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 themes that 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" -- 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

12.15.2017

in which i achieve a career milestone

I am a Senior Librarian!

It's a position I have aspired to for quite a while. Although I love my current job as a youth librarian, I've been ready to move on for a while. I had several near-misses, but couldn't get over the top. Just as my colleagues and I were all convinced I was being discriminated against because of union activism, I placed first in a big competition, and ended up with my choice of several locations.

I chose the Children's Department of Central Library -- where I started as a Library Page and where I had my first Librarian job. During the past year, when I sometimes covered the information desk in that department, I remembered how much I enjoyed being there. I loved introducing all our newcomer families to the many resources we offer, loved finding tweens their next great read, loved being around children who are excited about books -- and the challenge of enticing children who aren't. It has its moments of insanity and frustration, of course, but what work doesn't. The great majority of the time, it's such a happy, positive place, a place that gives me energy.

All this and I get to keep my seven-minute commute.

Senior Librarian means being in charge of the day-to-day operations of a branch or department, being everyone's supervisor except the manager. My work with our union has really prepared me for the challenge.

I'm also happy to create an opening for one of our many talented members, hopefully someone who has a librarian degree but is not yet working as a librarian, someone who wants to work with youth. I've made no secret of the fact that I'm trying to get out of the way!







12.09.2017

why i write for rights and how you can too... redux #write4rights

Trying to compose my annual Write For Rights post, I thought I would recycle a good one from 2014... only to learn I had already recycled it in 2015! And here it is again -- slightly edited, with new cases linked below.

Tomorrow, December 10, is Human Rights Day. The date commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations on December 10, 1948, the first document of its kind.

Every year on December 10, Amnesty International holds a global letter-writing event: Write For Rights (in Canada). Thousands of people around the world write letters and sign petitions calling for action for victims of human rights abuses, and offering comfort and support to political prisoners.

Here are 10 reasons you should participate in Write For Rights.

1. It's easy. Amnesty makes it really easy to participate. Read, type, send.

2. You can do do it from any device. No meetings to attend, no schedule to keep. Just more of something you do all the time anyway: typing.

3. It's free. No need to donate money. The most this will cost you is postage.

4. You'll feel good about yourself. You know that warm buzz you get from helping other people? Get more of it.

5. You can choose how much to participate. Write one letter, write two letters, write three. Spend 10 minutes writing or spend an hour. (This year I am challenging myself to take one action for each of the 11 cases.)

6. You can choose what to focus on. Write about an issue in your own country. Write about an issue in your country of origin. Write for children, or for women, or for LGBT people, or for workers, or for environmental activists, or for another issue that you care about.

7. You're busting stereotypes. We supposedly live in a selfish age where all we care about is entertaining ourselves and consuming. Prove them wrong.

8. It works globally. Every fight against injustice begins with someone shining a light in a dark place. Be that light.

9. It works locally. When political prisoners are released, they often attest to the difference letters from strangers made in their lives -- how knowing they were not forgotten helped them survive.

10. You enjoy your own human rights every day. You can use them to help someone who can't.

Here are 10 more reasons. They're not cute and cheery. They are why we write.

For each, I have linked to the online action. If you go here, you will find links to more information and instructions for a more significant action.

1. Homophobic murder without consequences in Bangladesh.

2. Torture and a life sentence for a Facebook post critical of government policies in Chad.

3. Beatings and other violent harassment of a defender of evicted people in China.

4. Imprisoned for searching for her husband, who was "disappeared" for political opposition in Egypt.

5. Humiliated and prohibited from gender expression in Finland.

6. Arrested and jailed for defending human rights in Turkey.

7. Violence and threats against people who defend land and water from private development in Honduras.

8. Harassment and arrests of peaceful protesters in Israel/Occupied Palestine.

9. Intimidation and harassment for speaking out about murder by police in Jamaica.

10. Arrested and jailed for defending the rainforest [video] in Madagascar.

It doesn't take much time. It's not difficult to do. And it works.

Spend 15 minutes of your day writing a letter or two.

Write like a life depends on it.

Write for Rights in Canada

Write for Rights in the US

Write for Rights internationally.

Twitter: #Write4Rights

listening to joni: footnote #2

I decided to solve the problem of over-interpretation of lyrics in Reckless Daughter (described here) by putting down the book. I'll go back to it in the future. For now the listening project is more interesting and absorbing to me than reading the biography.

