Swinging Modern Sounds #82: Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark: A Symposium


There have been only a very few albums of music in my life whose impact on me has been because the album sounded like nothing else I had heard before, and because I was unprepared for the novelty and spooky originality of the work. I would include, for example, What’s Going On? by Marvin Gaye, Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Dub Housing by Pere Ubu, Metal Box by Public Image Limited, Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, Music for Airports by Brian Eno, Cut by the Slits, Dolmen Music by Meredith Monk, and Music for Eighteen Musicians by Steve Reich. With these albums, you are forced to find new ways to listen, and to reckon with the experience of listening, to understand listening anew. The form of the truly revolutionary album is indivisible from its meaning, and no listening experience afterward is untouched by its ambition, nor its affect.

Also on this list, for me, is Court and Spark. Though there are many great Joni Mitchell albums (Blue, certainly, is a masterpiece, but I also love Ladies of the Canyon, Hejira, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, For the Roses, and even Mingus), Court and Spark is an album where the great leap in ambition and sound and writing is unmistakable, indelible, powerful, and seems to require, even, a material difference in what the songs are about. The songs, in a way, are about popular music, about the predicament of popular music and where Mitchell stands in relation to it, and they revolutionize the form in order to demonstrate what she means. If the term singer-songwriter is a term that is somehow unthinkable without taking Joni Mitchell into account, Court and Spark is where she begins to dismantle the sexist implications of the term, and to rise above a merely confessional singer-songwriter model. She wants to act more than to be acted upon, she wants to observe, and to refract, and she certainly isn’t going to have anything to do with the reductive melodic and rhythmic routines of the popular song as it was articulated in 1974, nor with confession as articulated in her own earlier work.

Musically speaking, this change in attitude has to do with incorporating elements of jazz, and without this model of Court and Spark, it’s hard to imagine how we would later have artists of reputation like Tom Waits, Rickie Lee Jones, even the later Steely Dan, without some idea of how rock and roll and folk (and pop, for lack of a better word) could be coerced into some meeting of the minds with the harmonic vocabulary of jazz, and with its playfulness and sophistication and its non-Western modalities. Given rock and folk rock in the early 1970s, especially in California (Ronstadt, Eagles, America, Seals and Crofts, Zevon, Jackson Browne, CSN), it’s sort of hard to know where Joni Mitchell even located this new set of tools and attitudes about music, and what prompted her to think it was plausible, and yet she did what she did, and in the process made the most successful album of her career.

I think the first song I heard from Court and Spark at the time was “Help Me,” because it was on the radio, but “Free Man in Paris” was close behind, the second single from the LP, especially on the newly minted AOR stations, and I remember trying to follow its story, and its convolutions, and so I would like to start there with our conversation.

I take “Free Man” to be a quotation in its entirety. That is, a dramatic monologue. The common interpretation is that the song concerns the life and opinions of David Geffen, record executive (entertainment mogul, we might say now), and that Mitchell wrote it about him after they did some traveling together. That’s all well and good, and it amounts to an approach to songwriting (songs written for a character, not for the troubadour singing the song) that is fascinating, and non-confessional when we expect Mitchell to be confessional (as you might find her, e.g., on the song “Court and Spark”), given her earlier her work. This dramatic monologue is more like a Randy Newman song or a Ray Davies song. But even to think of the song that way is to miss the strategies of gender imposture so manifest in it.

What if “unfettered and alive,” that incredibly beautiful turn of phrase that is so important to the lyric, a lyrical hook, is an ambition of Mitchell’s as much as it is an ambition of Geffen’s, the protagonist, and therefore the song is about a recognition of the lack of freedom that Mitchell feels in the milieu of the “popular song?” What if Mitchell aspires to be the “free man” in Paris, and so she apes Geffen’s monologue of liberation, the better to make it her own? Then the song has at least two layers of meaning (and perhaps this is a layer that Geffen himself came to see, when, initially, he apparently found the song too close for comfort), if not many others.

Musically, “Free Man” starts with that strange chromaticism up the neck of the acoustic guitar, which is combined with some wind instruments, courtesy of Tom Scott (his entire band, the L.A. Express, played on the album). Tom Scott’s relationship to Mitchell’s work dates back to For the Roses, where there are some winds. But here on Court and Spark the wind instruments are front and center frequently. Scott has a certain sort of California jazz sound; he’s not all flats and New Orleans and prostitution and heroin addiction. The sound of the arrangements here is smooth, more related to a dawning subgenre that would feature Grover Washington and Chuck Mangione, et al. That said, Scott was also a Beatle sideman of choice. He played the solo of McCartney’s “Listen To What the Man Said,” as well as on George Harrison’s Dark Horse. He was a front line session guy. But he makes Mitchell’s musical eccentricities, which at the beginning of “Free Man in Paris,” have to do with those open chords in strange tunings and rhythmical twists and turns, sound utterly intentional, even heroic. Jazz here seems to mean painterly, impulsive, nearly Mediterranean. Maybe to effect a transition from the folk idiom to something more sophisticated, what’s necessary is something to do with Gauguin.

The melody of “Free Man” is amazing, and especially Mitchell’s vocal slides on “very good friend of mine,” that slightly ominous line that seems to indicate love and affiliation well beyond the reach of monogamy, but also something, at least to me, like mobster-style association between people. And the lyrics are sweet and open, and the whole hurtles along as though it’s not complex, even though it is, and the more you look closely at “Free Man in Paris,” the more potent its questions become. What does Paris mean here, exactly? Is love in Paris somehow different, or do Americans project a difference onto Paris? And when a man is free in Paris, what is the nature of his freedom?

I served on a panel on James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room recently, and I can’t help thinking that that is what being free in Paris means, as it does in that excellent novel—drink, libertinism, and perhaps even, well, bisexuality. That’s what makes Mitchell’s impersonation of Geffen, or the protagonist based on Geffen, that much more interesting. “Unfettered and free” means unconstrained by normative ideas of desire and sexuality and profession, and these absences of constraint, in the context of California rock and roll, from the conventional iterations of what is available to a woman.

Symposium contributors:
Vashti Bunyan, singer and songwriter
Mary Byrne, singer, songwriter, fiction writer
John Colpitts (aka Kid Millions), drummer, improviser, songwriter, band leader, composer, memoirist
John Kelly, performance artist, visual artist, singer, musician
Rick Moody, writer, music critic, professor, musician
Amy Scholder, writer, editor, critic
Michael Snediker, poet, critic, professor
Mia Doi Todd, singer and songwriter
Liz Wood, writer, editor, and educator


Rick Moody: I still really love this song. What do you think?

John Colpitts: When I listen to this recording I wonder why she didn’t start the record with it? It’s such a pristine performance and even though there’s so much virtuosity in her earlier records this particular album and it’s easy listening arrangements were initially a difficult aesthetic choice to accept (that flute at the top of the track was a turn off for me when I first heard it and associated high production with lack of authenticity), this track feels precise, frothy, and programmatic. Virtuosity is at it’s best when it disguises itself. It is an “unfettered” kind of presentation and in context with her output that came before this record and even this song, it feels free. Songs that might have felt fleet-footed before—like say, “This Flight Tonight” from Blue feel comparatively plodding. The assurance behind the vocal performance and the band actually is a freeing act. She surely imagines the music but is not responsible for performing all the filigree in a way that she had on past records.

I think it’s interesting to wonder about Geffen and the gay subtext. There are two kinds of friends here. There’s the friend in commerce at the top of the tune—what Geffen is trying to escape, and the search/fantasy for the “very good friend” in Paris—a person who we can imagine is a kind of Virgil in the underworld of Paris. In a way, you’re not free in Paris; you don’t speak the language, you can’t access the mundane horror of a life of survival. So for these LA denizens Paris is unattainable anyway. It’s trick of nostalgia. But you gotta have something to escape I suppose.

There’s something passive-aggressive about this song; it’s almost a dare. Geffen was one of Joni’s biggest advocates at this time and she’s daring him to step into this fantasy, but she’s also finally giving him the record that truly made her a star. They are in cahoots, fully ensconced in LA, taking full advantage of the magicians of the studio there, spending an entire year in the studio, to make a jewel for the masses. There’s something less vulnerable about this record and this song is definitely less vulnerable, she’s not even the explicit narrator. She’s stepped into that machinery via the words of her manager/record mogul. It’s very slick!

Even though I have no experience with success in music—I still can understand the fatigue that Mitchell’s narrator talks about. There are telephone screamers at every level of this nightmare.

Amy Scholder: I’ll jump in and respond to John’s comment about the song order on the album. I think C&S is more of a concept album than many of Joni’s other records. It starts with the song “Court and Spark” about love choosing her and yet she choses life/career in LA instead… “Help Me” is about choosing the “rambler, the gambler” and knowing it’s going to be rough. But knowing she’s also that guy who loves his lovin’ “but not like we love our freedom.” This is the perfect segue to “Free Man in Paris.”

Joni has always identified with male power and privilege, with what has traditionally been a male desire for freedom/solitude/career. I agree that her song about Geffen is also about herself. Weighing on her mind, too, must have been her decision to put her child up for adoption (just a few years before), choosing music and the business—moving to LA was to chose to live in the epicenter of the industry, and for a time she lived with Geffen in his home in Malibu—over having a family. (She famously wrote about that heartache on the album Blue, in “Little Green” and “River,” but it’s everywhere in her songs.) She chose to be unfettered and alive, but then again, it’s never that simple for a woman like Joni.

