Clifford Chase is the author of "The Hurry-Up Song: A Memoir of Losing My Brother," published in 1995 by HarperSanFrancisco. His work has also appeared in Yale Review, Threepenny Review, Boulevard and other journals, as well as in anthologies including Men On Men 5, A Member of the Family and Sister and Brother. His work on a book of memoirs about adolescence began with the following essay.
Joni in the desert
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who find Joni Mitchell depressing, and those who, already depressed, find her comforting.
My brother and I looked up from the breakfast table: a commotion in the bedrooms. My mother and my sister Janet, their voices running higher scales than usual, whining and sharp. "I can't use that shower, Mother!"..."I don't see what--" "I can't!" Footsteps, my mother's bedroom door slamming shut.
They were arguing about the soft water again.
I put down my Christmas stocking and shuffled in socks past the living room, halfway down the hall to my mother's thin, dark-wood door, listening. Further down the hall, by the doorway of the extra bedroom, my father and my other sister, Carol, were speaking in low tones to Janet. She had a white towel around her tiny body, a yellow one around her head. "Why do you have to talk to her like that?" Carol whispered.
Janet, whose toddler tantrums were legendary, and whose sensitive skin was now legendary to herself, declared once more that the water in this house was slimy: it would not wash off the soap. She shut the door of the guest room.
My mother emerged from her own room and bustled past me on her way to the kitchen. "I can't talk to her!" Her heels clicked loudly on the entry-hall tiles.
Carol, the oldest, followed after her, into the now red-hot region of the breakfast table. My father scuttled into the living room to read the paper. My brother, who was standing behind me, tiptoed to his room, leaping across the hall carpet as if it were a mine field. I went to his doorway, rolled my eyes and tried to smile our superiority. But he turned over on his side, curled up in disgust. Ashamed, I retreated down the full length of the hall to mine, the last room. I shut my door.
I was 15, nearly 16, the youngest in the family. I sat forlornly on my bed, alone at one end of the troubled ranchstyle. Christmas was ruined. I put on my big brown headphones, pulled the flimsy black lever on the turntable, placed the needle precisely.
It's comin on Christmas
They're cuttin down trees
They're puttin up reindeer
Singin songs of joy and peace
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on...
That hushed tone, the too-simple piano that begins with "Jingle Bells" and goes from there, as if you were witness to some secret and inspired improvisation. I lay down, tried to let the music seep into me. The rest of the words--about leaving her lover--didn't apply, but I wanted to absorb all of the song's cruel loneliness.
I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly-y-y...
Oh, I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I shifted on the bed, wondering how this terrible morning could possibly end, and by the end of the song, when she repeats the first verse, I had already wrung the lyrics dry. Anyway, the song hit almost too close to home: it was telling me nothing I didn't already know. I wanted that sensation of recognition again, detached and comforting, when you hear the words and say wisely to yourself, "I've felt like that before."
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who find Joni Mitchell depressing, and those who, already depressed, find her comforting.
When I was 16 I dreamed I was lying on the grass in the back yard, watching big white puffy clouds above the redwood fence, and listening to "Sisotowbell Lane"--which emanated from nowhere. In bell-like tones, the song made inevitable the choosing of country pleasures after trying the city--a certitude of "sweet well water and pickling jars," blueberry muffin baking, wading through grain.
When I woke, I wanted life always to be like that.
In general I wanted to prolong moments of blissful revelation as long as possible. I read "Walden" and "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," sat by creeks in the hills above San Jose and sought to expand perception, see pure light in the water. Every day that summer I put on "Morning Morgantown" and concentrated hard, tried to evoke that same exact sensation I had had when I listened to the album for, say, the third time -- just when the song was not so new as to baffle, but new enough to thrill. The album cover was perfectly white in my hands, with the lyrics in Joni Mitchell's own "artless" printing. "I'd like to buy you everything/ A wooden bird with painted wings/ A window full of colored rings/ In morning Morgantown."
I was discovering my own melancholy, which had sprouted in junior high and bloomed in high school. It was a big, strong plant now. Someone might say I only indulged this tendency listening to sad songs, encouraged its growth, but in fact I was learning things about it. I applied certain phrases from Joni's music to my new struggle with sadness. "Sometimes it is spring/ Sometimes it is not anything" -- This helped cheer me if I was already coming out of a slump. I reassured myself: sometimes I begin to feel hopeful, and the rest of the time, it's not that I feel worse, no, it's just that I'm not feeling anything in particular.
"Michael from mountains/Go where you will go to/Know that I will know you/Someday I may know you very well" -- I heard these lyrics, and revelation struck. "Optimism," I said to myself. "How could I have missed it in her songs?" I prayed, "God, help me to see the good side of things." I wrote "optimism" on a piece of paper, stuffed it into my Bible. I may be confused now, I thought, but someday maybe I won't be. Someday I may know you very well.
Is there, for everyone, a certain kind of music that doesn't ever get used up? There are recordings I buy in adulthood that I love, for a time, as much as any of Joni Mitchell's. But they all fade. Joni doesn't. Why? Each new album eventually joins my personal canon. Was it because of the time I originally listened to her? A kind of imprinting? My friend Robert says: "Yes, but 'Aqualung' had just as deep an impact on me when I was 14." True, neither of us listens to "Aqualung" now, I say, though I suppose that someone must. There might, in fact, be a whole Jethro Tull cult, as invisible to me as my own cult is invisible to most of the world.
