Tuesday, August 3, 2021

"Creeque Alley" Step By Step - Hits of '67

I get a kick out of it when artists refer to other artists in song. In case of eavesdroppers, we get Steely Dan's advice to "Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening," and from Neil Young's "Long May You Run": "Maybe The Beach Boys/ Have got you now/ With those waves/ Singing 'Caroline No'/ Rollin' down/ That empty ocean road/ Gettin' to the surf on time."

But it was Papa John Phillips who set the standard with "Creeque Alley" in 1967. "Creeque Alley" was released on The Mamas and The Papas third LP Deliver. It tells the story of the formation of the band and serves as an expo of the L.A. Scene that led to all that California Dreamin'. (Creeque Alley, btw (pronounced Creek-y), is a spiderweb of streets surrounding the docks on St. Thomas.)

John and Mitchie were gettin' kinda itchy just to leave the folk music behind. John Phillips was a member of folkies The Journeymen, along with Scott McKenzie ("San Francisco"). Late in '64, John and his wife, Michelle, formed The New Journeymen with and Denny Doherty, but before the end of the year John was "itchy" for something new. In a different world in the cold north, Zal and Denny [were] workin' for a penny tryin' to get a fish on the line, a reference to Denny's band The Halifax Three, which he'd started with Zal Yanovsky.

In a coffee house Sebastian sat and after every number they passed the hat. Sebastian, you've already guessed, is John Sebastian who would go on to found The Lovin’ Spoonful. "They passed the hat" is a reference to the way bands were paid in the coffee houses of the sixties. McGuinn and McGuire just are gettin' higher in L.A. you know where that's at is a reference to McGuinn's band The Byrds, and Barry McGuire had already had a hit with "Eve of Destruction"; all these references predating The Mamas and The Papas. The line is an indirect reference to drug use as well, and more directly to The Byrds' "Eight Miles High." The song's coda, And no one's getting fat except Mama Cass, only incidentally refers to Cass's weight, but more directly to Cass as the only one with any degree of success (as a jazz singer in D.C.).

John Phillips remembers, "[Cass] met Denny, and Denny said, 'I know this girl that sings wonderfully. We should have her over and sing with her.' It happened to be that LSD was actually legal at the time. It wasn't a banned drug or anything. We searched all over the Village and found some contemporary artist who had some and he gave it to us. We were about to take it that night, when the knock on the door came and Cass came in. So we all had it together the same night, for the first time, and I think that formed a bond between the four of us that we just never stopped singing. We just went on and on and on and on, until the trip wore off, which was about four years later."

Zallie said 'Denny, you know there aren't many who can sing a song the way that you do'; Let's go South) acknowledges Denny's prowess as a singer and "south" in this case means NYC (south of Halifax). Denny said 'Zallie, golly, don't you think that I   wish I could play guitar like you' is a bit more log rolling, this time about Zal's virtuoso guitar playing.

Zal, Denny and Sebastian sat (at the Night Owl) [The Night Owl Café in the Village], and after every number they passed the hat./ McGuinn and McGuire still are gettin' higher in L.A. you know where that's at./ And no one's getting fat except Mama Cass. By this time, though, The Byrds had had two No. 1 singles with "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn, Turn, Turn."


When Cass was a Sophomore, planned to go to Swarthmore [a Philadelphia area college],/ But she changed her mind one day. / Standing on the turnpike (New Jersey Turnpike – equally immortalized in Simon and Garfunkel's “America.”) , thumb out to hitchhike, Take her to New York right away.

When Denny met Cass he gave her love bumps. Cass was in love with Denny from the moment she had met him during their days with The Mugwumps. During the group's visit to the Virgin Islands she learned that Michelle had slept with Dennny. This caused a ton of tension with the group. Indeed Cass went to Michelle and said, "You can have any man you want. Why did you have to sleep with the one man I love?" Based on Denny's and Michelle's affair, John wrote "I Saw Her Again" and made them sing it as a form of punishment. Ah, the drama - shots are fired. Called John and Zal, and that was the Mugwumps. The "John" in this reference was obviously John Sebastian, who, according to his biography, was an original member of the Mugwumps with Zal, Denny and Cass prior to forming the Spoonful.

Mugwumps, hi-jumps, low slumps, big bumps,/ Don't you work as hard as you play./ Drink-up, break-up, everything is shake-up/ Guess it had to be that way refers to the inevitability of the Mugwumps' breakup. Sebastian and Zal formed the Spoonful,Michelle, John and Denny gettin' very tuneful is another reference to The New Journey Men, and then of course McGuinn and McGuire just are catchin' fire in L.A. you know where that's at is self explanatory.

Finally the refrain (in the way that Poe’s "Raven" progresses from "Nevermore" to "Evermore") explores a new take on the "fat" reference with Everybody getting fat except Mama Cass; essentially the success of all the aforementioned. Broke, busted, disgusted, agents can't be trusted,/ and Mitchie wants to go to the sea refers to Michelle’s insistence on a vacation. She spun a globe and her finger landed on the Virgin Islands.

