Regarding love, fandom and Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’
Today marks the 44th anniversary of the release of Joni Mitchell’s iconic album, Blue. In honor of the incredibly talented Mitchell, we’re running this piece on one fan’s love of Joni.
There is a moment in every Joni Mitchell fan’s life when she realizes that she is not the only Joni fan, and it disturbs her. For me, it was in 2012, reading Zadie Smith’s essay in The New Yorker, “Some Notes on Attunement,” a piece that examines Smith’s disdain for Joni Mitchell in college, and the pitying looks her friends gave her for not “getting” Joni until she listens to “River” and becomes a Joni fanatic. It both irked me and made me envious: I resented how honest the essay was, and that she had written it first.
Smith contends that she cries listening to Mitchell’s music. I, too, have cried over Joni Mitchell, though the tears were less about the music than they were about a time in my life—a time when I felt so much pain that it became a kind of joy, a private pride in my ability to feel so exquisitely and deeply.
I don’t remember exactly when I first heard Joni’s music. I know I was in high school, and had already joined the jazz band. I was a freshman with little to no musical talent, despite ten years of piano lessons. I had only just discovered singing, and was admitted to the ensemble because of what my jazz director called my “bell voice”; in other words, I was a meek soprano, delegated to songs like “Amazing Grace” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” No funny stuff, no improvisation, and certainly no scatting, unless I’d already rehearsed my “skee-bops” before going onstage. Jazz seemed to require a womanly confidence that I did not yet possess. It required feeling as sexy as you sang which I associated with the unattainable voices, like Billy Holiday and Nina Simone.
The tune I sang during my audition was “Autumn Leaves,” famously recorded by Nat King Cole. My teacher played it for me on a bug-eyed stereo and then I sang along to it on the piano. I knew the song from a mix CD that my first boyfriend had recently made for me. He was two years older and, to my mind, centuries more experienced. We had gone for walks at night all summer long until one day he tried to kiss me and I decided I didn’t like him anymore. The CD was his last appeal. I thought my director was playing a cruel joke on me. The song skips and pirouettes all over the piano and seems more suited for say, Blossom Dearie, than the fifteen year old I was—a girl afraid of kissing boys, whose orthodontist had just told her it would be another year before her braces came off, and who still (occasionally, secretly) watched Arthur after school. I ponied up and inhaled at the high notes anyway, feeling like I’d be a girl forever.
I fell in love, or so it felt, when I was a sophomore in high school. It happened the way it often does when you’re very young: suddenly and with someone completely undeserving. AJ was a senior and captain of the swim team. He was lithe, with amphibian limbs and caterpillar eyebrows. His laugh sounded like a car horn, and he had, as he liked to say, “a face for radio,” a description that somehow made him irresistible. After he made me laugh so hard that soda shot out of my nostrils, I decided he had to be my boyfriend. I watched for him during soccer practice, when he would amble across the parking lot with his gym bag slung across his chest. Before his car screeched out of its parking space, he’d turn on Atmosphere or Jurassic 5, and I’d listen to the bass thump through the open windows until I felt my heart lodge in my throat. How could I get him to love me back?
I never stopped asking that question, even after I asked him to “go steady with me,” a charming line I was sure would win him over. I delivered it in front of my house one afternoon after he’d driven me home from school. He turned the music down and said yes. I “pinned” him with a Michael Jackson button I bought at a thrift store. The hard part was over, I thought.
We broke up four months later.
“Listen,” he said. I could hear him finish his speech before it started, like how some people could scat their way through eight measures of music in the right key. “So much on my plate right now,” AJ said. “Great girl,” “Not you.” There are clichés, but I was hearing them for the first time. I cried in my bed that whole afternoon. Before I went to bed, I wrote terrible, terrible poetry.
That spring, while I was still nursing my heartbreak, my dad played Blue for me. Joni was hitting notes that I would never be able to hit. She was singing about heartache, but there was something joyful about it, like she was gleefully popping a blister and watching it run. She made pain sound lovely, and told me that whatever I was feeling, it was safe to say it in beautiful, lilting notes. I could recast my sadness into joy. For the Jazz Band’s spring concert, I sang Joni’s “All I Want,” and I didn’t even falter when I saw AJ’s head poke through the theatre door during rehearsal. A part of me believed that my singing would convince him to ask me out again, but a larger part of me no longer cared.
