"Blue" - Joni Mitchell
When I first heard this album, in 1981, ten years after its release (and nineteen years after my own birth), "Blue" floored me. In one listening, Joni, easily and obviously became the warmest and most honest person I had ever run across. It mattered not at all that I hadn't actually met her. That's not what this encounter was about. It didn't even matter that this incredible human warmth was only evidenced in songs about how devastatingly strung out and undone she had become over the loves in her life. "Let he with ears hear what is like to be truly alive!", the vibrant emotive tones in her crystal clear voice seemed to call, and everything from my toes to my nose heard it loud and clear.
Without ever having been aware that it was so, I had always needed to know that humans like her existed. I had no idea how alone I had been. When I began to grasp (in about her second phrase of the first song) what was being revealed by her, something inside of me was affirmed that made me a different person by the end of the record. To be absolutely valid beyond contestation, while hurting, without pretense, and without any diminishment of her own self's worthiness, was the the most radical state of being I had ever heard of. She gave me a language to understand myself on this record. Even if it wasn't a language I could immediately articulate, it was a frame of reference I would return to over and over for the next thirty years. I, at nineteen, was so emotionally stunted that it would take me decades before I learned how to say that I hurt and to say what it felt like. These songs from "Blue" were my first lessons in how to do just that.
Honesty and weakness had not been encouraged in my Southern Baptist upbringing. Oh, my family made a big deal about "You must always tell the truth." But they didn't mean it, and they certainly didn't practice it. The whole Southern Baptist culture is in denial about everything, from their hard-ons, to thier racism, to thier small-minded fears of becoming irrelevant to a world thats not frightened by them any more. Because of them I don't know if before "Blue" I had ever heard a sincere, genuine word. That's another story, but if you ever grew up in any repressive type atmosphere, you'll know what I mean.
As it was, I was amazed at how intimate these songs/lessons were. Joni reveals her depths and appetites and petulant fits and mad joys and, of course, all of her love-sick blues. She sometimes stands outside of all of life's troubles, turns them over and examines them dispassionately like a man, or sometimes she sings as if she's right in the midst of the mayhem like a heartbroken woman. She was above all the most "human" human I had ever heard.
My upbringing made it funny that I connected so viscerally to this record. Early in childhood I was so terribly sheltered that I arrived to my coming of age years so uninformed and niave about the world and how things really are that it is hard to believe in these modern times. Once I did become a teenager, however, with a budding mind full of ideas of my own, I quickly began making up for lost time by going in directions that made it seem unlikely that I would arrive in a place where I would be able to appreciate the subtle expressions in Joni's four octave range.
For several years I engaged in a deep fascination with the then current British guitar gods. My musical education at thier hands was long on testerone fueled swagger and bombast, but they quite lopsidedly skipped over any other approach to self expression. I did honestly and authentically connect to the rebellious spirit of their brand of rock-n-roll and to the all pelvic power that was inherent in it. Yet all the while, in my immaturity, I was unaware that all of that bluster was just another cover for the pain of being a real, live, loving person.
In spite of my early naivete and my heavy handed previous musical indoctrination, to my credit, I did immediately recognize, in one single listening to Joni's "Blue," what an innovative undertaking this record was. The whole approach to the music itself was radically different than what I was accustomed to. I don't think Joni gets enough credit for how much force she exerted getting even her earliest records done exactly the way she wanted. Back then all businesses, including the record business, were completely dominated by male decision makers. She utilized "lighter" sounding instruments like dulcimer, piano, and acoustic guitar to explore the "darker" places of one's soul. This was completely alien to me. I had been used to heavy handed instrumentation that actually ended up only scratching the surface of things. With the lightest touch, she twisted up weird alternate tunings, used odd time signatures, composed in strange minor keys, and tossed devious little augmented chords into her melodies in order to unravel the listeners ability to relax into her record. She made beautiful acoustic music on this record, but she never wanted it to be background music. She wanted it to be sonic therapy, and she wanted you to buckle in for the whole deep dive if you were going to listen to her record.
Undeniably, this approach got my attention. So did her lyrics. Sharply perceptive, and pared down to the simplest level of truth, her heartfelt lyrics were accessible and understandable even to me, a man who had no emotional connection to himself or anyone else.
Have a listen for yourself. This record might not be the touchstone to you that it has been to me, but if you are truly alive (or simply yearn to be) this is as uplifting a tale of troubles as has ever been recorded.