- 22 Jun 21
To mark the fiftieth anniversary of a masterpiece, Pat Carty listens again to Blue by Joni Mitchell and finds more than heartbreak and sadness.
I wouldn't for one second dare to presume that the erudite and attractive readers of Hot Press need any reminding about how truly great Joni Mitchell’s Blue is. Any record collection that doesn't contain it is merely a dust-gathering heap of vinyl and cardboard. “The quintessential confessional singer/songwriter album”, “intense”, “possibly the most gutting break-up album ever made.” Yeah, yeah, it’s certainly all those things, but it’s more than that too. In order to fully illustrate what I'm trying to get at here, let us first go back to Canada – Oh, Can-A-Da – in the early 1950s, where the determination of a young girl gave birth to an artist.
Birth Of The Cool
When she was only nine or ten – reports vary – Roberta Joan Anderson contracted polio and was faced with the possibility of life attached to an iron lung. She wasn’t having it and, rather than accept the alternative, she learned to walk again and would soon be sneaking out of the house to dance parties. As if to give a further two fingers to lungs artificial or otherwise, she enthusiastically took up smoking at around the same time. Nobody was ever going to tell her what to do.
The family settled in Saskatoon in the southern Canadian province of Saskatchewan when she was eleven. School wasn’t really for her, apart from the encouragement of her English teacher who she would later dedicate her first album too, so she concentrated on painting and even gave the piano a go but disliked being hit on the knuckles with a ruler for bum notes. She took up the guitar and performed at folk clubs in the area. Even at this early stage the interest in jazz was there and she was especially fond of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, a vocalese trio. Her version of ‘Twisted’ from their 1960 album The Hottest New Group In Jazz would finish out 1974’s Court And Spark.
Anderson went on to the Alberta College Of Art in 1963 but dropped out after a year, again because she would not countenance being told what to do, she wasn’t interested in being directed towards commercial art. The gigs weren’t really going anywhere but she did start to write, somewhat forced into it by the possessiveness of other musicians over the standards they saw as “their songs” on the circuit.
In 1964 she was pregnant, alone and broke. It was the era when 'bringing shame on the family' was an issue, so she felt forced to give up the child, a daughter, to foster care. Two weeks later she was back playing. She met Chuck Mitchell who persuaded her down to Michigan with the promise of work. They performed together as a folk duo, Chuck being canny enough to know that his prospects would improve with such a talent by his side. Joan told him of the daughter in care, Chuck made vague promises and got a ring on her finger, only to then inform her, in no uncertain terms, that he wasn’t about to raise another man’s child. Joan was trapped with a man she would later describe as “academically stupid”, but she wasn’t the sort to stay that way. She divorced him at the start of 1967 but she kept his name and Joni Mitchell moved to New York City.
As a songwriter, Mitchell had already made a few inroads. A meeting with Tom Rush had resulted in his recording of ‘Urge For Going’ which lead to George Hamilton IV – a man familiar to Irish people of a certain age for his TV show – and I’m pretty sure I didn’t dream this - which used to run on RTÉ in the 1970s – having a country hit with the same song. More importantly for what came next, Buffy Sainte-Marie covered ‘The Circle Game’ and Judy Collins – a woman that Mitchell admitted mimicking when she started out – would have substantial hits with ‘Both Sides Now’ and ‘Chelsea Morning’, the song that Bill and Hillary Clinton would name their daughter for.
It wasn’t in New York but in Florida that David Crosby – this was 1967, the year he got the boot out of The Byrds – saw her play and could scarcely believe it. He persuaded her to come with him back to Los Angeles and things began to happen. David Geffen had already heard her name, through that Buffy Saine-Marie cover, and so became her agent. Elliot Roberts practically begged to be allowed to manage her. These two powerful individuals, who would go on to rule the roost over the music scene in California in the early seventies, were only getting started at the time but they were good men to have in your corner nevertheless. Mitchell signed to Reprise Records and Crosby produced – mostly by staying out of the way – her first album, 1968’s Song To A Seagull. Whatever Crosby did or didn’t do – he kept it free of overdubs at least – Mitchell was never that happy with it. For the new boxset – The Reprise Albums (1968 – 1971) – she has remixed it, claiming “The original mix was atrocious. It sounded like it was recorded under a jello bowl!” It didn’t exactly set the world aflame but people were listening, with Mama Cass and Judy Collins both covering songs from it.
