. . . For the Roses was a time of withdrawal from society and intense self-examination. Maybe I don’t handle adrenaline very well, but even the applause was hard . . . So my animal sense was to run offstage! Many a night I would be out onstage, and the intimacy of the songs against the raucousness of this huge beast that is an audience felt very weird. I was not David to that Goliath . . .
Fight or flight? I took off in flight, a strange reaction. I didn’t know anyone else who did that. I had to adjust to the din of that much attention.
So For the Roses was written in retreat, and it’s nearly all piano songs. I was building a house in the northern British Columbia forestry, with the rustle of the arbutus trees at night finding its way into the music. There was moonlight coming down on black water; it was a very solitary period. It was melancholy exile; there was a sense of failure to it.
Interview with Joni Mitchell from Timothy White’s Rock Lives courtesy of Jonimitchell.com
Feelings of melancholy and failure are usually diagnosed as some form of depression—at least in the Western world. In the documentary A Woman of Heart and Mind, Joni talks about how she began her journey of self-discovery by exploring the field of psychology: “I read nearly every psychology book I could get my hands on and threw them all against the wall, basically.” Rejecting the scientific label of “mental illness,” she found a more helpful definition of her condition in the term “shamanic conversion.”
In the shamanic view, mental illness signals “the birth of a healer,” explains Dr. Malidoma Patrice Somé. Thus, mental disorders are spiritual emergencies, spiritual crises, and need to be regarded as such to aid the healer in being born.
What those in the West view as mental illness, the Dagara people regard as “good news from the other world.” The person going through the crisis has been chosen as a medium for a message to the community that needs to be communicated from the spirit realm. “Mental disorder, behavioral disorder of all kinds, signal the fact that two obviously incompatible energies have merged into the same field,” says Dr. Somé.
Joni Mitchell wouldn’t officially engage with William Blake until Taming the Tiger, but one could say she has spent much of her life proving the validity of Blake’s theory of contraries: “The possibility of progress lies in the tension between opposites.” At this point in her timeline, several incompatible energies motivated her to seek temporary refuge in nature. She was a private person in the public eye, a conflict aggravated by three unsuccessful relationships with other famous musicians that became fodder for the gossips. The success of Blue transformed her into an idol, and as she related in the documentary, “The idea of people at my knees was just horrifying to me.” She wrote intimate songs best suited for the coffeehouse and found herself struggling to perform them over the noise of 600,000 people at the Isle of Wight Festival, stopping her performance to plead with the audience to simmer down.
Her run-ins with incompatible energies likely engendered feelings of dismay and despair, but Joni Mitchell had faced adversity before. Stricken with polio at the age of nine which left her with permanent damage to her left hand but still determined to learn how to play a guitar, she created alternative tunings and workable finger positions to compensate. Her disgust with the music industry led her to consider retirement from time to time, but realizing she had an equally powerful desire to be heard, she eventually managed to maneuver herself into a position where she had greater control over her musical direction.
As Joni said in the documentary, “Depression can be the sand that makes the pearl; most of my best work came out of it.” For the Roses shows all the marks of progress resulting from the push-pull dynamic of a spiritual journey in its more complex music and greater reliance on narrative. The dominance of piano songs contributes to the melancholy feel of much of the album, but there are moments of playfulness and brightly-colored imagery. While there are songs that some might describe as self-confessional, those songs have a more reflective tone in comparison to some of the emotionally raw songs on Blue.
Though the cover and the photo in the inner gatefold convey “summer,” I’ve always viewed For the Roses as an autumnal album. All seasons are times of change, but the changes in autumn tend to evoke complex and often contradictory emotions. I found two competing views on autumn from a pair of American authors who rarely agreed on anything:
- Hemingway: “You expected to be sad in the fall; part of you died each year.”
- Fitzgerald: “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”
Leave it to a Canadian woman to resolve the conflict. Both perspectives are valid and you can hold them inside you at the same time. For the Roses takes on a melancholy cast when Joni reflects on events that led her to the cabin but as she works through the challenges she faced, there is no doubt that rebirth is close at hand.