"I think it's something about the music itself," Robert tries.
"You mean that it's just really good." We laugh. What else would two fans say?
It helps to be so many years behind her. I first heard "Hejira" when I was 18 -- "There is the hope/and the hopelessness/I've witnessed 30 years" -- and then, 12 years later, I myself was 30. I noticed, for the first time, how she sang the word "hope" with anger, and "hopelessness" sweetly, soothingly.
"But people listen to the Beatles for years and years, don't they?" I say to Robert. "Aren't there straight white male types buying gold-plated Beatles CDs and listening to them on super fancy stereos?" Why Joni Mitchell for me, and not the Beatles? Why return again and again to that particular dark well? What is it that makes her music always replenishable?
I propose to Robert that we sponsor a telephone poll:
Q. Is there a kind of music that, for some reason, never gets used up for you? What might that be?
"'I b'lieve in Jeesus,'" Robert drawls, imagining our first interviewee. Robert once worked for Harris Poll. "'Given that you believe in Jesus,'" he continues in his even polling voice, "'is there a kind of music that for some reason never gets used up for you?'"
"I can always tell when you're depressed," says my neighbor George, "because I hear Joni through the ceiling."
The planks of my living room floor are warped and loose. If George makes toast, I can smell it in my apartment. If I lift up the rug and put my eye to the widest crack, I can see the blade of his ceiling fan going by.
"Were you cooking garlic last night?" I ask, trying to change the subject.
"Ye-e-s," he croons, a TV host happy with his contestant. "Very good!"
Earlier in the week, George tells me, he was giving a massage to our friend Dennis, another neighborhood fag. "I was working on his shoulder and he just started giggling, and I didn't know what I'd done." George is an excellent masseur, able to evoke all sorts of emotions with a single touch. "I said, 'Dennis, what is it?' And he said, 'I can't believe Cliff is playing "Blue".'"
Dennis is just past forty -- just old enough to laugh. I was listening to a has-been. Up there, above the ceiling, there I was, stuck in a juvenile contortion. (And in fact, I was probably sitting cross-legged on the floor, leaning against my bed, just as if I were in my old room back in San Jose.)
A few months ago I was having lunch with a writer at the large magazine where I work part-time. She's in her late forties. I said to her, "I want to write about my obsession with Joni Mitchell."
She spurted laughter. "You're kidding."
This writer's name is Jeanie, and she's close to Joni's age: no prophet is accepted in her own country. I tried to explain, to her amazement, that I was serious about my obsession, and not alone. "Lots of fags still really love her. And dykes too. We're her most loyal fans."
"Really. Really," Jeanie kept saying. "I never would have dreamed." She mentioned Judy Collins, Joan Baez. She said she used to keep a big poster of Joan Baez in her office. "God, I haven't thought about any of them in years."
I was cringing. "Oh, Joan Baez is totally different. And Judy Collins... Totally different." But how could I explain to her just how particular are the boundaries of this sacred space? She only smiled to herself.
I told her that the week before I had gone to our magazine's library, which is extensive, and I signed out all the Joni Mitchell files. I had never taken folders out of the clip library before. "When do I have to return them?" I asked Jeanie. "Is there a time limit? Will someone doing a story call me at home and say where the hell is Joni?"
She laughed again. "Oh, I think you could hold onto that as long as you like."
Why is it that some things go out of style so abruptly and so completely, and seem tainted ever after? The shame of possibly being caught unawares, seen wearing/thinking/doing/listening to x too late. One learns that shame in high school, but also the private pleasures of going against fashion. Though I bemoan Joni's popular fall, I'm also secretly proud of it: In just a few years, I tell myself, she went from "The Queen of Rock" (cover of Time, Dec. 16, 1974) to hopelessly uncool as of, say, 1980, the year I graduated from college. Since then she's resisted several nineties waves of seventies revival. Her name pops up as an oddity, somehow different from the rest, which I like to think she always was anyway.
In a flea market book called "California Rock California Sound"--the title itself an embarrassment--there she is in white, droopy-draggy bell bottoms and drapy white tunic, her hair limp on her shoulders. She's making a point, gesturing with her hands to the book's author, whose butt is cocked to one side in tight woolen pants, also bell bottoms. I want to cry out: "Doesn't she know what she's wearing? And who she's talking to? Why doesn't she run off the page and hide?"
But in the very next picture, she's sweeping some kind of polkadot scarf around herself--in the desert. Well, at least she's smiling a little sheepishly, as if to say, "Can you believe it? This was the seventies for me."
Early 1973: My first girlfriend and I held hands during Sunday School, pulsing and nauseous with unfamiliar excitations that seemed to emanate from the depths of the couch. I was sure then that maybe I was straight after all. Out on the lawn, in the sunlight, I tried to kiss her in her shimmery hotpants, but she whirled away giggling -- this was church, after all.
