Probably it was inevitable that Joni Mitchell’s album Blue would find its way into one of my essays. That’s because it is one of my all-time favorite records. And I hardly stand alone. Blue, after all, appears high on the “greatest albums ever” lists of music critics galore. With good reason. It’s an awfully brilliant work. Joni’s naked emotions, from high to low, saturate Blue’s songs, all of which she wrote. By no means am I an expert on the Mitchell canon, but from what I hear when I listen to Blue, and from what I’ve read, Joni’s openness was at its acme during the writing and recording of Blue, which came out in 1971. As self-revealing as many other of her albums are, Blue walks away with the “Here’s What I’m All About” prize. If you aren’t familiar with Blue, you will add some wows to your day by tracking it down and giving it a whirl.
But you know what? I’m not going to write any further about Blue the album on this virtual sheet of paper. That’s just like me . . . erratic. I won’t stray too far off course, however, as I now turn my gaze to Blue the sad song. It is the final track on side one of Blue the album’s vinyl incarnation. Although I’ve heard this song more than 100 times, I’d guess, over the years, it wasn’t till last week that I paid devoted attention to its lyrics. That’s just like me, too, a guy who has had trouble figuring out the meaning of 99% of the tunes he’s listened to during his life, including Happy Birthday To You and My Ding-A-Ling (it was a Chuck Berry hit). As an aside I’ll mention that my poor levels of lyrical insight and understanding are predictable. Back in my freshman year at college I stunned my Introduction To English Literature professor with my denseness. He had to create a new grade for me. An F wasn’t low enough, so he gave me a G, which stood for Gawdawful. Miraculously, my interpretative powers have inched upward a bit since those days.
When I heard Blue the song last week, it struck some heavy chords with me, as it always does, and I began trying to figure out a way to work it into a story. I was all set to compare it to a couple of other sad tunes with blue in their titles. Such as Dinah Washington’s 1955 version of Blue Gardenia and Willie Nelson’s 1975 take on Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain. But before I could do that I needed to examine Blue’s lyrics and attempt to decipher them. I looked at them and came away, I think, with a reasonable understanding. And that’s when an interesting thought entered my brain. Lyrically, Blue is so Joni-personal, and musically so shape-shifting, I wondered if anyone ever covered it. Nah, that’s pretty doubtful I decided. But oh so wrong I was, as some Googling revealed. Amazingly to me, lots of people have taken a crack at it, some more successfully than others. Wham! “There’s a story in there,” I said to myself. Probably many. However, we’ll save many for future days and keep the remainder of this analysis on the modest side.
There’s no better place to continue than with Blue’s words, which are relatively few. Here they are:
Blue, songs are like tattoos.
You know I’ve been to sea before.
Crown and anchor me
Or let me sail away.
Hey Blue, there is a song for you.
Ink on a pin
Underneath the skin,
An empty space to fill in.
Well there’s so many sinking now,
You’ve got to keep thinking
You can make it thru these waves.
Acid, booze, and ass.
Needles, guns, and grass.
Lots of laughs, lots of laughs.
Everybody’s saying that hell’s the hippest way to go.
Well I don’t think so
But I’m gonna take a look around it though.
Blue, I love you.
Blue, here is a shell for you.
Inside you’ll hear a sigh,
A foggy lullaby.
There is your song from me.
Those lyrics startle me. They rock, they roll, they roil. Delicately. They paint a picture of fragile love. And until last week I hadn’t realized that they are addressed to a specific person (James Taylor, Joni’s boyfriend during parts of 1970 and ’71, is many observers’ guess) whose identity she isn’t revealing but, for the song’s sake, she has nicknamed Blue. Joni loves Mr. Blue, but can’t quite reach him. There are more than a few degrees of disconnect. A head-over-heels-in-love song for him wouldn’t fit the nature of their relationship. The best she can do is to pen a foggy lullaby to help fill in an empty space. Ouch. Love hurts.
Joni Mitchell sings Blue fervently, her voice sometimes quivering, accompanied only by the piano whose keys she hits good and hard (click here to hear the song). Her vocal is forthright and drips with pain and uncertainty. She didn’t want additional instruments or voices to distract from her message. She aimed for simplicity in her rendition.
Joni’s Blue is pretty perfect, don’t you think? The world would be just fine with no version of the song but hers. I can understand, though, why others would approach it. For some artists, Blue might cut so deeply they are uncontrollably compelled to record it. For others, putting a different spin on singular Blue seemingly becomes a challenge they can’t resist undertaking.
Roughly 100 cover versions of Blue have been recorded. And I gave a listen to a dozen of them before I said to myself: “Yo, anal dude! Enough already.” But the 12 I visited comprised an ear-opening experience. And speaking of yo . . . Yo, Kevin Sandbloom! What the fu*k were you thinking? Kevin — your jumpy Blue is wrong, man, wrong. Haven’t you ever heard of subtlety? And what’s with your vocal undulations? They send the song on a nasty roller coaster ride. Joni should sue you, man. Driver, let me off! (Click here to listen)
On the other hand . . . Yo, Dubistry! I shuddered at first listening. But your version grew on me. Who’d have thunk that a reggae-clothed Blue would work? Those crashing drums and cymbals send shock waves. But, in the end, your Blue can handle them because you didn’t allow the spirit of Joni’s Blue to disappear. (Click here to listen)
Yeah, the spirit of Joni’s Blue. I guess that’s what I was looking for all along. And I found it in the Blues lofted to us by Cat Power and Sarah McLachlan. Picking one over the other is tough, but I’m going to go with Sarah’s, which you can listen to by clicking here. Sarah does Blue proud. She sings the song slowly, buoyed by quiet and well-placed electric bass notes, by shimmering electric keyboards, and dramatically by a multi-tracked heavenly female choir. Sarah’s Blue sounds better and better to me the more I return to it. It is ethereal, majestic. A week ago I’d never have believed I might say this, but the McLaughlin Blue equals and possibly outdoes Joni’s.
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