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Down To You: Joni Mitchell’s Court And Spark At 50 Print-ready version

by Matthew Lindsay
The Quietus
January 17, 2024

Joni Mitchell's sixth album was a change of gear, coming deep from within the ME decade, its romantic entanglements dissolving to reveal a deeper search within but far from being solipsistic Mitchell's rumination strikes a universal chord, says Matthew Lindsay

In a beauty school in Saskatoon, Canada, at the dawn of the sixties, Roberta Joan Anderson prepares for the "call of the wild", the weekend's rock & roll dance. As her hair is sculpted into a sparkling beehive, the 16 year old eyeballs the glamour academy's' reading material - movie magazines whose covers show starlets mid-break up, cameras mercilessly flashing as the mascara runs. Horrified she composes a poem for class, reimagining Hollywood as a fishbowl, a "world reversed", where the catch is lured in by "gilded bait" from the inside, onlookers staring through distorted glass with misplaced envy. By September 1973, her knack for extended metaphor remains intact, but now, under a reconfigured name, she's the subject of lurid magazine scrutiny herself. Movie Stars reports on "The Strange Story Behind The Warren Beatty-Joni Mitchell Romance" describing her as a "folksinger, a poet and painter who lives among flower pots, antique music boxes and chirping birds in rustic Laurel Canyon".

But Mitchell doesn't spend too much time in the redwood cottage on Lookout Mountain Avenue anymore, with its Tiffany stained glass windows, its castle-like doors and grandfather clock too old to repair. Her dulcimer no longer rings out as the scent from eucalyptus trees hangs heavy in the night. She's staying with David Geffen in Bel Air with its movie star palaces, golden sunlight streaking through tall trees, glinting off swimming pools. Her singer-songwriter soul-searching now exists in another world too; jazz-inflected, delicately orchestrated and cinematic, augmented by top-shelf players. The following year as Court And Spark flies off record shelves, sound-tracking lives from car radios, at glitzy parties and in lonely bedrooms, Mitchell tells her friend, the writer Malka Morom in Canadian magazine, Maclean's: "I always had star eyes, I think, always interested in glamour."

Released in June 1971, Blue set a new standard for singer-songwriters, with ten compositions whose raw, diaristic honesty belied their artful construction. Saturated in the cover's deep indigo, Joni Mitchell was delivering tales of love, of giving children up for adoption, of trips to the Matala caves and festive sorrow directly to you, late at night, from "some dark café" or apartment, sequestered in Hollywood's A&M studios. Striking at the nerve of who she was, she also reached down into the listener's soul. Blue was more than an album, it was a friend.

In the US, Blue hit 15; in the UK it fared even better, sailing to no.3, improving on Ladies Of The Canyon reaching no.8. The candour had come at a cost. She felt exposed writing the album, barely able to see anyone while recording it. Earlier in 1971, February's Rolling Stone dubbed her "old lady of the year", with a diagram of past lovers, the misogyny drawing lines to James Taylor, Graham Nash and David Crosby. She fled LA for British Columbia' s coast, to a monastery of solitude with stone floors and hardwood benches, without mirrors or electricity. Communing with nature, she read voraciously, working her way through a list Leonard Cohen had given her, hurling self-help manuals at the wall, staring into the Pacific Ocean with a blue heron for company.

She composed For The Roses, even "more bare-bones" than its predecessor, but fortified with a master's rigour, a complex web of philosophical inquiry, cool observation, full of poetic and emotional nuances (NYT noted Blue's shift from folk towards "art songs"). The title track lamented fame while her imagination twisted nature itself into the things that would soon lure her back to LA: moonlight on water making a spotlight and trees in the wind "sounding like applause". Self-mockery undercut haunting beauty, subtly alluding to Nietzsche's assertion that vain "poets think nature herself is in love with them". Elsewhere, romance competed with a fierce, world-weary independence. On closer, 'Judgement Of The Moon And Stars (Ludwig's Tune)', she followed Beethoven's lonely path, ending with a prayer to heroic creation against the odds, with ambition and pure emotion entwined: "Strike every chord that you feel". Autobiography bled into the portrait.

Melody Maker's Richard Williams praised For The Roses for "total command of poetic device". The musical palette was broader too, with Tom Scott's woodwinds and reeds adding layers of classical and jazz, the pair forging a creative bond during the A&M sessions. Amid all the deep digging, single 'You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio', was a cute and clever hit-seeker, a concession to friend and new Asylum label boss, David Geffen. Released in November 1972, For The Roses was her highest charting US record yet, peaking at 12.

