You won’t remember the long nights—coffee bars and black tights
And white thighs in shop windows
Where blonde assistants fully fashioned a world
Made of dummies (with no mummies or daddies to reject them).
When bombs were banned every sunday and The Shadows played F. B. I.
And tired young sax-players sold their instruments of torture
Sat in the station sharing wet dreams
Of Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, René Magritte, to name a few
Of the heroes who were too wise for their own good
Left the young brood to go on living without them.
—Ian Anderson, “From a Deadbeat to an Old Greaser”
Charlie Parker is one of the most divisive and controversial figures in jazz history, and jazz could not have survived without him.
He is divisive for several reasons. From the public perspective, he disconnected jazz from danceable rhythms, an unforgivable sin at a time when swing ruled the airwaves and jazz was virtually synonymous with dance. In doing so, he became an object of worship for the intellectual crowd, a haunting and mysterious figure whose music contained an endlessly impenetrable message with meaning available only to those who claimed the advanced aesthetic ability to understand it. The world was divided between those who dug Bird and those who thought his music ridiculously complex. Hero to beatniks, an enigma to the masses, Charlie Parker became a cult icon, having passed the ultimate litmus test of artistic credibility by croaking off before his time.
Biographies like Gary Giddins’ Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker make things worse by attempting to apply an analytical approach to the understanding of his music. Giddins’ annoying habit of always using the most arcane vocabulary when simple English would do also serves to make Parker more intimidating to the average listener. For example, he describes Parker is “autodidactic” instead of “self-taught.” Most of today’s musicians are self-taught, so they would relate to that word; only Greenwich Village snobs and English majors who never got over it would refer to Bird as an autodidact. Here’s Giddins’ description of the landmark recording of “Ko Ko,” an analysis designed to completely exclude anyone curious about Charlie Parker but unfamiliar with music theory:
Based on the chords of “Cherokee,” the specialty feature of Parker’s apprenticeship, “Ko Ko” heralded a new point of departure for jazz in the postwar era, an effect paralleling that of Armstrong’s “West End Blues” in 1928. Armstrong began with a clarion cadenza; “Ko Ko” opens with an equivalent jolt—a blistering eight-bar unison theme of daunting virtuosity, coupled with improvised eight-bar arabesques by Parker and Gillespie. Then Parker takes off for two choruses of engulfing originality, as though putting everything he knew into this single performance, imposing his will on the music and the musicians, setting forth a novel code with redoubtable nerve. Though improvised at tremendous velocity, his solo is colored with deft conceits: the clanging riff in the first eight bars, the casual reference to “High Society” at the outset of the second chorus, the chromatic arpeggios in the release.
Giddins, Gary (2013-09-01). Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker (Kindle Locations 951-958). University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.
Yawn. That passage makes me want to fling every Charlie Parker record I own into the Seine. It is about as inviting as a cold bath. Believe me: Charlie Parker is way, way better than that.
The reason why jazz could not have survived without Charlie Parker is because jazz was careening towards an artistic dead-end, a victim of the popularity of swing. When something gets popular, moronic fans want to hear it over and over again, and they don’t want musicians mucking with it. While Ellington took a more gradual approach to change, Charlie Parker wanted to get on with it and play the things he kept hearing in his head. If he had not come along and expanded the possibilities of jazz, its growth as an art form might have ended with World War II. Parker made Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane and many other modern greats possible, because he gave them permission to explore beyond the boundaries of the Saturday night dance extravaganza.
My goal in reviewing Charlie Parker is to bring him down to earth, yank him off the pedestal his worshippers have built for him with their snooty, protective arrogance, and hopefully inspire the curious to explore this fascinating artist. First, there are two things you need to understand about Charlie Parker’s music:
- Parker’s compositions are nearly always based on pre-existing material, usually standards. He borrowed the chord structures from pedestrian songs like “Honeysuckle Rose,” “I Got Rhythm” and “Embraceable You,” then essentially deconstructed them and put them back together in a different form. Think of his approach as cubist: Parker takes the original chords and melody, tosses them into the air, grabs a few licks on their way down and then creates new melodies based on the new arrangement of pieces. Because his mind worked so fast and contained a vast library of riffs and melodies, occasionally you’ll hear him quoting melodies from other popular songs in the middle of a piece. You can always find a touch of the familiar in anything Charlie Parker ever played.
