Happy Birthday Joni Mitchell’s Blue: Some Kinds of Blue are Better than others

Blue was released June 22nd 1971, 50 years ago today. It stands up to this day as an important document of love and love lost. It sounds better today than when I first heard it, aged 16 or so, and unable to fathom the truth held within it. To commemorate the release of Blue, Rhino put out ‘Blue 50 (Demos & Outtakes)’, a digital EP that debuts five unreleased recordings from the making of the original LP that will also appear on an upcoming archives collection. Also planned is the release later in the year (October 29th) of Joni Mitchell Archives Vol.2: The Reprise Years (1968-1971). The Demos and Outtakes EP is available to listen to (at least for now), on youtube on Joni Mitchell’s channel. It includes a previously unreleased track, Hunter, which is so special, the fact it didn’t make the cut is testament to the greatness of the material that did make it onto Blue. The rest of the outtakes are more curiosities of the creative process, but intriguing none the less. However what makes this EP essential for anyone who cares about music and our musical poets, is the sheer vastness of the importance of Blue.

Incidentally Joni put her own watermark on her songs, keeping them her own, instead of having to share them with The Byrds or the Mamas and Papas…. They are almost uncoverable, due to her strange tunings which either have your guitar strings pinging and breaking slashing your hand, or else flopping and falling off the pegs. I have no idea how she makes them work. Joni is ‘frightened by the devil’ I am scared of her tunings. Either you make nice with a dulcimer and piano and lick the tunings into shape, or else the songs just do not sound right. This helped protect her music and her uniqueness. It was a genius move, and one that has kept her music almost solely in her voice.

Blue rarely makes it high enough in the ten greatest albums of all time lists. In 2020 it made number 3 in the Rolling Stone lack of imagination boring same old same old rankings, and I suspect that was only because it was coming up for it’s 50th birthday. The boys (and girls…do they even have females writing at Rolling Stone?) at ‘stone aren’t that sensitive, and appear more concerned with TV shows than musical relevance. It should have been higher.

Joni is the female Lorca of Love songs. She is unflinchingly raw, and unashamedly beautiful. There is no simpering or baby baby babying, just the honest chase down of love in it’s myriad forms: real love, not pretend, even if it only lasts for a night and has disappeared in the midway morning.

Joni writes about love: not Van Morrisons twisted creepy lusting over 14 year old girls in Astral Weeks kinda lust that masquerades as love; not the colonialist wet dreams of the Stones as they leer over the black music culture they rape and pillage for sounds and words and not Dylan’s inferior love infatuation accompanied by his sly whining about parasite sisters and cutesy throwaway ballad in plain D ‘birds free of the skyways’. It’s not the kind of love Joey Ramone had for his beloved carbona glue; nor the peculiar species of love with jelly on it’s shoulder that Lou rolled and rocked around hunting down in the backrooms and factory floors of New York. It’s not the love of that Stevie Nicks and Christine Perfect songbirds have for their rock and roll men, no! Joni, the Blonde in the Bleachers knows you ‘can’t hold the hand of a rock and roll man very long’ – they won’t let you.

Everyone was looking to Dylan for answers, while he uselessly protested that he was just a simple song and dance man. Dylan tapped into something primal for a while, before he got his hands burnt and had to step away and write Country Pie. Leonard Cohen had his obsessions with his women and their bodies and the kindnesses wrought upon him. Joni knew they were just all Coyotes ‘between the white lines of the freeway’ who have ‘a woman at home, another down the corridor’ and wants her anyway.

This separation stares of starkly from the screen on the Last Waltz, Bob and the male rock and roll royalty are there on the stage, singing about their light coming shining brightly, remembering the faces of every man that put them ‘there’, while Joni stands alone and stony faced, mic down, seemingly overwhelmed in the cresting tide of self congratulatory testosterone. Drowned out with Neil Young looking far too close and frisky for comfort. She makes her stand, she and her works stands up amongst Dylan and Neil Young-of-the-shitty-lyrics, let alone the rest of the hoi-polloi on that stage, and yet she gets accused of imperiousness. . Sam Shepherd described David Blue relishing the imminent prospect of conflict between Joni and Dylan’s wife, Sara: “Just wait”, said Blue, “till her and Joni get around each other. You’ll get some shit on camera then… Sara’s a very regal, powerful chick, and Joni’s gettin’ into her empress bag now. I mean Joni’s a real queen now. She’s really gettin’ up there.”

No, the boys cannot allow Joni to be confident, to have an assertive self respect, to defend her position within the Rolling Thunder Revue circus train mélange of egos, cocaine and pills, revolving doors and the ‘temporary lovers’ that she describes in Coyote. She might be surrounded by a pack of dawgs, but she is no foolish goose. I would happily bow at her feet and crown her Queen: This is the woman that wrote the most perfect album of all time. This is the genius who brought Blue into the world.

If Joni had been a man she would have been lauded and paraded in front of Nobel Prize panels. If Joni had been a man she would have been as big as Dylan, and not just for the beauty and perfection of Blue, and it’s dangerous exploration into the icy realms of love in the 1960s.

