Joni Mitchell Blue 1971

I was talking with sone friends recently, looking back at best times in our lives in comparison to the dread, exasperation and frustration that Covid-19 has engendered world-wide. Mind you, here in Perth, we have so far eluded the virus in Fortress WA, closed off from the world and most of the rest of Australia. Count our blessings! Anyway, we each recalled a different place or time in our lives when we were ‘happy’ whatever that means now. I remember a line from Dylan’s Workingman Blues – ‘ the place I love best is a sweet memort.’ We all came up with answers – places, cities, towns here, there and everywhere and Spain, specifically, sprang into my mind and then someone else bet that all our recollections of that best time were linked to an age range of between 22 – 25 years of age.

And then, just recently a friend send me a cutting from The Guardian* Joni Mitchell’s Blue: celebrating the albums’s 50 years and I fished out the cd, dusted it off and listened to it this morning while I lay on a mat and attempted hip flexion exercises!

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in 1975, I was half-way to twenty-three when I finished my BA (Old & Middle English, Language and Literature) and left Ireland to work in steel factory and a jam and fruit processing plant. Then the following year, manual labour over for a while, money in my pocket and the vague possibility of teaching English somewhere, I took a long overland trip to the south of Spain – hard, slatted wooden seats on a train to or from, I can’t remember, Irun in northern Spain. Of places and cities I have no memory from that time but for my arrival in the early morning in Seville where I mistakenly thought the laden orange trees were electrified, their colour so vivid in that grey dawn.

My life changed then because, among many other new and wonderful experiences and discoveries that spring time in a fascinating ‘barrios’ with tangled streets in the old quarter of Seville, I remember most, almost, the music! Sadly perhaps, not Spanish or flamenco but instead Blue by Joni Mitchell, Blood on the Tracks and Desire both by BoyDylan.

I have no doubt that time and places can imprint a song in the mind far more so than the occasional ‘ear-worm’ where snatches of song echo continually in your head without you intending it. I distinctly remember the three cassettes and the bulky boom-box I dragged around Europe with me – (no disc or walkman then, of course) then much later buying them again on CDs, which I still have. At the time I could listen to any one of those albums and feel that they were directly speaking to me and directly relevant to my particular situation at that time. The amazing thing is that, fifty years later, I can still listen to them and feel that unerring truth and relevance in each and every song.

So with Blue, right now and off the top of my head, I remember sleeping out on the flat roof in the barrio of Santa Cruz, under the stars and listening to Joni Mitchell ‘The wind was in from Africa / last night I couldn’t sleep’ and I felt like I was there, with Africa just across the straits.

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Unlike Leonard Cohen (in a previous post where I was perhaps a touch harsh on his vocal skill and guitar ability) Joni Mitchel  has a voice which sweeps all before it, rising and dipping, swooping into all areas and covering a gamut of emotions and feelings, evocative images forming, tangible. Her voice trembles, surges, chances so mercurially and yet I can’t resist her insistence

‘Come on down to the Mermaid Café and I will / Buy you a bottle of wine

And we’ll laugh and toast to nothing / And smash our empty glasses down’

and I thought of all the nights spent in late night basement bars and cafes, the tally chalked nonchalantly on the plain wooden  counter top.

‘Born with the moon in Cancer …’ summed me up, I felt, and was enticed by the promise of adventure and love and silver.

‘So I bought me a ticket / I got on a plane to Spain’ even though I had arrived by train, I still felt the whole album was speaking to me.

And there in Seville and later in LaRache in Morocco, everything was awaiting, adventure, fun, love, danger and excitement and further travel was no escape from love and a broken heart.

‘Turn this crazy bird around / Shouldn’t have got on this flight tonight.’ was the mildest of comparisons to how I felt when I finally left Spain with a newfound love for fine Spanish wines and sherries.

‘Maybe I’ll go to Amsterdam / or maybe I’ll go to Rome’ seemed to sum up my devil-may-care attitude at the time when I had both the leisure and the funds to afford it but I was deeply aware of what I had found and lost.

‘Oh I could drink a case of you, darling / and I would still be on my feet’. Somehow every single song on the album seem to resonate with my soul at that time and still managed to produce a twang when I listened again to it recently and saw the truth of it in myself now!

