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The Many Sides of Joni Mitchell's 'Both Sides Now' Print-ready version

by Marc Myers
Wall Street Journal
August 19, 2014

Joni Mitchell Globe Photos/Rex Features/Everett Collection

Journalist Gail Sheehy, 76, is author of 17 books. Her latest is "Daring: My Passages" (William Morrow), a memoir. She spoke to Marc Myers.

Back in 1968, when I was 30, my entire life blew up. I had a life plan and it collapsed for no rational reason. I had been a newspaper reporter in New York but left the job to help editor Clay Felker start New York magazine. My marriage was breaking up and I was falling in love with Clay. The song that carried me through those years and all stages of my life is "Both Sides Now" by Joni Mitchell ].

I first heard the song in 1968, when Judy Collins's version was a huge radio hit. But when I heard Joni's in 1969 on her album "Clouds," it stopped me. In her voice, I could hear the fragility of being a woman at that time along with hopefulness and an unwillingness to give up.

Joni's voice doesn't sound cynical or put off by life. She admits her confusion but still marvels at what she sees: "I've looked at clouds from both sides now / From up and down and still somehow / It's cloud illusions I recall / I really don't know clouds at all." In '69, after my divorce, I let go of my illusions about marriage.

Over time, I've identified with different parts of the song. In 1970, when I realized I could write magazine features in a whole new way, I was elated, and Joni's line about "ice cream castles in the air" resonated. In my bachelor-girl 30s, her "moons and Junes and Ferris wheels" stood out. In my flourishing 40s, I became a public figure, so I related to "but now it's just another show / you leave 'em laughing when you go." When Clay finally proposed in 1984, I, too, felt "proud to say 'I love you' right out loud."

After Clay died in 2008, I was devastated. I put on Joni's version with strings from 2000 and heard a deeper voice full of sorrow and wine and cigarettes. Eventually I found my way out of that dark place and dared to love again.

Today, I connect with Joni's line, "Something's lost but something's gained in living every day." I'm looking forward to the next turn in my story line.

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