“Part of you, flows out of me
in these lines from time to time”
Metaphorically, a river is often used to represent movement, connection or coming home, like “ a river to a sea.” In 1971, singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell wrote the song “River,” describing it, from the perspective of her upbringing in Saskatchewan, Canada, as a pathway to escape her problems and a longing for something more. It simply began: “It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees, putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace. Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”
The complete song was self-revealing in a way that was unprecedented, especially for a woman dealing with the societal ceiling of the times. Although we have never met, I would, over the next forty years, develop an intimate relationship with Joni Mitchell through her words and her music. They became an ongoing inspiration to my soul as it revealed itself to me. I often found solace in her words that helped me to think and write poetically. Without trying, she often reminded me that I could be a better, more enlightened person. She was my muse.
A few days after my twenty-fourth birthday, I returned to my apartment to find a thin, wrapped twelve-inch square package lying across the threshold of my doorstep with a note from my brother-in-law attached that read, “Happy Birthday, there’s great music in the world that isn’t jazz.”
Kerry had recently returned from combat in the Vietnam War and was living the hippie life in the hills of Los Gatos. Unable to expand my psychedelic horizons, he became determined to broaden me musically beyond my limiting obsession with jazz artists like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and pianist Herbie Hancock.
He had some success with my college graduation gift of the album, “On the Threshold of a Dream,” that turned me on to the innovative music of the Moody Blues and thought that Joni Michell’s latest 1972 release, “For The Roses,” would be the next logical step in his plan to open me up. Those instincts were auspicious and, at that time, he may have known more about my inner self than I did.
Unfortunately, Kerry fell into life-long drug addiction, the cumulative effects of which led to his death, at age sixty-five, from a heart attack. As a few people gathered at his gravesite, I delivered some brief remarks and credited his birthday gift of “For The Roses” as life changing for me.
It is one thing to write from the heart and another to write unafraid, willing to reveal and expose your vulnerabilities. For me, Joni Mitchell did that better than anyone.
The album, “For The Roses” included a few catchy songs like, “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio” and “Barangrill,” that used wit and alliteration to tell young love stories. Pulling me deeper into her expressive self, another piece, “Lesson In Survival” was a different type of love song that spoke of the complexities of relationships, isolation and the fear of incompatibility.
She wrote: “Maybe it’s paranoia, maybe it’s sensitivity. Your friends protect you, scrutinize me and I get so damn timid, not at all the spirit that’s inside of me. I can’t seem to make it with you socially, there’s this reef around me.”
The song, “Lesson In Survival” set-up one of her most poignant pieces, “Woman of Heart And Mind.”
“I am a women of heart and mind, with time on my hands, no child to raise. You come to me like a little boy and I give you my scorn and my praise.”
In the early seventies, the roles of men and women were more defined, like the walls of a cage. Joni’s words made me question why I couldn’t be a little boy and lean on my young wife sometimes. Current norms only placed importance on me being a rock for her to lean on, something that seemed counterintuitive to what makes a lasting relationship.
Women had already figured this out, judging by the new movement for equality that they were creating. I understood the concept, but Joni’s lyrics became the voice in my head that rose up from time to time when I needed to be reminded that I could think and do better.
The song’s assault on the perceived “Mad Men” roles of men and women that existed forty-five years ago continued with lyrics from the modern female perspective.
“After the rush when you come back down, you’re always disappointed, nothing seems to keep you high. Drive your bargains, push your papers, win your medals, fuck your strangers, don’t it leave you on the empty side?”
In the 1990s, my two young boys would giggle when they heard that verse of “Women Of Heart And Mind” playing on my home or car stereo. Today, at ages forty and thirty-three, I consider both of them to be open and sensitive men. Thanks, in part, to musical pioneers like Joni Mitchell, they grew up in a society where the archaic roles of men and women were more blurred and less defined.
The song, “Woman Of Heart And Mind” concludes not like an arrow, but a dagger to the heart of early-1970s norms as Joni became introspective and personal. “You criticize and you flatter, you imitate the best and the rest you memorize. You know, the times you impress me the most are the times when you don’t try, when you don’t even try.”
I refused to look in a mirror for days while my young mind digested those words.
The lessons of “Woman Of Heart And Mind” were reinforced later, in 1977, with the song “Jericho,” “I’ll try to keep myself open up to you and approve your self expression. I need that too. I need your confidence and the gift of your extra time, in return I’ll give you mine. Sweet darling, it’s a rich exchange it seems to me. It’s a warm arrangement.”
These words continually emerge as a voice in my head, usually when I am not living up to the message.
A few weeks after receiving it, I shared my excitement about “For The Roses” to a visiting friend who was familiar with Joni’s music. When I returned from work the next day, he gifted me her three earlier albums. I became full-on Joni Mitchell and couldn’t get enough of her music or her poetic messages. Even though she stopped writing and recording music in 2007, her lyrics have their own drawer in the Dewey-decimal system of my mind, easily retrievable.