‘Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café’

* The Guardian

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Leonard Cohen

I remember, back in the seventies, my father thought one or other of my sisters must have been particularly depressing / depressive because they had either bought or borrowed an album, a  vinyl LP, by Leonard Cohen, who was part but separate from, a growing band of musicians like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Jackson Browne and of course, Bob Dylan, who wrote their own primal ballads instead of pandering to the masses. In common, they could all perform as soloists, using either piano or guitar (in Cohen’s case) for accompaniment but this trimmed back, spare notion of their music also served to accentuate an aura of directness and to distinguish them from the more mainline rock and rollers of that time.Certainly, Leonard Cohen’s appeal had far less to do with his guitar playing or (limited) vocal range but more to do with his personality and that is probably true for the other singer / songwriters mentioned above.Document_2021-06-24_173108 (3)

So taken was I at the time back in the seventies that I bought Cohen’s novel, Beautiful Losers, but in all honesty, I have to say that I didn’t understand or appreciate anything in it. All I can remember now is that the paperback had a plain red cover!  Whatever mournful aura my father perceived hanging around Cohen at that time was balanced by superb songs and lyrics of love and regret on the 1975 album Greatest Hits in songs like Suzanne

And she feeds you tea and oranges / that come all the way from China / 

and just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her / 

Then she gets you on her wavelength …

or the beautiful break-up line from Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye

its just the way love changes / like the shoreline and the sea…’

I have to admit using that line or a variation in my clumsy attempts at immature breakups!Handwritten_2021-06-24_173211

Cohen’s personality and distinct variations as artist, poet, novelist, singer, author and songwriter was compelling  and his voice was so subtle in his own versions of his songs that no other artiste attempting to cover his material could convey the same emotions and depths of feelings and the sense of urgency and impending doom. Nevertheless he then kind of drifted away from my mindset until a friend insisted that I listen to The Future (1992) and I was blown away by songs like the title track with raw anger and despair expressed so blatantly in lines like –

‘Take the only tree that’s left / And stuff it up the hole / In your culture / 

Give me back the Berlin wall /Give me Stalin and St. Paul / 

I’ve seen the future, brother / It is murder’

or the harsh honesty in songs like Be for Real

‘Are you back in my life to stay / Or is it just for today? 

So don’t give me the world today / And tomorrow take it away. / 

Don’t do that to me, darling.’

While the final track, the instrumental Tacoma Trailer soothes and calms the anger and hurt expressed in the other songs. His seeming passivity towards love and relationships and the helplessness he expresses through both humour and a mature insight perhaps stem from the fact that he was already an established poet and author before he released his first studio album when he was already in his thirties.

The Essential Leonard Cohen (2002) is full of the frustration and bliss of love as in Closing Time

‘And I just don’t care what happens next / Looks like freedom but it feels like death  / 

It’s something in between, I guess… /

And I lift my glass to the Awful Truth /

Which you can’t reveal to the Ears of Youth / 

Except to say it isn’t worth a dime…

The sadness and recognition of loss is beautifully captured in Alexandra Leaving with lines like 

Even though she sleeps upon your satin / Even though she wakes you with a kiss

Do not say the moment was imagined / Do not stoop to strategies like this …

Do not choose a coward’s explanation / That hides behind the cause and the effect …

Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving / Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost

Document_2021-06-24_172958 (2)Recently, on a whim one afternoon in a Perth Mall, I bought Cohen’s last studio album You Want it Darker (2016) made before he died. The title track is both accusatory yet suffused with a dull acceptance

‘A million candles burning / For the love that never came

You want it darker / We kill the flame

If you are the dealer, let me out of the game

If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame

If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame’

Treaty, the second track, mourns the barrenness of his relationship, despairing of the inability to connect with his love

‘I’m angry and I’m tired all the time

I wish there was a treaty,

I wish there was a treaty

Between your love and mine’

and the same wish is repeated in the last, semi-instrumental, track, String Reprise / Treaty.Document_2021-06-24_172806

An unhappy man, Cohen seems constantly torn in On the Level between love and the rejection of both gratification and temptation

‘You smiled at me like I was young / it took my breath away’

yet, nevertheless,

‘They ought to give my heart a medal / For letting go of you

When I turned my back on the devil / I turned my back on the angel too’

and 

‘I was fighting with temptation / But I didn’t want to win

A man like me don’t like to see / Temptation caving in’

The only genuine love song on the whole album – If I Didn’t Have Your Love – where the world appears dark, cold, sterile and bare without a sustaining and creative love

‘Well that’s how broken I would be / What my life would seem to me

If I didn’t have your love to make it real’

but almost immediately he swings back into loss, accepting it and acknowledging both his own and his lover’s faults in Travelling Light

‘It’s au revoir / My once so bright, my fallen star…/

I guess I’m just somebody who / Has given up, on the me and you … /

I’m just a fool, a dreamer who / Forgot to dream of the me and you

I’m not alone, I’ve met a few / Traveling light like we used to do’

Old age and the increasing futility of chasing something so ephemeral as love strikes a resigned note of acceptance of the finality of relationships in Leaving the Table 

‘You don’t need a lawyer / I’m not making a claim.

