So Bitter and So Sweet: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Turns 50

When I was 15, a kind, patient older cousin of mine was killed in a freak accident. A few days after getting that news, I was in the middle of a driving class when my instructor asked me if anything was wrong. I was stumped at first. Nothing seemed off to me; I didn’t think my driving or behavior was erratic. But both were. It took me a while to realize that I had internalized my grief so much that I was tricking myself into believing everything was okay. Instead of crying about it, or talking about it, or confronting it in any way.

And because I was a boy, and the other men in my life were just like me in the feelings department, I accepted this lack of emotional intelligence as just part of who I was. It wasn’t until my senior year of college that the dam started to break. Because that was the year I met my wife, who is teaching me what it means to be self-aware to this day. It was also the year I bought Joni Mitchell’s Blue on CD. We would fall asleep to it in the middle of the day, comforted by how the intensity of its emotions resonated with ours.

Up until Blue was released 50 years ago today, the definition of a singer/songwriter was problematically narrow – essentially it described a man who did it all, except for telling us how he really felt. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen were the recognized masters of this form, posing stoically on their album covers to make it clear they were brooding troubadours who answered to no one. And while they would pull the veil back occasionally, these were artists who wrote songs like English professors – shrouding any vulnerability in layers of metaphor and literary references. Given how good their music sounded, it was easy to associate their lyrical complexity with artistic worth. To believe that honesty is somehow simpler or easier.

An iconoclast from day one, Joni Mitchell wasn’t about to pay attention to what a singer/songwriter was supposed to be. The Alberta native didn’t even tune her guitar in the standard way, perpetually twisting the pegs in search of brand new clusters of notes, frustrating generations of campfire strummers in search of an easy cover. In the years leading up to Blue, she used these invented chord structures to give her first three albums an ethereal quality that folk fans hadn’t quite experienced before. Yet her lyrics, while reflective of her talent, needed some time to catch up. These early songs were written in the ’60s Greenwich Village mold, anthems anchored by metaphors intended to be applicable to all – life is like a merry-go-round; growing up is like seeing the clouds from above for the first time. One of her biggest hits was about Woodstock, and she wasn’t even there.

These songs I’m referencing remain rightfully iconic, and they resulted in Mitchell becoming very famous very quickly. And like a lot of artists who are both egomaniacally driven and emotionally sensitive, she ended the ’60s feeling overwhelmed, disillusioned with fame, and seriously considering retirement. In Malka Marom’s fascinating interview collection Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, the artist describes this time in her life:

I hadn’t cried for years, but at that time I cried all the time. They walked on the moon, I cried. Everything made me cry. […] Another day, I came upon a boat being pulled by a car crossing under the telephone lines as they went across the road. The name of the boat was The Wife’s Mink Coat. And I burst into tears. It had two motors and I just saw all the disruption those egg beaters were making in the water, and I felt sorry for the fish. I had to pull over to the side of the road. I was weeping about that.”

Mitchell wrote and recorded Blue in this state of mind, and made no attempt to hide it, describing the nuances of her emotions with an honesty and specificity that would forever expand the boundaries of what a singer/songwriter could do. Gone were any attempts to tap into the zeitgeist. Blue is about what one person was going through, period.

Over sparse folk arrangements that feature only a handful of players other than her, Mitchell sings about her needs, regrets, and traumas, embracing how uncomfortably they could live alongside one another. The love songs are mournful. The travel songs are homesick. The sad songs shiver in the shadows of potential happiness. To someone like me, who struggled to understand the fact that human beings contain multitudes, this doubled as a psychology lesson.

On the opening “All I Want,” Mitchell sums up the mercurial push and pull of a passionate relationship in a few pronoun-laden lines, as her dulcimer and James Taylor’s guitar lay down the path ahead:

I hate you some, I love you some
Oh I love you when I forget about me

Most relationship eulogizers would be satisfied with this passive, poetic sadness, like Dylan telling his ex not to think twice and just move on. But Joni Mitchell wasn’t kidding when she titled this song. She wants us to know all of the good things she wants for this person as well. Even though it’s contradictory, and an admission of vulnerability:

I want to be the one that you want to see
I want to knit you a sweater
Want to write you a love letter
I want to make you feel better
I want to make you feel free

On the devastating ballad “Little Green,” when singing to the child she gave up for adoption while mired in poverty –a personal trauma that was a closely kept secret until the 1990s – Mitchell keeps stubbornly looking for pinpricks of hope:

So you sign all the papers in the family name
You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed
Little green have a happy ending

On the record’s more upbeat numbers, the reverse is true. “California” uses sprightly acoustic strumming to underline Mitchell’s largely rose-colored memories of adventures abroad. But in the last chorus, she asks her adoptive home state if she’s worthy: “Will you take me as I am?” “Carey” fleshes out another lively acoustic groove about international travel with conga hits and layered vocal harmonies. But her “fingernails are filthy,” and she has “beach tar on her feet.” And the red-haired Cretian man who inspired the title? He’s “a mean old daddy.”

“My insights became keener,” Mitchell tells Marom about her frame of mind while recording Blue. “I’d just look at a person and I’d know too much about them that I didn’t want to know. And because everything was becoming transparent, I felt I must be transparent, and I cried.”

As arguably the first “transparent” work from a singer/songwriter, Blue has inspired countless purveyors of confessional art over the last half-century. But I’ve yet to hear one that resonates as powerfully. Perhaps because this was a radical form of unguardedness, an artist knowingly twisting the pegs of misogynistic limitations by the mere act of being honest on tape. Or maybe Joni Mitchell just happened to be in an elevated state of self-awareness that aligned with her talents reaching their peak. Regardless, the alchemy of these sounds and words is timeless.

To this day, when I’m having trouble tracing the origins of my emotions, I’ll turn to this album. Because in life, when you try to ignore your feelings and make literary references instead, that just makes you an asshole. Thanks to my wife, and this album, I feel comfortable saying that I miss my cousin. That I will never forget the time he sat and played a board game with me on a family visit, even though he was older and cooler and absolutely had better things to do. That I wish he was still alive.

And wouldn’t you know it? I’m crying.

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