A few weeks ago in this series I wrote about the impact my college neighbour Jonny had on my musical tastes. One of the artists he introduced me to was The Band. I think it could only have been afterwards that I first saw The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s masterful movie of the group’s epic farewell concert, which interspersed The Band’s own performances with the most star-studded line-up of guests outside of a festival.
I “acquired” the soundtrack album (i.e. illegally taped it – sorry) and listened to it frequently. And that movie and album will turn up several more times over this series of posts, because it was my first exposure to several key artists of the 60s and 70s, although in several cases I had to wait a few years before I actually “got” them.
There are some artists that you have to be “old” enough for – people it’s hard to like when you’re young, because you’re looking for something else, or not tuned in to the right wavelength. “Young” and “old” aren’t meant here in pure age terms, and I don’t want to use “mature/immature” as that would be patronising. Maybe it’s just a matter of being “ready” for that connection to some song or singer.
The Last Waltz was where I first came across Joni Mitchell. I must have heard “Big Yellow Taxi” before – everyone knew it – and “Both Sides Now”, though not necessarily in her version, more likely in a cover version on a Saturday night variety show on BBC, probably involving Cilla Black, Cliff Richard or Lulu.
Joni performed the song “Coyote” in the film, which I remember thinking was interesting but not great, but it did stay with me. I knew she was someone I was supposed to like, so I randomly picked an album to listen to, “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” (still, to my mind, one of the great album titles), but it did nothing for me (and it still doesn’t, and I’ve tried repeatedly). So I put Joni away as being “not for me”.
But I did listen to that soundtrack a lot, and that track “Coyote” kept jumping up and making passes – there was something irresistible about it.
And now here comes another theme that will come up again in these “How I Got Into…” posts – successfully targeted marketing. Several of these stories have been purely chance encounters, but there are a few on my list which are entirely down to the fact that I was marketed at, and it worked.
The details are a bit hazy, but years back I read several monthly music magazines aimed at aging rockers like me, such as Uncut and Mojo. Each month there was a free cover CD with selected tracks by artists featured in the magazine, or related by some tenuous theme (like a collection of very old blues and rock ‘n’ roll tracks that “inspired” the Rolling Stones….or maybe didn’t). One month (according to the Amazon ad it was March 2004), the free CD on Uncut was a portfolio of tracks from the Nonesuch label, including David Byrne, Wilco and Joni Mitchell.
The Joni Mitchell offering was “Amelia” from her new album “Travelogue”, where she’d re-recorded a number of her old songs, now with a full orchestra, and now in her late sixties. The voice was low and smoky, and the song was mesmerising. I put it on repeat play, wrapped in the beauty of the arrangement and the painterly poetry of the lyrics.
And that was it. That’s how I got into Joni Mitchell. One track, on a free CD on the cover of a magazine, a song that was over a quarter of a century old by an artist with over forty years of material, someone I’d essentially ignored for decades. And suddenly I got it. I saw how she painted pictures with words – saw how she sets a scene and shows you what’s in her eyes:
I was driving across the burning desert
When I spotted six jet planes
Leaving six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain
It was the hexagram of the heavens
It was the strings of my guitar
Amelia, it was just a false alarm
That led me to listen to “Hejira” (the album which contained the original version of “Coyote”) and then back to some of the early songs that I’d missed because I wasn’t “ready” – has anyone recorded a more joyous song than “Chelsea Morning”?
Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning
And the first thing that I knew
There was milk and toast and honey
And a bowl of oranges, too
And the sun poured in like butterscotch
And stuck to all my senses
I haven’t tried the whole back catalogue, and I haven’t liked everything I did try – “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” still not doing it for me.
But I did get to “Blue”, which is one of those albums that everyone’s supposed to love but which had passed me by for so long. Now I was ready for it, now was the right time, and I don’t think I’ve heard a more beautiful album. And I can’t listen to “Little Green” without a lump in my throat, knowing the story behind the song.
So I wouldn’t claim to be Joni Mitchell’s biggest fan, but she’s made at least two albums that I go to over and over again, and marvel at her lyrics and her freeform way with a melody. And all thanks to a free promotional CD. Thank goodness for marketing.
Here are some more links to enjoy:
Utterly joyous: Chelsea Morning from a BBC concert in 1970. Chelsea Morning opens the concert, but this link is to the full concert which is well worth half an hour of your time, particularly “California” on the dulcimer at around 16:30.
Tissues ready: Little Green
And this link to Joni Mitchell’s website is a goldmine of lyrical beauty.