Song Lyrics

For The Roses

by Joni Mitchell

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I heard it in the wind last night
It sounded like applause
Did you get a round resounding for you
Way up here
It seems like many dim years ago
Since I heard that face to face
Or seen you face to face
Though tonight I can feel you here
I get these notes
On butterflies and lilac sprays
From girls who just have to tell me
They saw you somewhere

In some office sits a poet
And he trembles as he sings
And he asks some guy
To circulate his soul around
On your mark red ribbon runner
The caressing rev of motors
Finely tuned like fancy women
In thirties evening gowns
Up the charts
Off to the airport
Your name's in the news
Everything's first class
The lights go down
And it's just you up there
Getting them to feel like that

Remember the days when you used to sit
And make up your tunes for love
And pour your simple sorrow
To the soundhole and your knee
And now you're seen
On giant screens
And at parties for the press
And for people who have slices of you
From the company
They toss around your latest golden egg
Speculation well who's to know
If the next one in the nest
Will glitter for them so

I guess I seem ungrateful
With my teeth sunk in the hand
That brings me things
I really can't give up just yet
Now I sit up here the critic
And they introduce some band
But they seem so much confetti
Looking at them on my TV set
Oh the power and the glory
Just when you're getting a taste for worship
They start bringing out the hammers
And the boards
And the nails

I heard it in the wind last night
It sounded like applause
Chilly now
End of summer
No more shiny hot nights
It was just the arbutus rustling
And the bumping of the logs
And the moon swept down black water
Like an empty spotlight

© January 17, 1972; Joni Mitchell Pub Corp


Joni's introduction to the song at Carnegie Hall on February 23, 1972:

'This is another new song. It’s called ‘For the Roses’ and it comes from the expression, ‘to run for the roses.’ You know what that’s all about: that’s when you take this horse and, you know, like he comes charging into the finish line and they throw a wreath of flowers around his neck and then one day they take him out and shoot him. It’s kind of a macabre thing to say, isn’t it, I guess?'

Joni's introduction to the song at Radio City Music Hall on February 6, 1974:

"All my life I've had kind of a battle going, a running duality between the spiritual & the sensual, you know, and I decided it was time the spiritual won out, at least for a little while...I looked around and my place had gotten kinda Tchoctky'ed up, over-opulent, and I thought that I had strayed off of some kind of path, like I was losing something, I don't know... So I trekked back up to Canada, bought myself a piece of land, decided to put my money where my mouth was, get myself genuinely back to the garden, or at least give it a try, you know?

"I've always been fascinated by the story of Adam & Eve, not because that was when women became a lower class of citizen, you know, I mean, (applause) No, no, the story never meant that to me, I thought that it was a beautiful poem written by a guy with a lot of future projection. You know, a lot of times it's interpreted by evangelists and different clerical people that I've talked to, as a place that existed a long time ago somewhere along the outskirts of the Nile or Jerusalem, something that disappeared, and I'd always thought it was kinda the story of the beginning of knowledge, you know? But I guess I'm side-tripping, running off at the mouth here, but... What it always kinda meant to me was, that, Man, the Beauty of Man, was his superiority while he still maintained his humility, which was before he *realized* that he had a virtue. Because as soon as you've got a virtue and you KNOW about it, it's gone, forget it...(laughter)

"So, he began as a tender of the creatures, not as a superior, he was sort of gentle with them, then one day he woke up and he looked at himself, and said 'Goddamn, they got better plumage, and furs, and everything', so he started to drape himself. Now I like to drape myself with those sort of things from time to time, but sometimes it makes me feel guilty, and that's what happened this particular morning. I woke up with a treacherous case of middle class guilt, so I decided to move myself to some deserted area, and grow myself a garden, and get back to it! Even an artichoke in a terrarium, anything...(laughter)

"My house was in the process of being built, I took a lot of hard furniture, it was like a house of correction I was building, everything was hard, you had to sit straight up in it, you know? I was sort of working on the Thoreau theory too, you know, like one chair for myself and one for, three chairs, one for solitude, one for company, and one for society, that's right....