Released in 1971, with the earliest demos and performances of unfinished tracks dating back to 1970 and even ’69 in the case of Little Green, this is love from the other side of the tracks, the woman’s side. This is not Dylan’s sour longing jive of his great love song album, Blood on the Tracks. Joni wrote love all the way from the A side of domestic bliss, round the free spirit traveler scene where she will only stay as long as it takes for her skin to turn brown, and she can forgive a ‘red red rogue’ for stealing her camera and her time, before getting around to the darker, sadder, longing side of love on side B. She explores love all the way from love of a place while she remains independent and free in the tumbling breathless California, to her love song for the child she had to give up for adoption, and finally the loves for the various men that fill her time and heart, perhaps most famously Gram Nash and James Taylor, and the eponymous ‘Blue’. I could never imagine her with Gram Nash, he always seemed far too wet and soft for Joni’s diamond hard brilliance, a thought that was not disabused by the line in her song for her Case of You, where in a snipe to rival Dylan, she recounts a conversation they had:

Just before our love got lost you said
I am as constant as a northern star
And I said, “Constantly in the darkness
Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar”

Joni isn’t doing the whine or the pedestal putting the boys are so prone to. Ballad in Plain D, in my opinion, is Dylan’s most unpleasant song, he veers between raising up Suze Rotolo to heights of idealized feminine perfection, dehumanizing her (innocence of a lamb, she was gentle like a fawn), whilst making her sister play the ‘bad woman’ in an almost psychotic, self obsessed spewing of vitriol. The only person Bob saw as a real rounded human being in the whole bad scene, was himself.

Instead, Joni expresses her displeasure, and knocks her lost love down a peg or two, and takes herself down to the bar. How much better is that than the bitching and vitriol?

Side 1 (OK, ok…records haven’t had sides since Post Malone’s mother was a child, but when Blue was released ‘sides were a real thing. A necessary break, a turning over of the vinyl. An enforced separation) is a more joyous rendering of love. All I Want, My Old Man, Little Green, Carey, Blue, lead the forward pass over the ups and downs of love in a young woman’s life. Love affairs, pregnancies with non conforming men letting you down, rabble rousing in bars with men you party with but don’t care to stay alongside, and ending with the dark side poking it’s head around the corner, “acid, blues and ass, needles, guns and grass…..lots of laughs”. The sixties free love was not nearly so much of a laugh for those ending up picking up the pieces. The laughs are as hollow as men’s promises and their expectations of free love, being free for them, and damn the consequences for women. Lots of laughs, indeed Joni…lots of laughs.

Side 2 is a darker affair of loves lost and prices paid. It opens with the independent brilliance of California, a declaration of love for the state of whom she is it’s ‘biggest fan’, flies across oceans in This Flight Tonight, River, gets drunk on a Case of You, and winds up in the grouchy longing acceptance that love is not what it should be, in The Last Time I saw Richard.

Lorca wrote, in ‘It’s True’ : For love of you, the air, it hurts, and my heart, and my hat, they hurt me. …. Ay, the pain it costs me to love you as I love you! By the time the final chords of The Last Time I Saw Richard ring out, Mitchell makes Lorca real: we have listened to what it sounds like when love hurts and is reflected back in a pale imitation of that which is offered.

The pain of love, climaxes in the see saw ‘Richard’ Joni in turns trying to persuade Richard that ‘love can be so sweet’, then falling herself into the blue fug phase that ‘all good dreamers’ fall into in their ‘dark café days’.

Musically, Blue soars and closes into the homely warmth of the piano and dulcimer, never subtracting from the words, the clash and clang of Flight pushing forward the tinny world closed in claustrophobia of being on a flight towards someone that you should never have flown towards. Her free spirit is expressed in piano and dulcimer, in strangely tuned guitars and those perfect cut glass vocals.

Joni and I preferred the hunt of real love to the mundane reality of the ‘dishwashers and coffee percolators’ of Richard’s marriage to the figure skater. We would rather find rivers to skate away on, than skate in pretty circles. There is always another ‘best baby’ around the corner…until there isn’t…and when there isn’t there is always California!

Love and loss, longing rendered in perfect vocals and a driving coherent musical manifesto of folk, Blue doesn’t just deserve an outtakes EP and the upcoming Archives release, it deserves recognition as the perfect album that it undeniably is.

Joni, you gave me the best advice on how to navigate life and love and men, and “part of you pours of me in these lines…from time to time…’

I remember that time you told me
You said, “Love is touching souls”
Surely you touched mine
‘Cause part of you pours out of me
In these lines from time to time
(Case of You, Blue. Joni Mitchell)

2 Comments

  1. Nicholas Peart

    Interesting article. I am a big Neil Young and Bob Dylan fan, but I should really delve more into Joni’s work. Believe it or not, I haven’t fully listened to Blue. I know it’s an iconic album and I think it looks like a good place to start? Btw, are you familiar with the music of the singer/songwriter Judee Sill? I discovered her via a friend of mine a few years ago and I love her music. She was never sufficiently appreciated in her lifetime and she sadly died quite young. She released just two studio albums.

    1. The Paltry Sum

      I always figured Judee never had the looks or star factor – the music industry is fickle. She is a little syrupy for me, slightly show tunes, but absolutely valid. Blue or For The Roses would probably be a good place to start. I have had many copies of Blue, they always get lost, broken or stolen. I don’t currently own one…or anything to play it on. I love Neil’s sound, but his lyrics stink, and he irritates me as a human being. Bob is Bob..love to hate him, I guess.

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