Listen to this song by singer-songwriting colossus, and confessional style architect Joni Mitchell. It’s “The Last Time I Saw Richard”, a deep cut from her essential 1971 Blue album. The record as a whole touches on the breakdown of relationships, the personal journeys both geographical and spiritual that result, and the conclusions one can come to about identity after the smoke has cleared.
This particular tune is concerned with a meeting between former friends, or lovers, and how each one has or has not changed since they last saw each other. There are streaks of melancholy, and of cynicism held in balance with idealism here that make it a compelling tale to be observed from afar, much in the way you would while reading a short story, or watching a scene in a movie.
The song is thought to be based on Mitchell’s relationship with former husband Chuck Mitchell, from whom she takes her professional last name. In this, it’s in good company on a record that certainly reveals its writer, helping to build her reputation as an artist who typified a “confessional” style of songwriting. Yet despite a lot of personal content, there are deeper themes that pass from a tale specific to the life of its writer, and sail into the realm of the universal, and very often into the life of the listener, too.
The scene is a little cafe in Detroit 1968, at the table of two people who’ve known each other well, and yet with a chasm between them as they try to connect again after a period of estrangement. One is a cynic who considers himself a realist, and the other, a hopeless romantic. Yet, by the end, each of them would experience their own unique brand of loneliness, and isolation, even if they’ve both taken two different paths.
This song is an example of how rock/pop songwriting had grown-up in the years after the boy-meets-girl pop period, or the obscurely distant lyrics of late-60s rock music aimed at anyone under thirty, although Mitchell was an elderly 28 when she wrote and sang this. This is music for grown-ups, not for kids growing their hair long to piss off their parents, taking on starry-eyed notions of the world, or feeling the rush of first love. To those listening while young, it’s something of a time-bomb, a song that reveals itself to a listener in full only later.
Fellow songwriter, and major Joni Mitchell fan Elvis Costello would feature this song in his portion of the Artist’s Choice series of compilations. In the liner notes of his compilation, and in thinking about his relationship with her records at the time he first heard them as a young man, Costello went on to say:
… I spent a remarkable amount of time listening to Joni Mitchell records, often alone in the dark. At that age I hadn’t lived any of the experiences described in such remarkably candid songs but I had the idea that I might one day want to really understand what (“The Last Time I Saw Richard”) meant to say, all good dreamers pass this way some day/hiding behind bottles in dark cafes.’ I’d live to regret this desire. (read the full article, Elvis Costello: Artist’s Choice liner notes)
In this sense, the big takeaway from this song is that no matter how you shore yourself up for what life will throw at you, either through cynicism or idealism, it’s only through experiencing life as it comes to you that lends you any kind of real insight. It’s one of life’s hard lessons; that not everything in life can be taught, or prepared for. Sometimes, you find yourself alone, maybe hiding behind bottles in dark cafes of your own wondering how it is you got there, relieved as you are of the illusions you didn’t know that you’d held so dear until they were gone.
Yet, there can still be comfort to be found, knowing that you’re not really alone, at least in this. Just put some quarters into the Wurlitzer, or click your iTunes play button. If the technology to find connection in songs and through shared life-lessons from songwriters has changed, then human experience has not.
For more information about Joni Mitchell, and how she approaches songwriting, you can read Elvis Costello’s interview with Joni Mitchell for Vanity Fair magazine.