I’ve always had a soft spot for Eric Burdon because he picked my mother out of a crowd as a woman he wanted to fuck and had the civility to ask my father for permission first. That’s class!
Unfortunately for Eric, soft spots don’t earn anyone a free pass from The Alt Rock Chick!
The Animals were the first “bad boys” of the Invasion, though they were soon to be out-grunged by the more dangerous, hide-your-virgin-daughters appeal of The Rolling Stones. The “bad boys” were a group of invaders who based their music more on the work of black blues and R&B artists, whereas the “beat groups” drew more influence from the early rockers and girl group . . . so say those given to racism who have to categorize everything in sight.
The Animals, in various incarnations centered around Eric Burdon, had a comparatively long run of hits, staying on the charts until 1968. They were primarily a singles band, and the only album that reached the top ten in The States was their first. The Animals were generally at their best when they stuck to the gritty scenery that sets the stage for life in the lower classes, average when it came to pure blues or R&B and absolutely ridiculous when Eric Burdon moved to California and transformed himself into yet another tedious spokesperson for the hippie movement. From a musical standpoint, I think they lost a great deal when Alan Price left the band because he had the talent and presence to serve as a counterweight to Eric Burdon. After his departure, the Animals became Eric Burdon’s band, eventually changing the name (with two or three variations) to reflect that fait accompli. At first, Price’s departure didn’t make much of a difference, as some of the The Animals’ greatest songs are from the immediate post-Price period. In the long run, The Animals fell prey to Eric Burdon’s hunches concerning musical direction, which were hit or miss at best.
As for the degree of influence The Animals had, that’s a matter of debate. Some claim that it was The Animals, not The Byrds, who created the genre of folk rock. Talk about a tempest in a teapot! Let’s get something straight: musicians don’t create genres, marketers and librarians do. Since rock and folk are based on similar chord structures and commonly use some kind of strummed instrument (lute, balalaika, guitar, etc) as a centerpiece, all it took to “invent a new genre” was for some yahoo to plug in a guitar and play already familiar patterns. Big deal. The argument for Burdon and the boys is that The Animals’ first two hits were folk songs played with them newfangled electric instruments. Some even credit The Animals with influencing Dylan to add electric instruments to his act. I view that assertion with skepticism, because musicians and critics are always trying to rewrite history to justify their theories or make themselves look good. The evidence cited is that Dylan did “The House of the Rising Sun” on his first album and reportedly “jumped out of his car seat” when he first heard The Animals’ version on the radio. In other words, circumstantial evidence at best.
I’ll let other people argue over this trivia. My personal opinion is that I don’t think they were that influential, in large part because they took too long to start writing their own songs and many of those songs are of questionable value.
Let’s get to the music so you can form your own opinions. The Retrospective collection cheats a little by adding “Spill the Wine” to the set, reinforcing the notion that The Animals were Eric Burdon and vice versa. I don’t mind. The story of The Animals is the story of the career of Eric Burdon, so I like it that the album ends with his swan song performance and that his exit as a regular on the pop charts was a memorable musical experience. The track order isn’t perfect, but it’s better than most in following the chronology of their musical development. While the collection doesn’t begin at the beginning, we can get there with a literary flourish or two.
Once upon a time there was a band from Newcastle upon Tyne called the Kansas City Five who changed their name to The Animals after the nickname of one of their buddies and traveled down to London to play at the Crawdaddy Club, where they were introduced to an evil fart named Mickie Most who ordered them to launch their recording career with . . .
“Baby Let Me Take You Home”: Now I’m cheating a little. This song actually appears third on the CD track list, because I suppose the compilers wanted to open with The Animals’ signature song to attract consumers. Harrumph! God damn, I love that opening guitar riff, where Hilton Valentine seems to defy time and space. What happens is that his arpeggiated intro ends one beat early, so when the band comes in it takes the listener by surprise and makes the song that much more exciting. For a rookie singer, Eric Burdon shows surprising sophistication with his sometimes off-beat phrasing and sheer presence. Alan Price helps define The Animals’ early sound with his deft touch on the organ and Chas Chandler rips it on the bass in the double time coda. This is a super maiden release that sure beats the hell out of “Love Me Do.” The song can be traced back to either Blind Boy Fuller or Reverend Gary Davis, and was later transformed by 60’s folk scene presence Eric Von Schmidt into “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” the version “re-arranged” by Bert Russell and Wes Farrell into “Baby Let Me Take You Home.” Let’s see . . . that makes at least five plagiarism-related lawsuits that are no doubt still working their way through the courts with each dead man’s estate fighting for every penny.
