9.24.2018

two weeks in northern ontario: the good, the bad, and the mushrooms

Our Ontario trip was a mixed bag of ups and downs, but mostly ups. Everything is pretty good with some not-so-good mixed in.

Traveling with Diego. We loved it! It was so much fun having us with him all the time, and seeing him so happy and content.

Downside: Traveling with a dog can be a bit limiting. We had planned to leave him alone while we explored Sudbury and Thunder Bay, but when we were actually there, we weren't comfortable with it. We had very limited time in those towns anyway; had we been there for more time, we probably would have done it.

Balance: A huge 5 out of 5 leafs.







The RV. I love traveling by RV. On a road trip, it's great to be so self-contained, to not have to go out for every breakfast and dinner, to have your own kitchenette and washroom, but still be in the woods. Ever since we traveled by RV in Alaska, about a million years ago (1996), I've dreamed of owning one. That's not very practical, but I hope we can rent one again soon.

Downside: Once you're in a campsite, it's not easy to explore a town or city. The ideal would be an motorhome towing a small car, or a big car towing a trailer. That gives you the convenience of the RV and the flexibility of leaving it behind. With only the RV, it can be a bit limiting at times.

Balance: 4 out of 5 maple leafs.







Park facilities. The provincial parks were beautiful. The campsites were good, each with a firepit and picnic table, and some with electric hookups. The washrooms and showers were clean, and there was a washer/dryer available in every park.

Downside: Ontario Parks doesn't take reservations in September (with one exception: Killarney... but we were given wrong information, so we didn't know that). Without reservations, we would get in to a park, often late in the day, then have to drive around looking for a suitable campsite. This was tiring, especially after a whole day of driving. Not being able to reserve campsites was a significant drawback. I assume the absence of reservations is a cost-cutting measure. It's not good.

Park facilities were five-leaf, but the absence of reservations was a real drag.








Road-tripping through Ontario provincial parks. Ontario is insanely huge. The area we drove through is beautiful, but it's a lot of driving, even if you love road trips as much as I do. The parks have a certain sameness to them -- especially if you're not up for extremely challenging hiking or climbing. The Ontario Parks trail rating scale was very different than what we're used to. We were discouraged that a hike labeled "moderate" -- usually our speed -- was too challenging. And once you're on the trail, there's nothing you can do but tough it out.

So if you're not hiking most trails, there's not a lot of difference among the parks. They're all beautiful, but I wish I had realized that they're all pretty much the same. But would I have planned a two-week trip at only one or two parks before actually seeing any of them? Definitely not.

So there was a lot of driving, much of it very scenic, broken up by staying in very similar woodsy places. Touring several Ontario Provincial Parks: 3 of 5 leafs if you love road trips. 2.5 leafs if you don't.


What else did we do?

So besides driving and going on too-challenging hikes we: ate a lot (especially steak, potato chips, and frozen yogurt), drank wine and vodka, listened to a lot of music, had great talks, and read a lot.

Saw the Sudbury Nickel, the Wawa Goose, and Terry Fox. Saw a coyote, many deer, ducks, geese, blue jays, sandhill cranes, a bald eagle with something in its talons (!), and many nice dogs. We saw a turtle crossing a highway, but there was no safe way to pull over and help it. I hope you made it, turtle.

We thought we'd see petroglyphs in Lake Superior Provincial Park, but they are inaccessible unless you can climb steep cliffs. Saw crazy elaborate RV campsites where retired folks have created little manors. Saw a lot of friendly people, not one of whom wanted more than a "good morning".

Saw a sky full of stars. Heard much French spoken. Saw dozens of old-fashioned roadside motels, old-fashioned diners, and almost no fast-food restaurants. Had a great breakfast in an ancient coffee shop in The Soo, the only restaurant of the trip.

I wanted to see more of Sudbury and Thunder Bay, but Allan visited bookstores in both places, and loved the one in Sudbury.

And, oh yeah, the mushrooms!

