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Tag Archives: Joni Mitchell

Standin’ ‘ With Sly

Promotional photo of Sly & the Family Stone fo...

Promotional photo of Sly & the Family Stone for Rolling Stone, 1970 (Wikipedia)

Stand! by Sly and the Family Stone (1969) is one of the best songs on one of the best albums ever recorded. Tomorrow night a bunch of Bay Area bands will pay tribute to Stand at the Fox Theater in Oakland, following a day-long symposium at which Sly himself will speak; the latter is billed as the first annual convention of The Family Stone. If that sounds grandiose, consider this: The Family’s members were black and white, male and female–a first in rock ‘n’ roll.

Undercover, the extravaganza’s organizer, has produced similar events for outstanding albums since 2010, covering such classics as Paul Simon’s Graceland, Dylan‘s Highway 61 Revisited, and Joni Mitchell‘s Blue. According to their website:

UnderCover Presents is a small grassroots collective that gathers musicians from every corner of the San Francisco Bay Area’s music scene to celebrate the broad influence of classic albums. The concept is simple: bands are invited based on their enthusiasm for the album from a range of musical genres that reflect the diverse styles and cultures that make Bay Area music unique. Each band picks a different song from the album and infuses it with their distinctive sound and personality.

Stand! (the song) epitomizes the times in which it was created more so than any single song of its era. The lyrics, with multiple meanings on the personal, political and spiritual levels, speak for themselves:

Stand! In the end you’ll still be you
one that’s done all the things you set out to do.
Stand! Theres a cross for you to bear
things to go though if you’re going anywhere.

Stand! For the things you know are right
It’s the truth that the truth makes ’em so uptight
Stand! All the things you want are real
You have you to complete and there is no deal.

Stand! Stand! Stand! (Everybody)
Stand! Stand! Stand!

Ooo-ooh Stand
You’ve been sitting much too long
There’s a permanent crease in your right and wrong
Stand! There’s a midget standing tall
and a giant beside him about to fall.

Stand! Stand! Stand! (Everybody)
Stand! Stand! Stand!

Stand! They will try to make you crawl
and they know wht you’re sayin makes sense and all
Stand! Don’t you know that you are free—
Well at least in your mind if you want to be.

Stand! Stand! Stand! Na na na na na na na na nana
Stand! Stand! Stand! Na na na na na na na na nana
Stand! Stand! Stand! Na na na na na na na na nana
Stand! Stand! Stand! Na na na na na na na na nana

 

As you can no doubt tell, this is no preachy piece of jargon, but a highly danceable, singalong rocker. The opening drum roll is immediately recognizable, and worth a listen in itself. But hey, don’t take my word for it: if you’re too young to have dug Sly back in the day, check ’em out now; and if you’re as old as I am, you can come back baby, rock ‘n’ roll never forgets.

And everybody, don’t forget to Stand!

 

Growing Old With Rock ‘n’ Roll

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Chuck Berry

The legendary Chuck Berry is 84.

With so many rock singers closing in on or even past 70—Mick and Keith (both 68), Bob Dylan (71), Patti Smith (66) Paul McCartney (69), Joni Mitchell (69), Joan Baez (72), to name just a few—and still rockin’ in the free world, what kind of songs are we hearing from them? Remember, these guys drew upon their own life experiences for their songwriting. It’s inevitable that some of what they’re singing now is about aging, death and dying.

This getting older
Aint for cowards
This getting older
Is a lot to go through
Aint gonna need this body
much longer
Aint gonna need this body
much more.

Well I can’t see much
like I used to
and I can’t run like the windMellencmpLive
I don’t sleep more
than just a few hours
I can’t remember where I’ve been

Ain’t a gonna need this body much longer
Aint gonna need this body much more
I put in ten million hours
Washed up and worn out for sure.

