- by Bill Golembeski Rating:10 Release Date:1971-06-22 Label: Reprise Records
To the best of my knowledge, my parents were never blue. Their youth bumped into The Great Depression and then crashed into World War II.
But we did. We were blue. We of the baby-booming 1971 generation (who had yet to confront a draft notice) could afford to be blue.
And this is our album. It’s an album laced with choices. And, quite frankly, those choices were both our salvation and our curse. I know. I was there.
The first song, “All I Want,” probably needs to be in The Smithsonian because it is an important artefact from 1971. It begins with a dulcimer. A dulcimer? This song is new frontier folky stuff—full of new life, getting, as the song sings “renewed again and again.” But then, as the great writer Stephen Crane said in his “Open Boat” short story, “We’re not there yet,” which is the fine print of reality in the American creed. And this song, as well as the entire record, is just that: It’s fresh, melodic to a fault, freely introspective, and also, sadly about broken expectations. I think that Joni Mitchell’s voice, although Canadian by birth, is all about broken expectations. It simply sings, “We’re not there yet.”
But that first tune, “All I Want,” is America’s promise. The lyrics ask, “Do you want to dance with me?” They suggest a love that “brings out the best in me and you,” and are “looking for the key that sets me free,” because “life is our cause.” That’s nice stuff, just like the smell of incense that hovered in every record store, circa 1971. And it has such an infectious melody. Ah, the song then abruptly exposes the flip side of the dream because Joni sings (possibly to currant flame James Taylor, who plays guitar on the track), “I hate you some,” but she will always be “on a lonely road,” a lonely road filled with the choices of America.
By the way, Steinbeck’s Tom Joad must also always be “on a lonely road.”
That’s the gist of this album: It’s a melodic burn that, suddenly, turns cold, in a very personal way. Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA did the very same thing, except on a national level.
And, continuing with the literary stuff, (the great) Robert Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken,” which isn’t about what he did, but rather, all the stuff he missed because he never took that other road. And this album, perhaps, will always be about that other road and the introspection of autumn’s best reverie, which is the surest way to blue. “My Old Man” is a love song to a love song that never lasted. It’s a dream that woke up and then shivered itself into acoustic cold reality. The title tune, “Blue,” is piano blues that retreat into the dark corners of the heart.
“Carey” ups the tempo, and once again touches on the absolute feminine ethos of Joni Mitchell’s art. And, indeed, this was a great awakening in American rock ‘n’ roll.
Speaking of feminine ethos, “California” is America from a postcard home. It’s a lonely dream. Well, D. H. Lawrence said, “It is perhaps easier to love America passionately when you look through the wrong end of a telescope…than when you are right there. When you are actually in America, America hurts.” And, of course, this album from a distance is filled with lovely melodies; but up-close, right between the eyes on the lyric sheet, these words hurt. And that lyric, “Will you take me as I am? Strung out on another man,” is an incredibly human thing to say, especially coming from a woman of such immense talent and who was then worshipped by adoring fans waiting for her every word.
And, oddly, it’s also a very arrogant thing to say. It’s a privileged thing to say. We of the 70’s had choices, right down to the records we had the money to buy. At my college orientation, the counsellor, a guy named Gordon Stein, simply told us, “Do whatever you want to do. Follow your passion.” That’s privilege, even though we all wore patched jeans and flannel shirts, ala Neil Young and his “Heart of Gold” hit single, and who is still the poster child for doing whatever you want and following your passion. Such were the times.
“This Flight Tonight,” is acoustic perfection, until this wondrous bit of spidery rock ‘n’ roll invades the song. Its theme is a pre-cursor to The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go. Again, choice is both a blessing and a curse.
Then “River” is a sad Christmas song about the reality of a California without a frozen stream on which to skate. Sure, the dream always desires that “Road Not Taken.” Perhaps, as with just about everything in the world, the song is a metaphor for lost love.
And then, more dulcimer, please, as that instrument opens the curtains to “A Case of You,” which is a Romantic poet’s examination of everyone’s “Tintern Abbey.” This is a wild reflection of youth, a youth that is sadly “lost to the ages.” Michelle Mercer, in her great book Will You Take Me as I Am1 states, “Joni Mitchell wrote “Case of You’ in part for her one-time lover Leonard Cohen.” Choices (and memory) sometimes hurt. And this album hurts.
Then one more observation: “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” is the final stone thrown into the darkest night of a moonless lake. Oh, the stone skips a bit; it spins to the heavens; but, ultimately, it confesses its humanity, a humanity, with simply great melodies, that, with American optimism to burn, somehow lands on the desolation of the Moon. It’s a song that leaves the 60’s coffee bar with a for sale sign in its stained glassed window because even the counter-culture sainted people need a “dishwasher and a coffee percolator.” Woodstock becomes just a song about a failed hopeful melodic thought that’s desperately in need of a credit card.
Of course, as Hamlet knows, there’s always a rub. During 1971, the year of this album’s release, 2,3572 Americans were killed in the Vietnam War. And those deaths, those broken expectations, carved much deeper grooves than this vinyl record, a record that probably didn’t cut much muster for those who still had to Run Through the Jungle; or much later, anyone who had a “brother at Khe Sahn” and is now, sadly, “all gone.”
That said, Joni Mitchell’s Blue is the soundtrack for America of my generation: It offered so many wonderous melodies, yet it ended with an album simply called Blue. Go figure. As Phil Ochs sang, “The World Began in Eden and Ended in Los Angeles.” It’s all a bit Biblical just like that. Yes, indeed, this record is a work of art because it tightrope walks with music that straddles the gulf between the beauteous dream and the sad and unslaked appetite for All I Want in America, an America in which I bought records and went to college, but an America my parents could never understand, because they never had my choices, blue choices that are still filled with both introspection and sad melodic thoughts of that Road Not Taken.
1 My review is a snapshot of a great album. But read Michelle Mercer’s excellent book for an informative and in-depth discussion of Joni Mitchell’s art.
2 The United Sates Government, via Wikipedia