“Banquet”: When you look at the sheet music for “Banquet,” you’ll see four sharps, indicating the key of E major. Dig deeper into the score and you’ll see♮all over the place. That image is called a natural sign, a mark that cancels the key signature. If I had seen the sheet music in my early years of classical training, I might have pointed out many chordal “mistakes,” like, “What the fuck is a Dm7 doing in a song in the key of E major?”
Here’s the thing: Joni Mitchell didn’t give a hoot about the technical aspects of music. When speaking to the issue of her “weird chords” in the documentary, she emphatically rejected the notion of chords as notes on a staff: “Chords are depictions of emotion.”
If you think about it for a minute, she’s 100% right, because that’s how we experience chords. Even the Oxford Languages definition of “chord” inadvertently admits that fundamental truth in their post-definition usage example: “1. a group of (typically three or more) notes sounded together, as a basis of harmony: ‘the triumphal opening chords’.” When we experience music, we don’t experience the notes, but (in this example) we experience the feeling of triumph. Q: Why have thousands of guitarists spent oodles of time trying to figure out the opening chord to “A Hard Day’s Night?” A: Because of the feelings that chord evokes—excitement, wonder, curiosity.
The feelings evoked by the chords, lyrics and spare piano arrangement of “Banquet” cover a range of emotions—guilt, dismay, empathy and righteous anger. The opening verse is split into two quintains, the first of which depicts a family settling in for Sunday dinner:
Come to the dinner gong
The table is laden high
Fat bellies and hungry little ones
Tuck your napkins in
And take your share
The second quintain changes our perspective from the nuclear family to the human family, reminding us that FDR’s “freedom from want” remains an unfulfilled dream:
Some get the gravy
And some get the gristle
Some get the marrow bone
And some get nothing
Though there’s plenty to spare
That incompatible F chord appears in the line “And some get nothing,” emphasizing the perpetual tension of a world split between the haves and have-nots. In the brief transitional passage that follows, the narrator chooses to take “my share down by the seaside,” where paper plates and plastic beach bottles used to trap crabs and shrimp float on the water. I love how Joni turns the word “glide” into an onomatopoetic experience with her vibrato, with notes rising and falling in line with the often bumpy experience of water skiing—a vibrato containing five naturals.
At first it may sound like Joni changes the subject in the second verse, but it turns out that the lines form a compendium of the different avoidance techniques people use to deal with the ugly realities of the world, be it hunger, pollution, boredom, tradition or the selfish accumulation of wealth:
Some turn to Jesus
And some turn to heroin
Some turn to rambling round
Looking for a clean sky
And a drinking stream
Some watch the paint peel off
Some watch their kids grow up
Some watch their stocks and bonds
Waiting for that big deal American Dream
In the second transitional passage, we find the narrator taking her “dream down by the sea” where “Yankee yachts” and “Shell Oil pails” cast shadows that filter the impact of the sunshine. In the closing couplet, Joni expands the definition of “banquet” to reflect the hunger for a better world (“Back in the banquet line/Angry young people crying”), setting up the powerful closing stanza:
Who let the greedy in
And who left the needy out
Who made this salty soup
Tell him we’re very hungry now
For a sweeter fare
In the cookie I read
“Some get the gravy
And some get the gristle
Some get the marrow bone
And some get nothing
Though there’s plenty to spare”
Fortune cookies often contain bits of “common wisdom,” but common wisdom in the form of “that’s life” is not wisdom, but cruelty born from indifference.
“Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire”: Joni melds her visual arts talent with her poetic gifts to paint a dark canvas depicting the nether world of heroin addiction. The imagery is so powerful that the poetry can stand by itself:
Cold blue steel out of money
One eye for the beat police
Sweet Fire calling
“You can’t deny me
Now you know what you need”
A wristwatch, a ring, a downstairs screamer
Edgy-black cracks of the sky
“Pin cushion prick fix this poor bad dreamer”
“Money” cold shadows reply
Pawnshops crisscrossed and padlocked
Corridors spit on prayers and pleas
Sparks fly up from sweet fire
Black soot of lady release
“Come with me
I know the way” she says
“It’s down, down, down the dark ladder . . .”