Cass can't make it, she says we'll have to fake it is a bit more elusive in meaning. There's a ton of discord with everyone's version, but aside from a story about Cass getting hit in the head with a pipe (and gaining a greater vocal range because of it), no two stories are alike. We knew she'd come eventually (Cass had begged off on the Virgin Island trip, but then missed Denny and flew down with John's cousin Billy Throckmorten.

Greasin' on American Express card (don’t leave home without it) relates to the group having an American Express card which was used to finance the trip to the Virgin Islands. It belonged to one of the other Journeymen and was intended for Journeymen business. Of course, no one was making any payments on it by this time, and the group's departure from the Islands was actually precipitated by an American Express representative finally confiscating the card. Michelle said of the trip, "We did nothing but dropping acid, snorkeling, and smoking a lot of pot, and drinking. We would actually slice off the top of a coconut and pour rum into it."

Tents, low rents, and keepin' out the heat's hard./ Duffy's good vibrations, and our imaginations,/ can't go on indefinitely. These lines suggest that the group were tiring of life on the islands. "Duffy's" is the name of the boarding house on Creeque Alley (pronounced Creak-y Alley) in Charlotte Amali where many of the group's early songs were composed.
And California Dreaming is becoming a reality

Monday, August 2, 2021

The Last Time I Saw Richard - Joni Mitchell


Joni Mitchell began her career busking and playing little clubs in Saskatoon Saskatchewan and in Toronto in the early 1960s with her husband, Chuck Mitchell. By the summer of 1969, she was a fixture in Laurel Canyon. Her first LP, Song to a Seagull, often called Joni Mitchell because the record company cut off part of the album cover's design, was produced by David Crosby. Crosby's production was meant to augment her singing style with one tactical error on his part. The idea was to have Joni sing into the opening of a baby grand piano to accentuate the reverb in her voice. That technique backfired and required David to edit out the excess vibration audible in the master tape. By doing so, the recording comes off a little flat, but maybe, as well, highlights the naivete in Joni's lilting soprano and youthful lyrics. The album isn't masterful but truly suggests what was yet to come. The LP is so overshadowed by Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, and Court and Spark that one is likely to overlook the LP, Clouds as well, Joni's sophomore effort, but that's unfair. The songs are talented and innovative, folky and naïve in a way that suggests the performance is more a private session; Joni truly solo.



It's on Blue that we find the ultimate story song in "The Last Time I Saw Richard." Unlike the popular story songs of the time ("Wildfire," "Taxi," "Ode to Billie Joe"), here we don't find the kitsch often associated with the genre. This is hardcore realism. Joni's motif more often encompasses snippets of relationships as we, the listeners, take what we will and fill in the missing pieces. Yet "Richard," we get a full-blown short story, start to finish. Whether about Chuck Mitchell (or Taylor or Crosby or Nash or…), that we don't know, but the scene opens with Joni recalling a barroom conversation three years prior in which an older ex-lover attempts to shut down her youthful enthusiasm with melancholy and disparate philosophical musings: "All romantics meet the same fate someday: cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café." Pure poetry. Richard projects his misery onto her, scoffing when she laughs when he says: "Roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you all those pretty lies." Richard is bitter, though a youthful  Joni cuts him off as he wallows in his pain with gushy love songs in the background that he's put on the jukebox. The scene takes place, by the way, in 1968, around the time Joni was establishing herself in the Laurel Canyon/Hollywood scene. The song is classic storytelling that evokes the idea that as time progresses we grow apart, we’re not the people we once were. Joni's eyes are "full of moon" and poor Richard Whiney Pants in his self-pity merely comes off as comical; the guy you just want to say, "deal," or prescribe Zoloft.

"The Last Time I Saw Richard" is a story song masterstroke that could have been written by an Emily (Dickenson or Bronte). I'm hard pressed to include it with the others we've talked about on the radio program as it provides none of that kitsch or camp one would find in both the worst of the lot (Bobby Goldsboro's "Honey," Rupert Holme's "Escape") or the best (Bruce Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman," or Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat"). Here, too, is one of those songs in which the poetry transcends the music.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Two Cats in the Yard - 8217 Lookout Mountain Road


Research, is a sketchy thing, even when it comes from the source. I pieced together the "Our House" story as told by Graham Nash in a myriad of alternate versions:

"I came to live in America in 1969 and stayed with David [Crosby] for a couple of nights. He threw me a party and invited Joni [Mitchell], whom I hadn't seen since meeting her when I played with the Hollies. Suddenly, Joni was at the door and nothing  else mattered. She was the whole package: a lovely, sylphlike woman with a  natural blush, like windburn, and an elusive quality that seemed lit from  within. Behind her, at the dining room table, were my  new American friends David Crosby and Stephen Stills – refugees, like me, from  successful, broken bands. I grinned the moment I laid eyes on them.

