Listening to people who phone Samaritans recently, it occurred to me that everybody needs to speak to someone about problems in their lives. Some of us are lucky to have friends and family who will listen but not everyone is so fortunate. For a tiny minority of people, singing about different issues in such a way that millions of people have an idea of what you are going through is cathartic. Joni Mitchell’s amazing album “Blue”, her fourth, covers a lot of the same issues that are brought up in Samaritans calls.
Although Samaritans exists to reduce the number of suicides, it is primarily a listening service and some of the issues that people want to talk about include loneliness, drug addiction, abusive relationships, infatuation, loss of a child and self recrimination. All these issues are addressed on “Blue”.
However, the sound of the album is anything but gloomy, depressing or miserable. Her voice is a thing of beauty, soaring high and low and evoking a deep emotional response. The instrumentation on this album is very pretty with the sound of her wonderful dulcimer guitar prevailing on many of the tracks.
“All I Want” and “California” both deal with loneliness and the search for a meaningful relationship. “I am on a lonely road and I am traveling” and “Oh, it gets so lonely when you’re walking and the streets are full of strangers.“ However, in both of these songs, she is unable to find happiness as the relationships unravel. “Do you see, do you see, do you see how you hurt me, baby? So I hurt you too, then we both get so blue“
“A Case Of You” and “My Old Man” deal with the problems of infatuation and over dependency. In “My Old Man”, she can’t cope when Graham Nash is not there. “But when he’s gone, me and them lonesome blues collide“. In what is possibly the best song of Joni Mitchell’s career, “A Case Of You”, she has become addicted (to either Graham Nash or Leonard Cohen). In the same way that an alcoholic is addicted to alcohol, Joni Mitchell has built up a tolerance to her lover over the course of a long running affair, full of exhaustion and dependency. “Oh, you are in my blood like holy wine. You taste so bitter and so sweet. Oh, I could drink a case of you, darling and I would still be on my feet“.
In 1964 Joni Mitchell, then aged twenty one, became pregnant by her then boyfriend. She said “He left me three months pregnant in an attic room with no money and winter coming on and only a fireplace for heat.” She put her daughter up for adoption and they didn’t meet again until 1997. She identified the moment of her daughter’s birth as the moment when her songwriting inspiration began. When asked why she started songwriting she replied “I got pregnant”. After meeting her daughter, she said that she lost interest in songwriting. This makes me think of how John Lennon’s muse was his mother, Julia Lennon who he lost when he was seventeen and how, arguably, his best songs were written whilst his mother remained his muse (until he met Yoko Ono). In “Little Green”, she describes the heartbreaking moment when, no more than a child herself, she loses her daughter. “Child with a child pretending. Weary of lies you are sending home. So you sign all the papers in the family name. You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed. Little green, have a happy ending“. In this remarkable clip from 1967, she even sings the name of her daughter, Kelly, but the meaning of the song wasn’t made clear until 1993.
The title track, “Blue”, is probably about James Taylor. Although Joni Mitchell loved him, his depression and subsequent heroin addiction meant that there was no future in their relationship. The line “Acid, booze, and ass, needles, guns, and grass” clearly describes the root of the breakdown of their relationship.
“Carey” and “California” both describe Joni Mitchell’s holiday in Crete where she met an American named Cary Raditz. “I met a redneck on a Grecian isle. Who did the goat dance very well. He gave me back my smile but he kept my camera to sell”. Talking to “The Wall Street Journal” in 2014, Cary Raditz says that “looking back, I wasn’t so nice to her or to anybody for that matter”. He tells a story about how he constantly put Joni Mitchell down and tried to undermine her. The psychological damage he inflicted on her caused the relationship to end as she tells him “you’re a mean old Daddy”.
“River” and “This Flight Tonight” are two songs in which she looks back on relationships that have finished and regrets her own behaviour. In the former, she sings “I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad. Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby I ever had” In the latter, she worries that she has walked away too soon. “I’m drinking sweet champagne, got the headphones up high. Can’t numb you out, can’t drum you out of my mind“.
“The Last Time I Saw Richard” describes Joni Mitchell in a dark place but dreaming of better things. She is alone, she is aware that her dreams have been unfulfilled but she hopes that her current depression is only temporary as the future will be better. She explains this to “Richard”, commonly assumed to be Chuck Mitchell, her husband from 1965 – 1967. “I’m gonna blow this damn candle out. I don’t want nobody comin’ over to my table, I got nothing to talk to anybody about. All good dreamers pass this way some day, hidin’ behind bottles in dark cafes. Dark cafes, only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away. Only a phase, these dark cafe days“. As in a lot of the other songs on the album, she is searching for an escape. It’s an incredible song.
Ben Burrell in his podcast, “Long Player” says that, in “Blue”, Joni Mitchell has “created beauty out of a whole lot of pain”. That’s spot on.