Red water in the bathroom sink
Fever and the scum brown bowl
Blue steel still begging
But it’s indistinct
Someone’s hi-fi drumming Jelly Roll
Concrete concentration camp
Bashing in veins for peace
Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire
Fall into Lady Release
If you’ve ever wandered into the seedier side of any large city, Joni’s tag “concrete concentration camp” will ring true, as many of the inhabitants are virtual inmates, forced into the neighborhood by poverty or addiction. There is general agreement that the “sweet fire” is the fix; the “cold blue steel” could be the needle, a gun bought for protection then pawned for cash, or a pseudonym for the song’s gun-toting junkie. The latter is supported by the opening line “Cold blue steel out of money” and the later line “blue steel still begging”. Needles don’t run out of money or beg and are made of stainless steel as opposed to the blue steel used by gun manufacturers. From Wikipedia: “Bluing is most commonly used by gun manufacturers, gunsmiths, and gun owners to improve the cosmetic appearance of and provide a measure of corrosion resistance to their firearms.” I’m going with “cold blue steel” as a pseudonym; you can lodge your complaints in the Comments section.
Complementing the excellence of the poetry, the music is sheer perfection, mixing folk, blues and jazz elements to add earthier colors to the scene. The stereo acoustic guitars are set to a nice folk strum with a touch of grit, combining major and sustained variants of G and C in the first couplet (twice sweetened by vocal harmony), followed by a flip to the blues scale with G-F-Bb chording in the second couplet, with greater emphasis on the bass notes. The jazz feel in the song (actually more of a jazz-blues feel) comes from Tom Scott’s soprano sax solo and Joni’s vocal tone. Though it would become more apparent on Hejira and quite obvious on Mingus, Joni Mitchell is a damn fine jazz singer with a clarinet tone that would have thrilled Duke Ellington, who loved singers whose voices blended in with the woodwinds or horns. Joni’s narrative approach is generally calm and detached, carefully avoiding any undue emotion and letting the scene and the music speak for themselves. The break from the emotionally-laden content of Blue is apparent throughout For the Roses, but most noticeable in this seamy-side jewel of a song.
“Barangrill”: I doubt that a late-night/early-morning drive to a gas station in L.A. qualifies as a journey, but this song anticipates the road stories of Hejira. According to the notes for “Barangrill” found on the song page at jonimitchell.com, Joni had completed the two first verses “as a spoof on the Trinity, you know. Centered around three waitresses.” The inspiration for the last verse came from that stop at a gas station:
There was this one guy, old black guy, on duty there. And he said to me “what are you doing out this hour of night?” And I said, “well, I just came from a recording session.” And he says “ohh, are you a singer?” And I said “yeah.” And he said “well, sing me something then.” So I mean, it’s like…on the spot like that, I couldn’t think of anything to sing, you know, so I said “I . . . you know, it’s very late at night, you know I’ve blown my pipes.” He said, “Okay; I’ll sing you something then.”
So he stepped back from the car and he burst into song, you know, and he started going through this whole routine, and I kept thinking to myself . . . [Joni speaking deliberately] ”I wish he would hurry up and put gas in my car.” [audience laughter]
And then halfway through it I said to myself “Now, wait a minute. This is a beautiful moment, and you’re rushing right through it, you know. Like you’re hasty to go home to what? To sleep, right? Is sleep more important than this beautiful moment? So when I got home, like, I felt like I had somehow rather been enlightened.
