Cry for Us All Beauty: Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark

Joni Mitchell’s voice and phrasing are original, are full, high, quick, rich, sensual. She sounds tones of speculation and skepticism, of expectation and experience; and she is amazing.

By Daniel Garrett

Joni Mitchell
Court and Spark
Elektra/Asylum Records, 1974

“It seemed like he read my mind. He saw me mistrusting him, and still acting kind. He saw how I worried sometimes. I worry sometimes,” sings Joni Mitchell in the beginning song, the title song, of her album Court and Spark. I think Joni Mitchell is a great artist, and her album Court and Spark is one of my favorite recordings. The man she sings of says, “You could complete me, I’d complete you,” but the narrator cannot give up her life as it is, the home she has already, the pleasures and work she knows already, an admission that goes far to explain why and how many people resist change. The uncertainty and promise of new love, the anxiety and delight of new love, are the subject of Mitchell’s “Help Me.” Joni Mitchell’s voice and phrasing are original, are full, high, quick, rich, sensual. She sounds tones of speculation and skepticism, of expectation and experience; and she is amazing. In “Free Man in Paris,” she provides a view of an ambivalent but successful man involved in the music industry (rumored to be David Geffen); and he wonders if he should leave the United States for Paris, where he felt free. Social observations, loneliness, ambition—image versus the inner life—are the subject of the song “People’s Parties,” in which a narrator sees her acquaintances and considers her own vulnerability, while the lack of trust in love in a godless, self-conscious world, our world, is the subject of “The Same Situation.” In “People’s Parties,” Mitchell sings, “Photo Beauty gets attention, then her eye paint’s running down. She’s got a rose in her teeth, and a lampshade crown. One minute she’s so happy, then she’s crying on someone’s knee. Saying laughing and crying, you know it’s the same release.” Some of the people at the party are friendly, some are cutting; and some are confident, while others are insecure—comedy and drama in one place. The narrator feels as if she herself is sleeping (a sleeping beauty?) and wonders if someone can wake her. We may have been to a party in which we suspected what was going on beneath the skins of others, but Mitchell’s portraits convince us that she knows, though her narrator’s own view is insecure: “me in my frightened silence, thinking I don’t understand.” (She feels as if she is living on nerves and feelings, with a weak and a lazy mind, and wishes that she had more sense of humor. Mitchell manages to suggest everything.) In the song “The Same Situation,” Joni Mitchell’s narrator is caught between ambition and love and she sings, “I asked myself when you said you loved me, ‘Do you think this can be real?’” and, with a scathing precision Joni Mitchell observes a man’s vain conquest of women and her own submission to it, as well as different kinds of authority:

You’ve had lots of lovely women.
Now you turn your gaze to me,
weighing the beauty and the imperfection
to see if I am worthy.
Like the church,
like a cop,
like a mother,
you want me to be truthful—
sometimes you turn it on me like a weapon though
and I need your approval.

The woman in “The Same Situation” prays for a lover—“somebody who’s strong and somewhat sincere,” and in the song that is on the program next, “Car on a Hill,” a woman waits for her too-friendly lover, wondering about his distractions and interests, knowing love affairs “always seem so righteous at the start, when there’s so much laughter, when there’s so much spark, when there’s so much sweetness in the dark.”

One of the devastating songs on Court and Spark is “Down to You,” which begins:

Everything comes and goes,
marked by lovers and styles of clothes.
Things that you held high
and told yourself were true
lost or changing as the days come down to you.
Down to you.
Constant stranger,
you’re a kind person,
you’re a cold person too.
It’s down to you.

“Down to You” is about love and loneliness, sexual promiscuity, and distance in friendships: it is about modern social life, in which “everything comes and goes. Pleasure moves on too early, and trouble leaves too slow.” Mitchell could be filing a new edition of the blues; and her music is as glossy as gold, an amalgam of rock, folk, and jazz. The song “Down to You” seems like a musical composition that could be a soundtrack for the best films, novels, and poetry: it is descriptive, emotional, philosophical—a broad modern view. I think that Court and Spark is as good as any modern film, novel, or poetry. Joni Mitchell represents a high standard of art and truth.

In Mitchell’s “Just Like This Train,” a woman with a funny, smart sense of her own vulnerability sings, “I used to count lovers like railroad cars, I counted them on my side. Lately I don’t count on nothing. I just let things slide,” and then “Jealous lovin’ll make you crazy” and “I can’t find my goodness. I lost my heart. Oh sour grapes, because I lost my heart.” That is someone paying attention to the minute movements of her own mind: and revealing what the human mind is capable of.

“Raised on Robbery” breaks the somber mood of the album, and is very uptempo, until one notices that the song is about a woman of easy virtue who meets a drinking man and tries to entice him into an affair or sexual bargain: and one realizes one is seeing a story similar to the others we have heard, simply more crude, more direct.

“You can’t live life and you can’t leave it. Advice and religion—you can’t take it, you can’t seem to believe it,” sings Mitchell in “Trouble Child,” a song of torment, of personal contradictions; and Mitchell sees with an empathy that could be as withering as it is soothing: “You really can’t give love in this condition, still you know how you need it.” Then she rises above the body, looking at the wounds: “They open and close you, then they talk like they know you. They don’t know you. They’re friends and they’re foes too. Trouble child, breaking like the waves at Malibu.” The collection concludes with the only song on the album Joni Mitchell did not write, the witty Wardell and Gray classic about eccentricity and psychiatry, “Twisted,” a jazz song full of twists in story and tones, something that suits Mitchell perfectly.

Daniel Garrett is a writer of journalism, fiction, poetry, and drama. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Black American Literature Forum, Changing Men, Cinetext.Philo, The City Sun, Film International, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Option, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. Garrett says, “There is an important philosophical and social role for arts that acknowledge and accept the facts of human complexity and contradiction, especially in an age or culture that encourages narrow definitions of identity and community. Such arts expose the lies of conformity and ideology and encourage the telling of truth and the expansion of human freedom.” Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com

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