You don’t need to surrender / i’m not taking aim … /

I don’t need a lover, no, no, no / The wretched beast is tame

I don’t need a lover / So blow out the flame’

Throughout all of Cohen’s songs, the overriding theme seems to be one of loss, rejection, and a love that fulfils yet torments but this last studio album, You Want it Darker seems to be the bleakest of all his albums (with the exception of the love song mentioned earlier), and yet somehow transcends despair and hopelessness and speaks to all those who have ever loved and lost. True poetry can never be nihilistic and Cohen brought poetry into mainstream music, not just through the beauty of the words but thought the inflection and the subtle variations in tone, his voice, so low and husky, so close and intimate in one’s headphones.

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Time Changes Everything

I wrote a blog a while ago about the pleasure of music in the most general sense when I actually sat down and did nothing else except listen to an entire album – The Rolling Stones Let it Bleed (1969) in a deserted tropical beach-front bar rather than just listening to a random selection from Music – Songs – Shuffle in the library on my phone or desktop which is what I usually do. I don’t know when I last listened to the full album but the same eerie memory of dread from that time remained. I’ve always enjoyed the Rolling Stones but gradually became more attuned, I think, to Keith Richards, lead guitarist, some writer and half of the writing duo the Glimmer Twins with his lifelong friend and musician Mick Jagger. So when Richards produced his first solo album Talk is Cheap back in 1988 or thereabouts, I bought it as a cassette, long since lost of course. Main Offender (1992) was next and I bought that on CD – and still have it! Vintage Vinos (2010) was next and somebody gave me a copy and I have just come across Richards’ latest and third solo studio album, Crosseyed Heart (2015).

So it was with some expectation when I recently bought – actually bought – among other things*, – both his Talk is Cheap and Crosseyed Heart albums which I listened to on an actual physical CD player.  Of course I have already transferred them into iTunes on my phone and desktop but I enjoy looking at the cd insert and, the first few times anyway, reading the lyrics and details of backup vocalists and session musicians while listening to the words. I don’t know, is it weird to actually sit down and listen to an entire and specific music CD? I mean, you sit down, usually, to read a book or newspaper or to watch a movie, for example. You do these things attentively in that you don’t read a book while exercising or watch a movie while driving a car! 

So, why does listening to music feel different?  Or does it? Is it me? Whether it is or not doesn’t matter because that is what I have started doing recently! {Is it an old man thing, like The Father?}

A big contrast to the way I usually consume music – on my headphones, any time of the day or night and usually while I am doing something else, like walking or cooking or listening to the radio while driving. 

I don’t have Spotify nor do I buy music on the App Store so, rather than some abstract stream, download or view of music, the physical items are anticipated and their arrival is always welcomed with surprise or excitement. I must be reverting to the teenage years when hip kids would walk around with collections of artistically covered LPs under their arms. 

Similar to the two other CD’s I bought recently (more about them later, maybe**), the two most recent acquisitions are the first and the most recent (or last?) album of a singer, in the twilight, as it were, of his 78 years or so.

Anyway, I thought I’d look for a common theme – love, lost, or just get on with it? – in Talk is Cheap (1988) conveys the Richards philosophy of sure, life is hard so toughen up!

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Not a great man for a soft heart, his take no prisoners approach to his world fending off unwanted advances but in Make no Mistake along with the featured vocalist, Sarah Dash, my heart was swept away be by lyrics like ‘No words can convey your lips melting into mine /… I’ve made up my mind about you’/. I sensed, nevertheless, an implied threat lurked there for whoever not to screw up this time in ‘I’m talking to ya baby / Make no mistake.’

The cynical anger in You Don’t Move Me ‘It’s better that you kill the light / You’re giving us all a fright’ is picked up later in Crosseyed Heart’s Blues in the Morning ‘Got a picture of your face and I hold it up to the light / But on a good day, baby, it sure gives me a fright.’

How I wish is the only love song on the entire cd with lyrics like ‘If I could see you, Oh just now and then / If I could feel you, I’d do my time again / Oh Honey, honey, honey, Yeah’.