Ever since reading The Omnivore's Dilemma I have been a bit freaked out by wild mushrooms. Mushrooms found in a store or restaurant, no problem. But mushrooms that appear after a rainfall or in damp woodsy places have creeped me out.

Before reading Michael Pollan's excellent book, I didn't know that fungi's networks of (mostly invisible) mycelium can extend vast distances, or that visible mushrooms are but a small fraction of the whole fungus, or that mushrooms aren't plants! I was amazed to learn that fungi are a separate category (kingdom) of living things, neither animal nor plant. (If I learned this in grade school, I had long since forgotten it.) This is only a bit of what I learned about mushrooms from that book, and all of it gave me the creeps.

Now I can report that this trip desensitized my fungiphobia. On our hikes we saw a great variety of wild mushrooms, and we photographed every variety we saw. Now I'm more amazed than freaked out -- although they are still super creepy! I'm going to look up the varieties online; photos to follow.

9.09.2018

we head north

We're going glamping! Allan, Diego, and I are hitting the road.

Driving this:



Going here:

Killarney Provincial Park

Lake Superior Provincial Park

Sleeping Giant Provincial Park

Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park

Pancake Bay Provincial Park

Grundy Lake Provincial Park

Plus quick visits to Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, and Thunder Bay.

Doing this:

Hike, grill, explore. Watch dogs play on beaches. Read. Keep an eye on the Red Sox. Find used bookstores. Maybe hear some music. Take photographs. Be in woods. Feel nature do its magic.

I love road trips and am in vacation mode the moment we get in the vehicle.

See you in two weeks!

9.08.2018

selling vinyl in the gta? go to volver for honesty, integrity, and maximum cash

In July, I wrote that we planned to get rid of our LP collection. Well, the deed is done. We turned this


into this

first round

then this

What's left: classical, soundtracks, CD box sets,
and albums Allan didn't want to part with (front).

and finally, this.


We got much more money than we expected, thanks to the honesty and integrity of Lincoln Stewart.

* * * *

For the most part, the business of buying used LPs and CDs is a bit shady, a half-step up from a scam. When Allan was a music critic, we used to trade CDs for cash on a regular basis. We got those CDs for free and they meant nothing to us, so whatever the buyer -- the owner of the used record store -- wanted to give us was free money. The buyer would make a few piles, and say, "Five dollars each for these, three dollars for these, and a buck apiece for these." It was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. We never knew what they would sell the CDs for.

With our LPs, it was very different. This was a personal collection, built over time, mostly music we cared about. Allan didn't want to sell them for pennies. There was also the physical work of selling them -- boxing them up, loading them into our little car, and driving around to used music stores was not very appealing!

Then I found Volver, run by Lincoln Stewart. Here's Lincoln in his own words.
I'm the former manager of Vortex Records and the former owner of Good Music, two much-loved and well-respected Toronto record stores. Both establishments had sterling reputations for fairness and quality. Vortex was the most highly-thought-of used record store in Toronto for almost 40 years, with The Toronto Star calling us "an oasis for music lovers," and more than a dozen "Best Record Store" wins and nominations in the city's newspapers' annual "People's Choice Awards" (Now Magazine, Eye Magazine, The Grid, etc.).

I now buy and sell top-shelf used records (and other things) out of my Dundas West loft. (Don't let the lack of a storefront scare you -- it's by choice, having sold the entire inventory of Good Music to a competitor and entering semi-retirement in 2016 at age 48.)

My motto is Quality records bought and sold. Fair prices in and out. That means I'm not trying to screw you. I pay half of what I intend to sell a record for. Period. If I'm gonna sell it for $20, I'll pay you $10. If I think I can sell your record for $50, that's $25 in your wallet. It's that simple. Unlike some of my competitors, I do not advertise that I "pay up to 60%" and then pay you good money for two records and pennies for everything else. If I want the record -- and admittedly, I'm very picky -- I'll pay you 50%. Doesn't matter if it's a $75 record or a $750 record. No exceptions.
And here's where it gets really interesting.
Importantly, I don't expect you to be the expert. Maybe you don't know you've got an $80 record. I'll tell you -- when I offer you $40. I have bought and sold vinyl in Toronto since 2005. It's what I do. Over the years, the stores I've run have paid out over a million dollars for people's used music and movies. I've bought from those who've inherited records they know absolutely nothing about and I've bought from the most informed record collectors in the city -- and every type of seller in between. Everyone gets treated the same way and I have the testimonials to back that up.

