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.

6 comments:

allan said...

Honestly, just stop saying you cannot write about these albums. Jesus Christ! :) I wrote about music for close to ten years and was very rarely as articulate as this. It includes effective description of the music and lyrics and has a warm, personal touch.

For me, that's what great writing about music should always be. (Now: I know whatever we end up with on the page is never as good as the elusive lines that stay just out of reach in our head, but jeez ...)

Plus understated (yet, if you know a bit of her history, extremely funny) humour: "But don't worry, the 'bad critic comment' section will soon be very useful."

allan said...

I recently read the story about Geffen (in the recent bio?) and could not for the life of me figure out where his fear stemmed from. First, who would know that she was referring to him? Maybe a small group of people in the business, but was he 101% in the closet? And the only thing that might possibly sort of hint at anything is the bit about "going cafe to cabaret" (right?), which is pretty slight. Even for 1974, I would think. Also, if you were not listening too closely, you might assume Joni was singing about herself.

Her phrasing on "Free Man" is fantastic - it will reach perfection on the next album - and I love the use of the "unfettered". Has the word been used in a rock song before or since? Does anyone really use it in conversation? It makes no difference. ... She compresses it and then draws out the word "alive", it's great. And there is such a happy, wandering spirit to the way she glides over "and wander down the Champs Elysees".

"Raised On Robbery" is barely over three minutes, but it seems to fly by in half the time and I wish it was twice as long. Excellent chugging guitar from fellow Canadian Robbie Robertson, with (I guess) Tom Scott on sax. Even Joni's rueful chuckle at the memory of a previous lover drinking up all their money is always welcome. (The sax reminds me of Dylan's Street-Legal, but I'm not sure why, since I don't think they are really all that similar.)

Video of Free Man and Robbery with her 1979 Shadows And Light band. (Dear Video: Why show us the fucking crowd for 90% of the final verse?)
Video of Free Man from 1983.
Video of Free Man from 1974.

laura k said...

Thank you very much. Well, I'll try. That's the best I can do.

Re Free Man and Geffen, when I first heard this, years ago, I thought I must have missed some coded messages in the lyrics... but I've yet to find them.

Re Raised on Robbery, Joni's happy songs get much less attention than her sad songs. I mentioned this re Blue, and one of the earlier albums, too. I think she conveys the "up" feelings really well.

John F said...

"You brush against a stranger and you both apologize: is there a more perfect image of l̶o̶n̶e̶l̶i̶n̶e̶s̶s̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶a̶l̶i̶e̶n̶a̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ being Canadian?" :-)

As I think I've mentioned before, hearing certain cuts from this album is like mainlining my early childhood. Both Court and Spark and Dylan's Blood on the Tracks were played frequently by my parents around '74 to '76.

Let's see (closes eyes): potted plants in macrame hangers, cone incense in a brass holder, big wicker throne chair, Fisher-Price castle, my mother's peasant blouses and wooden sandals, finding that funny-looking little pipe...

laura k said...

"You brush against a stranger and you both apologize: is there a more perfect image of l̶o̶n̶e̶l̶i̶n̶e̶s̶s̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶a̶l̶i̶e̶n̶a̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ being Canadian?" :-)

I had the same thought. :) :)

So you were the child of hippies, eh? A fine tradition.

BOTT is a huge favourite of mine too. Don't even get Allan started. ;)

allan said...

John: There could be some very exciting BOTT news next month.