I was just 15. Marie, who sang and played guitar herself, had in her possession every Joni Mitchell album to date. On the brown shag carpet of her family room I discovered that here was the mesmerizing voice I had heard on the radio just once a few months before. Somewhere Marie had garnered Joni lore: "For the Roses" was mostly about James Taylor -- "Pack your suspenders/I'll come meet your train" -- with references to her rival in love, Carly Simon. The albums "Blue" and "Ladies of the Canyon" were written for Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young -- "Willy is my child, he is my father/I would be his lady all my life." Willy was Graham Nash's nickname, Marie explained. "The Circle Game," however, was for Neil Young and "Carey" was about James Taylor -- Carey was his nickname. Marie dizzied me with these complicated identities, shifting couplings of the rock scene. "She and James Taylor were just friends before they got together," Marie said knowingly. "And then they went to Greece, and they camped out in the caves on the beach. They swam naked."
Though Marie and I took bicycle rides and were able to see each other on grassy hillsides and other romantic places besides church, we made out once, maybe twice. We had a stormy relationship. She wanted a commitment from me, but I had let on that I had another girlfriend, Sherry Downing. This was only because Marie had said perfect honesty was so important between two people who really loved each other, and perhaps I could think of nothing else I wanted to be honest about. In her labored, rounded script, Marie wrote me letter after letter: "Cliff, when I Willy you, everything is so wonderful." She meant the bliss of loving me the same way that Joni felt toward Graham Nash: "He says he'd love to live with me/But for an ancient injury/That has not healed..." Marie explained that she understood that it would be difficult to be my girlfriend, but that she was ready to make the sacrifice. She wrote to me: "As Joni says, 'Be prepared to bleed."
Later, it was a dispute over Joni that made it clear Marie and I had begun to disagree over nearly everything. My parents were driving us to a church outing, and we sat together in the plush back seat of the Mercury Marquis. Marie began to croon to herself softly, "Everybody's sayin' that/ Hell's the hippest way to go/ Well I don't think so/ But I'm gonna take a look around it though...."
We passed the discount store, White Front. "I love that line," I offered. I was just discovering the joys of looking closely at a sentence or a song. "The way she says it's wrong, but she wants to take a look anyway."
Marie was not impressed. She stared scornfully out her window at parking lots. "You don't have to explain the mood to me, Cliff."
I am a lonely painter
I live in a box of paints
I'm frightened by the devil
And I'm drawn to those ones that ain't afraid.
Marie and I broke up. Afternoons I took my Bible and my watercolor set with me on bike rides to the hills around San Jose, and I painted wildflowers on typing paper. I too was afraid of the devil. But I was also afraid of those ones that ain't afraid. Joni's brazenness scared me:
Guru books, the Bible
Only a reminder that you're just not good enough...
"No," I imagined telling her -- if I could somehow meet her, backstage perhaps, or maybe she wanders into church -- "the Bible isn't like that. The Bible frees you..."
Home again, gazing at album covers, I attempted to construct her as a sexual object: luminous and staring inside "Song to a Seagull," and I read the photographer's fine-print name over and over -- "Mark Roth" -- trying to imagine what he, too, was like; or naked on an ocean rock inside "For the Roses," facing away from us, sunny hair down her back, one leg slightly bent, tiny in the middle of the frame, with water all around her, the photograph all bluish-green -- was she "sexy" like the girls in Playboy, I wondered, or was this something else? Two albums later, she backstroked in a bikini past the lyrics to "The Hissing of Summer Lawns," and again in vain I tried to narrate to myself her sexual allure. Anyway, by then I was disgusted with her for going glam -- her "Court and Spark" transformation to rock queen. My friend Pat Heany, another Future Fag of America, declared that she had sold out. Lipstick! Earrings! That air-brushed photo inside the album cover! Pat made fun of her deepened voice, a sign of her smoking habit and general decadence ("decadence," Pat's favorite word). After school he held up a photo from a paperback he found called "Bog People" -- blackened five-thousand-year-old corpse recovered from an Irish bog -- and he croaked the first line of Joni's new album:
"Love came to my door..."
In a darkened booth at the Museum of Television and Radio, I watch her sing "Both Sides Now" on the premiere of "The Johnny Cash Show," 1969. Her first big break, I suppose. I'm a little embarrassed to see her that way, embryonic, not yet above it all. She's surrounded by hanging tree branches, she stands before a low stone wall, and behind her, that infinite, flat, deserted space of television musical programs. "The Johnny Cash Show"'s credits promised color, but the tape is black and white. Her face looks so young and unmarked, yet it's a generic late-sixties beauty, compressed by the screen, stark, her eyes heavy with mascara. Perhaps they lit her face to suppress the strong features. Her voice, too, sounds unusually bland, less than unique-was she asked to tone it down? I suppose the novelty then must have been the song itself, light years past novelty now, but I try to listen to the words as if for the first time, as if I were a teenager again-and that's what I do anyway, whenever I hear her sing.
But now it's just another show
You leave 'em laughing when you go
And if you care, don't let them know
Don't give yourself away...