"So I moved back up there and I was staying in this little cabin, and one night I heard what sounded to me like applause, it was like this clapping outside my door, you know, so I stepped out onto the steps, and....took a bow (Joni laughs)....(applause)....I stepped out and I looked up and right in front of my door was this tree called the Arbutus tree, which I think is really my favorite all-time's got a really smooth, orange bark, and really smooth rubbery kind of leaves, and it's a very independent tree, just has totally its own will, you can' can't tame it, you know? Like there's this street in Vancouver called Arbutus Street, and they tried to transplant a whole lot of Arbutus trees to line it, you know, just like Elm street's always lined with elms, and maple street's lined with they put in all these arbutus trees, and they just said 'forget it', you know, just kamikaze'd out......."

Joni's introduction to the song in Los Angeles on March 3, 1974:

"This is a song about leaving this city. Now, all of you who live here know that this is a great city and the worst at the same time; it’s like the most paradoxical place on Earth, you know? So anyway, I woke up here one day and I decided that I had strayed off of some path, some goal that I’d set for myself. Actually, I was going through a period which might be described as a virtue creep period where suddenly everything that was good and virtuous seemed very important to me. Well that’s alright except that it leaves very little room for humanness, you know? And so I decided that I didn’t want to be human, I wanted to be perfect [laughing]. I started reading Nietzsche and things like that, you know, like, and Metamorphosis, get thee to the wilderness, you lonely ones, I said, ah, right, I’m coming, you know? I decided I was going to cure myself of varying degrees of vanity and the things which accompany and drive the performer—it’s crazy, it’s like that line in Performance, you remember that Mick Jagger movie, did you see that movie? Ok, where his girlfriend says he woke up one morning and he realised he was just a little stripy animal like anybody else, you know? And having realised that he could no longer get up onstage, you know? He couldn’t do it. So he was just sitting around, running a boarding house, waiting for something to happen, you know?

"Well I woke up one day and I said, God, I better, you know, I’m saying all these things, like, things that I believe in, you know, I believe that it’s really good to nurture something, you know, this city is making me into—I mean, I’m having fun, but I can’t be having fun in this city, I mean, you know, I gotta be supporting something, growing a garden, I gotta prepare for the crisis that’s about to come upon us, I gotta learn how to live off the land on the natch, I gotta learn how to dig for roots, and live without my hifi set. So I went up to Canada and I picked out a little piece of land which looked to be pretty self-sufficient, and also had enough chromatic changes and scales in the atmosphere to keep me from going stark-raving mad.

"And so I set off to build this house which was like more of a reform school than a house. It really was, it was like, it was a combination of caves in Greece, coffee houses in New York, and a prison cell. Well, it’s a nice house, I shouldn’t say that about it, you know, but it was built out of—conceived out of paranoia, and has a lot of really uncomfortable, corrective furniture, you know, so that [audience laughter]... So anyway, I was sitting in this little cabin that I had near the property one night and I was knitting myself a sweater—gray. Conservative gray. And I was feeling guilty about not having raised the sheep, spun the wool and done the whole trip, you know? When all of a sudden outside the window I heard this sound very far off, like as in the distance, of applause, and I jumped up from the bed and I ran out and I took a bow, and [audience laughter]... No, no, no. I didn’t take a bow, I really didn’t.

"I looked up at this tree and it was just coming on winter, you know, it was just that crispy time of year where you’re anticipating maybe one more week to lie out in the sun. But it was frosted over that night, and all the leaves on this tree were all frosted over. Now this is a strange tree that I’d like to tell you about. I’ve been doing a promo job on this tree wherever I’ve been because I think it’s really an especially wonderful tree. It’s called the arbutus, and I mean, you hear, you know, the maple leaf forever, and you know, let me walk you through the elm grove darling, but you don’t ever hear about the arbutus tree, you know.