“The House of the Rising Sun”: After that side trip into the complexities of the legal system, I am relieved to inform you that “The House of the Rising Sun” is of uncertain origin. Instead of wasting our time on competing hypotheses, how about if we just enjoy the damned song? It is absolutely mesmerizing! The repetitive arpeggiated chord pattern combined with the 2/4 time reflects the relentless march of evil that will inexorably and inevitably swallow the soul. Eric Burdon’s vocal is a dramatic tour de force and Alan Price’s organ adds that eerie feeling that there are certain things in life that are beyond a man’s control, especially seething passions and irresistible temptations. Gambling den or whore house, the place is a symbol of consuming temptation and creeping addiction to vice; dissolution becomes “that ball and chain” from which there is no escape. My interpretation is that the original place was where normal people went to have a good time, then returned to “normal” and found themselves drowning in various forms of Christian guilt. There could never be a House of the Rising Sun in a culture that doesn’t equate sex with sin. Eric Burdon even manages to stay in character and communicate genuine regret for his character’s debauchery. Since we know that the real Eric Burdon propositioned my mother in front of 5,000 witnesses, we have to give him credit for his acting skills.
“I’m Crying”: Their follow-up hit bursts out of the gate with the band creating maximum sound with everything they could throw at the studio microphones. The Animals generally did more vocals in unison than in harmony, and here the “ah-ah-ah” vocal pattern is particularly effective in its simplicity: you take the high note, I’ll take the low note, let’s stay on the same note. I do detect one of Eric Burdon’s flaws emerging here: sometimes he hams it up and over-emphasizes rather dull lines with excessive volume and emotion. A simple blues pattern with the flatted third and fourth chords adding a teeny bit of variety, “I’m Crying” is the classic hit carried into the top ten more on the strength of its predecessor than the song itself.
“Gonna Send You Back to Walker”: The B-side to “Baby Let Me Take You Home,” it’s really too bad that 45’s weren’t three-dimensional, because this song is clearly C-side quality. Based on Timmy Shaw’s minor (and only) hit, “Gonna Send You Back to Georgia,” The Animals attempt to localize the song for the British market by changing the return destination to Walker, a burb outside of Newcastle where Eric Burdon grew up. They carefully change the directional preposition from “from” to “to” so that the babe who is the object of the song goes south to get to Swinging London, so that Eric can send her home in a northerly direction after her big city experience turns her into a desirable possession whom other men may covet. For all their efforts at pre-GPS triangulation, the song proves to be a bore, and they made a major mistake in removing the most provocative verse from the original: “You run the streets with your bald head/Tryin’ to play the high-class game/You’d run those streets on both day and night/You don’t have pocket change.” Whoa, Nellie! What was that girl up to?
“Boom Boom”: Uh-uh (shaking head vigorously)! No way (jaw firms up in defiance)! Look, when John Lee Hooker sings, “I’m gonna shoot you right down” to his woman, he fucking means it, whether the shooting is a euphemism for getting a sassy bitch off her high horse, a fluid he would like to eject from his hardened member, or a small metal object expelled from the barrel of a .44. Eric Burdon doesn’t mean it, because he didn’t have the life experience to give those words the layers of meaning in the original. Once again, he overdoes the vocal. John Lee’s is one of quiet, cocky confidence: he knows that bitch is goin’ down.
“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”: This time Eric gets it right. His vocal is actually more restrained than Nina Simone’s original, and clearly communicates the vulnerability that men often deny. The quicker tempo also helps the song; Nina’s version sounds draggy to me, as if the point was to squeeze every last drop of emotion from every syllable. In real life, someone admitting mistakes and flaws in the personality would tend to speak at a faster rate once the words started to tumble out, with brief stutters and stops along the way. Eric Burdon understood those emotional dynamics, even occasionally slipping back into a tone of self-justification that gives his vocal more credibility. I love the unison vocals on the chorus, the quiet humming in the background and Alan Price’s work on the organ.