It’s interesting too to think of the dynamic in the studio: Joni hired her ex-lover, Graham Nash, to sing background on “Free Man in Paris,” and her current lover, John Guerin, to play drums and percussion. They fell in love while making Court and Spark. It’s not hard to see why.

Michael Snediker: Somewhat in haste, but here you go. I love this album, but am approaching it (ergo this song) from a pretty historically uninformed vantage. For the sake of coming clean about my particular musical deficits if not fraudulence, I’d like to begin by confessing my having first encountered Court and Spark as one of the free CDs from my college freshman BMG subscription. I was in love with my straight best friend (I wouldn’t come out for another two years), and replicating his 70s classic rock collection was a substantive element of a courtship that Court and Spark couldn’t help but notarize. I offer this embarrassment as partial context for thinking through what it means to fall in love both with and within the terms of this particular song.

Its ventriloquizing of Geffen (or at least some Geffenesque figure) feels most erotically interesting where the romantic and psychical capacities being summoned (inhabited, performed, impersonated, etc.) are least specific to a given self (something like lyric drag as Lauren Hutton in a perfectly tailored white suit). Overlap and convergence take the form of too many objects or people per pronoun, an interest in rather than an aversion toward the difficulty of discriminating between sincerity and disingenuity. In the first verse, for instance, “trying to be a good friend of mine” conjures a non-equivalence between motive and overture, the convergence of obsequiousness or desperation on an appearance of friendship that is only superficially at odds with however differently one imagines the penultimate verse’s “very good friend of mine.” Such lines are able to survive both paradigms of amorous truth-telling and the cynicism one might impute to the failure of veracity for the simple reason that the song’s vision of love is willing to sacrifice the fragility of the singular to an aesthetics of the multiple. After all, to be a “free man in Paris” isn’t necessarily to be exceptional so much as to become indistinguishable from the Benjaminian crowd. Being free by Parisian standards doesn’t designate an American independence so much as independence from what Lauren Berlant might call the cruel optimism of the dream of American singularity.

By contrast, I think of “Help Me” and “Case of You,” which enact (rather than narrate) an amorous susceptibility inseparable if not from candor than the staging of candor. Love is the gold standard of those songs not least because neither they nor their respective subject positions is able to imagine an emotional content more powerful than it. Or: a song like “Help Me” or “Case of You” seems to take the form of a love song not because it believes in love songs, per se, but because the latter names the genre that least distorts the urgency of expression. “Free Man in Paris,” by contrast, invokes popular songs, not love songs, because what most matters isn’t the truth or purity or even candor of love so much as its population of the universe with lyrics that consumers can imagine as their own: not in terms of an affinity or solidarity of one heartbreak with another, but in terms of a song’s seduction of listeners to believe in the structure of fungibility itself. Both conceptually and acoustically, there’s a satisfying oddness to the shape of “unfettered.” My ear wants to change it to “unfetéd,” as though the independence being conjured were unthinkable apart from the independence of going unrecognized, uncelebrated, of being not in demand. At the same time, that the song asks us to believe in the vigor of feeling unfettered seems all the more radical given the frequency with which love songs so often salvage themselves from opposite feelings of amorous dependence (i.e. the Sapphism of “I know this is real because it feels like I’m falling apart”). When Joni’s voice inhabits Geffen’s ostensible nostalgia for the city of Love, it becomes a way for the song to rethink some exciting alternative relation between loving your lovin’ and your freedom.

Liz Wood: When people speak of Court and Spark as Mitchell’s novelistic album, I immediately think of “Free Man in Paris.” It is the most explicitly referential of an exterior subject of the album’s songs—even if you do not know that it is purportedly about David Geffen, the great puppeteer of American music for the album’s era and many to follow, it remains a readily apparent character study. However, what it takes from Geffen, or whichever subject you, the listener, imagine occupies the “I” space here, its narrative is in service to the album’s greater exploration of the tension between artist and success. The “I” yearns to be free in Paris, a city where no one demands he occupy the professional capacity that dominates the life that he has chosen. But there isn’t derision in the lines about his work, or his success—although there is a bit of existential crisis, a craving to indulge in dreams of permanent wandering, the song largely celebrates the burdens that only a man at the top of his field can boast of. The chorus reeks of the over-protestations of one who takes pride in the importance about which he complains. Who would admit that they control the “star maker machinery behind the popular song” if they truly wanted to leave the power behind? After all, the speaker has chosen to take on the new projects that keep him from a Parisian freedom, commitments he can use as crutches in the dream of this song but which, both he and the listener intimate, he would not know how to exist without. Geffen, or the “I,” is one in Court and Spark’s chorus of narrators searching for their optimal space among the compromises, both real and imagined, involved in creative work that is monetized.

For me, “Free Man in Paris” becomes an excellent introduction to Court and Spark because it explicitly presents the album’s concern with examining what it means to live in this place of contradiction that is creative success. Joni Mitchell is taking measure of the vagabond and the star, holding both up to the light, as she herself is being pulled between the two in her evolution as a popular musician. Thus, in “Free Man,” Mitchell offers the listener Geffen as one figure of fame: a man so powerful that he has given up his personal freedom, such that only by retreating can he embrace the other that is in fact himself. Whether that other self is a kind of effacement, the removal of specialness, of the state of being in-demand; a more sincere expression of sexual freedom; or a combination of these two and other impulses, the “I” has constructed such a web of power that, at home, he lives as a kind of a projection rather than as a man. Joni’s genius, for me, lies in the fact that Geffen’s conflicted state is presented through a joyous pop sensibility—creating the feeling that the “I” understands what he has given up, and what he will continue to give up, and bemoans the compromise, but has the air of one who doth protest too much. He’s looking out a window to an exoticized retreat, romancing his nostalgia for a state of being as he continues to willfully move away from it. This is the territory of American success, the space where its stars inhabit, mapped and laid open by Joni Mitchell as she evaluates the condition for herself.

Moody: Without wanting to stymie the posts yet to come on “Free Man In Paris,” I did want to speak briefly to why I thought to start with that song instead of starting with “Court and Spark,” the first song on the album, a song I really like a lot. In fact, in some ways, it’s among my very favorite songs on the album of the same name. But: “Court and Spark” is a meditative piano ballad, of a kind that is very well-traveled in the Mitchell oeuvre, in a way that goes all the back to “For Free,” from Ladies of the Canyon and “River” from Blue. As such, “Court and Spark,” the song, seems like a liminal composition, a piece of connective tissue to insure the participation in the album by fans of Joni Mitchell from earlier days. Indeed, the narrative of “Court and Spark,” also follows a trajectory (alluded to by Amy above) not unknown in the Mitchell songbook, the attentions of some slightly uncouth and unpredictable love object (cf. “Coyote,” from Hejira), who nonetheless manages to summon in the songwriter considerable emanations of desire.

What I love about “Court and Spark” is not this, however; what I love is the riff with its skittering piano rhythms, and the droning bass note, and a little bit of electric guitar that sounds like pedal steel but isn’t. And then there’s the last line, which sort of keeps the song from resolving, and which serves as the introduction to the entire method of the album: “But I couldn’t let go of LA, city of the fallen angels.” I love the song because of this turn away from the ineffable riches of countercultural affiliation (“So he buried the coins he made in People’s Park/And went looking for a woman to court and spark”) in the direction actual worldly riches, of the kind associated with Los Angeles, indicates that the record is turning away from the traditional Joni Mitchell strongholds of composition.

Or: remember all of that Edenic imagery on the original recording of “Woodstock,” on Ladies of the Canyon (and is she playing a Wurlitzer on there?), all of the belief in Edenic imagery? “I came upon a child of God,” etc. “We are stardust, we are golden, and we got to get ourselves back to the garden.” It’s so unchecked in its commitment, “Woodstock” is, to all the hippie stuff, and I love it as a piece of music, and dislike the lyrics so much. (The “smog”/”cog” rhyme, e.g.) I love the weird, wordless swooping at the end, the Joni Mitchell of the piercing and avian soprano. I love it with all my heart. But I don’t believe in the cosmogeny of “Woodstock” at all, nor its idealism. And the turn on “Court and Spark,” mercifully, is away from the Edenic. It happens right there at the end of the song. And you can tell because Mitchell’s voice, on “Court and Spark,” has begun its long slow descent from the swooping soprano. It has got a smoky edge. It has jazz character. It has the disillusionment of jazz.

The last thing to say about “Court and Spark” is that though it’s not materially different from a lot of earlier Mitchell songs, though it serves as a link from For the Roses (specifically a link from the last song on that album: “Judgment of the Moon and Stars”), it does have that really spectacular refrain. To court is just what it looks like, old-fashioned courtship, but to spark is excellent, and unexpected, and original. What does she mean by “spark” exactly? Not that romance is evanescent and temporary, but more that even the briefest conflagration can turn into one of those SoCal brush fires where hundreds of homes are destroyed. Or a spark like in Gnosticism, the numen of Gnosticism. Or like some brief flareup of the orgone that is more like a flow (it comes up again in “Car On a Hill”), like a system of repeated eruptions of romantic activity, and thus counterposed against the troubadour “courtship” model. Maybe it should be “Court versus Spark,” to be fully accurate, but the “and” was included as a kind of gradualism or compromise.

