163: Joni Mitchell, ‘For Free’

Joni Mitchell — ‘For Free’

So Joni won the Gershwin prize, long overdue by all accounts. No one has appreciated Joni for longer than me, and I’m tickled by her celebration. She’s a verified ‘celeb’, deservedly famous and feted. So why did all those glitzy sequins and air kisses turn me off?

The singer-songwriters who emerged in the late 1960s were the most honest of artists – candor was their stock in trade, intimate angst their grist, true confession their mode of expression. They were among the greatest artists of our times, Bob and Paul and James and Joni and Laura, as well as Neil and Cat and Jackson and a myriad of others.

Every one of them made a career of exposing himself to us hordes of devotees, whether at the mass festivals and concerts or (my preference) in the privacy of my room, just me and him–him baring his soul, sharing his pain and insecurities and heartbreaks, me lapping up every word from this older sibling. They were all just a little older than me: Bob and Paul by seven years, James by six months, Joni by five years, Laura by one year, Neil by three years, and four months, respectively. I beat Jackson Browne into the world by one month, but he was from California (“the most world-weary 16-year old in the universe”). It was from them that I learned the game and applied the names.

All of them suffered from their stardom. You don’t even need to scratch the surface to find songs bemoaning the isolation of idolization, their disaffection from the spotlight. James’ ‘Hey, Mister, That’s Me Up on the Jukebox’ or the harrowing ‘Daddy’s All Gone’; Paul’s ‘Homeward Bound’; the Band’s ‘Stage Fright’; or our Song of The Week, Joni Mitchell’s ‘For Free’, from her third album, “Ladies of the Canyon” (1970). She was just breaking through, becoming recognized, ‘stoking the star-making machinery behind a popular song’.

What was on my mind as I watched all the flattery and the fawning at the Gershwins?  Joni: Remember the days when you sat and made up tunes for yourself and played in small clubs where there was still some contact and when people came up and said they loved a song, and you were really glad they loved it. After a while, when people come up, it begins to sound hollow.

You may not have noticed, but I’ve begun walking through Joni Mitchell’s albums in order, as is befitting an anal-obsessive flower-power baby boomer of arrested development. One song from each album, that’s the mandate. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. You see, the first album (1968) was very much a unified whole, and our choice of ‘Cactus Tree’ there seemed pretty representative of the wide-eyed wonder the innocent felt at her newly discovered big city independence. The sophomore album (“Clouds”, 1969) was also rather uniform, and ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ a good example of the disillusion of broken sophomoric relationships.

But “Ladies of the Canyon”, like life, is multifaceted and variegated and confusing. It’s a transitional album, one with fine songs and lots of admirable experimentation – some bullseyes, some flops. Joni was growing in bounds and leaps both personally and artistically, developing her arsenal of musical tools and creative sensibility. We all know what came next: “Blue” (1970), one of the finest works to come out of that very fruitful time, mature and focused and profoundly emotionally indelible. But we get ahead of ourselves.

“Ladies of the Canyon” in comparison is a fragmented, disjointed collection. Songs 1 and 3 belong to the past: ‘Morning, Morgantown’ is a hippie-happy piece that would have fit better on the first album; ‘The Conversation’ would have been comfortably at home on “Clouds” musically and thematically (someone else’s guy visiting her flat, an intimate but a bad choice, a soul buddy she’ll never have, full of love and regret and compulsive attraction). Even the song ‘Ladies of the Canyon’ is a narrative of our dewy-eyed innocent, having moved now from Greenwich Village to Laurel Canyon. What distinguishes it most from the first two albums is the very engaging recording itself, the clarity and directness of the vocal, the lovely game she plays with the warbling multitracked harmonies, a chorus of canyon belles. If the sound palette on the first two albums was dry, here you can feel her breath. She’s exercising her ability to employ studio technique to serve her artistic vision.

Joni Mitchell, James Taylor

Songs 5 (‘Willy’, i.e. Graham Nash), 6 (‘The Arrangement’), 7 (‘Rainy Night House’), 8 (‘The Priest’) and 9 (‘Blue Boy’) are a string of relationship-intense romans a clef. I have Katherine Monk’s biography of Joni on my shelf waiting to be read (as soon as I finish the bios of Ella and Laura –  is there a pattern here?), so I assume I’ll learn just whose mother went to Florida and which rock star was the blue boy and at what airport she met the priest with the hands. You see, Joni was famously hooking up with the entire pantheon of artists of the time (JT, CSN&Y), and chronicling the most intimate of details for each. That’s ok. I’ll settle for the songs, regardless of the identity of the object. What’s interesting about these five songs is that she plays piano for the first time on record on four of them. Joni’s piano songs and her guitar songs are different musically and conceptually. The piano lends itself to more expansive explorations, and we already hear some extended instrumental passages precursing her forays into jazz and the orchestral vision that comes to fruition in her other masterpiece album, “Court and Spark”. But to tell the truth, none of these five is a real keeper. Perhaps her heart was in the relationship more than her head was in the art.

