‘Both Sides Now’ (Joni Mitchell) Saturday, Jan 5 2008 

I am inordinately fond of the quietly pretty performance of ‘Both Sides Now’ found on Joni Mitchell’s 1974 live album Miles of Aisles. The song structure is simple enough, with a memorable melody repeated through 3 verses (no chorus); it is the lyrics that are remarkable.

They start out merely poetic, but then become surprisingly pointed and even downright declarative: describing ‘both sides’ of clouds, love, and life – and concluding quite firmly that she doesn’t know any of them at all.

Her thoughts on life:

Tears and fears and feeling proud

To say to someone ‘I love you’ right out loud

Dreams and schemes and circus crowds

I’ve looked at life that way, sometimes I still do

Now old friends are acting strange

They shake their heads, and they tell me that I’ve changed (Yes, I have)

Something’s lost, but something’s gained

In living every day

I’ve looked at life from both sides now

From up and down, and give and take

From win and lose and still somehow

It’s life’s illusions that I recall

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Joni Mitchell: For the Roses Sunday, Mar 11 2007 

Blasphemy though this may be to most Joni Mitchell fans, I like For the Roses even more than I like Blue. Writing-wise, it’s more masterful; musically, it’s more filled out; stylistically, it’s more varied; lyrically, it’s more adventurous; and tone-wise, it’s more cohesive, invoking a sort of dreamy, detached mood throughout the album. Kind of like the album cover, with its washed-out blues and greens and scene of calm pastoral natural beauty. And the album title, which is somehow indirect and evocative all at once.

Most of the songs on For the Roses are remarkable in some way or other. ‘Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire’, for example, is the first use of a seventh interval for vocal harmonies that I have encountered in Western popular music, and sounds, quite against expectation, gorgeous. The lyrics are atypical of Ms. Mitchell, being a lot of disparate but vivid phrases strung together to form a bizarre narrative of sorts. And the whole thing is kept from floating off into the ether by the rather organic sound of squelching fingers on guitar strings during the complex chord changes.

But there’s lots of typical Mitchell here too, exemplified by the very personal, incisive, yet somehow clinical dissection of her relationship with her parents in ‘Let the Wind Carry Me’:

She don’t like my kick-pleat skirt

She don’t like my eyelids painted green

She don’t like me staying up late in my high-heeled shoes

Living for that rock and roll dancing scene

Papa says, ‘Leave the girl alone, Mother

She’s looking like a movie queen’

Mama thinks she spoilt me

Papa knows somehow he set me free

Mama thinks she spoilt me rotten

She blames herself, but Papa, he blesses me

It’s a rough road to travel

Mama, let go now, it’s always called for me

The title track is simultaneously a showcase for pretty acoustic guitar and a knowing, biting commentary on the funny business that is the music business. You can’t help but wince when she describes the contradictions inherent in selling ‘art’ or ‘self-expression’:

In some office sits a poet

And he trembles as he sings

And he asks some guy to circulate his soul around (…)

Remember the days when you used to sit

And make up your tunes for love

And pour your simple sorrow to the soundhole and your knee

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

But what makes ‘For the Roses’ special among the many diatribes against the commercial nature of the business, apart from the degree of articulateness, is the degree of self-awareness which keeps her from sounding pompous and hypocritical. Mitchell is quite cognisant of the fact that

I guess I seem ungrateful

With my teeth sunk in the hand

That brings me things I really can’t give up just yet.

And, of course, the imagery. It really is quite unfair that she can come up with such apt and unusual comparisons as

The caressing rev of motors

Finely tuned like fancy women in thirties evening gowns

and

The moon swept down black water

Like an empty spotlight.

