For all of its individuality, the rock-music scene has lacked the personal touch. Largely, it has been a world of male groups, of pounding, thunderous music that drowns out the words, which are rarely of moment.
It needed the feminine touch and now it has got it. Lately, spawned in the river of folk and rock music, there has surfaced a new school of talented female troubadours, who not only sing but write their own songs. What is common to them—to Joni Mitchell and Lotti Golden, to Laura Nyro, Melanie, and to Elyse Weinberg—are the personalized songs they write, like voyages of self-discovery, brimming with keen observation and startling in the impact of their poetry.
Joni Mitchell, 25, is best known largely because of her song Both Sides, Now which has been recorded by at least 45 other singers. More than any of these female troubadours, she is Coleridge's serene vision of "a damsel with a dulcimer." She stands in the mainstream of the folk tradition, singing her songs in the keening, natural, flower-fresh style of Judy Collins and Joan Baez, artfully disdainful of register but not of color or pitch.
The subjects of her songs are sometimes highly personal as in I Had A King—from her first Reprise album, JONI MITCHELL—a lament for a marriage that didn't work out (she married folk singer Chuck Mitchell 36 hours after she met him and they were divorced two years later). "There's no one to blame," sings Joni. Other songs are character sketches such as Marcie, a poignant narrative of a girl waiting in loneliness for the lover who never returns, and Michael From Mountains, a touching portrait of a little boy and the world of his imagination.
ROMANCE: Although her songs are strongly entwined with melody, sheer romance of words is what Joni Mitchell's all about. Night In The City is pure impressionism. The Dawntreader begins: "Peridots and periwinkle blue medallions/Gilded galleons spilled across the ocean floor." Her songs are painted with colors, full of imagery and rhyme: "Varnished weeds in window jars/Tarnished beads on tapestries/Kept in satin boxes are/Reflections of love's memories."
Unfortunately, in her second album, CLOUDS, the artless folk singer has become dark-voiced and professional, with the folk idiom diluted. This isn't bad in itself. But the songs themselves are thin in subject, nebulous in form, and self-conscious in their poetic effects. Still, no album that includes Both Sides, Now can be without distinction. In one of those happy conjunctions, everything that's good in Joni Mitchell meets—her love of words, her delight in imagery, complex inner rhymes, a singing melody with a rocking beat—all to make a song about the bewildering ambiguity of life, in which dreams clash with reality, yes with no—and Joni Mitchell is all yes.
"My mother was a romantic woman," says the Canadian-born Joni, whose flaxen hair flows down to the small of her back. "She raised me on Shakespeare as other parents quote from the Bible. She encouraged me in old-fashioned things. I kept pressed-flower scrapbooks. So the images I use are peculiar to my childhood." In Tin Angel she sings about "Letters from across the seas/Roses dipped in sealing wax/Valentines and maple leaves/Tucked into a paperback."
"Songs come in different ways," she says. "Sometimes an image can begin a song. But when I think of Vietnam or Berkeley, I feel so helpless. I've never been political. I still haven't made my own moral decision of what I feel is right for man and for the world. My mind will not give me these answers. I just write about what happens to me. I leave out some parts and leave in some, tell some literally and trip out on others."
Neon: Her dislike of cities, emphasized in her songs, is real. She lives in Laurel Canyon, in the West Hollywood hills. "I'm a little in awe of cities, being raised in a prairie town in Saskatchewan. I thought then that cities were beautiful. I judged them by their neon. Then in New York I found that cities are really vulgar. I saw their dirt, found they were plastic and in a rush for the dollar. Now I'm ruralizing myself again. I owe it to myself to live where there's greenery."
Joni doesn't have to rush for the dollar. She recently turned down $1,250,000 for her one-writer publishing company because, she says, if she had sold it she would have felt as if she had been writing for money. There's some consolation, however, in the fact that she still makes $500,000 a year.
Her fellow Canadian, Elyse Weinberg, a McGill University dropout born and raised in Montreal, could hardly be further away from Joni musically. In her first album, ELYSE (on Tetragrammaton Records), she paints a bleak picture of life. Such songs as Band Of Thieves and Here In My Heart suggest that people have lost their way. They are, in Simple-Minded Harlequin or Meet me At The Station, betrayed or betrayers—or both. The landscape she sees about her in such songs as Iron Works is one of rotten cities and foul countryside. And death in half a dozen songs seems at least no less fearful and lonely than life.
