1.07.2018

rip fred bass, who gave nyc a priceless gift


Is there a New Yorker alive who hasn't spend time in The Strand? A New York City tourist who didn't thrill to their first visit to The Strand? The man who gave NYC this unique gift died recently at the age of 89. Although his father founded the store, Fred Bass made it the book-lovers' mecca that it came to be.

Here you can see the
ever-present he outdoor shelves.
I won't recount my memories of the hours I've spent in The Strand, because I'm sure they're no different than anyone else's. After we moved to Canada, a wmtc reader told me the store had been ruined. I returned to find an elevator had been installed, and the public washrooms changed from nauseatingly dirty to liveable. There was a cafe, better lighting, and new books, at a discount. Not ruined. Just a bit modernized.

The Strand was always expanding. It was like the expanding universe of books. You might think The Strand contained every homeless book the store took in -- but you'd be wrong. In this obituary, Bass is quoted from 1977:
I get an attack, something like a panic, of book-buying. I simply must keep fresh used books flowing over my shelves. And every day the clerks weed out the unsalable stuff from the shelves and bins and we throw it out. Tons of dead books go out nightly. And I bought ’em. But I just have to make room for fresh stock to keep the shelves lively.
Book lovers, do yourself a favour: go to the New York Times obituary, read it, look at the photos, and say goodbye to the man who gave us this special place.


1.05.2018

required reading for revolutionaries: jane mcalevey and micah white

I've wanted to write about these two books for a long time, but adequately summarizing them is a daunting task. I just want to say to every activist and organizer: READ THESE BOOKS. I don't want to represent the authors' ideas, I want you to read them yourself.

No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age by Jane F. McAlevey and The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution by Micah White are both aimed at activists and organizers -- people who already believe in the need for social change and are trying to influence the world in a progressive direction. Both books identify pitfalls and shortcomings in the current ways we approach our activism, and they offer concrete ideas for change, along with theory and philosophy to guide our decisions. Both are beautifully written, powerful, and essential.

No Shortcuts focuses on the labour movement, but McAlevey's analysis could apply to any movement. The labour movement is an excellent lens through which to view activism generally, since, if practiced well, it activates people across the political spectrum, and has a direct impact on the everyday reality of people's lives.

Advocacy vs. Mobilizing vs. Organizing

McAlevey, a long-time organizer and labour educator, identifies three systems of organizing, distinguished by the extent to which the workers themselves create a new reality, that is, worker agency.

The Advocacy model, where paid union staff, professional lobbyists, and lawyers work alongside the employer to dictate the terms of employment, is the least effective. Indeed, this model is not only ineffective, it is downright dangerous. It often results in concessions and wage freezes, and even more damaging long-term results. It poisons the very concept of union, teaching workers that unions are just another powerful force benefiting an elite few at the expense of the many. It's the perfect scenario for employers, and unfortunately is the norm in many unions.

Turning to the more positive approaches, McAlevey differentiates between Mobilizing and Organizing. In Mobilizing, a group of leaders make decisions and activate the workers to support them. All campaigns depend on some amount of mobilizing, but if the entire campaign is based on a mobilization model, a great potential is lost. The campaign may make some material gains, but it will fail to change the workers' relationship to their employer and their work; it will have failed to challenge the power structure. Any gains made will be superficial and short-term.

McAlevey shows that only the Organizing model builds worker agency to make significant, potentially long-term progress. McAlevey didn't invent this method, of course, but she's illuminating it and analyzing it for us -- showing us how it's done and why it works.

In Organizing, workers themselves create their own change. Workers make the decisions, learn from their own experiences, and build strength together. Organizing creates massive pressure on the employer, builds allies in the community, and -- most importantly -- creates confident leaders who can then organize others.

Given this analysis, it's no surprise that McAlevey champions the most powerful of all workers' tools: the strike. Strikes not only demonstrate and leverage workers' greatest value, by withholding their contributions, they demonstrate to the workers themselves how powerful they can be. A successful strike is a transformative event, as the confidence it builds becomes deeply embedded in the workers' consciousness. Successful strikes lead, McAlevey writes,
to the ability of the workers to win for themselves the kinds of contract standards that are life-changing, such as control of their hours and schedules, the right to a quick response to workplace health and safety issues, the right to increased staffing and decreased workload, and the right to meaningful paid sick leave and vacation time.
To wage a successful strike, workers must be both organized and active. So the very tools needed to create the strike build the potential for success, in both the short-term and the long-term.