Most important to me is my reputation: the amount I offer a for a record is based solely on that record's resale value to me, not on how much profit I can make on the title. This policy is the direct opposite of many of my competitors who want to pay as little as possible and sell for as much as possible.
Impressive, eh?

Here's what happened. Lincoln came to our apartment. Each album that he was interested in, he took out of its sleeve to inspect it. Some figures he double-checked on his laptop, using databases that catalogue used records sales all over the world. (Who knew?) He added up what he would sell the albums for, offered us a price, and offered to show us exactly how each album was valued.

I was amazed to learn that we owned several LPs that were actually considered valuable! Their re-sale value had nothing to do with the music itself, but was based on the scarcity of a particular pressing. The top-earning LP was a pressing of some promotional Metallica album that we didn't even know we had, worth $185.

I remember as a teenager hearing kids brag about having an album worth some outlandish sum of money, and I always thought they were bullshitting -- which I'm sure they were. But I didn't realize there actually are albums worth thousands, rare pressings of jazz and blues (and some rock) that collectors all over the world search for.

I found the process fascinating, and asked Lincoln lots of questions, which he was happy to answer. Lincoln is a very nice guy with an interesting background, and a great deal of musical knowledge -- plus a nice dog. He arrived when he said he would, brought his own canvas bags to transport the LPs, and was very organized and efficient. When Diego wouldn't leave him alone, Lincoln asked, "Would it help if I gave him my undivided attention for five minutes?" then gave Diego a huge amount of love and attention. We were very impressed! (Diego loved it, but it didn't help; we had to give him a time-out in the bedroom.)

To me, the Volver 50% guarantee is fair for both parties, buyer and seller. Every day, Lincoln sends a message to his list of interested buyers with a small selection of choice LPs and prices. People come to his Toronto loft and buy them for the advertised price. All sales are in person -- no shipping -- and there's no haggling. You know I like that!

So how did we do?

Lincoln was interested in about 300 LPs, and offered us $1860. (See first round, above.) He also gave us some tips on who might buy the remainder of the collection, and how much we should expect to get for it -- very valuable information.

Shortly after, Lincoln learned about another sales opportunity, so he was interested in buying the rest of our collection himself, and offered us another $400. All told, we traded our LPs for $2260.

Allan held back a small pile of LPs that have particular value to him. It turned out one of them, based on the colour of the label, is worth $150. Allan declined. I was very impressed -- and slightly annoyed.

Last week, during the Springsteen on Broadway show, I suddenly had a pang of loss, thinking of my copy of "Born to Run," with its iconic cover art. A foundational album for me, music that moves me more than I can express. But I have the album on CD, and there's no shortage of ways to see the cover images and more from the same shoot. I can live with that.

So. We earned a pile of cash. We lightened our load. It required minimal effort. It was fair to both buyer and seller. And now other people will have the opportunity to enjoy those LPs. All in all, a very good deal.

If you live near (or can easily visit) Toronto, and you have LPs to sell, you can't do better than Lincoln Stewart and Volver.

9.02.2018

springsteen on broadway: a performance of unrivaled intensity

In my most recent Listening to Joni post, I said that I write with my brain, but I listen to music with my heart. A few nights ago in New York City, my music heart broke in pieces, over and over again. I've seen a lot of theatre -- and quite a bit of Bruce Springsteen -- but I'd never experienced anything quite like this.

Springsteen on Broadway is one of the most intensely moving theatrical experiences I've ever had.

