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!
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.
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