- Wallace Stevens, "The Man With the Blue Guitar"
On Sunday I finished my Joni Mitchell book Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period by Michelle Mercer. Man alive does that woman (Joni, not Michelle) have a lot of strong opinions! Not that I mind in theory, but good grief I'd be afraid to be her friend for fear I'd say the wrong thing. But despite her somewhat abrasive personality, I loved reading about her thoughts on music, the recording industry, and her life, but most of all the stories behind the songs.
I have a problem where I really want to know EVERYTHING about my favorite songs: who was it about, when and where was it written, and how? But at the same time I don't want the knowledge of a song's origin or muse to color my ability to lay my own meanings and interpretations and experiences over it. So I simultaneously loved and hated reading which famous songwriters Joni dated (James Taylor, Graham Nash, Leonard Cohen, etc.) inspired which tracks off Blue. I won't say here in case you don't want to know, but I did love learning that so much of Songs for Beginners, Graham Nash's first solo album, was written about Joni (especially "Simple Man"!).
I really enjoyed the book, though it was sometimes repetitive or meandering. Mercer does a great job writing about why Joni's music resonates like it does, as well as providing great personal anecdotes and history to the songwriter and her songs. Joni's Blue period referenced in the title isn't just the time of the writing and recording of the album Blue, but it through Heijira, so chronologically Blue, For the Roses, Court and Spark, and Hejira. This collection is considered to have been the product of a time marked most by her autobiographical song-writing.
Joni remembers Blue as the hardest of all her albums to write and record. "We had to lock the door 'cause if somebody came in and looked at me cross-eyed I burst into tears," she told Mercer. "You know, I was weeping all the time." It is pretty freaking raw. I grew up with Blue, and my love of it turned me on to her other albums, especially her earlier work (which Joni would be unhappy about--it's clear she values her later work as her best and favorite). Maybe when I'm older I'll appreciate her later stuff, but I just prefer her folk music to her more jazzy work. It's obvious that Blue's revealing honesty makes it accessible to almost anyone in the mood to let it touch their own lives and memories.
"[Joni] clarified murky emotions so you could immerse yourself in them. The conflicting need for love and independence was less troubling when expressed with such vividness and precision, and feeling that comfortable with ambivalence was like being able to breathe underwater."
My mom always said that she was worried Joni was depressed when she wrote this album, and she certainly could have been. Yet even in times of emotional stability and happiness this album provides space and sound and lyrics to delve into a vast array of feelings: regret, guilt ("River"), homesickness, loneliness ("California"), familiarity, love ("My Old Man"),
independence, disillusionment ("Blue"), etc. At the time of recording Joni had a new lover but was still getting over an old one who she had planned--on some level--to marry. She related to the idea of Nietzsche's Zarathustra, who envisioned poets who wrote "in their own blood." The whole album isn't necessarily dark, but it is honest and personal even at its lighter moments: "The wind is in from Africa, last night I couldn't sleep." She recalls that even her contemporaries were taken aback:
"At that time we were still young enough that we played our songs for each other. It horrified the male singer-songwriters around me. I was amazed. They'd listen to it and they'd go [swallowing sound]. They were embarrassed for me...The feminine appetite for intimacy is stronger than it is in men. So my songwriter friends listened and they all shut down, even Neil Young. The only one who spoke up was Kris Kristofferson. 'Jesus, Joni,' he said. 'Save something for yourself.'"
"River" is certainly a bleak song, especially with its Christmas theme. I listen to it year-round, but there is a definite emotion that arises when I listen to it at Christmastime. For all my unending love for the holiday and its season, there are moments where I either feel the exact opposite of what I should or want to feel, or perhaps worse, nothing at all. For me "River" is completely void of the innocence and hopefulness that Advent represents and instead offers a time of reflection on the gloom of the past or feelings of loneliness even in the crowds of people. I hasn't been covered by tons of people just because it's pretty:
"Look how many people identify with that song at Christmastime--everybody!" Joni told me. "How many people go through Christmas happy? More are miserable than not. And that song, every year more people sing it with great authenticity. I've never heard anybody sing that song that it didn't sound like it was about themselves."
Mercer describes the whole album similarly: "[Blue] is the sort of record fans have played in part as therapy, cueing up its emotion and riding its cresting and falling waves to something like catharsis." It is one album I love to listen to in its entirety for all its highs and lows. As you may know if you read this blog, I can't always find new or satisfactory ways of expressing my opinions or feelings about things. But Joni, by God. "I could drink a case of you and still be on my feet"? Holy cow. "But when he's gone, me and them lonesome blues collide; the bed's too big, the frying pan's too wide." I've never been in love but good grief does the woman make me feel like I have. I obviously don't know Joni but her songs touch emotions in me I wasn't aware I had, and that's powerful music.
The author includes this quote by Bob Shacochis: "When Barry Lopez asked tribal elders in traditional cultures, "What do you mean by a storyteller?" they answered, When the stories you tell help. Writing is an essential act of community, no matter that it is born and executed in isolation and self-exile. The point you have to come to is this: Am I alone after reading this story? With a great writer, you never touch bottom, and you never feel alone."
Joni may have written her songs alone, but I think that her (and any artists' who are willing to lay themselves down on the tracks) stories do help her listeners. I'm always curious as to how songwriters choose which experiences they will write songs about, and even more so which ones they'll share with the public or keep for themselves. I'll end with a quote in the book by Sylvia Plath: "Autobiographical art doesn't serve its creators because they must transform feelings for the sake of art into simpler and more concrete sentiments than are true." This could very well be. But I think that even if the feeling's offered in the art in a less complex or substantial way that its creator experienced it, it can still have the power to acutely resonate with those who encounter it.