The show starts with humour, both Springsteen's typical self-deprecating humour, but also a satirical bragging -- the guy who has never held a job in his life, singing about the workingman, the guy who has never driven one block singing about cars: "That's how good I am." Sometimes the humour is just a facial expression and a hand gesture -- which plays perfectly for the tiny 900-seat house.

But the humour soon gives way to a raw intensity. Springsteen relieves the tension with the occasional laugh, but by that time, the audience is chuckling through the tears.

Speaking of audience, I have never sat in a quieter, more respectful crowd. It didn't hurt that before the show started, we were repeatedly warned: cameras, cell phones, talking, texting would not be tolerated. Disobey, and ushers will remove you from the theatre. These tickets were hard to come by -- who's going to risk it? It was also announced that at the conclusion of the show, the house lights would go on, and you may take photos then.

It worked. The crowd was silent and incredibly respectful while Bruce was talking and singing, applauded only between pieces -- then burst into near hysteria at the end of the show.

At my first Springsteen concert, in 1978, my long-awaited Thunder Road was ruined by a drunk asshole in the aisle screaming the lyrics at the top of his lungs. And who-knows-how-many more concert moments have been ruined by sing-alongs and clap-alongs. Not this night! A few people started clapping along with Dancing in the Dark, but it died after a few notes. (Read the beginning of this excellent review.)

The show is like a stripped-down version of Born to Run, Bruce's memoirs, and it follows the same arc: the discovery of rock and roll, the town, musical ambitions. Set pieces on his father, his mother, Clarence (Tenth Avenue Freeze Out), Patti (Brilliant Disguise, Tougher Than the Rest). Ron Kovic and Born in the USA. America's broken democracy and The Ghost of Tom Joad.

It is anything but a greatest-hits compilation. Many of the songs were interesting choices and often barely recognizable in new arrangements. Much of the speaking was almost spoken-word poetry, almost chanted, like an incantation -- words spinning the web that binds us to Bruce's music, and his life to ours. The review linked above compares the show to Lena Horne's The Lady and Her Music (which I saw -- twice! -- in 1981), and that's an excellent comparison. Call it a musical journey through the life and times of Bruce Springsteen. A portrait of the artist as best he can. Call it life is pain but still, we love.

Springsteen on Broadway is strictly for fans only. I can't imagine it would be very interesting to anyone not already interested in Springsteen's music and his life. I was also glad I had already read Born to Run before seeing it. The book lent context to many of the stories, so sometimes I felt we were hearing things unspoken.

I haven't read about the show yet, because I wanted to go in completely cold. I'm interested to know if Bruce worked with a director or editor on choosing the stories, editing them for performance, even the staging and movements back and forth between guitar and piano. If he created the whole thing himself, he is an even greater performer than I knew.

Springsteen fans know how intense Bruce can be, both his music and his stage presence. He is one of rock's great frontmen, and the only one who (appears to) close the gap between audience and performer, whose stage persona is a raw authenticity.* Now take that authenticity and channel it through intimate stories of love, pain, fear, trust, loss, and redemption, and do it in a small theatre, with an almost bare set and intimate lighting.

Bruce Springsteen and I go back a long way. Unlike the millions who claim to have known about Springsteen in the early 70s -- "I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen" -- I'll say with honesty that I first heard "Born to Run" on FM rock radio in 1975. I read the famous Time and Newsweek cover stories, and joined the ranks of music lovers waiting for the three-year silence to end.

I saw Bruce with the E Street Band for the first time in 1978, and many times since then. If I never see him perform again, I'll always be grateful to have ended on this note.

* Rock's other greatest frontmen are all brilliantly and famously pure artifice: David Byrne, David Bowie, and above all, Mick.

two days in new york city

This is one of those posts I write only for myself. This blog functions as my travel diary, and I like that diary to be complete. So here I am. Feel free to ignore. Which of course you always are, and you don't need me to tell you that.