The three waitresses in the song aren’t the upscale types who would have flocked to a fern bar in the hopes of landing a well-heeled, attractive young stud. These are working girls whose simple lives involve more down-to-earth forms of recreation . . . a lifestyle Joni finds rather appealing in contrast to the more ethereal existence of a music idol:
Three waitresses all wearing
Black diamond earrings
Talking about zombies
and Singapore slings
No trouble in their faces
Not one anxious voice
None of the crazy you get
From too much choice
The thumb and the satchel
Or the rented Rolls-Royce
And you think she knows something
By the second refill
You think she’s enlightened
As she totals your bill
You say “show me the way
Because “Her mind’s on her boyfriend/And eggs over easy,” the waitress ignores her request, so Joni turns to a truck driver for information but comes up empty because he’s “just a slave to Barangrill.” Her epiphany arrives when she pulls up to the pump and realizes that the simple pleasures she seeks can be found in everyday life, especially in the people who cope with the drudgery of having to work for a living by capitalizing on rare opportunities to have a little fun:
The guy at the gas pumps
He’s got a lot of soul
He sings Merry Christmas for you
Just like Nat King Cole
And he makes up his own tune
Right on the spot
About whitewalls and windshields
And this job he’s got
And you want to get moving
And you want to stay still
But lost in the moment
Some longing gets filled
And you even forget to ask
“Hey, Where’s Barangrill?”
The music involves an arrangement of bright guitars, flute and chugging bass, creating a playful atmosphere. The melody is equally bright and delightfully diverse; Joni’s vocal is a mix of “subtly spirited” and “suitably conversational.”
“Lesson in Survival”: The music to “Lesson in Survival” has all the earmarks of a stream-of-consciousness piece where the speaker is trying to unload a set of complex and sometimes ill-defined emotions. Those emotions are expressed in a variety of ways, including Joni’s occasionally choppy phrasing, variations in piano touch, subtle chord variations and most of all in the changing time signatures. According to Dave Blackburn’s brilliant transcription, the song incorporates nine different time signatures, requiring the listener to set aside expectations of predictable musical flow and approach the listening experience as if you were eavesdropping on a one-sided conversation. Emotional expression rarely follows the cadence of well-ordered rhetorical speech; you have to expect bumps, hiccups, pauses and occasional outbursts.
As it turns out, this is exactly what Joni depicts in the closing verse when she tries to express her feelings to a friend who seems rather uncomfortable with emotional expression:
My talking as it rambled
Revealed suspicious reasoning
The visit seemed to darken him
I came in as bright
As a neon light
And I burned out
Right there before him
I told him these things
I’m telling you now
Watched them buckle up
In his brow
What Joni is attempting to process with middling success is an incompatible relationship. He likes to have people around; she needs “more quiet times.” She worries that his friends don’t like her, an attitude that increases the likelihood that they won’t:
Maybe it’s paranoia
Maybe it’s sensitivity
Your friends protect you
I get so damn timid
Not at all the spirit
That’s inside of me
Oh baby I can’t seem to make it
With you socially
There’s this reef around me . . .
Joni is completely aware that her introversion makes her a drag in social settings: “When you dig down deep/You lose good sleep/And it makes you/Heavy company.” Many introverts possess that awareness but any attempt to become more socially acceptable violates the maxim “To thine own self be true,” resulting in stress and spiritual exhaustion. In the end, the situation remains firmly stuck in limbo; she still believes there is an unbreakable bond between the two lovers (“I will always love you/Hands alike/Magnet and iron/The souls”) but he needs to be with people as much as she needs her alone time and the pair are unable to find a workable compromise. This is one instance where the possibility of progress in the tension between opposites remains a distant possibility.
I’ll confess that it took me a while to warm up to this song due to the flexible structure, but now I consider it one of the most beautiful songs Joni ever wrote.
“Let the Wind Carry Me”: The song opens in the key of E minor. KIRK: Spock, what are the odds that Joni will stick to the original time signature? SPOCK: Not a fucking chance, captain.
Joni essentially exploits Charlie Parker’s discovery that the twelve semitones of the chromatic scale can lead melodically to any key and moves from E minor to G minor early in the song. The two keys share one common note (G) that makes the transition easier on the ears; Joni softens the blow by using the Gm7 chord in the initial transition, adding another compatible note (D). The change to G minor gives her access to the F and Eb chords, adding color and tension to the mix. Before heading back to E minor, she always lands on the Gm7 or Gm7(D) and sometimes eases the return by substituting the E minor chord with Em7 and its compatible D note. Joni actually spends most of her piano time in G minor, but instead of returning to the E minor root chord for the finish, she eases her way into the E minor key with a G major chord and ends on the ambiguous sound of a Cmaj7 after closing the poem with “let the wind carry me.”
