Another of the manuscripts I've just received is Sean Nelson's, about Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark album. In this extract from the Introduction, Sean is reflecting upon a magical moment in the mid-70s, hearing his mother sing along to a Joni Mitchell song on the car radio, in Laurel Canyon.
Let’s not forget that this whole scenario was made possible by the radio — possibly AM, probably top-40, definitely commercial. I knew that people sang along with records; I was just beginning to familiarize myself with the practice. But records required intention. You buy it, you learn it, you play it, you sing it. The idea that the music could come to you was brand new, and thrilling. The next step was realizing that other people — friends, strangers, mothers, sons — were out there hearing it at the same time you were, and also singing along. The fact that it was a Joni Mitchell song and not one by, say, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, the Bay City Rollers, or the Eagles, was incidental, but only at first. As years have gone by, I’ve conferred a great deal of meaning on the “Help Me” episode, not only for its small-but-significant expansion of my young pop consciousness, but because it formed a door into the work of one of my all-time favorite recording artists.
Joni Mitchell’s albums, particularly the ones she made between 1971 and 1975, have become essential components of my musical lexicon. The fact that “Help Me” is far from my favorite Joni Mitchell song (it’s not even my favorite on Court and Spark), matters less than the fact that it was my first Joni Mitchell song. And that only happened because it was catchy, clever, universal, and well-constructed enough to become the biggest Joni Mitchell song, before or since, on the radio, reaching number seven on Billboard’s Pop Singles chart, and number one on its Adult Contemporary Singles chart. In the years that have elapsed since that Laurel Canyon afternoon, I’ve gone back and forth many times about the relative value of singles charts in determining a song’s worth. I intend to go back and forth many more times. One thing that can’t be argued, however, is the insufferably pompous entertainment industry maxim that a hit is a hit. (Some things are true even if music biz weasels say them.)
Though I had no idea at the time, “Help Me” was part of a concerted effort on the part of Mitchell and her collaborators to make a hit record after years of critical and cult successes. It was not her first such attempt, but it was her most successful, and that’s a big part of why I chose to write about Court and Spark, instead of other JM records I might like better on a given day. It’s a sucker bet to try and argue that Blue, or For The Roses, or The Hissing of Summer Lawns are better or worse albums than Court and Spark, or than one another. In a certain way, they all feel like one sustained burst of musical endeavor from an artist who had only just begun to understand what she was capable of — and before she had decided to leave that strength behind in search of new powers. Still, Court and Spark is such a clear turning point, not just in terms of its popularity, but in terms of its approach. It represents a perfect example of an artist reaching out to a wide audience without pandering to it, in what feels, 31 years on, like an honest attempt to say as much as possible to as many people as possible.
And not for nothing, but one of the people she reached was me, via my mother, who was living through many of the themes explored on both the song and the album — which could have been subtitled Love and Death in Los Angeles. Thus, the record helps frame not only my love of pop music, but my understanding of the labyrinthine anguish of the human heart. And it has stayed with me as I’ve watched nearly everything I’ve ever believed about both the latter and the former endlessly reverse and evolve. Mitchell recently called Court and Spark “a meditation on romantic love in the context of the times.” In the Los Angeles of the 1970s, a city the narrator of the album’s title track admits she “couldn’t let go of,” that context included a lot of drugs, divorce, and despair. But somewhere in the morass, there lurks the intrinsic, unvanquishable optimism of pop music. While the lyrics tell of ambivalence and conflict, the beat remains seductive, the groove hypnotic, the melodies indelible. As a meditation, it’s incredibly rich. As a document of its time and place, it’s indelible. But, perhaps most importantly, as a collection of songs by a great musician at her peak, it’s still appealing enough to make you want to sing along in the car.
That’s what I call a perfect record.