I was supposed to go to New York by myself to see Springsteen on Broadway. (Review to follow in separate post.) I had been trying to get a ticket since they first went on sale more than a year ago, and somehow Allan managed to get me one. And not just a ticket -- an affordable ticket! Factoring in air fare and hotel, I couldn't spend a huge amount on a ticket, and Allan snagged one for $75. Amazing!

When some of my NYC plans got cancelled, I persuaded Allan to come with me. He wasn't interested in the Springsteen show, but why pass up two days in New York?

Day one: sweat, lunch, pod, bistro

We flew down on Porter, and it's super easy to take NJ Transit into the city and hop on a subway. However, it was 45 degrees on the street with swamplike humidity, so goddess only knows what the mercury hit on the subway platforms. It didn't help that we got on a wrong train and had to backtrack. By the time we got to the hotel, we were little more than puddles of whining sweat.

I had a room booked at Pod 51. Have you heard of the Pod Hotels? They are budget hotels with a fresh, hip look. There have always been budget hotels, even in the most expensive cities, but they can be scary and gross. A couple of times -- Seattle and Amman come to mind -- after getting in late, we stayed one night, then promptly found another room in the morning. Nothing like that in the Pods. Tiny, clean rooms, some with even tinier bathrooms, others with shared bath, with several washrooms on each floor. A cafe and a rooftop bar and what else do you need? Book directly through the hotel's website, and they throw in two complimentary glasses of wine.

After showers and a rest, we went downstairs for lunch. On the way over, I noticed that Chopt, my favourite salad place, is still in business. I walked over and brought back an amazing salad, and Allan ordered a burger from the place next-door, and a server delivered it to the hotel cafe. Time for free wine!

After lunch, we re-arranged our plans a bit so we wouldn't see any more subway platforms that day. I went around the corner for a mani-pedi, which I often do when I'm away.

Earlier, in the Toronto airport, I had been looking online for a place for dinner. I was thinking French bistro, something we loved in New York and don't do anymore. And wouldn't you know it, one of the oldest and most established bistros is next door to Pod 51: Le Bateau Ivre. (One side burgers and craft beer, the other side oysters, steak frites, and red wine.)

Bateau Ivre is the kind of place that would be a serious three-star restaurant anywhere else, but in NYC is just a neighbourhood joint. The place was hopping. We sat at the bar and had an amazing meal. We're not really into spending huge amounts of money on restaurants anymore, and I'd forgotten the difference between the chain restaurants, which are good enough, and the real deal. It was pretty awesome.

Back at the room, we turned up the air-conditioning to an Arctic blast and followed another insane Red Sox game on Allan's phone.

Day two: shoes, Union Square Cafe, Bruce

We had breakfast amid the insanity of Ess-A-Bagel, an old and authentic bagel place around the corner from the hotel. I almost caused an international incident by ordering coffee while Allan was on the bagel-sandwich line.

Bagels. Real bagels. Ahhhh.

The only errand I wanted to do in New York was shoe shopping at Tip Top Shoes. I hate to shop and don't care about shoes. But I do need shoes that are classic looks, comfortable, and made well enough to last many years. Therefore, I need Tip Top, the shoe store that time forgot. Older gentlemen in shirts and ties give you their undivided attention, fitting your foot, making suggestions, and, obviously, living on your commission. It's the first time I've been there since we left New York in 2005, but it was exactly as I remembered it, and I got exactly what I needed.

I took buses between Pod 51 and Tip Top, and seeing New York for the first time in many years, I felt that rush of energy the City always gives me. I saw some new (to me) things: bike sharing, "LinkNYC" kiosks (there are thousands of them!), Metrocard machines at bus stops, and -- ta-da! -- the Second Avenue Subway. Or so they say. It only took 100 years to build and is three stops long! (Great story and pics here.) But seriously, it exists, and that's almost amazing enough. NYC seems to be making strides in trying to be more people-friendly. If only anyone could afford to live there.

I had just enough time to drop my new shoes at the hotel, change my clothes, and meet Allan at our favourite New York restaurant, Union Square Cafe. (Allan had been at NYPL for some research. He bought me these.) It was our first time at USC since it moved to its new location. The atmosphere, the service, and the food was exactly as we remembered. There are more inventive menus and more lavish food and decor, but there is only one Union Square. Perfect simplicity.