“Bring It on Home to Me”: It’s tough to measure up to anything Sam Cooke ever did, but Eric does a credible job with this cover. I just hate that little snickering laugh he adds in the second verse: “You know I laughed (ha-ha) when you left.” What the fuck is that? I guess no one taught Eric the Count Basie Theory: less is more!
“We Gotta Get Out of This Place”: A classic example of how cultures apply art in ways other than the artist intended. This Mann-Weill number is largely famous for the chorus and the repetition of the title line. It’s easy to understand why American boys trapped in the dismal jungles of Vietnam made this their unofficial theme song. “We’ve gotta get out of this place if it’s the last thing we ever do” is a powerful double entendre when “the last thing we ever do” may become tragically true. The real story of the song has nothing to do with Vietnam, but the thing we now call “income inequality,” hardly a new phenomenon in capitalist cultures. To work your life away and still find yourself trapped in poverty, unable to afford health care and stuck in a tiny shithole of a flat is a humiliating experience of permanent despair (“See my daddy in bed a-dyin’/See his hair turning’ gray/He’s been working and slaving his life away.”) Even high-paid professionals can relate to this song in a more existential fashion, because many of them feel like they’re working their lives away in meaningless jobs. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill were the best of the Brill Building songwriters, and this song is one for the ages. As noted above, Eric Burdon shines when he’s singing about the gritty and hard lives of the lower classes. Kudos to replacement organist Dave Rowberry for not overplaying his hand, and to Chas Chandler for one of the most recognizable bass riffs in history. By the way, this is the original American single release, so all those people who have been whining that the versions on “The Most of” and “The Best of” albums were bogus can now rest in peace.
“It’s My Life”: Continuing with the formula of notable bass runs and life in the slums, we have another Brill Building creation courtesy of Roger Atkins and Carl D’Errico (this one specifically commissioned by Mickie Most for The Animals’ next single). The opening combination of Chas Chandler’s bass run and Hilton Valentine on a 12-string Ric grabs your attention with the emphasis on the flatted fifth note presaging the dysfunctional nature of the living situation. Because Eric Burdon cared more about feel than precise enunciation, some listeners never realize that the narrator is a poor young stud whose plan is to use his sexual prowess to exploit the fuck out of rich women and get the hell out of a life of “sweatin’ rent.” Can’t say I blame him, and if the women get their rocks off and are willing to pay up, everyone goes home happy. While mutually agreed-upon exploitation is a pretty pathetic way to relate to one another, this kind of thing is going to happen in a world where people are trained to believe that life is dog-eat-dog, no matter what your station in life. Rich women have to get laid like the rest of us, and poor boys with big dicks have a talent that fits nicely in a supply-and-demand economy. I actually prefer this song to “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” from a musical perspective, but both represent The Animals at their best.
“Don’t Bring Me Down”: There sure were a lot of don’t-let-me-down-bring-me-down-put-me-down songs in the 1960’s! Living under the constant threat of nuclear war must have made everyone a bit sensitive. I’m not too fond of this piece; the parts never really come together into a satisfying whole. The fuzz guitar seems to have been thrown in because of trendiness rather than fit.
“See See Rider”: Yawn. If there’s one blues number that has been played to death, it’s this one. After the swirling organ opens the song, there isn’t much to hold one’s interest. Mitch Ryder’s version with “Jenny Take a Ride” was way better.
“Inside, Looking Out”: Eric Burdon and Chas Chandler took one of the songs discovered by the Lomax brothers in their search for American roots music and turned it into a decent-sized hit in the U. K. The sound is more garage band than studio, which works well for this old work song. There’s some very nifty organ work from Dave Rowberry here, and the ham in Eric Burdon must have loved the stop-time structure of the verses.
“Hey Gyp”: The unfortunate connection between Eric Burdon and Donovan that would inform the work of Eric’s hippie phase began with this cover of a pedestrian song by Donovan that any teenager could have written at the time. Bo-ring.
