A selection of Joni Mitchell songs that have meaning to me and have stuck with me through the years, appearing frequently on mix tapes and playlists. Not necessarily stuff you’ll find on an artist’s Greatest Hits collection.
My Secret Place We start with this gorgeous Joni Mitchell song from the 1988 album Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm. People had freaked out over Mitchell’s previous album Dog Eat Dog, produced by Thomas Dolby, which gave Mitchell a tech-ed up version of a glossy ’80s sound, complete with synthesizers, samples, and other studio wizardry. For this album, Mitchell and producer Larry Klein worked with a number of rock performers of the day, including Billy Idol, Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, and Don Henley.
“My Secret Place” was recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Ashcombe House recording studio in Bath, UK. It’s a wonderful and hopeful Mitchell lyric about the beginning of a relationship, both with a new person and a new environment. There’s an allusion to the Jane Fonda/Robert Redford movie The Electric Horseman that’s sweet as well: “Once I saw a film in New York City/That was shot in Colorado/girl meets desperado/in the trembling mountain trees.” Meantime, Joni’s songwriting here and on the rest of the album demonstrates that she was as sharp a writer as ever.
Overture-Cotton Avenue The symbiotic musical relationship between Joni and Jaco Pastorious was incredibly rewarding for both musicians. In Mitchell, Jaco found a songwriter and singer who wasn’t afraid to put the bass out front and she granted him the kind of creative freedom he craved. At the same time, she had very definite ideas about what she was trying to do and what kind of sound she wanted to achieve. He and guitarist Pat Metheney, who would tour with Mitchell, helped shape Hejira and were invited back to work on the 2 LP followup Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.
This opening track is everything you might hope for. It begins with Mitchell’s strummed, open tuning guitar and multi-track, wordless vocals. Slowly she works up an implied rhythm both with her guitar and her Andrews Sisters swing vocal line. Jaco announces his entrance with a low note around 1:45, then segues over the next fifteen seconds into the swing shuffle of ‘Cotton Avenue’. Joni’s tribute to the local club or roadhouse is full of her usual detailed observations reeled off without fanfare. And the great chorus: ‘If you got a place like that to go/You just have to go there/If you got no place special/Well my dear, you’ll just go no place special.’
For Free From Ladies of the Canyon comes possibly one of the most painfully self-aware Joni Mitchell songs that also scratches at the dilemma that sits at the heart of an artist in a consumer culture. The relationship between art and commerce has been looked at and discussed in all kinds of ways, but this song cuts through the noise. Accompanied only by her quiet piano, Mitchell reflects on her role as an artist for hire who is paid handsomely for her work and contrasts it with the gorgeous music a street musician is playing, unnoticed by passersby because he’s ‘never been on their t.v.’ You can’t help but hear the longing and admiration in her voice when she sings ‘I play if you have the money/or if you’re a friend to me/But the one-man band/By the quick lunch stand/He was playing real good, for free.’
Carey Robert Christgau wrote that the 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon represented a move from ‘the open air to the drawing-room.’ Her classic 1971 album Blue continues this transition and the song ‘Carey’ plays with it, with Mitchell missing the ‘beach tar on my feet’ when she’s living in luxury and missing her ‘clean white sheets’ when she’s living the life of a street rat/beach bum. The song is about Cary Raditz, who worked at a local taverna in the Materna village of Crete, a place that was a hippie haven at the time. In a 2014 interview with NPR, Raditz recalls that the song was a gift for his 24th birthday, and also a farewell of sorts: “Over the years, of course, like all poetry, it tends to grow within you. And it tends to take on your own personal meanings and shadings and other memories that become associated with it.”
Blue Motel Room From Hejira, which is a pretty near-perfect album (like many of Joni’s albums) on which Mitchell meditates on a series of romantic comings and goings while driving across the country from Maine to California. ‘Blue Motel Room’ was written at the DeSoto Beach Motel in Savannah, Georgia and its topic is the disintegrating relationship between Mitchell and her lover at the time, drummer John Guerin.
Mitchell is still hopeful that they can reconcile here but she gets to the heart of her issue with relationships as a restless artist: ‘We’re going to have to hold ourselves a peace talk/In some neutral cafe/You lay down your sneaking around the town honey/And I’ll lay down the highway.’