Anyway, “Help Me,” which Michael alluded to, tackles a lot of similar themes, but with the jazz scattered liberally about it. And we might get to it yet—as the real beginning of the album—but I wanted to mention briefly why I skipped over the title song…

Mary Byrne: Hello everyone! Rick, I like your suggestion of an album that was painted into being. Maybe a three-minute song, comprised of just two verses and a chorus that repeats once, is a confining canvas good for expressing the music executive’s inner life. To me the Geffen character sounds sapped and saddened, and I imagine here’s Joni, standing close by with a pencil behind her ear. I’ve wondered if one reason artists make their work is to find a solution to a problem—to try to find a solution to a problem—even though making the work has no good track record of doing so, and may make things worse for the artist by revealing even more facets of the difficulty at hand. I hear Joni’s song as an empathic response to the man, taking his voice as her own for a time, and, perhaps, as a way for her to get a fresh look at a difficulty they share. I don’t know that she’d arrive at the same conclusions he has. Or maybe, as I remember John saying, if they’re in cahoots, she would. Does she think she’ll escape, in the end, the confinement he’s describing? I’m not sure.

To me, so much of the expressiveness in Joni’s voice happens in the moments where it switches from high to low, or from woman to man, in my hearing of the song. It’s in the saucy way her voice slips down into “you can’t please ’em all,” staying in an almost campy businessman’s tone for “they’re trying to get ahead,” then rising again, vulnerable: “they’re trying to be a good friend of mine.” She seems unconcerned that her voice is beautiful, preferring to use it for these different roles, and measuring it out in rhythm. Spaces that shouldn’t gracefully contain the number of syllables she packs in, do. The song’s light on its feet and gone before you know it.

From what I read about and from artists who’ve been drawn to Paris, it sounds like a Shangri-La where people, maybe, put a different kind of trust in one another than people do in the US, a trust in which you’re exhorted and expected to be your truest self, and it’s mutually reinforcing. The man is free in Paris, yes, because everyone there is making him do something that he wants to do. A deeply social, rigorously relational place—it’s got to be exhausting, surely, and sometimes is, from what I hear. I found Michael’s idea of “being free by Parisian standards” helpful; the man and woman are being Americans, in Paris. I imagine them feeling a burden lift as they leave the US in the early 70s, where being true to oneself, consequences be damned, is playing a distant last fiddle behind expectations of money, success, and, acutely, gender. He seems at risk of becoming a king and a cartoon even to himself, overwhelmed by his role, and I take his besieged state to be something with which Joni was familiar. I like how Amy put it: that Joni identifies with choices usually associated with men, and perhaps with the adoption decision behind her, she can relate to the man’s sense of having a terrible power.

What’s strange about the man in that song is that self-sacrificing quality, as Liz is pointing out, choosing false friendships and wearying labor over the freedom of Paris. I thought Joni felt really awful for him until Liz said he “doth protest too much,” and I had a good laugh over that. I think Joni is choosing differently from him, but as for how she thinks she’s going to fare, I don’t know; they’re both human beings, subject to human failings, and is she sure she’ll end up freer than him? I hear how intimately close she was willing to get to him and his point of view, and I think she’s saying she isn’t.

Vashti Bunyan: The clue was in the title. And then in the first line. “The way I see it,” he said.

It took me till this week to realize that “Free Man in Paris” is possibly about David Geffen. I had always imagined it was about the way she herself felt—being trapped in her own success.

But this song and indeed the whole album passed me by completely in 1974. In fact I passed all music by from 1970 onwards since I reacted to my own failure as a songwriter by refusing to listen to anyone else. Especially Joni Mitchell.

I had seen her on a crackly black and white TV in about 1969—a beautiful young woman from far off US—sitting at a piano and singing the most intriguing song. I’d been so impressed by the courage it would take to play in front of cameras that I’d wholly despaired of myself. I continued to compare my inadequacies to her brilliance for many many years.

However, Free Man In Paris must have got through that self-pitying haze as I feel as if I have been aware of the song all along.

During 1974 I would have been visiting a friend who twenty years later became my partner. He has since then reeducated me musically—introducing me to all that I missed through those years. Of course he had Court and Spark and I would have heard it there—and since, on and off until every song on the album has become as familiar as wallpaper.

But only now have I actually listened. Casting out the old ungenerous spirit, I do really listen. Only to find that I have completely misheard, misread, and misunderstood the whole of “Free Man in Paris.”

So I have a bit of time ahead of me to discover the many threads, twists, turns, and clues in her songs that I have missed out on. I look forward to it—and to reading everyone else’s words..

Thank you, Rick.

Scholder: It’s not my inclination to write about myself but I’m inspired by all these posts so far.

I first listened to Court and Spark in the bedroom of my first girlfriend in Sherman Oaks, California, otherwise known as The Valley. We were fifteen. The album wasn’t new but it wasn’t vintage either. It was 1980 and listening to this one by Joni stirred in us (my new lover and me) a mix of feelings I didn’t know how to name (maybe I still don’t) but I was utterly relieved to be in that new relationship, in that bedroom with Joni’s embossed yellow album opened to lyrics and a most beautiful photo of her. I was accessing some authentic part of myself so long forbidden. I don’t think I will ever not associate this (and maybe all) Joni records with those feelings of euphoria and infinite sadness which defined my coming out.

The song “Court and Spark” still brings me to a complex web of feeling every time I listen to it. Joni’s brand of love song: lyrics about joy and love in a major turned minor key. Isn’t that how life is? And love, making us feel like we need help the moment we start to fall. She famously talked about being drawn to such musical constructions, which in her youth she understood as heresy. The church forbade complexity and ambiguity. They want happiness in major keys, evil cast in minor. There was no room for doubt. So Joni made her life’s work about doubt and ambivalence and how even the most romantic moment is simultaneously the most stricken (I’m hearing that first piano chord at the top of “Court and Spark”). She was interviewed in the mid 1990s by Morrissey for Rolling Stone. At the time, I was working with Joni on writing her autobiography (she backed out of the project mid-way). I remember her saying how odd it was to get the attention from Rolling Stone since they had always left her out of their pantheon of rock gods (she knew she belonged at the top of the list, with Dylan). She liked Morrissey and seemed interested that they paired her with him. I’m not sure she was familiar with his work but he wasn’t an obvious choice, which pleased her. But when it was published she complained bitterly about the title of the interview: “Melancholy Meets the Infinite Sadness.” She went on and on about how strange/annoying it was that she was characterized as a “confessional” singer-songwriter who was always dealing with the difficulty, with life’s hardships. Only with the minor key. She saw herself drawing out both sides (now), of life and love. Of pain and pleasure. She would point out her songs of goofiness and whimsy. Why, she would ask, why would people only hear her minor keys, why only the melancholy? It was really so much worse than she knew. I didn’t have the heart to say, But Joni, You’re not Melancholy, you’re the Infinite Sadness.

Mia Doi Todd: There have been many tribute concerts in LA in recent years. Original music seems to be much on the wane. As opposed to tribute bands omnipresent since high school, these tribute concerts showcase a different singer for every song and have been the bread and butter for many locals musicians during the summer months of free crowd-pleasing concerts around the city. I’ve been asked to sing various beautiful songs, and none have been as difficult as Joni’s. I am a HUGE fan of hers.

I was very honored to meet her on one occasion. I was somehow invited to Joni’s house for her annual Christmas party. To my great surprise, I was one of a dozen guests. I barely spoke to her for most of the night, but towards the end of the party, the mutual friend who had invited me, called me over and said, “Joni, you know Mia is a singer-songwriter,” to my absolute horror. And then Joni said in a very friendly way, “Oh, yeah? How can I hear your music?” Me: “Well, I brought you a CD…” and then she went and put it on and we played doubles pool and listened to my album. I was mortified, could have evaporated right there; my record never sounded as bad as it did that night.

For me, Joni is the ultimate songwriter. And the ultimate singer as well. I have tackled a few of her songs in these aforementioned tribute concerts. Her songs are so hard to sing well, to interpret and make one’s own. Her vocal range was amazing, the flow of words so natural, conversational, with all those syllables and such poetry! Such remarkable genius; how on earth did it happen? I’ve watched a documentary about her and read about giving her daughter up for adoption and their reunion years later, but I’m not much of a music historian, and I had no idea about the Geffen storyline of “Free Man in Paris” until this discussion began. I guess I missed that “he said” almost under the breath at the end of the first line. That’s the kind of thing you discover when you print out the lyrics for the song that you need to learn that you think you already know. This discussion may bring to light many such things. That’s exciting!

So I always assumed that she was singing about herself being in Paris and feeling free, “unfettered and alive,” and as has been discussed, she must have been on some levels. There are different connotations to “free man” and “free woman.” The latter spills over into the pejorative, the wanton libertine. I didn’t take that as her meaning, rather a carefree joie de vivre and anonymity, more aptly coined in “free man.” Women of Joni’s generation have had far more gender inequality and social expectations to deal with, though feminism has not come so far in these forty years. On tour I have often experienced the freedom of being far away from the obligations of home and friends and family and have felt like I was skipping down the Champs-Elysees in Denver or Asheville.

Listening to Joni’s music as a teenager really had a huge impact on me. My worldview was totally informed by hers as I perceived it through her music. At that time, I identified most with her early albums. I would dream of my life to come through the lens of her storytelling. I designed and drew all my record covers, as if only that would make it 100% my own vision and creation. My life has only recently caught up to Court and Spark, not in terms of fame, artistry, and success, but in womanhood and relationships. I lived in Paris for a little while and felt very free. Some part of my feeling came from knowing this song. I sing the refrain to myself sometimes when I am missing that sense of freedom.

