NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
Just before embarking on the pivotal intercontinental voyage that would inspire much of her peerless 1971 album, Blue released 50 years ago last month Joni Mitchell considered her grandmothers. One was a frustrated poet and musician, she kicked the kitchen door off of the hinges on the farm, Mitchell recalled in a 2003 documentary. The other wept for the last time in her life at 14 behind some barn because she wanted a piano and said, Dry your eyes, you silly girl, youll never have a piano.
And I thought, Mitchell continued, maybe I am the one that got the gene that has to make it happen for these two women. If she stayed put, she might end up kicking the door off the hinges, too. Id better not, she concluded.
And so she left the loving comfort of her domestic life with fellow musician Graham Nash in the Laurel Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles, booked a single plane ticket abroad and plunged into the uncharted blue the cerulean melancholy of the albums title track, the aquamarine shimmer of Carey, the frozen-over lazuline of River all the while staining her hands with the indigo ink of poetic observation and relentless self-examination.
Half a century later, Mitchells Blue exists in that rarefied space beyond the influential or even the canonical. It is archetypal: the heroines journey that Joseph Campbell forgot to map out. It is the story of a restless young woman questioning everything love, sex, happiness, independence, drugs, America, idealism, motherhood, rock n roll accompanied by the rootless and idiosyncratically tuned sounds she so aptly called her chords of inquiry.
Though she was just 27 when it came out, Mitchell had already done more than enough living to know how much suffering and sacrifice is required for a woman to rip up the traditional script and pursue freedom on her own terms. She knew about sleepless, second-guessed yearnings for domesticity. She knew, too, that motherhood would have been too difficult to balance with her artists life, nakedly chronicling her decision to put her daughter up for adoption on the heart-stopping Little Green.
But the flip side of such pathos was that the woman born Roberta Joan Anderson and raised in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, got to experience the sorts of things most other people confine to their dreams. She got to learn what it felt like to fly.
Perhaps because of its title, Blue has an unearned reputation for being morose or even depressive. Its not. From the opening moments of All I Want composed on an Appalachian dulcimer, which she carried on her European travels because it was more portable than a guitar Mitchell is as fleet-footed and kinetic as one of Eadweard Muybridges horses. Alive, alive, I wanna get up and jive, she declares. Blue is a coming-of-age travelogue. Across this album she laughs with freaks and soldiers, and parties with fellow countercultural expats in Spain, France and Greece. All the while, as one does on even the most exciting vacations, she will wonder somewhere in the back of her mind whats going on at home.
By 1971, Mitchells restlessness manifested in more than just her lyrics. She felt confined by the fishbowl of celebrity Im gonna make a lot of money, then Im gonna quit this crazy scene but also by the formal structures of folk music, an art form she was beginning to consider too simplistic for her prismatic talents. Blue and its follow-up, For the Roses, would be Mitchells last stops before her full immersion in jazz, a kind of music that allowed her, later in her career, the true freedom she had always desired. Part of the power of Blue, though, is that it sounds ill at ease with genre, transitional in every sense of the word only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away, as she puts it on The Last Time I Saw Richard, an album closer that rings out with the inconclusiveness of an ellipsis.
One tried and true way to diminish the power of a song, especially when its written by a woman, is to focus too finely on who it is about. And while Mitchell never tried to disguise the handful of famous ex-lovers and musicians who populate Blue, the context surrounding the album is merely a surface concern, distracting from the achievement of its song-craft and the oceanic force of its emotions. As James Taylor romantically involved with Mitchell during parts of this albums composition, and a guitarist on four Blue songs told me over the phone, songs sort of follow their own truth, which can be bent.
Taylor said he knows better than to think of songs being about someone: The song is about itself, really. A few minutes later, though, he vividly recalled the impulsive Boston-to-Los Angeles plane ride that he believes inspired Mitchell to write This Flight Tonight, leaving him alone on the East Coast and uncertain of their future. Universality and hyperspecific autobiography coexists on this record one does not cancel the other out. Blue is vast enough to hold multiple truths.
