Sam in Mississippi

Late Bloomer

As I slide my Hejira CD into the player, I think, "Joni Mitchell makes me want to cry." Maybe it's the third glass of Riesling talking, but it's a reunion with one of my favorite CDs. I know enough of Joni to expect that would dismiss my heartfelt sentimentality, she would "pfft" under her breath and take another drag off her cigarette. But that's the way it works with hero worship, with loving songs and songstresses, with catching your breath when you hear the fretless bass snaking its way between her guitar lines.

I'm a late bloomer when it comes to Joni. I learned her through covers, "Big Yellow Taxi" when Amy Grant covered it, and Sarah McLachlan's version of "Blue." (My lack of popular music knowledge is such a travesty that I've made unspoken vows to my unborn children, to play good music for them in utero, to raise them on Michael Hedges, Beethoven Piano Concertos and the Beatles, not to mention Tori Amos.)

Fast forward to years later, where I'm housesitting for my voice teacher, my last year of college. My best friend and I are being boring and housesitting for spring break. I'm healing from a broken, guilty heart. She's busy planning her wedding and student teaching , not to mention learning music for her senior recital. I spend most of my time catching up on my sleep, reading in the claw-footed bathtub, and consulting my personal saint Madeleine L'Engle's works as I write an old-fashioned letter pleading for a recently dumped boyfriend's forgiveness and understanding. Oh, and recovering my appetite, which disappears with bouts of sadness, especially post-breakups.

One night, we rummaged through our teacher's CDs, unearthing a copy of Joni Mitchell's Hits. The cover, with Joni spread out in the middle of the street, looks cheekily gruesome. I confess that I've "never really listened to Joni Mitchell." We plunk down and press play, all new music blurring by me, but the notes resonating in my raw heart. The rest of the week, we took the CD everywhere. I memorized "Chelsea Morning." Joni's plaintive wail against the hum of her Rhodes in "Woodstock" chilled me. I loved the jaunty rhythm of "Carey," the swoop of the melody and the image of "clean white linen and fancy French cologne." I copied down the lyrics of "Come in from the Cold" in my journal. It's a long song.

Is this vulgar electricity

Is this the edifying fire

...are you just checking out your mojo

am I just fighting off growing old

(just a party girl)

and all I ever wanted

was just to come in from the cold

I felt these words intensely. Wrestling with the sparks between a former (or constant?) love and I, Joni articulated all my tumbling thoughts -- am I just lonely and horny? Faint from hunger? Or is this true love? Now I'm engaged to him, which answers some of those questions.

Last year, only possessing a copy of Blue to my name, I stumbled across Hejira in an independent CD store. I'd recently watched The Last Waltz, entraced by Joni's performance of "Coyote," which was also on Hejira. I listened to it at work, catching snippets of phrases that wedged in my mouth and under my breath. It looped continuously, interspersed with my Tori Amos live MP3s. I fell head over heels with "Amelia." One day I finally sat down and listened to the CD full volume, with lyrics out and heart open. I realized that it's a long road trip of an album, of Joni courting love with a mysterious, tricky man, and running away from her broken heart, of rough embraces in juke joints, of letters composed to girlfriends, all in the company of "white lines on the freeway."

Sometimes it's just the sound of her words that make me catch my breath. It's the way the consonants click against your teeth. Her lyrics are wordy yet so smart and articulate, there's very little veiling her story. Another thing I love about Joni is her minute attention to details, the little things that catch the eye. She sees a white lace dress in a shop window and it becomes a reason for chasing love -- all for a chance to wear that dress. It may be sacrilegious to compare her to a blogger, but she is like one, focusing on the small things, the bad driver that screwed up your afternoon, the way the light falls on your front porch, the hungry rumble you have for something beyond a "normal" life. All the small moments that you cup in your hand, the pivotal turns that happen so quickly you're going down a different raod before you know it. And wanting to remember it all.


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