“Sometimes I get that feeling
And I want to settle
And raise a child up with somebody
I get that strong longing
And I want to settle
And raise a child up with somebody
But it passes like the summer
I’m a wild seed again
Let the wind carry me”
Joni Mitchell – ‘Let The Wind Carry Me’
Three women entered my life on a small Maxell cassette tape in the early 90s. They were Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro and Happy Rhodes. I have spoken about Laura in another blog post. Happy is yet to come. This post is dedicated to Joni.
The cassette in question came from an old friend, Martin Rowan, whom I met at Pontypool College. Martin was a strange hybrid of new age mysticism and wannabe gangster. He would stand on street corners wearing a fedora, like Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, trying to look like a ‘heavy’. But Martin never tried to peddle drugs to under-age kids. Oh no. Martin would try and sell Guatemalan worry dolls to pensioners. He was that kind of guy.
However, he was also into Joni Mitchell. Or at least, he was absolutely into her 1970 album ‘Ladies Of The Canyon’
“Riaz, listen to this album,” he said one day as we sat on the green outside the college. It was a summer’s day and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Well maybe one, but that was a long way away.
“Who is it?” I asked, taking the cassette off him.
“Joni Mitchell,” he said. “I don’t know anything about her, but this album rocks.”
For something to ‘rock’ in 1990 usually meant it had a two chord bass riff and a one chord guitar ‘melody’ which would be played by an unwashed, long haired, toothless junkie.
I took the cassette home and played it on my beloved Amstrad twin cassette deck midi system. It even had a built in CD player. The album began with ‘Morning Morgantown’ and at once, I was captivated by her crystal sharp voice which sent shivers down my spine. Whatsmore (yes, it’s a word because I say it is. Apparently if you make up a word and it appears in print in five seperate publications within a two year period, the word suddenly becomes official and enters the Oxford English Dictionary. That’s what I am trying to do with ‘whatsmore’) her lyrics were quite unlike the lyrics of other songs I had heard. Joni spoke about the usual subjects – love, life, nature, death, but wove those timeless themes into unusual stories. The song ‘For Free’ was about a successful musician, who played before huge fee-paying audiences, having a chance encounter with a street busker who was playing ‘for free’. The song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ was possibly the first ever composition to send a strong ecological message to it’s audience, reflecting on the fact that trees were being pulled up to make way for parking lots (that’s ‘car parks’ if you live in England, or ‘midnight race tracks’ if you live in Wales).
So the next week I spent £4 of my hard earned £27 unemployment benefit on a copy of Blue, which was the only other Joni Mitchell album that Martin’s The Newsagent’s stocked. Martin’s The Newsagent is not to be confused with Martin Rowan, my friend. Their is a strange similarity in both their names, but Martin’s The Newsagent is a franchise of shops that stretches from Land’s End to John O’Groats while Martin Rowan stretches to about four foot six. And he isn’t a franchise either.
So I bought Blue.
Blue was a beautiful, raw album. When I say raw, I mean emotionally raw. In this album, Joni not only wore her heart on her sleeve, she would also take her heart and put it on *your* sleeve too. It was that kind of album. The arrangements were perfectly sparse and the melodies were instant and memorable. The very first song ‘All I Want’ was a toe-tapping, up-tempo number, but like all of the songs, the lyrics were brightly melancholic. (Hey, I just made that up but I like it!)
Over the next few months I played this album constantly until I knew the lyrics to every song off by heart. I would lie on my bed at my grandparents house in Hollybush, Cwmbran, at 19 years old, with my windows open letting in the soft summer sun, while I listened to this album. Like many people at that age, I wanted to connect with something, someone, someplace. I was looking for my identity. I wanted to know who I was. Hell, if who I was was wrapped up in the lyrics of a musician, who was I to argue?
And I didn’t argue. Joni spoke to me – personally – through her songs. In the same way that many people of that age, across the decades, have had their own favourite artists speak to them ‘personally’ through their music. Whether it was The Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Kate Bush, Lady Gaga, Adele or Rick Astley – there has been a teenager out there who has come to know a little bit more about the world, purely through listening to their favourite artists songs.
“All good dreamers pass this way some day
Hidin’ behind bottles in dark cafes.
I’ll be a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away
Only a phase, these dark cafe days.”
Joni Mitchell – ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’
I had a few difficult years in the 1990s. I was the full time carer of my beloved grandmother, until she passed away in 1998. I had little time to socialise. Little time to be with friends. I just submerged myself in books and music. And Joni was always there. Whenever I felt low or just wanted some company, I would play Court & Spark, Blue, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, or one of her many other albums. I certainly had a crush on her. I find creative women extremely attractive – especially musically creative women. If I meet a girl that can play guitar, I tend to fall in love with them after five minutes. That’s just me.
“I wish I had more sense of humour, keeping the sad blues at bay…” – Joni Mitchell ‘Peoples Parties’.
Joni, I hope one day you tour again. I hope one day you come to England and play a concert, preferably in my sitting room, but in a major town will do. Like many artists I have come to love – Crosby Stills & Nash, The Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, Laura Nyro, Happy Rhodes – they either only play in their native country these days, or sadly have passed away. But I would so love to hear Joni Mitchell play live and then sneak backstage and just take her hand and give it a gentle squeeze and say “Thank you.”
Because that’s all I would need to say.