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. 


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".


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!


things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #26

In library school, you learn that the most important part of the reference transaction, or reference interview, is asking questions. Customers, it seems, rarely know how to describe what they are actually looking for. Most people ask for something entirely different than what they want. Tonight was a classic example.

Woman: Where would I find paperback nonfiction?

This is a bit of a strange question, because normally people don't specify hardcover or paperback when it comes to nonfiction.

Me: Nonfiction is in a few different places, depending on the subject. Do you have a title, or a call number? Or the topics you're looking for?

Woman: I want to read about kings and queens from a certain time period. You know, how they lived, what they did.

Me: That would be on the third floor--

Woman: But the stories aren't necessarily what really happened. It's real kings and queens but in made up stories.

Me: Ah, so you're looking for historical fiction.

Woman: Oh is that it?

Me: What have you read that you like? An author you like?

Woman: I can never remember...

Me: No problem. Give me a few seconds...

Usually in this genre, people read by author. I gathered the top names, and we went to the shelves.

Working backwards in alphabetical order, we stopped first at Alison Weir. We pulled a few books and looked them over, but she seemed hesitant.

Me: If this doesn't work for you, it's not a problem. Have you read much Philipa Gregory?

Woman: Who?

Now this is a clue. Philipa Gregory is the top name in historical fiction featuring royalty. If the customer doesn't know her, something is off.

We walk over to dear Philipa, but I'm losing the customer. She's starting to mutter to herself. Never a good sign!

Me: Here's a paperback of a popular Philipa Gregory book.

Woman: The books are usually much smaller than this. And in the title there's, you know, duke or rogue, or maybe a rake... (A bell goes off in my head.) ...and there'll be a man on the cover, you know... (She gestures as if she's ripping a shirt open.)

Me: I know exactly what you're looking for.

We laugh and easily find some books. She walks out with any of the gazillion titles of historical romance novels, covers graced with dukes, rogues, rakes, scoundrels, pirates, and "highlanders," their bare chests gleaming, their lusty conquests dressed in long gowns, off the shoulder, with plenty of cleavage.

To think I almost sent her to the third floor for history!

All the men are barechested, all the
women in gowns.

Sometimes the encounter has advanced
a bit further.

These books come in many flavours,
but the readership is almost entirely female.


11.11: remembrance day readers' advisory

I've posted 11 anti-war songs, and I've done Labour Day readers' advisory, but I don't think I've ever done anti-war readers' advisory.*** Here are 11 great books with an anti-war themes.

1. The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

2. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

3. War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges (nonfiction)

4. Regeneration, Pat Barker

5. Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo

6. Hiroshima, John Hersey (nonfiction)

7. Mother Courage and Her Children, Bertolt Brecht (drama)

8. A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway

9. Catch-22, Joseph Heller

10. The Deserter's Tale, Joshua Key with Lawrence Hill (nonfiction)

11. And finally, the greatest anti-war novel of all time, All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque

There are many, many others: here are some lists.

Honour the dead by working for peace.

*** Turns out I had done this very thing, just two years back! The post was incorrectly tagged, so didn't come up in the search. Here's the 2015 version.


listening to joni: a new wmtc feature

Two new books about Joni Mitchell have come out, with -- strangely -- the same title.

Reckless Daughter: A Joni Mitchell Anthology, edited by Barney Hoskyns, is a collection of stories about Joni* and reviews of her work. It's part of an ongoing collection called Rock's Backpages, which looks at rock through accomplished music writers of the last 50 years. I'm reading this now.

Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, by David Yaffe, is a biography of the artist and her music. It's especially noteworthy because of the unusual access Yaffe had to his subject. I'm going to read this after I finish the anthology.

While reading reviews and impressions of Joni's earliest performances and recordings, I realized how long it's been since I've heard her early music. In some cases, at least her first two albums, I probably have never played as an adult! I decided I would listen to all her albums in chronological order, starting from the beginning. I'm going to try to write about the listening experience on wmtc.

I don't know how this will go. I don't think I have anything particularly insightful or interesting to say about these albums, and I've never been able to write very well about music.

My response to music is very emotional -- not intellectual, not analytical, and not verbal. My love for Joni Mitchell and her place in my consciousness is intense -- profound -- and thus very difficult to articulate.

But if I'm going on this musical journey, wmtc is coming with me. 

Your comments, as always, will be very welcome.

* I normally hate when female artists and athletes are referred to by their first names, often in contexts where men are referred to by their last names. But to her legion of devoted fans, Joni is Joni.