Looking forward to reading all the future dialogue.

Moody: I have been thinking about why the big musical leap on Court and Spark, the leap from slightly skeletal folk arrangements to big jazz-inflected LA sounds, was inevitable, and how it might be inevitable with respect to the themes of Court and Spark, though this would be to suggest that I knew all the themes, or had command of all the themes, or that command was even possible in a case like this.

There’s a personal backstory event here, which is marginally relevant, but funny, which is that which is that I once tried to learn Mitchell’s “For Free,” to impress a very talented singer at my high school, who was going to perform it there.

The problem was that I couldn’t read very well. If you gave me a day, I could read four or five measures of written piano score, and that was the extent of it. But I was really good at picking things out by ear, so I had already picked out the C Bb A minor F progression of “For Free,” and I just told Liza we could sort of, you know, improvise the tune, and she could wait a few bars, and then I would give her the nod, and she could come in, and then I’d follow her. Jazz style. But Liza, the chanteuse, couldn’t do it that way, she could only do it the way it was on the recording, or perhaps that was what she wanted. We commissioned a score from our music teacher, but I couldn’t read the score, though I kept promising the music teacher I could use the score. At no point did it occur to me to tell anyone that I was out of my league.

The positive note I can strike here is that I learned “For Free” really well at that point, as though the song were more important than the human relationships. Even now the song is brutally sad, and I still can’t listen to it carefully without tearing up. I’m sure everyone here knows it well. The Joni narrator is walking in a “dirty town,” after having slept in a “good hotel,” in the midst of a shopping expedition, “waiting for the walking green,” when she happens upon a clarinet player on a street corner, who is “playing real good for free.” The second verse is about how Mitchell is in the business of music-making (“I’ll play if you have the money/or if you’re a friend to me”), and the third verse is about how neglected the clarinetist is by comparison (“They knew he’d never been on their tv screens/so they passed his music by”), and yet on he plays, until, at the end, the piano and voice ballad gives way to an actual clarinet player, who sort of riffs and trills out until the end of the song. The wind instrument, appears here, on this tragedy-writ-small about the differences between musical success and musical failure, which is therefore, in a way, about class and economics, as an augury of the wind instruments on For the Roses and Court and Spark.

Meanwhile: it’s sort of hard for me to describe how perfect the vocal on is on “For Free.” I think Mia and Mary have both talked about Mitchell’s remarkable capability to dance through extra syllables in a line, and there’s plenty of that on “For Free,” but there’s also a perfect tone, really, and it’s as if the clarinet and the voice are doing some kind of competition about clarity of tone. They are perfect, from different starting points, in the same way. And we haven’t even gotten into Mitchell’s vibrato in her high period, perfectly deployed at the end of the line, not in some show-off-y way, like Joan Baez, maybe, but in a way that is by far more virtuosic from some other voices of the period—Dylan, McGuinn, Grace Slick, or her pals Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. She was a very nearly perfect singer on Ladies of the Canyon. “For Free” is about the discomfort of the music business (and because of learning the song in a state of unredeemed longing, I felt the sadness of this very acutely), and as such it prefigures the “Free Man in Paris” theme that comes up again and again on Court and Spark. The popular song.

My understanding is that Mitchell was an occasional busker while living in Toronto (and working in the women’s wear section at a local department store) in her youth, and that her early gigs had all the charm of folk period, empty clubs, YMCAs, etc. So it is less that the clarinetist of “For Free” is an exotic other for Mitchell, and more that she sees in him her own past. The same may be said of the male protagonist of the song “Court and Spark,” he who played for change in People’s Park. It’s like there’s a sort of dialectical narrative in Mitchell, in which wind instruments are the sign of sophistication, of the having travelled away from the condition of busking, even as they recall that time. Serious, studio-enhanced popular music has strings, winds, and horns on it, which would indemnify the player against poverty and irrelevance, and yet Mitchell’s trajectory is such that once she got to studio perfection, on Court and Spark, she set about dismantling it, until, on Mingus, she accomplished something that had nothing to do with the “popular song,” and was remarkably punk/experimental (the grungy recording of the acoustic guitar, which buzzes at the low end, totally sounds like Public Image Limited to me). On which one of the great contemporary sax players, Wayne Shorter, is much in display, in an almost unrecognizable setting, jazz and not-jazz.

This all brings me to this:

Which is a link to the songs “People’s Parties” and “Same Situation,” which constitute a bit of a suite, as they run continuously, the one from the other, and they flow, in terms of mood and tone through “Car On a Hill,” which is also great, unto the deep, sad, enigmatic “Down to You,” which is itself more than half instrumental, and which has a string arrangement of some cinematic quality. This is the middle portion of the Court and Spark, the deeply serious middle. And it begins with “People’s Parties.” The song finds its origin at some California party, as we might stereotypically imagine it, in third person, like some pop song version of Wordsworth’s “Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” like the establishing shot of some short film, and its third person travels down into a catalogue of party attendants, noting especially a feminine character, “Photo Beauty:”

Photo Beauty gets attention
Then her eye paint’s running down
She’s got a rose in her teeth
And a lampshade crown
One minute she’s so happy
Then she’s crying on someone’s knee
Saying laughing and crying
You know it’s the same release

The question is if it’s Mitchell herself, or rather a figure that Mitchell identifies with, and would rather not (as she has already proven herself to be more taken with the masculine perspective, or the omnisexual perspective, of “Free Man in Paris”), but before we can ponder on the third-person here, the song abruptly shifts into the first:

I told you when I met you
I was crazy
Cry for us all Beauty
Cry for Eddie in the corner
Thinking he’s nobody
And Jack behind his joker
And stone-cold Grace behind her fan
And me in my frightened silence
Thinking I don’t understand

The crazy feminine here is somewhat troubling to me. It reminds me of why one of my lit crit professors at Brown reviled the high period of Tennessee Williams: because the women in Williams, in order to survive, seem to have to go “crazy.” I don’t know what the term means, exactly, crazy. I don’t know if the hysteria of the feminine is some masculine attempt to organize and medicalize aspects of feminine consciousness that are routine, and therefore just counter-narrative to some more rigidly defined masculine “sanity.” Maybe it’s a historically determined use of “crazy” such as we would not use now. And yet Mitchell’s first-person narrator in “People’s Parties,” seems to take on some of the theory of hysteria:

I’m just living on nerves and feelings
With a weak and a lazy mind
And coming to peoples parties
Fumbling deaf dumb and blind

But just as the song announces this problematic—the first-persona protagonist cannot get comfortable at the party, finds it all overwhelming—it finds a sort of solution, in its beautiful out-chorus, with some gorgeous vocal stacks:

Laughing it all away
Laughing it alI away
Laughing it all away

The laughing here is to me suggests the jouissance of French psychoanalysis, the feminine superabundance of pleasure. Mitchell posits it as the way out of the heinousness of a California party, and she ratifies it by making a gorgeous refrain at the end of song that has no chorus, only verses. Which then immediately gives way to “Same Situation,” a treatise on being on the wrong end of romance. It starts in the same key as “People’s Parties,” but with piano instead of guitar. A slightly fragmented feminine consciousness, here, then, with more confession than in the pop hits that precede it, pop songs with a bit of Plath and Sexton about them, less observational and more exposed.

So this is meant to be the thread about the middle of the album, before we get to the suite at the end, where I want to speak briefly to “Raised on Robbery” and “Twisted.” If the first three songs are perfection, as are the last three, the middle is its own separate land mass with a sort of obsessive attempt to arrive at a solution by reiteration. Have at it! The middle!

Wood: I am in awe of the beauty and sincerity in everyone’s posts. This is really a magical experience for me, to be taken through so many intelligent, meaningful, and probing experiences of an album that I love. Thank you!

It feels like each of the middle songs on Court and Spark could be called “Similar Situation”—this is LA in portrait, and not just that—this is the aspiring female experience in portrait: the waiting, the image-object experience of a female on display, in use, in operation in a world that watches and chooses whether or not they will ask her to dance. And the songs could be just that—the female as object acted-upon, unraveled for the listener—that is enough for an incredibly affecting song, enough material for an entire musical career. But of course Joni doesn’t stop here. Instead, we get what I believe Amy termed her great balance of “complexity and ambiguity”: the mournful quality of the victim doesn’t triumph here, we aren’t just left with the feeling of the unwilling, of the powerless. As Rick points out, we get that great laugh. Joni’s watched female understands her position, is taking measure of her willful participation in something that she knows well, that she recognizes as imperfect, as unsatisfying, as not enough. She is awake in the room where others strive to arrive, watching—the perfect writer, seeing all, even herself. This, to me, is the incredible genius! Joni understands the figures at the party, she understands the lover who has a young sex object admiring herself in his bathroom, she understands the lover who’s off feeling his own greatness in LA to her subject’s exclusion. Joni understands ego—she doesn’t ask us to pretend we are not party to its pulls and wants. And, more than that, in this album she so completely understands LA ego, the ego of fame-lust, of the pull that drives this city she loves, as she still loves it. Once again, she’s taking measure, as in “Free Man.”

How interesting that she seems to be coming to a conclusion that this life—a life she has triumphed, admired, has sung for—isn’t exactly what she wants, precisely at the time when she rises to its top? This is one of my favorite things about genius pop songs—those moments when the biggest hit songs are the songs that seem to most point out the ugliness of the hit song’s world.