Elyse's songs often recall medieval ballads, but her cracked, mournful delivery is highly influenced by the Bob Dylan of JOHN WESLEY HARDING. She can be whimsical, even about death, as in Mortuary Bound, and in Painted Raven, whose lyrics are: "Painted Raven on the wing,/she don't fly, she don't sing./Painted Raven on the run/Crash into the midnight sun."
Mysteries: She sang protest songs in the beginning. "I don't think protest songs are where I'm at now," says the 23-year-old Elyse, who lives in Los Angeles and hates it. "I'm not a very political person. I guess I'm interested in music, my friends and the mysteries of life. I think that all my songs are really one song. Everyone has just one song they sing. And these songs are about people who hold onto everything and anything that's holding them back or getting them down or getting them high—people who just don't know how to let go."
The city, especially New York, is something special to 21-year-old Laura Nyro, who was born and lives there. "The city penetrates everything I do," she says. I'm aware of how tough the city is but I thrive on that. Sometimes I have to get away, but I could never leave it. I see too much beauty here. I'm intense. Sometimes it's hard for me to slow down. The city is a match for me."
Laura's first album, recorded more than two years ago, promised MORE THAN A NEW DISCOVERY—and delivered somewhat less. Then Columbia issued ELI AND THE THIRTEENTH CONFESSION, which has sold some 125,000 copies and displays her at her best. Stoned Soul Picnic has been recorded by 58 other artists including Frank Sinatra and Aretha Franklin and Sweet Blindness an even better song, by 37. Her royalties this year should come to $200.000.
For a city chick, Laura sings like a country girl—and a black one at that. She loves upbeat blues, and she's a shrill, shouting soul singer, who holds nothing back. She has a definite flair for penetrating melody and for restless, inventive rhythms. Although a few of her songs mourn lonely women or machinelike men, most are full of the wonder of nature, and of the unending conflict between God and the devil, who slips in and out of the songs like a familiar visitor.
She believes in salvation—of a secular variety—and searches for it insistently. She glorifies kicking the habit in the moving Poverty Train and reminds one of Emily Dickinson when she sings Sweet Blindness, about getting drunk on life. Her search culminates in The Confession, a frank, joyous, poetic description of the act of love in its beauty and ecstasy—the ultimate consecration.
Apparently there was a time when Laura used LSD, but she won't discuss it. All she will say is, "At 18 I went through a revelation. I found the strength to get myself out of the gutter. The gutter is a nasty, pitiful place for a woman. It's a lack of meaning, of dignity, of freedom. Once you've cleaned your soul one time, it's easy. But it's like cleaning house. You can't do it just once."
Of 22-year-old Melanie Safka, known professionally as just plain, attractive Melanie, Bill Graham, the pooh-bah of Fillmores East and West, has said, "Melanie creates for me the most important illusion in a performer: belief." It's important to believe her because she is singing about herself. None of these girl troubadours reveals herself so personally.
Plaintive: Melanie does this in a quaint, original voice that oscillates between ages 4 and 40. It usually carries the throbbing, plaintive courage of Lotte Lenya, and the bittersweet sound of Melanie's songs is reminiscent of Kurt Weill. Her first album for Buddah Records, called BORN TO BE, is a child's-eye view of the world. Three of the best—Bo Bo's Party, In The Hour and the brilliant, whimsical I'm Back In Town express disappointment in love. Other songs are more specifically childlike. In Christopher Robin she sets her music to Milne's words. Animal Crackers celebrates childhood, and the last song on the record is I Wish You A Merry Christmas.
Melanie's reluctance to let go of her childhood reflects the alienation she always felt as a child. Her parents moved about frequently and friends were hard to come by. "I guess I was kinda shy," she says, grinning shyly. Even now, performing, she will say to the audience, "Please love me, please love me," and adds, "My show is practically free," Around Melanie no one is left out. She delights in introducing strangers, studio engineers to musicians, musicians to friends, friends to reporters, reporters to studio engineers, trying to make the whole world a happy family.