Case studies: the book's greatest strength and contribution to our movements

McAlevey offers many practical examples of the process of Organizing, such as transparency in bargaining and identifying leaders. These examples are beyond useful -- they are essential. But where No Shortcuts shines brightest, where it is the most useful and the most inspiring, is in the case studies.

McAlevey tells five stories -- four successes and one horrible shame. As a union activist, I found the stories of the Chicago Teachers' Union and the lesser-known campaign by workers at Smithfield Foods thrilling. Reading about them, I was filled with that sense of pride and joy that only the people's power can bring.
King County, Washington, has a population of two million. Ninety-three percent of its people are city dwellers; most of them live in Seattle. At the time I am writing this, the median household income is $71,175, and the average rent for a two-bedroom house is $1,123 per month. In 2014, there was a successful campaign to increase Seattle's minimum wage to $15 an hour by the year 2022 (by which time, incidentally, that $15 will not be $15; it will be worth less, since Seattle didn't index it to inflation). The story was banner news worldwide in print and broadcast media, and a cause celebre for many liberals.

Meanwhile, without the fanfare of a single national headline, another kind of contract in a very different region also introduced a wage of $15 an hour. Bladen County, in southeastern North Carolina, has a population of 35,843. Ninety-one percent of those people live in the countryside; the rest are in the county's few small towns. Thirty-five percent are African American. At the time of writing, the median income is $30,031, and the average rent for a two-bedroom house is $637 per month.

In 2008, in the county's tiny town of Tar Heel, 5,000 workers at the Smithfield Foods pork factory voted to form a union with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). It was the single largest private-sector union victory of the new millennium, and it happened in the South, in the state with the lowest rate of union membership in the entire country: 3 percent. The new, ratified contract not only guaranteed a $15-an-hour wage but also paid sick leave, paid vacation, health care, retirement benefits, overtime pay, guaranteed minimum work hours, job security through a "just cause" provision, and tools to remedy dangerous working conditions. The wage alone far outranks Washington's: given the dollar's buying power in Bladen County, King County workers would have to earn $26.40 an hour to equal it.
The story of how these workers organized themselves and achieved these gains is one of the most exciting labour stories I've ever read. It will astonish you.

In "Make the Road New York", McAlevey tells the story of serious, strong, and sustained community organizing, not only for labour, but for an improved quality of life for the entire community.

Finally, McAlevey tells two stories about private-sector nursing homes. Incredibly, the examples stem from two locals in the same parent union -- one working within an Organizing model of true worker agency, the other run by a cadre of professionals who maintain comfortable conditions for the employer. What these so-called union leaders are is downright criminal. The expression "selling out" is too mild. They are every employer's and anti-union politician's dream. (Curious? Read the book!)

For several years now, we've been witnessing the re-emergence of organized labour as a vital force in our society. Inspired by the Fight For 15 fast-food workers, working people are fighting back, gaining public support, and activating themselves in great numbers. McAlevey's book is a road map to more of those victories -- which means it's a road map to a better world.

The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution takes a broader view through a very wide lens.

Micah White is a creative thinker, an excellent writer, a social theorist, and an activist. He is the co-creator of Occupy Wall Street (although this was not revealed at the time) and the originator of the idea that became the Rolling Jubilee debt forgiveness. He has been a human shield in the West Bank and an astute critic of clicktivism. He was named one of the most influential young thinkers alive today by Esquire magazine. He's a visionary, and you should read his book.

Is this thing on?

The premise of The End of Protest resonated deeply with me. Ever since February 15, 2003 -- the largest public demonstration in human history, which was ignored by mainstream media, and failed to prevent the US invasion of Iraq -- I have been frustrated and dissatisfied with the standard methods of public protest. The disastrous G20 demonstrations in Toronto in 2010 further confirmed my discontent.

