Monday, March 9, 2009

Joni Mitchell's "He Comes For Conversation" (From Ladies of the Canyon)

This song, from Ladies of the Canyon (1970) is a song about a love triangle, of which Joni is the unloved part. It discusses "he" who comes to her little Laurel Canyon kitchen to undoubtedly sponge coffee, wine and snacks off her--lady that she is, perhaps tea--while bitching about his girlfriend ("Why can't I leave her?")

He comes for conversation
I comfort him sometimes


Patiently she relates to us, her listeners, what he says about his girlfriend-- the one Joni hopes to replace:

She speaks in sorry sentences
miraculous repentences;
I don't believe her
.

Mitchell's delivery of the last line is curt, spoken rather than sung, as if shooting us an eyeroll while he natters on and on. It's a powerful song and Joni is a genius, I tremble to think of it. I used to listen to Ladies of the Canyon and Blue all the time while driving around Seattle, all lonesome and addled and lovestruck for whomever I wasn't dating at the time. I loved a girl named Florabeth (not her real name), she had long blonde hair like Joni, and on a big billboard along my courier route in downtown Seattle there was a Virginia Slims ad with a huge photo of the same girl, the Alice in Wonderland version, but same hair, so was she chasing me or I her? Am I the Mad Hatter like I hope or just a thugged-out caterpillar? It was never a sex sort of love, but more chivalrous and ancient. The muse is seldom the same as the lover; the muse should always be far away, on the other coast. Flora was back east, still in school. I could let my heart melt in gushing Lancelot-esque tears for my queen back on the other shore with old King Arthur. Ah the vaniglorious associative-depressive miracle of youth.


So I would listen to Joni while driving and thinking of Flora, and suddenly the tears would start. "All I really really want or love to do / is to bring out the best in me too," she sings the very first song. "I want to shampoo you / I want to renew you again and again." I wanted her to do that to me, but it was also me wanting to do it to her and the world; she opened me; the sunshine was her shampoo as it flooded through my windshield.

1977, my mom was working in a runaway shelter, and brought home for Xmas weekend one of the runaways, Toots was her name, because "everybody calls me Toots." She was Joni Mitchell in mood, and Venus-like in pristine 16-year old beauty, and denim. Nothing much happened between us. I was only eleven, but It didn't need to. I remember my mom gave her two packs Marlboros wrapped up for Xmas (she stayed with us for the holidays), and it took me like five minutes to work up the nerve to ask, voice croaked in fear, "Hey Toots, do you want to do Doodle Art?" Which was my gift from Santa, and it was her gift--and God's--that she deigned to do it with me.

All this came rushing back to me with Joni's witty but genuinely heartfelt declaration of wanting to shampoo me. The tears came flooding out, I almost couldn't believe it. I hadn't cried for years, and even then only in violent spasms. This was genuine emotional release (In 1990 men still didn't cry).. It was a private discovery, reminding me instantly of other sorts of releases. It got me really high and relaxed, crying did, and I became a junky for it. Now I know it's called "depression!" In my case, alcohol-related, bro. Pills took care of that, and then other pills took care of those pills.

And that brings me as well to "He Comes for Conversation" and our place as the listener in the little love qudrangle we share with Joni. That's the zinger of course: he comes to her to talk about his abusive girlfriend, completely oblivious to her affection for him and that is just what she's doing to us with the song. The confessing to us of her attraction for another implicates us in this schemata. That's fancy talk, but what it means in simple terms is... she's punking us out.

If anyone ever does a rap version of "He Comes for Conversation" I hope they will bear this in mind. Joni never mentions any particular relationship she has with the intended listener of her song; and as we know, even the most private diary is really a letter, but to whom? For me it's always a girl like Joni, my beautiful Other, and yet while it is a letter of longing and needing it is not a case of actually "wanting." When the beloved is alone in the room with you, the love snuffs out, it is only when they are far away that love burns Joni-size.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Fiona Apple: Legacy of Hot Messiness

(The following was originally written for Amp Camp, a hipster-esque sub-division of neighborhoodies.com):

Sullen, pouty 19-year old piano prodigy Fiona Apple seemed to fall from the skies with her first album, "Tidal" a preternaturally assured collection of songs that slunk languidly between smoky jazz and Alanis Morissette alterna-angst. Assuring her success was a series of videos demonstrating her waifish sex appeal, particularly "Criminal", where she appears as a strung-out, underwear clad Alice lost in a tawdry lime-green carpeted wonderland of implied sexual misuse, drugs and wood paneling. Her erratic behavior at shows drew some flak from the press, eventually presaging a brief nervous breakdown, and we knew she was trouble when her sophomore album came out with such a long name that no one could say it all the way through. But youth, beauty and genius is a rough combination, and we have no choice but to forgive her. Extraordinary Machine was thought to be in limbo due to record executive nervousness, but when it finally came out it showed the brazen Apple had matured without losing a shred of her gorgeous sorrow. Her jazz-standard crooning sister Maude Maggart is pretty cool, too.

TIDAL
The first thing you hear is a voice that's so deep compared to your expectations of what a 19 year old ingénue should sound like that you think you put the record on the wrong speed. But it's a CD, and so the sound is so clear you can hear her every soft breath in between hitting these great deep notes that slowly evaporate at the end of stanzas (check out the 3:29 mark in "Slow Like Honey"). So yeah she's popular, she's the poster girl for the self-cutting crowd, but she's also as disciplined and regal as Nina Simone and twice as well recorded. If there is any flaw at all it's just that at 19 she doesn't have the sensory gravity, the "soul" that Nina or Sinatra could bring to a lyric. Her style is seductive for the sake of destruction, or as she puts it on one of the albums chart-topping hits, she's a girl who "can break a boy / Just because she can." She's that beautiful anorexic girl who lures you into her bed just long enough to break up your marriage, just long enough for you both to realize there is no "there" there outside of taboo-busting. It's her gift for expressing the bottomless melancholy of a 19 year-old beautiful loner grown way-too old before her time due to the evils of older men. She still finds an inner wealth of maternal comfort for whoever of her listeners are in need, filtered through the slow motion duck and jab of "Shadow Boxer" or bathed in the Joni Mitchell-style piano and whispered solace of "Never is a Promise."

EXTRAORDINARY MACHINE
The spookily talented Ms. Apple's third album came with a lot of strange mythologizing behind it. Was the label not releasing it, or was the demo just floating around the internet before it was finally mixed down to the artist's exacting specifications? Whether it was all just ingenious hype or something else, it hardly matters, as the album is encompasses everything that was great about her first two works, and then expands from there, managing to be even more quietly assured than "Tidal," and more pumping and assertive than "When the Pawn…"