I could make our circuitry explode
All we ever wanted
Was just to come in from the cold.”— Joni Mitchell, “Come In From The Cold,” from the Night Ride Home CD (1991)
The refrain for this song leaped into my mind over the last few days, as the wind-chill factor (a meteorological measure invented, I’m positive, to make us feel more miserable than we already do in winter) in the New York area plunged to depths not seen in 20 years.
The other day, my eight-block morning walk to work felt like I risked hypothermia with every step. The chill was so bad that at one point, I faced a critical decision just crossing a street. The oncoming cars were speeding too close to comfort. On the other hand, if I simply waited patiently and sensibly where I was, I risked freezing in place. I chose the latter. Lucky that an EMS crew didn’t have to carve me out of the spot where I stood.
Extremes of cold bring in emotional, if not literal, matters of life and death for perhaps the most influential female singer-songwriter of the 20th century, Joni Mitchell. Her standard “River,” set in the days before Christmas, contrasts the surface joy of the holiday with the narrator’s quiet misery over having driven away her lover.
While not as concentrated or melodic, “Come In From The Cold” may be, in its seven-minute length, as well as its zigzag between past and present, desire and distance, more daring. It comes from her Night Ride Home CD, hailed upon its release as something of a return to her early folk-rock form.
It looks back at the fiery passions of youth, for sexual and political freedom, in the face of a cold, constricting adult society. Now, well into middle age, the narrator wonders how much, when all is said and done, was really achieved, while still acknowledging that these same yearnings, against all odds, persist.
In keeping with the setting, the song skates smoothly from past to present. Mitchell begins with a short snapshot of a time and place: “Back in 1957/We had to dance a foot apart.” She would have been 14 at the time, an extended period, she recalled for an interview with Carl Swanson in New York Magazine earlier this month, when she “stopped playing piano. I stopped going to church. Around that time, I broke with the school system. I broke with everything.”
Many people would recognize that world from long ago. The lines say everything about an environment in which, Mitchell would think later, she would be judged harshly as a college student for bearing a child out of wedlock.
The next two lines, in the way they compress adjectives into verbs, never specifically identify the setting. But given that she is a native of Alberta, Canada, and that she would have been a teenager at the time, it’s impossible not to associate it with her upbringing: “And they hawk-eyed us from the sidelines/Holding their rulers without a heart.” The adult world’s dismissal of girls like her was swift; nearly 35 years later, she more than returns the favor.
“The cold” is not just the climate of her native land, but a rigid landscape of the mind—all the puritanical mores that interfere with self-fulfillment and bohemianism, much like the church functioning as a haven-that-isn’t-a-haven in The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreaming”: “You know the preacher likes the cold.”
Mitchell’s artistic obsession has been the conflict between freedom and the intimate ties that bind. Here, she recalls the heady days when she sought artistic (and romantic) fulfillment in the hippie singer-songwriters gathered in Laurel Canyon, with distinctly mixed results: “Freely I slaved away for something better/ And I was bought and sold.”
That is only the start of the paradoxes that animate the rest of the song: the oscillation between feeling “renewed” and “disabled,” between “statue” and “flesh and blood,” between “some choice” and longing “to lose control,” between being “outa line” and “into no mind.”
In “Come In From The Cold,” Mitchell sorts out the summons and invitation of the title, which led to the dance of desire she never really ceased, despite relentless self-questioning, her entire adult life.
(The photo of Ms. Mitchell accompanying this post came from an Asylum Records ad from 1974.)