Holding pens, free-speech zones, kettling, pre-emptive arrests, paid provocateurs, violent infiltrators, mass surveillence -- the ruling class has learned how to effectively neuter public demonstrations. The demos and the responses are predictable. They are theatre. They have symbolic value, they may build solidarity, and they may make us feel good. But they don't sustain movements and they don't create change.

There is value in being in the streets, especially when public protest occurs spontaneously. But many activists and organizations seem obsessed with how many people attend any given demonstration, as if a larger head-count somehow correlates with a greater likelihood of change. I've been involved in planning large-scale demos, so I've seen the vast amount of resources they consume. For what? Again, I'm not saying there is no value. But... can't we do better?

The End of Protest argues that our methods of protest are outdated, and that in order to be truly effective, we need to "break the script" of protest. We need to create fresh tools.

A framework for revolution

In the first part of the book -- "Today" -- White analyzes Occupy Wall Street, which he calls "a constructive failure". He beautifully articulates what was great about OWS, where it was successful, where and why it failed, and what lessons we can draw from it. He explores why dissent is necessary, and expands into a unified theory of revolution.

White creates a matrix -- or a Cartesian coordinate system (a term that was new to me) -- as a framework for analyzing different methods of protest, using four descriptors: voluntarism, structuralism, subjectivism, and theurgism. He describes each one in detail with very useful real-world examples. (A one-sentence definition cannot do justice to these ideas, hence I am refraining from doing so.)

In the book's second part -- "Yesterday" -- White analyzes protests from the recent past and the very distant past, situating each in his framework. The historic examples past are fascinating -- the massacre at Wounded Knee (1890), the Nika Revolt (532 CE), the Conversion of Constantine (312 CE), and the victory of Arminius (9 CE). In the modern examples, White trains his analysis on Palestinian solidarity, democracy movements in Greece and Spain, and the Rolling Jubilee.

In the final section -- "Tomorrow" -- White riffs on what is and may be possible. Very briefly, he offers a vision of a dystopian future, "an eco-fascist nightmare" that is all too easy to imagine. In fact, I found it much easier to visualize that potential reality than White's predictions of a unified, global, progressive revolution -- and it breaks my heart to realize that.

But White also reminds us that the future has not been written, and the path to that revolution is unknown. In fact, in White's view, it must be unknown, because we need to invent entirely new tools: "Innovation that breaks the fundamental paradigms of the protest model is the only way forward." White offers eight principles of revolution, realizing there are probably many more, but these eight were derived from his own lived experience.

What doesn't work

In case you are concerned, White eschews violence, believing that political terrorism is a dead end. He doesn't make a big deal about this, doesn't harp on and on about peaceful protest and a commitment to nonviolence -- a performance leftist activists are expected to make for the mainstream. He merely states, deep into the book, that political terrorism doesn't advance our goals, and we must look elsewhere for solutions. But although we reject militarism and terrorism, the far greater enemy is inertia.

Two bits from The End of Protest that I really appreciated are repudiations of both clicktivism and the so-called ladder of engagement. Clicktivism, White writes, encourages people to believe that "political reality can be altered by clicking, sharing, and signing petitions". It creates a false theory of social change, and deepens entrenched complacency.

About the ladder of engagement, White writes:
The dominant paradigm of activism is the voluntarist's ladder of engagement. In this model, there are a series of rungs leading from the most insignificant actions to the most revolutionary, and the goal of organizers is to lead people upward through these escalating rungs. This strategy appears to make common sense, but it has a nasty unintended consequence. When taken to its logical conclusion, the ladder of engagement encourages activists to pitch their asks to the lowest rung on the assumption that the majority will feel more comfortable starting at the bottom of the protest ladder, with clicking a link or signing a virtual petition. This is fatal. The majority can sniff out the difference between an authentic ask that is truly dangerous and might get their voices heard and an inauthentic ask that is safe and meaningless. The ladder of engagement is upside down. Activists are judged by what we ask of people. Thus, we must only ask the people to do actions that would genuinely improve the world despite the risks. Rather than pursuing the idea of the ladder of engagement, I live by the minoritarian principle that the edge leads the pack.
I've learned a lot about the edge leading the pack through my leadership role with my own local union. Many people told me our members weren't ready to strike. But how would they ever be ready if no one led them to the barricades? Would there be a magical moment when members woke up suddenly organized and ready to walk? And how would we recognize that moment when it came? Our leadership evaluated the situation, assessed the risks, and articulated both risks and potential rewards to our members. After that, democracy ensured that our members were ready, with a 98.7% vote to strike. As our parent says, "Be Bold. Be Brave." Those of us who have a fervor to be bold, brave revolutionaries have an obligation to lead from that edge.