Well all my friends are
sick or dying
and I’m here all by myself
All I got left
is a head full of memories
and a thought of my upcoming death…

–Don’t Need This Body, John Mellencamp (62)

I don’t know about anyone else, but to me these lyrics aren’t depressing in the least: rather, it’s reassuring to hear that others of my generation are thinking and feeling what I’m brooding about these days. Rock ‘n’ roll gave me courage starting in my pre-teen years, and it’s exhilarating to find it still does.

As always, Dylan’s leading the charge. He began back in ‘97, with “Not Dark Yet” on the Time Out of Mind album.

Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhereTimeOutOfMindcovr
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.

Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain…

I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from.
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.

John Mellencamp (62) toured with Dylan in 2009, the same year Mellencamp released Life Death Love & Freedom, which included not only “Don’t Need This Body” (lyrics above) but several other songs on the theme.

Longest Days

Seems like once upon a time ago
I was where I was supposed to be
My vision was true and my heart was too
There was no end to what I could dream
I walked like a hero into the setting sun
Everyone called out my name
Death to me was just a mystery
I was too busy raising up Cain.

But nothing lasts forever
Your best efforts don’t always pay
Sometimes you get sick
and don’t get better
That’s when life is short
Even in its longest days.

So you pretend not to notice
that everything has changed
The way that you look
and the friends you once had
so you keep on acting the same
But deep down in your soul
you know you got no flame
and who knows then which way to goMellencamp
Life is short even in its longest days…

If I Die Sudden

If I die sudden
please don’t tell anyone
There aint nobody that needs to know
that I’m gone
Just put me in a pine box
six feet underground
Don’t be calling no minister
I don’t need one around

Well my grandma she told me
she’d be waiting at the gate
She said that the fix was in
and that she’d already prayed
and the rest of my family
will be waiting there for me too
They’d already taken care of my sins
and there’s nothing left for me to do…

Persuasions

Humor is one thing that never dies, and people always squeeze a laugh out of death when possible. (I’ve been to a few hilarious family funerals, honest!) Leave it to The Persuasions, the acapella group that’s been going strong for half a century: they’ve taken the lyrics of “Sixty-Minute Man” and changed them to announce that they “Can’t Do Sixty No More.” Somehow they still look sexy doing it (I saw them perform it at Yoshi’s).

Please excuse my blown-out fuse / because I can’t do 60 no more…

BerrymansLou & Peter Berryman are a couple of odd ducks, usually played on radio stations like KPFA and WBAI. Their song  “After Life Goes By” is a hilarious sendup of various afterlife theories.

I believe there’s nothing after life goes by
I believe it’s over when we die die die
Others may be thankful their beliefs are strong
and every night I’m praying that I’m wrong wrong wrong…

but whenever I try kneeling aiming questions at the ceiling I get answers back revealing not a clue…

 Joni painting

 

It wouldn’t be lyrical death—or life—without an uplifting message from Carly Simon. In 1990 Carly began hoping that “Life Is Eternal.” (If this sounds sarcastic, I don’t mean to be; “Life is Eternal”, particularly the instrumental and choral parts, fits squarely into the goosebump genre.

Life Is Eternal

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking
about growing older and moving on
No one wants to be told that they’re getting on
and maybe going awayCarlyalbum
for a long long stay
but just how long and who knows
and how and where will my spirit go
Will it soar like jazz on a saxophone
or evaporate in the breeze?
Won’t you tell me please

That life is eternal
and love is immortal
and death is only a horizon
Life is eternal
as we move into the light
and the horizon is nothing
save the limit of our sight…

Here on earth I’m a lost soul
ever trying to find my way back home
Maybe that’s why each new star is born
expanding heaven’s room
Eternity in bloom
and will I see you up in that heaven
in all its light will I know you there?
Will we say the words that we never dared?
If wishing makes it so
Won’t you let me know

That life is eternal
and love is immortal…

And now for something new—yes, I do occasionally listen to new music! Carsie Blanton, an up and coming singer-songwriter, proves you don’t have to be old to think deeply about death. “Carsie’s lyrics are an iron fist in the velvet glove of her voice” notes another songwriter, Peter Mulvey, and this is precisely the case in “Smoke Alarm”—which, by the way, you can hear complete on her website.

