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Like a Cactus Tree Print-ready version

Coming of Age with Joni Mitchell's Music

by Richard Flynn
Three O'Clock Press
June 2013

From the book "Gathered Light- The Poetry of Joni Mitchell's Songs

The first time I saw Joni was November of '68-Thanksgiving week in the U.S. I sat with my parents at a table next to the small stage at the Cellar Door, a 192-seat dark cafe that used to be at the corner of 34th and M Streets in Washington, D.C. I was thirteen.

This was not the first time I had been to that long-gone, now-legendary club. I was obsessed with music and had previously convinced my parents to take me to see such musical heroes as Judy Collins and Ian & Sylvia there. But I knew that, for me, Joni Mitchell was in a category of her own, even in late 1968 when all I had to base my judgment on were the songs I knew from other artists' versions and those on her debut LP, Joni Mitchell aka Song to a Seagull.

The previous spring, in late March, I had taken a D.C. Transit bus to the Soul Shack at 12th and G to buy that album, an al­ bum I had been anticipating for well over a year. A privileged child, I had been enamored of folk music (or, more accurately, the music of the pop-folk revival) even before my family moved to Washington, D.C., in 1963, when I was eight-the same year I began guitar lessons. I shared the third floor attic of our Friendship Heights house with my brother, where every night I listened to Dick Cerri's Music Americana on WAVA FM, learning about new singers and songwriters: Tom Paxton, Tom Rush, Eric Andersen, Buffy Sainte Marie, Ian & Sylvia, Dave Van Ronk and more. I subscribed to Sing Out! magazine. Long before I ever heard Joni Mitchell sing or play, her songs had already struck a chord deep in me. The songs I knew from other artists-"Urge for Going," "The Circle Game," "Both Sides Now," "Michael from Mountains" and "Song to a Seagull"-were wise beyond my years, certainly. They spoke in frank terms about how idealism is inevitably tempered by experience. They were tough and uncompromising in their honesty. Joni remarked to Michelle Mercer, "The people who get the most out my music see themselves in it." I saw myself in her songs before I had heard her sing them and sensed that they, like other poetry, would offer sustenance for future years.

So, that March I listened repeatedly to Joni's tale of coming to the city "to live like old Crusoe" and leaving the city in Nathan La Franeer's "coach" to escape to the seaside (going on her own rather than waiting, like poor "Marcie," for someone to take her). I let that music wash over me and comfort me days later as, from my privileged, white neighborhood, I watched the firelit, smoky sky on the horizon as the city burned in the aftermath of the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination.

Like most thirteen year-olds, I experienced a mass of conflicting, contradictory emotions. My awakening social conscience forced me to put my convictions into action-I had already begun stuffing envelopes for Gene McCarthy's Presidential bid and marched on Solidarity Day that June-but it also caused me to chafe against my position of privilege. I unsuccessfully resisted my parents' bid to place me in an exclusive boy's prep school that fall, but I was thrilled that their wealth provided me with a new Martin D-28 that same year.

Armed with that beautiful guitar, I recognized that in order to play Joni Mitchell's songs, I had to detune it and discovered open E. Capoing up to F#, I figured out how to play along to "Cactus Tree," the wisest song on the first album, and one that sums up, acknowledges and embodies the complexities and contradictions of city and seaside, isolation and connection, love and liberation in the songs that lead up to it.

At thirteen, I was ready for "Cactus Tree" precisely because it spoke of things beyond my experience. I was a melancholy, sensitive boy, with a romantic streak a mile wide, and I think what I needed most was the toughness of the song, a toughness reinforced by the third person narration. "Cactus Tree" demonstrates that Joni already understood at twenty-four that innocence and experience are, as Blake tells us, "two contrary states of the human soul" that coexist within us simultaneously and also that hearts could be paradoxically "full and hollow." It has always annoyed me to hear the early Joni characterized as a flower child or hippie chick, to see her early work characterized, as Larry David Smith does, as a "hippie manifesto."

Regardless of the period-style album artwork, there is nothing precious or fey about the songs on Song To A Seagull: the overall narrative and Joni's gift for the deft, poetic character sketch are already well-developed. She displays a remarkable maturity and detachment in her employment of first-person singular and plural speakers, and her imagery is concrete and specific in a way that distinguishes her already from most of her contemporaries. Though perhaps more detached than on Blue or For the Roses, the personae and the subjects of Song to a Seagull speak, or rather sing, across the boundaries of gender and of age.

The three men depicted in the first three stanzas of "Cactus Tree" seem to offer different romantic models. The charmingly seductive sailor bears nearly irresistible gifts, including the kiss of freedom, but of course it is his freedom-that is, free­dom on his terms and therefore potentially threatening to the unnamed female protagonist. The romantic allure of being treated "like a queen" gives way to another feminine archetype (or stereotype), the mermaid. To give in to a "decade full of dreams" might mean submission to an oceanic feeling, but the "she" who is so busy being free seems to find herself wanting boundaries.

The man "who's climbed a mountain" is all longing and desire, and his picture of the protagonist is almost dependent on her absence: "He can think her there beside him / He can miss her just the same " In fact, he seems to miss her even when she is present: "He has missed her in the forest I While he showed her all the flowers." The modification to the refrain underscores her absence: "She's so busy being free" becomes, in this instance, "While she was somewhere being free." The man is also off somewhere in his own world and, unlike the sailor, he has erected insurmountable boundaries; one imagines that he is like "Michael from Mountains": "You want to know all/ But his mountains have called so you never do."