"Oh, my God!" I had exclaimed, as the show title and her name flickered on the computer screen upstairs in the research room-so loudly that the library aide came to ask if there was anything the matter. Having already cried out in femmy excitement, I had to reveal my errand as nothing more than a foolish fan's pilgrimage. Now, alone in my booth, I'm half mesmerized, half laughing, holding both headphones close to my ears. After "Both Sides Now," she chats with Johnny Cash a minute. They sit together on the fake stone wall. A wishing well? "That was so pretty. You're so pretty," says Johnny. She thanks him shyly, and the camera catches her looking uncomfortable. Did she regret this career move? "You wrote that song yourself," Johnny says. "Yes," she nods. "I've got about a hundred by now." I wonder about all those songs I've never heard, and how many she must have now, 25 years later. She gamely agrees to a duet. "One of yours," she smiles. "One of mine," Johnny replies.
They sing harmony, fulfilling their roles-powerful host, eager fledgling-with just the right mixture of ease and exertion. The casting couch, in this case, is the fake stone wall of a dark well. The subtle humiliations of national television. (But later, even Bob Dylan appears, and he, too, sings a duet with Johnny. I wonder if my crass image of Johnny Cash was mistaken. This is a really cool show, I say to myself.) She was a sweet, young, generic girl, emphasizing the folky side of her singing for the duet, those yodel leaps to high notes. A bid for a cross-over country audience? I wonder to myself, "How much she changed over the next few years -- from this waif, hoping only to please." Late in the show -- after Johnny's solos in fast-forward, after stopping a minute to marvel at Dylan -- there's the most beautiful ad for Pledge: "Come up to the Lemon Tree House!" -- and a girl in long, blurry blond hair is lifted by a vine to a suburban living room, where she polishes furniture. It was 1969, year of Judy Garland's demise and the Stonewall riot, egg of the seventies. So lightly the cloth passes before the camera, unlocking splendors of shiny wood. "Just look at that shine!" And the girl gazes at herself in the coffee table, as if in the pool of a wishing well.
I say to my friend Robert: "It's the original definition of camp, right, to treasure what's been discarded?"
"Oh, but I don't think Joni classifies as camp," he replies, a little defensively. "I think of her as more of a cult figure."
"Is there a difference?"
"Well..." This is Robert's particular way of disagreeing. "She had a cult audience, then she got really popular, and then doesn't she still have a cult audience? It isn't like she's been totally discarded."
"You mean that she really is quite good." Again, we're back to that: what else would a fan say? "She's not B movies. Yeah," I agree, provisionally, "she's not exactly Maria Montez."
Robert and I both love a tiny book on Maria Montez by Jack Smith, performance artist who died of AIDS and the original inspiration, it is said, for Sontag's "Notes on Camp": "...her acting was lousy, but if something genuine got on film why carp about acting--which HAS to be phony anyway--I'D RATHER HAVE atrocious acting." In fact, this is exactly how I feel about Joni's worst songs. "Anima rising/Queen of queens/Wash my guilt of Eden/Wash and balance me." But if something genuine got on tape, why carp about pop songs, which HAVE to be phony anyway? I'D RATHER HAVE atrocious lyrics.
I say to Robert, "I'm trying to remember the first song of hers I ever heard. It was on the radio: 'Judgement of the Moon and Stars.'"
Her song about Beethoven. Robert begins to giggle. "OK, she is camp."
"Oh, she's pure camp," confirms my friend David, a day later. I'm procrastinating at the office, talking on the phone all morning. David sings: "'I bring him apples and cheeses/He brings me songs to play.' I mean, really. Apples and cheeses-what, on a tray?"
I tip back delighted in my desk chair, trying not to laugh too loudly at work. "Isn't it wonderful how things can suddenly turn into camp?" I say, awed by irony's ability to replenish itself continually, to find new outlets. "You don't think about something for years, and the next thing you know, it's camp, and you can be pleasantly surprised. Apples and cheese-25 years ago, who knew?"
"'Apples and cheese' isn't camp," David declares, "but 'apples and cheeses' is. Right? Right? Am I right, or am I wrong?"
"All right," Robert continued, the night before, "I'm going to tell you something very personal, so be warned. I mean, take it in the right spirit."
He means we've been kidding around so far, and he wants to get serious. I say OK. I sit up straight, adjust the phone chord.
"When my grandmother was dying," Robert begins, "I was 10 or 11, I think-I copied out the lyrics to, what is that song, 'He played real good for free'?"
"Yeah, it's called 'For Free,'" I say with authority. "'Ladies of the Canyon.'"
"It's not on 'Clouds'?"
"No, no, no," I cry. "Not 'Clouds.'"
I clear my throat, sorry for not taking Robert's story in the right spirit after all. I try to hear now what he's just said. "So you sent that to your grandmother?" I picture him, a brown-haired boy, carefully writing down the words. I reach for "Ladies of the Canyon" and the old cardboard creaks as I open the jacket. I read to Robert:
Nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew he had never been on their TV
So they passed his music by...
"It seemed so profound when I was a teenager," I offer. But when Robert first listened, he was even younger-a sentimental precocity I remember in myself as well. In sixth grade, I used to cry listening to "The Long and Winding Road" over and over. Still, Robert's fascination with Joni seems to have bloomed especially early. "You had a copy of 'Ladies of the Canyon' when you were only 10?"
He chuckles. "It was my very first album."