Hey baby what’s the big deal?

Feel what you wanna feel

CarsieB.W

say what you wanna say
You’re gonna die one day
For example I could kiss youjust because I want to

Makes no difference if you turn away
I’m gonna die one day.

Why do you waste your time

thinkin ‘bout a reputation
tryin’ to meet expectations
worried what they’re gonna say
when everyone you’ve ever known
is headin’ for a headstone
I don’t wanna give the end away
We’re gonna die one day…

I’ll end with the brilliant, still going strong Paul Simon (71), who got the jump on everyone way back in ’68  when he was just a pup, in Bookends, the fourth album recorded with Art Garfunkel. As Wikipedia puts it, “The songs of the first side of the album follow a unified concept, exploring a life journey from childhood to old age…The whole side marks successive stages in life, the theme serving as literal bookends to the life cycle.”

While the first side overtly depicts life’s journey into old age, on Side Two you’ll find one of the best glimpses into a particular mindset frequently found in the aging artist. It astonishes me that Paul Simon was only 23 when he wrote “A Hazy Shade of Winter”. How did he know?

 

Time,
Time,
Time, see what’s become of me
while I looked around for my possibilities.
I was so hard to please.
Look around,
leaves are brown,
and the sky is a hazy shade of winter.Paul Simon

Hear the Salvation Army band.
Down by the riverside
there’s bound to be a better ride
than what you got planned.
Carry your cup in your hand
and look around.
Leaves are brown

and the sky is a hazy shade of winter.

Hang on to your hopes my friend.
That’s an easy thing to say
but if your hopes should pass away
then simply pretend
that you can build them again.
Look around
The grass is high,Bookends fields are ripe.
It’s the springtime of my life.
Seasons change with the scenery
weaving time in a tapestry.
Won’t you stop and remember me
at any convenient time?
Funny how my memory skips
while looking over manuscripts
of unpublished rhyme
drinking my vodka and lime.
I look around,
leaves are brown
and the sky is a hazy shade of winter.

The Kids Are All Right: Movie Review

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Kids All RightWarning: Spoilers and X-Rated Material Ahead

Of course the kids are all right. I always knew they would be. Some people were wringing their hands, fretting about how children raised by gay couples might turn out, but I never thought they’d have it any worse than kids from other family configurations – then again, I don’t worship at the altar of the nuclear family. Besides, unlike straight couples who just assume they’ll have children, those living outside the norm are forced to think long and hard before jumping into parenthood; in fact, they don’t “jump” at all – they sometimes go through hell and high water just to become parents. And once they do have kids, they tend to be fairly conscientious raising them. I’m not idealizing gay parents or saying they’re better at it; it’s just that living outside the mainstream in any way whatsoever forces people to deal with a host of issues that heterosexuals never have to think about.

 

Surprisingly, however, the film’s title is hardly the point. It turns out to be not so much about kids raised by lesbians, but rather about love and family and betrayal, and all the complexities in long-term relationships. It’s about sexuality and sexual identity and the longing for connection. That the kids are all right is almost incidental.

Eighteen-year-old Joni, named for Joni Mitchell and played by Mia Wasikowska, has the riveting looks of Claire Danes; she also happens to resemble someone I know, and I could hardly take my eyes off her. Which is quite a feat when you consider that Annette Benning and Julianne Moore, both knockouts, play the mothers. Their gorgeous looks are underplayed: if they were wearing any makeup in this movie, it was to highlight sags and wrinkles. When Moore’s character dons her gardening gear, she comes off looking like a middle-aged Annie Hall wannabe.Kids All Right

The plot is set in motion when 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) convinces his sister to find their donor, the man whose sperm contributed to their existence, since he’s too young, by law, to get the information himself. Joni, afraid of hurting their mothers, is reluctant, but when she meets Papa Sperm (Mark Ruffalo), she just about falls in love with him. So does everyone else in the family, with the exception of Mama Benning, whose fear of rocking the boat turns out to be well-founded: Mama Moore, while creating a lush garden Papa Sperm hires her to do, jumps into bed with him. The affair almost tears the family apart. That they survive is testament to the strength of their bonds and loyalty to one another – or so I perceive director Lisa Cholodenko’s point to be.

