“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. 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-third 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.” The song opens with: “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. Strumming with guitar in hand, she sang: “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, 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. She wrote/sang to someone: “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, when, in the song “Jericho,” Joni wrote/sang: “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.
To be continued.