Wednesday, June 18, 2014



I'm porous with travel fever
But you know I'm so glad to be on my own
Still somehow the slightest touch of a stranger
Can set up trembling in my bones

Recently The Guardian’s Alex Macpherson, as part of its ‘Top 10’ series of things, featured a ‘Top 10 of Joni Mitchell Songs’.  Previously there was a ‘Top 20 in the British Telegraph, as if compiling a mere Top 10 might prove too difficult. There is even a Top 30 list of fairly obvious choices by someone called Tyler Coates on a site called Flavorwire:

The Telegraph list was similar, in that many of The Guardian’s Top 10 list featured inside the scope of The Telegraph’s Top 20. You might ask what the point of all this is. Having seen both lists, and knowing Joni Mitchell’s music as well as I do, I couldn’t resist compiling a list of my own. So here is both lists, with critical comments, followed by a list of my own. As a kind of compromise between the two, a list of my favorite 15 Joni Mitchell songs. You can argue against it until the cows come home. But it’s my list, based on what moves me, so nobody can argue against that.






4.   HELP ME






10.               BOTH SIDES NOW (LATER VERSION)


I don’t play Rainy Night House very often, and whilst I like it, it doesn’t do enough for me to be placed as one of my favorites. The album Blue is surprisingly ignored.  I like the list in general, though. I am happy that there are three (great songs) from my favorite JM album- ‘Hejira’, even if one of them is not Amelia. I really like The Boho Dance- and Bjork’s version just as much or maybe more. The Hissing of Summer Lawns, though, is not one of my favorite songs- an example where the words are more important than the music- and Help Me, although good, is inferior in my opinion to some other songs from Court and Spark- especially The Same Situation, and a few others.

On the topic of Help Me, Macpherson writes: ‘ musically gifted as Mitchell was, her willingness to subsume her narrative voice into her music was rather more limited. This is no criticism, but this tendency does make the occasional cut where she gives herself completely over to pure sound stand out. Court and Spark was her most lushly arranged album to date, and Help Me one of the rare moments where the message played second fiddle to the medium.’ I assume he is saying that the words don’t live up to the potential that the music delivers. This it to ignore the power of thought in lines like ‘We love our loving/ But not we love our freedom’, which perfectly sums up that whole awkward dichotomy that JM writes powerfully about- love V freedom, as though, for her, they cannot co-exist.

The Telegraph list keeps most of these, but adds 10, as though 10 is not enough, which it isn’t. Added are songs like: Woodstock, The Circle Game, Big Yellow Taxi, Carey, California, You Turn Me On (I’m A Radio), River, Free Man in Paris, Trouble Child. Although great songs, a number of these resemble songs from a kind of ‘Joni Mitchell Greatest Hits’ package ‘You Turn Me On (I’m A Radio)’ really? Having said that, there are a couple of great additions that should have made the Guardian list. I am thinking of ‘The Sire of Sorrow (Job’s Sad Song) from Turbulent Indigo, and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter from the self-titled album. It was lovely to see these slightly obscure additions.









7.   RIVER


9.   CAREY

10.               CALIFORNIA

11.               YOU TURN ME ON (I’M A RADIO)

12.               TROUBLE CHILD

13.               HELP ME

14.               FREE MAN IN PARIS

15.               THE BOHO DANCE


17.               HEJIRA


19.               CHINESE CAFÉ

20.               THE SIRE OF SORROW (JOB’S SAD SONG)


Eight of the list of 20 songs come from just two albums- Blue and Court and Spark- they are two great, highly popular albums. As with the first list, very little of JM post 1977 is mentioned. Unlike some of her contemporaries (such as Van Morrison) the 80’s weren’t terribly kind to her, yet she had resounding success in the 90’s which is not very much reflected here. Once again, however, it is difficult to widely disagree as all of these songs are beautiful by any measure.

Even less diverse is a top 10 list again, from a site that calls itself ‘classic rock. Here, six of the ten songs come from either Blue or Court and Spark. Are these people aware of other JM songs outside the mainstream?


So what follows is my humble list of my favorite 15, in order of date of release.


A very early song- her sweet, sweet voice, high and strong. A mixture of delicate and aggressive guitar strumming, as clear and as uncluttered as a bell. And these painterly and ambitious lyrics. The city offers little respite and is ugly, ruined and insincere.

