Essay on "A Case of You" from
Gathered Light: The Poetry of Joni Mitchell's Songs
2013 Three O'Clock Press, Eds. Lisa and John Sornberger
"A poem is human inside talking to human inside. It may also be reasonable person talking to reasonable person, but if it is not inside talking to inside, it is not a poem."
— Donald Hall, Claims for Poetry
It was 1994. I was seventeen years old, Turbulent Indigo - Joni Mitchell's fifteenth studio album - had just been released, and "gay youth" was a new term on the political landscape (the more inclusive "LGBTQ" was still a few years away). The liberation movements of the '60s and '70s combined with AIDS education in the '80s meant that kids were coming out at younger and younger ages, and when I met my friend Danny at a youth group in Berkeley, I learned that I wasn't the only person like me. But being a gay teenager wasn't the only thing we had in common - we were both listening to Turbulent Indigo on our Sony Walkmans. As kids who had grown up in the shadow of AIDS and had only heard stories about the Sexual Revolution, the track "Sex Kills" spoke to our sense of confusion about the times in which we were coming out and coming of age.
Soon, I was meeting Danny every Sunday at his house in Oakland, where we sat on the floor in front of a cable-spool coffee table, lit incense, and devoured his mother's giant vinyl collection. We pored over covers of Joni's early songs by Ian and Sylvia, Fairport Convention, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. During one of these visits, Danny played Tom Rush's cover of "Urge for Going"; Danny's mom had remembered hearing Joni's own version on a midnight radio program when she was in college, but we couldn't find any other proof that Joni had recorded the song. (As it turned out, Joni had recorded "Urge for Going" for her album Blue, several years after writing it, but it was traded out to make room for "The Last Time I Saw Richard"; it would eventually be released as the B-side of her single "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio" and later still on her Hits album.)
As a surprise for Danny's eighteenth birthday, I took out a classified ad (a relic that's gone the way of cable-spool coffee tables and Walkmans) in Berkeley's free weekly paper, the East Bay Express. A few days later, the ad was answered by Wally Breese, an avid Joni collector and the soon-to-be co-founder of JoniMitchell.com.
On Danny's birthday, we made the trek across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, where we met Wally at his apartment, lined from floor to ceiling with Joni bootlegs, books, and concert posters. He thrilled us with rarities, including that recording of "Urge for Going," followed by a demo of Joni's very first composition, "Day After Day" from 1965, and a live performance of "A Case of You" recorded in the spring of 1971 a few months before Blue was released. It was the first time I heard "A Case of You," and it was a revelation.
After fiddling with the droning strings of her dulcimer, Joni sang these lines:
Just before our love got lost you said,
"I am as constant as a northern star."
Constantly in the darkness, where's that at?
If you want me, I'll be in the bar.
On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light,
I drew a map of Canada,
With your face sketched on it twice.
At seventeen, I'd only been into a bar once or twice, with the help of a driver's license I'd stolen from my brother. I didn't even know what a cartoon coaster was, much less the complex texture of an ended affair. But I knew that I was hearing something special, something deeply personal, something more than "You done me wrong, baby." Something bitter and sweet.
Eighteen years of bars and heartaches later, "A Case of You" still elicits that original visceral response. And eighteen years of writing and teaching later, I can also see the craft in "A Case of You," the work that went into its composition long after the muse left the room.
On its surface, "A Case of You" is accessible and infectious, even for a naive teenager: a great opening riff, a story of lost love that (almost) anyone can relate to, and a mesmerizingly hooky chorus that would be equally at home in songs by Willie Nelson, Cole Porter, or the Beatles. Its scaffolding - verse-chorus-verse-chorus - is as normal and unobtrusive as the frame on a painting.
But that's where the simplicity ends. Although she'd already been playing with traditional verse structure in songs like "The Arrangement" on Ladies of the Canyon, "A Case of You" is one her first sustained uses of what poets call "enjambment" - that is, sentences that move through and past the end of the line rather than stopping there. A term related to the French word for "leg," enjambment is a stepping over the line in one continuous movement. The effect of writing across lines is a plainspoken, "natural" sound - verses that are truly free, liberated from strict metrical expectations.