Mitchell won her first Grammy for her second album, 1969’s Clouds, which came wrapped in a Mitchell self-portrait and found room for both ‘Chelsea Morning’ and ‘Both Sides Now’. 1970’s Ladies Of The Canyon made the top thirty, an album beloved by no less a song writing talent than Declan O’Rourke who raved about it to me in a recent interview. ‘Willy’ was written for then beau Graham Nash and ‘Woodstock’ was written to celebrate the festival she didn’t attend, despite being asked. She had a TV show to do, and management weren’t crazy about the idea of half a million people in the mud. Said TV show, hosted by Dick Cavett in unconvincing hippie garb, was “invaded” by new supergroup Crosby, Stills and Nash and the footage shows a grinning Mitchell but the smile looks pained. She put the same song on the B-side of the single ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ which was a fair-sized hit outside of the US – the 1974 live version would fare better there. A songwriter she greatly admired, a Mr Bob Dylan from Minnesota, would later cover this, but he didn’t even consider his version good enough for Self Portrait, so let’s say no more about it.
Ladies Of The Canyon did a bit of business but it was at this point that Mitchell decided – doubtless to the dismay of the backroom boys – to take some time out, quit touring, and do some painting and writing. The relationship with Nash – the one he would immortalise on CSN&Y’s 1970 album Déjà Vu with ‘Our House’ – had already soured, in part at least because Mitchell wasn’t about to be tied down. Her first stop on this time out was Crosby’s boat, anchored off Jamaica, but Crosby – who also had a relationship with Mitchell - had conspired to have Nash present. Mitchell went ashore sharpish and flew to Greece with poet pal Penelope Ann Schafer and they made their way to the fishing village of Matala on the island of Crete.
It sounds as idyllic as it does impractical but beautiful people were living in the sandstone caves of the area, being as it was, the age of Aquarius. Mitchell met mad cook, Cary Raditz, and spent two blissful months with him, learning yoga from the succinctly named Yogi Joe and playing her dulcimer in the countryside. It doesn’t really get more 1970 than that. As always though, Mitchell was only ever passing through, and sang a new song for Raditz as both a birthday present and a good bye. She moved on to Paris, then Spain, and then – making her way slowly back to where she felt she belonged – to Canada where she played a festival with James Taylor, a man she had previously met. They became a couple, and she accompanied him to New Mexico for his acting role in Two Lane Backdrop.
It wasn’t all (for the) roses in the garden, however. Mitchell played the Isle Of Wight Festival in August of 1970 and had to battle with the daylight crowd who perhaps weren’t in the mood for her mellow vibes. Again, Mitchell stood her ground and extant footage shows her winning the throng over through sheer will power alone, although her cause wasn’t helped by the previously mentioned Yogi Joe – who may have been ever-so-slightly high - appearing on stage – uninvited – with some bongos to join in. Unsurprisingly, he was escorted away. After recording a show together In London where they giggled and finished each other’s sentences, as couples have been doing since we first climbed down from the trees, Mitchell and Taylor spent Christmas of that year – and not just in their minds – in his native Carolina, even going carol singing, to the bemusement and delight of several locals.
Finally, early 1971 found her back in California, working in A&M studios on her new record. In the same complex, Carole King was putting together the cash register buster Tapestry, and Taylor was constructing Mudslide Slim And The Blue Horizon. Mitchell would appear on both albums.
Kind Of Blue
Many, many trees have died so that reams of commentary – just like this one – could be written about the masterpiece – her first, but certainly not her last – that Mitchell birthed in that studio. Blue – released on June 22, 1971 - is quite rightly lauded as one of the greatest albums ever made. Most recently, it came in at number three in Rolling Stone’s 2020 500 Greatest Albums list, losing out to another ’71 masterpiece – that was an exceptional year – Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Michell has said that at the time she “felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend to be strong,” and the world and its Ma have gone on at length about Blue as a confessional, heart breaking, sad record but I’m going to try to offer another view and justify the many paragraphs above that you waded through to get this far. Blue can certainly be heard as all those things, but it can also stand as a statement of independence and strength from a great artist who staunchly refuses to be held down, an artist aware of her worth, with both eyes firmly set on the prize, the same artist who had been doing it her way since that childhood diagnosis.
‘All I Want’ – and there’s a laying out of the stall straight away, here’s what I want – has Mitchell declaring, over that same dulcimer she composed on in the Crete countryside, that she’s on a “lonely road”, the artist’s path and lot, “looking for the key to set me free.” Yes, she wants to have fun and knit a sweater and write a love letter for whatever man she’s partly singing to, possibly Taylor who’s there in the background on guitar, but what she really wants to do is “bring out the best in me and you.” The me comes first, what she really wants is to do her best work, her thing. The jealousy will be the unravelling – and how could the lesser artists around her not be jealous, the various Salieri to her Mozart – yes, I know that rivalry was mostly a fiction, but I’m rolling now, so allow it – for hers was a talent far beyond theirs.
