Thursday, August 23, 2018

29 Skaters on Wollman Rink

So much about Joni Mitchell can be written about Laurel Canyon, as if she were hemmed in by the Hollywood Hills. And you can certainly see it in her music, from the Sunset Pig to the Valley Barbecues, no other landscape pervades her lyrics in the same way. It's a California spirit from an age (the 60s) when no one was from California. When I was little, the question was always "Where are you from?" The answer, nearly always, was "Back East." (I don't even know if people say "Back East" anymore.) There's an L.A. vibe that pervades her music, in the same way that it furrows into Steely Dan, despite their (Becker and Fagan's) New York sensibilities. Artist's like Andrew McMahon ooze California in the same unmistakable way that The Beach Boys did, but for Joni, that association is truly a misnomer.

The back cover of Joni's Songs to a Seagull, for instance, is Soho (I'd say Mercer Street). It's interesting how a little enclave south of the Village (not at all trendy in the 60s) was the catalyst for so many photos, from Seagull to Billy Joel. Billy's An Innocent Man album cover was taken at 142 Mercer, at Prince Street.

Joni, often pigeon-holed at AM like she was a monument that still stands in the hills of L.A. (I picture the iconic picture of Joni at the house at 8217 Lookout Mountain Rd., as if she were still there, still looking out the window), is, instead, a travelogue. Think of "Morgantown." In my mind, a microcosm of any little town waking up in the morning. I have always been particularly fond of "Morning Morgantown." Joni's lyrics paint vivid images of sleepy people riding around on buses, there are little cafes where you can pass time sipping "tea and lemonade", you might "wink at total strangers passing", and buy "a wooden bird with painted wings." Although Joni confesses she could be describing any town ("Morning any town you name, Morning's just the same"), Morgantown is the one she chose to sing about; it sounds like the kind of town that I would like to have woken up in, back then. It is, in reality, Morgantown, West Virgina. Maybe it's there that you would find the Barangrill.

Back in New York, of course, Joni wrote of the big yellow taxis, Checkers, I can only assume, and in case you were wondering, there are 29 skaters on Wollman Rink. The people's party is in one of those beautiful apartments on the West Side.

With "Car on a Hill" and "Down to You," Joni is back in L.A. and I can picture her then, at L.A.'s art deco Union Station leaving, getting on a train, walking by an old man sleeping on his bags. And with the train's breaks complaining, we're once again somewhere else.

Of course in France, where we can be free, they kiss on Main Street, and Furry sings the blues on now touristy Beale Street. Richard, of course, was last seen in Detroit in 1968. And then there are the places that are only dreams. On "Paprika Plains," which occupied all of side two when Don Juan's Reckless Daughter was released in 1977, we find one of Joni's triumphant works, both lyrically and musically. It flows effortlessly between past and present, childhood and adulthood, earth and sky, innocence and despair. In part it deals with the sad plight of Canada's Indians—romantic figures from her childhood who later "traded their beads for bottles/ Smashed on Railway Avenue/ And they cut off their braids and lost some link with nature." (So we can narrow that down.) It is also concerned with the insecurity of childhood vision and the destruction of the natural world, even "the Godforsaken Paprika Plains." 

The scene shifts toward its end to a crowded barroom, in which we hear an instrumental coda by Shorter, Pastorius, Joni and John Guerin that takes us out of the dreamworld, like Van Johnson in Brigadoon, back in NYC. Suddenly, we're all middle aged, with baggage and memories and songs of our youth in a jukebox. Maybe it's that same barroom where Joni puts a dime in a jukebox. She presses D4; it's the Righteous Brothers. For me, I wrap it all up again, maybe at Barney's Beanery on Santa Monica. I can picture it. I know it's wrong, Barney's isn't a Chinese Cafe, but I don't care. Joni, like no other artist, conjures up for me a world that no longer exists. That's what getting old will do.