- Parker’s big discovery was that the twelve notes of the chromatic scale can lead melodically to any key. In the key of C, the twelve notes are all the letters and their sharps or flats: C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B in ascending order; C, B, Bb, A, Ab, G, Gb, F, E, Eb, D, Db. In other words, all the notes from C to C. This is important because tradition organizes Western music into either the major or minor keys, and the paradigm dictated to jazz soloists that they had to stick to the notes permitted by the key. Charlie Parker realized that as long as you resolved a melody to the root, you could pretty much go anywhere. That discovery multiplied possibilities by a millionfold, and even more when you add the blue notes between the notes. Curiously, metal musicians have used the chromatic scale more than other rock musicians, primarily because of the dissonance the chromatic scale can create.
It’s also important not to forget that while a musician may be theoretically brilliant and intellectually daring, if the guy sounds like shit, knowledge of all the complex possibilities of the chromatic scale won’t mean dick. Charlie Parker was much more than a theoretical genius: he was an amazing alto sax player. The sound of Charlie Parker’s sax is like no other, due to his generally vibrato-free approach, his tonal richness and his complete command of all those funny little keys on a saxophone. Forget the complexity: Bird kicks ass! The Best of the Complete Savoy & Dial Sessions is a fabulous introduction to a great saxophone player, a man grounded in the blues and a witty improvisational artist.
The compilation opens with Bird as sideman on a Tiny Grimes’ session in a tune appropriately called “Tiny’s Tempo.” Orrin Keepnews, who compiled the collection, made a superb choice here, for this is probably the most accessible entrance to Charlie Parker’s music. It’s a basic uptempo blues number with a finger-snapping beat that would make for a great tune to accompany your entrance into the nightclub when you’re dressed to the nines and sashaying across the floor to join your half-drunken friends at a table near the stage. Parker’s solo comes first and it’s a stunner—his tone is marvelous, his phrasing scattered over the rhythms, his deep feel for the blues obvious to even the novice listener. Both Clyde Hart (piano) and Tiny Grimes (guitar) have nifty solos themselves, but I think they should have saved Bird for last—his solo is where the record peaks.
Now things really get interesting. Parker had been playing a song called “Cherokee” almost since arriving in New York in 1939. It had pretty much become his signature song, and he was sick to death of it. However, it was while playing “Cherokee” that he made his discovery of chromatic possibilities, having learned how to play the song in all 12 keys. During those early years in New York, Parker worked as a sideman while jamming after hours with guys like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and Charlie Christian in Harlem spots like Minton’s Playhouse. There they created the new anti-swing form of music which became known as be-bop. Unfortunately, hardly anyone heard it. Due to a combination of a strike by the American Federation of Musicians and that little inconvenience called World War II, very few recordings were made in the United States during the period when be-bop was born. When Parker finally got the opportunity to lead a combo in recording session in November 1945, he reconstructed “Cherokee” to produce “Ko-Ko,” considered the first official be-bop recording ever made.
“Ko-Ko” flies at 300 beats per minute, almost twice as fast as most punk music. The thirty-two bar introduction is over in about twenty-four seconds, but that introduction is itself a call to revolution. On the first eight bars, Parker and Gillespie play together in unison at breakneck speed, a brief demonstration of the necessity for tight collaboration in this new form of music. Bird then gets two extended solos, flying all over the scale, improvising licks and stealing at least one from an older tune called “High Society.” Max Roach comes in for a booming drum solo, then we zip back to Bird and Dizzy for the finish. I could bore you with even more technical gibberish but the real question is, “How does it sound?” It sounds frigging fabulous, like Charlie Parker has flung open the prison door and the music is free again. His command of the saxophone is out of this world, and I’ve found that once you accustom yourself to the speed of be-bop, some of his other recordings seem positively dull in comparison. I love moments of liberation, and “Ko-Ko” is one of the most exciting.
