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Didn’t It Feel Good? Print-ready version

Joni Mitchell Unplugged and Unbound

by David Yaffe
August 20, 2023

In the middle of a newsfeed that leaves me yearning for a better world than this one, a miracle emerges from 1973, the year I was born. This fall, Joni Mitchell will be releasing a box set including demos and alternate takes from For the Roses, Court and Spark, and The Hissing of Summer Lawns, the anni mirabiles of 72, 73, 74, 75 ,when every album was a discovery. Didn't it feel good? she asked. Some of these have been safe in the vault until now, although they were never really safe. To encounter them is to encounter ourselves anew. Joni was hatching a masterpiece, but before she even went to the studio, she had to make a guide recording for those guys in the LA Express. "But play you must," wrote Wallace Stevens, "a tune beyond us, yet ourselves." Those are the best kinds of hits. Joni sang every part to every member of the band, the way James Brown sung the parts to his horn section. But before she did that, she needed to just sing and play. Before it could be dressed up, it had to be naked. The world heard the dressed part in 1974, but it would only be ready for the naked version nearly fifty years later. That's as much life as I have lived.

I listened to Court and Spark countless times, before it realized it was research. I heard it lying in bed, alone, with company, on the road and under the gun. The opening chord of the title track was like the first moment of her beloved Debussy's "Claire de lune." Anticipation. Space. Take it in. Anticipate some more. The music was at its most comforting when the lyrics were at their bleakest.

So what are you going to do about it
You can't live life and you can't leave it
Advice and religion, you can't take it
You can't seem to believe it
The peacock is afraid to parade
You're under the thumb of the maid
You really can't give love in this condition
Still you know how you need it

She tells us we are weak and spacey, and we are grateful. I wore out the grooves, unspooled the tape, scratched the disc. I drove a car of the same vintage of Court and Spark, a '74 Lincoln Continental passed down from my late grandfather, and I had Court and Spark on 8 Track, before the entire car was totaled. Streaming appears to be infinite, but you never know. Streaming is a format without ownership, and that fits. Court and Spark is yours, but you can't fully have it. You keep listening, and you can never possess it. It is eros itself. it is the feeling of wanting, but not having. No format could contain it: love and lust and their emotional consequences were inescapable. You would give your heart and your body to the wrong person. "Help Me" knows all about this.

Court and Spark is a meditation on love and alienation in Los Angeles. "Trouble Child," is about how, as Joni told me, "You're on your fucking own." The title track is about seduction, but she really isn't sure. She hasn't made up her mind yet. The thing she won't give up isn't a guy, it's LA itself, "city of the fallen angels." That's where she belonged. After the success of Court and Spark and the tour that followed, she moved from the sweet little Laurel Canyon house she shared with Graham Nash and moved to this sprawling campus of a Spanish style mansion in Bel Air. She still lives there.

It says something about the industry she worked in that Joni, who had three Platinum albums, had only one Top Ten single in her entire career as a recording artist. A couple of months after Nixon's resignation, "Help Me" found its way to #7. She had cover hits for others; that's how she got started, and that is why, when she met John Lennon, he asked her, "Why do you let other people have your hits for you?" She was in the midst of recording Court and Spark when he asked her this. The album itself was the answer. "Help Me" was not an obvious hit single, the way that "The Circle Game" or "Both Sides, Now" or "Woodstock" were for others. I watched New York Times critic Jon Pareles interviewing Joni onstage ten years ago, and he ventured the theory that her early songs were about symmetry, but "Help Me" was wildly asymmetrical. She was never impressed with this sort of thing. The songs came out in whatever shape they were meant to come out. Besides, 1974 was a year for wild asymmetry, even at number one. Look at what made number one that year: Stevie Wonder, "You Haven't Done Nothing," Billy Preston, Nothing From Nothing," this was a year of a lot of nothing. But that meant it was also a year for anything. Time could be in a bottle. You could shoot the sheriff, or you could just be a joker.

Not long after John Lennon's confrontation with Joni, he and Paul Simon were presenting the Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards. "Help Me" was nominated, but lost to Olivia Newton John. Hey, he might have thought, she listened to me. On the demo, you get to hear Joni experiment with "boogie woogie man," before changing to "sweet talking ladies man." And you get to hear her overwhelmed by the whole thing, just repeating the phrase over and over again. Help me, help me, help me. We need to be helped, and what we are crying for for is the thing that will make us need more help later. Didn't it feel good? It could feel worse after. Will it be worth it? If we get to be in the midst of life and live it as if it's real? This is the only life we have. We are still not getting enough help. It repeats at the end like a mantra to Crazytown. She is on the other side of 30. She's in the midst of life. This is her one shot to hit it this hard.

Without the band, it's just her. She's putting it out there. She's even putting her name into it. We are so used to hearing the LA Express, one has to keep going back to take in the intimacy. It took this long for Joni to reveal it. When I first met her, I asked her if she was going to release her archives. She wanted to at the time, and changed her mind a few times until she could finally share this with us.

Help me, I think I'm fallin' in love too fast
It's got me hopin' for the future and worryin' about the past
'Cause I've seen some hot, hot blazes come down to smoke and ash
We love our lovin'
But not like we love our freedom

This was meant to be heard with a band, but this is her secret history. It is the hot blaze, the smoke and ash, and the fire reignited. It is everything you want and everything you might not need. The boogie-woogie man will be the short term solution and the long term problem. "Help Me" is needing help because you want too much. It's going to go down. Hear it raw and hear it for real. Joni is giving us a gift. She keeps repeating her cry for help, like it's a real crisis. Take it in. Then press Play again. Before the whole damn city of angels goes down, taste it again, then taste it some more. This stuff could kill you, and it tastes so fucking good.

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Added to Library on August 23, 2023. (686)


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