Mark RuffaloThe sex scenes between Moore and Ruffalo are wildly, passionately, animalistic. She literally tears his pants off, and greets what’s inside them like a long lost friend: “Hel-lo!” she says, apparently awestruck. Two or three substantial scenes of their lovemaking follow, in sharp contrast to the women’s sex: there’s been just one anemic scene of them in bed. In it we see Moore moving about under the covers, and Benning’s facial expressions – which would work if she were actually being expressive, but if anything, she seems bored. From underneath the quilt comes the buzz of a vibrator. More movement. End sex scene. The lesbians sitting behind me were laughing their asses off in recognition, and I confess I too got a chuckle out of the scene. The hetero sex scenes had not yet occurred, so it’s only in retrospect that I feel the lesbian couple got the fuzzy end of the lollipop.

More important, because Moore has such a raging good time in penis-land, what comes later on, in the confrontation between her and Benning, seems off kilter.  It’s evasive, even false. A bisexual friend of mine was miffed because Benning asks, “Are you straight?” rather than “Are you bisexual?” The latter question, I think, would’ve been out of character, especially during a confrontation – but there is something missing here. Benning’s question doesn’t even seem to register with Moore, and when Benning asks if it was about sex, Moore makes a dismissive face. Finally, she claims that she slept withKids All RightPapa Sperm because she was feeling “unappreciated.”

Is that what she was getting, her legs high in the air while Papa Sperm pounded into her like a steamroller? Appreciation? Gimme a break! The intensity of the hetero sex scenes, and the absence of romanticism, utterly contradicts the lie.

So I have to ask: Why? Why did the director stereotype lesbian sex as warm and cuddly, while depicting straight sex as raw animal pleasure? Was it fear of letting a mainstream audience see what women really do in bed? Or was she just rewinding old tired stereotypes of female sexuality? I guess it was foolish of me to expect Hollywood to move beyond lesbian stereotypes — a good movie about lesbian mothers is enough of a leap.

But here’s the thing: my criticism isn’t coming from some pro-lesbian-passion crusade. This is not a political ax I’m grinding. What I’m talking about is honesty and believability in art. The director’s choices regarding sexual portrayal wreck the film. Oh, sure, it’s a fun movie, it’s enjoyable to watch  – but the premise of the film doesn’t work, not if the implication at the end is, as it appears to be, that the family’s bonds are far stronger than a roll in the hay, and their relationships will heal and go on. From what I saw between that man and woman in bed compared to what I saw between the women’s sheets, I don’t believe this ending one bit. I don’t believe that Mama Moore will be faithful from now on. She’s going to stray again. And again.

Will You Take Me As I Am: Book Review

Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period, by Michelle Mercer

Will You Take Me As I Am

After enjoying Girls Like Us so much, I began looking around for other books about the most interesting of its three subjects, Joni Mitchell. Lucky for me, bios of Joni seem to be on the way to becoming a cottage industry. Will You Take Me As I Am is described by its author, Michelle Mercer, as an investigation into what she calls Mitchell’s “Blue Period,” encompassing the albums Blue, For the Roses, Court and Spark, and Hejira.

xbluexrosesxcourt

The release of each one of these albums, with the exception of Hejira, coincided with a different man in my life, and each reflected perfectly the flavor of its corresponding relationship. That is, of course, par for the course among women of a certain age during a certain era in history: Mitchell’s expression of the universal in the personal is the primary reason she caught fire among us. As Mercer notes, “She doesn’t strive to tell the truth about herself. She strives to find and express human truths, and in the process, she happens to reveal quite a bit about herself.”