Allan went to The Strand while I went back to the Pod to shower and rest before the show. Later I hopped on the subway to the show -- had an incredible experience -- and walked across town back to the hotel. I'll fill in the blanks in a separate post. It was truly one of the greatest performances I have ever seen.

When I got back, Allan was following yet another insane Red Sox game. Is there anything this team cannot do?

Morning of day three: bagels and out

Now an old pro, on our second morning I did not create havoc in either Ess-A-Bagel or my caffeine-starved brain. I got up early, went around the corner to an old-school NYC coffee shop, got a very large coffee, and was well fueled before re-entering the insanity of Ess-A-Bagel, which that day was even more insane. On our way out, there was a line out the door and down the sidewalk.

Should you ever find yourself in a position to eat an authentic New York City bagel, may I recommend swiss cheese, nova, and tomato on an onion bagel?

From there, subway to NJ Transit to Newark Airport, Allan went to work, and I went to pick up Diego.

8.29.2018

new york, bruce springsteen, and other things i love

We are here! Staying here. Going to this!  Also here, scene of many past celebrations.

Ah, New York. And Bruce!!

That is all.

8.06.2018

mlb.tv, roku, and appletv: why is this so difficult?

If you're an app developer for MLB, or if you're with Roku or AppleTV, skip down to the final paragraphs!

Because Allan and I follow an out-of-town baseball team, we subscribe to MLB.TV, and have done so for ages. As much as I dislike pay-per-TV services, being able to watch any baseball game at any time, with either the home or away feed, is amazing.

Once we were able to do this by streaming, as opposed to through cable, the price went down and the quality went up. I've blogged many times about the wonder of the Roku streaming device, and how it solved so many issues for watching baseball, TV series, and movies.

Last year, I learned that the Canadian streaming service CraveTV offers lots of Showtime and HBO content. Thanks to exclusive licensing deals, Crave is not available on Roku; it only streams on AppleTV. (You can watch on a computer or mobile device, but we don't like that.) So in order to get the additional Showtime and HBO content, we bought an AppleTV device.

Lo and behold, AppleTV is now way better than Roku! When Roku first came out, it was widely agreed that it was the best streaming device on the market. Now fourth-generation AppleTV blows Roku away. The streaming quality is much better, the interface is easier, and it offers more premium content.

Here's where baseball comes in. MLB.TV on Roku lets users choose separate video and audio feeds. For many reasons, I prefer the NESN (Red Sox) TV feed with audio from the local Red Sox radio on WEEI. Roku lets you do this, and it syncs. (In the olden days, I would watch baseball on TV with the sound on mute, and keep the game on the radio. This was my preferred way to enjoy baseball, but the audio and video were completely out of sync.) So Roku did away with all that, and we've been in baseball heaven.

But now, with the 2018 season, the Roku MLB app is a total shambles. It stutters, freezes, and crashes constantly. We could barely make it through a half-inning without frustrating stops, starts, and reboots. And the definition is awful. It's like we're streaming some analog feed with a dial-up modem.

On AppleTV, MLB streams beautifully and in good-quality hi-def. However, the MLB app on AppleTV does not let you choose separate video and audio feeds. We can watch NESN with the NESN announcers, or listen to WEEI with no video at all, but we can't mix-and-match feeds.

Roku: Please fix your MLB.TV app!

AppleTV: Please get your MLB.TV app to have this capability!

MLB.TV: Please get your developers on this!

google does it again: recent blogger updates are not user-friendly

Once again, Google has reduced the ease and functionality of Blogger.

A while back, the layout of the Blogger dashboard changed. I used to be able to see an overview of all my blogs plus my "following" list on one dashboard page. I found this very useful, and I imagine that other users who also moderate more than one blog would have agreed. Now I can no longer check for and moderate comments on all blogs at the same time, and I no longer have one-stop-shopping for which blogs on my list have updated.

