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.

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