BY MADONNA HAMEL
One summer in the sixties my mom returned from a trip to Vancouver with three new vinyls: the soundtrack to ‘The Graduate’ by Simon and Garfunkel, a Beatles album and Joni Mitchell’s ‘Clouds’. In retrospect I see how cool mom was. She bought music filled with harmonies and probing lyrics, music that inspired my own music education and outlook on life. My eldest sister was so inspired by Simon and Garfunkel she announced to me one Saturday morning that, if I wanted to accompany her, she was headed to the mall to buy everything they ever recorded. And then we’d go next door and get a couple of malted milks. (It’s the only example of recklessness my sister ever exhibited, except for a habit of bequeathing me her favourite things whenever she lost her temper. I always felt so guilty at the extreme gesture of remorse and I tended to hide her gifts under my bed.)
It was Joni who made the most lasting impression on me. Her voice slipped and slid around her invented chords. Later, it was her lyrics that inspired. Whenever somebody quoted Dylan I shot back with a Joni. Just because her stories are about women and the relational realm you underestimate how much she tells us about ourselves, I’d say. Then quote: “We are all so deep and superficial between the forceps and the stone.”
Driving back to the prairie after my ‘Turning 60 Roadtrip’, I pulled over in Golden to let a herd of fast cars get away from me. I knew the hairpin curves outside of the town were just ahead and I didn’t need the hassle of impatient drivers hounding me. I have a friend who is a recovering addict who says his life mantra is: “Let the other guy pass.” Who needs the adrenaline rush of trying to keep up with the pack? Life is too short, and getting shorter. I bought a large coffee, double cream, started riffling around my cd collection for something to get me from Golden to Banff. And there was Joni.
It wasn’t the Joni of ‘Clouds’, with her waifish self-portrait, long wheat-blonde bangs and freckles, holding the official flower of Saskatchewan. It was the book-end album, ‘Both Sides Now’, with another self-portrait, this time of Joni at a mahogany bar, smoke curling around her, holding a cigarette, looking like she’s heard it all and seen it all, which no doubt she has. I felt a pang, my heart-strings tugged by my own book-ended journey, marked along the way by Joni’s words. How perfect, how melancholy, that this old gal is driving back to Joni’s birth province, all the while singing along to the song that made her famous. Only when she wrote it she had no idea of how “something’s lost, and something’s changed, in living every day.” How apt that “life’s illusions” come back to bite me, remind me that “I really don’t know life at all.”
The song “Both Sides Now” isn’t just about clouds, but it’s a good place to begin reflecting on rapid and shifting changes. Clouds are either ‘feather canyons’ or rainy, snowy blockers of the sun. Love, too can be seen from many angles: “if you care don’t let them know, don’t give yourself away.” “Tears, fears and feeling proud” to speak of love or “dreams and schemes and circus crowds.” The last verse replaces clouds with life. Joni’s 21st century voice owns how her cloud of unknowing. There is a relinquishment that makes room for humour and humility in the great woman, my Bohemian queen of razor-sharp insight and dizzying poetry. And the voice, all that life in back of it, accompanied by a shape-shifting orchestra, singing jazz to folks, makes the latest version my favourite version of ‘Both Sides’.
The album is full of standards done in her uniquely elusive and enigmatic way with such aplomb as to make them new again. Some of them are love songs I sang with my band in Quebec, but now they seem lyrically too caught up in finding ‘the right one’, they expect romantic love to answer far too many questions, to solve rather than create problems. So I play ‘Both Sides Now’ over and over and over. I play it because as the car winds through the the most treacherous part of the TransCan, the clouds overhead break and huddle and break and huddle, hiding and revealing the looming mountains covered completely in snow. It’s both heartbreaking and reassuring to have an ode stand and surpass the tests of time. But mostly I play for her voice.
From beat poet to barfly, Joni sings as clouds rush in and clamour over top each other. They are Rorschachs, projections of where our head’s at. ( “I’m as constant as the Northern Star. And I said: Constantly in the darkness. Where’s that at? If you want me I’ll be in the bar.”) We tell stories on ourselves when we tell each other what we see, or what we fear lurks behind, we reveal our aesthetic, our expectations, our neediness.
I recall seeing a Charlie Brown cartoon when I was a teen. He and Linus are lying on a grassy knoll, staring up at the sky. Linus points to one and says something like: see how that one looks like the woman at the well, talking to Christ, see there’s the water pail on her knee. And that one looks like Saul before he became Paul. He has fallen from his horse and the sun shines through the cloud just between the horse’s legs. And over there is Lazarus, carrying his bed. He then turns and says: “So, what do you see Charlie Brown/”
“I was gonna say ‘a horsie’ and ‘a duckie’.”
In the sweltering summer of 2015 “I was gonna say”: a giant sperm whale drifting over the bottom of the empty Bear Paw Sea. Earlier that day we got caught in a storm while crossing an open plain. We were on a pilgrimage from Wood Mountain to The Cypress Hills. Without shelter we hunkered ourselves into ball shapes and sat far enough apart so that if one of us should get hit the rest of us would be left to tell the story. Later, all the clouds looked like benign whales or friendly angels.
Back in 1974, lying on my bed, a chubby girl looking out the window on a sweltering hot day, “I was gonna say”: a raft with a laughing girl atop, with a long stick that reaches to the bottom of the sky and the muddy river. Take me away, I whispered, from this resort town full of bikini blondes afraid to wade in past their cleavage for fear of mussing their absurd hairdos. Take me with you, Huck Finn girl.
In 1991, “I was going to say”: Somebody’s angry ancestor winding a green scarf around everything in her path, pouring wrath, like ink, over Memphis Tennessee and me, until I’m up to my knees in mud and broken bottles in water rushing down Poplar Avenue. Looking behind me I see Joel coming toward me, the hawk feather he’s tied in his hair standing straight up, his arms waving me indoors even though he’s out in the middle of the storm where he prefers to be, in a wild and dangerous place.
In 1997, in Quebec City’s basse-ville, “I was gonna say”: the Black Madonna billowing over the baseball field. But I never told anyone; the art scene in Quebec has changed since the repressive Catholic regime and to be taken seriously by my contemporaries would mean re-configuring Mary into an earlier myth or a scientific phenom. Our cultural inheritances inform who we are; while we can’t un-see things, we can add to our repertoire. We can’t un-know ourselves nor what brought us to where we are today.
But I really don’t know clouds, at all. I don’t know their names or how they generate. They could be Christ or Cumulus, Stratus or cyclone. I know in the evening the sunsets are better when there are clouds above. I know on my birthday last year, driving under a thousand couch pillows floating overhead, I made a pact with myself that I would spend more time cloud watching. I know when I was away I missed them as much as I missed the sky. The city’s interrupted horizon made me restless and uncomfortable.
The evening I returned to the valley, I slowed down, perching on the Divide, older Joni reminding me the more I see the less I know. My heart soared. How wide and wild and open and ready it all seems, on the other side, where clouds reign over the sun-dried land. Where storms announce their arrival a day in advance, a habit reflected in the way prairie people build a story, take their time. Here, it turns out, each cloud, like life itself, is what it is, is enough.