How I Got Into….Joni Mitchell

the last waltzA 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.

I got this free - it's now apparently worth either $4 or $40. Wonder if I still have my copy

I got this free – it’s now apparently worth either $4 or $40. Wonder if I still have my copy

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.

Click for "Amelia"

Click for “Amelia”

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

hejiraAmelia

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

Chelsea Morning

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.

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10 Responses to How I Got Into….Joni Mitchell

  1. Opher says:

    She’s one of my favourites. Great songwriter and singer. Cheers for this – best wishes – Opher

    Liked by 1 person

  2. calensariel says:

    Interesting story. I think Joni Mitchell’s type of music (and there were a lot of artists like her in the 60’s) is an acquired taste. There have been songs of hers over the years that I’ve enjoyed, but somehow I never quite made it to fan status. Same thing with Judy Collins and Carole King. Hm… Maybe it’s more of a woman artist thing? Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Calen. It’s one of the interesting things about us all that we respond differently to the same stimuli. I don’t know how much of a “fan” of Joni Mitchell I am, because some of her music is too much like hard work to me, way too far out on the jazz spectrum. But the songs that I like, I REALLY LOVE. Not sure what that makes me.

      Liked by 1 person

      • calensariel says:

        Had never thought about some songs being too much work, but you’re right. Some poetry is like that to me, too. If the meaning is something I have to work for, chances are I won’t even finish reading it. Same thing with music, now that you mention it.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Alison says:

    Loved the Last Waltz and it is a treasure trove of some of my favourite artists who I have had the pleasure of subsequently see live – maybe as a result of the film, not entirely sure. It took me a while to enjoy Joni as much as some of the others but Hejira is my favourite album of hers. It contains the wonderful Song for Sharon which I enjoyed while young but resonates far more now that I am older. And of course Coyote… 🙂 Wierdly,, Howard, I keep that album in Cyprus where we are now and it was the first thing I looked to play when we arrived….. and some bugger has taken it home with them!!!!!! I shall have to try and find it online.
    Love Dylan singing Forever Young….. Thanks for reminding me.

    Like

  4. I think this is a very timely post for me as I am just now, eons after I knew who she was, have come to really appreciate her. It might take one song at a time, but I got pulled in through someone else singing a song of hers, and just wanted to get it. Didn’t even know it was Joni’s until just a year ago. You’re right… it has to be the right time to suddenly awaken to something about her music which slides right into that place where a musical hole had been. The River is my song which hooked me. I look forward to more delving.

    Really enjoyed your journey here.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: How I Got Into….Radiohead | Intermittent Daily Posts

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