This article originally appeared in the first edition of the Ultimate Music Guide published on May 19, 2017.
David Crosby knew what he had found within minutes of stumbling into a Joni Mitchell show at the Gaslight Cafe in autumn 1967. The disaffected Byrd had come to Florida in search of a new start, but found a different kind of break from the norm. "I went looking for a sailboat to live on- I wanted to do something else, find another way to be. I was pretty disillusioned," he recalled years later. "I walked into a coffeehouse in Coconut Grove, and she was standing there singing those songs, and I just was gobsmacked. I fell for her, immediately. It's a little like falling into a cement mixer. She's kind of a turbulent girl."
Mitchell was, at that stage, a 23-year-old whose songs were living a life of their own. Country singer George Hamilton IV had made a hit of "Urge For Going", Buffy Sainte-Marie had recorded "The Circle Game" and "Song To A Seagull", with a trickle of versions of her other early works soon to become a torrent.
She was also a divorcee, an art-school drop-out, and the mother of a child she gave up for adoption, three turbulent years having given her enough source material to last a lifetime. Her debut record, recorded with on-off partner Crosby's help at the back end of 1967, and released in March 1968, documented only a few fragments of a story still in flux: a few months in New York (Side One, subtitled "I came to the city") and a few more on the West Coast (Side Two: "Out of the city and down to the seaside").
Song To a Seagull (or 'Son To A Seagu' as it appeared on original copies, Mitchell's felt-tip frenzy sleeve art being badly mangled at the printers) is a quietly audacious debut. The least user-friendly of all of her early records (her best-known songs of the time were largely omitted), its spartan production job was true to Mitchell and Crosby's determination to get these songs down in their purest form, without psychedelic curlicues or morn-and-pop-friendly string sections.
"If I'd recorded a year ago, l would have used lots of orchestration," she told Rolling Stone in May 1968, alluding to how the success of her songs had enabled her to call the shots. "No one would have let me put out an acoustic album. They would have said it's like having a whole paintbox and using only brown."
"We did get the actual songs down without a bunch of other crud on it, and that made me happy," Crosby remembered. "That's the thing I'm proudest of."
Crosby's production job was not uncontroversial, though; his quest to capture Mitchell's voice in all its wild seagull swoops picked up plenty of extraneous hiss, requiring slightly brutal surgery in the final mix. The finished product sounds like it was recorded behind glass, but given Mitchell's tendency to view both her songs' subjects and herself here as slightly baffling museum exhibits, that is oddly fitting.
"She's brilliant and tough and opinionated and slightly crazy and incredibly talented," Crosby said as he looked back on their time together, his opinion of Mitchell's gifts having only intensified overtime. "She's the best singer-songwriter that we've had in the past 100 years. She's as good a poet as Bob [Dylan], and away better musician."
However, while Dylan talked in riddles, Mitchell's brilliance here hinged on close - often uncomfortably close - observation. Song To A Seagull begins, uncompromisingly enough, with the forbidding "I Had A King", a matter-of-fact account of her divorce from sometime singing partner Chuck Mitchell. When she left their Detroit apartment to head for New York in early 1967, he reportedly changed the locks, a detail that informs the song's chorus: I can't go back there any more, you know my keys won't fit the door." However, while there is a note of distress in Mitchell's voice, and in the upside down guitar chords she picks out, there is a quiet determination, too. She does not give in to despair, merely boxes the emotions up, labels them and quietly moves on.
Marrying Mitchell in his native Michigan on June 19, 1965 was one of a series of early stumbles (he "carried me of his country for marriage too soon," as she put it in "I Had A King"), the former Roberta Joan Anderson having dropped out of the Alberta College of Art after just one year, 1963-'64, to pursue a career as a folk singer - a shocking decision for her relatively strait-laced parents.
She had spent her childhood tracking her Royal Canadian Air Force flight lieutenant father's moves from base to base before settling, aged 11, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where her father opened a grocery business. Her unconventional gift for language had first been recognised by her seventh-grade English teacher, Mr Kratzmann; Mitchell credits him for having "taught me to love words" on the sleeve of Song to a a Seagull.
Equally taken with music, she learned ukulele and then guitar, unconventional tunings helping to compensate for weakness in her fingers - a legacy from a childhood bout of polio - and went on to play in folk clubs in Calgary, and later Toronto, after dropping out of college.
However, her musical career took a significant detour when she fell pregnant by boyfriend Brad MacMath, giving birth to a daughter, Kelly Dale Anderson, in Toronto in spring 1965. While she wanted to keep the child - apparently marrying Chuck Mitchell with a view to creating a stable family unit - her daughter was fostered and then put up for adoption (a story that remained a secret, despite being explicitly addressed on Blue's "Little Green" in 1971, until an old college roommate sold it to a scandal sheet in 1993) [Ed note: not true, she discussed it in 1983]
Aiming to make the best of a bad marriage, the newlyweds paired up onstage for awhile, but it never worked out, with Mitchell well aware that she - and her songs - deserved better. In "I Had A King" she suggests that Chuck was a good deal less groovy than he seemed. "He lives in another time/Ladies in gingham still blush while he sings them of wars and wine/But I in my leather and lace/I can never become that kind."
