As I age I find myself revisiting some of the places, books and music that shaped me. It's not an exercise in nostalgia, but rather, a process of examining those fixtures that have dwelt on the shelves of my memory for so long that I've stopped seeing them.
I wipe off the dust and hold them to the light - "The Grapes of Wrath," "Ragtime," "The Bluest Eye," Aretha's 1967 album, "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You" - to see what still resonates.
Sometimes a once-beloved work feels like a relic, like a junior high yearbook autographed with the names of people I no longer remember. Other times, I find myself understanding and appreciating it in new ways.
That's the case with Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You."
When Diana Krall sings it live in Paris, she takes six-and-a-half-minutes. Slow and ruminative, in her hands and husky voice, the song is a sort of memory play, where the singer seems to float in the past, then jolt back to the present, to directly, intimately address her "darling."
James Blake's version takes just under three minutes. He sings as if he is perched on a bar stool, clinging to the counter to stay upright, fragile and frantic, speeding through a desperately lucid account of what happened just before "love got lost."
The Staves, captured in a hallway while warming up their voices, perform it a cappella. "If you want me I'll be in the bar," they sing in a three-part harmony that transforms the lyric's tossed off annoyance, into a line of gorgeous complexity.
And now, nearly 50 years after it was released on "Blue," one of the best singer/songwriter albums of all time, I can still confidently assert that "A Case of You" is one of the best love songs ever written. The quantitative evidence of that can be found in the fact that there are over 300 known cover versions of it; 300 artists who found something in its distinctive melody or conversational lyrics that they felt they could make their own.
But it's not the number of versions that makes this song so enduring. It speaks to each new generation of singers because of the feeling it evoked in me, even when I was a moony teenager, driven by inchoate longings, knowing that there were insights still well beyond my reach. This is a love song by and about grown-ups.
It begins with a spat:
Just before our love got lost you said
I am as constant as a northern star and I said,
Constantly in the darkness
Where's that at?
If you want me I'll be in the bar
But as she sits doodling on a cartoon coaster, the song quickly evolves into a sorrowful consideration of a love that is deep, true and insufficient.
There's no giddiness here. Unlike practically every pop song that came before it, in this one, love is not an intoxicant. Quite the opposite, in fact:
I could drink a case of you darling and I would
Still be on my feet
Oh I would still be on my feet
Some understand those lines to say that she can't get too much of her lover (variously speculated to be Graham Nash or Leonard Cohen). But what I hear all these years later - and the interpretation I prefer - is that with the clarity generated by time and age, she can drink him in, savor him and still be sober enough to clearly see him.
Then the song briefly brings in a third character - her lover's mother, perhaps, or sister, a woman:
I met a woman
She had a mouth like yours, she knew your life
She knew your devils and your deeds and she said
"Go to him
stay with him if you can
But be prepared to bleed"
She speaks with knowledge borne of time, offering counsel that is nuanced and wise. Has any love song, before or since, quoted a prospective in-law? No, that's only something that a songwriter concerned with truth would dare to do.
Joni's rendition of the song changed; it seemed to mature as she did. Listen to this live version, performed when she was 40, over a decade after "Blue" was released, and you hear not just a voice made huskier and sexier from 12 more years of smoking, but an even greater confidence to alter the rhythm and infuse the melody with the jazz colors that had been infusing her musical palate.
The only version I love as much as that one, of course, is Prince's. Leave it to him to evoke holy wine coursing through the blood, to marry sexy to sacred, and find ecstasy in what started out as a hammer dulcimered folk song. He sings in a delicate falsetto skimming over gospel piano chords, occasionally dropping to a lower register. And then, with a fearless restlessness, he segues into a pure funk riff to close out the song, bounding off to a new adventure. I have to believe that Joni loved it.
I've been asking myself why I'm writing about this song now. I think the answer is disarmingly slight. After more than 40 years of marriage, I think I've learned its truth. Good, complex, enduring love makes you insatiable but sturdy.
I've learned that from my husband more than from "A Case of You." But Mitchell's songs remain my lifelong companions, my provocations, my speed bumps, my streetlights. Without knowing it, Joni, "part of you pours out of me in these lines from time to time."
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