I was demanding of myself a deeper and greater honesty, Mitchell said in the documentary, the kind that enters peoples lives and makes light bulbs go off in their head, and makes them feel. That kind of work strikes against the very nerves of their life, she said, and in order to do that, you have to strike against the very nerves of your own.
For the past five decades, "Blue" has been passed down like a ceremonial rite, a family heirloom, a holistic balm for the rawest kind of heartbreak. To mark its 50th anniversary, The New York Times asked more than two dozen artists and writers to speak about its enduring power. These are edited excerpts from the conversations. LINDSAY ZOLADZ
All I Want
James Taylor (musician) I played on A Case of You, Carey, California and All I Want. Those were songs that Joni had written while she was traveling the previous year, and she wrote most on an instrument called a three-string dulcimer, which is a very mobile and very simple instrument. But it left me a wide-open opportunity to pick whatever chords would work with the melody and her spare accompaniment on the dulcimer. That was great fun for me.
ROSANNE CASH (musician) James Taylors guitar playing, its got a weird sound to it. If you were recording an acoustic guitar today, you would go, Well, thats too bright and its got no reverb or resonance on it. Lets soften it up. Lets make it a little darker, warmer sounding. And yet it was exactly right for what she was singing. And if you hear that guitar sound right now without hearing anything else, you would go, Oh, thats from Blue. This is a weird thing to be a revelation, given my childhood and my family, but I understood for the first time that a woman could be a songwriter. She just laid it out in these almost journalistic lines that were still so poetic, so dark, and I thought, Thats what I want to do.
BRANDI CARLILE (musician) When I was in my early 20s, T Bone Burnett tried to play Blue for me. This is something Ive since talked to Joni about, and she thinks its hilarious. It got to the lyric, I want to talk to you, I want to shampoo you, and I was so averse. I was like, Ugh, turn it off, that is the most sappy, feminine
At the time, toughness was really important to me. I wanted to have a wide gait and electric guitar and scream and yell. Then I met my wife, who is a Joni Mitchell mega fan. We were driving up in northern Michigan and we brought albums to play for each other. She was playing Blue. And I was laughing about the lyric, and she got upset and insulted by that, and she wanted me to go deeper and understand what it was that I was so averse to. I was like, Its just silly, its not tough, it doesnt mean anything. And she was like, Do you know what Little Green is about? She told me, and played me the album and didnt talk to me for like two hours. It was really profound for me. Because not only was I totally falling in love properly for the first time, I was having to re-evaluate what I thought feminine meant.
ARLO PARKS (musician) What I love so much about this song is that it is full of contradiction and conflict. Theres a real sense of exploring what it means to be present and alive in a moment. And theres the detail in the second verse: I want to talk to you, I want to shampoo you. Thats just such a funny, sweet reference to caring about someone in the most specific ways. Theres something about the guitar that feels like an animal, just running around. I think it weirdly mirrors the way she sings, Traveling, traveling, traveling, traveling. It feels like she was trying to hold onto something or keep up with something, and shes journeying within herself.
DANIELLE HAIM (musician, Haim) (Sings) When I think of your kisses my mind seesaws
ESTE HAIM (musician, Haim) I always thought it was my mind sees stars, like in cartoons when they get knocked unconscious and theres stars going around their head. Danielle actually corrected me.
DANIELLE HAIM I always wanted to be the girl with the boyfriend and never was. This is what I would put on and be like, Oh my God, I want to wreck my stockings in some jukebox dive, do you want to dance with me, baby? Just the idea of a fun partner to go out and dance with and have fun. We all started out playing drums, so rhythm has always been something we put in our melodies. With Joni, her rhythms are so unique. Even just the way that she plays guitar or the dulcimer, its almost a percussion instrument.
My Old Man
GRAHAM NASH (musician) I must confess that when Blue was released, I listened to it, of course, and then I didnt for many, many years. It was an intense time for Joni and I. Obviously there are a couple of songs on the record that I recognize, from when she would write them in the house, that involved me. My Old Man, River. She finished the album after we parted, but for many months I saw her there writing this stuff. It was a fascinating process to see, I must confess. Its as if she tore her skin off and just released all her nerves into music.