“Help Me Girl”: The original Animals were in the process of breaking up, so this tune appeared on Eric Burdon’s solo album Eric Is Here, credited to Eric Burdon & The Animals. I find it very helpful when artists clearly delineate their phases, which is the only thing I like about this song. The horns are so Bob Crewe Generation.
“When I Was Young”: The last of the gritty trilogy was thankfully composed by the entire band (now Eric Burdon & The Animals), giving the performance an immediate sense of credibility. My favorite of the three and probably my favorite Animals song of them all, this song frigging works on so many levels I love replaying it just to pick out the parts: the descending distorted guitar opening, the Indian-like guitar riff courtesy of new lead guitarist Vic Briggs, the flashes of electric violin and best of all, Eric Burdon’s delivery of one line in particular: “Pain more painful, laughter much louder, yeah.” If you listen closely there’s almost a hidden laugh behind the vocalization of the word “laughter,” and the closing “yeah” is snapped off with street-wise perfection. The modulation of the dynamics from quiet to loud to utter stillness is terribly effective and the mixed-race implications of “she was brown and I was pretty green” were pretty daring for the time.
“A Girl Named Sandoz”: While I do like The Smashing Pumpkins’ version better, I like the mix of garage feel and San Francisco sound on The Animals’ version. It sounds very Haight-Ashbury, as should any song where the heroine is named after the pharma company that brought helped bring LSD into the world.
“San Franciscan Nights”: Oh, for fuck’s sake. Warm San Franciscan nights? When? I lived in the City for twenty-five years and can remember maybe three warm nights. If you come to San Francisco in July or August and you see hordes of tourists shivering in their tank tops and shorts around Union Square as they huddle closely together in line waiting for the souvenir stores to open so they can buy piles of sweatshirts and sweatpants to protect them from the relentless fog and wind of a San Francisco summer, you’ll know whom to blame. “It’s summer! Isn’t California supposed to be warm in the summer?” they whimper in pathetic explanation of their skimpy wardrobes. The only way you could possibly describe San Francisco nights as warm is through the influence of LSD. Cocaine simply won’t do—you need something that completely distorts your perceptual field to believe that icy fog is a warm and snuggly blanket. To use this song as a plug for his buddy Donovan (“fly Trans Love Airways”) adds insult to frostbite.
“Monterey”: I guess Eric decided to pick up some extra cash as a marketing shill for the music industry. This song defines the regrettable tendency of humans in modern society to define certain happenings as “seminal events,” an exaggerative tendency much like the current practice to turn everyone who ever made a record into a “legend.” Baby Boomers are particularly prone to attaching excessive meaning to events, from Woodstock to Watergate to the Super Bowl. The most offensive aspect of this song is its elevation of musicians into godlike status. Referring to a drugged-out, unreliable guitarist as “His Majesty Prince Jones” is seriously over-the-top, as is the line “young gods smiled upon the crowd,” referring to the performers. The excess of this song is breathtaking, easily making my list of the ten worst songs ever conceived.
Look. Any objective reading of history will tell you that the truly seminal one-time events of the 60’s were JFK’s assassination and The Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The definition of ”seminal” is “strongly influencing future developments,” and those events created massive change, for evil or for good. Monterey Pop opened up another distribution channel for rock music, period. Woodstock didn’t change dick except account balances for the promoters. Some 60’s movements produced change, but the big events associated with those movements didn’t change shit. Change usually takes time, and a single event simply doesn’t have that much power or significance. The 60’s were full of big events, but when you follow the path that leads away from the event, you usually wind up nowhere. What did Kent State produce? A shitty CSNY single and a landslide for Richard Nixon.
I don’t know if Eric Burdon really cried to Ravi Shankar’s music, but I’ll bet Ravi didn’t cry even after Eric mangled his name to Shank-nar. Ravi had no reason to cry because he was the only musician who performed at Monterey who insisted on being paid for his performance. How fucking spiritual of him.
“Anything”: This is the song that Eric Burdon is most proud of writing. Uh-uh. Okay. Better not say . . . anything.