In my stiffened and arthritic form, the slow, hypnotism of songs like Rockawile with Sarah Dash again and Locked Away with Waddy Wachtel on guitars welcomes me into an entranced gentle swaying exercise!

A justification of his hard-nosed attitude to society in general is Richards’ determination to live and enjoy the little things in life and if that is not good enough, too bad!

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Mocking society nearly three decades later with Crosseyed Heart, the third studio album in 2015 with the X-Pensive Winos, ambiguously named, I feel, Richards’ devil-may-care attitude soars for a while with short bursts like the title track Crosseyed Heart ‘Oh, she’s a sweetheart but she drives me round the bend / I go round the corner and find another friend’ and Nothing on Me  I’m walking out the door / Cause you got nothing on me, nothing on me.but begins to waver between not caring at unsatisfactory love to a sneering disdain in Trouble ‘Even though you are still inside I can get you off the hook / But I know when I get you out I won’t get a second look … Too much trouble’.

Old Age has brought doubts and fears too and wild swings between desperation in Love Overdue ‘And now I am a prisoner of loneliness … I don’t know just what to do, honey, yeah’ to an accusatory tone in SuspiciousNo matter what you do I’m still a part of you / You will never be free of me / … I told you from the start you better barricade that heart’.

As Sarah Dash took featured vocals in  Make No Mistake so too does Norah Jones takes lead vocals in a sublime duet with Richards in Illusions on this latest album.

Resignation in later years sinks in too  as in ‘I’m here if you want me’ sort of thing in Just a Gift. One of the most extraordinary things though about both the first and most recent albums is Richards’ ability to code switch, not just with his guitar skill but with his vocal range so much so that in Goodnight Irene, the old Ledbelly song from 1936, he transforms himself  into a southern Blues singer rather than the Londoner he was born.

The last two tracks, Substantial Damage and Lover’s Plea seemed amazed at the inappropriateness of the relationship along with a puzzled annoyance as to why his love is not trusted.

Superb guitar, vocals and backing from a host of wonders among the X-Pensive Winos, together on all three studio albums, with contrasting views expressed on the same topic  in his youth through the eyes of a contemporary songwriter, poet, guitar riff player and connsumate survivor. Well done Keef!

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** You Want It Darker – Leonard Cohen 2016

** Rough and Rowdy Ways & Murder Most Foul – Bob Dylan 2020

Chords – A New Category !

I seem to have run out of steam recently – and it is certainly not because I have been too busy! The pandemic powers on worldwide and where hope looms in a few places, disasters surge elsewhere. So, along with a slow recovery from several self-inflicted injuries (I still have no clear idea how I ruptured my Achilles tendon so badly) and quarantine restrictions I have been, for the most part, cooped up in my back yard – thank god for glorious WA weather – and I have just dried up in all creativity areas and hit a block with my scribblings, readings, cooking, celtic stuff, curiosity and, of course, travel.

So it is almost the last month of a beautiful Perth autumn and I have decided to jump start things by adding a new page,or whatever it is called, Chords in this blog thingy. It is going to be about music in the most general sense and only referenced by music I actually have accumulated over the last … Well, when did CD’s become commonplace and eliminate cassettes?

I probably acquired a CD player in Brunei Darussalam back in the mid 1980’s or so and since then my music collection swelled and sank as I moved here and there around the world. Certainly CDs – and later iTunes of course and MP3 players dominated during the early 2000’s – making music mobility much easier but when I just went through the remnants of my former CD collection, I was disappointed to find so many of the iconic cd art lost – think of the cover of Sticky Fingers (1971) or Blood on the Tracks (1975) – while their spectral remains still somewhere in the depths of a hard disk.

I lay no claim to be a music critic nor can I read, write or play any form of music whatever and my taste is mostly plebeian popular so I make no excuse for including or ignoring giants of the music age and I may occasionally ramble on about a particular piece of music or some quirk about a musician or singer or look for connections between common themes or styles. Please feel free to disagree or comment as you will.

The banner photo for this page is just a random selection of actual CDs spread out on my kitchen table and my rambles might encourage me to actually buy more CD’s despite the fact that the age of the CD is over and acquisition is a waste of world resources! Here goes anyway, my meagre effort to spread wealth!

PS. Just saw the movie The Father with Anthony Hopkins. Wow! Cuts a bit close to the bone at times. I’m just thinking of the opening scene of the movie and the basic premise of my next post, already begun and 90% finished.  Is it just an old man thing or just a dream?