I was repairing the house in Laurel Canyon, I was actually laying the kitchen floor when I got a telegram from Joan saying that our affair was over, officially. And she put it in a very interesting way. She said, If you squeeze sand in your hand, it will run through your fingers. I thought, got it. And that was it.
After I processed everything that happened to Joan and I, it took me a couple years, but I then sat down, smoked a big one and really listened again to the record. She is an incredible songwriter, and when she pours her heart out into a song, and its about you its this combination of sadness and delight. Blue still makes me sad.
DANIEL LEVITIN (producer, neuroscientist, author) For one of my books she and I talked about this state of ambiguity that she had always tried to retain in the chords. Until she found Jaco Pastorius for Mingus, every bass player insisted on knowing what the chord was, so that they could play the root, because thats what they were taught to do. And she didnt want any roots because, like trying to define something with a word, that pinned it down. In My Old Man, theres a lot of points where you dont know if shes playing a major or a minor, because she leaves out the third. Thats powerful.
RENÉE FLEMING (musician) I sang My Old Man in a live concert, because its perfect for a soprano voice. There are a lot of octave jumps, and thats not usually the realm of pop unless youre a virtuosic singer. She really had that extreme vocal range.
Shes been a touchstone my entire adult life. Im sure I wanted to be her: that she wrote everything, that this was personal to her. It was very uncomfortable to be a feminist at that time, when it was not a positive word. And Joni Mitchell was just living it. She didnt talk about it. She just lived it. You felt that she went her own way.
DANIEL LEVITIN Very few artists have accomplished what she did, which was to burrow into so many peoples sense of self. Joni got right into peoples emotional centers in the brain.
JUDY COLLINS (musician) I was always intrigued with Little Green because it is a story that touches my heart. Its all about the relationship between mothers and children. She gave up a child; I knew because it was, lets say, bandied about between a few women that I knew and a couple of guys in New York who were very close to her. But its something that she was not talking about at that time, openly. And after Blue, I think writing the song must have created a window through which she could see that it was more than all right to talk about. It was essential to talk about. And then she was able to discover her daughter and have a relationship with her. Its a disaster followed by a miracle, which is what we love in songs, dont we?
DAVID CROSBY (musician) Little Green expresses a vulnerability in her that I did not think she would be willing to do in front of the world, and I was amazed that she did. She doesnt pull her punches, man. And she doesnt pull her punches on herself, either. She understands that shes caused pain.
MUSTAFA (musician) What she taught us through her catalog is how to honor every feeling. Theres such a rich melancholy, but then the melancholy was so beautiful that it was something that you wanted for yourself as well. She was almost like the rapper of folk music. The narratives were so rich and so colorful. It is all incredibly beautiful, but it felt like stream of consciousness, like a freestyle. It feels like theres no editing between her and the song.
CORINNE BAILEY RAE (musician) Carole King had a child early, and she used to drop the child off in the day care at the Brill Building, which I think was probably just a kind of playpen behind the reception desk or something. And then she and her partner would just go upstairs and work all day. Because they had to work and that was their job songwriter. But if you want to be Joni Mitchell the touring artist, at that time that requires you to not have a baby with you. I cant imagine the sort of emotional wrench of feeling like, Ive got all this music inside me and I want to free it, and I want to travel, I want to see the world, I want to fall in love. I cant imagine that, but also: I have this child, and I have to look after them and protect them. I feel like that mustve been a weight for her, in terms of feeling she had to have made the right choice. She has to make it work.
JUSTIN VIVIAN BOND (musician) The year I graduated college I was living in the city with my friend Nancy, and we listened to Blue all the time. We were trying to make it in New York but not really able to accomplish anything on our days off because we would drive down to the Jersey Shore to take care of her mom, who had cancer. Her mother was the person I based my character Kiki off, years later. Our favorite song on the album at the time was Little Green wed just listen to it over and over. One time we were stoned and Nancy was like, A little green, thats all we need just a little money, honey! Obviously we all know what the song is about now, but it was weird how, to us, that song became about money. But then when I was listening to the record more recently, I realized that so much of the record is about money. Shes always talking about things and, you know, in River, Im gonna make a lot of money, then Im gonna quit this crazy scene. Its about rich hippies, basically. Even now, when she makes appearances, shes basically always wearing Issey Miyake. I mean, shes a classy broad.
