Tag Archives: Joni Mitchell

America/Idea

I fell in love with an idea of America.

Desert roads, haze on the horizon, white lines on grey tarmac disappearing to the vanishing point in the impossible distance.

Art Deco towers in chrome and steel, visions of the future from the 30s.

Open skies above endless plains.

Wrought iron fire escape stairs unwinding down concrete buildings.

John Ford vistas in Monument Valley. Woody and Diane on a bench in Central Park, Springsteen ripping up the Jersey shore, Marvin and Tammi radiating love and colour through black and white TV sets, and Bob and Jeff in the Village, decades apart, holding coffee shops with just a guitar and poetry. Joni in Laurel Canyon.

Sane crazy dreamers on Haight Asbury, daisy chain strings in their hair, tuning in, turning on, dropping out. Pushing furthur on the bus with Kesey and the Pranksters. Chasing the ghost of Gram Parsons in the scrub of Joshua Tree.

Pedal steels and heartbreak.

Adidas trainers, laces pulled out, tapping on caged courts cracked under the sun.

Shore to shore, coast to coast, highways criss crossing State lines and states of mind.

I fell in love. And my idea of America remains.

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Old, new, borrowed, blue.

Hey Siri.

What can I help you with ?

Play something old.

Which old ?

I scan the list and settle on “Seems Like Old Times”, remembering when we watched Annie Hall and fell in love with Keaton breathing into that microphone, red rose pinned to her lapel, awkward and adorable. Siri doesn’t remember Annie Hall and offers me the opportunity to buy some film of the same name starring Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn. You always hated Chevy Chase. I had a soft spot for Three Amigos but tended to keep quiet about it.

Hey Siri. Play something new. We’re past the pleasantries of what can I help you with now. Straight to business.

Which new ?

Option one is Star Wars: A New Hope. Who says algorithms can’t know you ? Of course that’s what I’d choose in almost any other circumstance but it’s not going to help tonight. You love that film. I prefer Empire Strikes Back, ever the connoisseur, but it was always “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” and “you came in that, you’re braver than I thought” for you. Two questions in and we’re still stuck in the late 70s and I’m still stuck with memories of you.

Hey Siri. Give me something borrowed. I change tack slightly. Conversation with my phone isn’t playing out quite how I wanted. What did I expect ? A curated cure-all list of content custom crafted for circumspection and forgetting ? An abbreviated alliterative  approach to answering angst through algorithmic artificial intelligence ?

Two options. Two films both called “Something Borrowed”. Way to go there Siri. I click on one of them and it promises a story of Rachel, a successful attorney, and also a loyal and generous friend. She is, alas, still single. After one too many at her 30th birthday (we’ve all been there Rachel) she ends up in bed with her long term crush Dex (okay, so we’ve not all been there). Dex, it turns out, is engaged to her best friend… I have not seen this movie. We, certainly, would never have gone to see this movie although, ironically, you did  sleep with my best friend so perhaps it would have been helpful. Some involuntary twitch, popcorn spiralling into the air during a scene that was a little too close to home. Maybe it’d have prefaced some guilt induced confession. Maybe we’d have been sleeping together afterwards and lost in the moment you’d have called out “Dex” in faint ecstatic desperation and I’d have pieced together that all was not well. My name is not Dex for the avoidance of doubt.

Hey Siri. Play something blue.

Hmm. I’m not finding anything called “something blue”.

Play blue.

The phone screen fades black before a woman’s face fills the screen, blue grey, frozen in silent contemplation. Joni. I say a silent prayer that Siri has picked this ahead of boy band Blue’s “All Rise” which I suspect is lurking somewhere in my iTunes folder. That was you. You liked Blue and Take That and Five (or technically, if stupidly, 5ive) and all of that chart fodder for kids that don’t know any better and grown ups that wish they didn’t. I like Joni. Depressing as shit. Isn’t that what you said ? Joni and Bob and Leonard and Neil and Carole and Warren. All dismissed. I played you “Big Yellow Taxi” once to try and convert you by stealth. Said you preferred the Counting Crows version. That should have been enough. I should have slept with John then, saved you the bother of doing it. Paved paradise and put up a parking lot. You said it Joni. You said it.