This means I'll review the two books on the nonfiction book group blog without having finished the second book. Don't tell anyone. Then I'll write new reviews for wmtc.

Next up: Ladies of the Canyon.

12.03.2017

listening to joni: footnote #1

Reading the biography Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell while doing this re-listening project is proving to be an obstacle.

In general I'm enjoying the book. I love learning more about the artist who created some of the most meaningful music in my life, and about the woman I have always considered a personal role model. I love the stories of how albums were recorded, and even how they were received. What I don't like -- and don't want -- is author David Yaffe's pronouncement of what a song is "about".

Art is always open to interpretation. In fact, art is not complete without interpretation. All art -- novels, film, theatre, visual arts, music -- is incomplete until the receiver (viewer, listener, reader, etc.) experiences it. And that experience is unique to us as individuals. I don't experience art exactly the same way you do, because we each bring our own unique experiences and consciousness to that art. Our interpretation may be conscious or subconscious. It may be intellectual or emotional or, likely, a combination of those. But it is unique to us.

I always say that if I really love a book, I will not see the movie, because I'm almost guaranteed to be disappointed. I want my own interpretation to live in my mind, and if I see the movie, I'll never be able to do that again. The filmmaker's interpretation will taint -- or at least supplant -- my own.

This is what's happening with Reckless Daughter. I don't want to know who or what these songs are "about," because they're not about one thing. I have been listening to and loving this music my whole life. I loved this music without knowing who "Willy" is (Stephen Stills) or which heroin addict in Joni's life inspired her to write "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" (James Taylor). I'm currently listening to Ladies of the Canyon, so soon I'll be moving into music that means a great deal to me -- not one album, but many -- and I don't want someone else's interpretation mucking up my personal experience of this art.

I wish I could read the book with some kind of filter on.

11.28.2017

listening to joni: #2: clouds

Clouds, 1969

Clouds, front cover
Listening to Clouds was a strange experience for me: I didn't know the album! I know every note of every album Joni has recorded since then, but this one was foreign.

Of course I know the famous songs from this album -- "Chelsea Morning," "That Song About the Midway," and "Both Sides, Now" -- but I had no memory at all of the other songs. The one exception was the a cappella "The Fiddle and the Drum," about the US's war-making -- but that's because not long ago, we saw Joni perform it on an episode of the old Dick Cavett Show, filmed right after Woodstock had taken place. But the actual album? It felt like I was hearing it for the first time.

This must mean that my sister and I didn't play Clouds. Maybe we didn't own it and filled it in later, when Joni's music had gone way past this stage. I really don't know. I'll see if my sister has any idea.

Even more surprising, I had a mixed reaction this album. 

On Clouds, we hear the true beauty of Joni's voice. Her voice sounds so much richer and fuller than it does on Song to a Seagull. This must be a consequence of production. According to biographer David Yaffe, David Crosby's production of Song was a bit bizarre. Although Clouds was only her second album, Joni already was through with producers, and would fight throughout her career to produce her music herself, working only with a sound engineer. On Clouds, her voice is beautiful -- still those crazy high notes, but also a whole range of full, supple sound.

Clouds, full cover, opened
When this album was released, Judy Collins had already covered "Chelsea Morning" and "Both Sides, Now" on her album Wildflowers. I'm not a Judy Collins fan, and if I had heard only her version, I would think the songs were banal. But both songs come alive on Clouds. Incidentally, if the media was still looking for Joni The Folksinger, "Both Sides, Now" would tick that box.

"That Song About the Midway," I know chiefly from Bonnie Raitt's excellent cover, and I prefer Raitt's bluesy swagger and full production to this girl-with-guitar version. Joni supposedly wrote "Midway" about Leonard Cohen, something I wouldn't have known at the time -- considering I wouldn't know who Leonard Cohen was for at least another 20 years. (The biography is full of revelations of what songs are "about" or who inspired them. It's only 1969 and it's already bothering me.)

The most significant development on this album is the beginning of Joni's talent as a poet. The lyrics are beginning to display her prowess for offering unexpected descriptions and metaphors. "...You stood out like a ruby in a black man's ear..." Many people mistake this line for a description of the man she is singing about wearing a jewel in his ear. But no, it's a picture for the listener.

