The soundtrack for our campfire the Sunday before last was an iMusic shuffle of the four Joni Mitchell albums I have in the library. It may have been the first few songs that randomly played, but I soon found myself focusing on how many of the Canadian songbird’s creations are about guys.
Mitchell is one of the most autobiographical of The Music’s singer/songwriters, and one of my favorites. Another is Van Morrison, but the Belfast Cowboy has averred that his songs aren’t really much inspired by real life. A disappointment, considering some of the characters he has created; too bad if there never was an actual Madame George.
I’m not aware that Joni has ever weighed in on that angle, but it’s easy to see the autobiographical nature of her writing, especially in her early works (and most of my Mitchell albums are from that period). For instance, it seems to be pretty common knowledge that “A Case of You,” from Blue, her fourth LP, was about her relationship with Graham Nash.
(In a trivia piece I did 30-plus years ago, I assumed that it was written for fellow Canadian Neil Young — because of the lines “I drew a map of Canada … with your face sketched on it twice.” But that other CSN and Sometimes Y guy would never have said, “I am as constant as the northern star”; the peevish former Hollie was certainly capable of that. Joni’s response was, as my friend and fellow Mitchell fan Z would say, a “top classic”: “Constantly in the darkness, where’s that at?/If you want me I’ll be in the bar.”)
Mitchell and Nash were in a relationship for several years, and that union produced one of the lamest of several lame Hippie anthems on the early Crosby Stills and Nash albums, “Our House.” (I lived in a large, semi-communal house on Madison’s near-east side in the summer of 1970, where that song was kind of an anthem. No cats in the yard, one in the house with a couple Malamutes, but whatever …)
But, how many other of Joni’s songs about dudes were grounded in reality? (Granted, in my case, I am looking at a much smaller sample size, because I have four out of 19 official studio albums.) Just on Blue, at least six of the 10 cuts are about men in Mitchell’s life, with two of them “devoted” to Nash: “A Case of You” and “My Old Man.”
“Carey” is about an American ex-pat that she met in Greece, while she was fixing to dump Nash. Two songs are attributed by some sources to (Sweet Baby) James Taylor, the guy Mitchell took up with after Nash and Carey Radditz, “This Flight Tonight” and “Blue.” (Although some have said that the latter is about a songwriter named David Blue, who may have been a love interest.)
“The Last Time I Saw Richard” kind of counts, although it apparently is not about a specific man; the songwriter says it was inspired by a conversation with a friend, who told her she was a hopeless romantic, the theme of the song. “Little Green,” too, is about a person, but a girl, not a guy — the daughter that Mitchell gave up for adoption in 1966, five years before the album was released, when she was a poor folk singer in Toronto.
Blue is my favorite out of the Joni albums in my library, and is ranked as one of the great LPs of all time — Rolling Stone magazine ranked it No. 3 in its “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list. Court and Spark is my second favorite, and was her best-selling of the 19 studio LPs.
But her sixth album is less autobiographical, which is maybe the difference. Or at least, it’s less about specific relationships — Uncle Wiki doesn’t have as extensive notes about the songs on Court and Spark, and there’s only one song that has a guy’s name attached to it. But the “Free Man in Paris” was Asylum Records co-founder David Geffen, a friend but apparently not a romantic interest.
The man in the album’s title tune sounds like he could have been a real person, and the passing reference to a lover in “Just Like This Train” — “Dreaming of the pleasure I’m gonna have/Watching your hairline recede, my vain darling” — might be reality-based. Also, “Same Situation” and “Help Me” might be addressed to actual persons.
But the other songs targeting guys seem more generic. The man in “Car on a Hill,” who “… makes friends easy/He’s not like me/I watch for judgment anxiously,” sounds like one of the short-term relationships that Mitchell falls into. (“Court and Spark” might fall into that category, too.) Ditto for “Down to You”: “You go down to the pick up station/Craving warmth and beauty/You settle for less than fascination/A few drinks later you're not so choosy.”
(Speaking of songs about people, are the names in “People’s Parties” referring to actual persons? “Jack behind his joker” was, according to an account of a Hollywood party in the early 1970s, Jack Nicholson. The same storyteller states that the “photo beauty” with the lampshade on her head was Dutch model Apollonia van Ravenstein. But was “stone-cold Grace behind her fan,” Grace Slick? She’s not mentioned as being a guest at that party.)
The other Mitchell albums I have are Ladies of the Canyon and Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm. The latter is my most recent addition —digitized from a friend’s vinyl — and I haven’t listened to it as much as the others.
Chalk Mark was released almost a decade and a half after Court and Spark, in a much different place in the artist’s career; it has different themes and includes many duets with other singers. (And a strange mix of them at that: Peter Gabriel, Don Henley, Billy Idol, Willie Nelson and Tom Petty!) Nothing jumps out at me as directed at a lover or friend.
Ladies immediately preceded (by a year) Blue, but seems quite different — less introspective. But it does include another song for/about Nash, “Willy.”
Don’t have the album, but the LP between Blue and Court and Spark, For the Roses, includes another song about Sweet Baby James. Her 1976 Hejira isn’t in my library, either, but includes a track that gets regular airplay, “Coyote,” which paints an interesting portrait of a guy. Turns out it may be about a notable person with whom Mitchell may have had a relationship, playwright Sam Shepard.
I’ve long intended to expand my collection Mitchell’s albums. Doing so may introduce me to more of Joni’s guys.