Joni Mitchell was born in 1943. Paul McCartney was born in 1942. Bob Dylan was born in 1941. Neil Young was born in 1945. Brian Wilson was born in 1942. Between them they have released a total of around 180 studio albums. That’s around 2000 songs created by five musicians all born within four years of each other. Apart from Joni Mitchell, who is recovering from a serious illness, each of these musicians is still producing material and each of them is a genius. (I’ve wondered whether to include Van Morrison (1945), Paul Simon (1941), John Lennon (1940), George Harrison (1943), Ray Davies (1944) or Mick Jagger (1943) in this list but I don’t think they are as inventive as the five artists mentioned above).
I’ve just finished reading (another) Beatles book. This time it was “The Longest Cocktail Party” by Richard deLileo who was the “house hippy” at Apple between 1968 and 1970. It’s very enthusiastic, funny and sad. He worked for Derek Taylor who was The Beatles’ press officer, having recently returned from California where, as press officer for The Beach Boys, he invented a highly successful publicity campaign with the tag line “Brian Wilson is a genius”.
There’s a great clip I used to have where Brian Wilson was asked what a genius is. His reply, if I remember correctly goes something like this. “Genius is when you have a complex, er, something, er, make it easy, an idea, um, it’s when you make a complex idea seem simple. Yes that’s it”. And there you have it. Brian Wilson explains a complicated idea and simplifies it to one succinct phrase. To take something complex and make it sound easy. That’s what these five geniuses do with “God Only Knows”, “For No One”, “No More”, “Angelina” and “Woodstock”, to name five random songs. They take a complex idea in their heads and present it to the rest of us in a way that is immediately accessible. Lots of musicians that I like take a complex idea and make it seem complex. Come on down, Robert Fripp. Others take a simple idea and make it seem simple. I’m talking to you, Jackie Oates. “The Joy Of Living” is a lovely simple album. I’m not sure I especially like simple ideas made complex. “Yessongs” springs to mind. But to take a complex idea and make it seem simple is a work of genius.
What was it about being born in California, Minnesota, Liverpool, Ontario and Alberta in the early Forties? The legacy of these five musicians will, I am certain, live on forever. I realise that it is only people of my generation who will venerate Cat Mother & The All Night Newsboys or The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. I get that. But it’s clear that as parents and grandparents play the music of their teenage years, younger generations are learning to love these five geniuses.
Two thousand years ago, a Genius was thought to be the tutelary deity of a man (and that of a woman was her Juno). This concept has been developed by Philip Pullman in “His Dark Materials” where a daimon is an animal that acts as a tutelary deity (guiding spirit) throughout one’s life. The Roman dictator Sulla named the goddess Victory as his Genius and held competitive games in her honour.
The National Recording Registry is a list of “sound recordings” that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically important and/or reflect life in the United States”. There are now about 550 such recordings listed including Thomas Edison’s first recordings from 1888, “Rhapsody In Blue” by George Gershwin, “Fireside Chats” by Franklyn D Roosevelt, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” by The Fisk Jubilee Singers, “The War Of The Worlds” by Orson Welles, “Kind Of Blue” by Miles Davis, “I Have A Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr., “The Complete Recordings” by Robert Johnson, “Sgt. Pepper” by The Beatles, “Pet Sounds” by The Beach Boys, The “Iron Curtain Speech” by Winston Churchill and “Remarks From The Moon” by Neil Armstrong. Sure, this is just a subjective list but it’s interesting to me that the only Joni Mitchell record in this registry is “For The Roses”.
Does this mean “For The Roses” is her best album? With a work of musical genius, comparisons between different albums is irrelevant. Is “Venus And Mars” better than “Band On The Run”? Is “God Only Knows” better than “Good Vibrations”? Is “Highway 61 Revisited” better than “Blood On The Tracks”? Is “Tonight’s The Night” better than “On The Beach”? suffice to say that this is a truly wonderful album featuring Joni Mitchell’s remarkable voice, her ability to sing emotionally, great instrumentation and profound lyrics.
The first tack on Side One is “Banquet”. It describes a table where “Some get the gravy and some get the gristle. Some get the marrow bone and some get nothing though there’s plenty to spare.” Life seems to be unfair where opportunities for happiness are variable. Some people get more than others. Some people search for truth through drugs, religion or “rambling round looking for a clean sky.” Two interesting references in the song. “I took my share down by the sea. Paper plates and Javex bottles on the tide” and later “I took my dream down by the sea. Yankee yachts and lobster pots and sunshine.” I didn’t know until a few minutes ago that Javex is the name for a bleach made in Canada. Nor did I know that a Californian company called Yankee made high class yachts.
Between 1970 and 1971, Joni Mitchell had a relationship with James Taylor which he finished in order to take up with Carly Simon whom he later married. She was very hurt by the way the relationship ended and some of the songs on this album reflect her feelings. “Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire” is a song about James Taylor’s battle with heroin. The cold blue steel is the apparatus that he used to take heroin and sweet fire is the feeling he got. She describes “Sweet Fire” calling to him, tempting him and saying “you can’t deny me“.