RUSS KUNKEL (musician, played drums on the album) Something most people dont really give her enough credit for is that shes a great rhythm player. I mean, if she played drums, she would be a great drummer. If you just listened to any one of the songs, listen to Carey, the rhythm of it is right there.
STEPHEN STILLS (musician) I just remember finding the songs incredibly challenging, and then I would relax and suddenly realize that it was actually quite simple. Playing bass on Carey was a matter of happenstance, because I actually could understand the underpinning in all those weird tunings.I was absolutely mad for her. She just had this thing that was ethereal and gorgeous and down to earth and loving and hard-core. One time we were at a party and she came up behind me and then she starts running her fingers through my hair, which is very soft and fine. And someone said, Joan, what are you doing? And she said, Im reacquainting myself with Stephens hair. With a look that said, dont ask another question.
JUDY COLLINS One of the lines is My fingernails are filthy, I got beach tar on my feet. Who would write that in a song, but Joni Mitchell? Its an amazing turn of phrase.
GRAHAM NASH I didnt enjoy Carey. Its not fun to have your old lady off on some Greek island with another man. But I did get the kitchen floor done.
BONNIE RAITT (musician) I cant think of another piece of music that touches me in the same way. I was so amazed at the melding of melody and the chords that she chooses. And its so stripped bare with just the piano. The bridge especially spoke to me because thats right where I was at then. You know, acid, booze and grass. I had just been dumped into that whole world, being a young adult and taking a look around. It was still very enticing and very intoxicating. I was only 21 and she was holding a lantern to what was going to happen to me in my life.
CHAKA KHAN (musician) It was a good piece for me to listen to when I got off the stage and back on the tour bus, and Ive got on my nightgown and Im lying on the bed and the bus pulls off in the night. On the road, many times I contemplated just throwing this (expletive) in the pail. Once or twice, I thought about ending it all. I was that depressed. And she pulled me back.
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT (musician) Ive sung many of her songs now, and each one is its own wild journey that you have to completely dedicate yourself to. Theres no tossing off a Joni Mitchell song. And arguably, Blue is one of the summits. I was actually quite afraid of singing it for a long time. I was set to, for her 75th birthday, and it was really daunting. Not so much because its so difficult but just because of her interpretation. Its so unique, personal and kind of dramatic. Its almost like a sled that you get on, and then you just go down the hill and hopefully not fall off.
WAYNE SHORTER (musician) She called me to play with her, and when we started talking, she talked like a painter. And she played sort of like that.
JAMES TAYLOR That was written after we parted company. I find that difficult to separate from the way I feel about the song. Its a darker song. Crown and anchor me/Or let me sail away. I cant tell you anything other than that it has a deep impact.
DAN BEJAR (musician, Destroyer) A song like California strikes me as I dont know how to explain this, but it strikes me as very Canadian. (Laughs) When I place it as her being, essentially, like a melancholic swashbuckler from Saskatoon, it actually does make a lot of sense to me. The kind of roving quality kind of globe-trotting but not finding it, not finding what is missing from the core of you California has that.
RENÉE FLEMING In California, shes singing in head voice, as a young person. She probably helped me develop my voice, because as a fan I was singing along with her all the time in high school. I would harmonize up above her. It was really a true soprano voice. And yet she had a full range Im sure it was 2 1/2 octaves. Probably because she was a smoker, and with the constant touring, her voice dropped significantly to the point where, when I finally met her at a party, she said she only had three pitches. And I said, yeah, but we want to hear those three pitches.
NATALIE MERING (musician, Weyes Blood) My mom is a gigantic Joni Mitchell fan, so I grew up with that always on in the background. I covered California in a talent show in second grade. We figured out a way to do it karaoke style. I remember singing that song and feeling like a real California girl.
EMILY SALIERS (musician, Indigo Girls) Theres lots of darkness on the album, but you get her whimsy in it, too. Theres that sparkle and that almost tongue-in-cheek thing. Who did the goat dance very well. Thats not exactly universal, but youre just enthralled by her stories.