I’m impressed with the composition but less so with the arrangement. The jazz touches contributed by the one-man woodwinds section of Tom Scott are well-played but the song itself lacks the feel of a jazz composition. The slightly dissonant wordless background voices seem somewhat superfluous and the instrumental passage goes on far too long to maintain interest. The lyrics cover the classic situation where one parent is a soft touch and the other is a worrywart who would like to put you on permanent restriction. At the end of the song, Joni sings directly to her mother, pleading with her to “let the wind carry me” and explore all that life has to offer. This change in perspective makes the song more about her relationship with her parents as opposed to a more general, inclusive narrative, thereby weakening the impact.
“For the Roses”: Of the various explanations Joni gave regarding the motivation and the meaning of the title track, two on the song page at jonimitchell.com caught my eye because they were separated by a period of forty-seven years. The first is from her introduction to the song during a 1972 performance at Carnegie Hall:
‘This is another new song. It’s called ‘For the Roses’ and it comes from the expression, ‘to run for the roses.’ You know what that’s all about—that’s when you take this horse and, you know, like he comes charging into the finish line and they throw a wreath of flowers around his neck and then one day they take him out and shoot him. It’s kind of a macabre thing to say, isn’t it, I guess?’
The second appeared in a 2019 interview with Mojo Magazine:
“That was my first farewell to show business. I was in Canada, and I had decided to quit show business and get away from all the pressures I felt. I put my thoughts into that song: ‘Remember the days when you used to sit/And make up your tunes for love . . ./And now you’re seen/On giant screens/And at parties for the press/And for people who have slices of you/From the company.’ To me, this was an unfair, crooked business and it has nothing to do with real talent . . . I was up in Canada for about a year and I guess it strengthened my nervous system a little, so I finally came back.”
You can read the much longer introductions involving her fascination with the arbutus tree on the same page, but here’s the nitty-gritty: one night while sitting in her cabin she heard the sound of applause but “It was just the arbutus rustling/And the bumping of the logs.” The arbutus thereby triggered the inspiration for “For the Roses” by reminding her of the roar of the crowd and by association, the rotten music business that drove her to seek refuge in far-off British Columbia. For the arrangement, she chose a stripped-down approach featuring her voice and guitar, recalling the good old days when she was a folk singer playing in coffeehouses for small audiences. I have no problem with the music but I think she did herself a disservice by making it the title track.
Somewhere in the composition and recording phases, this song became the centerpiece of the album in Joni’s mind, leading to some curious decisions and rebellious behavior. Joni wanted the cover to reflect her disdain for the music business, so she submitted one of her artworks showing “a bunch of roses sticking out of a horse’s ass.” I don’t know how anyone could interpret that painting as an attack on the industry, but it became a moot point when the suits at Asylum rejected it and asked her to provide a replacement with her picture on the cover. Joni responded by submitting the ass picture shown above; head honcho David Geffen asked her if she really wanted an “Only $4.99” sticker plastered on her butt. Eventually a compromise was reached: Joni could show off her beautiful ass in the inner gatefold sleeve, display her painting on billboards around L.A. as part of the promotional push and in exchange, Asylum would get her face on the cover.
Sounds to me like Joni had a teenage tantrum.
I can empathize with Joni’s shock when fame arrived and the insanity of stardom hit her with full force after the release of Blue, but I have a hard time believing that it took her that long to wise up to the nature of the music industry. After all, the guy who first connected Joni with the movers and shakers in the business was David Crosby, and if memory serves me, didn’t the Byrds release a song about what awaits the clueless musician who signs with a label?