“Barangrill” concerns her search for a nice place to eat (a bar and grill) and coming across a guy at a gas station who sings to her just like Nat King Cole. In 1974 she described the inspiration for the song. “I wrote this song a couple years ago. At that time I was more of a seeker than I am now. Mainly because I was more miserable at that time. I wrote it as a spoof on the Trinity centered around three waitresses and I had two verses of it written. I wasn’t exactly sure where it was going to take me and one night I pulled into this gas station. It was after a session, really early in the morning and there was nobody there lined up or anything. There was this old black guy on duty there and he said to me “what are you doing out this hour of night?” And I said, “well, I just came from a recording session.” And he says “ohh, are you a singer?” And I said “yeah.” And he said “well, sing me something then.” On the spot like that, I couldn’t think of anything to sing so I said “You know, it’s very late at night, you know I’ve blown my pipes.” He said, “Okay; I’ll sing you something then.” So he stepped back from the car and he burst into song and he started going through this whole routine, and I kept thinking to myself ”I wish he would hurry up and put gas in my car.” Then halfway through it I said to myself “Now, wait a minute. This is a beautiful moment, and you’re rushing right through it like you’re hasty to go home to what? To sleep? Is sleep more important than this beautiful moment?” So when I got home, I felt like I had somehow rather been enlightened.”
“Lesson In Survival” is a restless love song in which Joni Mitchell is seeking privacy and isolation whilst at the same time regretting the loss of a partner. The final verse is a killer. “I went to see a friend tonight. It was very late when I walked in. My talking as it rambled revealed suspicious reasoning. The visit seemed to darken him. I came in as bright as a neon light and I burned out right there before him. I told him these things I’m telling you now and watched them buckle up in his brow. When you dig down deep you lose good sleep and it makes you heavy company. I will always love you. Hands alike. Magnet and iron. The souls.” Joni Mitchell never seems to hold anything back and lays her soul bare. The inference is that these feelings are a true reflection of her own feelings. This doesn’t apply to all the geniuses mentioned above. Not every song has to accurately reflect the feelings and experiences of the writer but I do think that in Joni Mitchell’s case, she writes her songs from personal experience. Maybe that’s why her poetry resonates so much. I don’t think Paul McCartney ever was actually assured by the Crimson Dynamo about a robbery but I do believe that Joni Mitchell once met a friend and both their moods darkened as a result.
“Lesson In Survival” moves seamlessly into “Let The Wind Carry Me”. This is another song about her restlessness and contrasts her independence with the security and stability of a conventional life. She sometimes wishes she could settle down, marry and raise a child but the feeling “passes like the summer. I’m a wild seed again. Let the wind carry me.”
With most artists, hearing them sing about how difficult it is to be successful and famous can be a little tiresome but with Joni Mitchell the dichotomy of success is presented in a beautiful way. Here is how she introduced “For The Roses” in a concert in 1974. “All my life I’ve had a battle going, a running duality between the spiritual & the sensual and I decided it was time the spiritual won out, at least for a little while. I looked around and my place had gotten over-opulent, and I thought that I had strayed off of some kind of path, like I was losing something. So I trekked back up to Canada, bought myself a piece of land, decided to put my money where my mouth was, get myself genuinely back to the garden, or at least give it a try.” Notice the reference to “Woodstock” with the line “back to the garden”. It’s a truly stunning song and leaves me in a very thoughtful mood listening to the silence at the end of Side One.
“See You Sometime” is written to James Taylor after they have split but wondering if they have any future together. “You know I’m not after a piece of your fortune and your fame, ’cause I tasted mine. I’d just like to see you sometime. Pack your suspenders. I’ll come meet your plane. No need to surrender. I just want to see you again.” A year later, James Taylor released “Mud Slide Slim And the Blue Horizon” and the cover photo featured him with a very ostentatious pair of suspenders (or “braces” as those of us in the UK would call them).
“Electricity” is perfect. A great melody, beautiful singing and lyrics that compare the electricity occurring between two lovers with the currents running through a house. “We once loved together and we floodlit that time. Input output electricity. But the lines overloaded and the sparks started flying and the loose wires were lashing out at me.“
A&M, Joni Mitchell’s record label wanted her to record a single. She responded with “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio” which, she believed would get lots of radio play. It reached Number 25 in the Billboard charts. It makes for a great double header with “Electricity” – both of them are instantly accessible and, when digging deep, reveal a profound clarity of thought. This time, the lyrics are happy, promising love if her lover is driving into town. She will be there for him.
“Blonde In The Bleachers” is more intense and is another song regretting the difficulties in forging a meaningful relationship whilst in the glare of popularity. “You can’t hold the hand of a rock’n’roll man for very long”.
“Woman Of Heart And Mind” is another wonderful song. It’s as confessional a song as I’ve ever heard. Her relationship (with James Taylor?) has ended and she examines the flaws of both of them. No one is to blame – there’s two people who didn’t connect. “I’m looking for affection and respect. A little passion and you want stimulation-nothing more. That’s what I think. But you know I’ll try to be there for you when your spirits start to sink.” It was also pretty unusual to hear anyone include the word “fuck” in a song in 1972.
Sadly, this album has to come to an end and “Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig’s Tune)” is the longest song here at just over five minutes. It is a weird way to end such a personal record as it takes the form of a pep song to Beethoven, originally titled “Letter For The Deaf Master”
“For The Roses” followed “Blue” which was much more accessible (but no less brilliant) and in many ways was a change of direction. All the geniuses that I mentioned at the start of this blog have had the capacity if not the desire to constantly re invent themselves and hang the consequences. Neil Young once remarked that he wondered where all the songs came from and he often thought he had direct access to a higher being. Joni Mitchell, with this wonderful album, followed her inspirations to present us with a work of art that will last for all eternity.