Friday, July 9, 2010

SONG #126: Help Me

Joni Mitchell, Court And Spark, 1974

Just went up to the woods for a few days of camping with Will and the Blog Gal, and I took two of those 33 1/3 books with me (if you don't know them, check them out--  The first one was about Elvis Costello's Armed Forces, an album I absolutely love and the second about Joni Mitchell's Court And Spark.  The Costello book I found almost impenetrable-- 141 pages of random insights that never quite came together for me as much of anything.  It was full of information, but hard work to finish (not unlike some of Costello's more recent albums).  On the other hand, Sean Nelson's Court And Spark book was terrific, and as soon as we were on our way home, I put it on the stereo for the drive.  It's a sign of a great book that it made me both want to hear the album again and also write about also.  Thanks, Sean-- you're a tough act to follow.

My relationship with Court And Spark is actually a very specific one.  In 1993, I went to visit my ex-girlfriend in Ann Arbor, MI for spring break.  We had just broken up, but we were 23 years old and felt the need to have a "we'll still be friends" visit for closure.  It might have actually gone OK, except for the fact that a) she had already met someone else who felt the need to meet me and tell me what a great boyfriend he was and b) I took the train to get there.

You read that right-- the TRAIN.  From SF to Ann Arbor.  On purpose.  Something told me it would be a good idea.  Let's just say that it's the last time I took (and ever plan to take) a long-distance train trip in this country.  We do a lot of things well in America, but Amtrak is NOT one of them.

The train left on a Saturday morning at 10am.  It was supposed to arrive in Ann Arbor at 8am on Monday.  Yes, that's 46 hours, but I figured that I'd have some drinks in the observation car, meet some fellow travelers, maybe have a great conversation or two, and sleep enough to still be cheerful on arrival.  I was way too poor to afford a sleeper car, so I had a seat that slightly reclined.  How bad could it be?

The train was 24 hours delayed.  A FULL DAY.  That meant that in Chicago they put us all on a bus that made 364 stops on the way to Ann Arbor, including TWO where passengers talked the driver to just stopping "here-- my house is right over there.  Right there!"  So we just pulled over on the side of the INTERSTATE and guys got out and ran into cornfields towards a few barely distinguishable houses.

Moreover, people riding the train were not the lovable, Woody Guthrie folks I was looking for.  There was one cute, interesting gal with raven hair and a slight French accent who I fell completely in love with for about 90 minutes in the observation car.  Other than that, I remember these seat mates:

a) a army guy on furlough headed home to "tear it up."  He got drunk in the bar car and threw up in his mouth through most of night one.  He was also deeply sexually repressed and, discovering I was from San Francisco, kept insinuating that I must be gay and might have a thing or two to show him.  He had a hard time saying goodbye in Wyoming.  He was the best seat mate I had;

b) a guy who got on in Nebraska who was an art student who explained his senior thesis project to me for 500 miles.  It involved a series of self-portraits as crucifixions.  He asked me twice if I knew how much Jesus loved me.  He had self-inflicted stigmata scars;

c) a woman who got on in her pajamas at 1am, asked me if I knew whether someone could file a police report for wife beating from a neighboring county, and then got off forty miles later;

d) a man who got on with a child wearing only a diaper, and rode with us for 100 miles without feeding the child, changing its diaper, or talking to it.  It wasn't until I became a parent that I realized the pure, unadulterated insanity of that moment.

So I got to Ann Arbor a full day late.  By then, I had been reclining in a seat or sitting in a bus for 72 straight hours.  My legs ached-- I was filthy from no shower and being in cramped, airless spaces.  I then had a truncated, awkward visit, and GOT BACK ON THE TRAIN to go home.  (Those doing math-- I was on the train to get to Ann Arbor for the same amount of time that I was actually there.)  I left at 10am on Friday, with a 10am Sunday arrival in SF on the itenerary.  

You can see where this is going-- I got into SF at 3:45am Monday morning, caught the 4:30am bus to Marin (after being harrased by a bunch of bored teenagers for about ten minutes-- who hangs around the bus station acting tough at 4am on a Sunday???  I still wonder about that) walked back to my apartment by 6:45am, took a shower, and went to work.  That's a 216 hour spring break, with 144 of them spent on trains and buses.  To visit someone seeing someone else.


Remember, this was pre-cell phones, internet, or iPods.  All I had was my Discman and the 24 CDs I had painstakingly chosen, and 36 Huck Finn papers to grade.  I ended up listening to only two CDs the whole trip: Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend and this one.  This album of songs about lonely, broken people living in LA in 1974 was a fitting soundtrack for all of us lonely, broken people riding Amtrak that week.  I will never hear this album without thinking first of that bizarre community I inadvertently joined that week.

I am not a Joni Mitchell fanatic.  I love Hejira and Blue, and some of Ladies Of The Canyon and The Hissing Of Summer Lawns,  but there are dozens of her albums that I find absolutely unlistenable, and she's obviously a self-obsessed nutter on some very basic level.  It's possible to find her so off-putting that the music can't overcome it-- and the blackface album photos from the late-70s?  I don't care if you're Canadian and friends with Charles Mingus-- not cool.