“Sky Pilot”: This opus had to be split into two sides on the 45 due to its length. The “sky pilot” is the army chaplain, a job whose existence defies reason and logic. I’ve always felt that the concept of “Christian Soldiers” is the ultimate oxymoron, and for a man of the cloth to accept a job in the military makes no sense to me at all unless you believe in predestination and are just playing out the string. The theme of “Sky Pilot” is this fundamental contradiction and the inevitable test of faith involved in choosing to serve in such a position. Although the lyrics are sometimes clumsy and the grammar atrocious (“only time it will tell”), it’s a compelling performance from the a cappella opening to the clinching line, “Thou shalt not kill.” I particularly like the strings here, especially in the passage before the last verse.
“White Houses”: One of the most underrated songs in their catalog, this Eric Burdon composition features the usual grammatical difficulties as he twists syntax to create rhyming lines (“Soon another life it will bring”), but is saved by a solid groove and a playful lead vocal. The theme of the song is “look at reality, people!” and as we continue to ignore the presence of poverty a few miles from our doorsteps and accept the daily bullshit fed to us by politicians and media, the message retains its relevance today.
“Spill the Wine”: Ironically, a band named War was created with the intent to spread peace and brotherhood. The original mixed racial-cultural lineup, from which the fairer sex was excluded, certainly met their brotherhood goal, she said snarkily. Sexism aside, War proved to be a very solid funk band that carries on to this day. They allowed a woman into the band in the late 70’s, to their credit.
“Spill the Wine” is certainly one of the most distinctive pieces ever to land a spot on the higher reaches of the charts. The carefree Latin beat enhanced by splashes of flute and a woman speaking in Spanish (Eric Burdon’s girlfriend) provides a much more interesting background for this largely spoken word piece than the programmed beats of rap and hip-hop. The dream state of the song allows for fanciful lyrics that celebrate the amazing beauty of women of all shapes and sizes (appropriate) but goes no further than validating their status as one of the many pleasures available to men (bullshit). Confident in the innate superiority of my gender, I can ignore the slings and arrows of ignorant males and enjoy this fresh and exciting piece of music.
As with the comparison of The Dave Clark Five to The Beatles, The Animals lacked the catalog depth of their leading competition, The Rolling Stones. They stuck with covers and Brill Building songs far too long and never really developed into accomplished songwriters as did Jagger and Richards. Those who survived after the Invasion had petered out possessed two qualities that made all the difference: the ability to write great songs and a sense of curiosity that led to the exploration of new possibilities in rock music. While that was certainly no guarantee of continuity, the artists who lacked those two qualities really had no chance at all.
Eric Burdon and The Animals did leave behind several songs that have an undeniable place in the history of rock music. While they may not have been as accomplished as some of their contemporaries, they gave us some great tunes that have stood the test of time. That’s more than you can say about Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick or even Tich.
Although other critics have expressed a strong preference for Blue, ranking it not only the best Joni Mitchell album of her folk-rock period but her best album ever, I find Blue rather tedious and dated. Blue was the point in time when she began to adopt the stance of spokesperson for the Woodstock Generation, peppering songs like “California” and “Carey” with faddish language referring to pigs and the period cliché “out of sight.” I’ve filed Blue in the same folder where you can find Eric Burdon’s “San Franciscan Nights” (which also contains the ultimate oxymoron, “warm San Franciscan night”) and Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, who ruined a perfectly lovely song with the soul-cringing word “groovy.”
Joni finally got over it when she began exploring jazz and music from other cultures, and I strongly prefer the period of The Hissing of Summer Lawns to Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (Hejira remains my personal favorite). Clouds is my favorite from the folk/folk-rock period: a blessedly simple, unpretentious record that displays her natural and still-developing talent as a songwriter.
I chose to review Clouds because it’s more relevant to my life right now—most of the songs are about a young woman in flux, trying to figure out what life is all about. Having changed my country of residence, lived at three different addresses and started a new job—all in the last six months—I think I qualify as fluxed. I feel like I’m in a fast-flowing river where I can’t quite touch bottom and give myself some sense of stability. I’ve found that the songs on Clouds express the self-doubt, the mood swings and the instinctual confusion I’m feeling because my routines and rhythms have been disrupted. And while I’ve always tended to be a thinker as opposed to a feeler, I tend to be a think-in-the-moment, active thinker who tends to skip self-reflection before moving on to the next thing. This is why I’ve been attracted to Clouds lately: its mood and content are deeply reflective, allowing me to downshift, slow down and gain some perspective on all the change I’ve experienced.