A Chair In the Sky On Mingus, Joni Mitchell propelled herself out of the pop music world and into the world of jazz musicians. Her acceptance by the ailing Charles Mingus, whose work on Mingus was his final musical project, was a seal of musical approval that meant something to her, as did her working comeraderie with musicians on the project including Jaco, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Peter Erskine.
Mingus died of a heart attack in January 1979 while seeking treatment for the ALS that had confined him to a wheelchair. He had heard all but one of the Joni Mitchell songs for the album, and despite some protests from jazz fans and general indifference from pop music fans, Mingus stands as a unique collaboration and one of Mitchell’s most fascinating recorded projects. On ‘A Chair in the Sky’ her lyrics explore the mind of an insatiably creative musician now confined to a body that fails him, and his meditations on reincarnation and the ways he’d do things next time around.
Free Man in Paris—Live Version In 1979 following the release of Mingus, Mitchell went out on tour with a band comprised of Jaco Pastorious, Pat Metheney, Lyle Mays, Don Alias, and Michael Brecker. Shadows and Light, a document of the tour, was recorded in September of that year and released a year later. ‘Free Man in Paris’ was first recorded in 1974 on Court and Spark, an album that hinted of a jazzier direction for Mitchell.
Unfortunately, that album and subsequent tour (her first with a band) featured Tom Scott’s L.A Express and members of The Crusaders (Joe Sample and Felton Wilder)– all fine studio musicians but they blunted the jazzy, free edge of the music Mitchell was creating. To be fair, she was still writing pretty regular song forms at the time without the songs that sometimes lacked a chorus and resembled stream of consciousness the way the songs on Hejira and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter did. With Pastorius, Metheney, Mays, Alias, and Brecker, the music has a bright, shiny edge and is both more aggressive and more relaxed somehow.
Otis and Marlena This is another track from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, one of my favorites, but a record that was not well received on release. It’s true that Don Juan was a rambling two-record set, with two sides worth of jazz fusion influenced songs, a side comprised of a poetic suite with orchestral accompaniment (‘Paprika Plains’) and some experiments with ambiance and rhythm.
‘Otis and Marlena’ is a character study of characters Mitchell finds unsympathetic–some tourist louts from middle America who are in Miami for fun and sun ‘while Muslims stick up Washington’, a reference to an event some nine months previous when a group of Muslims took over the B’Nai Brith Center in Washington D.C. demanding the release of certain Muslims held in prisons. However, it seems like an eerie premonition of the Iranian hostage crisis that would follow only two years later. The song features one of my favorite Mitchell lyrics: ‘Marlena, white as stretcher sheets/Watches it all from her 10th-floor balcony/Like it’s her opera box/All those Pagliacci summer frocks.’ Joni’s style here is like her earlier singer/songwriter style, but lyrically she’s more snippy than before, her lyrics here sound more like mid-period Elvis Costello than a Joni Mitchell song.
Turbulent Indigo From 1982 to 1991 Mitchell recorded a series of albums for Geffen Records that contained some excellent writing but which the public more or less rejected due to their production or other stylistic aspects of the recordings. In 1994 she returned to Warner Records and released Turbulent Indigo, an album that was much more like the music of Hejira and before than the music she had been creating since.
It received very positive reviews and won a Grammy Award for Pop Album of the Year. Which kind of demonstrates that what the public wanted from Joni Mitchell wasn’t any kind of growth or experimentation but rather to just keep writing acoustic guitar songs, which she was never going to do. The accolades were deserved, though, as the album demonstrates substantial growth from Mitchell as a songwriter both in terms of her subject matter and her mastery of musical form. The title track riffs on Van Gogh (as does her cover art) and how the adulation of his art is in stark contrast to the messy insanity of his life: ‘The madman hangs in fancy homes/They wouldn’t let him near!/He’d piss in their fireplace!/He’d drag them through Turbulent Indigo’
You Turn Me On I’m a Radio Going back to 1972’s For the Roses, this song was Mitchell’s response to her record label’s desire for a hit single. Apparently she thought that using radio station jargon in the lyrics would motivate stations to play it. What’s interesting is the way it is really a country crossover record, which is unique in Mitchell’s catalog. The strumming acoustic guitar and harmonica (played by Graham Nash) as well as the way Mitchell uses her voice and the lyrics ‘I’m a country station’, is very suggestive of the country sound heard on many records from the era. In 1982 country artist Gail Davies recorded a version of the song that made the song’s country connection explicit, with steel guitar instead of the harmonica solo.