For comments, I have to check each blog separately, necessitating many more clicks.

For blogs I read, I had to subscribe to email updates, on blogs that offer this function. Not everyone does. (I don't like using feeds; I prefer to visit blogs and websites on their native platforms.)

Next, Google discontinued the option to have comments on your own blog emailed to you. So, for example, if Allan put a bunch of comments through on wmtc, those comments would be emailed to me.

I'm talking about this, found in Settings > email, which tells you when a comment has posted --


 -- not this, found in Settings > posts, comments, and sharing, which emails you when a comment is waiting to be moderated:


Now to check for new comments, I now have to go to Comments > published. I have to remember to do this for each blog in order to see what comments may have posted. Not very convenient.

Google also discontinued the option for any user with any ID to comment. Previously, the choices were Anyone (including anonymous), Any ID (Google, Yahoo, Hotmail, etc.), or Only Members of this Blog. This has changed to Anyone (including anonymous), User [sic] with Google ID, or Only Members of this Blog.


When "Any ID" disappeared, I didn't want to exclude readers who might not have a Google ID. As a result, I've been deleting about 20-30 spam comments every day. It's become so annoying that I've changed commenting to anyone with a Google ID. I wanted to be more inclusive, but Blogger and spammers have conspired against that.

It's been months, and I'm frustrated. 

8.01.2018

listening to joni: #6: court and spark

Court and Spark, 1974

Writing about the music of Joni Mitchell has been a huge challenge. My love of music and my writing abilities seem to live in separate spheres: I write with my brain, but I listen with my heart. If writing about Joni's music has been challenging, writing about Court and Spark feels impossible. The love and connection I feel for this music is impossible to put into words. So with that disclaimer, I will now attempt the impossible.

Court and Spark is many Joni fans' favourite album. I mentioned that fans over a certain age seem to choose Blue; fans under that age, those younger than the boomer generation, seem to gravitate towards Court and Spark.

Listening to this music in retrospect, you can follow the very clear musical progression from Blue to For the Roses to Court and Spark. But in its day, no one could have been prepared for this masterpiece.

On Court and Spark, Joni more fully realizes many threads that emerged on previous albums. The music itself is richer, more layered, more polyphonic than Joni has written before. Woodwinds, strings, brass, percussion, and vocal harmonies are all a major part of this album, often taking centre-stage. The lyrics are at once some of the most poetic Joni has written, but also among the most accessible, with some of her familiar themes elegantly fleshed out.

Inside Cover; the back is solid tan with music credits
Something unusual on this album is Joni's use of instrumental breaks to continue the story she's telling. The best example is on the album's centrepiece, "Down to You".

The first part of the song paints an image of depression. The subject of the song is lonely, alienated:
Things that you held high and told yourself were true
Lost or changing as the days come down to you.
She (I think "she", but it doesn't have to be) seeks solace in a one-night stand. Then,
In the morning there are lovers in the street
They look so high
You brush against a stranger
And you both apologize
You brush against a stranger and you both apologize: is there a more perfect image of loneliness and alienation?
Old friends seem indifferent
You must have brought that on
Old bonds have broken down
Love is gone
Love is gone
Written on your spirit
this sad song
Love is Gone
After the spiritual-sounding repetition of that line, there is a musical break. It starts out with slow, deep, somber notes, but the tempo picks up, the waves of strings give way to pizzicato, the piano shines through -- the dark bass notes give way to a more lighthearted treble -- and piano chords become triumphant. We have survived the dark night. Then at last the woodwinds signal: a new day has dawned. There's an oboe trill that completely takes me apart, every time I hear it.

When the long instrumental break ends, we look around to discover we're in a totally different place -- one of acceptance, affirmation, maybe even transcendence. When the lyrics return, they celebrate that life is always changing -- that life is change -- and that we all hold all of human potential in our hearts.
Everything comes and goes
Pleasure moves on too early
And trouble leaves too slow
Just when you're thinking
You've finally got it made
Bad news comes knocking
At your garden gate
Knocking for you
Constant stranger
You're a brute you're an angel
You can crawl you can fly too
I can't imagine how many times I've listened to this song, yet as time goes by, it only means more to me.