The people most impressed with my performance turned out to be mothers, all watery-eyed middle-aged women who were ready to feel emotions as sharply as they did when they first heard Joni.
“That’s my favorite song.”
“Isn’t she the best?”
“You have to listen to Ladies of the Canyon now.”
I knew these women meant well: they were alive when Joni put out her first album, and as one woman told me, their generation “practically invented her.” They wanted to share the secret of Joni with me as a teacher would impart a lesson to a student.
Only she wasn’t a secret. Perhaps because heartache is so universal, many Joni Mitchell songs have mass appeal. My favorite song off of Blue is probably your favorite, too. And yet each of her songs can feel tailor-made for your personal heartache. On the other side of our respective heartaches there is joy, and we all convince ourselves that in mining for this hard-earned joy that we earn a right to know the artist, even resemble her. Our pain feels individual, unique, and her songs the soundtrack to that pain.
There were other hints during my teens that I wasn’t the only woman to learn the ways of the heart from Joni. In 2003’s Love Actually, there’s an iconic scene where Karen (played by the irresistible Emma Thompson) is listening to “River” while wrapping Christmas presents with her despicable husband, (played by Alan Rickman). Thompson’s despicable husband is partly despicable because he teases his wife for listening to Joni Mitchell. “I love her,” Karen retorts. “A true love lasts a lifetime.” She goes further: “Joni Mitchell taught your cold English wife how to feel.” Later in the movie, Karen learns the pitfalls of letting your emotions run deep: after learning that her husband has been cheating on her, Karen weeps in the privacy of their bedroom to the tune of “Both Sides Now,” not the Clouds version, but Joni’s 2003 re-recording. It’s a scene that brings me to tears every time I watch it because I recognize Karen’s shock, not over the infidelity, but over the cost of her love: to love means to hurt. It’s a life-changing revelation that is best taught by a mature Joni, the one who can carve an uroboric path for us to one side of love and back again.
Joni has a reputation for being a poet who wrote about deep, tangled emotions. Being a fan sometimes means loving that idea of her. It’s easy to love her California mane and her dramatic, chiseled cheekbones. It’s easy to say your favorite song is “Big Yellow Taxi.” Calling yourself an artist too, is easy. Being one is not. It requires a constant evolution, always at the risk of losing your audience. Joni couldn’t write folk music forever, yet the music we remember isn’t off of Mingus or The Hissing of Summer Lawns.
There’s probably a reason why most people glom onto Blue as opposed to, say, Hejira. Blue is easy to listen to; its emotions resonate with us. We hear the C and G chords and predict their resolutions. Even if “River” is about giving up a child for adoption, we can listen to it after our breakups because the poetry of universal heartbreak is easy to grasp, no matter who it’s about. “Carey,” upon first listen, is about a fling. However, if you read the lyrics, they tell a tale of a woman playing pretend. “Sure is hard to leave you, Carey/but it’s really not my home.” Her home is with the clean linen and the “fancy French cologne.” Living in bohemian filth with dirty fingernails and beach tar on her bare feet is not really Joni’s bag. Nevertheless, her man-of-the-hour gets out his cane, Joni puts on some silver, and the two of them play dress up for their short-lived affair. The premise of the song paints a more refined portrait of Joni than the bohemian, sundress-wearing flower child we see in black and white photos from her Blue period.
In Hejira, Joni flexes her musicologist muscles more, attracting fellow musicians who can appreciate how she expresses herself instrumentally as well as lyrically. Objectively, the music is more difficult, and, once again, complicates our idea of Joni as some Earth Mother romantic. Hejira or Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter or any of her other more experimental albums are not nearly as popular as Blue, and many of us don’t include them when we consider Joni’s overall ethos. Maybe we don’t want to. Maybe we want Blue to be enough to understand Joni. As long as we can understand her music, we can feel close to her.