In her album, “Blue,” recorded one year before “For The Roses” in 1971, Joni’s lyrics were slightly less refined, but revealing of her emerging themes. In the song, “All I Want,” she wrote/sang: “All I really want our love to do is to bring out the best in me and in you. I wanna talk to you, I want to shampoo you, I want to renew you, again and again.”
While Joni was, most likely, referring to a personal relationship, my take-a-way was that more than being present, I needed to consciously be there, again and again. As the superficial pressures of becoming a sensitive, white male were mounting, Joni offered a cautionary reminder: “When you dig down deep, you lose good sleep and it makes you heavy company.”
My wife Karen shared a passion for Joni’s words that would evolve, over time, into an artistic threesome. As we all grew and changed, her lyrics became less of a guide for our relationship and more of an appreciation of expression.
Although passion was still present, our desire to bathe and shampoo together gave way to “I just want to soak in the tub and relax for a while.” As a young relationship is often driven by passion, one that is maturing acknowledges growth as people, allowing more space for independent thought as well as a relaxing bath. After all, it was Joni who reminded us of the need to approve each other’s self-expression.
Joni’s declaration: “…you want stimulation, nothing more, that’s what I think” became, at times, mutually acceptable. Our deep love was engrained and with the fear of incompatibility diminishing, an appreciation for individual expression and a desire for exploration of mind and body burst forth.
Joni was also evolving. In addition to exposing vulnerabilities, her words began to express a deep sense of independence and wanderlust that, admittedly, resulted in both peace of mind and regret. Years earlier, in “River,” she blamed herself as she wrote/sang: “I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad. Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I ever had. I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”
Her epic 1976 release, “Hejira,” revealed a more determined independent spirit as she wrote/sang: “In our possessive coupling, so much could not be expressed. So now I’m returning to myself, these things that you and I suppressed. We’re only particles of change I know, orbiting around the sun. But how can I have that point of view, when I’m always bound and tied to someone.”
Ironically, shortly after hearing those words for the first time, Karen and I, after being together for eight years, decided to make a baby.
No worries, Joni, we would always be there for you and approve your self-expression. We needed you, too, now that our lives were about to change forever.
“No one’s going to show us everything, we all come and go unknown, each so deep and superficial, between the forceps and the stone.”
Ryan Christopher, our first child, was born on a rainy morning in San Francisco at the close of 1977. Elvis Presley was dead, Jimmy Carter was in the White House and the skies welcomed the space shuttle and supersonic commercial flights on the Concorde. For the next few months, our lives were a dichotomy between being indulgent new parents and wanting to stay relevant in the cafes of adult conversation.
Although we loved this baby above all else, we had spent the 1970s developing a friendship circle and still yearned to remain a part of the social gatherings, dinners and discussions that would create a balance between our past and present lives.
We sought some clarity listening to Joni Mitchell, although her recent lyrics were poetically self-revealing of a lifestyle at polar opposite to ours. She was independent, exploring several relationships with little expectation.
“I met a friend of spirit, he drank and womanized and as I sat before his sanity, I was holding back from crying. He saw my complications and he mirrored me back simplified and we laughed how our perfection would always be denied. ‘Heart and humor and humility,’ he said, ‘will lighten up your heavy load.’ I left him then for the refuge of the roads.”
Joni was not my role model in understanding the new feminist perspective, but her words were the three glasses of wine that I needed to be open-minded. Her unending diary was unbolted, now telling of an independent woman, sometimes in a relationship, sometimes not, sometimes looking, sometimes not.
“Anima rising, queen of queens, wash my guilt of Eden, wash and balance me. Anima rising, uprising in me tonight, she’s a vengeful little goddess with an ancient crown to fight.”
Through dealing with dichotomies in our lives, we found Joni’s. As her lyrical compositions evolved, they became more lucid and seductively inviting.
In her autobiographical song, “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter,” released days before Ryan was born, she wrote/sang: “The spirit talks in spectrums, it talks to mother earth to father sky, self-indulgence to self-denial, man to woman, scales to feathers, you and I, eagles in the sky, you and I, snakes in the grass, you and I, crawl and fly, you and I.”
Exposing herself to the world with no boundaries, she used contrasting images to describe the inner conflicts and the depth of her character. Like Shakespeare, she drew a fuzzy line between good and evil.
By exposing herself, she spoke to the duality in all of us: “Behind my bolt locked door, the eagle and the serpent are at war in me, the serpent fighting for blind desire, the eagle for clarity. What strange prizes these battles bring, these hectic joys-these weary blues, puffed up and strutting when I think I win, down and shaken when I think I lose.”