Ralph, still another friend who turned out to be a fan, explains that his copy of "Blue" was originally his sister's. "I remember her buying it," he says to me fondly. "I remember her listening to it, I remember 'Carey' was my favorite song when I was a kid." Later, his sister went away to college and left "Blue" behind: Ralph took possession.
My eyes light up. "Yes! Because you were taking possession of what was yours all along."
Ralph laughs, a little taken aback. But I see his sister stooping in the desert-perhaps the very same desert where Joni dances in polkadot scarves-inspecting a bluish stone, and throwing it back over her shoulder so as to move on to the next possibly interesting object. Ralph, gay alien child, who is following behind, picks up the stone, buffs it with his sleeve and puts it in his pocket. In his world, the stone is precious, endowed with magical powers.
David calls me at work to point out an item in the Times. The obituary notice, for a man I didn't know, reads:
YESTADT-Jim. "Show them you won't expire/not till you burn up every passion/not even when you die"-Joni, of course. Oh, how I'll miss being... The other Jim
David and I knew immediately, with only these clues, that the two Jims were gay, and that the Jim who had died, had died of AIDS. The fact that Jim the friend-or lover? Somehow I thought not-that he had chosen this rare defiant line from Joni Mitchell-the very same lyrics I myself had secretly used for encouragement countless times; a pleasure so private and so much out of style that I wouldn't have dreamed anyone else shared it-it made this Jim's grief seem that much more raw to me.
"The most illustrious and poignant fan clubs have only one member," writes Wayne Koestenbaum. But I'm torn-I also want my club validated by mass appeal. "Joni's a gay icon!" I like to say. "She's the new Judy Garland." But what would it mean for Joni to take Judy's place? The first inkling: seeing John Kelly do her at Wigstock, maybe six years ago. It had been drizzling most of the afternoon, and a small crowd suffered in their wigs, under cheap umbrellas, as lip-sync acts came and went on stage in Thompkins Square. Then, following an announcement I couldn't hear, Kelly wandered stoop-shouldered to the mike in a long blond wig with bangs. I swear, the clouds parted, the rain stopped, the sky was blue directly overhead. He strummed, and began to sing in his slightly hoarse falsetto the most uncanny imitation of Joni's "Ladies of the Canyon" phase-the same sharp guttural leaps, the exaggerated vowels, the coy phrasing. Perhaps the sound was shifted downward as much as an octave-not a failure of impersonation, but rather as if Joni's own voice were coming from some other location, filtered through some new, blue-green atmosphere.
I expected guffaws, but I looked around and saw that no one else was laughing either. Only a kind of reverent chuckling here and there, and then silence. A spell had come over the park. Sometimes he changed the words a little for comic effect, but usually he didn't have to: "Secrets and sharing soda/That's how our time began/Love is a story told to a friend/It's second hand." That afternoon I understood: from the start, her music had had gay content, hidden from me: all along, I was the girl in the song.
Between tunes, he flipped his long hair this way and that hilariously. When he wasn't singing, he "danced," carefully placing one open-toed high heel before the other, "Miles of Aisles" style, the awkward Joni trying to rock out. I covered my mouth to laugh-I'd never dared think of her as funny. In the end he sang "Woodstock," renamed "Wigstock," but which needed to be changed little to apply uncannily to this ragtag performance festival 20 years later-the ironic, East Village idealism of a fabulous nation of drag queens:
We are stardust
We are golden
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
By the time we got to Wigstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration...
A few cheers went up. But then he did alter more of the words to this final verse, and a hush returned to the crowd:
And I dreamed I saw the drag queens
And they were all dressed up like maids
And they had found the cure for AIDS
Across every nation
It began to rain again.
I held back tears, putting up my umbrella. My brother had been sick maybe a year now; he was dying. The audience swayed a little as the song came to a close. Cheers, applause, wigs flying in the air. Everything had intersected in that hushed moment, just before the rain began: my old love for the song; my slightly ironic love for it now; and the new, daily sadness that this music might now soothe.
She had gone so thoroughly out of style, in part, because introspection went thoroughly out of style. She was condemned for her very seventies selfishness, and when in the eighties she sang of famine in Ethiopia, Sandra Bernhard made fun of her: "This is a woman who hasn't left the Malibu Colony in years!" But grief is private as well as political. And anyway, Joni has kept on singing all these years; unlike Judy Garland, for instance, somehow she kept going, she made it through these waves. The fact that "Woodstock"'s words needed to be changed so little-it took only the slightest shift in how one looked at Joni to see her all over again.
Songs with Queers in Them:
"Free Man in Paris," about David Geffen, her original manager: "If I had my way," says the song's version of Geffen, "I'd just walk through those doors and wander/Down the Champs d'Elyses [sic]/Going cafe to caberet/Thinking how I'll feel when I find/That very good friend of mine." Before I knew who the song was about (and long before Geffen was out of the closet), I italicized the final phrase, wondered about that "friend." In high school I dutifully imagined a woman, French and vague, maybe in a red scarf-but I asked of the song, "Why does she have to be found?" I supposed she must live on some obscure, cobblestone alley...
"Sisotowbell Lane": Is its hint of gay content, understood only recently, partly why I dreamed so vividly about this song at 16? Amidst plucked guitar strings, it begins: "Sisotowbell Lane/Noah is fixing the pump in the rain/He brings us no shame/We always knew/That he always knew." I had to wonder, What did Noah do that might bring shame? Joni's 1966 liberalism is condescending, true. But at least when Noah came out, no one was surprised.
