Saturday, 17 September 2011

Joni Mitchell - For The Roses (1972)

"I want to take you higher." When I quote Sly Stone here, I'm not thinking of a descent into drug oblivion, the dark flipside to the hippy dream, I'm actually thinking of artistic ascent: how can an artist already as good as Joni has been on her first four albums get any better?

I love all Joni's albums up to this point, passionately. She is, and I say this unreservedly and unashamedly, my musical goddess. And it continues to blow my mind how fabulous so much of her output both was and is, and, for me, For The Roses hits some highs that are like choirs of cosmic angels in orgasmic epiphany, and what's more, it's a natural high.

Where Blue's cover photo bespeaks internal turmoil and intense emotions, on the cover of For The Roses she's a Nordic nature girl, blond, beautiful, and clad all in green velvet, elfin in her beauty, inhabiting a Tolkienesque setting of pure natural splendour. I'm guessing the picture was taken near her Canadian retreat. And, for those who, like me, yearned for Joni's love in our teen years, what capped all this off was the insert, which (in my LP version at any rate) had a photo of her buck naked, staring out to sea, stood atop some rocks. Seen from the rear, and from quite a distance, her perfect body nonetheless lived up to the promise her music and lyrics seemed to make: in as far as female perfection can be realised, this is it! And what's more, the music is magnificent. And, to cap it all, this was released in 1972, the year I was born. A meaningless coincidence, perhaps. But redolent with the kind of 'synchronicity' we humans are so wont to find in the patterns of our lives.

This is the first of her albums to commence with a piano based song: 'Banquet' continues her habit of leading off with a strongly poetic number - "I took my dream down by the sea / Yankee yachts and lobster pots and sunshine" - in which, in this case, she's looking at the banquet of life ("Some get the gravy / And some get the gristle / ... Though there's plenty to spare"), from the vantage point of her British Columbia beach retreat. Whether the banquet itself, or the fortune cookie referred to in the last stanza, are real or imagined is hard to tell, but as usual, Joni effortlessly shifts gears through different levels, from the personal and specific to the general and abstract. Her piano playing has been developing, and, like her guitar playing, is very distinctive, mixing chords, licks, and lines, and frequently following the vocal phrasing which, as is normal with Joni, is anything but normal.

Having referred to drugs before obliquely or in passing, she now tackles the theme head on, perhaps as a result of having gone out with James Taylor for about a year, around 1970/71, prior to recording this album (there's a great story here from a guy who's record store they visited, after closing time, near christmas, in 1970). This is, in a way, an interesting foretaste of the direction she would take when she went more in a more electric/band orientated direction, with albums like Court And Spark, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and Hejira. It's the first time on record that it sounds like a full band, despite previous instances of tracks with bass guitar and drums, and the lyrics are very urban and gritty, reminding me of a feminine take on Iceberg Slim, whose excellent book Trick Baby (which deals more generally in prostitution and all-round hustlin' and scamming, rather than drugs, but shares a dark urban flavour with this song) I read some years ago, whilst I was, pardon the affected hipster patois, jonesin' on a Joni jag.

Here's an extract of her lyrics for 'Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire':

Red water in the bathroom sink
Fever and the scum brown bowl
Blue steel still begging
But it's indistinct
Someone's hi-fi drumming Jelly Roll
Concrete concentration camp
Bashing in veins for peace
Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire
Fall into Lady Release

We've come a long way from the pastoral idylls of 'Sisotowbell Lane', or even the suburban hippy haven of Laurel Canyon as celebrated in 'Ladies Of The Canyon'. In fact her bleak urban poetry is so powerful I want to give you another hit:

A wristwatch, a ring, a downstairs screamer
Edgy-black cracks of the sky
"Pin cushion prick fix this poor bad dreamer"
"Money" cold shadows reply
Pawnshops crisscrossed and padlocked
Corridors spit on prayers and pleas
Sparks fly up from sweet fire
Black soot of lady release

It's interesting to me that two of my favourite singer songwriters, Tom Waits and Joni, both started out sounding sweet and innocent, and both felt the allure of the gritty urban scene, and jazz related culture. This track alone is enough to connect Joni's vein of beatnik lowlife to Waits circa Blue Valentines, and Heartattack And Vine. And of course, she would continue down this road on later albums, with themes such as that of 'The Jungle Line', which I'll be discussing when we get to The Hissing Of Summer Lawns.