‘I came to the city
And lived like old Crusoe
On an island of noise
In a cobblestone sea
And the beaches were concrete
And the stars paid a light bill
And the blossoms hung false
On their store window trees’

Later, at the seaside, the speaker finds little comfort there. Neither world is inhabitable.

‘Out of the city
And down to the seaside
To sun on my shoulders
And wind in my hair
But sandcastles crumble
And hunger is human
And humans are hungry
For worlds they can't share’

Finally, the singer laments her world cannot be like the world of the seagull who is more content but is ‘out of reach, out of cry.’

I call to a seagull
Who dives to the waters
And catches his silver-fine
Dinner alone
Crying where are the footprints
That danced on these beaches
And the hands that cast wishes
That sunk like a stone
My dreams with the seagulls fly
Out of reach Out of cry'



Someone said this song is, like Rainy Night House, about Leonard Cohen- Judy Collins, I think.  The speaker is at a fair and sees someone who is striking and unique, using imagery that is straight out of Romeo and Juliet:

‘I met you on a midway at a fair last year
And you stood out like a ruby in a black man's ear
You were playing on the horses, you were playing on the guitar strings
You were playing like a devil wearing wings
Wearing wings, you looked so grand wearing wings

Do you tape them to your shoulders just to sing
Can you fly? I heard you can, can you fly?
Like an eagle doin' your hunting from the sky’

This seems to be one of many of Joni’s dangerous males, a sort of reverse femme fatale, as in the song Coyote. She is drawn to them but they are a risky choice, a relationship destined to end in failure, but like Sylvia Plath stalking Ted Hughes in her poem ‘Panther’, deadly but too difficult to resist. Male as hunter, or stalker. She following him irresistibly around carnivals or fairs but bound to be burnt.

‘I followed with the sideshows to another town
And I found you in a trailer on the camping grounds
You were betting on some lover, you were shaking up the dice
And I thought I saw you cheating once or twice, once or twice.’

As in ‘Song To A Seagull’ the guitar is languid and heavy but very lyrical at the same time.




For Free has a simple message and is beautiful in its simplicity. I imagine it is a much requested song at concerts. The piano notes are so clear and pretty and her voice rings out so powerfully and beautifully. The speaker has witnessed a busking musician who is barely acknowledged by the busy crowd, and she thinks it is so unfair and regrettable that she wants recognition for him.

‘I meant to go over and ask for a song
Maybe put on a harmony...
I heard his refrain
As the signal changed
He was playing real good, for free.’

We are in a kind of tacky age where TV is everything. Without exposure on it, you are nobody and therefore uninteresting. Like many of Joni’s songs, still relevant today, what with junk music television shows.

The speaker sees the injustice, and the kind of irony of the situation, because she is not very different, yet what a world apart their lives are:

‘Now me I play for fortunes
And those velvet curtain calls
I've got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls
And I play if you have the money
Or if you're a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free.’

It’s a good example of the reality check, stepping back from the rock ‘n’ roll scene and recognizing astutely how fickle the music business is. And perhaps there’s something sinister about the velvet curtains, and the escorts, and the demands on the audience. Perhaps the established star has lost the plot and there is a certain wistful longing to be heard simply on a street corner again. A feeling of disconnectedness and regret about fame. Melanie sang about a similar thing in ‘Tuning My Guitar’ where she laments a trap she has found herself in:

‘Knock once, I got ten minutes,
And every night's the same
Sometimes I wish I wasn't in it
When I hear them call my name
Same people, all around me
And I wonder who they are
I know, they're not my family and they're not my friends by far.’

Listen to Joni singing For Free live at the BBC in 1970, which is a better and fresher recording than the studio version, and full of raw honesty, which the lyrics demand. The piano chords trip as clearly as bells, and then there are those beautiful, drawn out, elongated vowels, on words like ‘jewels’ and ‘green’ and ‘calls’ and ‘halls’ and so on. The simplest and one of the most satisfying of the songs on the list.