Never be afraid of ideas

I fear that the lessons of The End of Protest may dismissed by the people who most need to contemplate them. White challenges several core beliefs of modern-day activism, and many of us cannot tolerate that kind of challenge. Organizers and activists may read this book, consider, and then reject all or some of White's ideas. But dismissing or ignoring those ideas would be a grave error. If our goal is to create revolutionary change, we owe it to ourselves and the world to read this book and engage with its ideas.

1.02.2018

in a youth novel about adoption, abortion doesn't even exist

I am reading a YA novel about adopted people connecting with their biological siblings and parents. This is a topic I have written about and have an interest in, and it's supposed to be a very good book: Far From the Tree, by Robin Benway.

On page 3, the teenage protagonist knows she cannot raise a child, so she immediately begins the adoption process, interviewing prospective parents during her pregnancy. Fine. The word abortion is never used. Not fine.

There is no "She knew she would never have an abortion, so she...", no "It was too late to have an abortion, and anyway she doubted she would do that...", no "She was from a religious family, so abortion was out of the question." Not one word. As if the option does not exist. As if abortion itself does not exist. How realistic is that? Not at all?

Such is the state of YA in the United States. Does the author, or perhaps the publisher, think if the word abortion appears once in a 300-page book, the book will be the target of boycotts? Even in a book where the girl doesn't terminate the pregnancy? 

In case I was missing something, I searched the e-book for the word abortion. Not found.

I honestly don't know if I can get past this to read the book. My head is exploding.

I've written about this before, and at the moment I don't have time or inclination to add context. So: wmtc:
on tv, pregnancy is fine and dandy, but abortion is the choice that cannot be named (good comment discussion here)

murdoch mysteries, abortion on tv, and maybe an anti-war reference, too

Book Riot: Abortion in YA Lit: A Reading List

Cosmopolitan: Why I Included Abortion in My YA Novel -- "I just wanted to be one of the voices out there that shows that this is actually quite normal."

Gurl: 7 Awful Teen Pregnancy Plots in TV shows

12.31.2017

what i'm reading: what i haven't read and am not reading

Many of my co-workers keep colourful lists like this,
or use Goodreads or Shelfari to track their reading.
I prefer plain old text.
Like most avid readers, my to-read list contains far more titles than I could ever read in a lifetime, even if I did nothing but read. Although I add books at a considerably faster rate than I tick them off, I do still keep The List, and I consult it when I'm looking for my next book. I do this with movies, too.

I also read books not on my list, much more so now that I work in a library, and my reading tastes have broadened. But I don't keep a list of all the books I've read.

This really bothers me. It has bothered me for a very long time. But at no time did I ever start keeping a list of All The Books I Read, because... I didn't start it a long time ago, so it will always be incomplete, so there's no point in starting it, ever. I know this is not rational, I know it's part of All Or Nothing thinking, which I work at avoiding, but... I can't shake the belief.

In library work we are urged to "track our reading," because it's supposed to help us be better readers' advisors. I question whether this is true. Most library workers don't consult their own reading lists when helping customers find reading material. But whether or not this is a useful practice, I don't do it.

I do keep track of movies and series that I watch. I've done this since the late 90s, and for some reason the incompleteness of this list doesn't bother me.

So, here are some book lists, sub-lists of The List.