‘For the Roses’ is one of the quieter songs on the album, utilising the spare combination of guitar and vocals that characterise much of Blue. But the song, like the rest of For the Roses, exhibits substantially stronger melodies and even more beautiful vocal lines. Furthermore, Mitchell incorporates quite a few other additional elements in the arrangements, to good effect. Apart from the (plumper) piano, doubled guitars and richer harmonies, new instruments include the flute, saxophone, hand-drums. There’s even harmonica on the country-inflected number ‘You Turn Me On I’m a Radio’. As rock-and-roll myth has it, this was the sarcastic product of the record company’s directive to produce a radio-friendly hit, quite like the Velvet Underground’s Loaded. And like the latter, the result is pretty great: a catchy, breezy gem of a song that acts as a successful extended metaphor complete with puns.

You turn me on, I’m a radio

I’m a country station

I’m a little bit corny

I’m a wildwood flower waving for you

Broadcasting tower waving for you (…)

I’m going to tell you again now

If you’re still listening there:

If you’re driving into town with a dark cloud above you

Dial in the number who’s bound to love you (…)

If your head says ‘Forget it’ but your heart’s still smoking

Call me at the station, the lines are open

‘Electricity’ is another shining example of extended metaphor. And you might be forgiven for thinking, ‘Hey, what is with all the extended metaphors? Are they just poetic exercises of some sort? Is she just phoning it in?’ But no worries on that account. ‘Electricity’ is once an expository tale of a pair of lovers, as well as a thoughtful commentary on relationships between men and women and on the wider state of the world.

And she holds out her flashlight and she shines it on me

She wants me to tell her what the trouble might be

Well I’m learning, it’s peaceful

With a good dog and some trees

Out of touch with the breakdown of this century

They’re not going to fix it up too easy (…)

And she begs him to show her how to fix it again

While the song that he sang her to soothe her to sleep

Runs all through her circuits like a heartbeat

And in spite of this complexity, everything pulls together with the help of Ms Mitchell’s usual vivid imagery, memorable melody, and the apposite but subtle arrangement – note the steady, light, hypnotic, pulsing taps on a hand-drum that come in for just a couple of drawn-out breaths right around ‘heartbeat’.

Another favourite of mine is ‘Woman of Heart and Mind’, which features a lovely guitar riff and painfully sharp lyrics:

I am a woman of heart and mind

With time on her hands, no child to raise

You come to me like a little boy

And I give you my scorn and my praise

After the rush when you come back down

You’re always disappointed, nothing seems to keep you high

Drive your bargains

Push your papers

Win your medals

Fuck your strangers

Don’t it leave you on the empty side?

Again, as in the case of Blue, there are a couple of songs (on a 12-track album) that I don’t much like. For whatever reason, they are the opening and closing items: the excessively dramatic, sanctimonious ‘Banquet’ (‘Who let the greedy in and who left the needy out?’) and the aimless (music-wise, lyrics-wise) ‘Ludwig’s Tune (Judgement of the Moon and Stars)’ respectively. Then again, it is easy enough to skip these without sacrificing the flow of the intervening tracks.

I understand that Mitchell’s most popular albums by far are Blue (1971) and Court and Spark (1974). The intervening For the Roses (1972), has perhaps gotten lost in the scheme of things. Undeservedly so, in my opinion.

List: Pop Music on Gilmore girls Saturday, Jan 27 2007 

The Gilmore girls (© 2006 The WB Television Network)

I’ve been watching Gilmore girls [sic] since its first season – that is, since 2000 – and never caught any of the popular music references. And there are a lot of references, partly because Lorelai and her daughter Lorelai (Rory) Gilmore, the girls in question, are deeply steeped in pop culture, and partly because Rory’s best friend Lane is a complete audiophile and plays drums in a rock band. There was even one episode in which the Bangles made an appearance (the girls were attending a Bangles concert in New York City) and we were treated to a bracing dose of the classic ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ as well as footage of the band ‘performing’ ‘Eternal Flame’, ‘Hero Takes a Fall’, &c.

But in the time that I’ve started exploring popular music, I’ve been rewatching old episodes and find that I get a lot more of the music-related jokes, am capable of identifying songs played on the show, and have (re-)discovered good music too.