In contrast to these hopeless romantics, the "man who's sent a letter" is clearly a figure from the past, one with whom the protagonist maintains a business relationship. Unlike the bohemian lovers in stanzas one and two, this figure seemed to me to be a particularly undesirable model of masculinity. The lyrics "He has seen her at the office / With her name on all his papers / Thru the sharing of the profits" underscored for me not only the price my parents' unstable marriage exacted on our family, but also my own uneasiness about the ways in which our affluence was bought at the price of our family's increasing estrangement. We were all less than pleased "to be a part of the arrangement." The song pivots brilliantly as "she" becomes the focal character in stanza four: the "lady in the city" who "thinks she loves them all." The men of the preceding three stanzas are summarized or sketched in three shorthand phrases: "the one who's thinking of her," "the one who sometimes calls" and "the one who writes her letters / With his facts and figures scrawl." Seemingly in control, "she has brought them to her senses" in a gesture that is at once rational and sensual. Somewhat ambivalently, she recognizes that she is in control in that she may use them for her pleasure, but also sees that control as short-lived. The lovers return to haunt her; they "have laughed inside her laughter" in such a way that she must "rall[y] her defenses" to avoid being confined for eternity. Because it was not socially acceptable in the late 1960s for a woman singer to simply be stone free or like a rolling stone, claiming agency for the protagonist of "Cactus Tree" is complicated.

In a 1968 interview in Dave Wilson's Broadside of Boston, Joni says that she wrote "Cactus Tree" after seeing the Dylan movie Don't Look Back, which "left a big impression on [her]." The final stanza of "Cactus Tree" recapitulates the portraits of the men who have appeared in the song, but they are reduced to types (wounded soldier, jouster, jester, storeowner, drum­mer, dreamer) as if perhaps the protagonist could herself display the cool cruelty of the Dylan who cuts everyone down to size in Pennebaker's film. The narrator/singer, however, sees the vulnerability and defensiveness in this stance. Freedom has a price-one's heart will be full and hollow, but giving up freedom might just empty out that heart altogether. Better to live and love unconventionally. And don't look back. Still, like the singer of "The Gallery," the protagonist of "Cactus Tree" chooses gentleness over cruelty.

The second time I saw Joni, at Constitution Hall in D.C. on January 29, 1974, I had just turned nineteen and was more ex­perienced than I wished to be. I had just begun college at George Washington University, but I had spent four months at the beginning of 1972, and later the greater part of the summer of 1973, as a "Trouble Child"-"up in a sterilized room/ where they let you be crazy." The version of "Cactus Tree" from this period, as the Miles of Aisles recording attests, is emotionally definitive. Performed a whole step lower than the 1968 recording, Joni's more weathered, more expressive vocals are as gut­ wrenching now as they were to me then. The performance is less defiant, wiser and ultimately heartbreaking. From my own personal experience (and through Joni's greater command as a performer), the costs oflove-that "repetitious danger," "the greatest poison and medicine of all"-became clear to a still-damaged teenager, alone in the dark concert hall.

The last time I saw Joni was August of '79, at Merriweather Post Pavilion, with her most amazing band ever. I was twenty­-four, the age at which Joni recorded her first album. "Cactus Tree" had dropped out of her concert repertoire after the 1974 tour. A number of fairweather fans had fallen by the wayside. (I remained and remain loyal.) That show featured "Amelia"- a first-person cri de couer that is in many ways even more powerful than "Cactus Tree." The singer, a kindred spirit to "the ghost of aviation," Amelia Earhart, "check[s] into the Cactus Tree Motel to shower off the dust" where she sleeps "on the strange pillows of [her] wanderlust." When Hejira appeared in 1976, I had become as serious about poetry as I had always been about music. I was a senior, studying with the poet Marilyn Hacker and writing a senior thesis on the work of Muriel Rukeyser. I was particularly taken by Rukeyser's poem "Double Ode" (1976) in which she comes to terms with "the black... mysteries" of her rejecting parents, who nevertheless taught her "the eternal double music male and female." Rukeyer repeats an incantation three times in the poem:

Pay attention to what they tell you to forget.
Pay attention to what they tell you to forget.
Pay attention to what they tell you to forget.

Though I had largely succeeded in putting myself together again, Hejira spoke to me with the same intensity as Rukeyser's poem, and it taught me to pay attention and to remember. I spent countless hours in the dark listening through headphones. I heard the six men of the last stanza of "Cactus Tree" transform into "six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain": "It was the hexagram of the heavens / It was the strings of my guitar / Amelia, it was just a false alarm."

This singer, who once "looked at clouds from both sides now," feels she has "spent her whole life in clouds at icy altitudes." Nevertheless, "like Icarus ascending / On beautiful foolish arms," she can't quite bring herself to become a permanent "defector from the petty wars" ("Hejira").

"People will tell you where they've gone / They'll tell you where to go / But till you get there yourself you never really know," Joni sings in ''Amelia." The initial image of six jet planes from the first stanza of the song returns in the last, in her dream "of 747s / Over geometric farms." The singer has learned to "hide the hurt," but still "the road leads cursed and charmed." In the final stanza, the singer of "Amelia" looks up and down, forward and back. She is the woman of "Cactus Tree," with fewer illusions. Yet, as I hear her wise counsel to herself and Amelia, it is no longer "just" a false alarm; in the final refrain "false alarms" are joined by "dreams." The woman in "Cactus Tree" has been there and back, she is road-weary and wiser, her heart is still "full and hollow," but in her search for both love and freedom, like me, she has "a dream to fly."

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