The whole idea that love is simple can easily be blamed on Hollywood’s depiction of true love and romance. But in 1971, Joni Mitchell released an album that flipped it all on its head. Joni Mitchell’s Blue is regarded by critics as one of the greatest albums of all time and has guided romantics far and wide, through heartbreak, loss, love, and life. I’ve delved into Blue time and time again, and it’s about time I shared why.
Joni Mitchell – Blue | Graham Nash & My Old Man
There was social unrest during the 60s and 70s, due to social inequality. There were mass demonstrations, non-violent and violent protests, and political and social action. A particular riot in 1966 on Sunset Strip, also known as the Hippie Riots, had 1,000 youthful demonstrators, including Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda, protesting a 10 pm curfew. (A little too Nineteen Eighty-Four you could say).
In late 1967, Joni Mitchell met David Crosby, (who later became the Crosby in Crosby, Stills & Nash) and moved to LA with him. At this time the LA music scene was steadily growing, and the way of life there became a hotbed for inspiration. They lived in Laurel Canyon, which from 1965 and 1977:
“could be heaven or it could be hell” – Hotel California, The Eagles, 1976
Second only to Haight-Ashbury, as a Mecca for Hippies.
In March 1968, Joni Mitchell met Graham Nash after a Hollies show in Ottawa, Canada, and they began a romantic relationship. In August that year, Nash travelled to Laurel Canyon to visit Mitchell, and she invited him to live with her there. During the time they were together in Laurel Canyon, Nash wrote ‘Our House’ and ‘Lady of the Island’ about Mitchell. Mitchell also wrote ‘My Old Man’ about Nash.
During a period of intense reflection on social inequality, Mitchell began to consider her own experience. Women were experiencing a newfound freedom of choice, and for Joni Mitchell, a choice she was considering was marriage. Having already been married to Chuck Mitchell in the mid 60s, who she believed stifled her creativity, she began to question the need for marriage, and whether it was right for her.
“Joni’s grandmother had always wanted to be a creative person. But in those days, you had to be a wife and a mother, and you had to bake and take care of the kids. You had to stay home while your old man went to work. She had never been given the chance to express herself artistically.
And Joni recounted to me that she remembered the story of her grandmother kicking the door viciously, out of frustration. Joni, I believe, saw that as one of the downfalls of marriage.
I also believe that somewhere in Joni’s mind she thought that I would demand that of her. Which is completely false. How in the hell could anybody with a brain say to Joni Mitchell, “Why don’t you just cook?”
So even though we talked about marriage, I think the reality of it — from Joni’s point of view — was very scary.” – Graham Nash
My Old Man delves into the heaven and hell of the beginning of true love. Balancing on that thin line of dependency and freedom. As much as they were in love, Mitchell and Nash were part of a whole bigger picture, that put into question whether a married woman was still able to be an independent one. The way ‘your old man’ and his ways make you feel lighter…
but when he’s gone fear and lonesome blues collide – My Old Man, Joni Mitchell
How do you achieve real independence of creativity, if you rely so much on your partner emotionally?
Joni Mitchell – Blue | River, Carey & California
The year of 1969 was the last of the dream, that for so long had felt like a potential future reality. In early spring 1970, Mitchell took a break from performing and travelled to Europe. It was then that she sent a telegram to Nash ending the relationship. Mitchell would later go on to write River, a sort of lament to her relationship with Nash.
River begins with Mitchell setting a Christmas scene, and goes on to say:
I’m gonna make a lotta money,
then I’m gonna quit this crazy scene.
I wish I had a river I could skate away on – River, Joni Mitchell
The crazy scene was the California scene, but can be transferred to almost any celebrity scene. Once you’re famous, it’s hard to become un-famous. The naivety in this sentence followed by an escape of sorts shows she wasn’t sure about the validity of that idea herself. The reality was that once you were a part of it, it was hard to escape from.
You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. – Hotel California, The Eagles
As a creative, there is a need to make, create and share. If your desire is to make a lot of money while doing this, you have to expect there to be parts of that life that you won’t like. Experiencing this, alongside trying to figure out your romantic future in a socio-political revolution, must have been incredibly tiring. You could very easily lose yourself, and your perspective.
I’m so hard to handle,
I’m selfish and I’m sad.
Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I ever had. – River, Joni Mitchell
While in Europe, on the island of Formentera, Mitchell wrote a few of the songs that appeared on Blue. The setting inspired ‘Carey’, a song about her time with Cary Raditz.
Carey talks about her experiences on the island and her desire to move on and explore the rest of Europe. It is light and airy, and transports you right to the setting. Carey shows the playful Mitchell, and is a little respite amongst the blue. The island also inspired California.