Court and Spark is full of so many moments like this. Writing this post, I saw that on the cover of my original LP, in the lyrics to "People's Parties," two lines are underlined in blue pen.
I feel like I'm sleeping
Can you wake me
This is probably the only lyric underlined on an album cover in my entire collection. (I didn`t realize it was there until I wrote this post.) The girl with that blue pen was struggling with depression, and the continuing effects of an abusive upbringing, and the beginnings of her own liberation. I was waiting to wake up to myself. I related to the girl in the song:
One minute she's so happy
Then she's crying on someone's knee
Saying laughing and crying
You know it's the same release
There is much internal conflict in the lyrics of Court and Spark. The "art vs. commerce" conflict, this time round, is not hers, but someone else's -- in "Free Man in Paris," famously about Joni's close friend, the producer David Geffen. Poor Geffen was so deeply closeted, that he reportedly begged Joni not to release the song, feeling that it outed him as gay. There's really nothing in the lyrics that imply anything about sexual orientation. Geffen's fear speaks to the paranoia that comes with a life in hiding.

The other conflict, presumably Joni's, in Court and Spark, is career vs. love. From "The Same Situation":
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
Joni hits us with this right up front, in the title track. Love has "come to my door" -- this love understood her so well, that "it seemed like he read my mind, he saw me mistrusting him and still acting kind" -- but she couldn't leave her life and her career in California.

Bad critic comment of the album

On JoniMitchell.com (an amazing resource), I found some joker from the Oakland Tribune who clearly wasn't up to the assignment. In his opening paragraph, he accuses Joni of "tiptoeing in and out of love just enough to gather some material together for a new song." He writes that "Free Man in Paris" "infers" (by which he means implies) "that business responsibilities leave her cold" and in another song, "seems to be acknowledging the fact she may end up an old maid". All I can say is I'm glad my first juvenile attempts at writing aren't preserved on the internet.

For serious criticism, though, Court and Spark appears to have been universally acclaimed. But don't worry, the "bad critic comment" section will soon be very useful.

The album cover

Joni's Japanese-inspired drawing combines mountains, water, and an abstract wave that is also a lover's comforting embrace. Against a tan background, the title and artist's name embossed in Joni's own handwriting, it's understated and elegant. Inside, an abstracted photograph of Joni, eyes closed in what seems like musical bliss.

Cacti or stockings?

The most famous song on this album, Joni's "biggest hit" -- a strange concept to apply to this music -- was always my least favourite. But "Help Me" contains an iconic Joni image: "the lady with the hole in her stocking", who has by now become the Joni's stand-in, the lyric-persona Joni.

On "Just Like This Train," that lady with the hole in her stocking looks out the window at the "rocks and these cactus going by".

You know, even that hole in the stocking is a conflict. She wears stockings -- "a refinement" ("Ludwig's Tune") -- but she's also a bit unkempt, or more likely defiant, refusing to wear the proper clothes. Part of the glitz and the glamour, but apart from it, too.

Other musicians on this album

This is the first album for which Joni takes producing credit, knocking Henry Lewy down to "sound engineer". Lewy felt he had been her producer. Joni felt she has always been the producer, with Lewy merely a technician.

Drums and percussion, John Guerin
Bass, Max Bennett, Jim Hughart, Wilton Felder
Chimes, Milt Holland
Woodwinds & reeds, Tom Scott
Trumpet, Chuck Findley
Electric Piano, Joe Sample
Background voices, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Susan Webb, Cheech and Chong
Electric Guitar, Larry Carlton, with Wayne Perkins, Dennis Budimir, Robbie Robertson, Jose Feliciano
Joni: piano, clavinet, and background vocals
String arrangements by either Tom Scott, Joni, or both. The string musicians themselves are anonymous.