Court and Spark is Joni Mitchell’s 1974 opus. The album was a critical and commercial success and remains her most successful album to date. The album is a progenitor to the likes of Alanis Morissette, Haim, Tori Amos and Fiona Apple, female musicians who have assumed Mitchell’s serpentine mantle. Her songwriting hallmark features painfully confessional lyrics and dreamy compositions that elevate the lyrical content.
The album is also iconic as it marked the start of Mitchell’s flirtation with jazz and fusion, signalling the onset of her experimental period. For this reason, it is one of the 1970s most enduring sonic pleasures. Furthermore, during the recording of the album, Mitchell made a clean break from her earlier folk sound, and self produced the album. She employed her first “real” backing group, jazz/pop fusion band L.A. Express.
The Canadian native also enlisted contemporary heavyweights such as David Crosby, Graham Nash, Robbie Robertson and even Cheech & Chong, to provide supporting cameos on the album – adding depth to her new found sound. Court and Spark spawned three hit singles, ‘Raised on Robbery’, ‘Help Me’ and ‘Free Man in Paris’. This marked Mitchell’s most popular chapter of her career, receiving regular airplay and being embraced by the masses.
Reflecting this, the album received four Grammy nominations in 1975, including Album of the Year, which she lost out to Stevie Wonder’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale. However, Court and Spark did win the award for Best Arrangement, Instrumental and Vocals.
Court and Spark also represents the peak of Mitchell’s penchant for intricately weaving stories, and backs them up with majestic orchestral turns, propelling her songwriting into a different echelon entirely. Thus, it would be easy to regard any of the three hit singles as indicative of her talent, but album opener and title track, ‘Court and Spark’ does it even better, and the isolated vocal track really reinforces this sentiment.
Before we touch on the isolated vocals themselves, it is first necessary to comprehend the lyrical composition of the track. In typical Mitchell style, through her hazy, California drenched lens, the song talks of two lovers, one who is presumed to be a classic hippie drifter “love came to my door with a sleeping roll”, “looking for a woman to court and spark” and the lady he hopes to seduce.
Now, we don’t know how personally relevant these lyrics are to Mitchell herself, but it is well documented that her love life heavily influenced the majority of her songwriting. Furthermore, the lyrical motif of “court and spark”, which would become eponymous for the album, implies an intense form of physical attraction, hoping to set your loved one ablaze through rekindling their internal flame.
Stereotypical of the era’s counterculture, the anonymous drifter is also a busker, “he was playing on the sidewalk for passing change”, but “he buried the coins he made in People’s Park and went looking for a woman to court and spark”. This is where the song’s lyrical density unfolds. People’s Park is a hotly contested ground in Berkeley, California, that has long been a theatre in the war between leftist protesters and the perceived authoritarian mechanisms their struggle is pitted against.
On the 15th May 1969, People’s Park became the epicentre of the struggle. Berkeley became a warzone. Martial Law was imposed, and National Guardsmen occupied the area.
What caused this you ask? The park had gradually become an impromptu community garden for the regular people of the city. It had developed alongside Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, the SDS, and various events in the anti-war and anti-authoritarian movements.
However, it was land that the University of California wanted to develop into expensive dorms and parking lots, erasing the tight-knit community of smaller housing, apartments and shops — very similar to the Taylor Tower fiasco currently taking place in Brixton.
Disastrously, none other than Ronald Reagan was governor of California at the time. As the University is technically a State organisation, the draconian measures were enacted for two reasons. 1) Berkeley was somewhat of a left-wing HQ at the time. 2) Reagan had claimed in his 1966 run for office that he would make welfare “bums” go back to work, and would clean up “the mess in Berkeley.” Showing his true nature, which the world would be subjected to in the ’80s, the then-Californian Governor stated “if it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with, no more appeasement.”
And so it came to be known, “Bloody Thursday”. A brutal flashpoint capturing the essence of the age, left-wing hippie students versus the right-wing, neoliberal machinery. Doc Sportello vs. Lieutenant “Bigfoot” Bjornsen. Fifty people were hit by The State’s live ammunition, resulting in the death of bystander James Rector, and multiple debilitating injuries that the survivors still suffer today.
Unsurprisingly, “The Battle for People’s Park” went down in history. Nevertheless, amongst all the tragedy, it represented a victory for ordinary Berkeleyites over the university. To be able to walk in the park was a reminder that you can win against the machine. It also became a memorial for James Rector’s death and a reminder of the lethal way The State had attempted to suppress free speech and democracy in the sixties and seventies.
Unfortunately, the overarching socio-political land battle is still raging between the people of the city and the university, but ‘Court and Spark’ provides a beautiful, retrospective account of the times where the struggle originated: “All the guilty people” he said, they’ve all seen the stain on their daily bread, on their Christian names”.
The isolated vocals are glorious in the way that the absence of instrumentation ironically take Joni Mitchell back to her ‘60s folk roots, that she was trying to get away from. Her vocal melody is fluid and organic, and is as suited to a grassy Californian knoll, during summer 1967, as it is to the golden halls of stardom, and the Grammy Awards.
Furthermore, the isolated vocals serenely portray Mitchell’s female character as being too perceptive and smart for the flirtatious drifter, singing “he saw me mistrusting him”. In addition to this, the closing lines candidly display the woman’s noir-esque preoccupation with L.A.: “The more he talked to me, the more he reached me, but I couldn’t let go of L.A., city of the fallen angels”.
The closing lines hint at a broken heart left in the city of fallen angels, a soul occupied with another man, and another time, invoking personal loss and the death of innocence. This goes some way in explaining why she is quick to halt the drifter’s advances. His movements are reminiscent of the dark side of hippiedom. That one-dimensional, misogynistic trope encapsulated by Charles Manson et al.
‘Court and Spark’ is a beautiful track brimming with candour and complex themes, supplying a profile of a woman amidst the counterculture movement. The isolated vocals build on this, providing an effective means of delving into the psyche of the ethereal, iconic, Joni Mitchell.
Listen to the isolated vocals of Joni Mitchell on ‘Court and Spark’ below.