Since the old lady herself was on the radio the other morning, Radio Four delving into some old archival interviews – hers from 1983 –I suddenly felt it was high time to share a little more of my Joni story, and this song will do as well as any, and better than most, as a focus for those thoughts.
Christmas 1970 was very much the Joni Mitchell Christmas in our house: I came down on Christmas morning to find (as I think I’d probably expected, and was hoping for…) a couple of albums on ‘my’ section of the Christmas table –‘Sweet Baby James’ (Taylor) and… ‘Clouds’ from Joni Mitchell. I had been sort of lusting after this album since the summer; every record shop I came across I would wander in, finger through the female vocalists section, and gaze at that remarkable self portrait of the blond artist with the cheekbones and the freckles and the flower, with its heavily romanticised background from the warm, dark sunsetty side of the spectral palette. It was transfixing as much for what it represented as for the kind of songsmithery delights to be discovered therein. What I had heard of Joni Mitchell –very little, really: the cleverly gimmicky ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ single and the far more intriguing flip side ‘Woodstock’; a quick snatch of the BBC two ‘in concert’ performance –and what I had read of her (NME concert reviews…) suggested something/someone that could not fail to stimulate and engage my little teenage creative proclivities!
I knew that she painted –this crazy album cover, for one –and that her songs were already been covered by other people. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Judy Collins, for instance. What about this song? My memory is a little hazy, but I think that I heard it first sung by John Rogers Prosser, extraordinarily talented classmate and head boy whose awareness of cool and exciting new musical movements and discoveries seemed several giant leaps ahead of me. I often watched him closely, surreptitiously, listened in something like awe. The song seemed fresh and remarkable for a few reasons. We’ll come to that. I think shortly afterwards I heard and saw Judy Collins singing this song on the Tom Jones show on TV! (she did actually release it as a single, though did not include it on an album until much later). Since I only saw a bit of the famous 1970 BBC ‘pink dress’ Joni concert, a quick burst of ‘My Old Man’, I think – something better (!) over on ITV, maybe – I didn’t get to see her perform ‘Chelsea morning’ with which she opened the set, I believe. [thankfully BBC repeated the recording the following year, I think; and in recent years have also trotted out, for nostalgic music-weeks. Am I right in thinking that the half hour productions often differ slightly in the edit, suggesting that the original recording was a slightly longer set list?] My point being, I still hadn’t heard the composer herself singing the song.
It might sound a bit pretentious, but I think there was something about the very structure of the song that seemed alluringly unusual. Its phrasing and construction definitely wasn’t ‘common metre’ –to use hymnody parlance –or ‘ballad metre’ even; it wasn’t really pop-idiomatic, either –though there was a bridge between verse two and three (but then the bridge modified at the end of verse three). There was that little gap between the ‘woke up’ and the ‘it was a Chelsea morning’. There was rhyme, of course, but not as we know it, Jim… and the verse certainly wasn’t enslaved to it –‘Christmas bells’ and ‘pipes and drums’ sounded like they should have rhymed, but didn’t.
The content, too, was excitingly refreshing for the richness of its imagery –‘the light poured in like butterscotch/and stuck to all my senses…’. If you were sniffy, you could say that this was just the kind of dippy poeticizing set of similes and metaphors likely to appeal to an equally dippy A level student of English. Yet I was aware that it wasn’t Yeats, or Wordsworth or even the imagist complexity of a Dylan –but there was definitely something about it, as there undeniably is with every great song, that was much bigger than the sum of its parts.
If you’ve read enough of these you may already be tired of hearing me say what a sucker I am for ‘morning’ songs. I’m even not above a quick burst of Rogers and Hammerstein’s ‘oh what a beautiful…’ from ‘Oklahoma’; and it’s not rare for me to greet the day’s greyness with something like ‘This is the Day’ or even my own special ‘Buenos Dias mi Senor’ ; and this old Joni song, which takes its place among the classics – I never tire of it, or of playing it.
Joni wrote it as an urban morning song, of course (the Chelsea District of New York is her setting); she had already written a quieter, rural morning song (‘Come To The Sunshine’ – a pretty number that never made it onto any of the albums) but the feel good factor of Chelsea morning –and the other one too, actually –transfers itself to any setting! And there is a sort of challenge to savour the days experiences, and to ‘stay in the present moment’ as they say: ‘Oh, won’t you stay/we’ll put on the day/and we’ll talk in present tenses’..
I said at the beginning that the album Clouds marked Christmas morning in the Hankins household –finally giving us a chance to hear the composer herself singing this amazing song, and it didn’t disappoint. As track two, it followed the haunting ‘Tin Angel’, breaking upon us with those crisp jangly chords and the confident soaring voice, backed up towards the end of the song by her own multi tracked harmonies. Stunning. Oh but then, in the evening present-giving celebration, my sister’s gift was ‘Ladies Of The Canyon’! Plus,some aunty gave me a record token, which by the new year had magically transformed itself into the first album (‘Song To A Seagull’ or ‘Joni Mitchell’ whatever it’s called). Suddenly I had the set! The rest is history.
No, one more thing… Whatever obsessiveness there might have been, at times, in my enthusiasm for this artist, the one thing I do maintain is that the principle value and effect for me especially in those early days – apart from the intrinsic interest, worth and often beauty of her own output –is that she inspired creativity more than she inspired unhealthy ‘fandom’. In other words, though I love to listen, hearing her and seeing her art has primarily made me want to write my own – more poems, more songs, do more arty dabblings.