Tuesday, December 20, 2011
There are two songs I remember learning in fifth grade music class. One was Hava Nagila and the other was Both Sides Now. Hava Nagila was just a lot of fun to sing, but Both Sides Now was deep. It started out like another fluffy pop song, "rows and flows of angel's hair and ice cream castles in the air..." But by the third verse, it had turned into a philosophical meditation on the vicissitudes of experience. "It's life's illusions I recall..." Pretty heavy stuff for fifth grade.
At the time, Both Sides Now was known as a Judy Collins song. She had a big hit with it and even won a grammy. But the song was written by Joni Mitchell. I finally heard Joni sing it years later when it appeared on her live album, Miles of Aisles. Joni also wrote the classic song Woodstock, which became the anthem of the Hippie movement as recorded by CSN&Y. But I first heard Joni's rendition at a midnight showing of the fairly obscure concert movie, Celebration at Big Sur. Joni's Woodstock was dark and moody and complex, very different from the up tempo, rocked-out version I was used to. Nevertheless, I thought it was pretty cool.
I didn't know much about Joni back then. She was that hippie chick who sang, "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot." She was Graham Nash's girlfriend from the song Our House. She was a folkie from Canada who wrote pretty songs and played acoustic guitar. I didn't hear a lot of her songs on the radio, or if I did, they were being sung by someone else. She was always somewhere in the background, like a groupie.
When I got to college, though, I was introduced to the real Joni. And it wasn't by some doe-eyed coed hoping to test my feminist sensitivity. Instead, I learned about Joni from my freshman hallmate Mitch, who despite his alpha-male-jock tendencies had a real soft spot deep down inside. He played me Joni's scathingly personal masterpiece, Blue, and I knew I was in the presence of a true artist. Like so many others, I was knocked out by the line, "I could drink a case of you.. and I would still be on my feet." Such an achingly beautiful voice, such painfully intimate lyrics, such deceptively brilliant songwriting.
But there was so much more to Joni than that.
Blue came out in 1971. By the time I got to college, Joni had moved on. Frustrated with the parochialism of the folk-rock scene she had helped invent, she went searching for musicians who could appreciate the complexity and nuance of her writing. She teamed up with sax player Tom Scott and his jazz band to record Court and Spark, which combined elements of jazz and rock and folk, and really any kind of music. For Joni, it's all fair game. And though people still tried to put her music in to certain categories, or dismiss it for not being what they expected, Court and Spark became one of Joni's most popular albums.
I saw Joni perform again when she appeared in The Band's farewell concert film, The Last Waltz. She did a litte backup singing on Neil Young's Helpless, then came out into the spotlight with a new song called Coyote. I remember watching her play her acoustic guitar and I noticed she was playing a lot of weird sounding chords, but with very simple fingerings. I figured she must be in some kind of open tuning. I had just begun learning about open tunings myself, so I thought I had a handle on what she was doing. But I was only half right.
Meanwhile, Joni was still looking for musicians who could keep up with her increasingly innovative style of composition. She began collaborating with the amazing Jaco Pastorius, who I knew from the jazz group Weather Report. When Mitch played me the first track from Joni's Hejira album, I recognized those kooky Coyote chords again, but now they were being teased and cajoled and turned upside-down and inside-out by Jaco's impishly insistent bass. It was a perfect match. It seemed Joni had found someone who really could keep up with her.
Joni's next album, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, moved her further into the experimental realm and attracted the attention of jazz giant Charlie Mingus. Mingus asked Joni to collaborate with him on what was to be his last project. After the Mingus album, Joni went on tour with some of her jazz cohorts and put out a live album called Shadows and Light. That was the first Joni Mitchell album I ever bought.
I finally got to see Joni in concert in Austin in the 80's. At this point she was working with Larry Klein, who in addition to being her bass player and producer, was also her husband. The concert was amazing. The union between Joni and Larry seemed just right. He didn't have the outlandishness of Jaco, which could tend to turn any tune into a Jaco solo, but he definitely had the chops to stay with Joni no matter where she went.
I remember reading an interview with Joni around this time, where she said something to the effect of: 'when I write something that really embarrasses me, I know I'm on the right track.' I've tried to locate that quote since then, but have been unable to find it, so I'm not even sure if she really said it. Nevertheless it has inspired me for all these years.
Recently, I was looking for a new song to play on the guitar. I was getting back into the open tuning thing again, as I had done a few years ago with Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks album. I came across Joni's Big Yellow Taxi, which is written in open E, and banged away on that for a while, then I checked out You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio, also in open E. It was interesting to see how Joni arranged the chord forms in such inventive ways. These seemingly simple songs had intriguing quirks and twists that made me want to learn more.
Further inquiry into Joni's catalogue led me to discover the incredible Joni Mitchell transcription database at JoniMitchell.com. It turns out that Joni has been playing around with guitar tunings since day one. And not just the usual open E, open D, open G. At last count, Joni has used over fifty different guitar tunings in her repertoire, most of which she came up with on her own. She has used so many different guitar tunings that she has forgotten some of them, and relies on her long-time guitar tech to keep track of them for her. She has used so many guitar tunings that she has invented her own system for classifying them, grouping them into "families" to help organize them.
It's pretty intense.
Perhaps I should explain. Most guitars are tuned in standard tuning, which is designed to allow players to switch from key to key, playing various chord patterns and scales, without having to change their tuning. With open tuning, you can tune the guitar to play a particular chord just by strumming the open strings, and then form related chords fairly easily, while taking advantage of the open strings. Alternate tunings may simply change the pitch of the guitar, say by tuning all of the strings lower or higher. Or you can just change one or two of the strings, or really any combination you want. The possibilities are endless.
Joni didn't invent alternate tunings, people have been using them for years. Her early use of the dulcimer, which is tuned to a kind of open D chord, may have influenced her. Some say her bout with polio, which affected the dexterity of her left hand, made it neccesary for her to retune her guitar for ease of fingering. But the way she has made alternate tuning an intrinsic part of her method is both inimitable and illustrative. Joni did not accept the instrument as it was handed to her, she transformed it into the instrument she wanted. Just as she has not accepted the role in life that was handed to her, but has worked all her life to transform herself into the person she was meant to be. I think that's the job of an artist.
And as I sit and clumsily grope my way through the elegantly simple arrangement of Both Sides Now, I think of Joni out in her back yard in British Columbia, tuning her strings to the cry of a heron and the rush of the surf, searching for yet another chord, trying to make music that says something new and different and honest.
I could spend the rest of my life trying to figure out what Joni has done with her guitar and I don't think I would even learn half of it. I guess I really don't know Joni at all. And that's the way it should be.