"I had never met anybody like Crosby. He was  an irreverent, funny, brilliant hedonist who had been thrown out of The Byrds  the previous year. He always had the best drugs, the most beautiful women, and  they were always naked. Stephen was a guy in a similar mold. He was  brash, egotistical, opinionated, provocative, volatile, temperamental, and so  talented. A very complex cat, and a little crazy, he had just left Buffalo  Springfield, one of the primo L.A. bands.

"That night, while Joni listened, the three of  us sang together for the first time. I heard the future in the power of those  voices. And I knew my life would never be the same. Joni and I had first met after a Hollies show  in Ottawa, Canada in March. I'd seen this beautiful blonde in the corner by  herself, and I’d shuffled over and introduced myself.

"'I know who you are,' she said, slyly.  'That's why I'm here.' After that party I went home with Joni and spent a couple of years with her in her home in Laurel Canyon.

"One day Joan and I got up and went to breakfast at a delicatessen on Ventura Boulevard [Art's], and a few doors away there was a little antique store, and in the window Joan saw this vase, went inside, fell in love with it, bought it and brought it back to the house. It was a kind of a cold gray morning as it sometimes can be in Los Angeles, and I said, 'Why don't I light the fire and you put some flowers in the vase that you just bought.' So she's cutting stems and leaves and arranging flowers in this vase, and I'd lit the fire. Now, my and Joan's life at the time were far from ordinary … and I thought, 'What an ordinary moment.' Here I am lighting the fire for my old lady and she's putting flowers in this vase that she just bought. And I sat down at Joan's piano and an hour later, 'Our House' was written.

I think the only thing that I've ever really tried to do with whatever talent I was given by God, is that I want to touch people's lives for the better. I have no choice about this writing thing; I have no idea where it comes from; I don’t want to question it too much. But I am so grateful that I can write."

Thursday, July 29, 2021

L.A. Album Cover Locales


Many an album cover was photographed in L.A., it goes without saying. Where, though? Here's a tour.



You can't go inside, sorry, but Carole King and her Kitty were photographed in Carole's home at 8815 Appian Way, high above Sunset Plaza. Carole had great success in the 60s writing for others, from the Monkees to the Byrds, but it was Tapestry, among the bestselling albums of all time, that was her coming out party. An excerpt from the photographer's obituary says it better than I can: "Photographer Jim McCrary was on the verge of shooting one of his most famous images when he stopped to ask singer Carole King if the cat sleeping across the room could be part of the tableau.

"When King assured him that her pet was docile, he carried the tabby and its pillow to the window ledge and into the frame. By the third click of his camera, the cat had slipped away but McCrary had what he needed: a picture of both the barefoot songstress and her whiskered feline that became the cover of King's landmark 1971 Tapestry album."

An abandoned house in Topanga Canyon was used for the front cover of The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968) and the back of Linda Ronstadt's Hand Sown Home Grown (1969). The Byrds were photographed by rock/celeb photographer Guy Webster at what he referred to as an old stable in Malibu Canyon, but the house has recently been spotted and verified one canyon over in Topanga, not far from the old Topanga Corral (647 Old Topanga Road).

The Byrds as pictured on the cover are: (left to right) Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn, and Michael Clarke. Although David Crosby appeared on several tracks on the album, he had unofficially been fired from the band. There is speculation that the inclusion of the horse (rather than Crosby) was an inside joke, but Guy Webster denies the accusation.  Linda Ronstadt appears on the right as photographed by Eddie J. Caraeff.

The covers for two Love LPs, Love and Da Capo, were shot at what was once Bela Lugosi's $30,000 mansion at 2227 Outpost Drive. Today a private residence, the home was purchased in 2018 for nearly $4 million.

Many of the photo locations are obvious: Bonnie Raitt's cover for Takin' My Time is a waiting room in the glorious Union Station downtown and, while there isn't a “Hotel California,” the LP's iconic location is the Beverly Hills Hotel. The interior shot of the band, though, is not. That instead is the Lido Apartments at 6500 Yucca Street, just a stroll from Hollywood Blvd. Head down Highland passed the Hollywood Bowl and turn right on Barham Blvd. Once over the ridge, you’ll see Warner Bros. Studios, the location for Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here. It was also the site for Petula Clark's These Are My Songs, which had the hit "Don’t Sleep in the Subway." The Doobie Brothers used a collapsed freeway overpass from the 1971 Sylmar quake to photograph their The Captain and Me LP. Last one for the obvious: Going For the One from Yes features the twin triangular buildings, the Century City Towers.

For me, a sentimental one is the Norman Seeff photo for Art Garfunkel's Breakaway, which was taken at a booth where I’ve sat on numerous occasions in Dan Tana’s (9071 Santa Monica Blvd.), that splendid survivor of an ever-expanding Lost L.A. (We will miss you, Mike).