Joni Mitchell, David Crosby

But then there are these four other very individual, memorable songs. Three of them, the last three on the album, are among her best-known and best loved. ‘The Circle Game’ is perhaps the ultimate sophisticated post-folk singalong campfire song, all about life and maturing and gushy and optimistic and nostalgic and—I wish I could disparage it more, but it’s a really good song. I know. I played and sang it at a thousand campfires and everyone held hands and swayed and got all misty-eyed. And ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, the charming, disarming paean to organic farming and who-gives-a-damn breakups, four quick verses full of good will and good spirits and good music, from the irresistible shoop-shoop to the endearing acrobatics of her vocal in the last phrase. It almost abuts, after a notably short pause, the iconic ‘Woodstock’, the album’s closing piece. The jarring juxtaposition between the levity and the gravity is brilliant.

You probably already know that Joni wasn’t at the festival (her handlers kept her away because the crowd situation was out of control), but her conjuration quickly became Woodstock’s anthem, as recorded by her paramours Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (who were there). It’s quite a remarkable song, different from the other three ‘hits’ in that you can’t get it all in one listening. There’s lots of nuance and complexity and depth there, much more so than in the other three. Yet they’re all fully realized, time-tried, resilient and loved.

(Photo by Jim McCrary/Redferns)

So of course out of these four standout songs from Joni’s third album, for our Song of The Week we’ll pick The Other, while neither a rarity or an obscurity perhaps less heard: ‘For Free’, or as it is sometimes referred to, ‘He Played Real Good for Free’.

In 1970, Joni was becoming a star, playing larger venues, gaining a public profile, and being forced to deal with celebrity. Not only the isolation, but also the irony of the contract with her listeners. On the one hand, she’s marketing the intimacies of her life. On the other hand, she’s uncomfortable with it. One could say, ‘Joni, no one’s forcing you to go out there.’ Laura Nyro shied away. Dylan said ‘Fuck You’. James retreated further into drugs. Joni crafted songs about it.

Joni, on becoming a star: “Affection like that usually doesn’t come without some kind of intimacy, like in a one-on-one relationship. So I thought, you better know who you’re grinning at up here. And then I began to unveil more and more of my inner conflicts and feelings…[But] it became harder and harder to sing these intimate songs at rock festivals.”

And that would become her genius, to take those innermost feelings and craft them into works of art. ‘For Free’ has its weaknesses—the self-conscious artiness of ‘jew-ells’, ‘the walking green’, the mixed metaphor of ‘velvet curtain calls’. Even the clarinet at the end. But she pulls it off with her candor. We love you, Joni.

It’s a great song to sing. I’ve done so myself, and it’s a winner. Here’s Joni doing a fine live version from 1970Here she is singing it through a crazy heckler and then telling a story about herself and the song and her naivete. And here she is with her then-boyfriend James Taylor in a joint performance from 1970, James with his characteristic hilarious droll humor and uncharacteristically out-of-tune guitar. Here’s her mentor David Crosby singing it in the 1973 Byrds reunion album.

And here’s the original. Sit back, count the blessings your own life has been graced with, and enjoy it. For free.

I slept last night in a good hotel, I went shopping today for jewels.
The wind rushed around in the dirty town and the children let out from the schools.
I was standing on a noisy corner waiting for the walking green–
Across the street he stood and he played real good on his clarinet, for free.

Now me I play for fortunes and those velvet curtain calls.
I’ve got a black limousine and two gentlemen escorting me to the halls.
And I play if you have the money or if you’re a friend to me.
But the one man band by the quick lunch stand, he was playing real good, for free.

Nobody stopped to hear him, though he played so sweet and high.
They knew he had never been on their T.V., so they passed his music by.
I meant to go over and ask for a song, maybe put on a harmony…
I heard his refrain as the signal changed. He was playing real good, for free.

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106: Joni Mitchell, ‘Cactus Tree’

141: Joni Mitchell, ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’

177: Joni Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’

215: Joni Mitchell, ‘Blue’

222: Joni Mitchell, ‘River’

259: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau: ‘Marcie’ (Joni Mitchell), ‘Don’t Think Twice’ (Dylan)

260: David Crosby/Joni Mitchell, ‘Yvette in English’

277: Joni Mitchell, ‘Electricity’

286: Joni Mitchell, ‘The Circle Game’