A few of the memorable jokes and references:

  1. Rory, in an effort to persuade her boyfriend to go to her formal coming-out (into society) that requires correspondingly formal wear, makes him watch Neil Young’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction because ‘doesn’t Neil Young look cool?… If you’ll notice, he’s wearing a tux.’ Her boyfriend’s rejoinder: ‘Neil Young looks cool because he’s Neil Young, not because he’s wearing a tux.’ How true.
  2. Grumpy diner owner Luke warning his ne’er-do-well nephew Jess to knuckle down and pay attention to his studies: ‘If you’re not careful you’ll wind up like that loner at the back of the class who repeats every year and listens to Steely Dan.’ Retorts Jess sarcastically: ‘Steely Dan? Nice topical reference.’ Luke, unabashed: ‘The band may change, the guy never does.’
  3. The guitarist of Lane’s band, threatening the hapless asthmatic bass player to shape up or else: The Who bassist ‘John Entwistle’s nails were still growing when they found his replacement.’
  4. Lorelai’s immediate reaction to the lounge pianist hired by her stuffy parents for a posh Thanksgiving party – ‘He can play anything’ – was the shouted request ‘Free Bird!’, the Lynyrd Skynyrd song that is a staple request at rock concerts
  5. Taylor Doose, Stars Hollow’s town selectman, making things difficult for Lorelai when she attempts to acquire the requisite permit to set up her own inn, insists that the inn’s 18 parking spaces won’t be enough for the potentially 20 guests occupying its rooms. Lorelai argues that ‘if the parking’s not enough, we can always add more.’ Rejoins Taylor, quoting Joni Mitchell’s delightful ‘Big Yellow Taxi’: ‘So, pave paradise and put up a parking lot?’
  6. An excerpt from Rory’s high-school valedictorian speech: ‘My mother never gave me any idea that I couldn’t do whatever I wanted to do or be whomever I wanted to be. She filled our house with love and fun and books and music, unflagging in her efforts to give me role models from Jane Austen to Eudora Welty to Patti Smith. As she guided me through these incredible eighteen years, I don’t know if she ever realized that the person I most wanted to be was her.’

Songs I hadn’t known in my previous (unexposed to popular music) life, but which I actually recognized this time when played (either by the original band or by Lane’s band) on the show:

The Clash – ‘London Calling’, ‘White Riot’
The Ramones – ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’
Siouxsie and the Banshees – ‘Cities of Dust’
Pixies – ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’

Songs that Gilmore girls introduced to me:

The B-52’s – ‘52 Girls’, ‘Dance this Mess Around’
Joey Ramone – ‘What a Wonderful World’
Blondie – ‘Heart of Glass’
David Bowie – ‘Suffragette City’
XTC – ‘Then She Appeared’
Bananarama – ‘Shy Boy’
Yo La Tengo – ‘My Little Corner of the World’
Ella Fitzgerald – ‘I Can’t Get Started’

‘Chelsea Morning’ (Joni Mitchell) Sunday, Jan 7 2007 

Ever since I discovered a mysterious affinity with New York City, anything with a New York connection tends to pique my interest. But I didn’t immediately make the connection with ‘Chelsea Morning’ (off Joni Mitchell’s 1969 record Clouds), since I associated Chelsea primarily with the posh London district and its football club than with the NYC one. That’s what comes of staying in the UK in 4 years. (My sister, who spent a year in New York state, had the opposite association.)

So it’s a bit funny that ‘Chelsea Morning’ doesn’t really have a New York flavour at all. It’s all wordplay and word-painting of the ilk I’ve come to expect from Joni Mitchell, impressively structured and accompanied by jolly, pretty, acoustic guitar plus a sprinkling of lively harmonies. I’m not surprised that the Clintons were inspired by something so gorgeously evocative to name their daughter Chelsea (who, I understand, attended the same college for a year that I did, but she left just before I started). (Such connections!)

