Saturday, July 30, 2022

Song Lyric of the Day (Joni Mitchell, on ‘These Dark Café Days’)

“All good dreamers pass this way some day
Hidin' behind bottles in dark cafes, dark cafes
Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away
Only a phase, these dark cafe days.” — Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, “The Last Time I Saw Richard," from her LP Blue (1971)
Like so many other baby boomers, I was astonished to discover that the legendary Joni Mitchell had made a surprise appearance at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival last Sunday. It was even more glorious to think that she had performed nine songs, including one on her guitar—the first time she had done so before a paying audience since her 55th birthday.
On her live 1974 double-LP set, Miles of Aisles, Mitchell expressed her ambivalence about fulfilling fan expectations, telling an audience, “That's one thing that's always the major difference between the performing arts to me, and being a painter. A painter does a painting, and he does a painting — and that's it, you know. He’s had the joy of creating it, and he hangs on a wall, and somebody buys it, somebody buys it again, or maybe nobody buys it, and it sits up in a loft somewhere until he dies. But nobody ever said to Van Gogh, 'Paint A Starry Night again, man!' You know? He painted it, and that was it.”
This past weekend, however, the 78-year-old musician and artist seemed genuinely delighted in revisiting old fan favorites like “Carey,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” “A Case of You,” “Help Me,” “The Circle Game,” and “Both Sides Now.” Collectively, they could be her “songs of experience,” to borrow a phrase from William Blake.
The lyrics I chose for today’s quote represent perhaps the more dominant strain of her youth: songs of flight (“my gorgeous wings”), of the bohemian yearning for musical, artistic and personal freedom.
She would be the first to tell you of the personal price she paid for that quest (discussed in this prior post of mine about “Urge for Going”). But they form as indelible a part of her legacy as her “songs of experience.”
The Newport audience was honoring her stunning contribution to music with their full-throated response. But there were other reasons for their warm welcome back to her.
Chief among those reasons is this: everybody loves a comeback story, and Mitchell had to overcome greater odds than most to make it back onstage. Vanessa Romo’s blog post for Georgia Public Broadcasting relates how, following the singer’s 2015 brain aneurysm, even relearning how to speak and walk was a struggle.
But Mitchell took matters a step further: “Playing an instrument and vocal cord coordination, those sorts of things, are really, super complex fine movements that would take a long time to relearn," Dr. Anthony Wang, a neurosurgeon at Ronald Reagan UCLA Hospital, told Ms. Rono.
Mitchell relearned how to play the guitar by watching past videos of herself to see where she put her fingers. But the rest came through the stubbornness that sometimes drove hit-bent record execs to distraction in her youth, or what her attending surgeon correctly termed her “will and grit."
Over the past several years, baby boomers have grown used to the icons of their youth leaving the stage through physical decline and death.
But for one glorious moment this past weekend, they were able to witness a return of a genius who created words and chords that form part of the collective soundtrack of our lives. It was indeed something to cheer—even sing—about.

(The photo of Ms. Mitchell accompanying this post came from an Asylum Records ad from 1974.)

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