Joni Mitchell's Blue: '50 years later people finally got it'
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of her classic 1971 album, Will Hodgkinson describes the agony that inspired it
What makes a masterpiece? Fifty years on, Blue by Joni Mitchell still holds up as the beacon of the era of singer-songwriters, and expression of pure intimacy driven by little more than dulcimer, guitar, piano and Mitchell's high, keening voice. What really makes Blue so special is its creator's willingness to take the most painful, personal aspects of her life and spin them into artistic gold. Mitchell went deep, thereby setting the template for confessional songwriting ever since.
At the time, as she told her friend Cameron Crow in a rare, recent interview, "the most feedback that I got [on Blue's release] was that I had gone too far and was exposing too much of myself." Her male counterparts began wondering if they were going to have to follow suit. "They were afraid," Mitchel, 77, recalled. "Is this contagious? Do we all have to get this honest now?"
In August 1970 Mitchell performed at the Isle of Wight Festival. Having turned up with Neil Young and their manager Elliot Roberts in a Rolls-Royce, she was in the middle of her performance when a man called Yogi Joe invaded the stage and lectured the crowd on the commercialisation of rock, firing them up in the process. Mitchell implored her raucous audience: "You're acting like tourists, man! Give us some respect." They quietened down as she sand a handful of songs that would make it onto Blue the next year, but the hippies had a point. Was this really what songwriting was about, to become famous, make a load of cash and, as she would dream about on River, quit this crazy scene?
While Blue expressed disillusionment with the trappings of success, it also came in the wake of Mitchell's break-up with Graham Nash. A year previously they had been the golden couple of the Laurel Canyon scene. He wrote Our House about their groovy life together. She responded with Blue's My Old Man, a far more trouble love son on which she admits to having the blues when he's gone, but also not feeling ready to commit. "I believed in that relationship and suddenly it was over," Mitchel said. "I also lost most of my Los Angeles friends. When I left him, they took his side."
Mitchel escaped to Greece, and in early 1970 she was in the fishing village of Matala in Crete when she heard an explosion. She turned round to witness a man being blown out of the doors of a restaurant after the stove he had been lighting exploded. So began her brief affair with Cary Raditz, immortalised on Blue's Carey in the line: "You're old and mean old daddy but I like you." Raditz was a try hippy, living in a cave on the coast and refusing to be impressed by the presence of a celebrity in his midst.
Mitchell wrote about their primitive life together on Carey, including her confession that she did actually quite like clean white linen, fancy French cologne and other aspects of bourgeois life. "Cary watched all his friends go kind of gaga over me," Mitchell told Crowe. "He resented me for that. He was trying to put me in my place in front of his friends.
One way or the another, these experiences fleshed out in Blue. Mitchell really was sitting in a park in Paris reading about the Vietnam War in a newspaper and concluding that peace was just a dream some of them had, when she began to tire of Europe's old, cold ways and longed for the freshness and optimism of LA, as recounted on California. On The Last Time I Saw Richard she paints a scene of being in a bar at closing time with a folk singer friend called Patrick Sky, who warned Mitchell that hopeless romantics like her end up as cynical drunks. It was rare for singer-songwriters of the time to write so directly from life without hiding behind metaphor.
Back in her native Canada for a Toronto festival, in July 1970 Mitchell hooked up with James Taylor, for whom she wrote All I Want, a beautifully simple expression of not needing anything when you're with the right (or, in this case, wrong) person. "I want to wreck my stockings in some jukebox dive," she confessed. Taylor took Mitchell back to his parents' house in North Carolina for Christmas, where beside the fireplace she sang A Case of You, one of the cleverest love songs written. "I could drink a case of you, darling, and I would still be on my feet," sounds like a challenge as much as a declaration of passion. It has been speculated that Mitchell wrote River about that time, but River is about feeling lonely at Christmas. Perhaps Mitchell was drawing on her feelings for Nash, even as she spent Christmas with Taylor.
Mitchell once compared her state of self during the making of Blue to "a cellophane wrapper on a packet of cigarettes," although it is only in hindsight that we know just how much she was giving away. At the time Rolling Stone magazine's Timothy Crosse concluded that the cryptic words of Little Green were "so poetic that it passeth all understanding." When the daughter she gave up for adoption in 1965 surfaced in the late 1990s, the real meaning of lines like "a child with a child pretending," a reference to Mitchell being so young and unprepared for motherhood when she became pregnant was revealed.
Counter to the spirit of a time when stars would drop in on each other's sessions - and with Carole King recording the equally influential album Tapestry down the hall - Mitchell made Blue with the door of her room at LA's A&M Studios locked. Taylor contributed some guitar parts shortly before their relationship petered out. "James was a walking psychological disaster anyways," Mitchell said of their lack of suitability.
After the album was made Mitchell retreated to a cabin in Canada and didn't play live for a year, but in the process of exposing herself so entirely she helped an entire generation to deal with their own emotional realities. With its cover photo of Mitchell bathed in a blue light, harsh but tragic, Blue was her unguarded triumph. She concluded in her interview with Crowe, expressing amazement that Blue still means so much to people: "Truth and beauty. That's what I hope to deliver." And in a rare video post this week she added: "Fifty years later people finally get it. That pleases me."
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Added to Library on July 25, 2021. (257)
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