Track three is one of my favourites from the album, and in fact one of my all time favourites in the Joni Mitchell songbook, 'Barangrill'. After the urban drug hell of the previous track this is like the sunnier side of the beatnik dream. Joni's Kerouackian vibe is strong, and comes over well in the lines of the opening verse:

Three waitresses all wearing
Black diamond earrings
Talking about zombies
and Singapore slings
No trouble in their faces
Not one anxious voice
None of the crazy you get
From too much choice
The thumb and the satchel
Or the rented Rolls-Royce
And you think she knows something
By the second refill
You think she's enlightened
As she totals your bill
You say "show me the way
To Barangrill"

Barangrill becomes a mythical Utopiua, and the waitresses are a combination of siren, muse, and boddhisattva. Joni observes all this, and their easy-seeming ways, contrasting it with her own 'crazy', torn as she is between the rock 'n' roll queen's life of luxury, and the "thumb and the satchel" (already a dichotomy she's been increasingly aware of in songs like 'Carey': "My fingernails are filthy, I got beach tar on my feet / And I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne"), that would later seem to be a theme on almost the whole of the Hejira album, with tracks like 'Refuge Of The Roads'. But for the present, at least on this song, the mood is relatively light, as witness the following extract of the last verse:

The guy at the gaspumps
He's got a lot of soul
He sings Merry Christmas for you
Just like Nat King Cole
And he makes up his own tune
Right on the spot
About whitewalls and windshields
And this job he's got

But with Joni it can never be that simple, and she finishes the song by singing:

And you want to get moving
And you want to stay still
But lost in the moment
Some longing gets filled
And you even forget to ask
"Hey, Where's Barangrill?"

And I have to say, this little bit of the song kills me, every time. It's a Zen insight into life: caught in the gap between wanting to change and improve, and wanting to be satisfied with things as they are, lost in those moments some longing does indeed sometimes get filled, in a transient way. And in those moments, even within the bigger picture, we do indeed forget to ask 'Which way Utopia?' Genius, pure genius. And this song also combines fabulous guitar, beautiful vocal melodies, and one of the best woodwind arrangements ever, bar none. At this stage of her career, Joni is getting the best from her talented sidemen. Some might say that later on (exactly when you think this happens is probably a variable matter of opinion) her musicians might occasionally overdo it. Not so here, Tom Scott's contribution to this track is sublime.

In this live recording of the song (below) she talks, in her intro, about the philosophical search for the meaning of life, and how she "started seeing gurus everywhere". Ironically, she says she was at a very low ebb, and therefore thought that everyone was more enlightened than her: "So I walked into this restaurant one day, and I thought I saw my guru... As a matter of fact there were three of them [the waitresses mentioned in the opening line], and I was so spaced out that I was sure that they were The Trinity, you know?" But the resulting song, certainly on the album version, manages to turn this 'saudade' into something beautiful and uplifting, albeit still tinged with melancholy.

'Barangrill', live, 1972, with a great intro explaining the origin of the song.

An interesting footnote to this, one of my absolute favourite Joni numbers, is that Mark Murphy has recorded an excellent cover of it (and as noted elsewhere, a good cover of a Joni tune is, in my opinion, a rare thing), on his album II, which I discovered here.

The next two piano numbers, 'Lesson in Survival' and 'Let The Wind Carry Me', continue the soul-searching theme addressed in 'Barangrill', but in a different manner, both also taking in romantic love, and, in the latter, some family history. These are both good songs, great even, by normal standards, but I'll gloss over them and concentrate on the songs that have most power for me, and the next of these sees Joni back on guitar, singing the bleakly haunting title track, 'For The Roses'. Sounding harmonically and melodically like it could've been on her debut album Song To A Seagull, a mark of the continuity as well as the development of her talent, it's both a threnody for the lost love she shared with Taylor, and her disenchantment with the 'music biz':

Remember the days when you used to sit
And make up your tunes for love
And pour your simple sorrow
To the soundhole and your knee
And now you're seen
On giant screens
And at parties for the press
And for people who have slices of you
From the company
They toss around your latest golden egg
Speculation well who's to know
If the next one in the nest
Will glitter for them so