Fortunes rose, scenes shifted. Mitchell moved into Geffen's Bel Air home, accompanying him to The Roxy - the new club on Sunset Boulevard he co-founded - whose VIP room exclusivity contrasted with folksy singer-songwriter HQ, Doug Weston's Troubadour. Mitchell rubbed shoulders with New Hollywood, briefly dating Warren Beatty, making friends with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. Glamour veiled atomisation. Post-Woodstock, the hippy dream was in crisis. Progressive political hopes were dashed with 1972's George McGovern electoral loss to incumbent Nixon. Mitchell told Marom, that this was "an especially lonely time" with nothing feeling likely to last; LA's liberated luxury was morally adrift and quietly guilt-ridden. She began seeing a therapist, telling Marom, "I wanted to talk to someone about confusion which we all have." New songs explored the struggle between love and freedom, set against a decadent backdrop, another illusion for her sharp-eyed and warm-hearted compositions to see through.

They required more expansive musical settings. Tom Scott, who would also play on Carole King's wonderfu. single 'Jazzman', told Mojo that the self-taught Mitchell was "intuitively sophisticated". Since childhood, she'd favoured unorthodoxy, singing descant in the choir, playing her hurdy-gurdy backwards. Favouring open tunings, she produced what David Crosby called "weird chords" or as she says "chords of inquiry" ripped from her inner core. Rock players couldn't follow them. Seeing Scott's band The L.A. Express at jazz club The Baked Potato, in Studio City, was an epiphany.

They were an illustrious cast, steeped in jazz and funky R&B, with a variety of individual CVs. Drummer John Geurin had played with two notable Franks (Sinatra and Zappa) plus Thelonious Monk. Also appearing on Hot Rats was bassist Max Bennett, who had also made Peggy Lee's 'Fever' sizzle. Keyboardist Joe Sample and guitarist Larry Carlton were also part of fusion veterans The Crusaders, while the latter also played with Steely Dan. Impressed, she invited them to A&M for sessions that were a major development.

But Mitchell had long been a jazz fan calling the form "black classical music", and her singing had grown increasingly soulful; Blue naturally elicited memories of both Otis Blue and A Kind Of Blue. Mitchell had already inspired Stevie Wonder, in turn she marvelled at the Moog bass-heavy bottom end on Innervisions and Fulfillingness' First Finale's funky futurism and she attended a Wonder session with co-pilot/engineer Henry Lewy. Another signpost was Marvin Gaye's 1972's blaxploitation soundtrack, Trouble Man, especially the brooding, atmospheric approaching storm of the title track. Already stunning as demos, her songs were then fleshed out with The L.A. Express. These "dyed in the wool be-boppers", Mitchell claimed, needed direction to accommodate both the vocals and the deep sensitivity. 'Trouble Child' was redone, as she felt the scorching original was "stamping on someone's suffering".

The recording of Court And Spark was surprisingly sociable. Mitchell began dating Guerin. John Lennon, mid-'lost weekend', visited from another A&M studio, where he was making Rock 'n' Roll and one of his guitarists, José Feliciano stayed long enough to overdub extra guitar on 'Free Man In Paris'. Graham Nash, David Crosby and (Jimmy's sister) Susan Webb supplied backing vocals. Hip, stoner duo Cheech and Chong made a cameo on 'Twisted'. She even had a pass at recording 'Raised On Robbery' with Neil Young's band the Santa Monica Flyers, though this sloppy fun was scrapped for a glossier redo featuring The Band's Robbie Robertson.

Top-drawer, live playing met widescreen ambition. Mitchell worked closely with Scott on the woodwind, horn and string parts, his technical expertise complimenting her already "orchestral" musical imagination. Layers of voices were stacked, her vocal agility enriched with a deeper register, thickened by chain-smoking. Aided by Lewy, she mixed each track painstakingly and it is no wonder Court And Spark is a Trevor Horn favourite. "She painted those mixes stroke by stroke", assistant engineer Ellis Sorkin would later say.

The immaculate surface and bottomless depths of the album were constructed in a 1973 that was hurtling towards chaos. Since May, the televised Watergate hearings had transfixed America as Nixon's lies unravelled, an energy crisis loomed and Vietnam raged on. December brought Court And Spark's first 45, 'Raised On Robbery'. This was the joyous spirit of rock & roll with a modern sheen; Mitchell's tight harmonies recalling the 'family blend' vintage vocals of the McGuire sisters or Everly Brothers, with a touch of Wonder via Joe Sample's clavinet. Set in Canada, the song flashed back to teenage rebellion; she told Cameron Crowe, "I love to dance, I'm a rowdy, I'm a good timer." But she was in character, with cooking metaphors barely veiling the persona of a dynamic, fast-talking sex worker. Mitchell had returned, as friend Eric Andersen put it, "a red hot mama with a band". It was also a slightly deceptive trailer for the album that arrived on 17 January in a cream sleeve as delicate as a gift card, featuring Mitchell's watercolour 'The Mountain Loves The Sea'. More than a collection of songs, it had the sweep of a continuous narrative, a musical movie.

