#30: Joni Mitchell, "Blue" (1971)

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Joni Mitchell Wants to Shampoo Me

This is true of everything: already I am having trouble not making it about you, which means I am having trouble not making it about me. So I will make it about me. Like this: Wikipedia says Joni Mitchell’s fourth album explores “various facets of relationships” such as “infatuation” and “insecurity.” When it comes to my own blind certainty that turning yourself into a troubled monument to love for art can add something to the world, I am infatuated and insecure. And then there are those actual people we may never stop rearranging ourselves for, regardless of art. Though art helps. Who approaches music with a healthy sense of boundaries? Borderless, I boomerang back to Blue again and again like James Taylor broke my heart. Like it is itself a lover I can’t help insisting is worth the hurt to return to. Like a woman on the wrong plane home, this paragraph is already looking over its shoulder. It regrets its involvement with Wikipedia and the word “lover.” It is already, even, a little bit in love with its regret.

*

Before I’d ever listened to Joni Mitchell I knew my mother couldn’t stand her. She said she’d had a depressed, heartbroken roommate in college who would keep their shared room dark and listen to Joni Mitchell records under the covers and cry. I first hear Joni Mitchell in the seventh grade in a friend’s basement. She’s the kind of friend who keeps me around because she’s cooler than me. We listen to Ladies of the Canyon on her parents’ record player and I ask her to put on “Big Yellow Taxi” so many times I should probably be embarrassed. If I’d known how to be embarrassed I would’ve been as cool as my friend. She, my friend, is so blonde and unfazed. It is in this basement that I first understand that appearing unfazed is a source of cool, and that I will never be cool. I am hopelessly fazed. When I hear it for the first time a few years later, I determine my mother’s college roommate must have been listening to Blue.

*

At #30 in the definitive Rolling Stone list, Blue is by the same limited standard also the #1 greatest album by a woman, in that it’s the highest-ranking album by a female artist. The remaining 29 albums—apart from Fleetwood Mac’s #25 album Rumors, which is arguably powerfully female—are unsurprisingly male. I am not making a point about testosterone in the canon. This is just the way things were, and are. I was raised to expect greatness from men, and everything from love. I’m conflicted about one, and though perhaps I should be conflicted about the other, I can’t bring myself to grow away from it. I am conflicted about referring to Joni Mitchell here as “Joni.” I don’t know her, though her music and the way it is often discussed in terms of her relationships with the men who played on her records are both well known to me.

*

It’s 2019 and I’m in San Francisco because I’ve written a book that I hope is about more than “just” “love” and I’m traveling from city to city to read it at people. Sitting at a friend’s writing desk while she’s at work, I open an email to Brad Efford. I write: So I bit off more than I could chew, thinking I might write this Joni piece while on the road, and I’m already wondering if there’s some wiggle room on the due date. Classic Laura Eve! Then, later: I’ll actually be in LA next week, and were I to turn something in after that, I’d make a pilgrimage to some Joni places and see if I couldn’t weave that into the essay. When I leave my friend’s apartment I walk the hilly streets singing “All I Want” and “California” to myself the way I sometimes practice singing on the street in Manhattan, which I do because no one is ever listening and I don’t have a car I can sing in. I practice hitting the high notes in the open air, celebrate my enthusiastically on-the-nose song selection. Forever fazed. It smells like jasmine and basil and because you’re not here you’re everywhere.

*

In 1970, Joni Mitchell played a concert that the BBC videotaped and broadcast and now you can watch it online. I watch it for the first time, and then repeatedly, in the winter of 2014, in the middle of a long residency in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Provincetown, Massachusetts, is basically the edge of the world, if America is the world, and for me it more or less is. Socked in at the tip of Cape Cod in February, I am the opposite of California. Or, and maybe this is why I keep watching, it doesn’t matter where I am. Maybe love makes a person stateless, your loyalty is only to the act of longing. In my borrowed and temporary apartment, writing a book I’m hoping will be about more than “just” “love,” I deposit my full attention into this same 30-minute performance over and over until I’m obliterated, wondering what exactly it is inside me that is fed only when it is given, and giving, everything. Oh I love you when I forget about me.

*

During my first year of college at a big, lonely state school in the Shenandoah valley, a homemade flyer posted up around the English building advertises the first meeting of something called Classic Rock Club. One version of the flyer—there are several versions—features a grainy photo of Blue. I’m seventeen and I’ve never had an old man, never been on anything I could call a lonely road. I’ve never seen Richard for the last time, or been in love or heartbroken anywhere west of Indiana. Still, I follow myself to a stranger’s apartment out of a sense that I might find something meaningful among other people who, when it comes to music, would rather be fazed than cool. For a time, the man who put up the flyers and I try to be in love, though we don’t hurt each other in the good ways enough to make it count. We return easily to what we’re better at, which is caring a whole lot about music while we wait for the people we will hopefully one day care about as much as we care about music. Even out of love, I’m in love with the idea of vaulting myself into my future, which at seventeen I’m hopeful will look something like Laurel Canyon, which might as well be Mars, and Mars will be full enough of desire and ache that being fazed will emerge suddenly as the only rational response.

*

That same Provincetown winter, I watch a YouTube video in which Jian Ghomeshi interviews Joni Mitchell for CBC Music. The interview took place in 2013, although everything that takes place on YouTube takes place outside of time. I watch this interview repeatedly, as if it might tell me something about what really matters to a person of substance about the love subject, or how best to turn myself into a signal tower that broadcasts you you you into the universe. How a person may enter the wild and unknown heart and return with a message worth sharing. What does such a person look like? What do they eat? Joni Mitchell wears a delicate emerald tunic and chainsmokes while she talks.