xhejiraxmingusxwild

In my opinion Hejira doesn’t belong in this grouping, and not because I didn’t have a man to go with it. Mercer almost completely ignores The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which came after Court and Spark and, to my mind, belongs here more than the later Hejira, with its disjointed melodies; more important, the lyrics seem almost intentionally obscure and distancing compared to the preceding albums. At the time I worried that Mitchell was going in a direction I’d be unable to follow, but four albums later she seduced me anew with Wild Things Run Fast. I’ve come to view Hejira as a bridge to her expansion into jazz and other musical genres, a herky-jerky first attempt that paved the way for the vastly underrated Mingus and WTRF’s seamless fusion of jazz and rock.

Joni sexyBut although the author’s premise doesn’t hang together for me all that well, it hardly matters: the book is a loving assemblage of revelations about the life and work of one of our greatest living singer songwriters. It was delightful to pick up and impossible to put down. Unlike other books written about her, Joni participated in this one’s creation. It’s been said that she wasn’t happy about Girls Like Us, at least in principle; it isn’t hard to imagine her being miffed by the comparison with Carly Simon and Carole King. Speaking musically, who can blame her? I adore Carly Simon’s bouncy songs and heartfelt ballads, but I don’t put her in the same category. As Mercer says, Simon’s songs contain “little of the investigation that turns over relationship woes for insights into human behavior.”

Ostensibly glad for a book of her own, Joni gave generously to Mercer withxbsn interviews, opinions, pithy quotes, and even a tagged-on list of her favorite things. These include, as everyone who follows her knows, smoking cigarettes. As a smoker myself, I so appreciate Joni’s refusal to surrender her rights, her pride, and her self-esteem to those who malign her for this.  Uncowed by the PC anti-smoking fascism of our times, she maintains without apology that it’s “a focusing drug. Everybody should just be forced to smoke.” Hell, if all it took was tobacco to get everyone as focused as Joni Mitchell, I’d second that emotion.

Joni on tourThis book confirmed something else I’ve long suspected about Mitchell: she’s a man’s woman, the kind of gal who prefers hanging out with men. She’s been a tomboy since childhood and plays pool like a hustler. The only female musician she mentions with any degree of respect is the late Laura Nyro.  As for male influences, she clearly points to Dylan and Neil Young.  She still seems to respect and like Graham Nash. About Leonard Cohen she’s a bit more equivocal: though he did influence her music and her thinking when she was younger, she’s come to regard him as somewhat superficial. He cannot, she says, being only partly facetious, write a song without putting the phrase naked body into it. But she shows no humor or equivocation when it comes to Jackson Browne—she loathes him. With all these men except for Dylan (about whom I’ve no idea), Joni had love affairs of some sort, but only Browne seems to have left her foaming at the mouth. As Mercer says, “Don’t get her started on Jackson Browne, the Catholic Church, or modern medicine.”

I know there are lots of women—and men too—who, like me, love, worship and adore Joni Mitchell, both as a musician and a woman. To all I recommend this book, and give it five fat juicy golden stars. She is stardust, she is golden…

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and the Journey of a Generation/Book Review

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and the Journey of a Generation/
By Sheila Weller

When woven together, the strands of their three separate lives, identities and songs tell the rich composite story of a whole generation of women born middle class in the early to middle 1940s and coming of age in the middle to late 1960s.

I rarely read celebrity bio’s, but this one was irresistible. I’m a long-time Joni Mitchell

worshipper—you know, one of those women who hung on her every word to find out what was really happening deep within my psyche. It began with her first album and the song “Marcie” –the spelling’s different, but the sentiments, even “Marcie’s” circumstances, rang uncannily true. This went on year after year, decade after decade, with a hiatus between Hejira and Wild Things Run Fast, during which Joni experimented with jazz and other musical styles, letting the personal lyrics get lost in the mix.