Joni didn’t go to Woodstock, as is commonly known. She watched the whole event from her hotel room TV in New York City. It didn’t stop her from capturing, according to David Crosby, the emotions of the festival better than anyone present. What a time it must have been. Joni finally gets to sing this song at a huge outdoor festival- the Isle of Wight concert in the UK circa 1970. Things had turned sour by the then. The Doors were there, too, and they weren’t the same. Joni was in her prime, unlike Jim Morrison, but that didn’t stop the crowd acting like ‘tourists’ by cat calling and yelling out. They weren’t upset with her, but reacted apparently to a situation exacerbated by overcrowding and poor sound throughout the whole festival (but what a line-up- The Moody Blues, The Doors, Melanie, Joni, Sly and the Family Stone, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix,  Leonard Cohen, The Who, etc, etc). It’s better to hear Woodstock on the record, away from the sourness and the sense of cold winds and an unhappier festival.

Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it's the time of man
I don't know who l am
But you know life is for learning
We are stardust
We are golden
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden.’


It was all about getting back to the garden back then, and it still is. Somehow the sense of being a part of a ‘cog in something turning’ has changed though, at least from where I sit. Maybe it depends what part of the world you are living in. but what a great and exciting notion: ‘a cog in something turning.’


Melanie also wrote about Woodstock beautifully, and she was actually there. It made her name. Candles were being lit as she sang as a 22 year old- well, perhaps there were a few lighters amongst them as well.

‘We were so close, there was no room
We bled inside each other's wounds
We all had caught the same disease
And we all sang the songs of peace.’


5.   BLUE (BLUE)

The title track from what is probably Joni’s best known, poignant, and brutally honest record, is in its own way gut wrenching but beautifully moving at the same time. It depicts what is possibly the rock ‘n’ roll scene, as seen in other songs like Blonde In The Bleachers. It reminds me of Neil Young’s Needle and the Damage Done in its scary and sinister look at drug addiction: ’I watched the needle/ Take another man.’  In Joni’s Blue there is more ambiguity, between tattoos and heroin. They both require a needle:

‘Hey blue, there is a song for you
Ink on a pin underneath the skin
An empty space to fill in

Well, there’s so many sinking now
You've got to keep thinking
You can make it through these waves

Acid, booze and ass
Needles, guns and grass
Lots of laughs, lots of laughs.’

This last line is the most chilling in the song. She sings ‘lots of laughs’ in the saddest way possible. There really isn’t many laughs in the world she is depicting. Blue (the song) is the perfect contribution to an album of blue, blue songs about longing and sadness and bitterness, regret, things like that.





River, from the same album, uses irony in a similar way. To the background of a piano melody that is just like Jingle Bells, Joni paints words about this very sadness and longing that is a poignant part of this album. She adopted a daughter out before she was famous because she couldn’t afford to keep her.  The frozen river, on skates, operates as a form of escapism for pain and numbness:

‘I'm so hard to handle
I'm selfish and I'm sad
Now I've gone and lost the best baby
That I've ever had
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on

I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet how to fly
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on
I made my baby say goodbye

It's coming on Christmas
And they're cutting down trees
Putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
I wish I had a river I could skate away on.’

In this song the speaker is at ill at ease in her personal life and her surroundings. The idea of displacement is explored in other songs too on the album, especially This Flight Tonight where she regrets taking a plane flight: ‘Turn this crazy bird around/ I shouldn't have got on this flight tonight’, and a few years later with People’s Parties: ‘I'm just living on nerves and feelings/ With a weak and a lazy mind/ And coming to peoples parties/ Fumbling deaf dumb and blind.’ In River it is the period of Christmas which is so dislocating for those who have issues that can’t be sorted out. James Taylor tells a lovely story of the time just after Joni wrote River. He played it to him on the piano, and consequently it has become a very personal song for him, as it has for some reason with Herbie Hancock as well.



The songs on the album For The Roses are starting to become a little more abstract, as is the music. It is a bit of a departure from Blue as it is jazzier and in some ways more ambitious. The wounds aren’t as gaping this time, although many of the songs are still about personal situations and experiences. The title track on this album from 1972 features one of Joni’s loveliest melodies, that nevertheless belies the cynicism of the lyrics:

‘I get these notes
On butterflies and lilac sprays
From girls who just have to tell me
They saw you somewhere
In some office sits a poet
And he trembles as he sings
And he asks some guy to circulate his soul around
On your mark red ribbon runner
The caressing rev of motors
Finely tuned like fancy women
In thirties evening gowns.’