I guess I seem ungrateful
With my teeth sunk in the hand
That brings me things
I really can't give up just yet
Now I sit up here the critic
And they introduce some band
But they seem so much confetti
Looking at them on my TV set
Oh the power and the glory
Just when you're getting a taste for worship
They start bringing out the hammers
And the boards
And the nails

Feeling crucified on the cross of her creativity by a music business that just cares about the bottom line, Joni retreated to her log cabin in British Columbia, with her dog, as referenced later, in the lyrics of 'Electricity':

Well I'm learning
It's peaceful
With a good dog and some trees
Out of touch with the breakdown
Of this century

And so she ends for 'For The Roses' alone in nature:

I heard it in the wind last night
It sounded like applause
Chilly now
End of summer
No more shiny hot nights
It was just the arbutus rustling
And the bumping of the logs
And the moon swept down black water
Like an empty spotlight

Brilliant! The connections she makes through her poetry, from one image and concept to another, are really stunning. The more I listen to the music, and the more I write about, and really concentrate on the words, the meanings, and artistry it took to put all this together, the more I am in awe of Joni Mitchell's talents. And at this stage of her career she seemed to just be exuding pure music. But she obviously wasn't entirely happy, as For The Roses preceded a year long hiatus, and a brief (thankfully) self-imposed withdrawal from making and recording music (at least publicly).

'Electricity' finds Joni in band mode, with Wilton Felder (of The Crusaders) on bass and Bobbye Hall (a female percussionist with an enormous and impressive CV) adding congas and tambourine. And it's a magnificent folk-jazz masterpiece, simultaneously of the moment, and a sign of where she might be going next. The lyrics are phenomenal, using electricity, wiring, servicing and so on, as metaphors for feelings, including, of course, love. Fabulous! The feel remains band-like for 'You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio', but with more of a folk-rock feel, Graham Nash supplying a Dylanesque harmonica solo, and Bobbye Hall again adding congas. This number was apparently something of a riposte to a request for something 'more commercial' from 'the suits', and, perhaps ironically, it paid off, becoming Mitchell's biggest charting hit to date.

'Blonde In The Bleachers' starts out sounding like another typical Joni piano ballad, but by the end of the song it's morphed into her newly-evolving mix of folk-rock-jazz. Again she's lamenting her chequered past in the rock'n'roll business:

Feeling it hot and cold
You're in rock 'n' roll
It's the nature of the race


She tapes her regrets
To the microphone stand
She says "You can't hold the hand
Of a rock 'n' roll man
Very long

There's another mention of a child left behind (as in 'Little Green', a nod to her own daughter), and there's the bittersweet self-awareness of the contradictions between the freewheeling freedom-loving rock 'n' roll dream - "it seems like you've gotta give up / Such a piece of your soul / When you give up the chase" - and what's lost - "the unknown child / So sweet and wild / It's youth / It's too good to waste" - and the impossibility that the ephemeral way of life can have a lasting solidity. And that brings us back to the last verse of 'Let The Wind Carry Me':

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

'Woman Of Heart And Mind', live.

This all brings us to the next of my favourite tracks from the album, 'Woman Of Heart And Mind', the guitar part of which is utterly sublime (also featuring the talents of Felder and Hall on bass and congas, and what chords, especially the final one!) in which she more or less explores and depicts herself:

You think I'm like your mother
Or another lover or your sister
Or the queen of your dreams
Or just another silly girl

Before dissecting her lover's stance:

All this talk about holiness now
It must be the start of the latest style
Is it all books and words
Or do you really feel it?
Do you really laugh?
Do you really care?
Do you really smile
When you smile?

You criticize and you flatter
You imitate the best
And the rest you memorize
You know the times you impress me most
Are the times when you don't try
When you don't even try

But what really comes over is the blues of her own sense of loss and disappointment:

I'm looking for affection and respect
A little passion
And you want stimulation-nothing more
That's what I think
But you know I'll try to be there for you
When your spirits start to sink

If you listen carefully to this album, I think you can hear a woman who's almost having to live like a man, in a male dominated world - the music business as it was then - and is feeling the loss of certain aspects of her femininity as a result. Lady readers, your comments would be welcomed here: as a guy I might have it all wrong! For evidence I submit two more lyrical extracts. First this, from the end of 'Blonde In The Bleachers':

N.B. it's in quote marks here because this is what 'she says' when she's up there, regrets taped to the microphone stand.