The reflective mood of the album is firmly established in the tone and theme of the opening track, “Tin Angel.” Opening with only the sound of single acoustic guitar notes, the music shifts to unusual chords—ninths and sustained seconds—chords that establish a separation from expectations and create a sense of detachment from the humdrum of daily life. The lyrics sing of mementos that are “reflections of love’s memories,” the little souvenirs we keep in boxes to help us recall past feelings and, perhaps, past failures. While such physical reminders of existence are an endangered species in our digital world, “Tin Angel” reminds us that the tactile and olfactory experiences can make such past experiences seem more alive (I still have a precious little box where you can find odd things like subway tokens, obsolete currency and a small wooden whistle given to me by a Ukrainian woman I met in Vienna). More important to the purpose of the song is that these trinkets from the past fulfill a need during times of sadness, reminding us that we were once happy, once loved. Hence the chorus, “Guess I’ll throw them all away/I found someone to love today.” What is so wonderful about Joni Mitchell at her best is that she is rarely one-dimensional; in this case, the love she has found is a risky proposition: “Not a golden prince who’s come/Through columbines and wizardry/To talk of castles in the sun.” She further describes him as having a “sorrow in his eyes,” and wonders “What will happen if I try/To place another heart in him.” The song ends ambiguously, never describing the consummation of the relationship. This is what is so beautiful about “Tin Angel”—it leaves you on the knife-edge of risk, and too often, despite our inherent loneliness, we feel that love represents the greatest risk of all.
Unfortunately, the mood dissipates with the far too sweet “Chelsea Morning,” a song about which Joni Mitchell said, “I don’t think of it as part of my best work.” It’s not, and the lines “And the sun poured in like butterscotch/And stuck to all my senses” make me cringe as if I’d just eaten a mouthful of Duncan Hines Cherry Chip Cake (a horrid concoction I once tasted at a St. Philip’s church bazaar when I was growing up in Noe Valley). Fortunately, it’s a brief departure into youthful exuberance, for she quickly returns to nascent womanhood with “I Don’t Know Where I Stand.” Echoing the theme of love and risk we heard in “Tin Angel,” the song starts as if she’s just left the saccharine experience of her Chelsea room where she was “braiding wild flowers and leaves in my hair,” to find her exuberance collapsing with the realization that love involves risk and the possibility of deep pain. In this situation, she wants to tell someone “I love you” but doesn’t know where she stands with that someone. I’ve always found it interesting that fear of rejection often blocks us from taking action to move a relationship forward, because it’s a paradox: the relationship can’t go forward unless we make the move, but our paralysis prevents us from the possibility of having the very thing we want. The rationalizations for inaction are plentiful, and we take advantage of every single one to avoid having to face the possibility that the person of interest may not be interested:
Telephone, even the sound of your voice is still new
All alone in California and talking to you
And feeling too foolish and strange to say the words that I had planned
I guess it’s too early, ’cause I don’t know where I stand
“That Song About the Midway” is more of a character sketch than a relationship song, though the intensity with which the narrator follows the intriguing character suggests that she believes there’s something elusive and attractive about this particular soul. It is said that the song is about Leonard Cohen, and the “midway” is symbolic of the life of the traveling musician, of searching for the lucky break and becoming tired of it all. Perhaps, but I’ve always found that once I hear that a famous person wrote such and such song about another famous person, the experience is similar to glancing at the cover of People magazine in the checkout stand (haven’t done that in a while!) and finding out who’s cheating on whom. Who gives a shit? The knowledge reduces the potential universal appeal of the song, trivializing it by turning into a secret code for an exclusive club. If I step back from that bias, I would say “That Song About the Midway” has some interesting imagery but there are other more moving songs on Clouds.
