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The WILT Archive
Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.
Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.
Anyone who knows me even slightly knows that I'm interested in an extremely wide range of music. Like everyone else, though, I have some blind spots. For instance, I've never really liked music that sounds 'folky'. By which I mean, heavy on the strumming of acoustic guitars. It always makes me think of beards, plaid shirts, campfires, and a kind of painful earnestness. The Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s leaves me cold. (And was there ever a more depressing and pointless movie than Inside Llewyn Davis?)
This is sheer bigotry, of course, the kind of thing I deplore in other people. (I'm thinking, for instance, of the Hollywood TV executive who scowled at me when I said I was thinking of featuring a solo trumpet in the score I was supposed to write for him. Bad idea, he said, because trumpets are reminiscent of bullfights. I cautiously protested. Had he never listened to, for instance, Miles Davis? He picked up the phone and barked an order to his secretary: 'Get me some Miles David!' I didn't use the trumpet).
Just as bad as the endless strumming of acoustic guitars – in the keys of E, G, and A minor – is the navel-gazing school of songwriting sometimes referred to as 'Confessional'. Take it to a priest, already! Then there's the abandonment of melody in favour of the half-speaking of lots of words (I'm really more a poet than a musician, get it?) and the last straw: no drums. So, no tunes and no groove either.
But then there's this:
JONI MITCHELL: Hejira
Quite a few people consider this album to be Joni Mitchell's greatest. I always preferred the more poppy and melodic Court And Spark. But I recently took part in a big concert, presented by SF Jazz in San Francisco, honouring Mitchell's legacy, so I've been re-listening to a lot of her stuff. Court And Spark is probably still my favourite, though The Hissing Of Summer Lawns is also a mysteriously addictive masterpiece, and some of her later albums (Night Ride Home or Turbulent Indigo) are underrated.
But Hejira intrigues me because it's everything I generally dislike (even down to songs about Life On The Road) and yet it's so unassailably brilliant. Apart from being confessional-acoustic-drummerless-singer-songwriter to the max, it really does seem to be more about the lyrics than anything else, and I'm not the kind of listener who zeroes in on lyrics. Strange, really, since I put so much effort into my own, but there it is. As a listener, I listen to the whole thing, the big picture, but mostly to the musical elements. The lyrics, if they're good, will sneak up on me on repeated hearings. Meanwhile, if there's a good tune or a good groove, I'm not really that bothered if the words are crap.
Joni's lyrics, though, are often so inspired that they reach out and grab me and drag me in, and especially on this album. Great lyrics, in my opinion, are rarely arty or complicated. They can be simple, or even stupid, but there are a couple of things they need to do.
Firstly, they need to fit the melody like a glove. This should be too obvious to need saying, but plenty of people try to fit words to tunes in the way that Cinderella's evil sisters tried to fit their feet into the magical glass slipper. Having the same number of syllables as notes really isn't good enough. The natural speech-rhythms, and the sound of the words, should fit the melody so perfectly that you can't imagine them existing separately. This is the kind of skill that can become less and less apparent the more it's perfected. It's like the tightrope-walker who goes from one end to the other as casually as someone strolling to the corner shop to buy a pint of milk.
Secondly, lyrics don't have to say very much. Most pop lyrics boil down to: (a) I really want to have sex with you; (b) I'm really happy because I'm in love; (c) I'm really sad because my baby left me; or (d) Fuck it, let's dance!
All of which is absolutely fine, but if you want to go a bit further and say something, then you're in more dangerous territory. It seems to me that if you want to do something clever, complex or provocative with words, you should probably be writing poetry rather than lyrics (it really isn't the same thing). And if you want to make a political statement, you should be writing an essay, a polemic, or a manifesto. A great lyric is more likely to be something that connects on some universal human level, something that just hits the nail on the head – but (here's the hard part) in a way that no one has quite done before.
Song For Sharon is a beautiful, poignant, happy/sad song in which Joni Mitchell addresses a childhood friend, one who might once have had similar ambitions to her, but whose life has turned out very differently:
Sharon you've got a husband
And a family and a farm
I've got the apple of temptation
And a diamond snake around my arm
But you still have your music
And I've still got my eyes on the land and the sky
You sing for your friends and your family
I'll walk green pastures by and by
Admittedly I can relate to Joni's rootless-bohemian-artist point of view more than most people, but this hit me like a ton of bricks. There are a dozen people in my life to whom I wish I could have said all that, if only I could have put it anywhere near as perfectly.
Or this, from Blue Motel Room:
You and me, we're like America and Russia
We're always keeping score
We're always balancing the power
And that can get to be a cold cold war
We're going to have to hold ourselves a peace talk
In some neutral café
You lay down your sneaking round the town honey
And I'll lay down the highway
Or the whole of Black Crow, with its striking image of 'that ragged soul', the 'black crow flying in a blue sky', evoking the experience of feeling lost and alienated . . . of being a misfit, an experience which, paradoxically, everyone has at some time or other. Maybe we're all pretty much alike, in the end; we just need stories and words and music and songs to remind us.
Lyrics by Joni Mitchell ©1976 Crazy Cow Music (BMI)