Joni seems to be questioning not just the lover who is performing his music, being compromised all the time and circulating ‘his soul around’, but also the music business itself that became more complex for her after the success of her music. The record companies are only after hit records (ironically they get one on this record with the unabashedly commercial You Turn Me On (I’m A Radio). She seems to be asking once again ‘what’s in it for the singer?’ (a sort of echo of For Free earlier). The hit song has metaphorically become a golden egg:

‘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
I guess I seem ungrateful
With my teeth sunk in the hand
That brings me things
I really can't give up just yet.’

The pressure to succeed must be immense, and the feelings of being used even more so. It is typical of Joni that she will question a sense of ungratefulness. I wonder if someone like Miley Cyrus has the same conflict and insecurity. It is a beautifully written song, both lyrically and, with the gentleness of the guitars, musically.




Court and Spark is seen by many critics to be an absolute triumph, with so many songs that could be picked out for attention. The arrangement of the songs continue to be a departure from the days of Blue, with their jazzy sound and use of brass instruments, albeit with another strong emphasis on piano. This album was more commercial than most with the boppy, jazzy sounds of the LA Express supporting her meaningful lyrics:

Again and again the same situation
For so many years
Tethered to a ringing telephone
In a room full of mirrors
A pretty girl in your bathroom
Checking out her sex appeal
I asked myself when you said you loved me
"Do you think this can be real?"

Still I sent up my prayer
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
CalI out and clamour to be found
Caught in their struggle for higher positions
And their search for love that sticks around

You've had lots of lovely women
Now you turn your gaze to me
Weighing the beauty and the imperfection
To see if I'm worthy
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

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.’

Here is further raw honesty on Court and Spark. The first verse and the third go together- the insecurity if being in love and not really knowing the other’s mind- of sensing beauty and imperfection- and the all too terrible ‘gaze’ that can penetrate in the third verse. The second and fourth verses is in some ways even more bleak- who can you turn to for help, along with the ‘millions of his lost and lonely ones’- the pain of the calling out and ‘clamour’ (a cold, cold word(,  and always the same situation, the futility of it all- and yet, we feel compelled. It’s also compelling listening because it reaches into the homes of so many relevant people.



Also, on Court and Spark, raw honesty and compelling listening to a song with a similarly bleak view. It’s not about love, or even savage lust, but rather deeply felt loneliness, desperation and an overwhelming need to feel alive and vindicated somehow. It’s a scene that is probably played out every night of the week in nightclubs all over the city:

‘Go down to the pick up station craving warmth and beauty
You settle for less than fascination
Few drinks later you're not so choosy
And the closing lights strip off the shadows
On this strange new flesh you've found
Clutching the night to you like a fig leaf
You hurry, to the blackness and the blankets
To lay down an impression and your loneliness.’

Then there is the acrid after taste of the next day, just like if you had a night of hallucinogens and the bald reality of daylight crept through the blinds:

‘In the morning there are lovers in the street they look so high
You brush against a stranger and you both apologize
Old friends seem indifferent you must have brought that on
Old bonds have broken down, love is gone, ooh, love is gone
Written on your spirit this sad song, love is gone.’

How many of us have felt this awkward, fumbling lonely dislocation that Joni seems to be describing here. It is the raw honesty that is getting back to the feeling of her album Blue. The song ends with ‘Pleasure moves on too early/ And trouble leaves too slow.’ You can’t get bleaker than that, but for me what makes it so raw, and compelling, and beautiful is the universal feelings that are described, and the wonderful journey the piano takes her on throughout the course of the song. It feels like one of Joni’s longest piano solos, and it has her layered vocals sitting on top. Court and Spark, I am assuming, gave her fans the Joni they really wanted, people (herself probably) that they could relate to and sympathise with. She got more complicated after this and a bit less popular.



The Hissing of Summer Lawns (album) is a huge departure, and you only need to look at the words to Edith and the Kingpin to recognize this. Suddenly it isn’t suffocatingly about Joni as much anymore- instead of Joni and Leonard Cohen, or Joni and James Taylor, or Joni and Graham Nash, or Joni and the guy from her holiday called Carey, or Joni and Jackson Browne, it is about Edith Piaf, or Scarlett O’Hara, or some bored housewife who has a sprinkler on her summer lawn and a ‘room full of Chippendale’, and some other bored woman with a husband called Harry who is ‘caught up in Chief of Staff.’