We now shift to Los Angeles, where Charlie Parker is going to find himself a world of trouble and wind up in a state mental hospital for six months. At this point, Parker’s heroin addiction was well-established, and because the heroin supply in California was less than fluid, he resorted to daily doses of full quarts of whisky to ward off the shakes. How he managed to make some of the greatest recordings in jazz history during this period is a testament to the greatness inside him; it only makes you wonder what he might have accomplished if he had ever managed to completely free himself from the drug.
Recording sessions were arranged with Dial Records, and Parker formed a septet that included a very young and not-quite-sure-of-himself Miles Davis. The first cut from the Dial sessions is “Moose the Mooche,” a be-bop tribute to his drug dealer. Whenever I listen to this track on this particular compilation, it sounds positively draggy compared to “Ko-Ko,” even though it clocks in at 224 beats per minute—still quite a bit faster than punk. Once I adjust my heart rate accordingly, I find an unusually jolly, melodic and free-flowing number, though I find Roy Porter’s heaviness on the drums a constant distraction that interferes with my enjoyment of Parker’s solo (and Lucky Thompson’s hot and growly work on tenor sax). It’s followed by “Yardbird Suite,” one of my favorite listening experiences in be-bop. Vic McMillan (a last-minute replacement) provides a strong and steady foundation on the bass for the soloists, and the soloists seem much more relaxed and confident as a result. The motif is pleasant to the ear, but I just love how Parker dodges around it, spices it up and enhances the rhythm with unexpected pauses and starts.
“Ornithology” comes next, a co-creation of Parker and trumpeter Benny Harris (who does not appear on the record). The chord pattern is borrowed from “How High the Moon,” but you’d never recognize it once Charlie Parker is finished with it. The distinctive phrase that unites the song sounds like a bird fluttering its wings and ending the flutter with a question, as if the phrase is the musical equivalent of “Where now?” The tightness of the combo is remarkable, and the various themes and soloists wind in and out in a brilliant display of compositional variety and unity. It’s followed by the Dizzy Gillespie/Frank Paparelli “Night in Tunisia,” another jazz classic driven by half-step movements (Eb7 to Dm6) and a Latin bass line; the disappointment on this recording is with the trumpet: Dizzy Gillespie had headed back to New York, and Miles Davis still had a long way to go. Still, it’s a pretty sexy and exotic piece that kindles my desire to take up nude belly dancing someday.
After six months in the Camarillo State Mental Hospital (where Olivia de Havilland would film the movie The Snake Pit a couple of years later), Parker went into the studio with a trio that included Erroll Garner on piano, Red Callender on bass and Doc West on drums. The only recording from that session to make the cut for this compilation is “Cool Blues,” performed at a tempo more comfortable for Garner than be-bop speed. I think Garner does fine on his solos, but his support on the comps sound clunky to me, especially in comparison to the smoothness of Parker’s solos. At the next session Bird paid tribute to his temporary lodgings with “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” recorded with a new supporting cast. The song is positively breezy, with much more fluid piano from Dodo Marmarosa (what a marvelous name!). Parker’s solo here is playful, melodic and full of rhythmic surprises; it’s another one I would recommend to first-time listeners. The tune hardly calls up images of a mental institution; I think it would make a great backdrop to the scene on Les Grands Boulevards de Paris on a sunny afternoon when the sidewalks are packed with happy shoppers and diners.