#milesfromnowhere

Saturday, July 24, 2021

I Can See For Miles and Miles and Miles


Wow! Lots of requests the last few days for my novel, Miles From Nowhere. Miles was published a hundred years ago, way back in 2019, and due to an imperceptible error at the printers, they are sending me an overrun at a reduced rate.
If you are interested in a copy, they are $8.00 including shipping (half off the Amazon/bookstore price).
email me at rjsomeone@gmail.com and I will invoice you from Paypal. The first ten copies ordered come personalized.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Chuck E.'s in Love - RIP Chuck E


The Hollywood threesome that captured our attention in the late 70s was Tom Waits, Rickie Lee Jones and Chuck E. Weiss, who essentially became the most famous of the three, an accidental celebrity. In 1977, $65 bought a week at the seedy hipster paradise called the Tropicana on Santa Monica Blvd., just up the street from Barney's Beanery. Chuck E. slept on a couch, I suppose, or in the other bed. It's an assumption on my part, but as a compatriot hit up for quarters for the cigarette machine at the Troubadour on a regular basis, I can assume that he didn't have 65 bucks a week. "Chuck E.'s in Love" wouldn't be released for several more years, but the content of what may be the all time hippest single in pop history was already established. Waits, on the breadth of his first four LPs, but particularly on the success of Small Change, was already an established singer/songwriter, playing gigs at the Troub and at McCabe's in Santa Monica.


Tom and Cassandra Peterson (Elvira)
Let's Rewind. Waits' previous album, Nighthawks at the Diner (1975), was recorded at the Record Plant studio with an audience to capture the ambiance of a live venue. It was a pretty telling album. Of it he said, "I was sick through that whole period. I'd been traveling quite a bit, living in hotels, eating bad food, drinking a lot — too much. There's a lifestyle that's there before you arrive and you're introduced to it. It's unavoidable." 

Small Change (1976) found Waits in a cynical and pessimistic mood, with songs like "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) (An Evening with Pete King)" and "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart (In Lowell)." These were the songs that established Waits as a rock icon (including, of course, "Tom Traubert's Blues"). With Small Change Waits became a poster child, a poet laureate for off-kilter American cool and took his act overseas. Rickie Lee wasn't yet a part of his life. 

That would change one fateful night at Doug Weston's Troubadour. Rickie Lee sang a short set of songs (including "The Moon is Made of Gold," only recently recorded for the album Balm in Gilead) following the performance of an obscure singer-songwriter named Ivan Ulz, who was instrumental in introducing several members of The Byrds, but little else. That night led to Tom's room at the Trop and a lifelong friendship of collaboration (if only temporary intimacy). Rickie never left and somewhere along the line, Chuck E. showed up.

Then suddenly Chuck was gone, vanished. I went to the Troubadour and no one hit me up for a drink or for change. Every once in a while somebody'd say, "What happen to that guy?"

"Chuck E? I dunno."

Story goes that Chuck E. finally called Waits from Denver where he'd fallen in love with his cousin. When Waits got off the phone he said to Rickie, "Chuck E.'s in Love." Instrumental in the success of the Viper Room, just down from the Whiskey, Chuck E. Weiss's career as a singer/songwriter has never equaled his fame as that character in Rickie's story, the ending of which is fictional; there was never any relationship between the two. Chuck E. was "never in love with the little girl singin' this song."


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Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Pokerface

 


…by 9:00, a haze of smoke wafting about the piano, Taylor leaned a six-string by the piano. The blonde said, “Sit down, I’ll get the cards.” Dolenz was passed out on the couch.

“Mr. Available Light,” said, “I’m outta here.”
“Stay. A little bit longer. Come on, Jackson.”
The blonde sat in her spot next to Taylor and shuffled the cards. “James, grab a couple beers.” He popped the caps off three Brew 102s, one for the blonde, one for Cass, and one for himself. Stephen and Frey had bourbon neat as the blonde dealt the cards. “Ante up, girls.”
Cass was out, Stephen couldn’t keep up, James lit up, held his breath, exhaled, and waved away the smoke. He shook his head and tossed all the wrong cards on the table.
“You in, Freybrains?” He took a swig of beer and tossed a chip on the table.
He raised his eyebrows. “Come on, Pokerface.”
The tension mounted, the blonde took a card, a three for a pair of jacks. She rolled her eyes, threw her cards on the table, and said, “Fleece me with the gamblers’ flocks, I can keep my cool at poker.” She took a swig of beer and said, “But not tonight.”
Frey swept the winnings before him. “That’s a pack a smokes.”
The blonde did one of her impressions. She said, “You’re good kid, but as long as I’m around you’re second best, and you might as well learn to live with it.”
Although Joni Mitchell’s love of painting is an obvious interest, her secret love for the game of poker remains under wraps. Up on Mountainside Drive, poker was a pastime that kept the Laurel Canyon music scene hopping, a tradition that Glenn Frey instigated a few doors down. “I moved to a place at the corner of Ridpath and Kirkwood in Laurel Canyon, and we had poker games every Monday night during football season. [Joni] started coming every Monday night and playing cards with us. They called our house the Kirkwood casino.”
Mitchell has never spoken about poker and her secret talent for the card game but has dropped the occasional hint about her expertise in her lyrics. In “Song For Sharon,” Joni sings: “Fleece me with the gamblers’ flocks, I can keep my cool at poker, But I’m a fool when love’s at stake, Because I can’t conceal emotion, What I’m feeling’s always written on my face.”
On Taming The Tiger, Mitchell emotionally states: “The moon shed light, On my hopeless plight, As the radio blared so bland, Every disc, a poker chip, Every song just a one night stand.”
Under her breath, the blonde sang: “Tiger, tiger burning bright/ Nice, kitty kitty/ Tiger, tiger burning bright/ In the forest of the night” and put her beer bottle in the sink.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Joni and Graham and James (Carly, too) by Emily Bronte

