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Music

The song Joni Mitchell wrote about David Geffen

Joni Mitchell is a refined artist who tends to put her life experiences into her work. Drawn to the importance of the moment, her very existence hinges on the textures that formulate before her very eyes, and culminate within the perimeters of her soul. It doesn’t matter where she plays, as long as the venue itself doesn’t detract her or her audience from the central message. 

“I liked playing the coffeehouses,” Mitchell once recalled, “Where I could step off the stage and go sit in the audience and be comfortable, or where there wasn’t a barrier between me and my audience in the clubs,” she added. “The big stage had no appeal for me; it was too great a distance between me and the audience, and I never really liked it. I didn’t have a lot of fame in the beginning, and that’s probably good because it made it more enjoyable.”

In another life, Mitchell could have been a famous painter, melding objects against the confines of a small space, where the messages and materials could coalesce as one tremendous exploration of space. 

“That’s what the Van Gogh exhibition was to me,” she explained, demonstrating a kinship to the painter in question. “When I went to a Van Gogh exhibition, they had all his paintings arranged chronologically, and you’d watch the growth as you walk along. That was so inspiring, and I started to paint again. If it serves that purpose, that would be great. Really, that would make me very happy. The later work is much richer and deeper and smarter, and the arrangements are interesting too.”

And yet one of her finer portraitures wasn’t one about the painter – that’s Don McLean territory – but an elegy about the music promoter who resided within one of her fiercest works: David Geffen. The two enjoyed a friendship that went far beyond the professional, and Geffen admitted to her that he felt safest in Paris, free from the strains and shackles of work. ‘Free Man in Paris’ was her way of exploring his inner thoughts, giving him back the perspective that had eluded him from within his own personal experience. Paris represented safety and solitude, where he was unencumbered by stress or duties. 

Mitchell presents Geffen as a man unhindered by the call of work, eager to explore a sidewalk, should it suit him to do so. And when he runs, he runs with the liberation of a man who is somewhere between vacancy and vacation. “There was no one’s future to decide,” she sings, Graham Nash‘s voice carrying the lower harmony. 

The guitars are breezily presented, and the song jaunts along with the urgency of a person on holiday. The French streets hold a special place in his heart, clearly pedalling the excitement that emanates from the song’s rhythm. The drums are played with feathery demonstrated, and the focus is put on the wallopping rhythm guitar patterns that cement the lead melody and hook. 

Mitchell wasn’t known for such expressions of delirium, so this tune proved one of her sprightliest treats. Laced from head to toe in pop texture, the song proved the apogee of her pop output and remains one of her more popular anthems to date. 

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The song featured on her 1974 effort Court and Spark, amidst a collection of naked numbers that padded out the album. It also showed that the largely cerebral artist had a beating heart. Indeed, the entire album showed a softening of the guard, as she emerged from the confines of cult status into more sophisticated territories. What mattered wasn’t the way the work was dressed, but the way in which the songs were addressed. Famed luminary José Feliciano played electric guitar on ‘Free Man in Paris’, bringing extra padding, position and dimension to the composition. Where it lacked in dynamic, it made up in spirit and gumption. 

The album also boasts another memorable classic in ‘Raised on Robbery’, a sparkling piece that featured The Band’s Robbie Robertson on guest guitar. Rather than adhere to the straightforward blues solos he pedalled for the Canadian five-piece, Robertson formed a more angular guitar part, directed to the lungs, heart and chest. The guitar piece is one of his rawest to date. 

And the album is one of Mitchell’s most colourful and engaging, making it an interesting entry point into her orbit and home. From that point, Ladies of the Canyon is the more logical point into her expansive, catholic back catalogue of work. More recently, Mitchell has begun reclaiming some of the early textures of her career, which included an admirable remake of ‘Both Sides Now’, which had the unfortunate ignominy to feature on Richard Curtis wanting Love Actually. But even a sub-par Curtis movie isn’t enough to detract from Mitchell’s work, and her work will continue to grow like the artist she is, free like a man in Paris. 

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