For me, the thing that’s so mystifying about Joni’s early career is that while we know her for the sentiment in “For Free”—such an amazing hymn to music for its own sake—she also wrote “The Boho Dance.” The latter shows contempt for the affectations of an underground scene that limits itself through over-romanticizing its own authenticity, warning of the type of self-righteous conformity it creates:

And you were in the parking lot
Subterranean by your own design
The virtue of your style inscribed
On your contempt for mine
Jesus was a beggar, he was rich in grace
And Solomon kept his head in all his glory
It’s just that some steps outside the Boho dance
Have a fascination for me


If you’d told me in my punk days Joni Mitchell wrote a song that’d put my own scene-obsession to shame, I would’ve laughed in your face. Being a child of hippies, it took me a while to listen to Joni for who she is, rather than for the music sensibility that she seemed to represent. It didn’t help that all of my mother’s friends told me I reminded them of a young Joni—for me, celebrity comparisons have always been nice ways of saying that you’re a much less attractive version of a famous person, which is to say they have always seemed like barbed insults, and the repeated comparison embittered me against her. That, combined with the way I had been taught to see her, as someone idealistically singing about a way of life that my parents had experienced, and which seemed to have so thoroughly failed them (and, by extension, me), long-delayed any true appreciation of Joni’s music on its own terms.

I first came to Joni by reading her song lyrics, sent via letters, from a “very dear friend of mine.” I was, perfectly enough, living in France and missing California, and much more awake to my own presence as an object in a room, a part of a group of girls who were invited to the right places, something we enjoyed, and who were thoroughly aware of the fact that we were only invited because we looked the part, something that I handled by saying incredibly insulting things with a smile whenever I could get away with it. Immature, I know, but it is so often the situation that a young woman finds herself in, trapped with only side-angle means of exercising agency.

The image always comes first, in other words—something everyone knows in theory, but an experience that remains all-consuming and vitally mystifying. It’s a beyond strange thing to be contained within that space and to recognize it, to watch people’s surprise when your personality shows, when any intelligence shows. Or to watch them erase those displays of who you are in favor of only appreciating the surface. In France, preoccupied with these conditions as I was, both happy and miserable for my place, dependent on men for that place, playing them as they played me, aware of my own participation in something that made me feel incredibly high and low, together, at all times—Court and Spark seemed to have my number so completely. The album also promised not to judge me whether I enjoyed the ride for what it was, or decided that I did hate that world after all. Punk had never given me that understanding, nor had the garage rock renaissance that pushed my twenty-something version of underground so briefly to the top. I loved Joni for that, for getting the way I was testing, and taking measure, of the male world around me, making up my mind about just what would be enough.

So much about coming of age is understanding the way that the world sees you, recognizing that this composite exists separate from you, and identifying the compromises required by different paths. For women, much of this is colored by the filter of object-identification, of sexualization. We have to decide what to do with that. And, for me, Joni really understood what it was to make this decision in these middle tracks—just as she knew what it was to make so many others.

Moody: Such a lovely post from Liz. Very, very moving. It prompted me, for fun, to ask my old friend, Liza, from high school, for whom I once tried to learn “For Free” on piano, what she thinks about Joni Mitchell now, from this great distance:

Yes. Wistful for a time when it was just about the music. Joni meant a lot to me at that time—more now. What Joni meant to me was just songwriting and music. Joni and Bonnie were women. They weren’t in bands, they weren’t subservient. They were the headline. The bosses. I wrote music. I sang. I wanted to write like Joni, but I wanted to sing like Bonnie. I loved [Joni’s] cleverness. Her lyrics were/are so visual, so real, so relatable. “People’s Parties” is a real go-to for me. I think the lyrics speak to a common experience of feeling like you don’t fit in. “Everyone else gets it but me.” Imposter syndrome; looking to someone else for answers. “You seem to have a broader sensibility.” I really love the line, “Living on nerves and feelings with a weak and a lazy mind,” because it describes me to a T. To me, the song has a kind of pent up energy like a young woman that builds and then it recedes like it gets scared of really expressing itself in case it’s wrong. She wants to be noticed but she’s afraid. And even though she knows she’s taking herself too seriously, she can’t stop. Also, although Joni tends to sing high, I prefer the lower tones and when she sings the “laughing it all away,” I just melt. It’s hard to be an introspective loner and a performance artist at the same time, as I think you understand. And then there’s just that regular tension between wanting to connect with people on an emotional level, but not being able to turn off the artist’s eye. “People’s Parties” captures these slices of human nature. An expression of the FEMALE that is a complete identity. She might write about love, loss, children, whatever, but the voice is distinctively hers, the individual woman experiencing the story, and not just any woman. At the same time, so recognizable and relatable. So we’re reading HER story, but it’s understandable, and not in some kind of feminine archetype way, but just as one person to another.

Colpitts: We’ve discussed a little bit about sequencing here—in terms of Mitchell setting up the album in a way that’s not so alienating to her deeply affected Blue aficionados. (And can we say that For the Roses was an incredible achievement that was difficult to penetrate and unrelentingly dark, but a hit as well? I’m thinking of my favorite song on the album “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire” ends up with a junkie staring into a toilet.)

I craved for more of Blue‘s rawness and what felt like a fully realized expression of the excitement, confusion and pain that accompanies what passes for love in an adolescent frame. But there’s nothing like Blue and you can’t find those treasures anywhere else.

Anyway—this would be to set up that middle sequence of Court and Spark—just a few years later, but what feels like an artist who is embodying maturity with all its ambivalence. I guess I could focus a little on the music since it’s the performances and the quality of musicianship that makes this feel like a true LA album. With a flawless facade, a rich technical sheen, it’s a film—with Altman-esque moments of studied casual atmosphere. What is LA if not the parties? And if you haven’t been to an LA party, well, you haven’t ever felt that self-deprecating lowness and despair that Mitchell is hinting at. I’ve never been assessed and discarded with as much ruthlessness as at an LA party. A great line among many in this song is, “And me in my frightened silence/Thinking I don’t understand”—the song is the frame through which she makes sense of the party, its emptiness and absurdity, the characters she loves (one interpretation of “crazy” is that she’s owning it, the narrator saying, I told you I was “crazy” but it’s just that she’s crazy about the characters), and she writes her way out of it. The “laughing” lines are melancholic, morosely comic, gorgeous, and feel perfect for the character of Joni we’ve come to love and cherish throughout her career up until this point. Just to create an LA bridge very loosely—Joni sings back up on “Laughing” from David Crosby’s 1971 album If Only I Could Remember My Name and the laughter in that song is a stand-in for the facade of knowledge and knowingness, i.e., we don’t know anything. It’s a bit of a hippie platitude but it’s a great sounding track with the Dead’s Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia reaching some very unique improvisational moments. Anyway, this is just to say, perhaps it’s a callback of sorts. I know that Joni and Crosby were great friends, even well into the 90s. I will explain why I know this with a personal story in a later post.

In Court and Spark, we’ve never heard her so groovy. These LA cats have grafted a slick and schooled sheen to what has previously been a self-taught and sui generis kind of virtuosity. I wonder if that’s why the album starts with the song “Court and Spark”; the open piano chords reminiscent of the gorgeous “Last Time I Saw Richard” from Blue… we are ushered into this new world with some familiar trappings.

In an interview with Mitchell about the band for Court and Spark and its subsequent tour, she told Malka Marom that, “The rhythm section is all their own doing because I don’t understand the bass and drums well enough to suggest changes.”

Maybe we don’t believe her completely—but she is speaking to an old friend in music. Perhaps she did let the LA session cats call the shots here. And didn’t someone say she was dating the drummer? The one element I notice in the drumming is that the toms feel edgy. There’s aggression in the fills that moves in contrast to the rest of the band. It’s subtle but I hear it, being a drummer. Who knows.

But you can definitely hear that new sensibility coming through. At first I felt offended by the changes, like something had been stripped of its authenticity, but now I feel admiration and awe at the band’s accomplishments and the way that Mitchell drove them to it. They make it all look so easy. In a way that’s LA in a nutshell. The ones who’ve reached the pinnacle of fame seem to embody it effortlessly. The rest of us just look on in fear, anger and confusion.

“Car on a Hill” live is just as insane as the record. If you listen to the album you can hear tape edits between sections; the LA session band plays through the changes live. Incredible.

Scholder: I love reading these responses to the “middle” of Court and Spark because for me they’re some of Joni’s most stirring songs. I know so much of my ability to express myself in this forum comes through in the process of writing. But I also wish we could be in a room together, a listening party, exchanging stories….

From “Down to You”:

In the morning there are lovers in the street / They look so high / You brush against a stranger / And you both apologize / Old friends seem indifferent / You must have brought that on / Old bonds have broken down / Love is gone / Oh love is gone / Written on your spirit / This sad song / Love is gone

That vocal arrangement for the final “Love is gone” is a heartbreaker.

Amazing how Joni captures the ache of loneliness after people’s parties and easy love affairs (never that easy, after all) and the search for love that don’t seem to cease—in these lyric/music phrases which barely announce themselves and have such lingering power. All the ways that love can encroach on autonomy and self-preservation. A side note about “Same Situation”: I think Joni was dating Warren Beatty around this time, so it makes sense that she would be feeling the burn of the male gaze (“You’ve had lots of lovely women / Now you turn your gaze to me / Weighing the beauty and the imperfection / To see if I’m worthy”). One dimension of this album that still stuns me is how she switches gears so seamlessly, that what follows these dark songs of longing and ambivalence is her ode to lightness and forgetting in “Raised on Robbery,” and her talking sense to herself about love and loss and finding herself alone—the peacock is afraid to parade, but not for long.