On the surface, 'My Old Man’ is another love song but that line about not needing “no piece of paper from the city hall” can again be seen as her refusal to do what’s expected, as well as a declaration of how strong the love between herself and Graham Nash – who the song is reported to be about – was. Perhaps Nash wanted that piece of paper, but Mitchell certainly didn’t. She already tried being married and it didn’t take. If you were expecting someone to make the dinner and darn the socks, you needed to look elsewhere, Mitchell had other things to be doing. It was strong statement to make in an age when women, like my own mother, were expected to give up any career they might have been building in order to become full-time housewives. Mitchell wouldn’t dream of any such bullshit. It’s not that she didn’t love Nash - the line about the frying pan being too wide when he’s not around would have warranted mentioned on Dylan’s Nobel citation had he come up with it for Blood On The Tracks - she just wasn’t about to settle, she had more to do. “He wanted me to marry him,” said Mitchell years later. “I started thinking, my grandmother was a frustrated poet and musician, she kicked the kitchen door off of the hinges. I thought about my paternal grandmother who wept for the last time in her life at fourteen because she wanted a piano and I thought ‘maybe I’m the one that has to make it happen for these two women’… I’d better not, and it broke my heart.”
Before the story was made public about Joni’s daughter, anyone listening to Blue - and this was certainly my experience of it when I heard it as a younger man - would surely think of ‘Little Green’, a song that Mitchell wrote around 1967 - there’s a live recording of it with only slight melodic differences from that year on the recently issued The Early Years (1963-1967) - as one of those “sad songs”. A friend of mine, Sonya, when she heard I was researching this album, said that Blue “grows with you” and that’s an excellent bit of insight. Listening to ‘Little Green’ as a parent is a heart breaking and difficult experience, as Mitchell imagines the flowers to be brought to school and the summer clothes that she won’t get to buy for her daughter. There’s also the almost shockingly open lines about signing the papers and sparing the family shame, penned in an era when such things were just not spoken about. Is it any wonder that here was the artist who could write so accurately about ‘The Magdalene Laundries’ later on? She had some idea of the pain and loss involved. Mitchell would be reunited with her daughter in the late nineties, around which time, as she said herself, she kind of lost interest in song writing, just as the birth of her daughter coincided with her first real steps in that direction.
Juxtaposed with all that is the freewheeling joy of the song ‘Carey’. There’s no real sadness here, despite the fact that it is a goodbye song. In fact, when I heard this first, at about eighteen, I thought it offered a design for life. Here’s what I’ll do, I thought, I’ll head for Greece and I’ll meet some genius who plays guitar – if she happens to look like Joni Mitchell, then that’ll be good too. We’ll sit around in the Mermaid Café and she might even buy the wine, and the only office I’ll go near is the post office, so I can send postcards back to the people I know, sat in offices, and tell them how I’m getting on. Things didn’t quite work out like that, but it was a good plan. The thing is, and Sonya’s wisdom comes in here again, as you grow up, you start to see yourself more as Mitchell in the song. Sometimes, despite it all being beautiful, you have to move on and keep going, towards whatever is waiting for you. Mitchell might hate to leave him, but she knows this is not her home, there's something else, further down the road.
The romantic’s ears are also peaked by the causal notion of maybe going to Amsterdam or maybe Rome “and rent me a grand piano and put some flowers ‘round my room.” I would suggest that any young – or not so young – person who hears this and doesn’t long to do something similar, to find a place for themselves in this dream, is going at life all wrong and should probably hand back the keys. Mitchell claims to miss the “clean white linen and that fancy French cologne” but I think there’s more to it than that, she knew from the off that she was only passing through. Things certainly sound pretty fine and dandy in this island idyll but the muse is calling on her to get back on the job.
That’s not the last appearance for Mr Raditz though, he shows up again in ‘California’, a song about Mitchell’s longing to get back from her travels, back to the sunshine state where she might even kiss a policeman, although that’s pretty extreme. She thanks Cary for giving her back her smile, despite the fact that he nicked her camera, and compliments his culinary skills, especially his omelettes and his stews, but her heart cried out for California, the place where she could truly be who she’s supposed to be. She tells us of a further sojourn, in Spain at the home of Rolling Stone boss, Jann Wenner, but it’s just another whistle stop. She offers a plea to all her suitors, “Will you take me as I am?”, which stands as the crux of the entire album, for it’s the only way they can be with her. The lady’s not for turning, as another woman would famously say, in the next decade.
