There is also something cerebral about the whole thing as well. Amidst tactile images about wanting to make physical connections, Joni sings of what was on her mind and the thoughts that dwelt in a 1957 mind: ‘We really thought we had a purpose/ We were so anxious to achieve/ We had hope/ The world had promise/ For a slave/ To liberty.’
Next there is a reality check on the album when the listener is taken away from the idealism of the past into the rude awakening of the present. I have read somewhere that Joni had a housekeeper that ripped her off and even tried to sue her, and ‘The Windfall (Everything for Nothing) clearly comes out of that. The song is bitter and accusing, even if it is saved from a morbid vengefulness with the humour in its opening lines:  ‘Because Elvis gave them cars/ You think I’m cheap / And you’re hard done by.’ There is a lovely lilting sing-song sound in its melody that also belies the acrimony on display, in lines that are spat out like ‘Oh I’m tangled in your lines/ Your scam/ Your spider web/ Spit spun between the trees/ Doors slam/ You want my head/ You’d eat your young alive/ For a Jaguar in the drive…’
If we believe the lyrics, the housekeeper was a rapacious parasite, and Joni meanwhile looked after her generously and fairly throughout, paying for trips to ‘tropic shores’ and allowing her access to a ‘big blue pool’ and ‘clothes from fancy stores.’ The song becomes a rant against justice and the judicial system of lawyers and in the end it’s a very nicely constructed song and very musical, but also deeply personal with the feel of wanting to get things off your chest.
Much more universal is the charming ‘The Only Joy in Town’, set in Rome, and one of dozens of songs, no doubt, about becoming besotted, as a tourist, by a charismatic figure wandering around a foreign town. Joni gives a convincing female heterosexual slant on things by referring to the wonder boy throughout as the alliterative ‘Botticelli black boy’, a boy that is mesmerizing and lovely but full of self-conceit as he is ‘Breathing in women like oxygen/ On the Spanish stairs.’ I’ve sat on the Spanish stairs and I can easily see just how Joni’s intense and sexual image can be played out, on the first day of Spring, no less. She recreates the place names, and the atmosphere of Rome, with references to ‘Deadpan side-walk vendors’ and ‘Fellini’s circus’ and ‘La Dolce Vita clowns.’ There is a lovely melancholy edge to the whole song, however, with its reference to the empty streets at night- ‘Where does everybody go’, and the fact that, by 1991, the idea of following some charismatic boy around seems ridiculous: ‘In my youth I would have followed him/ All through this terra-cotta town.’ Sadly, he is the ‘only joy in town’, and he is unattainable.
Equally unattainable, it seems, is the mysterious figure from the last song, ‘Two Grey Rooms.’  This song took a while to grow on me, musically, at any rate. But for a long time I have now considered it to be the best song. It, too, is full of melancholy, as the title suggests, an echo of the melancholy book ‘Death in Venice.’  The singer is living in an undisclosed location and is besotted by another figure, this time a man, older, it seems, than the ‘Botticelli black boy.’ The image this time is of masculinity and sexuality: ‘Hot days your shirt’s undone/ Rainy days you run/ Oh and then you fade so fast/ Below my window.’ It’s the story of an infatuated voyeur, and the strings used in the song add a touch of grandeur and a tinge of sadness. This is unrequited love and its painstaking in its obsession. The lyrics also add the idea of it being like some kind of retreat- ‘No one knows I’m here/ One day I just disappeared/ And I took these two grey rooms up here…’  Just to remind us that not all of Joni’s songs are autobiographical, the idea apparently comes from an experience of the German director, Fassbinder, who saw a former lover from his window and became newly hypnotised.
Joni dips into the past again with a beautiful, sad song called ‘Cherokee Louise.’ It seems to be based on her relationship with a childhood friend. Joni’s songs about her childhood past and her young friendships are some of her most haunting. I am thinking of songs like ‘Song For Sharon’ and ‘Urge For Going’ and ‘Chinese Café’, etc, and this one is as good as these. ‘Cherokee Louise’ tells the sad story of a girl running away from her sexually abusive stepfather and hiding in a tunnel ‘in the Broadway bridge.’ It is also a song about ignorance and being ostracized. The poor girl isn’t allowed into the speaker’s house, and gossip and innuendo inflict their usual damage: ‘People like to talk/ Tongues are waggin’ over fences/ Waggin’ over phones…’ Joni contrasts the cruel adult treatment of Cherokee Louise with her own innocent games with the poor victim: ‘Last year about this time/ We used to climb up in the branches/ Just to sway there in some breeze/ Now the cops on the street/ They want Cherokee Louise.’  This song, in its sense of social satire, is reminiscent of certain songs on ‘Dog Eat Dog’, and foreshadows themes that appear on ‘Turbulent Indigo’, such as ‘Not To Blame’, also about assault. The masked sweetness of the song is punctuated by the lovely bursts of soprano sax from Wayne Shorter.
The last two songs up for discussion are, lyrically, the most challenging. The lyrics for one of them- ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’, belong to W B Yeats, not Joni.
Joni is generally cynical about Catholicism- see ‘Shine’ on the album of that name, and ‘The Magdalene Laundries’ on ‘Turbulent Indigo’- these are two examples- and my feeling is that she is probably cynical about religion in general, but I might be wrong about this- at least organised, established religions at any rate. Her most beautiful realisation of religious themes in music is ‘The Sire of Sorrow’ from Turbulent indigo, where she puts herself (as far as I can tell) in Job’s harrowing position. This religious motif is repeated on this album on the  triumphant ‘Passion Play (When All the Slaves Are Free’). The lyrics are, apparently, an echo from Luke, discussing an encounter a tax collector made with Jesus, when Jesus unexpectedly admitted him into his home. The tax collector’s name was Zacchaeus and he wanted to be seen by Jesus, who was travelling through Jericho, and being short, decided to climb a sycamore tree to enable this to occur. Joni’s words seem to talk of this encounter: ‘I am up a sycamore/ Looking through the leaves/ A sinner of some position/ who in the world can this heart healer be/ This magical physician.’ Then there are perhaps more contemporary references about ‘dirty work’ and slaves, and Mary Magdalene makes an appearance, and somehow Joni weaves thoughts on Exxon Blue into her tapestry. It all makes for a complex but very tuneful song. And a very confident song.
The only song on the album that doesn’t feature Joni’s words is the Yeat’s poem, ‘The Second Coming’, which Joni gives the title ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ (I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Joan Didion wrote a book with the same title in 1968 about San Francisco). The song, and poem, begin with ‘Turning and turning/ Within the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer/ Things fall apart/ The center cannot hold/ And a blood dimmed tide/ Is loosed upon the world.’
Yeats wrote his poem just after the end of the First War. It clearly still has relevance today. Joni felt, no doubt, that the falcon still could not hear the falconer. It’s not an optimistic song, but there is plenty on ‘Night Ride Home’, including the title track, to counteract any gloomy mood.


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