Opening with the title track, it establishes tensions under a beautiful, polished concision; Mitchell wooed by a madman-prophet she rejects for LA, the start-stop band echoing the mix of seduction and scepticism. Disquiet undercuts romance as majestic jazz keys are joined by haunting folk acoustics and a pedal steel like a phantom train. The song's suitor speaks Mitchell's language but isn't quite there, with eyes "the colour of the sand and sea", a ghostly composite of lovers. She later refuted future husband Larry Klein's claim it was about a deranged fan. The alluring eeriness swells to a crescendo, a sense of LA's lethal grip on personal ambition posing as much a threat as deranged suitors. Mitchell's city of fallen angles was after all - like 'Hotel California' - a place you could never leave.'

'Help Me', Mitchell's biggest US hit, was part sweet giddiness, part SOS about falling too deep, too fast, again. Sparkling jazz-pop evokes the high-life 1970s of shag pile carpets, home cocktail bars and top-tier stereos in plush cabinets. But the punch-drunk spin was also mirrored by the habitual loop of love addiction, "hot blaze" becoming "smoke and ash". Even as her voice soared heavenward in feel-good ecstasy she remained a laureate of those fretfully falling. 'Help Me's self-aware, "We love our loving, but not like we love our freedom" was the romantic, liberated and flaky 1970s California caught in a couplet.

'Free Man In Paris' was more role-playing, this time as David Geffen, prompted by their joint trip, with Robbie Robertson to the French capital. The star-machine stoker turns Champs-Elysees stroller, flute fanfares, like city lights guiding him "from café to cabaret". Mitchell was sympathetic, escape being central to her songs: "quitting crazy scenes" on 'River' and fleeing the corporate grind on 'The Arrangement'. 'Free Man In Paris' compresses a short story - maybe Fitzgerald meets Sinclair Lewis - into the economy of pop, with overtones that are both folky and delicately jazzy. As a tale of an influential American seeking refuge in the Old World, it nails Geffen as artist caretaker and ruthless businessman. But he felt exposed. Many speculated "that very good friend of mine" alluded to his then still-closeted homosexuality. There'd be more songs about Geffen including 'lost' classic 'Love Or Money' as well as poignant story-songs about gay men including 1991's 'Two Grey Rooms'.

On 'People's Parties', Mitchell scans a gathering of LA's beautiful and broken like a camera, zooming in on various characters in the masquerade such as "stone cold Grace" and the "photo beauty". She pulls sharp focus on herself, both misfit and fellow freak in this show. The self-awareness brings more compassion than contempt: compare "cry for us all, Beauty" to the satire of Steely Dan's 'Showbiz Kids' or the vitriol of Neil Young's 'Revolution Blues'. As the languid, strummed luxury intensifies, an angelic-sounding Mitchell is summoned to make comedy of this tragic scene, one apparently culled from real-life experience. Anjelica Huston's memoirs claimed Photo Beauty was model Apollonia van Ravenstein, and that Joker Jack was her then boyfriend Jack Nicholson. Likewise, Warren Beatty was rumoured to be 'The Same Situation's subject, but as with Carly Simon's 'You're So Vain', even if it was the case, he's just one fragment. It's a meditation on an impossible age, masquerading as a piano-led ballad, caught between ambition and an unwavering need for love. But love itself is lost in a "room full of mirrors", unreal in its ever-changing reflective surfaces, with its power games, superficial desires and narcissism. Another conundrum is posed: "With Heaven full of astronauts/ And the Lord on death row"; nodding once again to Nietzsche, it is philosophically dense with both expanding possibilities and moral uncertainty. Mitchell found religious orthodoxy an insufficient guide to complicated times, yet for all the rush of knowledge and shattered illusions of the day, love and God are summoned in that climactic deep soul prayer that begs, "Send me somebody". Strings rise in sympathy to pierce through that heavy thought. Part existential mystery, part romance, the song is lushly orchestrated, slightly spooky, redolent of the work of Columbo-composer Billy Goldenberg. Like the decade experienced by that other chain-smoking, shape-shifting musician and painter David Bowie, Mitchell's 1970s were a search for meaning in a world without certainties or absolutes.

Second-side opener 'Car On A Hill' dramatises LA's superficial calm, portraying unstable relationships scattered in the sprawl, with Mitchell patiently waiting for her "sugar", who is now three hours late. Cool cat jazz, slick grooves and hip horns can't smooth tension summoned by those sirens. After the first chorus, fraught emotions spill out into a wordless Greek chorus of multi-tracked Joni Mitchells, intuition rising like nerves on fire, then falling like sobering insight. Spectral fretwork and woodwind also turn this freeway cruiser into heavily orchestrated LA noir. The groove kicks back in with tire-screaming urgency, that car no longer carries love's spark, it's a lonely vessel struggling uphill.