‘This Flight Tonight’ could be about Raditz or Nash Or Taylor but it’s hard to believe that Mitchell really does want the plane to turn around. ‘River’ is, on one hand, the saddest Christmas song of all time, with Mitchell caressing ‘Jingle Bells’ out of the piano but with added ‘blue’ notes. It probably relates to the Christmas in Carolina with Taylor – “it stays pretty green here” – but it also shows her mistrust of her growing fame – “I’m gonna make a lot of money and quit this crazy scene.” That she “made her baby cry” makes her wish for "a river that I could skate away on” but she has one, it’s her art. While she might regret the pain she’s caused, there’s no other way around it, “take me as I am” or stand aside.
If someone like Prince covers one of your songs then you know you’re doing something right – he was a lifelong Mitchell fan; remember who sings when he turns on the radio at bath time in ‘The Ballad of Dorothy Parker’ – and ‘A Case Of You’ is one of the most perfect songs ever written. Maybe it’s about her time with Leonard Cohen and if it is, the savage opening put down must have stung, “constantly in the dark? If you want me, I’ll be in the bar.” Yes, since her childhood she has been the lonely painter who lives in a box of paints but it’s the chorus that states her stance. I love you to the moon and back, I could drink an entire case of you, but I can handle you, I’ll still be on my feet. If you’ve got to go, if I think you’ve got to go, I’ll be sad, but I’ll get over it.
She’s back in “Detroit in ‘68”, ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’ so it’s not a huge stretch to imagine this is about her ex-husband, who scoffs at her romantic notions and the pretty men who surround her. “All romantics meet the same fate” he tells her, drunk in a bar somewhere. Mitchell stands back and takes a look at him and thinks about this. He’s married to some woman, another skater who’s on a different river, and he’s chained her to the dishwasher. That’s not what Mitchell wanted, she swerved around that one, but she didn’t end up like other dreamers “hidin’ behind bottles in dark café.” She came out of that cocoon, on the “gorgeous wings” of her art - like Joyce before her she takes the Daedalian route - and flies away to the life she demands for herself.
This is, of course, just one way of looking at it.
What’s definitive and unquestionable is the mastery involved. If we take the title track, which I left out above, I would argue that no one else in rock’s golden circle was even capable of attempting such a thing at the time. Its structure is closer to classical than anything pop, the melody is unexpected, and her voice shows a control that leaves all others in the shade. Her old pal Crosby said of the album, “By The time she did Blue, she was past me and rushing to the horizon.” She was past them all. I might squeeze more of my hypothesis out of the lyrics too. “Songs are like tattoos, you know I’ve been to sea before, crown and anchor me, or let me sail away.” “this your song from me,” but that’s all you can have, you can’t have me.
A note on the music of Blue; there are other people apart from Mitchell on the record, although it’s easy to miss them, such is her presence. Russ Kunkel adds some percussion, Taylor plays some guitar, and even Flying Burrito Brother Sneaky Pete Kleinow gets out his pedal steel, but really Mitchell didn’t need them. Whatever about her piano playing and her dulcimer, she is – and this can’t be stated enough, and she should be right up near the top in any of those polls on such matters – an exceptional guitar player. Her own view on it is that she just kept turning the tuning heads until she found the chords that matched the emotions she felt. There’s another theory that – like Django Reinhardt before her – she overcame a weakness in her left hand, brought on by polio, by using alternate tunings. This might be plausible, I suppose, but it sounds slightly reductive. To illustrate how different her approach was, I might refer you to the story of The Band having to work hard to play along with her for The Last Waltz, or the famous clip of her playing ‘Coyote' at a party in Gordon Lightfoot’s house as a struggling Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn try to keep up. Is it any wonder she’d require the likes of Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius to accompany her later on?
I’m not knocking NPR and the good work they do but to award Blue the accolade “the greatest album of all time made by a woman” might be to slightly miss the point. Remember What’s Going On taking that RS top spot? Nobody ever called that the “best album ever made by a man.” This is just a perfect album – two other songs were recorded for the album, another old song in ‘Urge For Going’ and ‘Hunter (The Good Samaritan)', an musical early relative of 'This Flight Tonight', but were rejected, although both can now be heard on the just released Blue 50 (Demos and Outtakes). It happens to have been written and performed by a woman, but it’s for anyone – woman, man, child, or other - with heart and head. There is pain and there is unavoidable regret. It is daringly open, we are allowed to gaze through that cellophane cigarette packet wrapper, but it’s also a travelogue of an artistic journey and a testament to artistic defiance, a refusal to accept any set role that has been laid out for her, as either an artist or as a woman. It is a thing of delicate beauty but part of the reason it endures is that it is also, as contradictory as it sounds, strong as steel.
My thanks to Dr Dave Fanning, who let me waffle on about such things on his fab RTÉ 2FM radio show, and so prompted me to type them out. You can listen back to our chat here.