Hey Siri. Play something old. Play something new. Play something borrowed. But mostly, right now, just play “Blue”.

 

A Case Of You

We lay on our backs, on her bed downstairs in her upside down house. Flush. Silent. Smiling. She was resting her head in the crook of her arm, thrown back behind her. Gently she pushed herself up onto her elbow, resting her cheek in her hand to face towards me.

“First lines” she said.

I looked at her and leant over to push a strand of hair back from her face. “I was hoping for a better reaction than that to be honest”.

“Stop fishing” she grinned. “I wouldn’t be asking about first lines if I wasn’t happy about that.” It hung there a moment. “A little longer might have been nice…” She started to laugh and I pulled the pillow from behind her and half heartedly caught her round the head with it. I relented as she protested, through stifled laughter, that she was just teasing.

“First lines” she tried again. “Lyrics. First line of a song and the other person has to guess.”

“Really ?”

“It’s a good way to get to know someone” she said. “If you want this to all happen again then indulge me.”

“Okay, let me think.”

“Come on, come on, don’t think too hard about it.”

“Alright, how about ‘I never thought that it would happen with me and the girl from Clapham’ ?”

“Too easy. You can’t have that. Besides I’m from Brighton and easily jealous.”

I let my head fall back into the pillow and stared at the ceiling. She started to impatiently drum her fingers on the duvet.

“And this I know… his teeth as white as snow.” I said it to the ceiling and then rolled over to face her, smiling. “You must know that.”

She started repeating it, furrowing her brow. “Ah man, I do know that” she said. I watched her struggle to recall it, letting my eyes follow the line of her neck down to an exposed shoulder. There hadn’t been much time to look the night before. She felt my eyes on her and caught my gaze, eyebrow raised in enquiry.

“Are we playing my game or checking each other out ?” she asked, the hint of a smile.

“I thought we were doing both” I replied.

“Ha ! A clever one. Always beware the clever ones” she laughed. I watched her mouth twist and dance as she moved through expressions of curiosity, amusement, and mock outrage before leaning in to kiss her. She responded and then pulled away. “Okay, so not just a clever one. That I also remember from last night.”

We looked at each other for a minute, both lost in our own thoughts, before I broke the silence. I started to sound out the repeating, circular bass line from the song that I’d asked her to guess. Round and round, over and over. “And this I know… his teeth as white as snow…”. She clutched at her head.

“This is infuriating. I know it. I bloody know it.”

“Hey Paul, hey Paul, hey Paul, let’s have a ball…” I sang quietly.

“The Pixies. It’s The Pixies” she shouted. “Gigantic. Really ?” She raised both eyebrows this time, a kind of bemused admonishment.

“You know what that song’s about, right ?” I asked, grinning.

“Stop leering” she said. “I believe that song’s about a ‘big, big love’. Don’t kid yourself mister.” I started singing the chorus softly – “gigantic, gigantic, a big big love” – only to hear her join in besides me, mockingly singing “average, average, a mid sized love”.

“Alright, alright, stop” I protested. “I have very fragile self esteem.”

“Yeah, of course you do” she said.

“Besides, it’s Pixies. Not The Pixies. Just Pixies.”

“Like I said” she groaned. “A clever one.”

I stared at her again as we lay on our sides, the duvet tracing the rise of her hip and curve of her waist. “You checking me out again ?” she asked softly.

“Maybe” I conceded. “I was wondering what yours would be ?

“Mine ?”

“First line. It’s only fair. I’ve given you two. What’s yours ?”. She looked away and, for the first time, she seemed uncertain. Eventually she looked back at me and replied.

“Here goes then. Mine’s always the same when I play this game. You ready ?” I nodded. “Just before our love got lost you said ‘I am as constant as a northern star’…” She paused.

“Constant in the darkness ? Where’s that at ?” I finished. There was a sharp, surprised intake of breath. People’s jaws don’t really fall open but surprise registered on her face. Surprise and something else; a cautious, tentative delight.

“You know that ?” she said.