While writing this essay, I picked up Meghan Daum’s book, The Unspeakable. There, on page 149 was the essay titled “The Joni Mitchell Problem.” Damn it, I thought. I encountered a writer’s worst fear: that someone else had already written your essay. I assumed I was the late arrival to the party. Surely Daum saw the Joni Mitchell “Problem” as I did: that being a Joni Mitchell fan was partly, if not mostly, a posture.
But it was a little more self-congratulating than that. Daum believes the Joni Mitchell Problem is that people like her for the wrong reasons, and she likes her for the right ones. Joni is not a poet; she is a musician. Blue is for the naïve fan. Daum doesn’t like Joni Mitchell’s early stuff as much as she likes Mingus, or any of Joni’s other jazz albums. Daum likes Mingus, in fact, because “it does not spend even a millisecond of its time trying to make itself accessible to people who liked Song to a Seagull or even Blue.” According to Daum, the people who like Song to a Seagull are the same people who keep Joni Mitchell albums in their Lake House and give you sad looks if you tell them you don’t listen to her. They don’t know Joni like Daum knows Joni.
Daum once had the opportunity, over dinner in Hollywood, to tell Joni that she understood her music like no one else. It was a fangirl’s dream: Daum tells Joni that she sees her not as a folk singer but as a kind of “musical essayist.” Joni lauds Daum for her noticing the time signature change on “Paprika Plains,” and tells her she wants a copy of her novel. The two of them hug before parting. “You have honored me tonight,” Joni tells her.
I would do the same thing. Of course. I would try to convince my favorite musician that only I understood her music. I would tell myself that I was connected to her in a way that no other fan was. I would talk about it for the rest of my life, and watch my friends rot with envy. The only thing I wouldn’t do, as Daum did, is lose Joni Mitchell’s number after meeting her. (Seriously?).
I couldn’t help but love the essay anyway, for its self-effacing sense of humor and its high-low language. I also loved it, let’s be honest, because it underscored the point of my essay exactly: the most confounding aspect of Joni Mitchell fandom is that we conclude that other people don’t understand her like we do, that in fact no one can truly understand her— but it doesn’t stop any of us from asserting our own superiority as fans. We are aggressive in our love for Joni. When we say we understand her, what we really want people to hear is, “I am her.” I am an artist who can know love, who can feel, as exquisitely as she.
I told you that my first love was in high school, but that isn’t quite true. My first love didn’t happen until years later, after college. Brady was a California boy so naturally his favorite Joni Mitchell song was “California,” which was endearing, albeit unoriginal. We met in DC through friends and decided to spend the summer in California before he left for grad school in London in the fall. We moved to his parents’ place in Chico, a small college town in the Sierras. We stayed in the guesthouse in the backyard under the olive trees, fell asleep to the plink of olives on the roof, and woke up to the clucking of chickens in the coop underneath our window.
His parents were welcoming at first, happy to have their son home for the summer before he went abroad. His father was a straight-laced dentist with his own practice; his mother played tennis and drank a lot of Turning Leaf. Both parents grew up as army brats. They were warm towards me until they realized that Brady’s intent had never been to get a job for the summer, and there was no one else to blame. To earn money, Brady helped his father rebuild the lower level of the family cabin on Lake Almanor, about two hours northeast of Chico. During those weekends at the Lake, I sat on the couch upstairs and read, wrote in my journal, napped. The month of May was unseasonably cold and rainy, so I didn’t go out often. I went for a run once, thinking the rain would hold off. After seven minutes, it started hailing. Brady’s mother picked me up in her car.
“You shouldn’t even bother this time of year,” she told me.
I was alone for seven hours of the day, reading and staving off boredom with a series of naps, which were impossible next to the cacophony of Brady and his father gutting out old walls and erecting new ones. The rain wouldn’t let up. Brady’s mother always had friends visiting, but I didn’t want to intrude on their conversation. All I wanted was for Brady to come upstairs to relieve me of my cabin fever, to make me feel welcome in this strange house. I found myself singing a Joni Mitchell song called “Lesson in Survival,” a song I’d always imagined was about being on a camping trip with your lover and all his loud friends, who make you feel like there’s no space for you. Now, it feels like a treatise on the kind of quiet love every human being needs.
