I used to think I was cut out to be a songwriter. When I was in high school in Scotland, my best friend, my brother, and I sang together in a folk group with the very ’70s name of Fable. We sang songs from our parents' record colection – Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, and, of course, The Beatles. For a while, I tried my hand at writing songs of my own, the usual trite teenage stuff about yearning for boys who won’t even look your way. I soon recognized that songwriting wasn’t going to be my forte. However, I’m proud to say my brother Andrew Mackintosh – a much more talented musician than I have ever been – has written some excellent songs of his own over the years since we played together. You can listen to some of them here.
But it was back in the days of Fable that I first started listening to the music of Joni Mitchell and realized just how ambitious a three to five minute song was capable of being.
The first Joni album I owned was For the Roses (1972). In songs like “Let the Wind Carry Me” and “Barangrill,” I began to get a sense of how songs can be about more than a single emotion – love, longing, nostalgia – and actually tell stories. Like an Edward Hopper painting and any short fiction worth its salt, a Joni Mitchell song, despite its brevity, contains whole worlds and back stories.
For instance, in “Harry’s House” (from the 1975 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns), an executive on business trip “opens up his suitcase in the Continental suite, And people thirty stories down, Look like colored currents in the streets, A helicopter lands on the Pan Am roof, Like a dragonfly on a tomb, And business men in button-downs, Press into conference rooms.” Meanwhile, he is thinking of his wife. “He drifts off into the memory, Of the way she looked in school, With her body oiled and shining, At the public swimming pool.” He thinks of the house and garden he wants to buy for her for them to build their dreams in. Not until the very last line do we discover that she has that very day told him “just what he can do with Harry’s house, And Harry’s take-home pay.”
In “Edith and the Kingpin” (also from The Hissing of Summer Lawns), a rich man arrives at a local dance. “Disco dancers greet him, plain clothes cops greet him, small town, big man, fresh lipstick glistening.” He spots a young girl across the dance floor – “His eyes hold Edith, His left hand holds his right, What does that hand desire, That he grips it so tight.” Edith, the chosen one, listens to the other girls as “one by one they bring, his renegade stories to her, his crimes and his glories to her.” She ends up in his bed, listening to the wires in the wall humming, but we can see what will happen to her. “Women he has taken, Grow old too soon, He tilts their tired faces, Gently to the spoon.”
Joni is also the queen of the evocative visual details that put you squarely in the space and time of which she is singing:
“Three waitresses all wearing black diamond earrings, Talking about zombies and Singapore slings, No trouble in their faces, Not one anxious voice, None of the crazy you get, From too much choice.” [Barangrill]
“A camera pans the cocktail hour, Behind a blind of potted palms, And finds a lady in a Paris dress, With runs in her nylons” [The Boho Dance]
“It fell from midnight skies, It drummed on the galvanized, In the washroom, women track the rain in the make-up mirror, Liquid soap and grass, And Jungle Gardenia crash on Pine-Sol and beer.” [Paprika Plains]
Joni is famous for writing autobiographically, but she is also capable of writing brilliantly from the point of view of another narrator, sometimes as unreliable a narrator as you can get. For example, in “Raised on Robbery” (from the 1974 album Court and Spark) she describes how a man is sitting in a hotel bar “when along comes a lady in lacy sleeves” who proceeds to spin him a sob story. “We had a little money once, They were pushing through a four-lane highway, Government gave us three thousand dollars, You should have seen it fly away, First he bought a ’57 Biscayne, He put it in a ditch, He drank up all the rest that son of a bitch.” She tries to get the man to come home with her - “I’m a pretty good cook, You’re sitting on my groceries, Come up to my kitchen, I’ll show you my best recipes.” The man moves away, without even finishing his drink. In no more than four eight-line stanzas, we’ve seen the whole bleak and feckless life that lies behind the woman's bravado.
These days, it grieves me to say, Joni’s crystalline voice has fallen victim to her chain smoking habit of many years, but to me she will always and forever be the supreme exemplar of the short story in song.