“Joni ? Are you kidding ? Of course I know Joni. We’ve all had our heart broken, right ?” Again she looked away, let her eyes roam the room as if searching for the right reply, as if she’d pinned it up somewhere in preparation for this. Without making eye contact she finally said:

“Too many times.” Again, more quietly. “Too many times.”

I reached over and took her hand, tugged it gently so that she’d turn and face me again, waited until she did. “Maybe not this time, eh ?” I said.

“I barely know you” she said with a sigh. “There have been a few I’ve barely known. But, after, there’s always Joni.”

“Well Joni’s my go to heartbreak record too” I said. “So we’ve got a problem.”

“How’d you figure ?”

“If this doesn’t work we can’t both sit around, separate, listening to the same song. Knowing the other person’s listening to it. That song’s for me when I break up with someone.”

“No, no, no. It’s for me”

“Exactly. You see the dilemma.”

“So why don’t we share her ?” She asked it lightly, passing it off as a throwaway question.

“I’d like that.” I said. “I think I’d like that a lot.”

She leaned over and kissed me before whispering. “A case of you. I really, really love that song. I better still be on my feet mister.”

“You will be” I whispered back.

……

This is the ninth story in my series of 42 shorts that I’m writing to raise money and awareness for Mind, the mental health charity. Please share it if you liked it (or even if you didn’t…). If you’re interested in donating to a great cause then please visit my fundraising page. https://www.justgiving.com/42shorts/

Part of you pours out of me in these lines from time to time

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.

Like an extra arm, you are a part of us…

16. Goodbye England (Covered In Snow) – Laura Marling                                                2010/11

Since my daughter was born, just over six years ago, there’s pretty consistently been snow each winter in England. Growing up I remember snow as a rare event – I don’t know factually whether it was, it may just be the vagaries of memory – whereas now it seems to arrive every year.

It’s divisive, snow. With adult eyes I view it as a wearying inconvenience: scraping the car, clearing the drive, being cold and wet, dangerous on the roads. Through a child’s eyes, of course, it’s a massive adventure: building a snowman, throwing snowballs, slipping and sliding, and the delicious prospect of the cancellation of school.

“Goodbye England” was the lead single from Marling’s second album “I Speak Because I Can” and was the song that, to me, heralded the arrival of a very special talent. Her first record “Alas I Cannot Swim” is extremely good but what has struck me as miraculous about Marling is her progression from record to record in such scant time. There’s a discernible growth in confidence in her four albums, appearing in relative quick succession over the last five years, with each building musically on the last. It’s the closest thing I think I’ve heard in my lifetime to the sort of artistic evolution that, say, Dylan or Mitchell went through in the 60s. Ryan Adams also came pretty close for me in the run from Whiskeytown through “Heartbreaker” and up to “Love Is Hell” but there aren’t many others. I appreciate that puts her in some fairly exalted company but I think it’s a valid comparison; I genuinely think she’s that good. I guess there’s an argument that she wears her Bob and Joni influences too freely but, frankly, who doesn’t if you ply your trade as a singer songwriter with an acoustic guitar, and at 23 it’s not like she hasn’t still got time to transcend those influences.

I could have included a number of Marling’s songs in this list and, in fact, originally I’d intended to go with “Sophia” from her third album “A Creature I Don’t Know” – partly because I adore it and partly because I distinctly remember hearing it for the first time and just laughing at how absurdly good it was. So here’s a link to the video for “Sophia” as a little bonus: it is a marvelous thing.

For a while last year – if I’d been writing this last year – then I’d almost certainly have gone with “Night After Night”. Does it borrow a bit from Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” ? Yes (which she happily acknowledges). Does it matter ? Not really when it sounds as assured, as poised, as stunning as this. So there’s a link to that too: it is also a marvelous thing.

Or “Flicker & Fail” (very, very Joni Mitchell), or “I Was Just A Card”, or the brutal “Master Hunter”, or the also pretty brutal “Saved These Words”. There are worse ways to spend a Sunday (or any day but I’m posting this on a Sunday) than watching and listening to these.

