Tag Archives: Joni-Mitchell

15 Hymns Preview: River

Before we start the Christmas Hymns, Zack thought we should give a day for all those who suffer from Season Affective Disorder, which I thought was a phrase he just invented so that he could take sick days off for his Christmas funk, but turns out it was actually invented by a bunch of scientists so that they could take sick days off for their Christmas funk.

Anyway.

Zack’s submission is a perennial Christmas funk favorite (and I don’t mean funk as in James Brown or Tower of Power). Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you a slightly drunk Zack performing Joni Mitchell’s “River”.

River.mp3

joni mitchell

Protest Songs: The Arrangement

One of my favorite singer-songwriters of all time is Joni Mitchell. Her 1971 Blue has been in the #1 spot on my Desert Island Albums List for at least 10 years, and will probably never get bumped. There’s so much craft on that record it makes me want to hurl, purely out of jealous spite. Blue / Here is a song for you / ink on a pin / underneath the skin / an empty space to fill in.

Rammity-fratchit. I’ll never write a lyric that perfect.

Over the years, Joni has written more than her fair share of protest songs, but something I love about her is that she’s never been afraid to question and criticize the values, actions and assumptions of her hippie, lefty peers — not just those of the “other side.” She’s able to somehow look down the road and see where today’s popular ideas will lead to tomorrow’s problems, and she always seems a bit reluctant to throw in her lot with what everybody else “knows” is the right path. Another lyric from “Blue” demonstrates this hesitancy:

Acid, booze and ass
Needles, guns and grass
Lots of laughs, lots of laughs…
Everybody’s saying that hell’s the hippest way to go
But I don’t think so
I’m gonna take a look around

In 1969, Joni wrote a song for the Elia Kazan film The Arrangement (based on his 1967 novel of the same name), starring Kirk Douglas and Faye Dunaway. It’s a ponderous and preachy piece of work that tells the story of an advertising executive (Douglas) who lives a double life, and begins to regret “selling out.” He eventually has nervous breakdown. (Happy stuff.) Kazan ended up not using Joni’s song for the soundtrack, probably because he recognized that she’d told the story better than he had, with more finesse and subtlety. (This is my own opinion, without documentation to support it.) She chose to tell the story from the “other woman’s” (Dunaway) point of view, and manages to accuse and sympathize by equal turns. She put the song on her 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon…’cause why waste a perfectly good protest song, even if it was rejected by a McCarthy-era whistleblower?

You could have been more
Than a name on the door
On the thirty-third floor in the air
More than a credit card
Swimming pool in the backyard

While you still have the time
You could get away and find
A better life you know the grind is so ungrateful
Racing cars whisky bars
No one cares who you really are
You’re the keeper of the cards
Yes I know it gets hard
Keeping the wheels turning
And the wife she keeps the keys
She is so pleased to be
A part of the arrangement

You could have been more
Than a name on the door
On the thirty-third floor in the air
More than a consumer
Lying in some room trying to die
More than a credit card
Swimming pool in the backyard
You could have been more than a name on the door
You could have been more than a name on the door
You could have been more
You could have been more
You could have been more

Now, it might be tempting to hear this song as a run-of-the-mill whine about The Man, but I think there’s some deeper wisdom to take away, especially since (as I mentioned) Mitchell tends to be a bit more balanced in her perspective than many of her contemporaries: What are we about? What are our priorities? What are we truly pursuing, and is it worth what we must leave behind to get it? Are we becoming who we are meant to become, making choices along the way to get us there? Are we being shaped into better people, or are we salving our feelings of regret or uselessness with empty pleasure?

Next week: “The Mystery of Iniquity” from Lauryn Hill’s MTV Unplugged.