Then there’s Edith and the Kingpin, a gutsy song, which seems to be a creation of fantasy between two people with a strong, dangerous attraction, which also really suits the voice of Tina Turner.

‘The big man arrives
Disco dancers greet him
Plainclothes cops greet him
Small town, big man, fresh lipstick glistening
Sophomore jive
From victims of typewriters
The band sounds like typewriters
The big man he's not listening
His eyes hold Edith
His left hand holds his right
What does that hand desire
That he grips it so tight.’

 I’m not really sure what else this song is about, but I do know that Edith Piaf, along with Amelia Earhart, is one of Joni’s heroines. I love the way she sings that mesmerizing final two lines, as the final ‘away’ drifts away off into the ether.

‘Edith in his bed
A plane in the rain is humming
The wires in the walls are humming
Some song, some mysterious song

Bars in her head
Beating frantic and snow blind
Romantic and snow blind
She says his crime belongs

Edith and the kingpin
Each with charm to sway
Are staring eye to eye
They dare not look away
You know they dare not look away.’

Two other gripping songs from The Hissing of Summer Lawns are Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow, as I see it a sort of companion song to Edith and the Kingpin with equally compelling lyrics about ‘petrified wood’, an ‘Ethiopian wall’ and ‘prophet witches’, and The Boho Dance with its ‘priest with a pornographic watch’, a darkly melodic song that is a perfect vehicle for Bjork whose version is a killer.

Joni’s palette on this album changed so much. She was far less self-analytical in her approach, and it reminds me a bit of the way in which Vincent would draw and paint with the earthy brown colours of his native Holland, until he went to Paris in the mid-1880’s and saw the Impressionists and their explosion of colour, and realized what an exciting new direction lay ahead.


11.               AMELIA (HEJIRA)

I absolutely adore this song, and the album it’s from. Hejira is really a road album, full of guitars mainly because it was written on the road during a long trip covering a great distance across America, Joni apparently on the run from a fallout from another relationship, full of dented dreams and romantic disappointments as explored in a number of these songs. Joni is roughly thirty, so there is a different emphasis from her earliest albums. It’s like she really has looked at life from both sides now.

The inspiration is, of course, Amelia Earhart, but at the same time it is Joni herself as well, just as I suspect the later song ‘Job’s Sad Song’ is about Job and Joni as well. The instrumentation is sparse and simple- mainly guitars and this haunting vibraphone. The words seem so truthful and are filled with so much restlessness and longing, which is a hallmark of the album:

‘The ghost of aviation
She was swallowed by the sky
Or by the sea
Like me she had a dream to fly

Like Icarus ascending
On beautiful foolish arms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm

Maybe I've never really loved
I guess that is the truth
I've spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes

And looking down on everything
I crashed into his arms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm.’

Here is a clever and fascinating blend of Amelia Earhart and Joni herself. It is hard to know which is which, with Joni expertly moulding the two figures in the line ‘Like me she had a dream to fly.’ My favourite part of the song, however, is the part that can bring a tear to your eye when you are feeling vulnerable. We have all had some level of rejection, and she puts it so poignantly with:

‘I wish that he was here tonight
It's so hard to obey
His sad request of me to kindly stay away

So this is how I hide the hurt
As the road leads cursed and charmed
I tell Amelia, it was just a false alarm.’
Joni stresses the word ‘hard’ and I’m sure she really means it.



12.               HEJIRA (HEJIRA)

The mood in this, the title track from the same album, isn’t too different, but this time you have the addition of Jaco Pastorius’s magnificent bass. This, the song Hejira, as well as the album Hejira, has to be the pinnacle of Joni’s career.

