Good Friend of Mine
by Anna Dever-Scanlon
Lately my infatuation with Joni Mitchell, which has been going on for many years now, has blossomed into an obsession. As far back as I can remember, the songs of Joni Mitchell drifted in and out of our house like a friendly neighbor perpetually gliding in through the screen door. I can’t think of Joni Mitchell without thinking of my mother.
Images of the two are intertwined in my mind. The long hair parted down the middle, the tall, lanky frame, the long skirts and beads, the beautiful kind face. Growing up surrounded by hippies, certain things seemed as imperceptible as wallpaper to me, incense, dried herbs hanging from the rafters, Navaho blankets, and Joni Mitchell.
As a kid, I remember making fun of Joni with my friend Lindsi – running around the house imitating her voice with exaggerated screeches – at which my mother’s eyes would roll and her lips curl into an amused smile. I think I was really into Billy Joel at that time. This was also around the time when I thought it was cool to wear fake glasses and speak in a ridiculous British accent. Thinking back, my mother must have been wondering what she did to deserve hearing “Uptown Girl” one million times an hour.
Mom, me and Dad at a holiday party
It wasn’t until college that I actually started to appreciate Joni Mitchell. I got Blue and Court and Spark and was astonished by lyrics like “I’m just livin on nerves and feelings / with a weak and a lazy mind / and comin to people’s parties fumbling deaf dumb and blind” (“People’s Parties”). I don’t think I had ever heard a song that captured such a specific and familiar emotion so well. “He makes friends easy he’s not like me / I watch for judgement anxiously / now where in the city can that boy be” (“Car on a Hill”). Listening to Joni was like receiving a gift, an affirmation that what I felt could be expressed in beautiful words and music.
There has been talk of the relative merits of Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan as songwriters. Though I think Dylan may be better at dealing with large political or existential themes, no one compares to Joni when it comes to expressing the nuances of everyday emotions. Most amazingly, she was describing the pain of day-to-day life in a way that was altogether new.
Though we’re all sick of hearing about the groundbreaking achievements of the baby boomer generation, it’s true that the role of women changed dramatically during that time. Women found themselves in situations that were unprecedented and in fact purposefully sought out these new and exotic experiences. I just read the new book, Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation. Full of fascinating details, this certainly fed my obsession.
The times when you impress me most are the times when you don’t try
Joni did bizarre things like drive to New Mexico to show up unannounced at Georgia O’Keefe’s doorstep and strike up a lasting friendship. She also dressed up as a black pimp on occasion. She lived with David Geffen for a while and wrote the song “Free Man in Paris” (“There’s a lot of people askin for my time, they’re tryin to get ahead, they’re tryin to be a good friend of mine“) about him. While dating a black jazz musician, she painted a picture of him with a full erection and hung it in the living room. She dated Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Sam Shepard, and Jackson Browne, among others. She lived in a cave on the island of Crete for a while.
A painting of Leonard Cohen by Joni Mitchell
I think what makes me keep coming back to Joni Mitchell is that she isn’t afraid to look at things as they really are. Her song, “Blonde in the Bleachers” is painfully honest about male psychology. Cause it seems like you’ve got to give up such a piece of your soul when you give up the chase. Feelin it hot and cold, you’re in rock and roll, it’s the nature of the race. It’s the unknown child so sweet and wild, it’s youth, it’s too good to waste. It’s as though she feels this way herself about the men she dates. Having sized up her milieu with such precision, she knows it would be stupid to hang her hopes on one man and so remains a fierce free spirit.
She is one of the only women in pop music to express her feelings about love in such a way. She is not the crooning “fool in love” or the hurt “woman scorned.” She is just as ambivalent about love and commitment as her male counterparts. (I pulled into the Cactus Tree Motel, to shower off the dust, and I slept on the strange pillow of my wanderlust, from the song “Amelia”). “Cactus Tree” is a song that also deals with this ambivalence. She will love them when she sees them, they will lose her if they follow, and she only means to please them, and her heart is full and hollow like a cactus tree, while she’s so busy bein free.
My mother, sick of being left alone to care for me for long stretches while my father was on the road driving trucks or teaching juvenile delinquents how to backpack through the Florida Everglades, set out on her own when I was eight. As a waitress with a young child to raise, that must have been daunting. But she did it, and subsequently put herself through nursing school. At the age of 21, Joni became pregnant out of wedlock. She gave the child up for adoption because she knew this was not the right path for her at the time.
Instead of raising a child, Joni wrote songs that helped a whole generation of women navigate a world that was new and which had not been mapped out by society. I believe my mother was one of those women. I listen to music for many reasons – for escape, for excitement, for pure stimulation. I listen to Joni for other reasons though. Full of insight and substance, listening to her is like reading a book. Kind of like the book every woman wishes she could write for her daughter.
Anna Dever-Scanlon is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer and clothing designer living in Brooklyn. Her designs can be seen at annamatrona.etsy.com. Her blog is www.lipstickdipschitz.blogspot.com.
“Dog Eat Dog” – Joni Mitchell (mp3)
“Shiny Toys” – Joni Mitchell (mp3)
“Smokin’ (Empty, Try Another)” – Joni Mitchell (mp3)
“Tax Free” – Joni Mitchell (mp3)
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The Ballad Of Molly And Steve Malkmus
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