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Joni Mitchell: Court and Spark Print-ready version

by Sean Nelson
December 20, 2006

Many books come out each year deconstructing rock music: The musicians, their albums, their songs, their showering habits, and their other habits. It's here where we'll take an excerpt of a book for you to check out before you make the purchase. As of now these will exclusively feature the venerable 33 1/3 series, which picks apart an album by a band or musician. In the future, we hope to include more rock books of all varieties.

Joni Mitchell: Court and Spark - A Broader Sensibility

I suppose people have always been lonely, but this, I think, is an especially lonely time to live in. So many people are valueless or confused. . . . Things change so rapidly. Rela­tionships don't seem to have any longevity. There isn't a lot of commitment to anything; it's a disposable society.

Joni Mitchell, 1974

Of course, at this point, it feels as though I'm circling the airport of Court and Spark, trying desperately to clear the air of my deep admiration for the albums that preceded it before going in for a landing. Fair enough. Still, a fundamental question per­sists: How can you pick one album? How can you say, even tacitly, that Court and Spark is better than Blue, For the Roses, or Hissing of Summer Lawns? Or even Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, Dog Eat Dog, or any of the other Mitchell records C&S is empirically way better than. What does "better" even mean? And so forth.

But again, the premise isn't that Court and Spark is the best Joni Mitchell album. As we all know, the best Joni Mitchell album is the one that's playing right now. You don't hear "All I Want" and long for "Down to You", or vice versa. No, the prem­ise is that if you regard the period between 1971 and 1975, from Blue to Summer Lawns as a single narrativea musical Freitag's Triangle of sortsthen C&S is the unquestionable cli­max. It's the point at which Mitchell stepped outside herself just enough to communicate the breadth of the lonely time she felt herself living in, and by doing so, revealed more of herself than she ever had before. Blue is sharply first person (and presum­ably autobiographical) throughout. For the Roses, meanwhile, steps back somewhat to engage in overreaching social meta­phors ("Banquet", "Barangrill", "Electricity"), but also features a second-person voice that often sounds like a direct address to specific people ("Why do you have to be so jive?"; "You imitate the best and the rest you memorize"; "Where are you now? Are you in some hotel room? Does it have a view?" etc) and which therefore functions as first person in drag. Court and Spark is energized by a wider, more adventurous perspective than either of its predecessors: Third person narratives delivered by first person narrators, which is to say character studies, which is to say songs that manage to be personaloften devastat­ingly sowithout needing to be autobiographical. After inspiring such intense one-to-one identification in her listeners, Mitchell was now taking expeditions outside herself, trying to identify with the people she met there, to better illuminate the dark corners of their inner lives as she had her own. The women of Court and Sparkthe ones who find themselves at people's parties "fumbling, deaf, dumb, and blind," the ones who stay up for hours waiting for their "sugar to show," the ones who know there's going to be trouble because they're falling in love againare everywomen, at least in the context of a certain corner of California and a certain corner of the '70s. By those same standards, the men are universal, too. The "Free Man in Paris", though famously modeled on David Geffen, doesn't leap off the grooves because Geffen is such a fascinating person, or because of the lurid secrets he was still keeping when the song was written; the song conveys, with forceful grace, the pathos of a prosperous man feeling trapped inside his own life. The simultaneously poetic and novelistic lyrics to this song come out of nowhere for Mitchellthe Free Man owes as much to Sinclair Lewis as to Dylan or Cohen or any of her other folk-rock contemporariesand are the best representation of the quantum leap her perspective took on the album. Blue is about the self. For the Roses is about the self as reflected in others. C&S is about the city, and all the selves that collideand fail to collidewithin it.

"Court and Spark"

"Love came to my door," the album opens, "with a sleeping roll and a madman's soul." A few years prior, this kind of hippie calling card would have gained anyone happy entrance to a Joni Mitchell song. Back when she was a lady of the canyon, she might have cooked him a meal and sang him a song, then waxed wistful as he rambled onward. But this "Love" is an alto­gether more complex beast than the ones who had populated Mitchell's universe in the past. The "madman's soul" factor that had once seemed so compelling and agonizing in the lovers she sang about, now begins to seem burdensome, exhausting, not worth the effort. This would-be lover's rap about guilty peo­ple and "clearing" himself and the whole litany of ascetic sacri­fices he's madehaving "buried the coins he made in People's Park"and presumably expects her to make, can't beat out the comfort of her own life. Though she may be tempted ("the more he talked to me, you know, the more he reached me"), the narrator of "Court and Spark" can't let go of whatever she'd have to let go of in order to be worthy of this Love. In the song, it's called "LA, city of the fallen angels." And what LA means is the subject of nearly every song on the record. This open­ing song establishes much of the tone that follows: Ambivalent, unconvinced, torn, circumspect, wary of love's price even while in its thrall, "mistrusting and still acting kind." These aren't entirely new ideas, even in Mitchell songs. What's new is the worldliness of the voice that communicates them; there's no prostration or angst in her rejection of this suitor, just a choice. She admits a pang of sadness, perhaps, that she "couldn't let go of LA," but that's more about herself than it is about him. The operative contrast here isn't between two star-crossed lovers, it's between People's Parkthe student/hippie enclave in Berkeley that represented the best of the '60s counterculture energy and some of the harshest retribution against itand the city of fallen angels, the seat of decadent decay. This isn't "My Old Man" (though, notice that he, too, was a singer in the park) or the absentee "nonconformer" of "Little Green." Or if it is, the woman singing about him has really changed her tune. No more wistful sighs about his charming unavailability; this "Love" sounds like some kind of raving zealot: With all his talk about glory trains, clearing one's self, and sacrificing one's blues. And at the risk of over-literalizing the whole scenario, can you blame her for choosing LA? I always picture the song starting at 3am: Intense guy carrying a sleeping bag and nothing else pounding on the wooden door of a house in the Hollywood Hills, making loud pronouncements about "all the guilty people" and offering his host the privilege of completing him, while pledging to return the favor. There's something vaguely sinister about the whole scenario (a song about a raving hippie with a madman's soul showing up at your door in LA wasn't exactly a lullaby in the post Helter Skelter early '70s). The choice she's really making isn't about a guy, however, or even a lifestyle. She's choosing between a life of realismhowever painful that reality might be to acceptand a romantic ideal she simply doesn't subscribe to anymore. The angels in question are fallen not from heaven but from the naïve grace of being willing to sacrifice their blues to go "dancing up a river in the dark." The great tragedy in "Court and Spark" lies in having outgrown the romance of youth without having lost the thirst for romance.

