I never considered myself a Joni Mitchell fan. For that matter neither was I a James Taylor, Jackson Browne, or Crosby, Stills & Nash fan. They were the ones before my time, before punk rock happened. Musicians who sang and played instruments very well and often (it seemed to me) very nicely. Punk spoke to me definitively with its anti-nice, anti-tasty-sounds, anti-granola-"70s stance. But somewhere in the '80s a Joni record slipped into my collection of Violent Femmes, Buzzcocks & X, and occasionally late at night when the roommates were fast asleep I'd put it on the old hi-fi and sneak the volume up to 2 or 3 and hear the moaning bass of Jaco P. and the words/music of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. I'd usually be asleep by the fourth song, somewhere after "Cotton Avenue." But secretly, I liked it! Then I discovered Mingus and Shadows and Light, and the last album I spent time with clandestinely was Wild Things Run Fast. End of story.
I'm a songwriter myself and Joni has not been an influence on me (certainly not consciously). The other day I was considering JM's more recent album Turbulent Indigo (Reprise) and got to thinking some. I asked myself a question: what women in pop/rock songwriting stand out as cool role models? Starting with the '60s. Well, as songwriters only, Ellie Greenwich and Carole King, and then I skip to the mid-70s and there's Patti Smith, '80s Siouxsie, '90s Liz Phair - but in between there is Joni, I realized. Cool words, great guitar player, excellent blonde hair. Last year someone showed me some old footage from the late '60s "Dick Cavett Show," and there was the young Joni singing to a bunch of laid-back pillow-sittin' teens, and she was cool! It just took me some time, I guess, to realize this, and also to recognize Joni's personalized form of punk aesthetic. I knew Bob Dylan had it from those ancient early records. But Joni was a more subtle case.
Last year I came across a copy of the '94 CD Turbulent Indigo and picked it out for listening because the weird cover caught my eye. JM as Vincent Van Gogh, chopped-off ear, forlorn gaze, and all. Oddly enough her facial features almost make her a female double to the melancholic master.
What a bold thing to do. Kinda like when JM dressed up in blackface, jiving pimp clothes, for Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. I've got an artist girlfriend who is quite dadaist, loves to listen to music by women while painting stiff penises on sewing mannequins. She decided she didn't want to hear Turbulent Indigo because she was offended by Joni painting herself as Van Gogh. Hah! That's funny.
When I first picked out the CD the timing was perfect, it was "the Joni time," late at night no one around. I already had a few candle fires flickering near the CD player. I put it on and lay back on the futon.
The first song comes on real mellow with fingernails arpeggiating rhythmically, and pretty quick you get the sound that's gonna be happening to you throughout the recording. I tend to hang on to Joni's guitar and words for balance, and fortunately these things are high in the mix. though I have no real complaints about the other instruments, I find them to be less inspired than their leader. And so it's the Piper, you follow, and right off she tells you, "She's pulled the shade and dodges the light." She waits for the night to fall, on this (ironical) sunny Sunday," where she pulls out her pistol and shoots at a streetlamp. It's like a Sunday routine, and the payoff, like a personal lottery, is when she finally hits it (the lamp) she'll be ready to leave. Only, "She always misses." This leaves a rather bleak portrait of a trapped, hopeless woman (like the album cover). The music creates a kind of jazzy bemoaning tone with the soprano sax rat-tatting as pistol fire, and the brushes on the snare shuffling the poor woman to the door and back into the house. A sad and articulate portrait ("Sunny Sunday").
Next I hear a strong rhythm-and-synth wash. I love this song ("Sex Kills"). It stirs me up. I wish I'd been a big big hit. She growls out the sharp words in her tobacco-stained throatiness. It took me a while to hear what she was snarling about in the first verse story. A guy's license plate says "JUST ICE" (oh, justice), "just the strong doing what they can, the weak doing what they must," and the cool hook line, "Sex sells everything, sex kills." Growl! Yeah, this song makes me feel like pumping my hand in the air and going, "You fuckin' know it, Joni!" Far as I'm concerned, she's way more real in her pissed-offedness than some green-M&M-eating, posing-for-the-press, copycat nu-punker. "You can feel it out in traffic, everyone hates everyone." To me that's what it feels like. Yesterday I heard on the radio that 75% of drivers are angry on the freeway, mostly at drivers cutting in front of them. (I particularly hate hyper-lane-changers.)
This song brings up all kinds of stuff I'm angry about, and somehow, though Joni only mentions a few particulars, it seems like she's mad at all the same stuff as me. And cuz I like this song so much, I don't mind the synthesizer and the Van Halen tone of the 'expressionistic' guitar. One note on the mix of this song: I notice a lot of 'shh' sound or sibilance on the voice, which is always a problem in recording a female voice, but it seems like in this instance it has more to do with hot compression or even a 'brightener' kind of effect. Oh well, just something I noticed. Basically, I love this song and Joni's venomous performance. All those words, and a great melody to boot! And I keep hanging there waiting for that chorus again. This song shoulda been a hit, but it's too savage for those soft radio listeners, and she's not a new young radio virgin like Alanis Morrissette or Sarah McLachlan, so modern rock is out. But I think if this was Joni's first release and she was twenty, this song woulda been everywhere. "One day you're too young," she sings, "then you're in your prime, then you're lookin' back at the hand of time.
One of the most enigmatic tunes on this album is the title track. For me, when a song really works it works on a number of levels: good words, melody, and sounds. This is a song with all that. I actually like the 'studio band' here. The drumming is happening, kind of a Tom Waits non-drum-kit big-Boom-Boom-in-a-little-room sound. Cht-cht brushes incessant on the snare. Joni's acoustic guitar chicken scratches then skitters across the 'scary sky' sounds. While the voice drily and lowly tells us, "he'd piss in their fireplace, he'd drag 'em through turbulent indigo."
The song acts as a sort of album center-piece, from which the others seem to radiate. A running theme: tortured artist, as displayed on the album cover. In some ways each song is like a painting. Together, all the songs hang on display in this moody, darkly lit gallery, just like the landscape portraits by Joni on the insert.
That first night of listening, it seemed the whole album had a strong message of feeling to give me. About Joni's (or my own) Van Gogh martyristic tendencies. Her anger and disillusionment with life, work, social institutions, and even with God, like on "The Sire of Sorrow," where she leaves the album with a daring, bitter missive to the Creator. Once Joni was the "It" girl; "now the janitors of Shadowland flip their birds at me." Wow. A very bold confessional. Well, whether these songs are really true confessions or obscured stories, half-truths, is none of my business. The feeling conveyed, however, is very real. The world isn't noticing my achievements and my genius! I think most of the underground artists I've known have looked to Van Gogh as a king of posthumous-success hero. A last chance Texaco.
Joni's thick, rich cigarette-worn voice drives us down a moody, melodied highway. It snarls, or bumps high, now and then, and flatly lays down those many words, pregnant with feeling, never getting in their way. Some may miss the sweet Miss High Wire singing of her youth, but I love this ragged whiskey voice of her present. And it fits so perfectly with the message here on Turbulent Indigo.
Cindy Lee Berryhill is a singer-songwriter with punk-folk toots whose fourth album, Straight Outta Marysville, was just released.