The etherealism of progressive rock is instantly apparent when one looks at those catalyst LPs like Days of Future Past, In the Court of the Crimson King or the debut from Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The Left Coast was instead interpolating the realism of the times. In that, we see the love relationships that intertwined around the Laurel Canyon set. One needs a scorecard. Let's see, Joni Mitchell was involved with Graham Nash ("Our House," "My Old Man," "Simple Man"), and when the couple split, Joni found herself in Crete writing her emotional masterpiece, Blue

Of their relationship, Graham Nash said, "I first met Joan in Ottawa, Canada in 1967. The Hollies were playing a show there and Joni was playing at a local club. There was a party thrown for us after our show, and when I entered the room, I noticed a beautiful woman sitting down with what appeared to be a large Bible on her knees. I kept staring at her and our manager at the time, Robin Britten, was saying something into my ear and distracting me from my quest. I asked him to be quiet as I was checking Joni out. He said, 'If you’d just listen to me, I’m trying to tell you that she wants to meet you…' Joni and I hit it off immediately, and I ended up in her room at the Chateau Laurier and she beguiled me with 15 or so of the most incredible songs I’d ever heard. Obviously, I fell in love right there and then."

It took two years before they met again. Graham moved to L.A. after meeting up with Crosby and Stills at Cass Elliot's, and there he again met Joni. Their new love was idyllic. The songwriters shared the piano in her living room to write songs like "Willy" (her nickname for Graham) and "Our House," an ode to a couple’s lazy summer day.

Graham recalls, "Joni’s grandmother had always wanted to be a creative person. But in those days, you had to be a wife and a mother.” He said that Joni “saw that as one of the downfalls of marriage… Somewhere in Joni's mind, she thought I would demand that of her. Which is completely false. How in the hell could anybody with a brain say to Joni Mitchell, 'Why don't you just cook?'"

Upon her return from Crete, Joni started seeing James Taylor. Their relationship would last six months (or a year if you listen to Taylor) and in that time the couple accentuated each others' work, their lyrics intertwining as Taylor played on Joni's recordings of "California," "All I Want" and "A Case of You," and Joni providing vocal backup for Mud Slide Slim.

Like a game of chess, the players played off one another. James first met Carly Simon as a 14-year old (Carly was 18) on their families' summer vacations. But it wasn't until Carly opened for Cat Stevens at Doug Westin's Troubadour in 1971 that they met again as adults, their intermission flirtation interrupted by Mitchell. As the mythology goes, only weeks before walking down an avenue in NYC, Carly saw the cartoon cover of James on Time magazine. She blurted out for all those around who were listening, "I'm going to marry him." It's funny how much it sounds like a young girl's crush reading 16, maybe writing the name Carly Taylor in cursive in the margins of the magazine.

In November that year, Carly was given tickets to James' performance at Carnegie Hall. During that night's intermission, Carly invited James to a home-cooked meal. "If ever you want a home-cooked meal while you're here in New York, I'd love to make lunch with you," she declared, to which he replied, "What about tonight?" The couple married in 1972, a union that would last until 1983. The disruption of Taylor's drug abuse would lead Carly to recall, "Our love became bipolar, switching from love to hate, lust to loathing, and back again, sometimes within a day."

Taylor would ultimately lament: "You could fall in love, but if one of the people is addicted, it's not going to work. The whole person is simply not available," he explained.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Repost - Jay and the Americans - Joni Mitchell's Blue

Click on the Cover
When I was six years old, I did a television commercial for St. Joseph's Baby Aspirin that was particularly popular in prime time. A rumor began to circulate that I had died in some kind of tragic accident. My mother got hundreds of letters and phone calls from total strangers: "So terribly sorry about your loss." But it wasn't me.  It was another young boy in a different aspirin commercial, and as it turned out, he wasn't dead either. Everything is coincidence. Everything. Let me illustrate.

