For this 90th blog essay from my projected collection of 100 essays about songs, I’m going a little bit off piste, and choosing a song which none of us will have heard in its ‘original’ form, as sung and played by its composer. My rationale is this: these essays are, as I have kept reminding myself and my readers (are you out there, other readers?), more autobiographical sketches in many ways than they are song critiques. And I’m choosing this song not for the many listens that have brought pleasure (zilch, obviously, given what I’ve said above) but for what it has ‘represented’ in the times of my earlier Joni-Grail-search obsessiveness, and perhaps, to a lesser extent I hope, what it still represents today.
You can gen up on the way Ms Mitchell took a hold on me, in some of the previous essays here, if you want. I won’t go through it all again: in summary, though, by January 1971 I had all three of her studio albums and listened to them pretty devotedly like a teenager transfixed. Now the story develops: in a music shop in Charing Cross Road that spring I came across ‘The Music Of Joni Mitchell’ published by Charles Hanson music and books, New York. There was a free tear-out black and white poster of Joni at the back of the book, but most interestingly there were songs included that were not on any of the albums. Why I didn’t buy the book then and there, I can’t remember –probably not enough money on me. But soon enough I sent for it, with the appropriate postal order, and received it back in the mail.
For the record, the songs were set out in conventional music notation, both the melody line, as well as treble and bass staves for ‘accompaniment’. Hmmm. Somebody had worked hard on this, no doubt, but of course we now know that all those helpful chord shapes given above the melody line in no way represented what Mitchell was playing in her range of open tunings (the unfolding of that mystery was for later!). Still, let’s think about those unfamiliar songs: eight of them! I was intrigued from the start, and of course wanted to hear them! And if I couldn’t hear them, I wanted to learn them!
My girlfriend at that time, Margaret (where are you now Margaret?) played the piano, so I felt it would be an easy matter for her to read the music of these eight mysterious songs and to work out how they went. I think I left the book with her for a weekend, but her verdict was that very few of them made musical ‘sense’ to her in the way they had been set out – she was thinking particularly, I think, of ‘Strawflower Me’. Ha. Anyway, being told that she couldn’t help me very much, had about the same effect on me as when my dear wife (now of 30 odd years) told me, after I had presented her with a tessellated design for a patchwork quilt for her to make, that it was ‘unworkable’. Energized by bloody-mindedness, I went ahead and made it myself (the beginning of another obsessive phase in my life –three or four manic years of patchwork and quilting!). So in this case, after Margaret kind of washed her hands of the songs, I just set about starting to learn to play these 8 songs, following the suggested (standard tuning!) chord shapes as best I could until they sounded something like almost proper accompaniment to a melody that I hoped I was interpreting accurately.
Over the more or less half century since then, nearly all of those eight songs have been heard – recordings of the early coffeehouse performances and so on that have been circulated for many years among fans. Along, in fact, with dozens of other ‘unreleased’ compositions that you can find catalogued on the amazingly comprehensive Joni Mitchell fan-based website. And yes, in certain context, it’s easy to see that they have something of a naivete that would make them easy to dismiss as juvenilia. And yet, and yet …
…I still can’t quite shake off the enormous excitement and delight I feel in these early songs, where she was discovering her compositional skills, beginning to find a facility with imagery, with language, with often surprisingly inventive melody lines, and while some of them are endearingly artless, others are beginning to use the ‘contemporary folk’ idiom in ways that very few singer songwriters of that period were doing. Take ‘A Melody In Your Name’, which even she herself, introducing it in a late sixties’ coffeehouse performance, with a note of awe, ‘wondered how she had come to write it?’ Or something like that. Because, yes, there was extraordinary imagination and sophistication at work here.
‘Jeremy’ is one of the remaining couple from that book where still no recorded performances have surfaced. But what I don’t understand is – since we have the sheet music, such as it is – why more people don’t take a bit of a stab at producing their own ‘cover’, so that this little ‘prison song’ is at least given some breath, some kind of working life! As you can see, I’m including here my own ‘stab’, recorded 11 years ago now (!). You don’t have to tell me it’s not brilliant but OK just find me another cover of it, please!
The song itself? Well, it’s one of those wonderful early almost-narrative vignettes that she was beginning to produce – like ‘Marcie’, I suppose. This is presumably a friend of hers who got banged up in jail on some drug charges. I’ll admit it’s not a great great song, but some of those touches that make her a great songwriter are there: the selection of image, the spareness but precision of detail, the sense of imaginative empathy, deft touches with rhythms and internal rhymes… What we are to make of the words of encouragement to her incarcerated friend in the final verse, I’m not sure – ‘our numbers are growing; the change has to come..’? Is this a little late sixties’ hippy optimism for a more tolerant attitude towards recreational drugs? Maybe.. More interesting is the final line ‘put resentment aside – don’t turn bitter and die..’ Without reading too much into that, there is a sense in which it does represent a kind of hopeful, life-affirming positivity. There was a lot of that in the early songs – colour, joy, life – is that just the vision of youth? (Just two years or so later an even more idealistic kind of hope was given voice in her ‘Woodstock’ anthem..though, there, tinged musically with an oddly dissonant melancholy in the piano accompaniment and the final plaintive vocalisations…)
So, I wonder if we’ll ever hear the ‘original’ of Jeremy… I seem to remember reading in one of her interviews that if a comprehensive box set of rarities were ever to be released, ‘Jeremy’ would be included, as an out -take recording from the first album. (My bet is that Joel Bernstein, her legendary archivist, holds this, as well as ‘Poor Sad Baby’ in some Californian vault). Or maybe I dreamt that. We can be pretty sure that if it does surface, the guitar work , the chord subtleties, and the vocal phrasing will sound nothing like my attempts in this recording,. Meanwhile, I can only hope somebody listening to my effort at the song is inspired to take a better crack at it!