In 1972, Allan told me he’d got us tickets to see Joni Mitchell in the Royal Festival Hall and, bless him, was willing to drive us there too. It was 6 May, Cup Final Day, though, and believe it or not, dear smirking reader, in those days this actually meant something to me. Yes, I could actually watch a whole football match without wanting to shout out (in the words of a revered older lady of our acquaintance) ‘Oh for goodness sake, look at those men chasing a ball – give them ALL a ball!’ Even harder to believe I had an extra-special particular interest in the match since ‘my’ team (?!) Leeds United was battling it out, against Arsenal. Yes, hard for me to believe I was interested, but it was unquestionably essential we watched the match.
Allan hit upon a plan, deciding we could drive to London in the morning, and watch the TV coverage of the match at the home of our cousin Jean – despite the fact we had never visited her before, or given her any notice of this . Jean had earned some notoriety for us by having married Bruce Rowland, drummer in Joe Cocker’s Grease Band, and later in Fairport Convention. It was something of a cheek, perhaps, to turn up at her door unannounced, but that’s what we did. Jean and Bruce were clearly not Saturday morning risers though, so when we brightly introduced ourselves, middayish, to the slightly groggy dishevelled Jean who answered the door, we were sent for a 20 minute walk around the block while they got their act together. Eventually we were welcomed, and given a scratch lunch; despite being a bit in awe of Bruce we still rifled through his album collection; then we were allowed to watch the match (Leeds won 1-0) and went on our way into the heart of the big city. Hard to believe now, but Al was able to park ‘just around the corner’ from the RFH, without too much difficulty and without cost.
It did not go perfectly smoothly, this concert. It started late – the sound system wasn’t working so they ended up using the ‘house PA’ system which was a little echoey and tinny. Jackson Browne’s support set, then, was somewhat curtailed, but not before he’d whetted our appetite for further acquaintance.
Joni’s set, despite all this, was utterly entrancing and memorable. She seemed to me at the peak of her creativity – looking back, one of many peaks. Like the Cairngorms. She opened with ‘This Flight Tonight’, making the most of the song’s drastically dropped bass string to hammer a note of warning –if that doesn’t sound too fanciful (it does –Ed.) – that we were in for a confident showcase of some special stuff. And so we were: she focused heavily on the new songs, at times even a little apologetically – ‘but it makes it more interesting for me’ she explained introducing yet another new one. I for one wasn’t complaining – these new compositions were enthralling, instantly engaging. She rarely gave them titles, but each was unique and compelling. Only later did we learn we had been introduced to ‘Electricity’, ‘Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire’ (breathtaking), ‘Lesson in Survival’, ‘See You Sometime’, ‘Judgement of the Moon and Stars’(the ambition, the melodic sophistication!), ‘You Turn me on I’m a Radio’ – all finely honed, eloquent in distinctive ways, none moreso than this song, which was to give the album that eventually featured these new songs, six months or more later, its title.
She introduced it at length with some detail of its inception – hearing the leaves of the arbutus trees rattling together like applause, while there in her retreat home in remote British Columbia. And she linked the anecdote with reflections from her friend who had talked about artists being like horses running for the rosettes and roses…
And of course this is what this wonderful song is about – or at least one of the things that it is about – art for art’s sake versus art for acclaim and rewards. What happens to the artist when the acclaim and the accolades come. The complex maelstrom of responses to success and fame, to the changing context of the artistic endeavours… This song was chilling, then, when I first heard it on that slightly echoey PA System 43 years ago. It is still quite chilling and it’s rich in its complex exploration of feelings and thoughts.
You’ve got to admire this about Joni Mitchell: there is generally an honesty in what she produces. As early as ‘He Played Real Good For Free’ which made it onto the third album, she was beginning to confront awkward and uncomfortable discrepancies between the simple troubadour she had been and the superstar she was becoming, between the musicianship of fame, and the equally adept musicianship without fame, the discomfort and the something-like-guilt this engenders. In the following album she was acknowledging the lucrative base of the business she was now a part of –‘I’m going to make a lot of money and I’m gonna quit this crazy scene..’ (she didn’t, hasn’t, couldn’t, quite…) ‘For The Roses’ takes an honest look at that –the artist caught up in a commercial merry go round so that art becomes contrived to the purposes of the machinery –‘in some office sits a poet… And he asks some guy to circulate his soul around..’ She explores and confronts the discrepancy between the crowds of public acclaim (‘giant screens… Parties for the press’) and essentially solitary nature of the artistic endeavour –‘it’s just you up there, getting them to feel like that…’ She explores and confronts the essentially inhuman, impersonal nature of the financial business world which controls the promotion of popular music –‘people who have slices of you from the company…’, and the powerful ‘golden egg’ metaphor in verse three hints of the precarious position of the popular artist, needing always to produce something marketable – ‘who’s to know if the next one in the nest will glitter for them so…’ The song is honest in confronting the idea that fame confers a lifestyle that is hard to move back from (‘… Brings me things I really can’t give up just yet..’) so that to challenge the system for a successful artist indeed will seem like ingratitude as well as folly (‘… My teeth sunk in the hand which brings me things…’) and –notably-we get the sense that recognition and acclaim are attractive enough that we carry the longing for them with us (‘did you get a round resounding for you way up here?’ from verse 1), but, equally, are essentially hollow –the ‘empty spotlight’ of that wonderful final phrase. How much more refreshing this bare probing than musicians perpetuating the pretence that they are reforming and doing another (fabulously remunerative) world tour of stadiums in their twilight years, merely for the love of the music, man.
Joni’s ‘you’ seemed ambiguous throughout the song – at times she seems to be addressing herself; at other times she seems to see the ironies and discrepancies more clearly by addressing a different second person – a former lover maybe, a James, a Graham, a Jackson or whoever –it doesn’t really matter, the reflections are still valid just the same. And it is powerful, this eloquent reflection-and-recollection in tranquillity, and by no means just as a lyric, but as a completely integrated music-and-words song. Five verses, the final (half) verse bringing us back to the opening image but with a warier note. In each verse, the opening lines follow a simple melodic strain dropping down in semi tones until a ‘lift’ in the second half of the verse with more dynamic thrusting images, somehow faltering into a final line with a chord reflecting irresolution and uncertainty –none more so than the ending of verse four where the fickleness of investment popularity has become ‘… Bringing out the hammers, and the boards, and the nails…’ –the phrasing, the pauses perfectly reflect a world-weary cynicism with the business… There’s a kind of instinctive compositional brilliance about this.
The song speaks – OK, yes, as one particular artist’s reflection on commercial success from the perspective conferred by distance and solitude; but also it speaks beyond itself to anyone engaged in expressive, creative or performance related pursuits. It asks questions: was it ever enough to ‘pour your simple sorrow to the soundhole and your knee’? Or is some kind of recognition and acknowledgment always to be desired? Why this blog? Why upload onto youtube and look for the likes, the comments? How important the backpats, the smatterings of claps at open mic events? How dangerous is it to be thrall to that. What’s creative integrity all about and how does it live with the audience it presumably needs?
(For goodness sake, give them all a ball.)