"So anyway, it’s this great tree with smooth, orange bark, sort of fruit-like bark, that in the middle of the summer, begins to split open and kind of peel. It reveals like a green undercoating, and all of the leaves that hang off of it at that time, which is sometime in August, turn bright yellow—banana yellow—and fall to the ground while all the other trees are still celebrating high summer. And then in the fall when all the other trees are saying, oh it’s autumn, you know, time to let down my hair, dropping their leaves and everything, this tree decides that it’s spring, and all the leaves come back on again. Anyway, I like the way it grows, you know, it grows, like, in unusual sort of contortions, and it grows with young and old branches alike, you know, like racy, virile young sprouts racing on up one side, and gnarled old wizened-up gray branches on the other side and leaning out to sea looking off to Japan or someplace, you know, where it maybe came floating in from. But it grows out of the hardest places to grow—straight up out of the ground in places where nothing else with any common sense, you know, like, comes up.

"Anyway, they have this street in Vancouver called Arbutus Street where they wanted to make it like Maple Street, Elm Street, Yew Street, Me Street—no—like all those tree-lined streets, so they planted a lot of arbutus trees down both sides of it, and, they just said, you know, hey listen, forget it, we’re a very independent tree, you know? And we had come from Japan, so they honourably kamikaze’d out right there along Arbutus Street [laughing], stretched out in the road blocking traffic, you know, little protest signs on every leaf, no—anyway, their Arbutus Street was kind of rustling, sounded like applause, you know, I watched it for awhile and looked at the moon on the water, for a few minutes, you know, respectful of time, then I went back in and turned on my television set, felt guilty for having a television set, but only for a minute or two, ‘cause there was like this rock and roll show that was coming in, but it didn’t come in very well up there as fate would have it, and I had to revert back to the old scheme of things—cabin crafts [audience laughter]... Since I was starting to knit and pearl in my sleep, I decided that it was time for a new medium, so I picked up this stringed thing here and wrote the first of a series, a continuing series of rejection-of-show-business tunes."

Joni's introduction to the song in Anaheim s on March 5, 1974:

…..[audience shouting song requests] [unintelligible] …some of those. [audience member: Circle Game!] Anything, that’s my favorite song! [audience member shouts: Smoke on the water!] What’d he say? [audience member: Smoke on the Water, some Deep Purple freak.] I don’t know that one. [audience members: We love you Joni!] [unintelligible] OK, what’s the matter with you? Is there a doctor in the house? [unintelligible] He’s in the house?