Three biographies I want to read
Jackie Robinson: A Biography -- Arnold Rampersad*
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder -- Caroline Fraser
Helen Keller: A Life -- Dorothy Herrmann

Three people I want to read biographies of but don't know which one to read
Muhammad Ali
Bob Dylan
Galileo

Five books that I want to read but am daunted by because they are so long
This is a stupid category for someone who has read The Power BrokerBleak House, and City on Fire. Nevertheless.
London: The Biography -- Peter Ackcroyd
Dickens -- Peter Ackcroyd*
Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 -- Edwin G. Burrows,‎ Mike Wallace**
Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919 -- Mike Wallace
Jackie Robinson: A Biography -- Arnold Rampersad*

Three books I didn't finish but am determined to get back to one day
At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 -- Taylor Branch (This is the third book in Branch's "America in the King Years," and an almost impenetrable read. But I read the first and second books, and half the third. Must finish.)
The Sherston Trilogy -- Siegfried Sassoon
Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 -- Tony Judt (also fits under previous category)

Six writers whose books keep appearing on my list but I haven't read yet (there are many more)
Frans De Waal
Carl Safina
Robert Sapolsky
Margaret Laurence
Colm Toibin
Helen Oyeyemi

Three topics I would like to read more about
Utopian communities
Confidence games, grifters, and hoaxes
Language -- acquisition by children, origins of, ASL, Esperanto...other stuff

Orwell still to read
A Clergyman's Daughter
Coming Up for Air
Collected Letters

Dickens still to read
The Pickwick Papers
The Old Curiosity Shop
Barnaby Rudge
The Mystery of Edwin Drood

The Shakespeare Project
In 2003, I decided to read or re-read all of Shakespeare's plays. I re-read all my favourites, then got totally bogged down. Here's a real test of All or Nothing. Even though I haven't read a Shakespeare play in more than a decade, the goal still nags me. I want to drop it! Can I???
Comedy of Errors
Love's Labour's Lost
Merry Wives of Windsor
Henry VI, Part I
Henry VI, Part II
Henry VI, Part III
King John
Pericles
Antony and Cleopatra
Coriolanus
Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus
Troilus and Cressida


----
* We own this in hardcover.
** We own this in hardcover and we acquired it by trading a box of used books for a new copy of this.

new year's un-resolutions

I don't do New Year's Resolutions, but I do enjoy using the revolution of our Earth around the Sun as an excuse to take stock in where I am and think about where I'm going.

This is not a Big Promise To Do Something; it's not even goal-setting. In my ongoing work to free myself from a strong tendency towards All Or Nothing, to not paint myself into a corner, to not create Rules which I then use to limit my experiences, I don't even set concrete goals.

My thinking takes the form of general precepts that I'm trying to remember.

When the weather is nice, spend more time outdoors.

Walk more.

Remember to make plans with friends sometimes.

Do a jigsaw puzzle now and again.

At work, take my full one-hour dinner break without doing union work.

Remember that it's all right to make mistakes.

Explore local history.

Stop multi-tasking.

Remember to blog instead of Facebook.

Read more.


12.26.2017

what i'm reading: rolling blackouts, graphic novel that asks many big questions

I see by the wmtc tag "graphic novels" that I intended to write about graphic books I read and enjoyed...and I see by the scant number of posts with that tag that I have not been doing so! The last wmtc post tagged for graphic novels is from four years ago, almost to the day.

In any event, I want to tell you about a graphic book I just finished and really enjoyed: Sarah Glidden's Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.

In 2010, Glidden traveled with three friends who had journalism visas to the three countries in the book's title. Two of the three were part of a nonprofit, progressive media collective; the third was a former US Marine who served in the Iraq War, and was a childhood friend of one of the journalists.

Glidden doesn't merely report on what they found -- which would be interesting in itself. She stands outside the frame, as it were, and writes about their process and all its implications -- the ethics of their interviews, the industry constraints, the impossible dilemmas, the necessary compromises. The weighty responsibility of telling other people's stories, how stories are shaped into narratives, and how narratives influence our perception -- these questions are contemplated, explored, and challenged, as the inside view of how journalism happens is revealed to the reader. The question at the heart of Rolling Blackouts is "What is journalism?".