With "A Case of You," Joni's rhyme scheme, too, takes a step forward. She's left behind the syntactical inversions and mathematically precise rhymes of her earliest songs ("Cats come crying to the key and dry you will be in a towel or two" from "Michael from Mountains") in favor of this new style; in effect, she has moved from making delicate filigree to working with steel. Her songs, like their speaker, have gone through the fire, been hammered into shape, tempered, and polished.
* * *
Danny and I kept in touch with Wally. In 1999, a few months before he succumbed to cancer, Wally played Danny and me an even earlier recording of "A Case of You" than the one we'd heard on our first visit five years earlier. Just back from her summer in Greece and Spain, Joni appeared on the 1970 television program Folkways. Tentatively starting off the familiar, climbing dulcimer riff and repeating it a few times, as if trying to recall her new lyrics, she sings:
Just before our ship got lost you said,
"I am as constant as the northern star."
"You're silly as a northern fish," says I.
If you want me, I'll be in the bar.
On the back of a cartoon coaster pad
That didn't make me laugh at all,
I drew a map of Canada,
And I charted our last squall.
Here it is: a gauntlet thrown down before fans and naysayers alike who believe that Joni Mitchell's songwriting is pure instinct or stream-of-consciousness, an unmitigated expurgation of personal experience. While it's true that many of her songs seem to be borne of fearless living and risk-taking, they are only brought to maturity through sweat and ruthless revision. Her revisions to her songs are anything but arbitrary or merely intuitive: they are the choices of an artist in complete control of her craft.
By the time "A Case of You" appears on Blue, Joni has jettisoned the nautical theme, which competes with the overriding themes of art, blood, drinking, religion, and Holy Communion. She's also done away with tidy end-rhymes and that archaic-sounding syntactical inversion, "says I." The song has been wiped clean of its "poetical" conceits so that it just is; its meter and rhyme scheme are given the ambivalent blur that suits a song about alcohol and heartache.
Whereas the early "nautical" version of "A Case of You" has a traditional balladic rhyme scheme of ABCB ("said/star/I/bar"), the rhymes in the finished version are intentionally ambiguous - everyone will have a slightly different perspective on what those rhymes are, like museumgoers viewing a Van Gogh from different vantage points.
Listen closely to "A Case of You" in its final form. Is the rhyme scheme AABB ("said/said/dark[ness]/bar")? Or are the rhymes "Lost/star/dark[ness]/bar"? And if it's the latter, does that equal ABCB or ABBB? Then there are the internal rhymes of "got," "lost," "constant," "constantly," and "want." That most of these rhymes hit the ear only subliminally is the point. It shouldn't be straightforward - affairs of the heart, like "A Case of You" and the songs Joni wrote after, rarely move in neat, easy lines. You have to read between them. It's an ambiguity that Joni Mitchell clearly put thought into, even if it seems like overthinking to point it out.
In his book Claims for Poetry, the poet Donald Hall wrote, "Meter is nothing but a loose set of probabilities; it is a trick easily learned... But only when you have forgotten the requirements of meter do you begin to write poetry in it." Emily Dickinson put it another way: "Tell the truth, but tell it slant." Undeniably a great song, "A Case of You" is also great poetry. But as I said, and to contradict myself a little, none of this really mattered when I first heard "A Case of You" in Wally's apartment eighteen years ago - and to be honest, it still doesn't really. I just loved it.
The lyric to "A Case of You" does what any great work should do, filling the senses on first encounter and revealing deeper meaning each time it's revisited. But all those deeper readings are only possible because the music - of the dulcimer, of Joni's voice, of the poetry - is so immediately captivating that it begs to be revisited. It presents itself to the listener as a fully realized being - body, bones, blood, flesh. It can be understood sensually on first listen - one person's inside speaking to another person's inside. It can be absorbed into the body while the intellect is still catching up.
In interviews, Joni has said that the lines that matter most to her songs are the ones she leaves out. Back in 1914, the poet and critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch gave similar advice to his students: "Murder your darlings." You have to be willing to let go of the words that don't serve the story. Maybe a future version of this essay about "A Case of You" will take a cue from these great writers and get straight to the point. It will read, in total: "I just love it."
Brent Calderwood is a poet, essayist, and author of The God of Longing (Sibling Rivalry Press), an American Library Association selection for 2015.
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Added to Library on July 17, 2020. (1788)
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