“Roses Blue,” is one of those. This sketch is about a woman who has found alt-religion (“She’s gotten to mysterious devotions/She’s gotten to the zodiac and zen/She’s gotten into tarot cards and potions.”) It would be out of character for 60’s child Joni Mitchell to condemn someone who had such hip beliefs, and she doesn’t. The real problem is what every religion does to a true believer—it turns a potentially nice person into a flaming asshole:
She’s laying her religion on her friends
On her friends, on her friends
Friends who come to ask her for their future
Friends who come to find they can’t be friends
Because of signs and seasons that don’t suit her
She’ll prophesy your death, she won’t say when
Won’t say when, won’t say when
When all the black cards come you cannot barter
No, when all your stars are stacked you cannot win
She’ll shake her head and treat you like a martyr
It is her blackest spell she puts you in
Puts you in, puts you in.
This song triggers another one of my biases, and in my role as music reviewer, I have the obligation to disclose such biases. Here it is: if I met the genie in the lamp and he gave me my three wishes, the first two would have to do with certain sexual fantasies and the third would be to order the genie to abolish all forms of religion on earth and wipe the memories of every person on the planet of any religious influence. Religion has caused more pain, death and separation than any single force in human history, and frankly, the benefit of something as ephemeral as faith hardly compensates for the millions and millions of lives that have been cut short or diminished by the violence and oppression that religion generates. While you may not agree with my views, it does explain the anguished attachment I have to this song: Rose’s crime is not religion, but what she has allowed religion to do to her—cut her off from human friendship by giving her the illusion that arcane knowledge entitles her to separate herself from the unbelievers. I have experienced people like Rose far too often: the glazed look of distant disdain, the pity in the voice as she tells you how limited you are for not buying her shit . . . the works. “Roses Blue” gives me both the creeps and a sense of sadness that I have to accept that there are people on this earth to whom I will never be close, for there’s no way I can break through the religious plexiglass and relate to them as equals. In that sense, the song is a microcosm of the larger sorrow that religion continues to bring to our world today.
The comment box is down below for those of you who want to condemn me to the everlasting fires of hell.
“The Gallery” features one of the loveliest pure melodies on the entire album, supported by equally beautiful harmonies. It is a tale about a woman who admires a man’s paintings then temporarily becomes the painted object until another takes her place. Sadly, she opts for self-immolation and stays to care for his house, dusting portraits and collecting mail from other female admirers. The power of the song comes from the recognition that the value of women in our society is directly related to our fleeting beauty:
I gave you all my pretty years
Then we began to weather
And I was left to winter here
While you went west for pleasure
I should say, “American society,’ for in France, I’ve seen women twice my age who still have “the look” and continue to turn heads. Age is so overrated as a variable in sexual desire; people who feel that way have allowed themselves to be manipulated by Madison Avenue’s definitions of beauty. Look: I intend to be as hot and horny at sixty-four as I am at thirty-two and baby, I will have some serious fucking lessons to share at that point in my life!
Back to our story—“I Think I Understand” has more of the feel of “Tin Angel,” but deals somewhat inadequately with the ongoing battle against fear. It’s followed by one of my least favorite Joni Mitchell songs, “Songs to Aging Children Come,” where chromatic chords and thirds create harmonies I find rather annoying. I cheer her for her willingness to experiment, recognize that some experiments yield less satisfactory results than others and forgive her for irritating me.
The last two songs on Clouds easily make up for the less effective numbers, and both have deep resonance at this time in my life. The first, “The Fiddle and the Drum,” is Joni’s message to an America that at the time chose to embroil itself in the absurd conflict we know as The Vietnam War. I don’t think Americans fully appreciate how frightening America seems to many of the people in the world—Americans tend to accept violence as one of the inevitable prices one pays for living in a so-called “free society,” and because they view the rest of the world with deep suspicion and distrust, they tend to be closed to any foreign feedback. One of the primary reasons I chose to leave America had to do with its culture of violence—its worship of guns and its veneration of the military. In “The Fiddle and the Drum,” our Canadian friend Joni Mitchell mourns the choice that Americans have made “to trade the handshake for the fist,” something that may be even more relevant today in the era of “The American Empire” than it did the Cold War years of Vietnam when at least the evil Russians were around to take some of the heat. The dynamic is still the same, though: fuck the world, we’ll do whatever the fuck we want because we’re Americans and we’re the best fucking country in the world, so fuck you. Such a tragic perspective! Such a waste of human potential and human life!
