Joni, and the difference decades can make

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On Tuesday evening, I found myself surfing for something to watch on Hulu. I landed on the pilot episode of the show “Better Things”, starring Pamela Adlon.  I really enjoyed it: a forty-something divorcée, Sam, balances her roles as a struggling, working actress and mother of three daughters, all while navigating that fraught world of dating and romance.  Great writing, lots of humor (some of it raunchy), and thought-provoking editing.  Another highlight: the soundtrack.  The pilot included a musical sequence that was, for me, revelatory.

The versions of Joni Mitchell’s song “Both Sides, Now” with which most people are  familiar are probably either Judy Collins’ 1967 version (the first to be commercially released), or Mitchell’s own version, from her 1969 album, “Clouds”.  The latter recording is just Joni, age 25 or 26, alone with her acoustic guitar.

Here’s how she sometimes introduced the song at performances back in the 60s: “…in this song there are…two sides to things…there’s reality and I guess what you might call fantasy. There’s enchantment and disenchantment, what we’re taught to believe things are and what they really are.”

There’s certainly a seriousness, a reflectiveness, to the lyrics–“I really don’t know love at all”, “I really don’t know life at all”–and yet, sung as they are in this version by a young woman, in a crystalline soprano voice, with so much of her life ahead of her, one expects that she will, in time, come to know love, and life.  All will be well.

The “Better Things” episode uses the version of “Both Sides, Now” from her 2000 album of the same name, and it creates a completely different mood. She’s backed by a 70-piece orchestra (and some lovely saxophone solos by Wayne Shorter) and the sound is lush and expansive.  The tempo is slower and more deliberate, her delivery more reflective, and her voice–ravaged by years of heavy smoking–is deeper, huskier, more world-weary.  It’s the same woman from the earlier version of the song, on “Clouds”, but thirty-plus years have passed, and now she’s resigned to the fact that she really doesn’t know love, or life, at all.  Perhaps she never will.

There are a couple of reasons this hit me as strongly as it did.  One is certainly the way the song perfectly complemented the scene over which it played: a late night exchange of texts, ultimately aborted, between Sam and a man with whom it seems she’s had a relationship in the past, someone who makes her laugh, but who may be stringing her along.  [Interesting side note: I wanted to include the scene in this post, and I found it on YouTube, but the soundtrack was completely different…there must be some sort of copyright issue(s) preventing the use of songs in on-line clips, depending on who posts them.  More importantly, the music chosen for the YouTube clip provides a fine example of how to utterly destroy a scene, so if you have an interest in seeing it, please watch it on Hulu!].

I think another reason the experience resonated for me is that I’m the same age Mitchell was when she recorded the later version (a year younger, actually), and the last several years have confirmed for me that, despite being firmly ensconced in middle age, there are aspects of love and life that will always remain elusive and unknowable.  I’m grateful to Mitchell for giving voice to those sentiments in such a beautiful, and soulful, way.

Joni Clouds album cover
Self-portrait done, according to Mitchell, from a mirror over a period of about two weeks. In the background, is the Bessborough Hotel in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.  She’s holding a prairie lily (Lilium philadelphicum), the provincial flower of Saskatchewan.
Joni Both Sides Now album cover
Another self-portrait. Notice how she’s wearing her heart on her (right) sleeve?

I last wrote about Mitchell back in the earliest days of this blog.

13 comments

  • Great post!

    I still listen to and love her album “Hits and Misses.” “I Could Drink a Case of You”, an all-time favorite.

    Ironically, JB’s ” Fountain of Sorrow” and JT’s “New Tune” just finished playing in the background.

    Derrik

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  • So, a disclaimer for openers. Although I enjoy much of Joni Mitchell’s music (some of it a real whole big lot. ‘Hissing of Summer Lawns’ was comfortably in my last list of All Time Top 50 albums, as I recall), I’ve never liked this song at all, no matter where I looked at it from. Something a bit precious about a young songstrelle of such obvious talent and charms warbling about not knowing life or love. I was, you see, a grumpy bastard even in my youth.

