a literary review
In the fall of 2003, it was Miles of Aisles my mother fished out of the Blazer’s center console and handed to me from the front seat, promising, “If you like deep music, you’ll love Joni Mitchell.” I remember my first impression: weird. She was a soprano, and her voice was so high it seemed almost squeaky. She was teamed up with Tom Scott and the L.A. Express, and there were times it was difficult to distinguish her voice from the band’s instruments, her scat-singing from the moan of Robben Ford’s electric guitar, her high wails from those of Wayne Shorter’s soprano saxophone. There was a song about a taxi in which she enthusiastically warned that “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone;” she sang of love and drugs; she told stories; she encouraged her audience to sing along; she introduced two previously unrecorded songs; and she performed what was to me at the time a most jarring rendition of my favorite Diana Krall song, “A Case of You.”
It was a year after the release of Diana’s Live in Paris, and my mother played it perpetually in the car—a silver 1997 Chevy Blazer with a ten-disc changer bolted to the floor just behind the backseat where Diana had taken up full residence. With allowance saved up from cleaning job sites for my father’s construction company, I bought my own copy of Live in Paris. I slipped it into the CD on my bedroom stereo and listened to it on repeat while I played Polaris SnoCross on my Playstation. I alternated among favorites – jazz and pop standards like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and “Maybe You’ll Be There,” and more lively pieces like “Devil May Care” and “I Love Being Here With You” – but finally settled on one that seemed to tug at my soul. The lyrics were less straightforward, more of a puzzle, a poem; and the story wasn’t as simple as the ones I’d heard in torch songs and standards. It was Diana’s first encore, a tribute to a fellow Canadian songstress. It was Joni Mitchell’s “A Case Of You.”
In Diana’s version, the first chords came soft, hushed, then hurried, stumbling into grace notes – the way words ran into each other falling off my tongue when I was nervous – before building up to the introduction of her voice, which was deep, honest, and scratchy with attitude.
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’s version would later surprise me with its speed – steady, clipped, bobbing along to the strums of her guitar. Diana takes her time, lets the piano meander. In contrast, her tone is conversational, determined and almost tired, an honest and vulnerable abandon which, I would later glean, is necessary to the performance of the song. As she confesses to drawing her subject’s face on a coaster, she continues, “I could drink a case of you, darling” – this word is somewhat biting, her voice cracked nearly to a whisper – “and still be on my feet. I’d still be on my feet.” The piano is both commanding and complementary, beating its own path through the measures until Diana delivers the final chorus with all the strength, vulnerability, bitterness, and acceptance that accompany the loss of love:
I met a woman
She had a mouth like yours
She knew your life
She knew your devils and your deeds
And she said,
“Go to him, stay with him if you can
But be prepared to bleed”
According to Michelle Mercer, author of Will You Take Me as I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period, the refrain “You’re in my blood like holy wine” mimics Leonard Cohen’s stylistic penchant of “transubstantiating the holy into sexual love.” The song was released four years after Joni’s affair with the Canadian singer-songwriter. Not only is Cohen a direct influence on the expressive quality of Joni’s songwriting, this practice of invoking religious dogma allows for deeper levels of nuance in her writing. Not only can her addressee get into her bloodstream and intoxicate her, but she must be prepared to sacrifice herself in the name of love.
According to the man I took piano lessons with from the age of nine, the greatest thing a person could do with musical ability was serve the Lord, and with classical training, I could reach a level of ability sufficient to lead worship. My favorite pieces included Beethoven’s “Rage over a Lost Penny” and Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca,” and I loved just about anything by Chopin or Debussy. My piano teacher encouraged me to practice flawlessness over interpretation, but my mother urged me to play expressively, claiming that the quality would distinguish me from my peers. Under her influence, music went from simply sounding good to meaning something – in listening as well as in performance.
In his essay “How We Listen to Music,” Aaron Copland identifies three planes which make up the listening process, which he refers to as the sensuous plane, the expressive plane, and the purely musical plane. I had first learned to appreciate the sensuous plane of listening, finding pleasure in the church hymns and country music that dominated rural northeast Missouri. In my first years of piano lessons, I became engrossed in the purely musical plane, fixated on the notes themselves, the chords and arpeggios, and the practiced flutter of my own fingers over the keys. As I began to appreciate the expressive plane of listening, I became someone who could appreciate the “deep music” my mother promised when she passed Miles of Aisles to me from the front seat. Every torch song, every country ballad, every pop anthem, and even the hymns I loved from church – each one fit a form. Copland maintains that every listening process integrates these planes, but it wasn’t until I heard “A Case Of You” that I consciously experienced all three at once. In its swooping vowels and stark emotional honesty, it was entirely unprecedented – like me, it didn’t fit the mold. After a month with Miles of Aisles, I was hooked.