But success has not saved her. Her second album, MELANIE, to be released shortly, is more personal, reflecting the pain and disappointments of growing up. The new songs, beautiful, lucid, are almost all about her loneliness as a performer. In For My Father she considers the pain that separation is causing her family, in the rock beat of Uptown Down she becomes the girl who made it in New York and can't forget the small town left behind; Tuning My Guitar tells of a performer fed up with the whole thing, and in Leftover Wine, the best of all these fine sad songs, she sings about what it's like when the show is over and everyone's gone home.
"There's no one to share my experience with," she says, "and I get very low sometimes. There's my manager, my producer, my publicity man. I feel like a product, a machine. It's as if I'm wearing a nun's habit. I feel there are things I can't say and that people coming up to me don't know how to talk to me."
What makes her go on then? "It's the fantastic feeling I get when I've finished a song I like," she says. "Not just pride that I wrote a song but more as if I had attended a religious service, kind of a big thing. It's even bigger after I've sung the song before an audience. I feel as if I've touched more than just those brains, just those people who are present."
Off the stage, her daily bus ride to work serves as an antidote to the isolation of performing. "The bus is the most public contact I have and I love it. I see performers getting all wrapped up in their own image and importance. You have to keep a balance. You let all this attention get out of hand and you'll drown in yourself. I want to be nice. I feel responsible for the people sitting next to me on the bus. If everyone felt responsible and wanted to be nice, it could even stop wars, don't you think?"
Hippies: New York's East Village, is the home of the Fillmore East, the Electric Circus, the dubious refuge for strays, of communal-living, where the hippies congregate and the summer air is heavy with the sweet smell of marijuana. It was a strange, way-out scene for pretty, 19-year-old, middle-class Lotti Golden, who lived there for eighteen months and recorded her experiences on MOTOR-CYCLE (Atlantic Records). "I began to meet kids who were part of the street life, who maybe had never read E.E. Cummings but spoke like it. They were heavy people. They create reality to fit their living rooms instead of the other way around. They groove, like my friend Wesley, who can go to Central Park and dig the trees. I mean really dig them. My friend Annabelle makes time for feeling things."
But Lotti discovered evil too in the East Village. "Like there would be somebody saying, 'I've got this new LSQ' and you'd take it and you'd be paralyzed." So her songs are the saga of that drug-ridden experience, a season in hell, with Lotti sounding like a "woman wailing for her demon-lover."
Her songs are like her voice, strong, natural, honest, unflinching. She begins on high with the driving sexuality of Motor-Cycle Michael ("It happens to every chick," she says, "she meets a guy who gets her off her ego center"). Later on, however, in A Lot Like Lucifer, her lover turns out to be as sinister as he is attractive. It's all downhill as, in Gonna Fay's, the whole crowd searches for where the drugs are—the "tuies" (Tuinal), "secies" (Seconal), "Scag" (heroin), "snow" (cocaine). But slowly the fall comes to an end and the climb to freedom begins. The feverish gospel rhythms that have bordered on hysteria grow more controlled and more and more joyous as the light dawns in Who Are Your Friends? and ultimately shines brightly in Get Together.
Flashes: Lotti, who lives uptown now, has no regrets. "I found music in buildings, in sidewalk cracks," she says. "You get flashes of perceiving differently, of doors opening, with drugs. But drugs are only a tool. And you can't abuse the tool. I got out when I saw a lot of my friends getting hooked. It was nowhere."
She thinks adults who blame kids for using drugs are dead wrong. "Anyone who takes a tranquilizer before a tense business meeting, or any housewife who takes one because the kids have gotten on her nerves, is getting high." Lotti has now found something better than drugs. "I've found out," she says, "how to use the natural juices and make the enzymes click. You can find a true reality, a real awakening, if you try hard enough."
Lotti speaks for all. Each of these female troubadours is herself, distinct in style and subject. From Joni Mitchell's need for ruralizing greenery to Laura Nyro's ecstatic wonder, what they celebrate is the natural, preferring the simple joy to the complex, the artless to the artful and, rather than the holding back, the letting go.
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