Sell your soul to the company
Who are waiting there to sell plastic ware
And in a week or two if you make the charts
The girls’ll tear you apart
The price you paid for your riches and fame
Was it all a strange game? You’re a little insane
The money, the fame, and the public acclaim
Don’t forget what you are, you’re a rock and roll star
Once she made the grade and moved to Laurel Canyon, she became part of a community of budding and established musicians who more than likely shared their tales of woe regarding the music business. She had to know it was an “unfair, crooked business” before Blue, and it was hardly the industry’s fault that the record turned her into a superstar.
I’d feel more comfortable with the song had Joni acknowledged that she was at least partially responsible for the mess she found herself in, but “I guess I seem ungrateful” doesn’t cut it.
Though a few of the other songs on For the Roses contain references to people and happenings in the music business, those few songs hardly qualify as a strong central theme, and the best songs on the album have no connection to the music industry whatsoever. Using “For the Roses” as the title track draws attention to the pain that motivated creation, but the real story of the album is Joni Mitchell’s growth as a musician and songwriter.
If you want to listen to a great album with a coherent theme centered around the workings of the music industry and its impact on real human beings, pick up a copy of Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround Pt. 1. If you’d rather listen to a great album that displays an artist overcoming adversity by opening new and exciting musical pathways, turn your attention to For the Roses.
“See You Sometime”: Ugh. Once I learned that the song was written for James Taylor I immediately lost all interest. One of the reasons I refuse to review Blue is the plethora of songs about Joni’s relationships with Taylor and Graham Nash. I will not turn this blog into a gossip column.
I will now pretend that I never heard that bit about James Taylor and Joni and give the song a fair shot.
The melody is quite beautiful, one of the strongest on the album. Specific personal references aside (suspenders), the lyrics do address a problem that haunts many a breakup: the difficulty of letting go. The attempt to make a clean break is bedeviled by lingering desire and its evil twin: jealousy.
Where are you now
Are you in some hotel room
Does it have a view?
Are you caught in a crowd
Or holding some honey
Who came on to you?
Why do you have to be so jive
OK hang up the phone
But something survives
Though it’s undermined
I’d still like to see you sometime
What impresses me the most is that it’s obvious Joni isn’t faking it; her feelings are real and deeply felt. When she accelerates her phrasing (“Why do you have to be so jive/OK hang up the phone”) then collapses in embarrassment (“It hurts”) I feel her pain and the depth of her vulnerability. In the second verse, she shifts to the “everything’s fine” act in an attempt to make amends for her outburst, an all-too-human response to having revealed what she didn’t want to reveal. She continues to skirt the real issue in the final verse, chatting about her apple trees before finally admitting her contributions to the breakup, which she hopes will motivate her ex to grant her wish: “But I’d still like to see you sometime.”
I have to admit that “See You Sometime” is a damned fine piece of work and I’m very happy that Joni swore off writing songs about her intimate relationships shortly after the release of For the Roses.
“Electricity”: This is a pleasant little song from a musical perspective, but the electrical metaphors get tiresome and it’s hard to keep up with who the players are. The woman who used a Canadian penny as a substitute for a blown fuse should be arrested on a charge of sheer stupidity.
“You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio”: Once Joni left her cabin and returned to La-La Land, bossman and close friend David Geffen asked her to come up with a radio-friendly single for the album. From Songfacts:
“I decided there were some ways to make a hit, increase the chances,” Mitchell said in Sounds. “DJs have to like it, so you put a long part at the beginning and the end so the DJs can talk over it. Take a tender situation and translate it into commonly appealing songs for the DJs. It’d have to be a bit corny, so I wrote this little song called ‘Oh Honey, You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio.'”
The one ingredient she left out was a strong hook, but it didn’t matter. The song became her first Top 10 hit in Canada and cracked the Top 40 in the USA. Mission accomplished.
I don’t mind the song, but there isn’t much there there.
“Blonde in the Bleachers”: Speaking of “exciting musical pathways,” Dave Blackburn shared the insight he gained from transcribing “Blonde in the Bleachers”:
“Blonde in the Bleachers” represents a huge leap in sophistication from the piano compositions on Joni’s prior album, Blue.
