Struggling Weekly, Sept. 1, 2011
When we drove to the Twin Cities in late July to catch the flight for our Cape Cod vacation, it involved a middle-of-the-night ride on the four-wheeled version of the Red Eye.
Yours truly took the wheel for the trip up, as I was the only one who’d caught any shut-eye; the ladies were up packing and getting ready. It took an hour or so for their adrenaline to wear off, which left me in a car full of sleeping people, and the need to keep awake.
So I plugged in the earbuds, and woke up my iPod. What to listen to, though? Something really pick-me-uppish probably would prompt me to sing along, wake up Jeanne and the girls, and make me feel like a fool (I don’t sing very well).
So, browsing the 15 or so gigabytes of music on my Pod, I chose Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark.” I hadn’t listened to Mitchell’s 1974 album in a while, and guys can’t sing along with it, or much of Joni’s other works — the songs are almost all written from a woman’s perspective, and don’t sound right when sung by a male.
I’ve always preferred Mitchell’s “Blue” and “Court and Spark” to her earlier work. She started out as a folk artist, and I’ve never been much into that genre; some of her pre-1970 stuff seemed trite: “Both Sides Now,” “The Circle Game,” “Chelsea Morning,” the feigned laugh at the end of “Big Yellow Taxi,” the autobiographically-presented “Woodstock” (which music festival she didn’t actually get to).
“Blue” was more upbeat, with tunes like “Carey” and “This Flight Tonight,” while still being reflective and philosophical. It included “story” songs like “Little Green,” about a woman who’s giving up her child for adoption (autobiographical, as it turns out) and “A Case of You.”
I read somewhere once that the latter was written for fellow Canadian Neil Young, but I can’t find any reference to him now. It has that great first verse, though:
“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’”
Lyrics like that were what hooked me on the 1970s Mitchell. By the time of “Court and Spark,” she was turning to jazz influences, but the lyrics were still strong. “Free Man in Paris,” when sung by a woman, flips the sexual stereotypes nicely. “Raised on Robbery” lampoons a bar pickup situation: “I’m a pretty good cook, sitting on my groceries.”
Some of the songs, though, are dark and brooding, showing a human being who’s desperately looking for love, and finding mostly lust. In “Down to You,” she sings about how “the closing lights strip off the shadows on this strange new flesh you've found.”
Mitchell furthermore is confused about what Mr. Right will be like. In “Car on the Hill,” her new man “makes friends easy, he’s not like me”; in “Down to You,” she prays, “Send me somebody who's strong and somewhat sincere”; in “Just Like This Train,” she’s looking for “a cause, or a strong cat without claws.
And she plays “rope-a-dope” with your emotions, too. The humorously wistful “Just Like This Train” segues into the raunchy “Raised on Robbery,” which is followed by “Troubled Child” — “breaking like the waves at Malibu.”
She puts a bow on it all with “Twisted,” in which she claims she was considered crazy as a child “When I refused to ride on those double-decker buses all because there was no driver on the top,” which line is followed by a classic voice-over from Cheech Marin (of Cheech and Chong): “The chick is twisted … “
That song finished not too long before we arrived at the Minneapolis airport, and I found myself revisiting the album on my iPod on the trip east. Singing along with it, too — although not aloud.
And when I found myself behind the wheel, with sleeping passengers, on the way back from the airport to Whitehall, I queued up “Blue” on the iPod.