On Saturdays over the summer we are repeating some articles from the Off the Beaten Tracks series. This was first published on March 4, 2019.
MY choice this week has frequently been described as one of the greatest albums of all time, and the best by a female artist (how long before records by males are put into a subsidiary category?) Joni Mitchell’s Blue combines heartfelt, intensely confessional lyrics with music of great freshness and originality. For many it was the definitive soundtrack to the early 1970s and cemented Joni’s reputation as being on Dylan’s right hand at the summit of singer-songwriterdom.
Blue, released in 1971, is the fourth album by the musician born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943 in Alberta, Canada. I won’t go into any further biographical details; if you’re interested they are here.
Leaving aside for now the first track, All I Want, the story behind Blue begins with the second, My Old Man.
In 1968 the British musician Graham Nash, formerly of the Hollies, moved into Joni’s house in Laurel Canyon, the artistic enclave of Los Angeles. Describing their state of unmarried apparent bliss, she sings: ‘We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall, keeping us tried and true.’ How wrong can you be? Tension grew between the two when Joni repeatedly appeared on the same bill as Graham’s band Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. She was reportedly much miffed that they garnered a far stronger crowd reaction. Joni also believed (which Nash strongly disputes) that he wanted her to stay at home and be a traditional wife figure while he was out with his bandmates David, Stephen and Neil.
In the spring of 1970, about the time her third album Ladies of the Canyon was released to great acclaim, Joni left for a Mediterranean break with her friend Penelope, a Canadian poet. They rented an apartment on Crete, in the southern beach resort of Matala. The surrounding sandstone cliffs contained a number of caves which were home to a thriving hippie community. Nightlife centred around the Mermaid Café and a beachside taverna, Delphini, run by a 24-year-old American expat named Cary Raditz.
He was aware of Joni’s success but, unlike the rest of the men in Matala, refused to fawn to her, thinking that playing hard to get might be the way to her heart. One night in the taverna there was a traditional Greek plate-smashing session after which Joni for some reason resolved to tidy up the mess. In Sheila Weller’s book Girls Like Us, Raditz says: ‘Joan sweeps up the stuff from the floor and brings it to me helpfully. “Here”, she says. “Thanks”, I say, looking her in the eye. And then I throw it all back on the floor.’
Bizarrely, she was impressed. One evening the folk diva arrived at Raditz’s cave carrying her dulcimer. She stayed for five weeks.
During this time Graham Nash received a telegram from Crete. It read: ‘If you hold sand too tightly it will run through your fingers.’
Rather than taking this to mean that Joni was having trouble with her bucket and spade on the beach, 28-year-old Nash rightly intuited that she was giving him the bum’s rush. So he did what any red-blooded bloke from Blackpool would do – he wrote a song about it. In Simple Man, he says: ‘Never been so much in love and hurt so bad at the same time.’
Meanwhile 26-year-old Joni was strumming her dulcimer and writing the misspelt Carey about her ginger-bearded younger lover – ‘the bright red devil that keeps me in this tourist town’.
Life as a Cretan soon began to pall, however, and Joni made plans to scarper. She sings: ‘It sure is hard to leave you, Carey, but it’s really not my home. My fingernails are filthy, I’ve got beach tar on my feet. And I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne.’ Since there was no sanitation whatsoever in the cave, a more accurate lyric would have read: ‘I miss my flushing lavvy and I need a damn good wash’. Slightly less poetic, though. Raditz is also referred to in California – ‘I met a redneck on a Grecian isle’ – in which Joni writes of her joy at returning to civilisation via Ibiza and Paris.
Back home, she started a relationship with another star singer-songwriter, James Taylor, and flew to New Mexico for a visit while he was acting in the movie Two-Lane Blacktop. Returning to California, she wrote the song This Flight Tonight about her regrets at leaving him there. The song would provide an unlikely hit for the Scottish rock band Nazareth.
At the end of the summer she and Taylor decamped to England, where she performed at the Isle of Wight festival and wrote the song Blue about him.
He was partly the subject of A Case Of You, although Joni confided to a friend many years later that she was also thinking about a former lover, Leonard Cohen. All I Want is again about Taylor – ‘when I think of your kisses my mind seesaws’ – but once more a relationship she saw as perfect was not to last. He dumped her and married Carly Simon soon afterwards. Alone again with Christmas approaching, Joni reflected regretfully on her decision to give Graham Nash the heave-ho, and on her tempestuous love life in general. In the song River, she laments: ‘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.’
In March, 1971, Joni went into the studio to record the Blue album, in a state of great emotional fragility. The final track, The Last Time I Saw Richard, is about her ex-husband Chuck Mitchell, who Sheila Weller reports once made fun of his wife’s prominent teeth, saying: ‘When you don’t wear makeup and you smile, you look like a rhesus monkey.’ Serves him right that she left him.
The remaining song, Little Green, baffled critics and listeners because it dealt not like the rest with her tempestuous relationships but with the birth of a daughter – and Joni was officially childless. In fact, this turned out to be the album’s most confessional track of all. It emerged some time afterwards that, in her early 20s, she had a baby out of wedlock without telling her parents and gave her up for adoption. ‘Child with a child pretending, weary of lies you’re sending home. So you sign all the papers in the family name; you’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed; Little Green – have a happy ending.’ Mother and daughter were eventually reunited in the mid-1990s and Joni discovered that she was a granny.
When Blue came out there was delight at the music but surprise at the naked honesty of the lyrics. Kris Kristofferson was so taken aback by the songs’ vulnerability that he protested: ‘Joni, please leave something of yourself.’
Much later, she said it was ‘probably the most emotional record that I will ever make in my life. There is not one false note. I love that record more than any of them’. Many would agree with her.
Blue was the first of five consecutive classic albums by Joni, and I hope to return to the others in future columns.