I'm traveling in some vehicle
I'm sitting in some cafe
A defector from the petty wars
That shell shock love away
There's comfort in melancholy
When there's no need to explain
It's just as natural as the weather
In this moody sky today
In our possessive coupling
So much could not be expressed
So now I'm returning to myself
These things that you and I suppressed
I see something of myself in everyone
Just at this moment of the world
As snow gathers like bolts of lace
Waltzing on a ballroom girl

You know it never has been easy
Whether you do or you do not resign
Whether you travel the breadth of extremities
Or stick to some straighter line
Now here's a man and a woman sitting on a rock
They're either going to thaw out or freeze
Strains of Benny Goodman
Coming thru' the snow and the pinewood trees
I'm porous with travel fever
But you know I'm so glad to be on my own
Still somehow the slightest touch of a stranger
Can set up trembling in my bones
I know - no one's going to show me everything
We all come and go unknown
Each so deep and superficial
Between the forceps and the stone

Well I looked at the granite markers
Those tribute to finality - to eternity
And then I looked at myself here
Chicken scratching for my immortality
In the church they light the candles
And the wax rolls down like tears
There's the hope and the hopelessness
I've witnessed thirty years
We're only particles of change I know, I know
Orbiting around the sun
But how can I have that point of view
When I'm always bound and tied to someone
White flags of winter chimneys
Waving truce against the moon
In the mirrors of a modern bank
 From the window of a hotel room

I'm traveling in some vehicle
I'm sitting in some cafe
A defector from the petty wars
Until love sucks me back that way.’

There are little snatches here that are full of wisdom. The lyrics form a poem in which you could easily isolate bits of verses and see a whole philosophy or a whole world expressed. I am thinking of lines like:

 ‘There's comfort in melancholy/ When there's no need to explain/ It's just as natural as the weather/ In this moody sky today’ as well as lines such as ‘In our possessive coupling/ So much could not be expressed/ So now I'm returning to myself/ These things that you and I suppressed’ and ‘You know it never has been easy/ Whether you do or you do not resign/ Whether you travel the breadth of extremities/ Or stick to some straighter line’… I could go on. It all forms, together as a whole, a lovely but melancholy meditation on the vagaries of life and the pain of breaking up, and birth and death and the way in which, as Van Morrison once said, we are only really ‘a tiny grain of sand’: We're only particles of change I know, I know/ Orbiting around the sun/ But how can I have that point of view/ When I'm always bound and tied to someone.’

Joni wrote these songs at the age of thirty, which becomes, as often is the case, a time to re-evaluate and think about what you’ve done, and what there is left to do, and even thoughts on mortality because once you’re suddenly outside your twenties, you feel like you are getting old. It’s possibly Joni’s most complete song.



By the time 1977 came around, Joni’s music had become even jazzier and for some of her fans starting to become more obscure and experimental. Gone, they felt, were the precious personal observations they enjoyed previously. For me, it just meant that Joni had simply moved on. This was a double album set with one particularly long song and others around the six-eight minute mark. There was a certain evenness about the music. It isn’t my favorite Joni album, but the title track is one of her most experimental songs and one of her most inspired. The music and the words are a perfect match. There’s shakers, and cowbells, and congas, and electric guitar, and once again the hypnotic bass of Pastorius.  I don’t pretend to really know everything that is going on in this song. A lot of the lyrics on this album are sort of impressionistic, dream-of-consciousness, anyway. It’s full of symbols, with Joni referencing the eagle as she does in other songs (one day someone will write a thesis entitled ‘Joni Mitchell and the appearance of birds in her songs.’

Here in good old, 'God-save-America
The home of the brave and the free'
We are all hopelessly oppressed cowards
Of some duality, of restless multiplicity
Oh see, can you see?

Restless for streets and honky tonks
Restless for home and routine
Restless for country-safety and her
Restless for the likes of reckless me

Restless sweeps like fire and rain
Over virgin wilderness
It prowls like hookers and thieves
Through bolt-locked tenements

Behind my bolt-locked door
The eagle and the serpent are at war in me
The serpent fighting for blind desire
The eagle for clarity.’

It appears to be an attack on the values of modern America, as well as a comment on the duality within, another theme of Joni’s where her protagonist faces some sort of dilemma, or appears to be at war with herself (think People’s Parties, or Blue as examples of this kind of nervous hesitance and dissatisfaction). Anyway, with this rollicking song, the title track from this jazzy 1977 album, it is the music as much as anything that wins you over, the strong, strong African-like rhythms, the chunky bass, rollicking, rollicking like never before, and more bold and experimental than the rollicking of a song like Raise On Robbery from three years before.