'Down To You' is Court And Spark's cornerstone and one of the great songs of the 1970s. There's a Buddhist view of transience comparing new lovers with new fashions, both being an ever-changing succession of veils that cover a core of loneliness. Fleeting encounters in "pick up stations" are mere fig leaves to an emptiness that returns once the encounter is over and day breaks, bringing with it further needling reminders, via the sight of happy lovers and indifferent friends. There's no judgement here and life lessons come in a state of grace, from its easeful rhymes to its dazzling orchestral interlude with Mitchell's headstrong piano working through Scott's panorama of woodwind, horns and strings. The narrative stretches from city to city, from lover to lover, from season to season, with sorrow rising to a worldly-wise sense of acceptance. Scott and Mitchell scooped a Grammy for this eye-watering showstopper. The song struck at universal truths about being alone, taking responsibility and gaining control in an unstable world. It had a special resonance for women navigating the 1970s but also struck a deep, private chord with gay men too; away from the "pick-up stations" on The Castro and Christopher Street, this was a manual for lives with few official guides, while romantically reflecting the love that cruising suppressed.

Ever the realist, Mitchell follows this heart-shattering revelation with 'Just Like This Train's resignation, a detour via locomotive with German wine for company. Trains had already inspired Mitchell's earliest compositions such as 'Day By Day' and 'Urge For Going' but here the "clickety-clack" offers no relief. Scott's horns comically taunt while the backing vocalists fret about future romance. Predictive of the sublime Hejira's wanderlust, it's rich with observational detail such as the station waiting room coming to cinematic life. There is also cutting humour with an indirect rejoinder to Leonard Cohen's 'Master Song', matching "your thighs are a ruin" by gleefully anticipating a "vain darling's receding hairline".

On 'Trouble Child', Court And Spark's romantic entanglements wash away, that "river of changing faces" leading only to a deep look inward, or possibly a mental health crisis. A shattered soul struggles in an atomised world, needing love but incapable of it, crumbling with options, bordering on suicide. It's warm with understanding about hard-knocks and alienation, but unvarnished with honesty; the subject hard to reach, dazzled by valueless dragons. There's a poetic duality in "breaking like the waves at Malibu" symbolising broken souls and fleeting trouble, imagery recalling Blue's wave-wading survivor. Sad-eyed yet stoic, cool brass blows through the melancholy, ending in jazz-tingling, sun-soaked radiance, ambiguous like the New Hollywood movies of the day, sounding like Neil Young at Santa Monica facing the ocean and the uncertainty of the 1970s for On The Beach, also released that year. If 'Trouble Child' is the final scene, 'Twisted' makes up the rolling credits - Mitchell herself called it an encore. Many felt the psychoanalytical comedy was an unwelcome coda. Chuck Findley's trumpet sounds like it is thumbing its nose, urging the preceding heavy company to lighten up. Mitchell plays it straighter though than Bette Midler's 1973 reading, striking a semi-serious note about self-acceptance, embracing the kook within. And that two-headed punchline comically addresses Court And Spark's central dilemma, torn between love and freedom.

Court and Spark received rave reviews in both Rolling Stone and NYT, who hailed Mitchell as the "premier explorer" of "not love songs but songs about love". By March it was at no.2 in the US, going double platinum. November's Miles Of Aisles live album hit the same peak and a Time cover that month sealed her cultural impact. Inside, Linda Ronstadt noted how Mitchell could match any male musician, while Miles of Aisles' inner gatefold depicted her, as Nash puts it "as one of the boys" with her band. In a UK in thrall to glam, prog and oldies it hit a surprisingly low 14, coming in at a mere 18 in NME's end of year list, a rare female entry in male-dominated list.

As the 1970s progressed, Mitchell grew tougher still and soon her starry-eyed canyon dweller was gone, replaced by the steely hero of Hejira cover art; impossibly cool in cape and beret, obligatory Marlboro clasped in hand, the open road blowing through her. She would follow her muse, not formulas, alienating a fickle public and cloth-eared critics alike, producing Hissing Of Summer Lawns and Hejira which are now considered masterpieces, and others still overdue reappraisal such as Don Juan and Mingus. But the hard won wisdom of Court And Spark which navigates love, freedom and loneliness still resonates clearly today, the "river of changing faces" now a social media platform, that "pick up station" now an app. The NYT review noted how Mitchell "can turn her experiences into truths that touch everyone". The singer of these 11 songs is an 'I' that's not 'me' but 'us'.

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Added to Library on January 18, 2024. (797)


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