Although I’d been aware of Joni Mitchell for some time, I didn’t really plug into her music (so to speak) until 1971, when she released the Blue album.* The first track is the subject of today’s Midweek Music Break.
Mitchell, as I thought I knew at the time, was “just” a folk singer-songwriter. I mean, you just had to glimpse her to “know” that — the slight build, the straight blonde hair, the long, plain flowered dresses… she looked like Mary Travers’s younger and rather anemic sister. And her voice was strange, too: idiosyncratically flute-like, ethereal.
So then why did I first latch onto Blue? Easy (and perhaps not so surprising): it came at the recommendation of a girl with whom I’d been “friends” for far too long — and who had mysteriously, stubbornly resisted my awkward charms as I tried to move nonexistent “us” to a nonexistent “next level.” That girl had suggested that I attend to the poetry of the lyrics, which (she assured me) were almost as unbearably heartbreaking as they were simply epic.
It still took me a while to warm to the lyrics (even though Mitchell had printed them on the album cover — a primitive form of closed-captioning I always appreciated). But jeez, the music…
The album is stripped down instrumentally; aside from Mitchell’s acoustic guitar, most everything else just sort of pulses in the background. It feels like it’s just her and the guitar (even though she had several other backing musicians). More than the acoustic properties or the lyrics, though, what moved me from the start about “All I Want” was the rhythm. It’s complex, almost like the rhythm of a Trinidadian street-corner steel-drums musician. It rolls and stutters, lunges forward and back and stops cold for a split-second here and there, beautifully.
Eventually, of course, the lyrics penetrated the fog (of various kinds) I’d been listening in. Just for starters, it does that thing — whatever the term — which I’ve always loved encountering in a song: it overstuffs the lines with verbiage, in a way which almost makes it impossible to believe that it all fits.
And what a great song in general: a flirtatious tribute to the joy of joy, y’know?
[Below, click Play button to begin All I Want. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 3:43 long.]
Today’s Joni Mitchell’s 69th birthday. I’m so honestly happy to have “met” her, and hope she has a great day.
* I knew she’d written Judy Collins’s Top 40 hit, “Clouds.” But I think my first exposure was actually the summer of 1969, at the Atlantic City Pop Festival, which preceded Woodstock by a couple of weeks. As the Wikipedia article says, JM came onstage following a performance by a blues-rock band named Mother Earth who’d completely energized the audience. Few people seemed to be paying attention to the considerably more mellow, fragile blonde beauty trilling — ye gods — was it folk music?!? After trying gamely for a few minutes in the face of all that discourtesy, she just broke down and more or less fled the stage. Even though I didn’t (as I say) know much if anything about her, I do recall feeling mildly ashamed of us all.