BRANDI CARLILE Theres some relief and some letting yourself off the hook when you know youre never going to be Joni. Particularly on California or All I Want, it wasnt just lyrics or chord changes I was writing down. I was writing down breath. She did it naturally, but that was really hard, figuring out how to sing it and keep my breath.
This Flight Tonight
JAMES TAYLOR I think this song was written the night that we parted company in Logan Airport in Boston. I was taking her home. Id built a house on Marthas Vineyard, and I hadnt taken her there yet. And for some reason, maybe just that her instincts were extremely good, she split. Instead of carrying on with me, she booked a flight back to Los Angeles. But what can one expect at the age of 23 in terms of a lasting relationship? I had a long way to go before I was suitable company for anyone, really.
BRANDI CARLILE I never really had as much appreciation for This Flight Tonight as I should have until I had to learn how to play it on guitar, with that string tuned way down and then bending it into pitch while youre playing it. Its such a hard record to play. But it doesnt feel like heavy lifting when you listen to it.
PETE AGNEW (musician, Nazareth) When Ladies of the Canyon came out, Rainy Night House was one of our favorite songs of all time. People kept saying the heavy metal band Nazareth, and we were going, have you actually heard us? We used to listen to all sorts of stuff, and most of the things we listened to we probably ended up covering. When we did This Flight Tonight, it was just a beauty, you could make it totally different. At first we were being funny about it, but then we thought, this sounds great, this could be a killer track. It became one of the biggest hits we ever had.
We were at the beginning of an American tour, and we went into A&M Records in LA and were telling them that we were releasing This Flight Tonight in the U.K. that day. They said, Oh, well thats good because Jonis in the studio right now, would you like to go and say hello? So we said to her, Were just releasing your song. And she said, With a rock band? And we went, Yeah, would you like to hear it? It sounded amazing, because it was in the studio. She and Henry (Lewy, the engineer) were absolutely tickled. She made us a cup of tea, and we sat around for a wee while, and away we went. The next year, a guy from the record company in London came up to see us and said, Youre going to love this, I went to see Joni Mitchell at the New Victoria Theater, and she said, Id like to open with a Nazareth tune. Tell that to your grandchildren!
BETHANY COSENTINO (musician, Best Coast) One of my favorite moments on Blue is in This Flight Tonight, when the song suddenly kicks into this weird, kind of lo-fi part where it feels like shes singing through a radio. Its almost a dare I say punk moment, because it just feels so weird and cool and unexpected. My mom, the person who introduced me to Blue, bought me a vintage Joni letterman jacket off eBay for my birthday several years ago and I hung it on the wall in my bedroom. It makes me feel safe, like an angel is watching over me as I sleep.
JUDY COLLINS The first time that I sang it, I knew the melody very well, and it was as though I slid into a pair of you know the feeling? You slip into a comfortable shift that actually fits you and you know youll be wearing it for the rest of your life. And it was so welcome because I had not attempted it. I hadnt listened to her sing it for years and years. But it was in my mind.
EMILY SALIERS In River, theres not so much specificity of names and images. River is just about anybody and everybody.
CORINNE BAILEY RAE She does this thing with time thats really rare. Kendrick Lamar does it. Its like, OK, here weve got one bar. He might say one word or he might somehow fit in like 25 words. Its almost playful. Shes written the song, and here she is in the recording studio doing it, but it feels like its just come into her mind in that moment and shes tripping over the words.
NATALIE MERING The piano arrangement for River sounds like a river. And when she sings I would teach my feet to fllyyyy the music actually flies. Shes really good at that, kind of doing the fourth-dimensional songwriting thing where the lyrics, the music and her voice are all sinking into the same concept. Its very transporting.
DAVID CROSBY I think its arguably the best singer-songwriter album that ever got made. Im a singer-songwriter, and I was her old man for a year, which was daunting. But Im deeply into her music. River? Holy (expletive). I remember the first time I heard it, I felt like quitting the business and becoming a gardener. The music is where shes just vastly superior to Bob (Dylan). I think Bobs as good a poet as she is, maybe. Theyre both brilliant poets, but shes 10 times the musician and singer that he was.
GRAHAM NASH He loved me so naughty/Made me weak in the knees. It makes me smile. I mean, as a man, thats an incredible compliment coming from such a beautiful woman.