"You can't hold the hand of a rock 'n' roll man very long
Or count on your plans with a rock 'n' roll man very long
Compete with the fans for your rock 'n' roll man for very long
The girls and the bands and the rock 'n' roll man"

Here she sounds, despite being a star every bit as big in her own right as many of her male associates, like another groupie, squeezed out in the scrum as they try and get a piece of some 'heroic' male superstar! One thinks this all must've been affected by her relationships with such men as Graham Nash and James Taylor, both of which, one might hazard the guess, provided her with great material for songs, but wounds and 'lessons in survival' to boot.

My second piece of evidence is Joni as the archetypical feminine flower child, and I don't really mean by that Joni as hippy chick, but rather as 'woman' - soft, gentle, receptive, etc. - from the lyrics of 'You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio'. Tongue in cheek they may well be, but many a true word is spoken in jest:

Oh honey you turn me on
I'm a radio
I'm a country station
I'm a little bit corny
I'm a wildwood flower
Waving for you
Broadcasting tower
Waving for you

Now, before writing what I'm about to say, I've listened very carefully to these lyrics on the recording, several times, and I'd wager good money that what she actually sings is "I'm a wild open flower", not 'wildwood', as the website has it. Admittedly she sings this crucial bit very indistinctly - and in my opinion that very fact lends weight to my contention that she's saying the more saucy of the possible versions - so it could perhaps not be 'open' after all. And there's also the fudged double entendre of whether he or she is the 'broadcasting tower. But, whichever it really is, the meaning of the lines rhyming 'flower' and 'tower' couldn't be any more explicit to the savvy listener.

Having engaged in a good deal of soul-searching, Joni rounds off this superb album with a meditation on love and music, in 'Judgement Of The Moon And Stars (Ludwig's Tune)'. The Ludwig is of course Beethoven, and the song's about love, music, love of music, the music of love, and so on. To what degree it's really about Beethoven in any specific or historically accurate way I couldn't say. Certainly she seems to be trying to imagine a kind of empathetic connection between Beethoven and herself. One might think this presumptuous and arrogant, but given Joni's tortured artistic personality and musical genius, I think it's an entirely natural and justified link for her to make.

Joni had said from quite early on that she wasn't a singer, but a composer, and here she gets to indulge her first most overtly orchestrated section of music, the middle of the piece sporting numerous arranged parts, from multi-layered vocals, woodwinds, keyboards, and strings. She's already travelled down this road bit by bit, adding various instruments, extra layers of harmony, and even the highly wrought arrangement for 'Barangrill', mentioned earlier. But here the self-consciously classical influence is stronger, and more portentous. Although her music got ever denser with her more electric albums, she wouldn't go do anything else quite so self-consciously 'classical' until the album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, and 'Paprika Plains' in particular. And of course much later, in 2002, she put out travelogue, which features two discs worth of material, old and new, set against lush orchestrations.

This is one of the best albums from a superlative talent, and it's hard to measure the real height of such artistic achievement. So I'll let Joni have the last word. As a description of her view of Beethoven, of herself, or just the artistic endeavour, these words are, I hope you'll agree, pretty powerful:

You've got to shake your fists at lightning now
You've got to roar like forest fire
You've got to spread your light like blazes
All across the sky
They're going to aim the hoses on you
Show 'em you won't expire
Not till you burn up every passion
Not even when you die
Come on now
You've got to try
If you're feeling contempt
Well then you tell it
If you're tired of the silent night
Jesus well then you yell it
Condemned to wires and hammers
Strike every chord that you feel
That broken trees
And elephant ivories conceal

Credits: (sourced from, wikipedia and the original album liner notes)

Joni Mitchell - vocals, guitar, piano
Wilton Felder - bass
Russ Kunkel - drums
Graham Nash - harmonica
Bobbye Hall - percussion
Tom Scott - woodwind, reeds
James Burton (credited as "Jim Burton") - electric guitar on "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire"
Stephen Stills - rock'n'roll performer on "Blonde in the Bleachers"
Bobby Notkoff - strings

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