By July, the heat had zapped the last of June Gloom, and the Sierras looked like a desert again. When we spent weekends back in Chico, we often shopped downtown. One Sunday, I ducked into a record shop, where I found an old copy of Ladies of the Canyon, the one I didn’t have yet, the one I needed.
“You don’t even have a record player,” Brady said.
“Not here I don’t.”
“Seems like a waste.” He was always skeptical of my purchases. When I bought fresh flowers from the grocery store, he told me there was no point because they’d die eventually.
“Not a waste,” I said, sliding $5.00 across the counter towards the cashier. When we got in the car, I took out the record and saw, in blue pen, a signature at the bottom of the sleeve. It was Joni’s autograph. I showed Brady. Even he had to admit it looked authentic.
We broke up after our carefree California summer, which seemed less carefree in the raw morning light after sleepless nights of wondering what I did wrong. Although we planned to stay together after Brady left for London and I moved to Chicago, we barely lasted a month. I handled being blindsided as best as I could: I shut down, thinking my vow never to speak to him symbolized some sort of power over him, when really he was the one who had left the scene of the crime while I walked around the littered industrial streets of Chicago like an open wound. I didn’t hear from Brady until after New Year’s. He was back in California on a break from school, driving from Chico to Tahoe to see his best friend Eric, when someone called to tell him that Eric had drowned in a canoe accident in Lake Tahoe. Eric always lived dangerously: he had a kind of gonzo-vibe about him, what with the drugs and the feverish writing. Months before, he had broken his leg in a climbing accident, an injury that could have been avoided if he had used a landing pad. I hated to admit it, but in some ways his death came as no surprise. I didn’t know if he had been wearing a life vest on his canoe trip, but somehow I doubted it.
After Brady broke his silence to tell me what happened, I walked for hours around the blustery city and didn’t return until it was dark. I felt buried in a whole other layer of grief, my face wind-chafed and tight with salty tears, so depressed that I couldn’t even listen to music, couldn’t even transform the breakup into self-love the way Joni had taught me. I later heard that none of Eric’s friends attended his funeral, not even Brady. It horrified me, but somehow fit my new understanding of Brady, the man who wouldn’t buy flowers.
I didn’t listen to Joni Mitchell again until that spring, riding the bus home from my miserable job as a receptionist. The high school kids, rowdy from dismissal, boarded in droves at each stop. I scooted toward the window to make more room, and stuffed my headphones in my ears to tune out the kids’ howling. I had never listened to Joni’s first album, Songs of a Seagull, all the way through. For the first time since high school, I let the music make me cry. My heart felt like the cactus in “Cactus Tree,” full and hollow. For the first time since high school, I felt emptied by sadness, but this emptiness was just making room for better love. The bus windows weren’t fogged with condensation anymore. The snow was melting, revealing patches of yellow grass. In a month, the grass would be green, and I wouldn’t be armored in my winter coat anymore.
I’ll admit it: I’ve never listened to any Joni Mitchell album as much as I’ve listened to Blue or Song to a Seagull. I’ve graduated from Blue to For The Roses as my favorite Joni album, but only because I’ve listened to Blue so much that I don’t want to ruin it. When I hear Joni’s 2003 rendition of “Both Sides Now,” I miss the brightness in her voice, I miss her youth. This is not something I should admit. I’m supposed to grow old with her albums, to appreciate her jazz albums the way I appreciate her folk albums. Rejecting her later work makes me feel like the man who screamed “Judas!” at Bob Dylan in 1966. I’m so naïve. I want to hear albums like Mingus and Hejira and feel something, but all I feel is my attention wandering.
I don’t know all of Joni’s work the way some people do, but that doesn’t make me feel any less connected to her music. I can’t claim to intimately know her, but I can intimately know the feelings inside me that she elicits. I can hear her music and let my sorrow evolve into joy, but only when I make room in my heart for both.