The album Night Ride Home finds Joni in a more relaxed, peaceful, sedate sort of mood. It’s all over the title track, as if she has finally found some inner peace, and the ‘man beside me’ offers her so much hope and respite from the doubts and insecurities of before. It almost has the feel of middle age, yet Cherokee Louise belies that as it is about a time when the protagonist of the poem is a young kid and she has a young vulnerable friend who everyone distrusts. It is an ugly, gossiping world, and poor Cherokee Louise is up against it with her youth, heritage, race and gender all at war with who she wants to be.

‘Cherokee Louise is hiding in this tunnel
In the Broadway bridge
We're crawling on our knees
We've got Archie and Silver Screen
I know where she is

The place where you can stand
And press your hand like it was bubblebath
In dust piled high as me
Down under the street
My friend
Poor Cherokee Louise
Oh Cherokee Louise.’

I love the sound and mood of the chorus at the beginning of this excerpt. Joni sings it with a mature voice full of wisdom and empathy. Your heart goes out to Cherokee Louise who should not be fighting to stay alive, but is. And there is the nostalgic part of the song, like Joni is remembering a special part of Canada, like Neil Young does in Helpless. The nostalgia is warm and lovely, and appears with equally nice images in other songs like Chinese Café, and Song for Sharon, and so on. On this very album Joni remembers 1957 in the song Come In From The Cold. Night Ride Home (the album) looks back fondly in places to a less complicated yet challenging time.




Another blend of Joni and another figure (see Amelia, etc), this is my favourite of Joni’s latter day songs. I like how profound it is, in lyrics and music. As we listen to her, with this more wise and mature voice by now, we can’t help but think it’s not just Job who has gone through these horrendous ordeals, but Joni herself. Joni can be very dramatic. I think even she is doing it in a mocking sort of way.

Let me speak, let me spit out my bitterness
Born of grief and nights without sleep and festering flesh
Do you have eyes?
Can you see like mankind sees?
Why have you soured and curdled me?’

Joni evokes the Bible in other songs- such as the lovely Passion Play (When All The Slaves Are Free) from her previous album. Her contempt for the Catholic Church is well known (Shine, The Magdalene Laundries, amongst others), but like all good artists, she can evoke the Bible for its grand array of rich stories that she can use, just as she can use mythology in Greek (Amelia) and American Indian stories (Lakota).

The Sire of Sorrow is a longer, grander Joni Mitchell song, its emotional impact as great as any of her other songs. The imagery is full of horror and is utterly convincing. In the past Job has been highly respected and blessed by God. Then, after the Devil questions his faith, God makes the dark spectre of Shadowland loom:

Once I was blessed; I was awaited like the rain
Like eyes for the blind, like feet for the lame
Kings heard my words, and they sought out my company
But now the janitors of shadowland flick their brooms at me
Oh you tireless watcher! what have I done to you?
That you make everything I dread and everything I fear come true?’

The song is from the album ‘Turbulent Indigo’ which is such a moody album. Joni’s faces outward and evokes characters from far and wide which is a great detachment from her earlier work. She inhabits the mind of Job here, and elsewhere Van Gogh (such a great subject for a serious writer), the aforementioned Magdalene victims, the lives of battered women in Not To Blame, the unsettling world of Borderline and chaos on the streets of LA with Sex Kills, amongst others. But now Job is being severely tested by the injustice of everything:

‘I've lost all taste for life
I'm all complaints
Tell me why do you starve the faithful?
Why do you crucify the saints?
And you let the wicked prosper
You let their children frisk like deer
And my loves are dead or dying, or they don't come near
(antagonists: we don't despise your chastening
God is correcting you).’

They come blaming and shaming
(antagonists: evil doer)
And shattering me
(antagonists: this vain man wishes to seem wise
A man born of asses)
Oh you tireless watcher! what have I done to you?
That you make everything I dread and everything I fear come true?

(antagonists: we don't despise your chastening)

The ‘antagonists’ seem to act as the voice of reason in some way, correcting Job and offering a rational voice. I am imagining that Joni is borrowing images from The Book of Job. I don’t know if the antagonists are also in the Bible.

The terror in the next lines evoke the terror of Marlowe’s Faust as he is about to enter the gates of Hell:

‘Already on a bed of sighs and screams,
And still you torture me with visions
You give me terrifying dreams!
Better I was carried from the womb straight to the grave.
I see the diggers waiting, they're leaning on their spades.’


It’s a grim way to end a discussion of Joni Mitchell, but there it is. At least it’s spectacular.






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