And so once again
Oh, America my friend
And so once again
You are fighting us all
And when we ask you why
You raise your sticks and cry and we fall
Oh, my friend
How did you come
To trade the fiddle for the drum
You say we have turned
Like the enemies you’ve earned
But we can remember
All the good things you are
And so we ask you please
Can we help you find the peace and the star
Oh my friend
We have all come
To fear the beating of your drum
Joni sings “The Fiddle and the Drum” a capella, and while her version doesn’t quite match June Tabor’s cover (no one sings anti-war songs as powerfully as June Tabor), her performance is still compelling:
Before the release of Clouds, Judy Collins had a major pop chart hit with “Both Sides Now.” I am very thankful that Joni Mitchell decided to record the song herself and rescue its reputation. Judy Collins’ version is a mechanical, lifeless, overproduced piece of crap that sucks all the emotion and complexity from the song, making it sound like background music for Disneyland. Joni Mitchell’s version, stripped down to guitar and voice, is masterpiece of vocal and rhythmic dynamics that sounds blessedly more human than machine.
“Both Sides Now” is a song about what Blake called “contraries.” As he so wisely wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.” Thematically, this brings us full circle in Clouds, for “Tin Angel” opens the album with the experience of living on the knife’s edge between polar opposites. The learning experience described in “Both Sides Now” is that because truth is something we perceive differently depending on mood and circumstances, the “real truth” can only be found in that no-man’s land between the two sides. The song is also linked to the other polar dynamic in Clouds—the need for love and the risk of loving:
Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As ev’ry fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way
But now it’s just another show
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away
She reaffirms the importance of this theme in the opening lines to the final verse, “Tears and fears and feeling proud/To say ‘I love you’ right out loud.” Interestingly, she also links our discovery of love with our discovery of self, and with the inevitable rejection we face when we fail to meet the expectations of friends who were comfortable with the expired version:
But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day.
While that final couplet sounds cold, it is a reality of life: if you grow and change, you will shed people who refuse to accept the person you have chosen to become. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve learned that lesson: to be different is to face exclusion. I’ve lost nearly all of my childhood and high school friends, in part because of my sexual preferences, and in part because I am what people call a “strong woman.” I find that last label very curious, not only for its latent sexism, but because I never consciously established a goal to become a “strong woman.” All I did was try to become the person inside. I’ve survived all the rejection not because of inner strength, but because of the illogic of rejection. If you’re going to reject me because I like men and women, or because I have a relatively strong sense of self, that’s your fucking problem. Why resent someone because they’ve made the choices they had to make to be themselves? My attitude is exactly as expressed by Joni Mitchell: “Well, something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day.” I’m not going to stop growing simply because someone I care about doesn’t want me to grow. That’s silly!
As I’m writing this, my suitcases are lined up at the door for a two-week business trip through eastern Europe. Although I usually hate business trips, I’m looking forward to spending some time in places I’ve never visited, which always helps me sharpen my perspective on life. I have several important life issues to consider, ranging from how I feel about having a big job and whether or not I’m going to close this blog after all. In the past few weeks, I’ve oscillated between extremes on both issues and have lived in a state of confusion. I don’t mind some ambiguity, but this is ridiculous. I need to figure out who I am and what I want in a space where I can be free of the expectations of others.
In that sense, I couldn’t have selected a better album to review right now, for Clouds is an exercise in self-reflection that encourages its listeners to do the same. This is a rare achievement, for many so-called self-reflective albums come across as massive exercises in ego-indulgence. That’s not true with Clouds: here Joni Mitchell expresses the ambiguity of becoming and shares her sense of uncertainty and her feelings of vulnerability without claiming she has found all the answers. I tend to trust people who don’t have the answers more than I trust know-it-alls, because I’m fully aware that I don’t have all the answers and I never will. I also trust and admire people who have reinvented and rediscovered themselves throughout their lives, and Joni Mitchell has certainly done that in her long and rich career in the arts. I hope that the combined experience of re-engaging with Clouds and a set of new experiences will help me clarify who I am and who I am becoming at this wonderfully complex stage of my life.
p. s. Joni Mitchell’s website is the fulfillment of my vision of what a proper music library should be. Full lyrics, insights, tablature and sometimes even piano scores. Worth the trip!