Song To A Seagull by Joni Mitchell


When Dave first mentioned that he was going to get a Brighton And Hove Albion season ticket for the 2016/17 season, I asked whether he would mind if I joined him. We had a great time watching them get promoted from the Championship into the Premier League. They played twenty three home games, winning seventeen times and only losing three times. There was much beer quaffed, many pies gobbled down and lots of bollocks talked. Towards the end of the season, the anticipation was very high as promotion looked a real possibility. The atmosphere in the ground was euphoric, not to say a little hysterical. A song was ingrained into my memory which was not special to Brighton. “We’re on our way. On our way. To the Premier League, we’re on our way”. After the win against Wigan which sealed promotion, the celebrations in the bars afterwards were wild. I’m not someone who normally likes a rowdy party atmosphere but this was brilliant. The song to the Seagulls was sung over and over in the North Stand bar.

Did you see what I did there? Brighton’s nickname is the “Seagulls.”

The point that I want to make here is that the anticipation of playing in the Premier League was wonderful. Since the promotion, every season has been difficult and relegation back to the Championship has been a distinct possibility until the last few games. That doesn’t underestimate the great feeling of relief at the end of each season and it’s clearly a greater achievement to finish fifteenth in The Premier League than second in the Championship. However, the truth of the matter is that it was much more enjoyable to see victory after victory and anticipate the glittering prize than to witness the struggle in The Premier League. The anticipation was a nicer feeling than the reality.

It’s another match day today. This time, it’s Spurs away so it’s not quite as stressful as other games. Brighton are expected to lose so apart from the indignity of some apologetic messages from Kevin and Peter, it’s a bit of a free game as long as it’s not a humiliating defeat. However, there’s still a small part of me that just wonders if Brighton can’t pull off a surprise victory. Once again, the anticipation is almost certainly going to be better than the reality of watching the game.

I am a bit of a sucker for a box set. Whereas other people like to spend their hard earned cash on paintings, cases of wine, musical instruments, whiskey, cars or clothes, my preference is for a CD or, especially, a box set. The Beatles have thoughtfully provided a box set a year until the pandemic forced the delay of “Let It Be”. The Richard & Linda Thompson boxset is a treat and the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series has proved irresistible. One of the problems with box sets is that the extra material consists of stuff that the artist decided wouldn’t be suitable for release at the time. So early versions of “Octopus’ Garden” or “Old Brown Shoe” don’t really add much to The Beatles’ canon. Having twenty live versions of “She Belongs To Me” by Bob Dylan from 1966 isn’t essential. Sadly, for me, it’s the possession of something beautiful that is the appeal rather than the actual experience of playing the songs.

On Thursday, the Joni Mitchell Archives box set arrived. It consists of five CDs covering the years from 1963 to 1967, finishing just as she recorded her first album. It’s a beautiful artefact with a great booklet consisting of lots of photos and a great interview with Joni Mitchell conducted by Cameron Crowe who wrote for Rolling Stone and wrote and directed “Jerry Maguire” and “Almost Famous”. There are eighty songs on these albums and this includes early versions of six of the songs on her debut album, “Song For A Seagull”. There are about forty songs that she never released on her studio albums, most of which are traditional songs but some are originals.

So, it’s lovely to have the Joni Mitchell box set and I’ve been looking forward to its arrival for over a month now. The problem is that, along with every other box set I have, the anticipation has been greater than the reality. Over the last two days I’ve played two of the five CDs. In the four weeks that I’ve had the Richard And Linda Thompson CDs, I’ve played six of the eight CDs. The ridiculous 36 CD box set of every concert Bob Dylan played in 1966 is only half played. The three “Abbey Road” CDs have all been played but only once. The truth is that although I don’t consider myself a materialistic person, I prefer to have, to own, to possess, to look at these box sets rather than actually play them.

Listening to the early Joni Mitchell songs, I thought it would be good to listen to “Song For A Seagull” again. It’s astonishing. The two sides of the record each have a subtitle and reflect the location of the stories that she tells. Side One is “I came to the city” and tells of her time in New York. Side Two tells of her move to the West Coast and is called “Out of the city and down to the seaside”.

When she moved to the West Coast she dated David Crosby and Graham Nash in turn. David Crosby is named as producer of “Song To A Seagull” and his main achievement seems to be have been to not add any unnecessary orchestration to these pure songs. Joni Mitchell was very grateful for that and felt that “No one would have let me put out an acoustic album a year ago. They would have said it’s like having a whole paintbox and using only brown.

“I Had A King”, on Side One, tells the story of her divorce from Chuck Mitchell (she was formerly Roberta Joan Anderson before becoming Joni Mitchell). The second song (“Michael From Mountains”) describes Michael who, according to Joni Mitchell “was a child-man; he was always showing you his treasures like a boy“. She tries to get to know him well but the excitement of life in New York meant that the relationship ended. “Night In The City” is more upbeat and features Stephen Stills on bass. It develops the theme of the previous song in describing night time in New York. “Marcie” is a beautiful song and tells the story of unrequited love and wasted time in the city. After that disappointment, she decides to leave New York and head West and to get to the airport she takes a taxi driven by a curmudgeon named “Nathan La Franeer” who “hated everyone who paid to ride and share his common space“.

The first track on Side Two is “Sistowbell Lane”. Sistowbell stands for ‘somehow, in spite of troubles, ours will be ever-lasting love’. She has moved to California and is now mixing with pretentious highbrow aristocracy. “The Dawntreader” is utterly gorgeous and tells the story of her time with David Crosby, in particular the time they spent on his yacht. “The Pirate Of Penance” is in the form of a mini opera with a dialogue between Penance Crane and The Dancer. It’s a good song but a brilliant title. Saving the best for the last two songs, “Song To A Seagull” looks back on her experiences on both the East and West coasts and decides that she is unfulfilled and out of love. It’s stunningly sad. It’s a bit obvious to say that Joni Mitchell has a great voice but on this song her range, emotion, purity and singing is better than anything else ever recorded in the history of music. Certainly, that’s how I feel right now. “Cactus Tree” is equally sad but very introspective and honest. She is prepared to make a clear distinction between sex and love but it appears that her suitors may not feel the same way. She is not ready for commitment and she is fearful of anyone who is expecting it from her. There is a litany of lovers (a sailor, a mountaineer, a writer, a soldier, a comedian, a shopkeeper and a musician) and she makes it clear that “she will love them when she sees them; they will lose her if they follow”. This is because her heart is “full and hollow like a cactus tree.

I just feel sorry for all these guys who were full of anticipation of a life of bliss with Joni Mitchell only to be disappointed by the reality.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

5 thoughts on “Song To A Seagull by Joni Mitchell

  1. There’s cover in the Press this weekend (1 November 2020) about her illness and slow recovery. It’s good to hear these songs and to SEE her after ages. Hadn’t realised she’d been so absent. ‘Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone….?’ I hope Joni makes it and I’m going to do some listening – maybe not a ‘box set’ tho’!

    Liked by 1 person

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