She reminds that blind desire and clarity can be gateway drugs to each other.
“Big bird dragging its tail in the dust…snake kite flying on a string.”
Joni’s inner conflicts are not black and white, left or right-brained, on or off. They are in the same soup of her soul, of our souls, there to be embraced with grace and balance.
Although we will never fully understand the motivation and intimate meanings of Joni’s lyrics, she provoked my creative imagination and helped bridge the gap between the real world and my abstract self. It was reassuring and normalizing to hear: “It seems we all live so close to that line and so far from satisfaction.”
Joni often used references of a personal relationship as a metaphor that spoke to something larger. My perception of the simple words: “And you put me at the top of your danger list just for being so much like you are” was meant to expose the 1970s good ol’ boys network for what it was.
In those times, there were more threatened men who resisted women’s entrance into the workplace with gender-biased perceptions and role expectations. Many men claimed exclusive seats at the boardroom table because the norms of the day dictated it. When men heard the question, “Do you want your wife working late at the office?” they had horrific thoughts of creepy predators, changing diapers and, heaven forbid, having to cook a meal.
In her typical fashion, Joni’s words didn’t demand inclusion, just magnified the fact that insecurity was the root of the problem. She was never a leader of the feminist movement, but a willingness to write openly of her fears and vulnerabilities enabled us all to think introspectively, become more enlightened to re-think the barricades to change.
When a glass ceiling breaks, some focus on what’s beyond, others cover up to avoid the shard’s falling around them. Joni’s lyrics peeled back the layers of existing norms and exposed the right side of history.
She wrote/sang: “I come from open prairie, given some wisdom and a lot of jive. Last night I saw the ghost of my old ideals, re-run on channel five.”
While the unpredictable winds of change were blowing hard, Joni used another relationship metaphor to caution us of the risks to intimacy.
“You and me are like America and Russia, we’re always keeping score. We’re always balancing the power and that could get to be a cold, cold war.”
A lengthy solo by jazz tenor saxophone great, Wayne Shorter at the end of a new piece foreshadowed Joni’s brief collaboration with legendary composer Charles Mingus during the last few months of his life.
Putting words to the Mingus’s jazz classic, “Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat,” Joni recounts mid-century society reactions when saxophonist Lester Young married a white woman. She ended the piece with another poignant and universal message: “Love is never easy, it’s short of the hope we have for happiness.”
Joni also included a haunting original piece about her impressions of Mingus’s multiple personalities that, once again, spoke to some duality in all of us. “He is three, one’s in the middle unmoved, waiting to show what he sees to the other two. To the one attacking–so afraid and the one that keeps trying to love and trust and getting himself betrayed. In the plan—oh the divine plan, God must be a boogie man.”
As she aged, Joni used an introspective style to discuss her mortality. The song, “Sweet Bird,” began: “Out on some borderline, some mark of in-between, I lay down golden-in time and woke up vanishing. Sweet bird, you are briefer than a falling star.” She continued. “Behind our eyes, calendars of our lives, circled with compromise. Sweet bird of time and change you must be laughing, up on your feathers laughing.”
Another polarity of life is the nexus of an aging body and an expanding mind. Well into middle-age, Joni, as we do, became more reflective and often cynical about both the past and present. Now speaking to a larger audience, her current state-of-mind was revealed through a hard-edged, whimsical love song. “If I’d only seen through the silky veils of ardor what a killing crime this love can be. I would have locked up my heart in a golden sheath of armor and kept its crazy beating under strictest secrecy, high security.”
Sensing, early on, a nation divided, Joni began to speak to our perceived invulnerability, not by advocating changes in policy, but openly reflecting on what we all had become.
Years ago, in “Borderline,” she observed: “Everybody looks so ill at ease, so distrustful so displeased.
Running down the table, I see a borderline, like a barbed wire fence strung tight, strung tense, prickling with pretense, a borderline.”
Changing mine or anyone’s position was never on Joni’s agenda. She was only there for thought-provoking insight.
“Every notion we subscribe to is just a borderline. Good or bad, we think we know, as if thinking makes things so. All convictions grow along a borderline”.
Borderlines were something Joni wrote of but never subscribed to.
Joni’s well-timed last lyrical message came in 2007, something I relished then and now. Imagining that it was our final conversation and I was seeking any sage advice that would sustain me, she responded with: “If you can dream and not make dreams your master. If you can think and not make intellect your game. If you can meet with triumph and disaster
and treat those two imposters just the same.”
Like any long-term relationship, there is no real ending. What we take from it lasts throughout our lives and maybe gets passed on to another. Of the people who I have long admired but never met, Joni’s profound impact in my life is unmatched. Like a martyr, revealing her own vulnerabilities conjured up introspection and balance in our lives and, perhaps, in the lives of others.