High above the grid, my father sat with a cup of coffee, his feet dangling from the side of a billboard, gazing out over a basin still filled with fog and night. You can't paint when it's damp. He looked up into the cosmos, into the luck and the endless happenstance, savoring that cup of Joe. It was 1971. I was ten. He perused his schematic, this one all blues: a quart of Endless Blue, Blue Yonder, Blue Stencil, Sistine Blue, and Pompeii; two gallons of dark blue 123505, same as the night; one gallon of bright white.

Two of his best billboards already graced the boulevard that year: L.A. Woman, that iconic hot point silhouette of Jim Morrison crucified on a phone pole, all in earthy browns; the Stones' Sticky Fingers and now Joni Mitchell's Blue. He'd made no name for himself, that wasn't even the goal, but nowadays thousands of commuters gazed up at him or his work or him at his work. More than once someone was rear-ended because somebody else was looking up at my father and not at the road. He got a kick out of that. He was a master forger, like someone out of the Renaissance, like one of Titian's toadies, and that was good enough for my old man.

But not for my mother. That was the thing, that's the point of this apostrophe. Nothing was ever good enough for my mother. Not her career, not my father, not the house. They were happy and dissatisfied, satisfied and regretful, all and nothing at all, boundless and limited, opposites attracted by bad timing and dumb luck. It's how they met; it's how they parted; it's how they said their last words to one another. 

By midday he was working on the face, Joni's high cheekbones in silver and Endless Blue. By three he was finishing up, a detail here and there, smoothing a line, adding a dab of white or a little splotch of cerulean that wasn't on the schematic. 

"That’s the record I did," my mother said. We were turning left onto Laurel Canyon from Sunset. Joni Mitchell's Blue was all but complete, a masterwork; a man on scaffolding was finishing up a white Reprise logo in the corner, instead of signing his name. My mother sang backup on three songs that hadn't made the final cut, but Joni said she had a future. She didn't; all she had was resentment.
"That’s dad."  My mother turned left. "You're not going to stop?"

"You want me to stop?"

"I want you to stop."
  
Big argument about stopping, about turning around. At a light, I got out of the car and started walking down the canyon sidewalk. "You get in the car. You get in this car." Her voice trailed off.  It was probably the first defiant moment of my life.

"Can I come up?" I asked him.

"You can't come up."

"I need to talk to you."

"I’m coming down. I’m done." He was every shade of blue. He had blue in his hair. His lips were blue; he'd stick a paintbrush in his mouth to flatten out the bristles. One of his fingers was silver with powder blue dots. My father was hesitant. "How'd you get here?"


"Got out of the car." I told him the story. He kind of chuckled. My mother pulled into the parking lot behind us. You would have thought my father yanked me from out of the back seat while it was moving. She couldn't have been more livid, more enraged.  My father kept looking at me in a quandary. We didn't know what she was saying, as if she were speaking in tongues, until she said, "Fine. Is that what you want?  You want him, fine. I’m done, I’m done. I’m absolutely done." She got into the car and drove away. "You want him?" she said like she was giving away the dog.


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Saturday, July 10, 2021

More On Ladies of the Canyon

In April 1970 Joni Mitchell released her third LP, Ladies Of The Canyon, an ode to the her neighbors and the Boho neighb of Laurel Canyon, a hillside paradise nestled in the purgatory of Los Angeles. Deep in a relationship with Graham Nash, the songs reflect her homely life. "Willy" and "Blue Boy" are profound, gentle love songs to Nash, while "Morning Morgantown" and "Ladies of the Canyon" offer sweet, romantic smalltown portraits. Some of the lyrics are a bit twee, and others are overly sweet or pretty, but why not; this is paradice; on the surface, anyway. Still there is an underrated power to this record. "For Free" is one of her strongest early songs, exploring the dichotomy between being a wealthy recorded artist and a modest street busker; it also features a dazzling clarinet solo at its climax, hinting at the jazz to come, though not as well as "The Arrangement." Here is one of Joni's first songs to explore jazz structures, if not jazz textures or arrangements. It is her most experimental and challenging song up to this point, and also perhaps the most difficult song to get into. "Rainy Night House" and "The Priest" are two highlights, gems tucked away, as if they were hidden in a rustic cul-de-sac.  

Mitchell's voice is very sweet and girlish here, which is odd considering that she showed a brassier tone on the earlier Clouds. It gives the album a pretty, romantic quality, and the hit "Big Yellow Taxi" is characteristic of the album's guitar-driven songs, which are few. 
Ladies of the Canyon instead features piano more prominently, a move Mitchell credited to to Laura Nyro, who was, at this time, a more sophisticated and developed artist. Overall, Ladies of the Canyon was an important step forward for Joni Mitchell, adding texture and substance to her previously modest, understated acoustic pieces. 