That winter, my mother passed down the holy of holies – her record collection. Four plastic crates full of vinyl, collected over decades – each one chosen with care. There are a handful Mom remembers picking up for a single track – maybe one or two radio singles that outshone the rest of the album – but with Joni, she always went in for the full package. She says she had an inkling that I’d appreciate her collection, and she wanted to pass on the joy. “Passing the torch,” she called it – the act of sharing music with friends – “like teaching them to ride a musical bicycle.” So she dug those old crates out of the back of her closet, along with a flat, gray turntable. Closing the smooth, Plexiglas lid over Blue, pressing the dusty play button down, light streaming in through plastic blinds, the piano chords and the high, clear voice emanating from the speakers amid cracks and pops and fuzz – this was my musical awakening, the awakening of my young heart. I was taking up the torch.
My mother became a fan in 1976, “the year of the low-slung, bell-bottom jeans and the peasant shirts.” It was her freshman year at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, where she majored in music. Near campus was a section of town known as “The Hill,” a street flanked with bars, small restaurants, a bookstore, and the record shop where she first purchased Joni’s 1974 album, Court and Spark. Back then, listening to music was a social thing, whether attending a recital, going out dancing, or simply gathering in a dorm room with someone’s newly purchased discount record, as she and her friends did almost every day after classes. One afternoon, she and five or six friends gathered in her dorm room, seating themselves in a circle on her floor and bed, my mother in a big, red bean bag chair, and someone put on a Joni album. “Her voice wasn’t like anyone else’s,” she recalls. “She went places you weren’t expecting, vocally. There’s a roughness, a rough edge to her early recordings; that’s what drew me.” Other female artists of the time were overdubbed by comparison. The “rough edge” that drew my mother – in fact, everything that made Joni so unlike other artists – was the odd, fractured warble and aimless, dreamy glissando that, at first, repelled me. As I grew in my musical tastes, however, I too came to appreciate the experimentation and innovation of Joni’s amelodic work.
My mother sang her first solo in church at the age of three, began taking piano lessons at an early age, and later starred in the musicals put on by her high school. At UNI, she received classical vocal training. While she doesn’t remember hearing her first Joni album, she remembers this: Joni was a far cry from her own classical training; she let her voice crack and swoop. She was adventurous. Mom studied her the way she had Beethoven and Mozart. There was no one at that time doing anything like Joni Mitchell.
Mercer defines Joni’s Blue Period as an autobiographical period of “art songs,” spanning from Blue in 1971 through Hejira in 1976 and including For the Roses, Court and Spark, and The Hissing of Summer Lawns. According to Mercer, the expressive nature of this period of Joni’s career follows a literary tradition founded by St. Augustine of Hippo with his thirteen-volume Confessions: Augustine’s spiritual Confessions inspired Rousseau’s autobiographical Confessions, the influence of which trickled down to Bob Dylan in the sixties. Joni has denied the moniker of “confessional,” stating instead that she focuses on universal truths conveyed in her work. According to Mercer, however, the personal revelation necessitated by this search for truth introduced a vein of songwriting that was “about as personal as songwriting had ever been.”
Joni moved to the Laurel Canyon community in Los Angeles in 1969, as Harvey Kubernik writes in Canyon of Dreams: the Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon, when she bought a log cabin on Lookout Mountain with Graham Nash. This is the house illustrated in CSNY’s “Our House” and the one that provided for much of the imagery throughout Joni’s Blue Period. Over the next few years, she kept company with CSNY, David Geffen, Mama Cass Elliot, Eric Clapton, Joel Bernstein, and Tony and Ola Hudson, some of whom are addressed in the songs of her 1970 album, Ladies of the Canyon. Not entirely unlike my mother’s college days, the seventies in Laurel Canyon were a time of coming together and collaboration. And just as those dreamy afternoons spent record shopping at The Hill and sharing music in smoky dorm rooms shaped my mother’s young musical career, Joni’s friends and lovers in Laurel Canyon became early influences on a career that was to span more than forty years.
During her freshman year, my mother began playing the piano in her dorm lounge, carting out songbooks of Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and Carole King, dog-earing the corners and circling page numbers in blue ink. One day, a fellow student, Sandy, walked in and said, “Hey, that’s really good. Mind if I sing with you?” and they began singing together in the lounge. After a while, they were contacted by the Student Union and asked to perform there. My mother played piano, and she and Sandy sang together. They accumulated a significant following and appeared repeatedly in campus and community newspapers. My mother went on to perform in a piano bar off and on for eight or nine months, mostly playing but singing now and then and featuring Sandy a time or two. It was the Student Union gig that she loved, though, performing with Sandy and getting to harmonize. It was an era, she says, of people being brought together by music. Just as friends gathered in dorm rooms to listen to a new album, performers came together to collaborate and share their talents – this was the same for my mother and for Joni Mitchell.