The quest for a world that could handle her as she was underpins Song To A Seagull, "Michael From Mountains" the next potential partner to catch Mitchell's eye and ultimately come up short.
"He was a child-man; he was always showing you his treasures like a boy," she told the Toronto Daily Star about the song's real-life inspiration. Teasing and trepidatious, the song does its best to trap the elusive Michael, not to possess him, but to inspect him closer ("Know that I will know you," Mitchell maintains doggedly in the chorus), and while he gets away at the end ("You want to know all, but his mountains have called so you never do"), amid the excitement of New York, there are so many more exciting specimens to be had.
Underpinned by a spring-heeled bassline from Stephen Stills (who was recording next door with Buffalo Springfield), and Mitchell's jaunty bar-room piano, "Night In The City" captures some of that country-mouse sense of the metropolis' infinite possibilities. A delirious yodel celebrating a life that can never come fast enough ("Must you get ready so slow?" she asks herself), it is an unalloyed joy.
The main protagonist in "Marcie" is anything but, allowing her best years to go to waste as she awaits a letter of intent from an absentee suitor ("Dust her tables with his shirt and wave another day goodbye," Mitchell sings). "Is Marcie Joni?" asked Melody Maker in September 1968. "I suppose so, really," said Mitchell. "Marcie is a real girl, she lives in London. I used her name, because wanted a two-syllable name. But I'm the girl in all these songs."
It ends with Marcie vanishing from the scene: "Someone heard she bought a one-way ticket and went out west again," Mitchell sings with a shrug, and within minutes ahe is heading the same way. The "I come to the city" side ends with her trip to airport in the company of the protagonist in "Nathan La Franeer" - in her own words: "a New York cab driver who really exists, who drove me to the airport one day". Over an abstract acoustic doodle occasionally interrupted with an electrified whine, Mitchell depicts a man whose emotional circuits have been burned out by overexposure to humanity (as Mitchell sings, he "hated everyone who paid to ride and share his common space"). Mitchell feared the same might happen to her. "New York has left a big impression on me: good and bad," she told Broadside in February 1968. "It's made me very paranoid, which is a thing I never was. I've always been sort of naive and completely trusting."
However, if the laid-back West Coast promised a radically different way to be, it was one Mitchell found equally problematic. Side two begins with her rubbing shoulders with California's new smug bohemian aristocracy in "Sisotowbell Lane" (Sisotowbell a Mitchell acronym for 'somehow, in spite of troubles, ours will be ever-lasting love'). The sun-blasted Renaissance Fayre atmosphere may be pre-lapsarian bliss on the surface ("Sweet well water and pickling jars"), but the repeated. "we" highlights the worrying conformity beneath the surface. She spots the fakery too; the Marie Antoinette country folk, and the pop singers desperate to pass themselves off as artists; "A poet can sing," she sings, with absent-minded malice. The irascible Crosby, in such company, seems like a romantic hero. "The Dawntreader" - which Mitchell described at the time as her "one really true love song" - captures the renegade Byrd on the deck of his yacht. "He stakes all his silver on a promise to be free," Mitchell sings, idly pondering their future together "and a dream of a baby". Their romantic relationship was already dissolving by the time it was recorded, though.
A fever delirium Gilhert & Sullivan, one-woman operetta "The Pirate Of Penance" paves the way to Song To A Seagull's frosty title track, an anguished minor-chord tiptoe along the cliff edge where Mitchell clocks the follies of life on both coasts, and ultimately throws her lot in with the birds.
Finally, "Cactus Tree" - the most musically simple and yet lyrically radical of all of these early songs. A gentle but purposeful stroll through a series of romantic adventures where Mitchell leaves a sequence of would-be suitors hanging on while "she" - observing herself from her usual seagull distance - focuses on the challenge of "being free". Crosby and 'Michael' get a verse each, others just a few words ("There's a drummer and a dreamer, and you know there may be more,"Mitchell sings, simultaneously pitying her cast-offs and marvelling at her own "full and hollow" coldness). "She's not unattainable; I attained her pretty good," Crosby joked, but the giant cultural leap here is the no-regrets separation of sex and commitment. Twice shy, conventional monogamy seems horrifying ("She fears that one will ask her for eternity"), and the "Cactus Tree" Mitchell is quietly amazed that any lover would want more of her than she is prepared to give. "She will love them when she sees them," she adds in a luminous final verse. "They will lose her if they follow."
"I have yet to meet a woman who doesn't feel that Joni speaks for her," wrote Crawdaddy's Paul Williams in mid-1968, but as much as Song To A Seaguii shows seismic social changes, Mitchell's speaking only for herself. Not a big seller, it is a record that seeks neither to be liked, or pursued, or even understood, but simply to document intensely lived experience. "I had to wait a long time for people to let me have my own opinions, and it was hard," Mitchell told Toronto's Globe And Mail in May 1968. "But now I can tell everybody." Soon enough, the world would listen.
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