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).