1974. Several strangers met.
Many people still remember the meeting, but I’m not sure they really remember it well. They remember it as a meeting between two strangers, one of them a guitar-toting flower child, a “singer-songwriter,” and the other a hunched, bearded figure with dark glasses, deftly tapping a jazz beat on a crash cymbal. If you remember it that way, I’d like to jostle your memory a bit.
There are two ways in which the standard “folksinger turns to jazz” blurb seriously fails to capture what we can still hear when we listen to Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark. One failure is in counting strangers, for there were certainly more than two. The other failure is that classification of Mitchell with a putative pantheon of “folksingers” or “singer-songwriters” of the late sixties and early seventies, many of whom were her friends and some of whom were her lovers. It’s a failure if you leave it at that, anyway, if you take it to be all that’s required for the label on the file folder. Joni Mitchell herself is a meeting of a fair number of strangers, and it will help us to see how this is so if we see how uncanny is the party at which these strangers met the year of Court and Spark‘s release.
On earlier efforts, Mitchell had indeed established herself as a “folksinger,” in a sense roughly equivalent to that in which Todd Rundgren had established himself during the same period as a “pop singer.” Those who really knew, knew that she was already in danger of bursting with creativity with very limited patience for the boundaries on stylistic maps of the time. She stretched hard against the walls of the “folk” bin, in much the same way as her fellow Canadian, Bruce Cockburn. She also shares with the latter (and in fact, probably outdoes him in this) an urgent impulse to exploration and experimentation at the lyrical as well as the instrumental level. It is possible to hear Mitchell’s lyrics superficially, and nod knowingly at the relational roulette and sexual Sturm und Drang, as if it’s all just the standard post-Woodstock angst, with one foot in the summer of love and the other having at least a toe in the bloody theater of Southeast Asia.
But listen again to this amazing album, which became Mitchell’s most commercially successful despite its refusal of a narrow category. Listen to it as a party at which a number of strangers have met, doing what people do when they go to people’s parties. Some hang back shyly and watch while others dance wildly wearing lampshade crowns, or collapse in tears into the laps of new “friends” whom they hardly know at all. German philosopher-sociologist Georg Simmel wrote of how people must be “sociable” at parties, meaning that they must walk a sort of tightrope between taking both self and other either too seriously or not seriously enough. The people at this party, they stagger across a zone of overlap between the two, never really walking the line. This is what makes the entire album, with its sometimes unbearable lightness, a particularly serious musical work.
Listen. The strangers here are hardly limited to two (and some of them may have more than one head). Listen precisely as if it were “prog” in that deep sense that shakes the souls of many of us who hang out here. The very fact that “jazz” is supposedly a large element is enough to guarantee that the lines between several more “popular” and more “serious” musical genres have always already grown faint and almost disappeared. Sure, we can identify elements that are “jazz,” “folk,” “classical,” “torch,” and even a hint of “country.” But when I listened again to this album this morning, from beginning to end, what I heard was a wondrous party at which the number of guests is really beyond counting. Even the unifying effect of Mitchell’s mesmerizing voice is not exactly “unifying.” It is its own creature, not reducible to styles or genres by which it has supposedly been formed. It is willing to use words, phrasings, and sounds not according to a style, but according to the music.
Thank you, Joni, for the “prog” in you.