"Don Juan's Reckless Daughter": Not the song, but the album cover. On the front, in a stylized cartoon desert, Joni herself appears in drag, as a "flamboyant" black man. A pimp, or a fag? "Art Nouveau," she called herself, and a "Newsmakers" item in Newsweek even said she was making a film with him as the star. (Where is that film?) When the album first came out, in 1977, it took me some time to figure out that the black man on the cover was actually Joni. I was a sophomore in college by then, assiduously avoiding all sexuality. I remember staring at the picture alone in my dorm room, picking out her features one by one. I thought it must have taken a lot of dark makeup for her to complete the costume, and though I wondered why she had gone to such lengths, I also admired her for seeing that possibility in her own face. I thought, "She does kind of look like a black man."
"Amelia": Earhart, that is. A lesbian, right? I seem to remember Earhart claimed by our side, posters of her in gay settings along with Eleanor Roosevelt. There must be a good reason-a series of love letters, or a "close friend" reinterpreted by gay activism. Anyway-a whole song!
Much later, in the early eighties, an unfortunate concoction called "Underneath the Streetlight": Reflecting the times, the queer reference is explicit: "Gay boys with their pants so tight/Out in the neon light/Underneath the streetlight." I myself lived in New York by then, and I was out. So Joni looks out the window of her Tribeca loft, and sees...gay boys! Anyone I know?
Once I dreamed I met Joni Mitchell, but I was too afraid to talk to her. When I woke, I saw this scenario as a low point in my mental health. "It's your dream," I said to myself. "For Christ's sake, talk to her if you want to."
A few years and 200 therapy sessions later, my dream life had improved. Not only was I speaking to Joni, but I was invited to her mansion. I looked out her kitchen window at a colonnade of low orchard trees with strawberries huge as grapefruits ripening on every branch. I wondered at the fact that she had given me her address in Beverly Hills, and now any time I wanted I could just walk up the immaculate gravel walkway through the English garden to her front door.
But already I had moved beyond her: standing by the stainless steel stove, there in Joni's kitchen, was a 15-year-old version of Counselor Troi, the shipboard psychologist from "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Should I go back into the living room and chat with Joni some more? No, I decided. I'd much rather speak to Counselor Troi.
Do I need to meet her? Someone told me he used to see her in Soho eating at Food. ("Someone thought they saw her Sunday/Window shopping in the rain/Someone heard she bought a one way ticket/And went west again.") But Food no longer exists. Well, let's say Dean & Deluca, Prince Street. Blond hair graying in a beret, head bent over a big mug of coffee, perhaps a salad. She's just been gallery-hopping. "Excuse me, are you Joni Mitchell?..."
Her sad, spacy, charming voice.
I warn myself: You'll only be disappointed. And secretly I enjoy the luxury of that thought too: not only do I meet her, but I'm not impressed. On a walk downtown the other day, my boyfriend and I think we've located her building: we stare up at the windows. "I'm sure this is it," John says, indulging me. Then I turn away, afraid of what I might see, afraid and excited by the idea of being seen looking up.
In "California Rock California Sound," I learn that Joni herself has an idol. In 1970-something she tells the interviewer of going to New Mexico with a friend to try to meet Georgia O'Keeffe.
"It's a strange story," Joni begins, and I cock my head a quarter turn, try to focus my eyes a step. "When we hit Santa Fe, we went into a little place ... and we were sitting in a dark corner talking. People kept coming up and interrupting us and after about the seventh person, I was beginning to be annoyed." This was 1976, height of her "Help Me" beret-and-lipstick fame. Does she miss those days now? I wonder. Maybe she'd be more receptive if I met her today.... Anyway, as the evening wore on, Joni grew more and more uneasy about popping in on Georgia. "This is a privacy-oriented woman, and I'm a privacy-oriented woman," she explains.
But eventually she did find her way up to O'Keeffe's property. "They sensed it right away, it was so aesthetic," writes the author of "California Rock California Sound." But when Joni got to the gate, there was no bell and Joni seems to have lost her nerve: "So she slipped a package she had brought for Georgia under the gate and went back to the van. Her friend said, 'This is crazy, we traveled all this way, you can't just go away like that.' 'Well, I don't know what I'm going to say to her, you know,' Joni replied."
The story is growing more and more embarrassing, and I can't believe Joni is telling it. For instance, what was in that package? Apples and cheeses? And didn't she ever hear of calling ahead? How hard could it be to get Georgia O'Keeffe's phone number? But in fact Joni shows no trace of embarrassment. "What I was feeling," she says, "was that I was really in her shoes, I could feel myself inside the house and seeing myself, feeling myself invading...."
At first I exclaim, triumphantly, "What?" Reading this story is like meeting her and being disappointed. But then I can't resist identifying too, and I grow dizzy-feeling myself as Joni feeling myself as Georgia.
The next thing I know, Joni is prowling around the side of the house like some kind of teenager. It's as if my image of her has wandered from my grasp. Again, I can hardly believe she's telling us this: "...I came out on a clearing, and there in the kitchen was Georgia and her housekeeper.... She looked at me, our eyes engaged from about forty feet, she tossed her head back and stormed out of the room. I knew exactly how she felt."