    This is Augenblick. So I listened to the original 1969 version again.
    Same response.

    Second disclaimer. I don’t like strings on pop music very much. After a fine, drone-like opening, v2000 didn’t change that. Not even with some Wayne Shorter soprano.

    But I did respond to the voice. Thirty plus years on the clock, it’s a thing of wonder; smoked and sanded, used and abused.

    Yet none of this is really the point, is it? The point is in the portraits and the fact that there could be a post like this at all.

    That first portrait. So glowing with youth and beauty, but with a kind of knowing, an awareness: you are looking at me and noticing my face, my eyes, those cheeky freckles. My eyes are not quite meeting yours, a pretence of shyness perhaps. Or maybe the real thing; hard to tell.

    That second portrait. Smoking, drinking, lost in reverie. You may be looking at me, but I just don’t give a fuck. The van Gogh sworls on the lower right. The damned heart you can’t un-see or un-feel.

    The voice and the portraits. That’s Joni’s gift. A gift you have shared.
    That’s life; from morning to midnight in the puff of a cigarette.

    How profound that something as ephemeral as pop music (“It’s a fad. It’ll be gone in a few years”) should provide the existential markers for a generation.
    Thanks Joni.

    Thanks JDB.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Excellent piece. I have always enjoyed lyrics; lyrics that worked and made sense. You’ve awakened my interest in Joni’s music again. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for stopping by, Ray. It was you and Mike that turned me onto Joni–via Blue–back in 1981.

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  • Hi Jeanne; Thank you for taking the time to verbalize your thoughts and insights. While I distinctly remember the song from my teenage years, I guess I never really knew the history. Thank you for the enlightenment! Dave

    >

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  • I never knew she was such a talented painter! Loved the painting of her literally wearing her heart on her sleeve.
    I will have to go to Hulu and watch some TV

    Liked by 1 person

  • I’d never spotted the heart on the sleeve before. Thanks for pointing that out. I enjoyed your thoughts about the song, and Joni’s different takes on it. I like the orchestral arrangement (the whole album from which it’s taken is worth a listen, if you haven’t already), which seems to take its cue from Joni’s approach to harmony and her use of unorthodox guitar tunings: questioning harmonies – suspensions and inversions that open out the possibilities of diatonic harmony. The orchestral accompaniment is, accordingly, cloudy and indistinct. In an odd way it reminds me of the Tallis 40-part piece, Spem in Alium.

    But do you know the live version of the song that she put out on her “Miles of Aisles” album? For my money, that really works. It dispenses with the trilling naivety of the earlier version, and doesn’t have the ponderous weariness of the 2000 version which – if we’re to be hyper-critical – the composition doesn’t quite merit. Instead you have a supple, responsive backing from the LA Express and Joni at the height of her powers as a singer. They have the measure of the song to my mind. Touching and whimsical. Casually wise rather than jadedly serious.

    Don’t get me wrong, though, I relish both the earlier and later performances,and I wouldn’t want to be without either. But that LA Express version really gets it.

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    • G.H., what a delight to hear from you after so much time has passed! Truly. And thank you for pointing me in the direction of the version of “Both Sides Now” on “Miles of Aisles”, with which I hadn’t been at all familiar. It’s lovely, and I especially liked her interpolation/improvisation of some additional lyrics (“Once upon a time…”, “Sometimes I still do…”). At times, for me, there’s just *a bit* too much ‘twang’ in LA Express’ backing instrumentals…but it’s a minor quibble. And, of course, Joni’s (vocal) instrument is what’s most important. Now, enquiring minds want to know: when will you play some new weird, minor chords?!

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      • Yes it has been a time. I’ve been meaning to be in touch, if only to say that I was delighted to see that you were blogging again.

        I know what you mean about the “twang” from the LA Express. I like it, but I see how it might not suit all ears. But I love the poignant flute interjections, and the crispness of the drumming throughout.

        I’m touched by your enquiry regarding my own blog. I have something in mind – about Noel Coward’s “London Pride” which I need to apply myself to. Oh if only there were but world enough and time…

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