*

When I think of myself as I am in language, as in here, in this essay, I am always apart. The mind alone in the world. I am the opposite of relationships. Each sentence is another in which I resist a level of description that might make the literal circumstances of my heart plain. No one will accuse me of being brave, but at least I’ve learned to be embarrassed by particulars. Who do I wanna shampoo? You. It’s how loss operates as commitment, how a person becomes a signal tower: you go on generally beeping. Do you see do you see do you see how you hurt me, baby. Tonight I am the mind alone in the world listening to “This Flight Tonight” without thinking of James Taylor.

*

This is the setlist for the 1970 BBC concert, the year before Blue was recorded and released:

“Chelsea Morning”
“Cactus Tree”
“My Old Man”
“For Free”
“California”
“Big Yellow Taxi”
“Both Sides Now”

When I watch the video I try to imagine what it feels like to be Joni Mitchell playing “My Old Man” and “For Free” and “California” in 1970. What it’s like to be able to give something to someone that they can only get from you. In 1970, these songs belong entirely and only to one body. They can’t be found anywhere except by finding Joni Mitchell in the room with you. When the same can be said of love, that it is a function of finding someone in the room with you, you are in it. A record is an object that can be experienced anywhere. This too is about love, a real and ongoing kind. I don’t know where you are. And yet I am accompanied by you wherever I go.

*

All day I’ve been playing “This Flight Tonight” on guitar, the rhythmic thrill of it, instead of writing this, because I can’t put the feeling of so many different parts of a body working against and in coordination with one another at once into language, though that is what I want to put into language. Like sex, maybe. Though this isn’t about that. Me, again: I’ve played guitar for over half my life. When you accompany yourself on guitar, you learn first to isolate each hand from the other, to isolate the voice from both hands, before you learn to fit them back together. The thumb bass ostinato acting as a series of cogs that catch the movement of melody in the top notes and voice to form a pair of gears, an interdependent system that relies on the independence of its parts and resonates outward. A machine, or love. Unlike almost anything else, when playing guitar it can be good if the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, and keeps doing its thing just the same. Of her guitar playing, Joni Mitchell said, I can tell you I had a good right hand.

*

Articles covering Blue’s release in 1971 contained the following headlines: “Joni Mitchell at a Crossroads,” “Joni’s New Album A Personal Statement,” “Joni Mitchell Sings Her Blues,” “How True Is Blue?”, “Singing-Songwriters: 1971 Is a Woman’s World.” Four decades later, writing for The Atlantic, Jack Hamilton calls Blue the “Greatest Relationship Album Ever.” Undeterred by understatement, Hamilton writes, This repeated inability to stop hurling ourselves toward certain and familiar pain might be evidence of deep-species insanity, but it has also inspired some pretty great art.

*

Making my way down the coast toward Los Angeles, I wonder what it would be like to find myself in a room with Joni Mitchell. I research The Troubadour, where she made her LA debut. I look at pictures of her house in Laurel Canyon. I fall in love with the idea of myself making a pilgrimage to these places. In the idea, I have cleanly defined borders. I am healthy and strong and walking along a golden road in what I imagine Laurel Canyon must be, a rutted bowl filled with light. To anyone who sees me, I am saturated with particulars. I appear full of interesting combinations of words.

*

When I first began listening to Blue I often skipped “Blue.” It frightened me in a way I couldn’t quite look at. I attributed it to the idiosyncrasy of the melody, the intensity of her vibrato. I don’t know if this is what my mother felt when her dorm room filled with weeping. Divorced from context, all behavior seems unreasonable; we turn to the details of circumstance for understanding, which is a comfort. I don’t know if, when I turn to that song now, I am any more able to identify what about it makes me feel almost uncomfortably animal, unless it’s that it holds a mirror up to my animal. Sophisticated animal, capable of infrastructure and government and language and deep degrees of uncool. Capable of holding a mirror up to your animal and saying, love. Behold the awesome power and abject ridiculousness of this animal on its knees and there it is: you. Meaning, me.

*

In the recording of the 1970 BBC concert, before she plays “California,” she says, This is called a dulcimer. A Canadian applying an Appalachian instrument to a song about the American west—something must have given her access to everything. Love, born as it is out of particulars, begins to imbue all particulars with the same meaning. Or else it obliterates or transcends them, levels the disparate and vast world into something that can be held, that fits in you and that you fit inside of. The entire animal, yours to sing to sleep or give away. When Kris Kristofferson heard Blue—or maybe “Blue”—it’s widely rumored he exclaimed, Jesus, Joni, keep something of yourself! Is it as simple as saying that Blue is the best way any of this can go? Here’s what I have kept: I want to visit Joni Mitchell’s house so I can miss you in Joni Mitchell’s house, despite how—and because—this will make Joni Mitchell’s house no different from anywhere else I’ve ever been. Which might somehow make it mine enough to give to you.

*

I’ll give you this, for real: I don’t make it to Laurel Canyon. The details that explain my lack of follow through will not make it onto the page. I remain less brave than Joni, a mind alone. Before I don’t make it to Laurel Canyon, I drive through Big Sur for the first time. What’s most surprising about it, I realize the moment I see so much greenness and all those thick trees, is that it isn’t a glowing golden orb floating above the surface of the water. I’ve always, I guess, pictured Big Sur as a glowing golden orb floating above the surface of the water. Capable of seeking out the actual particulars, I couldn’t say why I ignored them. Without, or in spite of, the far-from-me fact of Big Sur, something else made up my mind. Something stateless, maybe. But can you imagine?

—Laura Eve Engel