It's definitely worth taking a close look at all her work from 1970-1976, though.  First of all, Mitchell is a brilliant musician.  Had she been a man, her guitar playing would have been seen as among the era's most influential and original.  She's a terrific player, and her use of unique, invented tunings is, in my opinion, unparalleled.  Her guitar playing sounds totally original because it is, and there aren't more than twenty acoustic guitarists you can say that about.  Then there's that voice.  Mitchell has ruined her voice with cigarettes and making ridiculous statement in interviews over the years, but back in the day, it's was just a pure, remarkable instrument.  Mitchell does things with her voice on these records that few can do.  It's a voice of incredible octave range, and she's unafraid to try unique voices and stacked, overdubbed harmonies.  Sometimes she sounds silly and contrived, but most of the times she's breathtakingly, effortlessly talented.  Listen to her climb up to hit those high notes on this track-- the specificity of the phrasing and the notes she hits is unmistakably her.

The rap against Mitchell is usually that she's either too confessional / hippy-dippy, or she's too jazzy.  How do you explain this song's massive appeal then, as it's the pinnacle of everything that turns people off about her?  "Help Me" was a top 10 hit, as was this album.  Can you imagine millions of people singing along to "Help Me" in 2010 as they did in 1974?  It shows how much musicality we've lost as a culture.  Kids don't get music in school anymore, and they don't learn instruments, and so a lead vocal as sophisticated, complicated, and as complex as this one would NEVER make it past this generation's "starmaker machinery" (to quote the next song on the album).

I love how complicated this song is-- rhythmically, instrumentally, vocally and lyrically.  Again, Nelson's book is remarkably eloquent on the subject of this song, but I'd add this extra observation-- this song is one of the most honest hit singles ever written about our unwillingness to be empathic enough not to hurt other people.  "Help me," becuase I'm going to crush this other person before he/she crushes me first.  I love the line "flirtin', hurtin' too"-- I've been on a lot of dates when I could tell that someone liked me a lot more than I liked them (and vice versa, let's be honest), and I could never get past that.  There was always a moment when it was clear that we were either going to shake hands and move on, or be using each other.  "Help Me" describes that moment when you make your choice either way, with a slick, detached cool that lets you know that Joni's already been here many times before.  It still gives me chills, decades after it first became a song that was speaking for and not just to me.

And Lynn, BMC '91-- where are you, girl?  Get on Facebook or something!  We're due for a "how are you" email.  



  1. So pleased you did not blame me for the "take the train" suggestion. I've never heard that story without being explicitly blamed for all of it (except for the break up/new boyfriend part), so I feel good about the progress.

    This is my favorite Joni Mitchell record. Gold. Also totally agree about the guitar sound. Bought this record in high school when I read that Zeppelin III was basically a Joni Mitchell tribute record.

  2. Don't worry-- I just blame you privately. I would never blame you publicly in a blog comment or something like that.

  3. Hi Jeff, that's a lot to take in, but I did get hung up on a few of your comments.

    First: "Had she been a man, her guitar playing would have been seen as among the era's most influential and original." To this I would say that she is not dead (so the past-tense may not be the ideal one), and though she is not a man, many people see her as among the era's most original, if not most influential, guitar players.

    Second: "she's obviously a self-obsessed nutter on some very basic level." I am not sure who your favorite musicians are, but it's hard to imagine a working musical genius about whom it could not be said that on some basic level they are "a self-obsessed nutter."

  4. Hey there-- thanks for writing in! I think it's fair to say that sexism held back appreciation of Mitchell's work. In 1971, when Blue came out, Rolling Stone did not include it in its "Best Albums Of The Year" list, but instead named Mitchell "Old Lady Of The Year" for her relationships with half of CSNY. And I would bet you that any website that lists "best guitar players of all time" that is not will not list her in the top 50. As to your second comment, I think you're absolutely right-- it takes a special kind of person to pursue fame at that level-- but other people have been able to keep a lid on their narcissism better than Mitchell has, especially in the last 20 years.

  5. Is sexism the reason that Mitchell never got her fair due? Absolutely! Rolling Stone rates her #72 on their list of greatest guitarist, so she is highest rated woman (Joan Jett squeaked in). If she were a man, she'd be higher. Then again, she IS getting recognition. I guess my point is that she reached a fairly high level of respect, given the rampant sexism. Carole King, Carly Simon, Rickie Lee Jones, Laura Nyro, they all got objectified, diminished, and shafted by the sexism of the times (the success of "Tapestry" notwithstanding). I'm not sure it's much better now, to be honest. Anyway my main point is please speak of la Mitchell in the present tense. She's been doing brilliant work lately.

    As for point two, you are absolutely right, others have been able to keep a lid on their narcissism better than Mitchell has. But then, the reflection they're looking at isn't anywhere near as stunning. This woman is a towering genius and the greatest composer of sui generis pop songs in the 2nd half of the 20th century (had Nick Drake lived, he might have competed for that title). Anyway, I am not sure she's a narcissist so much as someone who understands better than most the full magnitude of her gift, especially as much of her greatest work is completely ignored.

    Thanks for the interesting Joni chat. If you respond I will keep going, I could talk Joni for a hundred or more Ann Arbor train trips.

  6. HA! Awesome response. But PLEASE don't make me go to Ann Arbor like that again. What do you think is her greatest work? Not the 1970-1976 run?