Other than "Chelsea Morning," "Both Sides, Now," and "Midway" -- three great songs -- the rest of the songs are maudlin, and the album overall feels morose. Not somber. Lots of good music is somber. But -- speaking of Leonard Cohen -- morose is wallowing in somber. Morose is one-dimensional. Yaffe says that many of these songs were written years earlier, then gathered on this album, and represent different scraps of thought and styles that Joni was trying on and discarding. While the lyrics are simply too good to call them filler or throwaway tracks, the songs do feel like aberrations -- some alternative not-Joni.

The best example of this is "I Don't Know Where I Stand," which sounds like something from the crooner era, a la "Send in the Clowns", the kind of music Joni frequently mentions as her earliest exposure. The song has been covered by more than 30 artists, including Barbra Streisand and Fairport Convention. It's not a bad song, but the lyrics, structure, and arrangement seem old-fashioned. It feels completely out-of-sync with any of Joni's music.

So in the end, I don't have much of a personal connection to this album. Joni's voice is beautiful and the songs are beautiful, but girl-with-acoustic-guitar feels thin.

Bad critic comment of the album

In the Reckless Daughter anthology, about "Both Sides, Now," some music writers wonder how then- 24-year-old (when she wrote it) Joni had looked at life or love from "both sides, now", the implication being she was too young to have known much of life at all. So let's see. By 24, Joni had: survived polio, living alone in a hospital without her parents for months, re-learned how to walk with only minimal rehabilitation, left her conservative prairie town, arrived in Toronto with a few dollars in her pocket, found a way to support herself, became pregnant, gave birth and tried to support herself and her daughter, surrendered her daughter for adoption, got married, traveled and performed with her husband, left her husband, lived in New York City, and traveled and performed thousands of miles for months at a time on her own.

Did anyone ever question if 24-year-old Mick Jagger really had a woman under his thumb? Mick and Joni are the same age. Sexist crap.

The album cover

Joni's cover art -- a self-portrait over a sunset-coloured sky -- doesn't match the album's mood. But the artist portrays herself as somber and composed. That would come to be a theme.

Other musicians on this album

None. This is just Joni and guitar.

Allan suggests that I link to videos and reviews from the relevant period, but for me that would feel like a chore, and unnecessary. JoniMitchell.com contains every album, every song, album notes, and reviews. This, for example, is the Clouds  page. 

11.26.2017

listening to joni: #1: joni mitchell (song to a seagull)

This is my first post in my re-listen to the music of Joni Mitchell in chronological order of album release. These posts come with all kinds of disclaimers, chiefly that I don't know what I'm doing.

I wanted to write about the two Reckless Daughter books before starting on these posts, but I'm ready to move on to the second album, and haven't yet finished the books. So here we go.

* * * *

Joni Mitchell (Song to a Seagull), 1968

Song to a Seagull, front cover
I hadn't listened to this album in a very long time -- probably not since childhood. I am the youngest of three siblings, and got into music much earlier than my peers, listening to anything my older siblings had. My sister and I adored Joni and listened to her obsessively. Of course in the present, all the songs came back to me immediately (long-term memory is amazing) and I knew many of the lyrics.

The songs on this album hang together as a whole, which was very common in those days. The album is also thematically divided by sides: "Part I: I Came to the City", and "Part II: Out of the City and Down to the Seaside".

Joni Mitchell's early music is usually referred to as folk or folk rock. As I listened to this album over the past weeks, I kept thinking, This is not folk. There is nothing folk music about it. I was glad to see my view validated by Joni herself: in the anthology, in separate interviews over much of her career, Joni insists that she never recorded folk music. At the start of her career, she performed folk music in clubs and at festivals, but once she recorded her own music, it was never folk. But, she says, she looked the part -- female, long hair, acoustic guitar -- and no one knew what else to call her music, so they slapped on the folk label. Twenty, 30, and 40 years later, journalists were still referring to her as "folk music turned jazz singer" and the like.

Full cover, opened to show back (left) and front (right)
I read various descriptions of what comprises folk, folk-rock or folk revival, but didn't find any clear definition. To my own ears, folk and folk rock music usually have fairly simple lyrics, simple guitar chords, basic melodies (often a stock melody used for many different songs) and are full of repetitive choruses or refrains. Taken together, these elements make folks songs easy for anyone to play and conducive to sing-alongs -- hence folk, which means people.