Let me tell you a story. I’m sort of the promotional representative of the Arbutus tree, you see. And everywhere I go I’ve been promoting this tree sort of like Joni Appleseed you might say. It’s like I’m sort of PR for this tree because it gained kind of a bad reputation for itself in Vancouver. And it was very misunderstood, you know, because they had this street in Vancouver called Arbutus Street. And so, like Elm Street or Oak Street or Cherry Blossom Street or Monkey Tail Street, all those streets, they wanted to have it lined with the appropriate tree. So they imported all these little Arbutus trees, you know, with the sand bag bottom and everything you know, a gunny sack, and they planted them all along Arbutus Street. Well two days later they were keeled across the road blocking off traffic, you know, so they gained kind of a reputation as being sort of a frail tree, you know, which isn’t so at all. They’re very hearty trees. That’s why I’ve come here to clear up this misunderstanding you might have. So anyway this tree mostly grows like along the coastlines. You don’t find it too far inland. It’s really got its preferences. It likes to have a little bit of a view of the sea, you know, maybe because it came drifting in from Japan or something. They look sort of oriental, you know, like those oriental paintings of trees that you see hanging out over the shoreline. That’s what their silhouette is like, but they’re more specific than that. They've got smooth, kind of warm orange bark for the most part through the winter and in the early spring. And in the middle of summer, which is when they take they’re autumn, they’re very independent and somewhat eccentric in that way that they celebrate they’re own seasonal calendar, probably left over from the Japanese or something, you know, or Australia or wherever they came from. And their leaves turn bright yellow and fall off onto the ground in August. And in the fall, when everything around them is saying, you know, ‘ooh, time to stop up this sap here and, uh, let down our hair a little,’ this tree starts getting green again and stays green all winter. It’s really a non-conformist. I like that. I like its rebellious nature, you know? So when these trees were planted all along Arbutus Street in Vancouver, they actually were Kamikazes, you know, they were like true oriental fashion. They said ‘I cannot live in this situation’ and they went [makes sounds like trees falling] blocked traffic, you know. It’s a true story! They also have a great respect for their elders, these trees. In true oriental fashion (‘oh honorable old branch’) you know, they said a greying olive branch is going along with vital juicy young sporty branches and [unintelligible] along the trunk. A wonderful tree. Anyway, one day I woke up in Hollywood, and I said to myself, ‘I have been misplanted here,’ you know? And I stepped out … and I didn’t Kamikaze or anything. I just said ‘I wanna get up to the shore of British Columbia and look out to sea myself.’ So I packed a few things. I didn’t take any tchotchkes. I made sort of a pact with myself — no dust catchers. I was going actually I was going to build myself a house of correction with hard furniture so that I should improve my posture, because I’d heard that when your chakra is in alignment that you’re much clearer. And, uh, between the environment and, uh, the speed of things and the air and everything, I felt like I was fogged in myself, you know? So I got up this morning, and I packed my bags and I fled up into Canada. And I rented myself a little cabin near the land where my house was under construction. And, uh, I set about knitting myself a warm winter sweater. Basic conservative gray, you understand. No flash. All of the flash was left behind in beacons, just in case, you know. And I was sitting in there one night. I was knitting this thing and feeling kind of guilty that I hadn’t carded and spun the wool myself. And when all of a sudden I heard in the distance the faint sound of applause. Like [makes sounds like applause]. So I stepped outside into the night, faced the moon and took a bow. I didn’t really do that, but what I did was I looked up into the sky and I see this Arbutus tree, you know, with ice all over its leaves and the leaves are banging together that sounds like a whole lot of little hands applauding, you know, so I said ‘Alright!’ So I went back into my cabin and turned on my television set. I felt terribly guilty because I still had electricity. And, uh, I tried to get a rock and roll show which just wasn’t coming in that night, as fate would have it, so I had to resort back to ‘ye old cabin crafts’, and uh, this is a tune that came out of it, uh. The first in a continuing series of rejection of show business tunes.

Joni's introduction to the song later in March 1974:

I come here tonight kind of as the ambassador of the arbutus tree, which you probably all know about out here, but in the south they really don't know. They know about the (??) which is kind of a country cousin. And uh.. (tunes) I grew kind of especially fond of this tree because one night, after I had left Hollywood kind of on the run, you might say, I had a strange run-in with this tree which firmly kind of impressed its existence upon me. I mean, I'd been observing this tree or tress like it for a long time, I just feel like kind of a spokesman for them because they're kind of misunderstood, you know? 'Cuz they're very rebellious and most rebellious creatures come under a lot of criticism and, and misunderstanding. (Tunes)

I had something in Laurel Canyon that was supposed to be an arbutus tree but it just didn't have any of these characteristics and after I got to know about the real thing I didn't really believe in it. Even though the label from the florist said arbutus, I said, "that... that doesn't look like an arbutus tree to me." (Tunes)