Which brings me to questions about partnership and intimacy, and how much creative energy that takes, and does it necessarily take away from creative resources for other pursuits in life. Joni needed to break away from a bad marriage, an unplanned pregnancy, the trappings of a predictable life, so that she could find her own voice and song structure. Along the way she had some early collaborations, boyfriends Graham Nash and James Taylor in the studio making Blue, working with the LA Express on Court and Spark and Miles of Aisles, developing a new sound with Jaco Pastorius on Hejira and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, and her controversial work with Charles Mingus. But from then on out it seems like Larry Klein (at first, as her husband, then long after the breakup, as her co-producer) is one of the only musicians/producers she collaborates with (though I could mention the arranger on Travelogue, but orchestral re-recordings isn’t really what I’m talking about).

I wonder sometimes what Joni would have developed/recorded if she had continued exploring musical/producing partners, who brought new dimensions of sound into the studio and on the road. I’m thinking of the ways that Bowie never stopped collaborating (Tony Visconti, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Mick Ronson, Luther Vandross, etc). Even Dylan got help making his sound relevant late-career by working with Daniel Lanois. I wonder about artists like Joni—and maybe you could say something similar about Prince—who got more and more isolated musically and personally… What if Joni didn’t feel so protective of her sound (I’m guessing here) and could have continued in the spirit of Court and Spark era, when she was perhaps more permeable, without losing anything in terms of creating absolutely her own sound from all the influences around her. I’m thinking of what Rick Rubin did for Johnny Cash, and T-Bone Burnett did for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, for example.

Byrne: In thinking about what it might mean when Joni sings of feeling crazy, or going crazy, I got to wondering: What would be the effect on a person of knowing she belongs at the top of the “pantheon of rock gods,” as Amy said, but not being included there? Would feeling crazy be a good description for it? I cannot begin to speculate—but I wonder if singing of feeling crazy wouldn’t quite be tantamount to taking refuge in it, a la Tennessee Williams, but rather, noticing it—this is happening, too—and witnessing to it, along with everything else. I like the idea of some of her songs as hymns, as Liz said, and hear that transition from “People’s Parties” to “Same Situation” as a segue from Saturday night to Sunday morning. It’s as if the gospel band is laying back, setting down space, so the soloist can get personal for a moment—let me tell you about my life. It sounds unstructured, like a spontaneous confession, but it must surely be.

I find “Car on a Hill” startling, the way it suddenly downshifts from an everyday moment, a pop-song verse—just waiting for a lover, that’s all—into that unsettling vocal blast and unearthly guitar; then, it summons itself back into formation for the rest of the pop song. It sounds like something awful and terrible has broken through the ordinary, then gone back under the surface. Like she sings later in “Down to You”: “You’re a brute / you’re an angel”looking for ways, maybe, to contain both in the same space.

“Just Like This Train” seems straining to contain two things at once, too, but this time ruefully, humorously. As if the evening news anchor says “let’s go to our man on the street” and cuts to Joni at the station, reporting: “Well, I’m standing here with kids with colas and women with teased hair, and let me tell you, folks: ‘Jealous lovin’ll make you crazy / If you can’t find your goodness.’ It’s serious out here. I mean, sour grapes, people!”

Very much looking forward to what everyone has to say about the end of the album. I’m learning so much from this discussion.

Todd: We are trying to imagine Joni’s road from folk to jazz and the great leap that occurred between For the Roses and Court and Spark. In my own evolution, Brazilian music has played a major part in my transformation, and in listening to Court and Spark these past weeks, I have sensed an awareness of contemporary Brazilian music from that time. Perhaps that was some of Joni’s path towards jazz and more experimental music and even towards pop. Brazil’s popular music of the 1960s and 70s was far out with daring orchestral arrangements. I hear the Brazilian influence scattered here and there in various songs, like in the weird syncopated middle section and outro to “Car on a Hill,” but it is especially noticeable on “Help Me” and in the ascending lines in the intro and between verses of “Just Like This Train.” Perhaps this was coming mostly from the arranger, Tom Scott. Joni could tell us if she was listening to Brazilian music at that time. She herself was probably being listened to in Brazil and having her own influence there.

For me, the closest comparisons in songwriting to Joni Mitchell are both Brazilian: Milton Nascimento and Joyce. There is a likely intersection between Milton and Joni. Both worked with Wayne Shorter. I was at Milton’s beautiful concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall last year and sat behind Wayne Shorter. Theirs was truly a divine collaboration. Milton sang and played guitar on Wayne Shorter’s album Native Dancer, which was recorded in Los Angeles in 1974. Court and Spark was recorded in 1973, but I hear Milton’s influence on the album. I think his 1972 album with Lo Borges, Clube da Esquina, had worldwide impact. It must have triggered Wayne Shorter’s invitation to record in LA.

I think of Joyce as the Brazilian Joni Mitchell. In contrast to Joni who gave up her daughter for adoption and sang about herself as a childless woman with extra time on her hands (in For the Roses), Joyce had two daughters and wrote a beautiful song about them, “Clareana.” That song is on her 1980 album Feminina which is an outstanding expression of a feminine feminism. My mother was born a year before Joni Mitchell and went on to be the first Asian woman judge in the US. She was elected by Jerry Brown in 1978. Hers was not an easy path; she had to forge her own, much like Joni, and persevere in a male-dominated profession. My mother’s feminism was not a feminine one; it was very much about wearing the pants. She often used a gruff voice in a lowered register in order to gain authority. I hear Joni adopting some of that tone on this album. She sings with a deeper, wiser, less vulnerable voice, often in the third person, and assumes the guise of the alpha, rock ‘n roll demigod. She consciously plays with the role, as in the perfectly executed, humorous, rockabilly “Raised on Robbery.” She still shines light on her vulnerable and self-critical side, but it is from a distance and through analysis. There’s much more swagger overall. It’s definitely seems like a North American type of feminism and a necessity of the times. I have so much respect for all three of these women for undergoing the trials of the twentieth century with its changes in family structure and male and females roles. It is uncomfortable and yet appropriate for me to compare these role models of mine.

The cover art for the album strikes me as tender and playful, a bit sad, not swaggering.

In response to the query regarding female hysteria and feeling crazy in “People’s Parties,” it doesn’t trouble me at all. It’s very reassuring. I think I know just what she means.

In this close listening, I have become most attentive to the nuts and bolts of things: how it might have been recorded, which instruments were tracked live together, which overdubbed, how they arranged all those unusual transitions. I wonder if Joni was playing and singing at the same time. There is so much perfection and subtlety in her vocal performance. I wonder if she did many takes. Recording to analog tape, there are a limited number of tracks, so one cannot keep infinite vocal takes as in today’s world of ProTools. There might be three of twenty-four tracks dedicated to the main vocal. You have to record over a previous take in bits or in entirety if unsatisfied. I came across a couple spots where she might have punched in a word or two. Maybe not. She’s so good.

Moody: Mia’s post serves as a really good transition to the two songs I want to talk about at the album’s close, namely “Raised on Robbery,” and “Twisted,” which Mitchell herself said was “like an encore.”

“Raised on Robbery” is a perfect song, from my point of view. It’s ambitious, it’s funny, it’s melodically inviting, the lyrics are very, very funny, and there are radically different sections of the thing—which is to say that it develops. The song effectively begins as a celebration of the Andrews Sisters, with Mitchell supplying all the close harmonies herself (three tracks? or six? did she double track at all to get that smooth vocal harmony sound?), in a way that seems designed to send up Bette Midler’s 1972 recording of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” after which it morphs (at “She says let me sit down”) into a rock and roll number, nearly rockabilly, which makes room for a Tom Scott sax solo (one that reminds me a lot, for some reason, of the Tom Scott on “It’s What You Value,” from 33 1/3 by George Harrison), and, later, a tasteful guitar solo by Robbie Robertson, that sounds exactly like his guitar playing on Planet Waves, which was released at the very same time, and with which Court and Spark competed on the charts.

So what’s “Raised on Robbery” about?

It’s in the third person, again, like “Free Man in Paris,” and it takes place north of the border (I have found multiple Empire Hotels in Canada, but Toronto seems most plausible locale), and involves a woman soliciting a guy at a bar. The guy is betting on the Toronto Maple Leafs (sic), and is therefore watching the game on the wall-mounted television. The woman’s solicitations, her inveiglements, are such that it’s hard to tell whether she’s a prostitute or just fallen on hard times or both. The thrust of her logic is: give me a chance.

Should we take it as an allegory about her own lean years singing in Toronto? Autobiographically inflected, or not true at all? (Fact checking: Mitchell makes up a model of car in the lyric, when describing (I think) the father of the fallen-on-hard-times woman in the story: because the Biscayne she speaks of didn’t start production till ’58: “First he bought a ’57 Biscayne / He put it in the ditch / He drunk up all the rest/That son of a bitch.” “Fifty-seven” would be harder to sing, but Mitchell, with her previously noted mad syllable-cramming skills gets “seven” in fine, even though she didn’t really have to.)