Listening to California you can hear a naivety, almost an anticipation for California to be the missing piece to Mitchell’s own puzzle. Mitchell sings of being in Paris, reading the news, and goes on to say:
They won’t give peace a chance,
that was just a dream some of us had – California, Joni Mitchell
It’s an acceptance of the end of the dream, an acknowledgment of a new era – the 70s. But there’s still hope that California, or at least Laurel Canyon, will continue in the pursuit of a revolution.
Joni Mitchell – Blue | Laurel Canyon
“My dining room looked out over Frank Zappa’s duck pond, and once when my mother was visiting, three naked girls were floating around on a raft in the pond. My mother was horrified by my neighborhood. In the upper hills the Buffalo Springfield were playing, and in the afternoon there was just a cacophony of young bands rehearsing. At night it was quiet except for cats and mockingbirds. It had a smell of eucalyptus, and in the spring, which was the rainy season then, a lot of wildflowers would spring up. Laurel Canyon had a wonderful distinctive smell to it.” – Joni Mitchell on Laurel Canyon (Source: Vanity Fair)
In the above quote from Vanity Fair, Mitchell is describing a contradictory place; the natural beauty of Laurel Canyon juxtaposed with her mother’s reaction to the questionable neighbours. Where there was music, there were drugs. That was especially the case for the music scene in Laurel Canyon. The collaboration and the inspiration that was flowing in this scene probably did feel like heaven. The drugs were there to connect you, to your deeper self and to your art. In Ladies Of The Canyon and Clouds, which Mitchell wrote in her house in Laurel Canyon, you see a bit of this heaven. The album Blue, however, has a little less ‘high’ and a little more ‘hindsight’. And in the end, the ‘heaven’ for many, became hell for others.
It’s evident when you look at the death toll in the early 70s that something went incredibly wrong in California. It was during this time that the age of ’27’ became a significant year in the tumultuous lives of people in the spotlight – it was also Joni Mitchell’s age when she released Blue.
It began with Rudy Lewis from The Drifters in 1964, who was believed to have died from an overdose of heroin in New York. This quickly spread to London, where Brian Jones from The Rolling Stones drowned in a pool while on drugs – his death being labelled ‘misadventure’. The wave then made its way to California. Everyone who was anyone lived in or visited Laurel Canyon or Haight-Ashbury, and experimentation was their favourite past time; with music, and with drugs.
Joni Mitchell – Blue | James Taylor, All I Want, This Flight Tonight & A Case of You
In early 1970, Joni Mitchell began working with singer-songwriter James Taylor, who was struggling with his own addiction to heroin. During this time, bands that were a part of this musical revolution began to disband, including The Beatles. Many tried to keep the dream alive, but in October 1970, two weeks after Jimi Hendrix had died from an overdose of barbiturates in London, Janis Joplin died from a heroin overdose at a hotel near Laurel Canyon. Jim Morrison also died in Paris in July 1971. They were all 27 years old, an age (it seems) is a turning point for many.
In 1971 Taylor and Mitchell began a love affair, which inspired the song All I Want.
All I Want again delves into finding the balance between the ups and downs of a relationship. The challenge of being a woman in a world that feels like it is changing, but is not yet evident in your own life.
Do you see? Do you see? Do you see how you’re hurting me, baby?
So I hurt you too,
And we both get so blue. – All I Want, Joni Mitchell
This Flight Tonight was also inspired by a visit she made to James Taylor on the set of the movie Two-Lane Blacktop.
I can’t talk to you baby I get so weak.
Sometimes I think love is just mythical. – This Flight Tonight, Joni Mitchell
This Flight Tonight also features one of my favourite parts on the whole album. Listen from 1:45 and you’ll know exactly what I mean. Where did that beauty come from? Joni Mitchell is just full of surprises.
A Case of You explored the idea of love as an addiction. Although it sounds like the present tense, it’s actually from the perspective after a romance had ended, so it really is bitter-sweet.
A case of you,
and I would still be on my feet.
I would still be on my feet. – A Case of You, Joni Mitchell
It is the popular belief that A Case of You is about Graham Nash, but there are theories that say otherwise. The way I see it, many of the people in the same music scene as Joni Mitchell were addicted to drugs or alcohol, including James Taylor. Evidently, in that situation, you begin to consider what your own addictions are. For Joni, it was love and both the high and low feelings you have when you’re in the throws of it. It could quite possibly be an amalgamation of all her past loves, and it is more about how she behaves when she is in love. Loving in extremes. A Case of You managed to capture the minds and hearts of romantics everywhere and stands as many fans’ favourite song on the album.