I gasp in delighted horror. "Knew exactly how she felt? You mean you were mortified?" And yet is it really so simple: my idol humiliated, all that glamour gone unrecognized? I want to float in that night-time desert a moment, a cactus pixie observing. I see those two popular figures themselves like a painting, one indoors in the light and one out in the dark yard, gazing at one another-and there seems something mysterious about that scene, staged, therefore destined. Can camp be spiritual?
It appears it can. "When I got home there was a copy of ArtNews with Georgia O'Keeffe on the cover," Joni continues. "I opened it up and in the article, in enlarged print under a photograph was: 'Georgia, if you come back in another life, what would you come back as,' and without missing a beat it said, "I would come back as a blonde with a high soprano voice that could sing clear notes without fear.'"
For a moment I have no qualms about this tale after all. "Cool," I say to myself. "What a great story." Except Joni can't leave it at that. She has to draw conclusions: "There it is, I thought, I didn't have to see her, there's something star-crossed about us."
Over the next few days I repeat the whole story to everyone I know. They all laugh. But really, I'm sad she didn't get to meet Georgia O'Keeffe.
"She could just as easily have concluded the opposite," says Erin, my most analytical friend. "'There's something star-crossed about us. Now I have to meet her.'"
"Yeah," I nod. It's your dream, Joni. Talk to her if you want.
Erin asks, cannily, taking a piece of bread: "And who would Joni Mitchell like to be in her next life?"
I've never thought of that, but my reply is almost instant: "A gay man with dirty blond hair and glasses, who's a writer and a depressive." I take an excited breath, waving my butter knife. "And who sees his idols' foibles and incredible lapses in self-knowledge, but loves them all the same. No-loves them better!"
I'm trying to write about how a particular singer-songwriter with long blond hair and a strange, sad voice fills a place for me, and how that place is habitual, daily if I want it to be, an open slot.
On the car radio the other day, coming home from a wedding, I heard Rod Stewart singing "Maggie May." I have no particular feeling for the song, but memory permeated my cells: I realized the tune's appearance on the Top Ten, so many years ago, coincided almost exactly with my puberty. That plinking mandolin is the theme song of certain chemicals being released into my bloodstream for the first time.
My best friend Chris Studzinski's big sister singing along with "Maggie May" in her bedroom--we were in the yard, we heard her through the screened window: "Maggie, I couldn't have tried. Any more-ore." We went inside, we passed her doorway. She gestured to her record player. "You know what that song's about, don't you?" I shrugged, straining to hear the word sex in the lyrics. The 45 ended in vinyl scratches. Later, out in the dark garage, humming, Chris bent over electric wires, switches, red light bulbs for the math machine we were making. I tried not to stare at the new veins on his tan 13-year-old athletic arms.
And what first-time moment does Joni's silky yodeling narrate for me? An arrival--following the journey begun in seventh grade, at Chris Studzinski's side. "Hey, Stud!" his fellow soccer players used to shout at him; soon we were no longer friends. But at 15 I heard Joni and struggled no more. "Cold white keys under your fingers/ Now you're thinkin'/ 'That's no substitute, it just don't do it/ like the song of a warm, warm body/ loving your touch.'" Here, at last, was a roof over my head, my house in the polkadot desert of loneliness.
A friend says that just as uppers calm hyperactive children, Joni's depressing lyrics cheer up sad teenagers.
For me, that phase seems never to have ended. Double age 16 to 32, and my brother had died of AIDS. For two years after he was gone: the worst despair ever. I cried if I missed a train and regularly wanted to die. Then my heart began almost imperceptibly to lift. I started writing about him. For another two years I felt better and better until I thought maybe I wasn't a sad person after all. There were just enough setbacks along the way that I thought I must have arrived at last. All those years of therapy had finally worked! I found a publisher for my book about Ken, and I had a deadline. I found my new boyfriend, John, and he was perfect.
But then I finished my book. I turned it in and teetered a moment or two between joyful completion and emptiness. Then, early that year, I fell, bewildered, once more into the slow, unaccountable, sticky mud where all hope is lost.
What are you gonna do about it?
You can't live life
And you can't leave it...
You know it's really hard to
talk sense to you
I was surprised. Not only had I come to believe I wasn't a sad person after all, I thought grieving for my brother was the only kind of sadness within me. But though I still missed Ken, I no longer felt that sharp pain anymore. I had written a book about it; I understood it. And yet some terrible unhappiness was back; its possibility had never left me.
I was just 36, and I was sadder than I ever was at 16. In an article in Vanity Fair (on women turning 50), Gail Sheehy described Joni as someone who has "battled depression all her life." Oddly enough, I was surprised: I had believed that she, like the music, really was above all that, only playing with it. I had envied her seeming ability to toy with melancholy, when I no longer could. "Oh, what do you know about/ Living in Turbulent Indigo?" asked Joni on her last album, as if to rebuke me.