Laurel Canyon is a geographical oddity, a jumble of undeveloped Hollywood hills that butts up to West Hollywood. By 1968, the neighborhood had become the center of the local music scene. Nearly every Los Angeles musician lived there, jammed there, or crashed on somebody's couch there: The Byrds, The Mamas & the Papas, Crosby Stills Nash and sometimes Young, The Beach Boys, The Doors, Love, a few of the Monkees, Frank Zappa, The International Submarine Band, Jackson Browne, and scores more. "It was Brigadoon meets the Brill Building," wrote Michael Walker in his 2006 best-seller Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story Of Rock-and-Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood.

The title track paints the area as a loose commune defined by the creative zeal and gregarious spirit of its inhabitants. It's tempting to read real-life counterparts into the three women Mitchell sings about. Is Trina really a stand-in for Szou Paulekas, who recycled vintage clothing into hippie-freak fashion and defined the look of a generation? Might Annie actually be Mama Cass Elliott, widely regarded as the Gertrude Stein of Laurel Canyon? Could Estrella be Joan Baez or Laura Nyro, or even Mitchell herself?




With its steep hills, winding dirt roads, and a handful of man made caves strung with lights, the canyon provided a woodsy refuge from L.A. Along with beautiful views of the city, it offered an escape from the social turmoil that defined the 1960s: the Watts riots in 1965, The Manson Family, the draft, the general sense of societal entropy – what Joan Didion in her essay "The White Album" called "the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience." Ladies of the Canyon is a beautiful album, filled with yearning for the ideal world that was promised by so much of the music and culture of the '60s but by 1970 had been largely given up on (That was just a dream some of us had). 

Ladies of the Canyon - The Joni 70s

1970's Ladies of the Canyon was written and recorded at the height of Joni Mitchell's early phase while living in Laurel Canyon, and is a grand debut for the Joni of the 70s.  It was here, on Ladies, that Joni started her venture into jazz. The album was produced by Joni, who also played piano, guitar and keyboards with a handful of jazz musicians, including Paul Horn on clarinet and sax. It’s not the lavishly orchestrated jazz of Court and Spark, but the spark is there. 

Deep in a relationship with Graham Nash, the songs reflect her homely life. "Willy" and "Blue Boy" are profound, gentle love songs to Nash, while "Morning Morgantown" and "Ladies of the Canyon" offer sweet, romantic small-town portraits. Some of the lyrics have twee elements, and others are overly sweet or pretty, but there is an often underrated power to Joni’s hippie album. "For Free" is one of her strongest early songs, exploring the dichotomy between being a successful and wealthy recording artist and a modest street busker; it also features a dazzling clarinet solo at its climax. 

"The Arrangement" is one of her first songs to explore jazz structures, if not jazz textures or arrangements. It is her most experimental and challenging song to this point, and also perhaps the least accessible. "Rainy Night House" and "The Priest" are two definite highlights, gems tucked away on this album. It takes a while for them to leap out, but they have immense staying power with their gorgeous melodies and heartfelt performances. Mitchell's voice is sweet and girlish here, somewhat odd compared with the deep tone on Clouds. It gives the album a pretty, romantic quality, and the hit "Big Yellow Taxi" is characteristic of the album's guitar-driven songs. "The Circle Game," a Joni Mitchell 'standard,' fits into this category.


Ladies of the Canyon also features piano prominently, a move Mitchell credited to listening to Laura Nyro, who was at this time perhaps a more sophisticated and developed artist. The album is notable for exploring woodwind for the first time, and it's the fullest-sounding of her early acoustic works. It also features her soaring electric piano rendition of "Woodstock." 

Overall, Ladies of the Canyon was an important step forward for Joni Mitchell, adding texture and substance to her previously modest, understated acoustic pieces. She would explore these sounds further into the 1970s, but this is the most important albums in her artistic evolution.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Cactus Tree - Joni Mitchell

For several years I worked in a mental health facility. My job as a caseworker and therapist exposed me in a clinical way to the female psyche. Out of that, I was able to write one of my first (as yet unpublished) novels, Unblinking. Written from a troubled woman's point of view, many an agent has asked why I was the most qualified writer for the job. 

Aside from my experience in the mental health field, much of the little I understand of the female psyche I learned from Joni Mitchell. Though Joni's words aren't emblematic of womanhood, her focus is profoundly female. Her debut LP from 1968, Song to a Seagull, illustrates that voice from a youthful perspective, and while Joni would go on to far finer moments, particularly beginning with Ladies of the Canyon, Songs shows a woman of heart and mind with time on her hands, contemplating the world around her. The LP's, last track, "Cactus Tree," exemplifies that perspective in a way that breaks downs my testosterone-laden perspective.


"Cactus Tree" is a catalog of the singer's ex-lovers. She's new to the city, untethered and liberated, exploiting to the fullest the sexual freedom newly available to the fairer sex circa 1968. The imagery is hippie throughout, the schooners and beads and flowers and harbors. Her endless list of lovers brags of hippie promiscuity. For the first three verses, Joni presents her relationship through the eyes of men who hope to possess her, while she values freedom over commitment. 