Firstly, it is rhapsodic, essentially through-composed, having no repeating sections other than the piano intro which reappears as an interlude. The use of changing meters, which became a feature on Court and Spark and subsequent albums, makes its appearance here.
Harmonically Joni seems to love the #4 scale tonality offered by the Lydian mode and freely uses it in her melody and her triadic movements. The chord movement at bars 17-19 is ingeniously original, employing two Lydian alterations and one momentary modulation to a remote key in the space of three bars, and yet it all flows gracefully and lyrically. Specifically, it is this kind of harmonic sensibility that set Joni Mitchell apart from all her peers, coming from where? Not folk music, not quite jazz (though more so), not quite classical. My personal theory is that Joni had listened to some of the interesting progressive rock appearing in 1972 out of the UK, and felt empowered to incorporate some of its elements.
For those of you who nodded out at the mention of Lydian mode, the chord progression in those bars goes like this: D/C, C, Emaj7, A/E, G/F, F and corresponds to the lines “Lovin’ ’em and leavin’ ’em/It’s pleasure to try ’em/It’s trouble to keep ’em.” The most striking feature of modern Lydian mode is the augmented fourth (in F major, the Bb is swapped for a B), adding the tension and sourness you hear in “Blue Jay Way,” “Pretty Ballerina” and XTC’s “Jason and the Argonauts.” The changing time signatures in this song aren’t as challenging as those in “Lesson in Survival,” as the piece is largely in 4/4 time with occasional shifts to 3/4 and 2/4 (the latter appearing more frequently towards the end of the song).
The song explores the relationship between “the bands and the roadies” and the groupies who follow them, the latter represented by the iconic “blonde in the bleachers.” Joni’s attitude towards the former is “boys will be boys” (or, as my grandmother sternly warned me when I hit puberty, “a stiff prick knows no conscience”). She views the rock musician’s perpetual search for pussy as an identity-defining feature of the type, punctuating the all-important three-line transition verse with vocal harmonies:
‘Cause it seems like you’ve gotta give up
Such a piece of your soul
When you give up the chase
Feeling it hot and cold
You’re in rock ‘n’ roll
It’s the nature of the race
It’s the unknown child
So sweet and wild
It’s too good to waste
Up to this point, the arrangement has been all Joni. Right after Joni engages in a bit of projection by having the blonde in the bleachers deliver the cold-shower first line of the closing passage (“She tapes her regrets to the microphone stand”), drummer Russ Kunkel enters the scene with a fill on the toms and bassist Wilton Felder joins him in establishing a very light rock beat. The lyrics tell us that at least one groupie has learned her lesson (“You can’t hold the hand of a rock ‘n’ roll man very long”), and the song fades with Stephen Stills and Tom Scott popping in to add additional rock textures.
“Woman of Heart and Mind”: The stereo guitars are tuned to B major (BF#C#EBD#, or in Joni tuning, B77374) and the open tuning allows Joni to express the full power of the C#7 chord that imbues the song with a touch of the blues. Joni’s voice is marked by palpable weariness spiced with mild irritation and a touch of disappointment as she reviews the status of her relationship with a man who inhabits an adult body but in reality barely qualifies as an adolescent.
I am 99.9% sure that Joni wasn’t thinking of one man when she wrote the song but chose to invent a character who embodies all the qualities of the typical man in modern culture. That perspective makes the song a damning indictment of male entitlement and immaturity.
I am a woman of heart and mind
With time on her hands
No child to raise
You come to me like a little boy
And I give you my scorn and my praise
You think I’m like your mother
Or another lover or your sister
Or the queen of your dreams
Or just another silly girl
When love makes a fool of me
After the rush when you come back down
You’re always disappointed
Nothing seems to keep you high
Drive your bargains
Push your papers
Win your medals
Fuck your strangers
Don’t it leave you on the empty side
I’m also 99.9% sure that Joni isn’t speaking for herself but for all women burdened by the expectation that our primary purpose is to serve as the caregivers for the human race, an expectation that sometimes proves hard to shake:
I’m looking for affection and respect
A little passion
And you want stimulation-nothing more
That’s what I think
But you know I’ll try to be there for you
When your spirits start to sink
In the fourth verse, the archetypal male claims to have found solace in religion and our archetypal woman is at the ready with an exceptionally tart response:
All this talk about holiness now
It must be the start of the latest style
Is it all books and words
Or do you really feel it?