There are two gems of metaphors/similes in ‘Chelsea Morning’, tucked in amongst a whole lot of seemingly effortless imagery. Hearing that the New York ‘streets are paved with passersby’ reminds me, somehow, of the cobblestone-paved streets of my university town. (Not to mention that it is a greatly apt and just plain great description.) And what about this, eh?

And the sun poured in like butterscotch

And stuck to all my senses

Yummy. (Pun intended.)

Double wordplay that is heightened by the repetition of the structure and the contrast of the different senses being stimulated:

Oh, won’t you stay

We’ll put on the day

And we’ll wear it ’till the night comes (Chorus 1)

Oh, won’t you stay

We’ll put on the day

There’s a sun show every second (Chorus 2)

Joni Mitchell: Blue Saturday, Dec 2 2006 

Recently I have been putting Blue on – and singing along – every time I turn my computer at home, which is every weekend – the only time I get to listen to music, really. I’ve become word perfect on a few of the songs, and get a serious kick out of some of the rest. No, I don’t love every single bit of it, although how many albums can you say this of? In particular, I don’t care for the aptly-titled title song – precisely because it is so dreary and rather dramatic, even veering into the self-absorbed – and ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’, which seems like a rambling, tuneless, and painfully introspective effort to me (this is saying something coming from a very introspective person). Listing the bad bits may be a funny way of saying that I like Blue very much. But by getting it out of the way I hope to make it clear that the rest of the bits are good.

There’s a good reason why Joni Mitchell was deemed the 72nd greatest guitar player by Rolling Stone magazine, even higher than 83rd ranked Neil Young (!!), even you don’t put much stock in such lists. (Which you might be wise not to, given that Ms. Mitchell is one of only two women on the list of 100, the other being Joan Jett.) Blue exhibits lots of subtle acoustic guitar, with gorgeous riffs and unusual chords, sometimes enhanced by piano, dulcimer and/or light percussion. It also happens that Ms. Mitchell is the first popular musician I’ve encountered with a vocal timbre like mine; I’d always thought previously that clear, bright, soprano voices were confined to classical music, and am delighted to discover otherwise. She puts her voice through lovely leaps and swoops: it’s light and mercurial and yet almost always weaves a memorable melody. All of which add up to ‘pretty music’, as my sister puts it.

Pretty, but not twee. The lyrics are surprisingly unsentimental, straightforward accounts about the doings of an assertive, sexually liberated woman (it was the 1960s and 1970s), as I found out when I listened a little more closely to the lyrics of ‘Carey’:

Oh Carey, get out your cane

And I’ll put on some silver

Oh you’re a mean old daddy but I like you… fine

She declares unabashedly to ‘My Old Man’ that ‘We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall/Keeping us tied and true’, and doesn’t mask her desires behind convention or maidenly evasions, making quite a list of them in ‘All I Want’. You might think the lyrics would be incongruous when paired with the sweet acoustic music and feminine voice, but they work surprisingly well together, with one component tempering the other. And, despite the title, Blue isn’t all late-night confessions either. There’s plenty of lively, cheerful stuff. There’s plenty of drinking too:

Come on down to the Mermaid Café

And I will buy you a bottle of wine

And we’ll laugh and toast to nothing

And smash our empty glasses down

Let’s have a round for these freaks and these soldiers

A round for these friends of mine

Let’s have another round for the bright red devil

Who keeps me in this tourist town

Ms. Mitchell’s got beautiful imagery, as befits someone who sees herself primarily as a visual artist – specifically, a painter – she paints quite a few of the covers for her albums, though not for this one. I’d say she certainly has a gift for word-painting. ‘Little Green’, though a wistful tale about teenage (single) parenthood, has a gorgeously evocative chorus, the type of lyric I associate with her compatriots in general (Neil Young, L.M. Montgomery), for whatever reason. Perhaps it’s because Canada is supposed to be such a beautiful country.

Just a little green

Like the colour when the spring is born

There’ll be crocuses

To bring to school tomorrow

Just a little green

Like the nights when the Northern lights perform

There’ll be icicles and birthday clothes

And sometimes there’ll be sorrow