And while there's nothing in the song to mark it out as autobiography, the stark tonal contrast of "Court and Spark" with previous Mitchell songs makes it feel like a signifier of a new chapter in the artist's evolution. It's clear enough that the lyric need not be about any specific man, much less a famous one. It might not even be a man at all. "Court and Spark", like Court and Spark, is a story about a woman's on-again/off-again relationship with love. The love that came to her door. The love that buried its coins and came looking for her. The love that read her mind. The love that made her worry sometimes (she worries sometimes). Personified by a man, or at least by male characteristicsalthough, her description of eyes "the color of the sand and the sea" can't help but suggest a more elemental naturethis love is full of insane demands, and packed with fitful abstractions. The woman in this song, whoever she is, sounds like she might have been seduced by Love a number of times in the past; he does, after all, know where she lives. But where her predecessors in Mitchell's oeuvre would likely have made the sacrifices Love demands and lived to rue them or not, "Court and Spark" heralds the end of the author's sur­render to love. Not the end of her desire for it, nor even the end of her quest for it, but the end of her willingness to subsume herself under it. This particular incarnation of love has a rival for her (self-destructive) impulses: The city. "I couldn't let go of LA" is why she turned love away. But why should love and a city be mutually exclusive? Because love, in this instance, is all strings, all contempt for "all the guilty people," many of whom presumably are among the fallen angels who live there. LA in this songand as filmmaker Thom Andersen pointed out in his heroically ambitious documentary, Los Angeles Plays Itself, it's always significant when the city's name is truncated to just two letters; it always constitutes a spiritual, as well as a syntactical reductionis the antithesis of the '60s, of hippies, of the free love experiment. This LA knows that love is never free, and its denizens, particularly the woman who stars in this song, are jaded enough to know better than to trust a madman who offers to complete you if you'll complete him first. Whether she's too scared or too smart to take love's hand is an open question (one that'll be addressed in the very next song). What's signifi­cant is that she chooses not to, and that choice reflects a larger freedom than most Joni Mitchell womento say nothing of real life womenclaimed for themselves in the years behind. You could call it cynical or cold, but the 70s iteration of freedomthe rebellion after the rebellionconstituted a lot more "no" than its freewheeling predecessor had. That's because the '60s version left a lot of women (Mitchell women, I mean) holding the bag for "nonconformers" who felt free to treat them like property. The new version of freedom, as evinced by Court and Spark, involved the principle of self-preservation, not just against the bastards in power, but the bastards in People's Park, as well.

This question of freedom, or rather the questioning of it, of its primacy in the culture (and the freedom-loving coun­terculture in particular), of its very nature, was always one of Mitchell's ripest subjects. Her early quasi-folk song "Urge for Going" seems like a simple celebration of freedom in among a bunch of florid lines about geese and weather, until the little ver­bal twists ("I get the urge for going but I never seem to go" and "He got the urge for going and I had to let him go") complicate the pretty picture. These complications are taken further on "Cactus Tree", the last song from her first LPa song she later called "a grocery list of men I've liked or loved or left behind." The verses describe elaborate courtship rites (sailing, mountain climbing, letter writing) performed by a string of men to try and woo a woman who, in the last line of each verse is too busy (or "off somewhere") "being free." The surface irony of the refrain lies in the assumed tragedy of the woman's failure to landor be landed byany of these avid lovers. But there's a deeper irony that comes from Mitchell's delivery; while the line plainly says "she chooses not to accept their proposals because to do so would mean being possessed," her voice says, "I'm not so sure all this freedom is so much better than the alternative." She's not rejecting the loversany of the dozens the song offers upso much as accepting them on her own terms: "She will love them when she sees them," she explains, then warns that "they will lose her if they follow." And then the killer ending: "And her heart is full and hollow like a cactus tree / While she's so busy being free."

That "hollow" is more than just a handy rhyme. The woman in this song isn't so terribly different from the one in "Court and Spark"except inasmuch as her language has become less baroque. More notable is that the suitor in "C&S" comes offering even less than his "Cactus Tree" forbears: Just intense words and a sleeping roll (and a madman's soul). It's as if, year by year, would-be lovers have decided that courtly love isn't worth all the hassle.

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Added to Library on November 30, 2008. (9004)


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