Do you really laugh?
Do you really care?
Do you really smile
When you smile?
The closing argument contained in the indictment is a superbly-written summary of the whole fucking problem: the archetypal male is programmed to adapt to other-directed society and has no concept of self:
You criticize and you flatter
You imitate the best
And the rest you memorize
You know the times you impress me most
Are the times when you don’t try
When you don’t even try
On an album filled with complex compositions, “Woman of Heart and Minds” stands out for its relative simplicity and directness. I applaud her decision to keep things simple and avoid the temptation to add any embellishments. Joni’s compelling vocal, the blinding truth in the lyrics and her superb touch on the guitar proved to be more than sufficient.
“Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig’s Tune)”:
Greg Mitchell wrote an excellent essay on this closing piece, identifying the one book Joni did not fling against the wall during her cabin period:
One book, published in 1927, stood out above all the rest, a volume called Beethoven: His Spiritual Development.
“It was all about his struggles, and self-doubts and his worries about how his work was being received and what it all meant on a deeper level and, of course, about his going deaf.
“At the time, that’s just what I was thinking about too. How am I going to get back in the saddle? And what about the audience? Would you still love me if you knew what I was really like?”
Joni couldn’t have selected a better guru to guide her through adversity:
As he grew older his force increased. “I will take Fate by the throat,” he said as a young man, à propos of his increasing deafness, and there is plenty of the “will to victory” in the fifth symphony he proceeded to write. But a stronger, although more subtle pulse, is to be found in some of the last string quartets. In his last years he had more to carry and he carried it more lightly.
—J.W.N. Sullivan, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development. Alfred A. Knopf. New York. p 66
The structure of the piece is as follows: verse 1, verse 2, interlude, verse 3. The song is in the key of A major set to a 4/4 time signature but by now I probably don’t need to tell you that Joni drifts in and out of the key and changes the time signature here and there. The first two verses present Beethoven’s struggles with deafness and his determination to overcome that obstacle:
No tongue in the bell
And the fishwives yell
But they might as well be mute
So you get to keep the pictures
That don’t seem like much . . .
Revoked but not yet cancelled
The gift goes on
In a bell jar
Still a song
Dave Blackburn managed to produce a complete transcription of the score, complete with the flute, saxophone and strings heard in the interlude. The most compelling passages in the interlude involve the mingling of voices and instruments—flute, saxophone, cello, clarinet. But while the interlude provides insight into Joni’s expanding compositional skills, the centerpiece of the song is the triumphant third verse, where Joni faces her own set of adversities and vows to do all she can to overcome them:
You’ve got to shake your fists at lightning now
You’ve got to roar like forest fire
You’ve got to spread your light like blazes
All across the sky
They’re going to aim the hoses on you
Show ’em you won’t expire
Not till you burn up every passion
Not even when you die
Come on now
You’ve got to try
If you’re feeling contempt
Well then you tell it
If you’re tired of the silent night
Jesus well then you yell it
Condemned to wires and hammers
Strike every chord that you feel
That broken trees
And elephant ivories conceal
Rebirth is indeed close at hand.
When I visited jonimitchell.com a couple of weeks ago, I learned that Joni Mitchell recently celebrated her 80th birthday. Her most recent encounter with adversity occurred in 2015 when she suffered a stroke and a brain aneurysm rupture, losing her voice as well as the ability to walk and play guitar. Years of physical therapy enabled her to make a few public appearances here and there, and in 2022 she returned to the stage at the Newport Folk Festival. Earlier this year, she performed at the Gorge Ampitheatre in Washington state, delivering a three-hour set followed by four encores for a crowd of 27,000. Incredible.
Adversity followed by rebirth is a consistent pattern in Joni Mitchell’s life and For the Roses is a lasting tribute to that amazing ability.