I wonder: just as those songs often cheer me, did the singer write herself out of a depression, comfort herself with creation? Maybe, like me, she tends to write on the cusp of an upswing, just as she begins to turn out of the woods--the point when it's safe to look back. "Sometimes it is spring/ Sometimes it is not anything." But there's either upswing or downswing. Is there a way to remain at the pinnacle? I listen, trying to maintain that shaky conviction of hopefulness. "Someday I will know you very well."
For years I've been trying to regulate my moods, to get the mix just right. The stereo is a frequent tool. Sadness: not denied, but not too much of it either, mixed with the pleasure of music and of recognition. It's a way to control the flow of despair, the pacing of rhythm and lyrics sung in time, like the drip of an IV.
Joni coincided with the first onset of moods, the beginning of a lifetime struggle or game--arranging deck chairs on the Titanic? Or clicking the lettered checkers this way and that, trying to spell a new, happier word in my palm, or, at least, simply to keep the pieces moving.
The sadness, the dark square of the puzzle, moves from one line of song to the next.
You've gotta shake your fists at lightning now
You've gotta roar like forest fire
You've gotta spread your light like blazes
All across the sky
Even now, I accept her encouragement, I ignore the corniness. Or maybe I even like it.
They're gonna aim the hoses on you
Show 'em you won't expire
Not till you burn up every passion
Not even when you die
Come on now, you've gotta try...
Maybe she is used up. But I don't want her to be. Each time I listen, it's an act of will. I try to squeeze out one last drop.
I call Ralph with an important new reading of a song. "You know that part at the beginning--'Magdalena's trembling/Like a washing on a line/Trembling and gleaming'?"
"Yeah," Ralph says. "'Never before was a man so kind/It was so redeeming.' Yeah."
I hesitate an instant. "Well, I think she's talking about her pussy."
"You know--'trembling and gleaming ... never before was a man so kind.'" I pause for effect. I'm certain I've discovered, at last, something more personal than ever before about Joni. "I think Magdalena is her secret name for her pussy."
Ralph chuckles. "I always figured that part was about Mary Magdalene," he says gently. "The song is called 'Passion Play.'"
I stop short. "Really?" I wonder how I could possibly have missed that. I hedge: "Well, maybe not intentionally..."
Ralph says, "You mean, Joni goes to the drug store and says, 'Give me some Magdalena cream?'" By now we can barely contain our laughter. "OK, OK, I'm wrong!" I cry. "Forget it!"
On second thought, I'm not trying to write about an obsession. I'm trying to write about a lifelong companionship, an everyday sort of interaction, a thought here and there over time.
(Then again, what's wrong with obsession? Sometimes you have nothing else.)
I'm trying to write about how a particular singer-songwriter with long blond hair and a strange, sad voice fills a place for me, and how that place is habitual, daily if I want it to be, an open slot.
This narrative itself has a self-help function: At this very moment, I'm writing myself out of a depression. So if something genuine gets on paper, why carp about obsession? Careful description of sad phenomena: another method that's gotten me through.
This morning I hurt John's feelings. He was kissing my ear and talking to me in a silly voice, and I asked him to stop. As I was leaving, he didn't come see me to the door. "Are you mad at me? I feel bad," I said. "No, I'm just really tired," he replied, his face dark with stubble. As I went out, he was climbing up the loft ladder back to bed.
Will harmony ever be restored?
I pulled off into the forest
Crickets clicking in the ferns
Like a wheel of fortune
I heard my fate turn, turn, turn
And I went running down a white sand road
I was running like a white-ass deer
Running to lose the blues
To the innocence in here....
Yesterday, walking across the park on my way from therapy to the pool, suddenly I was desperate to be home lying down, listening to those words sung. I couldn't go on! And only a few minutes ago I had felt fine. For the first time in weeks, I had been cheerful with John. I had called him from a pay phone on Fifth. "Hi!" I said, surprising myself. He said, "You're chipper today."
The path wound past wrung-out daffodils. April was spent. "Overall," I said to myself, "I've been doing better lately--yes, I am doing better. And yet I feel, at this instant, such utter exhaustion!" Neither the exhaustion, nor having felt better lately, seemed to have much to do with one another. And I wondered at how many ingredients must make up a mood, how many tiny filaments, and how I can hardly keep them all straight. At that particular juncture, the longest threads, braided together and leading through several days, were glowing brightly, and yet the thin fiber of the moment was indigo, about to break.
Feeling very desperate; knowing I had been doing better; awake to beauty (for the spring trees were swaying); longing for I knew not what; restless; hopeful that a steady course might help; wondering what is the point, and might I kill myself?--I continued through the park to the pool.
The verse of the song above continues:
These are the clouds of Michelangelo
Muscular with gods and sun gold
Shine on your witness
In the refuge of the roads.
And now, a day later, sitting down finally to listen, I begin to cry at the uncanny accuracy of the line, "Shine on your witness"--the sad, desperate consolations of life as a depressive, the fevered manipulations of feeling, perception, will and letting go.
The way that any moment of happiness is sublime-because you can't believe it. It's always against all odds.
And, also against all odds, the refuge of melody. In my complex repertoire of consolations, I still accept Joni's sympathy, despite my jadedness, despite my distance from the seventies teenager that first listened. The voice--curved, leaping, edgy or pure, and so familiar to me by now--fills every blank. I want to put my hands out to describe it to you.
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