Monday, January 11, 2016

Song of the Day: 'Both Sides, Now' by Joni Mitchell

I have a confession -- perhaps a bit ironic, in fact: I didn't grow up worshipping at the altar of legendary confessional singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell. If my relative youth could be offered as any kind of excuse, it's quickly ruled out given the fact that Carly Simon and Carole King -- the other Girls Like Us -- are very godlike to me. Don't get me wrong, "Big Yellow Taxi" was the anthem of my ecology-obsessed youth. And "Help Me" was as inescapable in my parents' 1974 Malibu Classic as my mom's cigarette smoke and stepfather Gary's Wild Country (by Avon) cologne. But I've spent the better part of four decades obsessing over music, particularly female musicians, so a year hasn't gone by that I haven't heard someone refer to Joni as the most influential singer/songwriter of her generation. Yet I continued to retreat to my apartment, where stacks of CDs by other women named Debbie, Chrissie, Rosanne, Debora, Olivia, Cher, Aimee, Susanna, Belinda, Madonna, Cyndi, Annabella, Pal, Maria, Patty,, Dolores, Shirley, Sarah, Siobhan, Sara and Keren occupy three-fourths of the joint. That all changed over the weekend, for reasons that aren't entirely clear to me. Perhaps reading Carly Simon's memoir -- in which she only mentions her more-acclaimed contemporary in the context of (basically) stealing her boyfriend, some guy named James Taylor. Perhaps it was the"Will & Grace" marathon, where Joni is frequently mentioned as a god -- and even leads Grace to behave even more atrociously than normal in an attempt to see her idol in concert. Whatever the case, I decided it was finally time to buckle up and dig in. Fearing that jumping on a hype-powered band wagon (literally) decades after the fact was a recipe for disappointment, I eased my way into things, pulling up YouTube clips of a few songs I did know. When this performance of "Both Sides, Now" -- which I grew up knowing as a Judy Collins song -- on "The Mama Cass Television Program" reduced Damian and me to tears, I figured I was ready to forge ahead further. I then bought three of Joni's most-acclaimed albums -- "Ladies of the Canyon" (1970), "Blue" (1971) and "Court and Spark" (1974), and realized I already had her "Hits" best-of collection from 1996 in my iTunes library -- and then went to town. Summing up the work of an artist who has been recording for nearly half a century in a short blog post is a bit of a fool's errand. But suffice to say I went from being an admirer to being a fan, dazzled at Mitchell's clever turns of phrase and effortless melodies. Having the image of a perennially cranky, chain-smoking middle-age woman in my head, hearing the carefree yet often romantic musings of a youthful free spirit warmed my heart, especially on songs like "All I Want," "California" and "Raised on Robbery." (And the titillating "Conversation" had me wondering if she was writing about Carly and JT.) Some of the more piano-driven stuff reminded me that Mitchell's voice could be a bit much at times -- maybe Grace Adler truly was a free (wo)man in Paris! -- but the obvious influence Joni has had on Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Aimee Mann, Suzanne Vega, Fiona Apple, Neko Case, Feist and so on is undeniable and rather remarkable. I'll probably die a Carly queen -- people warn me not to dig much deeper into the Mitchell catalogue -- and "Tapestry" holds such a special place in my heart because of its association with my mom when I was a little boy. (And the albums that bookend it -- "Writer" and "Music" -- later became all-time favorites.) Still, in less than 48 short hours, "Blue" and "Court and Spark" became instant classics in my mind, too -- much to the chagrin of my neighbors, I'm guessing ("That queen on the third floor has finally discovered Joni!"), as if they'd been here all along. I get it. That's the stuff of legends. 


dishy said...

The Hissing Of Summer Lawns is her crowning glory! I have everything - let me know if you want!

BW said...

Remember when "Free Man in Paris" was one of Mom's Neil Diamond songs?

Dwight Williamson said...

I'd like to find a river, that I could skate away on. Not sure if it's hers or not. My fave though.

CAG said...

My favorite Joni Mitchell performance of Both Sides now is actually from the year 2000 tribute concert. A more mature and meditative Joni just gave it that extra twist for me. I don't know if your blog allows youtube links, but you can find the video here: Love your blog.

Bill Carter said...

The first time I heard "Clouds" was the day I met and fell in love with a BYM in New York. That happened to me a lot when I was very young, but this time it was special.

And a few years later "People's Parties/Same Situation" was the soundtrack to the end of the most intense and meaningful relationship I've ever had.

So, yes. Joni Mitchell.

PS If "Clouds" had such an effect on you, you might not want to listen to this:

On the other hand, maybe you will.

Myk said...

Welcome to the fan club. The very first record I ever bought was a 45 of this song. Loved it then, love it now.

Bill Carter said...

Another PS: Last month, The Telegraph (UK) posted a list of "The 60 greatest female singer-songwriters of all time". Joni Mitchell topped the list.

(There were some surprising omissions, and some v questionable rankings, but I suppose lists like that are meant to spark discussion.)

Bill Carter said...

PPPS Chelsea Clinton was named after Joni Mitchell's "Chelsea Morning".

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