Joni appears on the cover of Clouds, Blue, and For the Roses as a gangly, straight-haired young woman with piercing blue eyes and high, sharp cheekbones. In a high school portrait displayed in my grandparents’ living room, my mother is a gangly, straight-haired young woman with dazzling hazel eyes and prominent cheekbones. While Joni Mitchell grew up on the Saskatchewan prairie, my mother grew up on the plains of southeast Iowa, twenty-three years behind her. The first album Joni owned was classical, as Brian Hinton documents in his 1996 biography; and by high school, she had come to love Miles Davis.
My mother’s musical taste progressed similarly, from the classical she was exposed to by my grandparents, to her mastery of George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” (which she still calls her greatest achievement). In college, she majored in voice with minors in piano and guitar—Joni’s main instruments. Just as my mother first played in the Student Union and a local piano bar, Joni Mitchell began performing in a Calgary coffee shop during her time at the Alberta College of Art.
While Joni went on to become a highly influential singer-songwriter, however, my mother abandoned her studies during her senior year. She didn’t have an academic advisor at UNI and discovered in her fourth year she needed an extra year in order to meet the requirements of her degree. She had been working summers doing bookkeeping for Roquette America, a starch producer and biorefinery with a plant and office building located in her southeast Iowa hometown; and when she was offered a full-time position with benefits, she got to thinking of the family she’d always wanted. “I was stupid,” she laments. “I always thought I’d go back.” Still, music remained a prominent aspect of her life; she played piano and organ for her church, directed the choir and taught music in the Sunday School. She competed in local vocal competitions, recorded radio jingles for local businesses, and performed in the biannual benefit variety show for Keokuk Area Hospital. When I was eleven years old and my father’s construction business was taking off, my mom left Roquette to open her own one-woman business tuning and repairing pianos.
Dad installed a heater and dehumidifier in our garage to protect Mom’s amassed pianos from the erratic Missouri climate, and eventually he suggested she conduct her piano lessons out there, too, so that he could work in peace on blueprints and contracting calls during the afternoons. By now, my mother had accumulated many of the students of my former piano teacher, who had become a Baptist minister and moved to North Carolina. I can remember the garage filled with pianos – as many as nine at a time – and my mother calling me out there to play for her while she smoked her evening cigarette—some classical piece I was working on, some jazz tune, the latest Joni Mitchell song I had learned. I chose songs from the old piano bar anthology: “Willy” and “Rainy Night House” from Ladies of the Canyon, “Let the Wind Carry Me” from For the Roses, “Down To You” and “Raised On Robbery” from Court and Spark. Then, I tried my hand at every song on Blue.
By summer of 2004, less than a year after falling in love with “A Case Of You,” devouring the greater part of Joni’s extensive discography, and poring over countless pages of musical notation, I had just about perfected my new favorite song. “River,” just one track ahead of “A Case Of You” on Blue, opens with a melancholy rendition of “Jingle Bells” (the story is set at Christmastime), and the refrain is characterized by a long, soaring wail, meted out in dense treble chords. The song is underscored by a progression of wandering, restless arpeggios climbing from one key to the next, to the next, to the next. I labored over the song for months. When my mother plopped down in her lawn chair in the garage, her cutoff jeans stained with wood finish from the piano she’d been working on, lit her cigarette, and asked me what I was going to play, I didn’t tell her. I just pulled out the bench, propped up the worn songbook, and set my fingers on the keys.
When the final, haunting chords faded under the damper pedal, I heard the soft chck–ffff of my mother’s lighter as she held it to another cigarette. I turned around expectantly and found her with her head propped against one hand, her eyes half-closed. She pulled on the fresh Marlboro and smiled quietly at me. “Play it again.”
Copland, Aaron. “How We Listen to Music.” The Conscious Reader. By Caroline Shrodes,
Harry Finestone, and Michael Francis. Shugrue. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2001.
Hinton, Brian. Joni Mitchell Both Sides Now. London: Sanctuary Limited, 1996. Print.
Kubernik, Harvey. Canyon of Dreams: the Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon. Ed. Scott
Calamar. New York: Sterling, 2009. Print.
Mercer, Michelle. Will You Take Me as I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period. London: Simon &
Schuster, 2009. Print.
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Andy Harper holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska Omaha and is currently pursuing a PhD at Southern Illinois University. His work has appeared in Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland, and Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. His current project, “Wild Onions,” is a memoir in essays celebrating Midwestern life while exploring concepts of geographical heritage and the evolving meaning of home. He lives in Carbondale, Illinois, where he teaches college composition and studies American literature. He enjoys hiking and travel.