Joni Mitchell stands in a class by herself.
She is too often irritatingly referred to as a sort of “female Bob Dylan”, which still makes my hackles rise and keeps my gag reflex in good working order. Nothing against Bob, of course. But, the two artists are not to be compared, least of all while using the tag of “female” as a modifier, and ultimately as a way to reduce her significance on the basis of gender. I will say no more about it (maybe).
Hailing from the Canadian prairies, Mitchell took her art to the folk scenes of Calgary, Toronto, Detroit, New York, and eventually to La-La land and the Laurel Canyon scene starting in the 1960s and on through the 1970s. She started off with a girl-with-guitar hippie-chick image, where she has often stayed in the minds of the uninitiated. But, Mitchell’s work is expansive and fearless well beyond labels or eras, even from her earliest period. Lately, she’s made the headlines because of her ill-health, and also due to her rather cantankerous attitudes having to do with the music industry as well as toward her contemporaries.
But, it is her art that remains to be her strongest and most vital voice, sometimes with that cantankerous outlook built in, sometimes not. And as such, I hereby present ten tracks of Joni, ten musical beacons in a galaxy of bright points that measure her unique and far-reaching artistic journey. Some are hits, while others are simply examples of her fearlessness in an industry in which she thrived, and against which struggled in equal measure.
Listen to this track by Jamaican soul singer, reggae innovator and sometime actor Jimmy Cliff. It’s “Many Rivers To Cross”, a song of hardship and burden in a true gospel style as featured prominently on 1972’s The Harder They Come soundtrack.
This record is perhaps one of the earliest that served as a collection of songs featured in a movie that also turned out to be an essential addition to any respectable record collection while it was at it. It also had the distinction of having the star of the movie as one of the contributors to it; Jimmy Cliff himself. Continue reading
Listen to this track by Ottawa-born former folk-psych guitarist turned mystical folkie singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. It’s “Let Us Go Laughing”, the centerpiece to his 1971 album High Winds, White Sky, his second.
This song is a culmination of where Cockburn had come by this time in his career. Behind him were his days at Berklee College of Music in Boston where he studied jazz improvisation and composition in the mid-sixties. Also behind him was his journeyman period as a guitar player and keyboardist in folk rock and psych bands, some of which appeared as opening acts for The Lovin’ Spoonful, Cream, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience by the end of that decade.
But something else had risen to the surface by the time this song was written; a feel for lyrics that reflected his rich inner life and his gravitation toward the spiritual.
Listen to this track by familial R&B vocal group from Philadelphia, Sister Sledge. It’s “We Are Family”, a signature tune from them as written by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, who also play on it along with drummer Tony Thompson. All three are namechecked in the performance by lead singer Kathy Sledge. The song is taken from their 1979 album of the same name; We Are Family. This is the full length version of the song, which would otherwise appear in a three-minute and change radio edit.
This is a classic tune of the disco era. It’s an anthem to celebrate those who are singing it, a paean to sisterly bonds and to what is means to be a part of something greater than oneself – a family. It’s also something of an anthem to those who gathered in the clubs as a subculture of those not recognized by the mainstream yet made into a family of sorts by virtue of their disenfranchisement. But, really, anyone can see what this song is about, and can relate to it. No wonder it was such a hit.
The song would be one of Sister Sledge’s biggest hits, released in March of 1979 and scoring a #2 chart position on the Billboard 100 and a #1 showing on the R&B charts. This was after the single made headway in the clubs then into local and national radio play. Not bad for a song that the label was unsure about whether or not this would make any waves, hitwise. It was also something of an extra victory, considering that it was made to order for the group, even if Rodgers and Edwards hadn’t heard or seen them before the song was written. Continue reading
Listen to this track by Massachusetts quartet tagged by many as “proto-punk” and fronted by one Jonathan Richman, The Modern Lovers. It’s “Roadrunner”, a song about driving with the radio on featured on the band’s 1976 eponymous debut record. It was released as a single, and would be recorded over Richman’s career a few times with the band and without. There are a few versions floating around, but this one is my favourite, produced by John Cale in 1972.
Besides that, the song is pure magic to the point that it is amazing to me that it even exists. In some ways, it’s totally amateurish. But, that’s a big part of its charm. When Richman counts off “1,2,,3,4,5,6 …” you know you’re in for something eccentric and cool all at once. Unlike a lot of Jonathan Richman songs, this one is aligned with an expected rock ‘n’ roll subject; driving at night with the radio on, in love with rock ‘n’ roll and being out all night. But, it’s also about being in love with the place you’re from. In Richman’s case, that’s the state of Massachusetts, and the scenery along the way.
This is a song that’s been hailed by many as the first punk song. Where I don’t think I can agree with that (I personally think it was “Louie Louie” myself …), I can understand why people think that. This song has roots that are well known. Continue reading
Listen to this track by legendary back-up vocalist phenomenon and vital solo artist in her own right Merry Clayton. It’s “Southern Man”, a song written by Neil Young and recorded by Clayton on her 1971 solo record Merry Clayton. The sessions were overseen by Lou Adler, and the material was sourced from some of the best writers of the era besides Young; Carole King, James Taylor, Leon Russell, and others.
A few years after this tune was laid down for her self-titled record, Clayton had been called on to sing on the answer song to this tune, that being Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” which chided Young by name on his criticism of southern life. But, the Skynyrd song fails to acknowledge in any distinguishable way that southern life for one is not the same life for another, depending on one’s background. The cultural weight and matters of historical record behind all of that is impossible to ignore. For Clayton, participation on that song rankled. But, as she said about the Skynyrd session in the excellent documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom, part of her calling when it came to civil rights was singing. So, she sang on the Skynyrd tune anyway, and “sang the shit out of it” with the boo-boo-boo backing vocal lines when governer George Wallace is alluded to in the song being among the stand out elements.
But, that session would be after she covered this Neil Young tune. In retrospect now that we’ve got both songs to listen to, Clayton twisted that dialogue back in on itself by doing a full on interpretation of “Southern Man” and transformed it while she was at it. Continue reading
Listen to this track by jazz-rock concern and one-time aversionists to regular live dates Steely Dan. It’s “Pretzel Logic”, the title track to their 1974 album which is aptly named Pretzel Logic. This would be the last record of theirs for which they would tour during their 1970s heyday. It would mark the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one.
What this new record also meant was a return to the top of the charts for singles, after a dip in their fortunes a year before. This song was one single to get them back to where they wanted to be, along with their smash top ten hit “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”. But, more importantly it was when they were beginning to phase into a new life as an exclusively studio-bound concern. Bassist Walter Becker and singer-pianist Donald Fagen were the principles of the band as a studio entity, and turned increasingly to sessioners to fill out the sound along with (and often instead of) full-time members Jim Hodder (drums, vocals), Denny Dias (guitar), and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (guitar). Still, this tune hooks into what the core ensemble version of the group had always been able to deliver anyway, that being sophisticate jazz rock with a heaping tablespoon of the blues, not to mention a hefty dose of hipster irony and arch-sarcasm to tie it all up.
What were they being ironic about here? Continue reading