Dan, the ex-military friend on the trip, has a strange -- and often unwelcome -- perspective on the invasion of Iraq. From a privileged, middle-class background, with no family history of military service, he was an unusual enlistee. What's more, Dan insists that he was opposed to the invasion and actually protested against the war, but enlisted so he could improve the outcome. (Seriously?) He also insists that he has suffered no ill effects from his participation in the war, despite losing four friends. The journalists' attempts to mine and disrupt his odd perspective forms one of the recurring themes of the book.

But Rolling Blackouts is definitely not self-absorbed navel-gazing. We meet Kurdish Iraqis whose lives were improved by the removal of Saddam Hussein, and we meet Iraqi refugees living in Syria, whose lives, and the lives of their children, and generations to come, were destroyed by the US invasion. There is an Iraqi man who has been deported from the US, separated from his young family, because he was -- perhaps falsely -- accused of connections to terrorism. There's a young Iranian couple, both artists, on the brink of resettling in Seattle. There's a United Nations refugee administrator, an Iraqi taxi driver, a "fixer" who helps introduce the crew to potential interview subjects, and many other encounters. To each story, Glidden brings compassion and empathy, and an insistence on nuance in a world that is seldom black and white.

I really enjoyed Glidden's illustrations, soft watercolour snapshots of tiny moments in time, the kind that our memories are made of. The compassion and empathy with which Glidden approaches her subjects is evident in her lovely art. I also loved and appreciated the book's simple and extremely readable font. I wish more graphic book creators would think about the accessibility of their typeface choices. I understand that fonts are art, but when typeface impedes access, something has gone awry.

Rolling Blackouts is an ambitious book, aiming to do many things at once, and succeeding in all of them.

12.24.2017

i hate christmas 2017: the return of a wmtc tradition and then some

Last year, I took a break from my annual "i hate christmas" post. I don't remember the circumstances, but it was probably related to getting ready for our trip to Egypt. We lost Tala a few days later, but for better or worse, we were ignorant of that until the day before.

This year I revive the fine wmtc tradition and then some.

I did a stupid thing and it caused me to remember just how much I hate Christmas, like a sharp slap in the face: I went to the mall.

Yes, after all my years of not stepping foot in any store for any nonessential shopping during the holiday madness, I found myself in a gigantic mall, three days before Christmas, in the afternoon. My hair salon happens to be in the mall. I normally go there first thing in the morning and am well clear by the time it is the slightest bit busy. But I waited too long to make an appointment, and I can't wait until January... and thus I ended up in a mall, the Friday before a Monday Christmas, at 4:00 in the afternoon.

I took a cab to avoid the frustration of trying to find parking. So all I did was walk from the entrance to hair salon, sit through the crowded, noisy, Christmasy hair experience, then walk from the salon to the exit. That was enough. The mobs of people, walking apparently in slow motion, laden with packages, gawking at every window. Large groups of teens and 20-somethings, dressed like store-window mannequins, clearly there to be seen. (This is a thing!) Screaming children and exhausted parents of every description. Happy couples looking like they are out for a stroll. In the mall! Recreational shopping.

In our incredibly multicultural environment, I have to wonder how many of these families celebrate only the North American consumerist version of this winter holiday, and have no religious connection to it at all.

I personally will spend a lovely December 25 and 26 with my favourite people (one human, one canine), food, drink, movies, books, puzzles, and maybe a trip to the dog park. But damn, it is out there, and it is scary!

I'm not even going to explain why I hate Christmas so much. Writing this post, I took a trip down memory lane. It's all there, and it's more relevant than ever.

12.17.2017

listening to joni: #3: ladies of the canyon

Ladies of the Canyon, 1970

Original Front Cover
I put this album on for the first time in probably three decades, and I thought, ah, here's Joni.

Ladies of the Canyon, Joni's third album, is the first time we hear the seeds of the future Joni, the first glimpses of elements in her music which would become old friends.

It's the first time we hear her on piano. The first time she has arranged horns, strings, percussion, and background vocals. The first time we hear several of the themes she would explore in much more depth and beauty in the future: the conflict between art and commerce on "For Free," and the bleakness of bourgeoisie life on "The Arrangement".

On Ladies, we also hear the beginning of her distinctive guitar voice, more of the range of her actual voice -- and her peculiar and distinctive diction and phrasing.