“Goodbye England” though is the one that I return to with affectionate regularity and, in the spirit of the overall list, has the most personal associations. The song seems to be concerned with the breakdown of a relationship and a desire to escape but those aren’t the reasons that it really chimes for me (although the escape thing is something of a recurrent theme in stuff I like). Marling recounts a story about visiting a hilltop as a child with her father and looking at the snow covered landscape. So struck with the beauty of the scene, and no doubt contemplating the passage of time as his daughter grew up, her father asked her to one day bring him back to the same place, to remember how beautiful the world could be; just once before he died. It’s a feeling that you get a lot as a parent, those peculiar moments when you briefly see the world afresh through your child’s eyes and simultaneously understand how fleeting those moments are – in a way that your child doesn’t. It’s incredibly bittersweet, somehow wrapping up a sudden, strong sense of your own mortality and a desire to preserve the innocence of childhood. It’s not unhappy – those moments can be almost perfect – but there is an abiding melancholy to it. This song does that to me every time.

Sometimes serendipity lends a hand. The song begins with the lines:

You were so smart then

In your jacket and coat

My softest red scarf was warming your throat

A couple of winters ago I was building a snowman with my daughter and she was traipsing through the white stuff dressed in a red coat and scarf. I think in the context of the song that it’s presumably Marling remembering that her father was the “smart” one with her scarf warming his throat but it doesn’t really matter to me – it instantly triggers the memory of a little girl cheerfully conversing with the snowman rising up out of the ground.

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As the song develops it explores the tension between leaving and staying that Marling feels as (presumably) a relationship ends, reflecting ruefully on the nature of love:

And a friend of mine says it’s good to hear

That you believe in love, even if set in fear

Well I’ll hold you there brother and set you straight

I only believe true love is frail and willing to break

She moves from disbelieving regret (I wrote my name in your book… only god knows why) to frantically pouring out some kind of explanation in a letter (I wrote an epic letter to you… it’s 22 pages front and back) before asserting that it’s too good to be used. A moment of candid self awareness – I tried to be a girl that likes to be used – before, finally, the confident assertion that I’m too good for that: there’s a mind under this hat and the decision to go (And I called them all and told them I’ve got to move).

That middle section is brilliant; sketching out the whirlwind of emotions and uncertainty that accompanies the breakdown of something in eleven perfectly judged lines, capturing the random little asides that the mind throws in to the mix. The wry, self deprecating and I bet you that he cracked a smile following only god knows why is a great touch, as is picking up the thread of being used – from her own letter being too good to be used to recognising that she had played a part that wasn’t her, wasn’t good enough for her, and that she was also too good to be used.

The tension in staying or going then wraps us back into that moment on the hill with her father, now torn between running away (as an independent adult) or returning to her family:

Feel like running

Feel like running

Running off.

And we will keep you

We will keep you, little one

Safe from harm

Like an extra arm, you are a part of us.

“Little one” is what Marling was often called within her family and, serendipity again, is also something that I call my daughter – I doubt it’s uncommon. The “we will keep you” lines deliberately borrow from the mice’s “We Will Fix It” song from Bagpuss, a British kids show from the 70s, which perfectly distills the sense of comfort and nostalgia in returning to the safety of her parents. On another level the Bagpuss tune itself is adapted from a 13th century folk round (“Sumer Is Icumen In”), something that I imagine Marling would be well aware of and that she may well have picked up from her parents; her father was also a musician and ran a residential recording studio, her mother was a music teacher. If it is a nod back to her parents, grounding the song back in a folk tradition which they may have taught her, then it’s a lovely touch. Even if it isn’t then it’s still a delightful moment in the song, it doesn’t need the context to work.

The sense in the song is that her choice is to strike out on her own (it’s called “Goodbye England” after all) but with a promise to return:

I will come back here

Bring me back when I’m old

I want to lay here, forever in the cold.

I might be cold but I’m just skin and bones

And I never love England more than when covered in snow.

I guess as a parent that’s the best you can hope for, that your child grows up confident and assured enough to strike out on their own but always with that promise to return. Like an extra arm, they are a part of us. So next time it snows there will undoubtedly be part of me that sighs heavily and prepares to shovel lumps of it off the drive. There’ll also be part of me though that puts this record on and remembers the privileged time I spent in bringing up my daughter, the opportunities to see the world anew, and the many, many glorious, transient, bittersweet moments along the way.