“Chasin’ the Byrd” reunites Parker with Miles Davis and Max Roach, adding Tommy Potter on bass with the marvelous Bud Powell on the keyboard. The first thing you notice is that instead of playing the intro in unison, he and Miles perform a counterpoint duet. The established norm of playing be-bop in unison gave the music a stunning, in-your-face power; the counterpoint by contrast adds more depth and complexity. Parker’s tone on his solos is sweeter, less intense but still characterized by his ability to float over the base rhythm and establish his own directions. Miles is getting better, too, sounding more confident and willing to take more risks. Recorded at the same session, “Cheryl” is a Parker blues composition that Bill Kirchner called “one of Parker’s greatest lines . . . it avoids any hint of melodic repetition.” I think to say that he avoids any hint of repetition is too extreme, but it is a very diverse exploration of melody that would be better pictured as a convergence of flowing streams rather than through conventional staff notation. The Miles Davis composition “Milestones” follows, with John Lewis now on piano, Miles taking the leadership role and Charlie Parker on tenor sax. Keepnews theorizes that the switch had to do with Miles’ preference for the tenor, which manifested itself in the lineups of his golden period. Bird isn’t as nimble on the unfamiliar instrument, but his tone is nice and fat and he fits in nicely with the combo.
We now return to the Big Apple with Parker leading the Charlie Parker Quintet. As in punk, there were very few slow songs in early be-bop, so Parker’s rendition of the Gershwin classic “Embraceable You” is something of an anomaly. All I know is that Charlie Parker takes a song that had been done and done again and turns it into one of the most beautiful and sultry pieces of music I have ever heard. Parker’s ability to explore the areas beyond the written melody is on full display here, and while he makes some significant departures from the script, he never departs from the intent to create a thing of beauty. His instrumental voice and spontaneous phrasing capture the tension of desire and the complexities in an intimate relationship. The original Gershwhin lyrics could have been written for Charlie Parker, given his nomadic sex life (“Dozens of girls would storm up/I had to lock my door/somehow i couldn’t warm up/to one before”), and Parker expresses his yearning for “the one” in a way that sounds heartfelt and sincere, even if accompanied by sounds of internal struggle. With Miles following Charlie’s lead in terms of tone and delivery, “Embraceable You” is nothing less than one of the most beautiful and seductive jazz pieces on record.
In “Scrapple from the Apple” Parker molds “Honeysuckle Rose” and “I Got Rhythm” into one of his more memorable saxophone melodies and a rhythmic delight that makes you want to stand up and sing scat. In the same session, he recorded another ballad, “Out of Nowhere,” demonstrating once again that melodic complexity does not necessarily translate into cacophony. This is a stunning number, perfect for close dancing as you let the depth and diversity of his melodic lines bathe you in simmering tenderness. The curiously titled “Quasimodo” takes off on the structure of “Embraceable You,” speeds up the tempo and produces a starkly original melodic line. “Crazeology” gets us back to high-speed bop, furiously played. It’s as if Parker’s had enough of slow tempos and ballads and wants to shoot every drop of libido from his system. “Bluebird” is somewhere in between but very intriguing: it has the unison features of be-bop, albeit at a lower temperature, then eases into a series of solos where Parker clearly stands out. Miles doesn’t do too bad either, taking the first solo and making some wonderful explorations of his own, tempering the heat with a touch of the cool.
We’re now in the autumn of 1948 for Parker’s last sessions with Savoy. “Au-Leu-Cha” sticks with the “Honeysuckle Rose”/”I Got Rhythm” structure but what happens within the structure is quite different from “Scrapple from the Apple.” The counterpoint dominates, making for a more complex and interesting experience. As Keepnews noted, the solos flow more naturally, and there is a spontaneous playfulness about the music that is delightful to the ear. Still, I prefer Miles Davis’ version of this tune on ‘Round About Midnight. The more laid back “Parker’s Mood” could be Charlie Parker’s ultimate slow blues number. His rhythmic variations sound particularly stunning here, probably because blues solos in general have become rather pedestrian over the years and when you hear the unexpected in a tried-and-true formula, it’s always exciting and energizing. This exceptional collection wraps up with the speedy “Merry Go Round,” where Parker plays with the dizzying speed and intensity that defined him for many listeners, for good or for ill.
We should remove the shroud of mystery and the cloak of impenetrability from Charlie Parker’s shoulders. He was a musical genius who changed jazz forever and for the better, but at the core, he made compelling, exciting, clever and often beautiful music. While Parker’s life was tragically short, it would be even a greater tragedy to leave his music to the musicologists. Charlie Parker was as human as human gets, and his brilliance reflects the best of the human spirit.
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!