Listening To Old Voices
Joni Mitchell's Icy Blue Trail
I didn’t discover Joni Mitchell until her 1971 album Blue. I was holed up on a Christmas morning in a Chicago suburb, 16 years old—not wise enough to make it on my own and not foolish enough to pretend my helliday home was normal—stuck with a newly unwrapped album from Joni and a couple parents who hated each other. She sang:
It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cuttin’ down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh, I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
Me too, Joni. I listened to my parents bickering. I looked at the album cover, which featured the beautiful Joni looking indescribably sad, just waiting for someone—say, a nice kid and decent skater from suburban Chicago—to help her hone those winter sporting skills. And I became an instant and lifelong fan.
There’s no great secret why, and millions of her fans will echo the same sentiments. Joni Mitchell has the uncanny ability to lay bare the most intimate details of her personal life and make them universal. Like Bob Dylan, who once turned a snub from a hotel clerk into the apocalyptic nightmare of “When The Ship Comes In,” Joni Mitchell works her magical alchemy, transforming the slightest of personal incidents into works of poetic insight and grandeur. For my money, outside of anyone named Zimmerman, she’s the greatest popular songwriter of the last half of the twentieth century.
Sometime in the mid-‘70s I saw Joni Mitchell, sort of, from the upper deck of a basketball arena in Columbus, Ohio. She was a tiny figure in the distance who may or may not have been hunched over a piano; it was hard to tell. Her intimate, confessional songs didn’t translate well into oversize barns, and at one point she stopped the concert to chide the audience for its inattention. “Why aren’t you listening?” she asked.
By then I had been listening to her music for a long time. I’d gone back and discovered those wondrous early folk albums. I’d eagerly purchased the folk/pop/jazz hybrids For the Roses and Court and Spark that followed Blue, and which found Joni at the peak of her creative powers. I stayed with her through the late-‘70s jazz experiments, when she lost much of her pop audience, and I was delighted to discover the music of Weather Report and Charles Mingus through Joni’s influence. She lost me in the early ‘80s when she started writing lyrics like, “The three great stimulants of the exhausted ones / Artifice, brutality and innocence,” which sounded like it was supposed to be incredibly profound, and which I still haven’t figured out. But she found me again on albums like Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm and Turbulent Indigo, when she rediscovered the uncharted territories of the heart.
Like many writers, Joni always wrote best about herself, and she turned navel gazing and soul baring into high art. Few musicians have had careers so consistently, relentlessly searching, and nobody has left a body of work that so openly wrestles with the contradictions of love—the magnetic pull of stability and the fear of commitment, a life caught up in a labyrinth of regret, loss, and confusion, and yet drawn on by something bright and shining that makes it all worth the chase. But the battle is full of nuance, difficult choices and uneasy alliances between the head and the heart. Maybe that’s why Joni has always spoken most clearly to me at about 2 o’clock in the morning. That’s when I can really listen. Sitting with all the lights out, maybe with a solitary candle burning in the darkness, I simply listen, and these songs still sing, still resonate with disappointment and disbelief and the stale taste of loneliness:
Richard got married to a figure skater
And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator
And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on
And all the house lights left up bright
I’m gonna blow this damn candle out
I don’t want nobody comin’ over to my table
I got nothin’ to talk to anybody about
I hadn’t lived enough to appreciate those sentiments when I first heard them. But these days those thoughts have a peculiar logic late at night, when the past emerges from the shadows and whispers in your ear, and you remember other people and another life. Joni Mitchell conjures ghosts, and invites them to tarry on the fringes of a new life. She’s seen 60 from both sides now, and she conjures those ghosts all over again on her latest album Travelogue, reprising and re-inventing songs from her extensive back catalogue. Now late into a remarkable career, she remains a masterful singer and songwriter. And so I listen hard and listen well, and eventually blow the candle out and wander to bed, where there’s a warm body and welcoming arms. But for a while, I remember the ice, and I remember that aching desire to lace up the skates and glide away.