Song to a Seagull has none of those elements. Musically, Joni is already using the open tunings for which she will become famous, her playing already distinctively Joni. The melodies are complex and often unpredictable -- or almost nonexistent. The lyrics are dense and intricate.

Repeated refrains or choruses are absent, too. In most songs, the closest thing to a refrain is one repeated line -- "And she's so busy being free" (Cactus Tree) or "My dreams with the seagulls fly / Out of reach out of cry" (Song to a Seagull) or "All his seadreams come to me" (The Dawntreader) -- or a line that changes a bit in each stanza -- "We have a rocking chair" (Sistowbell Lane) or "Red is..., Green is...." (Marcie). "Night in the City" has an actual refrain, but Joni's impossibly high notes render it impossible for most singalongs.

The most quintessential Joni song on this album is also, for me, its best song: "Cactus Tree". It is only 1967, and Joni is already exploring what would become one of her central themes: the conflict between love and freedom. Each time the line repeats -- "she was off somewhere being free" -- it is sung with more urgency. In the Reckless Daughter anthology, every review mentioned this song. Many critics hear it as laced with regret, but I hear it as a wistful understanding. It is also a bold disruption of the popular image of women waiting for men to settle down and marry them.

After three stanzas about the different men who court her, the song turns to the woman herself.

Inside Cover
There's a lady in the city
And she thinks she loves them all
There's the one who's thinking of her
And the one who sometimes calls
There's the one who writes her letters
With his facts and figures scrawl
She has brought them to her senses
They have laughed inside her laughter
Now she rallies her defences
For she fears that one will ask her
For eternity
And she's so busy being free

The woman is full of love, but she knows that commitment, for her, will be poison. Perhaps the next, final verse signals a tinge of regret, as she describes the woman's heart "as full and hollow as a cactus tree" -- not exactly an image of warmth and comfort. (This is the first of many cacti in Joni's songs.) But the cactus is also strong, a survivor, and the heart is not only hollow, it is also full. She knows "they will lose her if they follow". She knows herself well, so she "rallies her defences".

Other great songs on this album are "Michael From Mountains," "Night in the City," and "Marcie". Some of the songs also have a kind of pompous feel. In "I Had a King" -- said to be about Joni's brief marriage to Chuck Mitchell -- lines like "he's taken the curtains down" and the repeated "they never can" with the big flourish finish, seem too much like proclaiming. Such was 1967.

This is an astonishing debut, especially when we consider it doesn't contain some of her best-known early songs. Judy Collins had already become famous for Joni's "Both Sides, Now", "Urge for Going" had been covered by both Tom Rush and George Hamilton IV, and Joni herself sang "Circle Game", "Chelsea Morning," and "The Song About the Midway" in clubs and festivals. According to biographer David Yaffe, in those days it was not uncommon for an artist to release only one or two major songs on their debut album, and save the really amazing stuff for their second album, once they had built a following. Bob Dylan is a great example of that, and Joni clearly did it, too. Yaffe says that by the time Joni went into the studio with her then-boyfriend and nominal producer David Crosby, she had enough original material to fill three albums.

The album cover

Although the title "Song to a Seagull" is clear in the photo (above), on the album itself, it's barely visible. It's written in the Vs that are birds in flight. I always assumed the album was called "Joni Mitchell," and I think many others thought so, too.

The cover art is Joni's own drawing, and it references all the songs in the album, along with two fish-eye photos of Joni in a city, and some Hirschfeld-esque drawings of her own name.

Other musicians on this album

David Crosby is listed as producer, but apparently what he did most was keep others from ruining the music. Stephen Stills plays bass. Everything else is Joni, including background vocals and a bit of piano on "Night in the City".

11.22.2017

our papyrus painting is finally on the wall

You can read the story of how we got these: here.










This, below, is the smaller painting that the salesman added to the pot after the price would budge no further. It is possibly painted on banana leaf, a cheaper and less durable papyrus substitute.




There is also a third, yet smaller painting, also "thrown in," but not display quality or worth framing.

The celery-looking stuff is fresh papyrus.
We watched Papyrus Guy make a small sheet.

That's our painting behind them!