I love piano in rock (Nicky Hopkins, Roy Bittan, Chris Stainton, Dr. John) and piano in blues (Pinetop Perkins, Professor Longhair, Memphis Slim), and then there's piano by Joni. Her piano makes my heart soar, makes me weep, strikes "every chord that you feel".

On this album, we hear some of the beginnings of her lyrical wordplay -- "She would wake in the morning without him, and look out through the pain," a play on window pane, or "You called me beautiful, you called your mother, she was very tan," setting up the word called and then changing its meaning. These are tiny examples, of course. In the future she'll evoke whole worlds with unexpected changes in lyrics.

Back Cover
So all this is happening today, for a fan retrospective, but in its time Ladies was much loved. I think it's been overshadowed by the masterpiece that came next.

This album ends with three of Joni's most famous songs: "Big Yellow Taxi," "Woodstock," and "The Circle Game". When Ladies came out in 1970, "Big Yellow Taxi" and "The Circle Game" were already well known, made famous by covers. "Woodstock" would soon be a hit for Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Now whole generations know BYT from newer covers and sampling.

It was strange hearing these three songs again. In BYT, I had forgotten the original lyric of the final stanza, the taxi of the title that "took away my old man". The more familiar lyric -- "a big yellow tractor pushed around my house, took away my land" -- was coined by Bob Dylan in a live show. Joni liked it and adopted it.

"Woodstock": I had forgotten how slow this original version is, how plaintive Joni sounds. Could that have been because she wasn't there -- the Woodstock concert event -- and so is imagining it from a more philosophical point of view? It's so easy to be cynical about the social revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, to see it all as fashion, or posturing, or naivete. I get that -- because I've done it, too. I'm glad I shed that cynicism. Today, when I hear that plea for peace --  "I dreamed I saw the bomber jet planes riding shotgun in the sky, turning into butterflies above our nation" -- it just breaks my heart.

"Circle Game" is one of those songs that seems to have always existed and has never lost its meaning, like Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind". For me, the song is attached to a painful childhood memory, not in the sense of "this song brings back memories" -- but in a much deeper way. The song begins, and I am instantly in tears, before I even understand what I'm hearing. It's a trauma trigger. I have only one other song like that, an Aimee Mann tune that immediately puts me back to the shock and sadness of losing our dog Buster. Funny thing about music, and our consciousness.

I must have listened to this album a lot at some point. I used to think a line from "Blue Boy" -- "Sometimes in the evening he would read to her / Roll her in his arms and give his seed to her" -- was so melancholy and romantic, like something out of Wuthering Heights. It seems stilted now, maybe even creepy.

But overall, listening to this album has been like re-connecting with an old friend.

I couldn't find (or take) a decent pic of
the inside cover, but here's the idea.
Bad critic comment of the album

This album seems to have been universally loved. I can see why. It's accessible, there are a range of emotions, the stellar arrangements are new and fresh, and Joni's voice is developing beautifully. But of course, nothing is universal. The famous music critic Robert Christgau hated Joni's "vocal gymnastics" and found her wordplay on this album "laughably high school". He must have gone to some kinda high school!

The album cover

This is again a self-portrait, and a view -- on a skirt, or perhaps a quilt -- from her home in Laurel Canyon. I think the geese are from Canada. The house -- where Joni lived with Graham Nash, one of the great loves of her life -- was the inspiration for the "very very very fine house" of Crosby, Stills, and Nash fame.

Detail of inside cover.
One of the times I saw Joni in concert, we sat near a woman who was wearing a white denim jacket that she had embroidered with this cover art. It was amazing. I went to compliment her and chatted briefly with her and her friends. It was like the Community of We Love Joni.

Joni's notes on the cover art are here, and you can see all her paintings on her website.





Other musicians on this album

Teressa Adams, Cello
Milt Holland (a pioneer and a legend), Percussion
Paul Horn, Clarinet and Flute
Jim Horn, Baritone Sax (another legend)
Background vocals, "The Saskatoons" (i.e., multiple tracks of Joni) and "The Lookout Mountain Downstairs Choir" -- James Taylor, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash