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Music

Joni Mitchell’s classic album ‘Blue’ in her own words

@TomTaylorFO

Music and heartache are never far apart, but when it comes to folk music, in particular, solemnity and songs form a harmonious match made in matrimony hell. Nowhere have those ill-fated wedding bells sounded more heavenly than on Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Fifty years on, the chimes of love lost still ring out with the same timeless beauty, in such an exultant way that you’re almost glad life is tragic after all.

Before getting into Joni Mitchell’s words, it is perhaps pertinent to start with the man whose cologne scent lingers over many of the songs. Graham Nash writes in 101 Essential Rock Records: “I first met Joan in Ottawa, Canada in 1967… Joni and I hit it off immediately, and I ended up in her room at the Chateau Laurier and she beguiled me with 15 or so of the most incredible songs I’d ever heard. Obviously, I fell in love right there and then. She touched my heart and soul in a way that they had never been touched before.”

By the time Blue came around in 1971, the relationship sadly appeared to be over and the tale of heartache contained on the record would have the same effect on millions that her bedroom bound serenade had on Nash four years prior. Nash recalls, “I watched her write some of those songs and I believe that one or two of them were about me, but who really knows?” However, the sad note that must echo through the tunes for Nash, does not stop him from experiencing the deliverance that accompanies the despair, as he adds, “Blue is by far, my most favourite solo album, and the thought that I spent much time with this fine woman and genius of a writer is incredible to me.”

For Joni Mitchell, however, the album does not only capture the end of a relationship but the end of an era. “It’s a description of the times,” Mitchell proclaims in Michelle Mercer’s novel Will You Take Me As I Am. “There were so many sinking, but I had to keep thinking I could make it through the waves. You watched that high of the hippie thing descend into drug depression. Right after Woodstock, then we went through a decade of basic apathy where my generation sucked its thumb and then just decided to be greedy and pornographic.” If the zeitgeist that spawned the album was the beginnings of an opiate-induced jaunt following the prelapsarian slide of the sixties, then Blue rings out as the defiant last word, like some glorious dirge in requiem to that loss of innocence.  

When peace and love crumbled and cynicism or else comatose upheaval seemed to arise in its wake, Mitchell felt out of time and out of place. “I was being isolated, starting to feel like a bird in a gilded cage,” she told Rolling Stone. That same sense of entrapment of fame, increasing commercialism, and industry cajoling seemed to riddle her thinking when it came to relationships at the time.

While still in a relationship with Nash, Mitchell packed up from their home that once seemed so idyllic and travelled to Europe alone. Therein, she sent Nash a telegram explaining that the relationship was over. Her ambivalent feelings at the time are summed up on the gut-wrenching track ‘River’ that contains the lyrics, “He tried hard to help me, you know he put me at ease/ He loved me so naughty he made me weak in the knees/ I wish I had a river I could skate away on/ I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad/ Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I’ve ever had.”

More so than the relationship, it would seem Joni wanted to get away from everything. She had gotten into music at the time of the Greenwich Village folk scene, when, high on fiercely artistic beat literature, the world seemed there for a troubadour’s taking, to spread a message of peace and love. “My early work is kind of fantasy, which is why I sort of rejected it,” she told Clive Davis in a recent interview. She quickly ditched that style as she declares, “I started scraping my own soul more and more and got more humanity in it. It scared the singer-songwriters around me; the men seemed to be nervous about it, almost like [Bob] Dylan plugging in and going electric. Like, ‘Does this mean we have to do this now?’ But over time, I think it did make an influence. It encouraged people to write more from their own experience.”

Yet, when this sanguine artistic outlook of the sixties went belly-up while her fame simultaneously billowed up around her, Mitchell wanted to get away from it all to a seemingly simpler time. While travelling Europe, she found some fittingly sixties-esque solace in a cave in Crete, from which she sent Nash the fateful telegram saying: “If you hold sand too tightly in your hand, it will run through your fingers. Love, Joan.” While ostensibly about their relationship, she felt the same about all things personal and professional at that time, when the grip of the industry tightened, society grew stiffer, and her own freedom seemed impeached. 

With this sense of jaded dejection howling around her, she sought escape in her music. “At that period of my life,” She told Rolling Stone, “I had no personal defences. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world, and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defences there either.”

With this staunch feeling of vulnerability plaguing her, she felt a mirrored sense of introspective exposure. “In the state that I was at in my enquiry about life and direction and relationships, I perceived a lot of hate in my heart,” she told Cameron Crowe. “I perceived my inability to love at that point. And it horrified me some.”

Joni Mitchell – ‘Blue’

If she found some small solace from this despondence in Crete, then she thought the record should reflect that. Thus, the old instrumental plucking of the dulcimer is a sound that runs throughout. In the end, she “wrote most of Blue on [a dulcimer].” She adds, “Traditionally it’s picked with a quill… [but the] only instrument I had ever had across my knee was a bongo drum, so when I started to play the dulcimer I beat it.” And in a poetic sense that couldn’t be more befitting of the way in which she delicately pronounces profoundly bold exposure on the record. 

Speaking to Jeffery Rodgers while reflecting on the album, she poignantly states, “I was opened up. As a matter of fact, we had to close the doors and lock them while I recorded [Blue] because I was in a state of mind that in this culture would be called a nervous breakdown. In pockets of the Orient, it would be considered a shamanic conversion.”

Mitchell continued to shed light on the deeply personal moment that the record encapsulates: “It begins with a sense of isolation and of not knowing anything, which is accompanied by a tremendous panic. Then clairvoyant qualities begin to come in, and you and the world become transparent, so if you’re approached by a person, all their secrets are not closeted.”

This, in short, is why the record has resonated with so many. The album deals with loss and sadness in such an openly unabashed way that it divulges hard truths and makes them bearable, illuminating, that despair does not have to be devoid of beauty. In this way, Blue sports exposed vulnerability as a strength for the capacity of growth and change that it offers up on the other side. Through the act of making the album, she escaped the claustrophobia of despair via the salvation of making music, and the record invites you to do the same with such beguiling transcendence that you often forgot the songs are even sad at all. As Joni puts it, “There are things to confess that enrich the world, and things that need to be said.”