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A Reminder That Joni Mitchell’s Blue is the Ultimate Summer Travel Album Print-ready version

by Annie Daly
June 22, 2024

Photo: Jack Robinson / Getty Images

A couple of weeks ago, I booked a summer trip to Mallorca and Menorca, two of the four main Balearic islands in Spain. Since then, I have done approximately zero things to prepare for my travels except listen to Joni Mitchell's legendary 1971 album Blue over and over again, specifically the fitting lyrics from her song "California": "So I bought me a ticket, I caught a plane to Spain, went to a party down a red dirt road / there were lots of pretty people there, reading Rolling Stone, reading Vogue."

Anyone who knows me can confirm this anecdote to be true. As a lifelong Joni fan (we're on a first-name basis here), I never miss an opportunity to soundtrack my life to her songs. But as I was revisiting Blue yet again, in the leadup to both my Spain trip and the album's 53rd anniversary today (!), I was struck by just how much Joni's travel-inspired lyrics continue to resonate even 53 years later. Maybe especially 53 years later. Listening to it now, as we're heading into yet another glorious summer travel season, I can't help thinking it's the throwback travel vibe we all need to carry with us over the next few months.

Given its name and its blue cover, many people tend to think Blue is a somber album, or a sad breakup album. But while it is indeed filled with raw vulnerability and despair, and it does cover the dissolution of a relationship, it's also a groundbreaking travel tale at its core, one that documents the singer's quest to find herself on the road during her tumultuous twenties (it came out when she was 27). The New York Times even called it "the heroine's journey that Joseph Campbell forgot to map out." Joni wrote many of the songs on Blue when she was wandering around Europe solo, after breaking off a relationship with her then-boyfriend, British singer-songwriter Graham Nash. They'd been living together in Los Angeles' woodsy Laurel Canyon, which at the time was the beating heart and soul of late '60s folk music. Joni and Graham appeared to be the ultimate California golden couple, but she was restless and apprehensive of the seemingly perfect domestic life that was unfolding before her eyes. In her cult-favorite documentary Joni Mitchell: A Woman of Heart and Mind, released in 2003, she explains that she didn't want to end up like both of her grandmothers, who were creatives at heart but weren't able to follow their dreams due to domestic obligations:

"I just started thinking, my grandmother was a frustrated poet and musician. She kicked the kitchen door off of the hinges on the farm. And I thought about my paternal grandmother who wept for the last time in her life at 14 behind some barn, because she wanted a piano and said, 'Dry your eyes, you silly girl, you'll never have a piano,'" she reflects in the documentary. "And then I thought, maybe I'm the one that got the gene that has to make it happen for these two women. As much as I loved and cared for Graham, I just thought, I'm going to end up like my grandmother, kicking the door off the hinges. And I'd better not. It broke my heart."

Thus began the journey that would come to define Blue. Joni bought a plane ticket to Europe, where she traveled around France, Spain, and Greece. She was in Greece when she sent Graham a telegram letting him know it was officially over, writing, "If you hold sand too tightly in your hand, it will run through your fingers. Love, Joan." Against that backdrop, the album kicks off with the song "All I Want," where she sings, "I am on a lonely road and I am traveling, traveling, traveling, traveling, looking for something, what can it be?" Later in the song, she switches the lyrics to, "I am on a lonely road and I am traveling / Looking for the key to set me free." From that point on, the message is clear: Joni is searching for answers. For meaning. For purpose beyond the expected. And she's using travel to help her find those things.

In "California," in addition to attending that "party down a red dirt road" in Spain, we find her "sitting in a park in Paris, France," wondering what it would be like to live there (not ideal, she decides, as it's "too old and cold and settled in its ways"). And in "Carey," we find her living with a new man, an American hippie named Cary Raditz, in the famously countercultural Matala Caves in Crete, Greece. The beach caves were a true backpacker haven during the late '60s, and Joni, a chic and glamorous California girl at heart, only lasted so long before she started craving her "clean white linen and fancy French cologne" back in her more urban comfort zone. But before she and Raditz parted ways, they had a lovely, breezy time, filled with bottles upon bottles of wine at the Mermaid Café (a fictional seaside bar), and nights spent listening to "scratchy rock n' roll beneath the Matala moon." One of my favorite verses on the whole album is from this song:

Come on down to the Mermaid Café, and I will
Buy you a bottle of wine
And we'll laugh and toast to nothing
And smash our empty glasses down
Let's have a round for these freaks and these soldiers
A round for these friends of mine
Let's have another round for the bright red devil
Who keeps me in this tourist town

To me, this verse perfectly captures travel as it should be: carefree and serendipitous. Filled with rounds with new friends, clinking glasses by the sea, and no itinerary except "laughing and toasting to nothing." Ultimately, the Mermaid Café represents my travel nirvana: a place where time slows down and wine never stops flowing and freedom prevails. A place where all of the "freaks and soldiers" in the bar are down for a good time, and the only thing that matters is who is buying the next round...and will it be red, white, or rosé. This, to me, is what travel is all about: an appreciation for the simple act of being alive.

I think we can all agree that the metaphorical Mermaid Café is a lot harder to find these days. With the popularity of Instagram has come the popularity of geotags and influencer-approved itineraries and "doing it for the 'gram." In many ways, travel has become more about hitting the hotspots than being open to the search. More about the plan than the possibility. And I can't stop asking myself: When did it all become so...mapped out? So scheduled? So hyperconnected and influenced by IG?

There was a time in my life when travel was genuinely filled with Mermaid Café moments. The year was 2006. I was studying abroad in England for my junior year of college, and my best friend Zoë - also a Joni fanatic - and I made new friends everywhere we went. We backpacked all around Europe together that year, popping into random bars and hostels, guided by little but our intuition and a couple of research pit stops at Internet cafés (social media was not yet a thing). And we always managed to emerge with a new pack of travel friends along the way.

Our freewheeling vibe makes even more sense now in retrospect than it did then, as we spent that entire year listening to Blue whenever and wherever we could. Of course it infiltrated into our very essence! We'd plop ourselves down in parks and wildflower fields for indulgent listens, plugging a Y adapter into one of our iPods so we could take in the music at the same time as we stared up at the sky. I distinctly remember listening to the entirety of Blue lying in the fields outside Stonehenge, and on the overnight ferry from Italy to Greece. The waters were rough that night, and we felt vaguely seasick - but we knew a little Blue moment would help us through. Joni was our role model, our guide to the magic of soul-searching travel. And with her as our inspiration, we remained open to happenstance, open to the possibility that travel could help us find something we didn't even know we were looking for.

That was 18 years ago. And now, as we celebrate Blue's 53rd anniversary today, I'm still convinced - perhaps now more than ever before - that Blue is the ultimate travel blueprint. Joni set off on her European adventure when she found herself at a crossroads, unsure of her future but sure that she wanted to veer away from her past. She did not have an exact plan, as she made clear in "California" ("Maybe I'll go to Amsterdam, maybe I'll go to Rome," she sings). But she likely knew she just needed to get out of her comfort zone, and let travel take care of the rest. And that it did. Not only did Blue go on to become a musical masterpiece (Apple Music just included it on its list of the 100 Best Albums of All Time, following many previous awards), Joni also escaped the fate of her grandmothers and carved her own creative path.

I'll be thinking of her as I "catch a plane to Spain" soon enough myself. Tempted as I will be to map out the entire trip, and research all of the places I "should" go, I'm going to channel my inner Joni and let the unknown lead the way. Who knows? Maybe I'll stumble upon my own Mermaid Café once again, where I will laugh and toast to nothing...and then have another round.

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Added to Library on June 24, 2024. (563)


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