Joni Mitchell – Blue | Blue
The song Blue also managed to capture the broken hearts of romantics and is one of the most confessional and heart-wrenching songs on the album.
Well there’re so many sinking now
You’ve gotta keep thinking
You can make it through these waves
Acid, booze, and ass
Needles, guns, and grass
Lots of laughs
Lots of laughs – Blue, Joni Mitchell
It is said that Blue is about Mitchell’s break up with James Taylor, which came as a shock to Joni at the time. With Blue, Mitchell managed to take the “heaven” of the Californian scene and turn it inside out. She stripped the false-ecstasy of the drug-fueled world with melancholy and the reality that this scene cannot last.
Everybody’s saying that
‘Hell’s the hippest way to go’
Well I don’t think so,
but I’m gonna take a look around it though – Blue, Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell – Blue | The Last Time I Saw Richard & Little Green
In early ’65 Joni had a baby out of wedlock to an old high school boyfriend who ran off before the baby was born. She later wrote Little Green about her daughter, which also appears on Blue.
Being a single mother in the 60s would not have been easy, so she put the baby up for adoption. She met Chuck Mitchell a few months later and they married that summer.
During the final stages of putting the album together, Mitchell made a few last minute changes, including the addition of a new song – The Last Time I Saw Richard.
“Richard” is thought to be Chuck Mitchell, Joni’s first husband. This became the closing song on the album and is my personal favourite. It begins in the corner of a dark cafe, where she is speaking to an old friend about love, life and the differences between their perspectives.
The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68 and he told me:
‘All romantics meet the same fate someday.
Cynical and drunk
and boring someone in some dark cafe.’ – The Last Time I Saw Richard, Joni Mitchell
After Chuck and Joni married, they moved to the US and began to play music together. Joni later described her marriage to Chuck Mitchell as one of convenience and they divorced in 1967.
‘You laugh’ he said
‘You think you’re immune –
Go look at your eyes they’re full of moon.
You like roses and kisses and
Pretty men to tell you all those pretty lies.
When you gonna realise they’re only pretty lies?
Only pretty lies.
Just pretty lies.’ – The Last Time I Saw Richard, Joni Mitchell
In tarot reading, the moon represents intuition, dreams, and fantasies, but the reflections we see in the moonlight can be illusions. Joni Mitchell was a romantic, and during this time it was seen by some as naivety – even false, to have faith in something so fickle and ever-changing. Especially in the harsh face of a changing world.
you haven’t really changed’ I said
‘It’s just that-
Now you’re romanticising some pain that’s in your head.
You got tombs in your eyes,
But the songs you punched are dreaming.
Listen, they sing of love so sweet, love so sweet.
When you gonna get yourself back on your feet?
Oh, love can be so sweet.
Love so sweet.’ – The Last Time I Saw Richard, Joni Mitchell
‘Tombstones in their eyes’ is a lyric from Steppenwolf’s The Pusher from 1968, which was used in the counter-culture film Easy Rider. It delves into the reality of a drug dealer at the time.
You know, I’ve seen a lot of people walkin’ ’round
With tombstones in their eyes
But the pusher don’t care
Ah, if you live or if you die. – The Pusher, Steppenwolf
‘Tombstone‘ became a popular term for someone who had lost their way. As many that did went down the road of excess and drugs, which never seemed to end well. These two polarising perspectives are the real lessons to take from Blue. After heartbreak or loss, you have two choices; the moon, which is a phase in the major arcana that is necessary to move forward and does require a little faith, or tombstone, a symbol for the end of a life, or at least a life worth living.
Mitchell closes the song with a final verse describing a man who, because of his disillusionment with romance and the good things in life, gave up and settled for an average life, in fear of taking the risk, losing out and ending up with a broken heart. Mitchell explored the idea that your perspective can effect the outcome. Your destiny is in your hands. So which will you take? The moon or the tomb?
In June 1971, one month after Graham Nash released his debut solo album ‘Songs for Beginners’, and two months after James Taylor released ‘Mud Slide Slim and The Blue Horizon’, Joni Mitchell released the album ‘Blue’, to critical acclaim, and a general response that she had bared a little too much.
“At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.” – Joni Mitchell, Rolling Stone, 1979
In hindsight, what do you think of Joni Mitchell’s album Blue? Do you have a favourite song from the album?
I hope to do a lot more Notes on Music in the future, but as you may guess, they take time to put together. But either way, there will be another in the future, so why not follow us on Bloglovin? That way you’ll never miss a thing! I’ll also be starting a series on Tarot Reading soon, so watch this space!