October 11th 1980. It’s a Saturday and I’m in my flat in Harlow, living by myself as I have done for the previous four years and as I will continue to do so for another twelve years. I have a mild headache thanks to the four pints of Watney’s I’ve drink at The Hemnall Street Social Club in Epping the night before. I had played snooker, cards and the fruit machines with three mates who were teaching at Netteswell School with me. If it had been the Summer we would have been playing cricket together on Saturday and Sunday but the outdoor season is over and Indoor Cricket on a Sunday morning hasn’t started yet. The weekend beckons but I have nothing to do. It’s eight years before I would meet Paddy or Arthur, my Friday night mates have their weekends planned with wives, girlfriends, daughters etc. Most weekends I would invite friends to stay over or visit them but I haven’t got around to organising anything this time. In other weekends, maybe Saturday might be a blank but Sunday would involve watching some Indoor Cricket games before playing and then going to The Cock or The Three Horseshoes or The Archers Dart for beer and roast potatoes before ransacking a Co-Op for pork pies and Bakewell tarts, allowing me to snooze through a Sunday afternoon only to wake up around 6 o’clock and frantically prepare Monday’s lessons.
But on October 11th 1980, none of this was in prospect. Two whole days with nothing planned and no possibility of talking to anyone. There were two bags full of exercise books that needed marking. The flat could do with a clean. Actually, those socks on the floor needed picking up but nobody was coming round so why bother? I suppose I could do a little bit of washing up from last night’s midnight feast of toast and jam. When was the last time I phoned my parents?
The paper arrived. Nearly three thousand people killed in an Algerian earthquake yesterday. Our esteemed Prime Minister has explained that she wasn’t for turning and she encouraged a future Prime Minister to carry out a U-Turn if he wanted to. I think Boris Johnson should have read the whole speech. No cricket to read about and this was many years before Friday night football so no reports to read.
Multi Coloured Swap Shop was on so that would have passed a few hours but Maggie Philbin was no Sarah Greene. I wandered up to Harlow Town Centre and bought a seed bloomer. I ate the crust on the way home by picking bits of it off and surreptitiously eating them, hoping that anyone I passed wouldn’t see what I was doing. Back home for more toast and Football Focus. Did I really want to watch horse racing on Grandstand all afternoon? I know. I’ll buy a record. I wandered back up to the record shop in Harlow and leafed through the racks. Nothing caught my interest. I didn’t really feel like listening to music. Hang on, one album has caught my attention and forty years later I’m holding it in my hand now as a souvenir of a lazy depressing weekend in October. “Shadows And Light” by Joni Mitchell.
Neil Young had established early in the seventies that he wasn’t going to compromise his artistic vision for the sake of his popularity. Or, as he confessed to Andy Kershaw in an interview on “Whistle Test”, “I have systematically tried to destroy the base of my record buying public.”
Joni Mitchell was no less single minded in her quest for new musical adventures. At the start of the seventies, she released two “folk” albums (“Blue” and “For The Roses”) and followed this up with the highly successful and accessible “Court And Spark” in 1974. However, the next four albums reflected a real change of direction from folk to jazz. “The Hissing Of Summer Lawns” is highly regarded as one of her best albums; Joni Mitchell herself described “Hejira” as “inspired”. The double album “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter” was experimental and “Mingus”, a collaboration with Charles Mingus was even more experimental and inaccessible. The latter album was her only album of the Seventies that did not sell half a million copies. Two months after its release, Joni Mitchell started a six week tour of the USA from which the tracks on this album were taken. A film of the concert was released at the same time as this live double album. The CD and DVD are still available.
I had never been able to find any way to get into “Mingus” when I first bought it in 1979. However, back in that dark depressing day in 1980, I found the jazz elements of the versions on this album easier to listen to. There are three songs from “Mingus” on the album; there are two extended solo tracks from Pat Metheny (guitar) and Don Alias (drums); the only song from her catalogue before 1975 is “Woodstock” and it is a totally different version – it’s at least as good as the original and the guitar work of Pat Metheny is gorgeous. Her band includes Michael Brecker on saxophone and he puts in several remarkable performances, particularly on “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines” which also features some sensational bass from Jaco Pastorius.
Possibly the most interesting song on this album is the title track, “Shadows And Light” and this is the song that I kept returning to in October 1980. The original version of the song was released on “The Hissing Of Summer Lawns” and there’s a great version of the song on You Tube when she sings it with The Band in 1976. This version is an ethereal masterpiece and is utterly phenomenal. The song is performed with The Persuasions, an acapella group from New York; Lyla Mays’ keyboard playing is beautiful. The Joni Mitchell website has an article which describes this track as a “aural chiaroscuro, a beautiful metaphysical meditation on nuance and complexity”. I had to look up chiaroscuro – the definition is a “treatment of light and shade in drawing and painting”. However you wish to describe it, it certainly lifted my mood forty years ago and I’ve become a little tearful watching the video just now.