One morning, I woke up in Laurel Canyon, I looked at my place and it just seemed... overcrowded with tchotchkes and gadgets and lint catchers and dust catchers and... over-opulent, you know? Because when you first get a little taste of bread, you know... at least I did... I went... I didn't become too bene--you know--beneficial-- I wasn't much of a benefactor. I used to spend a lot of valuable time combing stores. I still like to shop, you know? I often think that if all fails, that my I'll just hire onto one of those big department stores as a buyer, you know? I like to shop better than I like to accumulate. That was like--the acc--the conclusion that I came to. Because suddenly there was, like, all of this stuff you know? And there are a lot of window thieves in Laurel Canyon, you know, and it makes you kind of nervous, you know? Having all that stuff and not wanting to put bars on your window, really. So I decided to give it all up for the first time. Actually that was sort of for the second time. Every once in a while I'd get really crazy about those sort of things: I'd get extremely materialistic for about two years and just buy, buy and adorn myself with jewels and bobs and bangles and then all of a sudden, you know, someone would see me and I'm going through my drab period again.

Well, this was like a... a spiritual drab period and there I was, sitting up in the woods of Canada kitting myself a sweater out of raw wool... grey (cheering) and uh... (tunes) and feeling really kind of guilty because I hadn't (unintelligible) and spun all that wool myself (laughs) (tunes) 'cause I'd decided... You see that the best thing to do... I was alienating my cats you know because I was traveling so much and I'd come back and they would just, you know, be really huffy. You cant do that, you can't break vibes with those creatures you know? So, um, I decided that I was going to really ...try to be more responsible I was going to tend something, you know, a garden of some sort--a row of carrots, or spinach or an artichoke and a terrarium of some sort, you know? And that's how I met this arbutus tree.

I was sitting in this cabin and I was knitting this grey sweater and all of a sudden, outside the window I hear what sounded to me like applause, you know? Like way off in the distance just... all the little hands, you know? I have a wee bit of the Irish in me, I could have really (unintelligible) out on that one but... (tunes) But luckily the Nordic sanity saved me and, uh, I stepped out to kind of investigate, see what's going on. I stepped outside the door and I looked up and what had happened was this arbutus tree was all frosted over and it had big kind of rubber-tree-looking leaves and they were all crusted over with ice and they were all clanking together in the wind... applauding, you know? So, I took a little bow, tried to get as much as I could into the beam of the moon (cheers from crowd) (Joni laughs, tunes) That's a bold-faced lie! (Tunes)

So then after, I started to notice these arbutus trees; I made a study on them. There's a street in Vancouver call Arbutus Street (applause) and they dug up (applause) You know that street? (crowd: "Yeah!") Well, there are no arbutus trees growing on it, right? Because the... they don't like to grow in cultivation. If they are growing there, they aren't really arbutus trees; I swear to God they're that same kind I got in Laurel Canyon! 'Cause the real ones, they just come straight up out of the granite looking up to see, that's about the only place they like to be... at least the healthy ones, the ones that, you know, kind of co-habitate with the young virile branches and the old crackly branches on one side, you know? The enlightened ones, they like to lean out passively out to sea and they celebrate their own seasons, you know? All the leaves turning yellow in the middle of the summer, falling off, coming back on for the winter. (Laughs) (tunes)

Anyway I watched these arbutus trees and then I went back into my cabin in the Northern woods and turned on my television set! (Laughter from crowd) I felt really guilty about it but... I couldn't get anything, the rec was really bad so I had to revert back to cabin crafts and the result was this song which is like the first in a continuing extremist pattern (tunes) of "rejection and re-acceptance of show business" songs.

As archived in Mojo Magazine's March 2019 issue: “That was my first farewell to show business. I was in Canada, and I had decided to quit show business and get away from all the pressures I felt. I put my thoughts into that song: ‘Remember the days when you used to sit/And make up your tunes for love…/And now you’re seen/On giant screens/And at parties for the press/And for people who have slices of you/From the company.’ To me, this was an unfair, crooked business and it has nothing to do with real talent… I was up in Canada for about a year and I guess it strengthened my nervous system a little, so I finally came back.”

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Transcriptions of For The Roses

For The Roses has been recorded by 13 other artists


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