39. A Case Of You – Joni Mitchell
Heartbreak. Has ever a subject preoccupied so many songwriters, so many songs ? Specifically the kind of heartbreak that follows the break down of a love affair. Maybe falling in love is the only subject that’s covered even more comprehensively. So, evidently, there’s something potent, something that’s felt deeply, in the marriage and subsequent divorce of hearts and minds. This begs the question: where are those songs in this list ? Other than “December” back at number 9 this has been a heartbreak free zone. Sure, it’s not exactly been a party zone either but songs about lost love haven’t really figured. Have I been so lucky ?
Well, yes, in most senses I have. This is a different post on failings of the heart than I’d have written fifteen or twenty years ago. The perspective inevitably changes when you are fortunate enough to meet and fall in love with someone with whom you don’t subsequently fall out again. The passing of time and security of partnership lessen the memories of those previously painful partings. It’s tempting to discard the past – as much out of respect for the present as anything – but I don’t think my lasting relationship with my wife would have been possible without the prior experiences of loving and learning. There are people (a small number of people) who are inextricably a part of who I am even though our paths have now diverged; paths that ran together once, for varying lengths of time.
At those sharp points of reckoning, the places we agreed (or one or the other declared) to walk separately, there were many, many records of gut wrenching heartbreak. All About Eve’s eponymous debut album and follow up “Scarlet & Other Stories” managed the neat trick of soundtracking both the beginning and the end of my first love. I once found Teenage Fanclub’s “Mellow Doubt” so apposite following the break down of my second love that I was inspired to buy it as a gift for my ex. On reflection its opening lines it gives me pain when I think of you may have needed some explanation to avoid confusion. Wonder if she still has it ? The debut Embrace record was basically purpose built for regret and I had it on repeat for much of early 1999 as my third love disintegrated. I think I appropriated Dylan’s “Blood On The Tracks” to further rub salt into my own wounds.
Had I been writing about any of these at the time then the emotional blood on and in the tracks would have been more evident; that gruesome mixture of anger, sadness, failure, rejection, pain and guilt that stews as heartbreak. From a distance it’s easier to touch the beginnings of those relationships – the happiness, the recognition of yourself in someone else, the process of falling in love – than the end. It’s easy with hindsight but the reasons – which at the time may well have been framed in terms of blame – they ended were important as they were about working out who you are and what you need and what you can give. If there was a way of doing that without anyone getting hurt… If you could bottle that and dispense it in pharmacies they’d be queuing round the block. And that’s my only regret in each of those relationships – not that they ended but that someone got hurt in them ending. I wonder if learning that something isn’t right requires getting beyond a point at which you’re so emotionally entangled that it’s impossible to disentangle without something breaking. Usually a heart, or hearts.
The record that’s closest to this expression of lost love and that sense of reminiscence and reflection, remorse and regret, is “A Case Of You”. It’s a measure of Joni Mitchell that she nails a sketch of an entire relationship in three verses, vivid fragments from before our love got lost. We start with a rueful, knowing Mitchell reflecting on things said in better times:
Just before our love got lost
You said “I am as constant as a Northern Star”
And I said “constantly in the darkness, where’s that at ?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar…
Her shoulder shrugging retreat to the bar is exquisitely captured with a wonderfully precise image of her drawing out her old lover’s face and the outline of a map of Canada on the back of a beermat.
On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada – oh Canada !
With your face sketched on it twice
The lover in question is reputed to be Leonard Cohen (hence Canada) but it’s the imagery, the poetry, that is so strikingly beautiful in this song. In eight lines we have a complete outline of love gone awry. For me there is pretty much nothing so flawless as the opening verse and chorus of “A Case Of You”. If the point of writing about records is to find those moments where words and music coalesce to cast light on something true then this positively dazzles. It is wonderful. There is nobody – and I mean nobody Bob – who combines poetry and melody like Mitchell.
The other verses flesh out the backstory, deftly colouring in the outline as Mitchell remembers the passion she shared with the unnamed man – her the lonely artist (I live in a box of paints) drawn to someone that seemed fearless (I’m frightened by the devil and I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid). The past and the present collide as she remembers words they shared in the full throes of love and how there’s a thread that still connects them even now the relationship is over.
I remember that time you told me
You said: “love is touching souls”
Surely you touched mine ‘cause
Part of you pours out of me in these lines from time to time
This section seems key to the song to me. That recognition that those you loved are never completely lost, part of them stays with you, changes you, even as you part and carry on your separate lives. It’s at the absolute heart of the melancholic contradiction in the chorus:
You taste so bitter and so sweet
Oh I could drink a case of you darling
And I would still be on my feet
I would still be on my feet
That curious mixture of the sweetness of love and bitterness at its end: that sensation that someone that used to intoxicate you doesn’t anymore. I’ve seen alternative interpretations of this record as a straight “love song” – that the could drink a case of you should be read as “I can’t get enough of you” rather than “I can take all of you but it has no effect”. This song ain’t that. It tells you it’s not that in its first line. Mitchell has written plenty of lyrically oblique songs but not many of them are on “Blue” and this is direct and straightforward – and all the more affecting because of it.
There are a handful of records that I believe are perfect: music, lyrics, context, and performance. This is about as perfect as it gets. A perfect song about that most imperfect state of affairs, the end of love. There won’t be other heartbreak songs in the 42 but there doesn’t need to be as this one says it all.