In verse four, Joni openly "loves them all;" each night, a new good time. Is is love? For the moment. Here Joni's prowess as a writer blossoms as she sings, "She has brought them to her senses" – not their senses –  and "They have laughed inside her laughter" revealing that it's all good fun; don’t take it too seriously. "She will love them when she sees them," until she moves on. That kind of honest contradiction has always intrigued me. A line from Prefab Sprout comes to mind: "He swore he'd never leave her; he meant it till he did." Yet this was March 1968—the very dawn of the sexual revolution. Women did not have sex outside marriage, certainly not with innumerable partners, and they certainly didn’t talk about it. 

Joni sings it all with a catch in her voice – second thoughts? Regrets? Despite my experience and insight, I don't know; I'm in too deep. I cannot truly fathom a woman's mind. While I created the psyche of my character in Unblinking, can I really understand her at all?Ultimately, "She only means to please them." Am I reading it wrong; reading too much into it: a man's ultimate goal is to achieve pleasure; a woman’s to give it? It's hardwired into our brains and our psyches and our genitalia, and yet "Her heart is full and hollow like a cactus tree." Who knows if a cactus tree really is full and hollow? Go ask a botanist, but who cares? Joni knows, and all I can do is pretend to.

Graham Nash on Joni Mitchell

The following is an excerpt from Graham Nash's article in London's Daily Mail. There is nothing quite like hearing the story, as much as you may already know it, from the source.

Graham Nash: On an August evening in 1968, the sun was sinking in the western sky as the cab crawled up Laurel Canyon, bathing the Hollywood Hills in a golden flush of summer. We stopped in front of a small wooden house on Lookout Mountain Avenue. Inside, lights glowed and I could hear the jingle-jangle of voices. I leaned on my guitar case – the only baggage I'd carried off the plane at LAX – and considered again where I was and what I was doing here: leaving my country, my marriage and my band, all at once.

...the Hollies and I had come to an impasse. We had grown up together and enjoyed incredible success, but we were growing apart. The same with my marriage: Rosie was off in Spain chasing another man, and I was in Los Angeles, the city that already felt like my new home, to visit Joni Mitchell, who had captured my heart. For just a moment, I hesitated. Sure, I was an English rock star – I had it made. I had co-written a fantastic string of hits with The Hollies. I was friends with the Stones and The Beatles. You could hear me whistle at the end of "All You Need Is Love." But deep down, I was still just a kid from the north of England, and I felt I was out of my element.

Suddenly, Joni was at the door and nothing else mattered. She was the whole package: a lovely, sylphlike woman with a natural blush, like windburn, and an elusive quality that seemed lit from within. Behind her, at the dining room table, were my new American friends, David Crosby and Stephen Stills – refugees, like me, from successful, broken bands. I grinned the moment I laid eyes on them. I had never met anybody like Crosby. He was an irreverent, funny, brilliant hedonist who had been thrown out of The Byrds the previous year. He always had the best drugs, the most beautiful women, and they were always naked.

Stephen was a guy in a similar mold. He was brash, egotistical, opinionated, provocative, volatile, temperamental, and so talented. A very complex cat, and a little crazy, he had just left Buffalo Springfield, one of the primo L.A. bands. 

That night, while Joni listened, the three of us sang together for the first time. I heard the future in the power of those voices. And I knew my life would never be the same.

Joni and I had first met after a Hollies show in Ottawa, Canada in March. I'd seen this beautiful blonde in the corner by herself, and I'd shuffled over and introduced myself. 
"I know who you are," she said, slyly. "That's why I'm here."



She had invited me back to her room at a beautiful old French Gothic hotel, where flames licked at logs in the fireplace, incense burned in ashtrays and beautiful scarves were draped over the lamps. It was a seduction scene extraordinaire. She picked up a guitar and played me 15 of the best songs I’d ever heard, and then we spent the night together. It was magical on so many different levels.

That evening with Crosby and Stills at Joni's, five months later, was the first time I'd seen her since. After that, I moved out to Los Angeles for good, as soon as I had messily extricated myself from The Hollies. The plan was to crash at Crosby’s house, where a party was always in full swing: beautiful young women all over the place, some clothed, some not so clothed. Music pulsing through the place. Hippy heaven.

On my first night, in the midst of the party, Joni appeared. Taking me by the arm, she said: "Come to my house and I'll take care of you." 

Joni had a great little place, built in the 1930s by a black jazz musician: knotty pine, creaky wooden floors, a couple of cabinets full of beautifully coloured glass objects and Joan's artwork leaning discreetly here and there. From the moment I first heard her play, I thought she was a genius. I’m good at what I do, but genius? Not by a long shot. She was finishing her Clouds album and writing songs for what would become Ladies Of The Canyon

We both wrote whenever the spirit moved us, but in Joni’s house, when it came to the piano, I always gave way. If she was working there or playing guitar in the living room, I'd head into the bedroom with my guitar or simply take a walk. Occasionally, I lingered in the kitchen, just listening to her play.