I keep thinking about Amy’s remark about Mitchell saying that no one really understood or paid attention to her lighter, funnier songs. This is one of the lighter and funnier ones, but I think it’s no less sophisticated, for all of that. If “Free Man in Paris” is Mitchell thinking about the masculine point of view, the point of view of the music mogul, “Raised on Robbery” is sort of the what-might-have-been, or perhaps the kinds of desperation gambits required of the woman in the Darwinism of the capitalist economy:

I’m a pretty good cook
Sitting on my groceries
Come up to my kitchen
I’ll show you my best recipe

Invokign Robert Johnson, natch, but with a nice reversal of gender. And which “robbery” are we referring to in the title? Is she talking about music at all here, or only on the desperation economics of the protagonist. Maybe, in part, she’s talking musical theft, viz., pastiche, or musical intertext, which is much what the song embodies with its stacked vocal harmonies and slapback-ish treatment of the voice in the verses. “Raised on Robbery” is all musical theft, but in a way that is significantly different from the rest of the album, wherein genres and idioms are recombined in ways that are unpredictable and idiosyncratic. “Raised on Robbery” is a stylized homage to rock and roll (and jump blues), and especially the rock and roll of the fifties. It’s all about the music Mitchell might have heard as a kid.

Or maybe “robbery” refers, via the story of the song, to the things that a young singer-songwriter has to do to get to this moment, the exquisitely produced acme of LA Laurel Canyon singer-songwriting. Stop at nothing! Sell everything you have, including your recipes!

“Trouble Child,” with its refrain, breaking like the waves at Malibu, follows “Raised on Robbery,” and it much more resembles “Down to You,” or “Car on a Hill,” to my ears, except seems to be depicting a woman in a hospital or clinic setting, with intimations of nervous collapse or worse. To me it has the musical flavor of Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way, with its muted arpeggios and its easy groove. It’s sad and ominous. It has a sort of an interlude of horns at the end, an entr’acte, which serve as a bridge straight into “Twisted:”

The lyric of “Twisted” is by Annie Ross. (Here is the original recording, by Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross.) And it dates back to the late 50s (like the source material of “Raised on Robbery”). Ross’s original is vocalese, in that it was set to an existing sax solo, at the suggestion of a record company guy. The lyric is about psychoanalysis, after a fashion, and, apparently, according to Joni Mitchell herself, she had been in analysis (actual psychoanalysis) for a year or so prior to Court and Spark, and not only did she love the song “Twisted,” whose title (it bears mentioning) was the title of the sax solo before Annie Ross adapted it, but she felt like her time in analysis made it possible for her fully to inhabit the lyric.

It’s a very funny song in that somewhat campy and light way that Bette Midler was cute and light in the early 70s (and indeed she had already covered “Twisted”), and it ends with a kind of jazz humor that nonetheless wears thin for me: the narrator alleges to have two heads, after being told by her analyst that she’s right out of her head. Nevertheless, Mitchell gives the vocal all the technique she has, and does a completely adroit, funny, and charming reading of the song. In the process, she utterly transforms herself, before our eyes, into a jazz singer. If the rest of the album understates this argument, the jazz argument, “Twisted” does otherwise. She lands on the deceptively tricky melody faultlessly, and all while managing an octave and a half, or more, with confidence. And she brings her newly smoky timbre to the thing, which gives it more grit than Annie Ross gives it (she’s really clean), and all in all Mitchell sounds, yes, like the person who would go on to make an album with Charles Mingus.

But am I alone in thinking the whole idea of “Twisted” is a lot darker than it appears at first blush? Annie Ross, for one, who first wrote the lyric, had a pretty difficult life after dashing off these lines, was a heroin addict for a while, and got replaced for live performances in the band that bore her name, had a lot of lovers, including Lenny Bruce, children from affairs, owned a nightclub, went bankrupt, and then resurrected herself in the eighties and nineties as a character actor. Who’s to say that Annie Ross was not sketching out, in vocalese, a certain feminine hysteria imputed to the women who dared to sing jazz, of whom we have examples like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, great artists, crushed by the masculine aspect of the business? In my interpretation of Mitchell’s “Twisted,” it’s not at all a mere encore that was recorded for the album before (For the Roses), but didn’t fit; it’s a sly and indirect cry for help from someone who has just done everything that was required her to get to the empyrean heights of show business, and who now recognizes some of the costs of doing so.

I heard “Our House,” by Graham Nash on the radio the other day, in the car, and I really listened to it closely, and tried to get beyond the layers of ten thousand prior encounters with the song into some place of insight, as it purports to describe Nash and Mitchell’s life together. What a hymn to domestic bliss, with its cats and vases of flowers! How to square this representation of domestic bliss with the Mitchell we know later, who after Court and Spark made increasingly experimental and sophisticated jazz-rock, for want of a better term, unto Mingus in 1979, at which point she had almost entirely disassembled her mainstream success, chasing something much more artful than the popular song? And then there are the albums from the 80s and 90s, which have their moments, but which (and I lay a lot of the responsibility at Larry Klein’s feet) are also afflicted with 80s production ideas, and a tendency to make environmental observations and social critique stand in for the acute confessions the earlier albums. Court and Spark is the high-water mark of commercial success for Joni Mitchell (although I think she got a Grammy much later on), and further up the road of her career the songs are less winsome, and sometimes angry, grim, even bitter about the condition of the world. In some ways, for all its lightness, “Twisted” hints at a Joni Mitchell whom we didn’t know in the winsome and sometimes melancholy confessor of the early albums. How to square the Joni Mitchell of “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Our House” with the kind of prognostic that I think is hiding behind “Twisted?”

So is “Twisted” a simple jazz romp, or something that prefigures a much more complex problematic for women in the business of the popular song, whose truest battle is about describing the subject of the feminine in the face of the objectification of the feminine, and who, if they have their own self-determination abridged by the business, will eventually appear to be hysterical, or worse.

Of course, Mitchell’s recent and slightly mysterious medical crisis, which caused temporary aphasia, or more permanent problems the nature of which we do not yet know, is now, it seems, in the condition of lapsed singer-songwriter. She has fallen silent. And there are many valid reasons she might want to do so: she didn’t get the recognition that she deserved, she doesn’t need to prove anything now, and so on. But it’s also like the notion of the feminine singer-songwriter, the muse, she who owned the house with the cats and the vase, is a reduction of the seriousness of the feminine artist. Court and Spark, with its beautiful, allusive title and smooth, perfect veneer, and its progress toward and into partially obscured descriptions of feminine subjectivity in extremis, would seem to be much less revolutionary than, say, Cut by The Slits, which followed it by only four or five years, but my argument is that maybe it’s not less revolutionary at all, that it is at once magnificently ambitious, supremely musical, and lyrically as subversive as it could be, for all of its LA sheen. Once she did it like this, she never did it exactly this way again (even The Hissing of Summer Lawns, the nearest over neighbor, has a haunted, more skeletal quality), didn’t seem to want to, and who can blame her. If it is as painful as it appears here, it seems supremely artful to depict the machinery of the popular song, in all its complex, malevolent perfection, and then to begin to shed it.

Todd: One afterthought, as it seems that this conversation is coming to a close, on the subject of “People’s Parties.” Forty years later, there’s still a lot of talk about parties in LA, often derogatory.

Exhibit A:

“No More Parties in LA,” by Kanye West (with guest Kendrick Lamar and producer Madlib)

Just to clarify, it’s more Hollywood parties that we are talking about. Probably most of us would like to be invited to more of such parties, even if they feel very strange and uncomfortable. As a third generation, born and raised Los Angelina, I am more familiar with bouncy houses, piñatas, and teriyaki chicken at LA parties. Those are far more common than the Hollywood variety.

Thank you for including me in the discussion!

Moody: Mia, I love your observation about the parties, and it reminds me, somehow, that last night I was getting a thermometer for the infant baby at the CVS in Dover Plains, NY, which is about the only commercial establishment in Dover Plains, besides a Dunkin’ Donuts, and a couple of pizza joints. The CVS is mainly noteworthy for guys in camouflage outfits buying beer, or, perhaps, the occasional opioid prescription. I like how quiet it is here, but it is also sometimes menacing. You can imagine how hard life is year round. Anyhow, I was buying a thermometer when I heard the tell-tale opening guitar chords of a song we talked a lot about in this thread, namely “Free Man in Paris.” Normally at CVS you get some Jason Mraz, or maybe, at best, one of those Roy Orbison songs from the comeback period, or some Katy Perry. It was very strange, in fact, to hear “Free Man in Paris,” and to contemplate the lyrics, and the idea of being “unfettered and alive” in the CVS of Dover Plains, NY, where freedom means grinding it out at poverty level, most often in a trailer park or in one of those prefabs from the 6os or 70s. It was strange to consider, at whichever music streaming service was being used for the ambience at CVS, whether the people who programmed “Free Man in Paris” had a thoroughgoing idea of what it signified, or, furthermore, if its musical eccentricities were fully digested. I heard it, or tried to hear it, as a regular CVS patron might have heard it, and it sounded, well, strange and otherworldly.

It’s hard to imagine any Joni Mitchell composition from after Court and Spark being played in that venue. Something from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, perhaps? Something off of Mingus? Or from the 80s? Doubtful. Nevertheless, to the American musical culture as a whole, “Free Man in Paris” still has resonances. Its paradoxes are all subliminal, its complexities, its gender imposture. But maybe the breezy jazz palette that John Colpitts correctly assigns to the studio cats is all there, and the culture needs it to refer to that place and time, now so far gone.