DAN BEJAR At some point it became a Canadian Christmas standard. (Laughs) It really sums up how depressing, or how bitter and nostalgic and just sad a Christmas can be. How it can make people feel way more alone than bringing them together.
JAMES TAYLOR Its a great Christmas song a Canadian living in LA and trying to figure out Christmas. I remember my first Christmas in Los Angeles. It was weird.
A Case of You
JUSTIN VIVIAN BOND My favorite line is, Constantly in the darkness/Wheres that at?/If you want me, Ill be in the bar. It sounds empowering Ugh, Ive had it with you, if you want me, Ill be in the bar! The whole record is kind of about emotional trauma and disappointment and moving on and finding reasons to do things, which I think is also part of why I cant listen to it all the time now.
PERFUME GENIUS (musician) A Case of You was on the Practical Magic soundtrack. My mom used to play that soundtrack in the car. I was a teenager. But I just remember thinking how beautiful that song was and how strange it was. I remember trying to listen to Joni Mitchell then, trying to follow up, and I just didnt get it until I was an adult. But a lot of the mom music is the stuff thats held up, to me. More than, like, dad music. No offense.
DAVID CROSBY Theres a reason 90 different people have covered A Case of You. Its because its one of the best songs youve ever heard.
CORINNE BAILEY RAE I wasnt used to being stabbed by a song. Its almost like someone tells you a joke, and youre set up, and then you have the rug pulled out from underneath you. Just the first stanza, thinking about love being lost: I am as constant as a northern star, and shes saying, If you want me, Ill be in the bar. I loved that game playing.
Shes such a brilliant writer, so with A Case of You, theres all these liquid or drinking metaphors all the way through. I like the idea that when youre in these deep relationships, its just a blurring of boundaries between whats you and whats them. She talks about, Part of you pours out of me, and I remember the idea that you can sort of imbibe someone to such a point where sometimes youre talking, and their opinions come out.
PERFUME GENIUS Its really brave all the little choices, the intensity of it, the push-and-pull. There are so many songs that I listen to that Im not surprised at all anymore when I hear them. With this song, I do wait for all those shifts and jumps.
JUDY COLLINS In A Case of You, she says that shes a lonely painter. She lives in a box of paints. And she says, Love is touching souls/Surely you touched mine/Cause part of you pours out of me/in these lines from time to time. So thats also a reference to somebody. And Im always thinking it must be Leonard (Cohen), but who knows? So much of this material creates sparks out of what was going on in LA at that time. And with all of those incredible men, with many of whom she had affairs. She beat my list.
The Last Time I Saw Richard
ROSANNE CASH The last time I saw Richard that line, to open a song! Like, what? OK, tell me what happened. Thats not a line that begins a pop song.
EMILY SALIERS Theres such a mood she sets with that song. The piano intro goes on and on. And then the way that its sing-talky in parts. Her ability to sing-talk and not have everything be so metronomic, and yet still be able to rhyme the lines so that they had that structure to it that is unique to her. Amy (Ray) and I were in high school, just starting to play together. I listened to that album incessantly, but somehow together we got hooked into that song. We were dreamers. We were musicians and we lived through songs and lyrics, so that song really sparked our imaginations. Particularly the line Im gonna blow this damn candle out. It was so fierce.
GRAHAM NASH I dont think you can be in love with Joni Mitchell and experience life with her and not love her forever. I think shes a genius. I keep coming back to the thought that this was all over 50 years ago, half a century ago. And that music is still turning people on. That music freed women in a very deep way. When Joni Mitchell was pouring her heart and soul into the music, every woman knew exactly what she was talking about. And it freed female artists to start doing that.
ROSANNE CASH There are few albums that change your life. Blue came out when I had just turned 16 and it came at this fulcrum feeling all the passion of what I wanted to do with my life, and the urgency and the fear and everything. And then Blue.
CHAKA KHAN I want to get her singing again on something. Her voice is so beautiful right now. You can hear the time in her voice, you know? You can hear the richness and its just so beautiful and full and deep. Ill get her to sing, for sure. Shes a masterpiece.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times