At first I was a little put off by Weller’s categorizing these musicians together: Joni Mitchell is far and away the best of the trio—the best of her generation, right up there with Bob Dylan and the Beatles. In terms of Weller’s book, however, and the sociological point she’s making, it doesn’t matter: Carly and Carole have had at least as much of a cultural influence. Pre-Joni, Carole King’s songs provided the backdrop to my furtive groping in cars—only I didn’t know they were Carole King’s, since they were sung by
The Shirelles, The Drifters,
and every other doo-wop group played by Alan Freed and Murray the K. And “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be,” Carly Simon’s profound anti-marriage ballad, hit the airwaves at the exact moment that I was struggling to break free of my marriage and suburbia; I’ve been loving her sexy songs ever since. Thus, when I saw Girls Like Us, connecting these three as representative of my generation of women, I was blown away.



Ditto when I read that King’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? was about a girl puttin’ out for her boyfriend, hoping he’d still respect her in the morning. I was thirteen when that song came out, still a few years from catching its real meaning, and during all this time it still never dawned on me. This was just one of many delicious tidbits I learned about songs I’ve been hearing and singing all my life. Even juicier is all the dish on their relationships, and the incestuousness of their interactions with others in the music world. You’d have to call it celebrity gossip, and I’m as guilty as anyone of eating it up. In my defense, these women, the men who surrounded them, their music, and their lives have been of crucial importance to me. They’ve accompanied me all my life, whether on 45’s, LP’s, tapes, disks, and, now, my iPod. The dish on them is more than just dish: reading this book deepened and enriched my appreciation of their music.


James Taylor, another of my musical favorites, plays almost as big a role in this book as the women: he was romantically involved with all three, while they themselves barely know one another. As Weller says, “the tortured boy was the only one worth having,” and man, was JT tortured. He only got off heroin for good in the eighties, and I’m sorry to have discovered that he wasn’t as nice a guy as his high-minded, often spiritual lyrics would suggest. He was cold, emotionally withholding, barely present as a father (of Carly’s kids) and even, on occasion, downright cruel. But hell, the guy was a dyed-in-the-wool junkie who only got off the stuff after divorcing Carly, a point the author deems significant—but he was a junkie for years before they even met.


The “You’re So Vain” mystery is settled once and for all: its subject is neither Warren Beatty nor Mick Jagger, but a composite of men, including those two, that Carly slept with during a particularly busy season. I was going to say “promiscuous” rather than “busy,” but it would ring false in the context of the book and the era it chronicles. These women slept with the best and the brightest, some of them, like JT, overlapping, especially between Carly and Joni. By contrast, the girl who worried musically if respect flew out the window once she gave herself away, married half the men she took to bed, starting at seventeen with Gerry Goffin, her writing partner, ultimately racking up four or five husbands. (I lost track. Also, these ladies, now well into their sixties, are still doin’ it. Rebels and role models to the death.)

But that’s Weller’s point—that King, Mitchell, and Simon were products of their time, as well as role models who led the way for the rest of us. In the sexual arena, sure—but, more significantly, by wanting, and pursuing, their own ambitions, and paying the cost as the first generation of women to stare down the conflicts inherent in female rebellion. For Joni, the cost was steep: she suffered long and deeply for giving up her daughter for adoption (“Little Green”), with whom she is now reconciled. For Carly, a hopeless romantic who read Anna Karenina ten times, the cost came in her relationship with James Taylor, an all-consuming obsession that drained and devoured her. Carole married men with whom she felt she had to minimize her accomplishments, diminishing herself to keep their fragile egos intact (these Peter Pans continually failed despite her sacrifices; one husband even killed himself.)

Was the cost worth it? Were Joni’s years of guilt, the loss of so many years with her daughter, worth it for the masterpiece that is Blue? Was Carole’s abuse at the hands of men a small price to pay for Tapestry, one of the most successful albums of all time? Was Carly’s bleeding heart no big thing in view of “Life is Eternal,” “You’re so Vain” and dozens of other songs? Easy for me to say it was. I owe these gals a great big thank you. Also thank you Sheila Weller for your book. My gratitude is vast.