And: I was going to say something about jazz being completely effaced as an influence in pop music, but then I listened to the Kanye track, and I remembered about the way that Stevie Wonder adapted the Ellingtonian harmonic vocabulary, and then heavily distributed it into R&B, from which it then trickled down into hip-hop in the mashing up and accidentals, the inadvertent chromaticism of some hip-hop. I feel some distant whiff of a jazz harmonic vocabulary even in material as repetitive and melodically microtonal as Kanye. Just when you think you know about Kanye, when it seems that there are no more surprises, the jazz and the gospel enlivens the mix, a little Fender Rhodes sample, a distant choir. The history of black music is still there for people to marvel over.

Colpitts: I promised my close encounter with Joni, and it’s time. I was in college. I’m not proud of this moment but it happened. My roommate had just finished an internship with a high-powered Hollywood director and had returned with a coveted printed phone list containing many names and numbers of showbiz royalty. In the interest of puerile fun I started calling names and quickly discovered that it mostly contained answering services. For instance, “Hello, is Arnold there please?” was met with, “Can I take a message for him?”

But then I saw a listing for Joni Mitchell, and I thought why not?

So I dialed her number… it started ringing…

A woman picked up the phone.

“Hello?” I knew immediately. Joni Mitchell’s gravely, resonant voice burst through the line.

I froze. What could I possibly say? During the celebrity phone banking I’d gotten complacent. I did not expect to actually get through to someone REAL.

But in that terrible instant I just blurted out the first thing that crossed my mind:

“Keep writing.”

And Joni kind of laughed and responded incredulously, “Is that you Crosby?”

David Crosby was currently in the hospital getting a new liver. I imagined the leaps of logic that brought Joni to that question and quickly hung up, mind racing.

John Kelly: A few years ago I was asked to perform the entire Court and Spark album beginning to end, as a concert event for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s River to River Festival. I’d developed a certain following by performing many of Joni Mitchell’s other songs in a series of performances works that used her music (and her legendary skills as raconteur) as the backbone to a highly structured theatrical event, a two-act, two-hour staged concert in which I also embodied her unique physical presence. In this work I sang her earliest to her most recent songs, so we’re talking around three vocal octaves, also playing her endless open guitar tunings, and eventually the dulcimer she gave me after seeing my performance in New York at Fez, a now-defunct music and performance space. Dramatically, the work traced how her life and work intertwined and flowed from the flaxen-haired ingénue through to the nicotine-stained Delphic oracle with blood red fingernails.

Musically, these performances went beyond the idea of ‘doing covers.’ I’ve always approached her work (even the more pop-leaning tunes) as contemporary art songs, aiming for structural and tonal accuracy, taking few liberties. As a countertenor, I could sing them in their original key. I was not shackled by these constraints, but found liberation in an approach not unlike the way an actor might work, finding possibility and release by maintaining a responsiveness to the words and their meaning, the color of the music, the rhythms harmonies, melodic patterns, and dramatic arcs that swirled through the arrangements.

I then had to acknowledge the singer-songwriter phenomenon: if composer Robert Schumann had also written the lyrics to his songs, possessed a singing voice to interpret them, and had access to technology, those recordings would be definitive renditions of his work.

But this was not Beatlemania.

So what made this different from singing a straight cover? The actor/visual artist/chameleon in me beckoned—do I further embrace the role by showing up as some synthesized vocal/visual/dynamic apparition of her? Embodying a male to female gender-leap is a subversive gesture with its own frisson and theatrical utility, but also risks being reduced to a distracting sinkhole of lazy assumptions through tainted monikers like ‘drag’ and ‘impersonation’ (I won’t go into that here).

Accepting that her renditions have been fixed into the collective psyche, aiming to sing and play song covers that changed nothing, and willing to show up as some symbolic version her legendary self—I was aiming to blur and blend the individual identities of the source (Joni) and the messenger (John) to become something new. Not competing with her performance, but going through it by going through her. Like putting both your hands flush together in an open fingered prayer shape—you can look at one flat and not see the other, and visa versa. Then going beyond where one ends and the other begins—essentially clasping those hands, the interpretation blending with the source as a character-study in the form of a concert.

The Court and Spark concert began at 5 p.m. on a warm summer night at downtown Manhattan’s Castle Clinton, a military fort, a bizarre setting. As a free public event it was mobbed, with an audience that seemed reassuring in its eagerness and alarming in its vibe of anticipation and celebration. For me it felt more like a tribunal with my ability and nerve, a marathon of endurance.

As we made our way to the stage the sun setting in my face blinded me but also helped me to focus inward. Maria Callas was myopic, but to quote Luchino Visconti she “…has the ears of Dionysus.” I had an ace music director, a great band, two backup singers, and this amazing work to do.

I’d previously sung a few of the songs from Court and Spark, and they had luckily stayed in my muscle-memory voice, though “Help Me” and “Free Man in Paris” remained crazy hard as they both hang near and keep skipping through the vocal register break. “People’s Parties,” with its gorgeous open D tuning guitar strums was a really busy mouthful vocally before it morphs into the aria-like “Same Situation,” that blithely tosses its complaints to the heavens. Singing “Raised on Robbery” always made me feel like I was roller-skating in an indoor rink in Saskatoon in 1959. Of all these, I’d probably sung “Down to You” the most.

The scariest parts of this concert were the remaining songs I’d never sung. I made my way through the opening song “Court and Spark” like a wise herald opening the portal to an avalanche. I sailed through the next four that I knew, riding the momentum that this live album gig underscored.

Arriving at “Car on a Hill,” centered with the perhaps definitive Joni Mitchell acid trip heavenly chorus—like being stuck in a suburban traffic circle before heading back up into the hills to her maze of bemused frets. I had no problem identifying with the thwarted fling.

“Just Like This Train,” such great images in the song, I kept reminding myself to tell the story, display the images, and let the lyrics to the work.

“Trouble Child,” ah, Joni, the triple Scorpio, judgmental on these cliffs, this song so beautifully disturbing, almost snide, finding brief redemption as a pep talk out of earshot.

“Twisted”—hanging from a ledge above the void by my vocal chords, the only way for me to get through this song and its flailed knots of words and ranges was to lighten my voice by treating it as a bit of a joke or a lark. The only thing I seem to understand is her dancing around the word ‘genius.’

Back to “Down to You.”

I always staged this song with a built-in dramatic booby trap device, a fuck you to the you-think-you-know-what’s-going-on-here folks, and a love you to their potential. I settled my long slinky green frock onto a stool and addressed the audience directly through the low-slung bangs of my ash blonde wig. The wistful sage reporting sober realities, the girl down at the pick up station who flees the bar, the Masaccio Eve cramped over in her sheets emerging transparent, porous and a little hopeful in the morning. During the mini Joni Mitchell piano concerto that floods the middle, I got up, turned my back to the audience and walked upstage, where I reached down and in one fell swoop removed silk, slink, and hair. The naked boy in the dusk pulls on a pair of jeans and vintage Joni Mitchell concert fan t-shirt. The man then turns and walks back to the microphone to sum up everything that comes and goes by singing this song he loves so much.

Scholder: I’ve been hoping that John would write about his Joni experience. His work has been on my mind as we’ve been revisiting Court and Spark. I’ve seen many different performances of John’s Joni and they have all been nuanced and deeply moving. For precisely the reasons that he describes his intention. That the work is not about imitation or impersonation. Not drag or camp. But rather this embodiment which created the environment for the audience to also embody the experience of Joni’s oeuvre. And of John’s extraordinary interpretations.


One of the most memorable experiences of my life was when I joined Joni in her booth at Fez for John’s show. She had been hearing about it from several sources who encouraged her to go see it but she was reluctant for obvious reasons. She was afraid it was going to parody or even ridicule her. And understandably is took some coaxing for her to believe that it wasn’t a typical send-up but rather an art performance piece in her honor. I sat with her and her boyfriend at the time (a handsome Canadian musician whose name I can’t remember) and a few other people involved in the publishing project I had been hired to work on.

Our booth was in the back of the dimly lit nightclub, and not too many people noticed us walk in. But I could observe the buzz move around the room as news got out that Joni was in the house. Keep in mind, this was an audience of Joni fans, fanatics, freestyle aficionados, whatever you want to call us. Also keep in mind that this was 1996 (or 1997?), before the greatest hits compilations, before the symphonic versions of her catalog, before she really started to get her due as one of our the most influential singer songwriters. One thing that struck me when I spent that six weeks with her was that she didn’t really grasp at that time how deeply committed her audience is to her work, how transformational her work has been to so many generations.

So when John started to sing I think a number of things were going on for Joni. She seemed truly moved by how much the songs meant to the room. The adoration and thorough knowledge of her work was palpable. John would only need to play a few notes and we could name the song. There was the moment when the crowd identified a song after two chords and Joni turned to me and her boyfriend and asked, What’s the song? And we said in unison, with some irritation that someone wouldn’t know immediately: Amelia! We forgot for a moment who we were snapping at.

The evening progressed and John’s performance evolved from the novelty of hearing favorite songs into a stunning experience of those songs and John’s depth of spirit as he embodied them. Joni seemed to derive such pleasure from hearing the songs anew, at times gleeful at how well they held up. And hearing them in the keys in which she recorded them and in which she could no longer sing them. There was not a dry eye at our table when the show concluded.

I want to take a moment to thank Rick and Mary and Vashti and John C. and John K. and Michael and Mai and Liz. Listening to Joni has largely been a private experience for me. I love this other layer of appreciation and exuberance sharing Joni, which I carry with me now whenever I drop that needle on to the vinyl and listen.

Lastly, I am ever and always grateful for Joni. And couldn’t be happier to see that she is recovering. Our world is richer with her in it.

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →