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Joni Mitchell Part Two

David Yaffe’s prose is perhaps over-effusive, and insufficiently reflective about some key aspects of Joni Mitchell’s life/’journey’, as opposed to extolling her (undoubted) genius. Events are taken merely as signposts on this narrative of Genius. Possibly THE pivotal event was surely the giving up to adoption of her only child, a trauma continually revisited in songs on her albums, most famously in Blue’s ‘Little Green’, which only really made full sense once she had made the adoption public knowledge. Everything else followed on, like William Burrough’s admission that the shooting of his wife was the fountainhead of his later work. 

This is not the trope that Yaffe makes much structural use of, however. Similarly, there is little systematic analysis of her seeming compulsion to get together with at times-unpleasant  (but then again, who isn’t at times?) male fellow musicians. This is probably a reflection of my own position as a male observer, prurient and perhaps wishing to judge? I’m working on it. 

Joni comes across as the possessor of awesome talent - as a writer, musician, fine artist and dancer. She also was also clearly aware of this, and, at times. let it make her a bit mean about others who helped her along - Judy Collins (”there’s something la-di-da about her”) and David Crosby (”He was paranoid and grumpy. He was unattractive in every way..”). These are no doubt cruel-but-fair comments, but even so…But again, would we extend the same criticisms to ‘mean’ male blowhards like Jagger et al? Her dismissal of her first hubbie, Chuck Mitchell, is clinically eviscerating, and one gets the sense that Joni never tolerated fools easily. At least in retrospect, as some of these fools proved to be the motivator for many of her finest songs. Chuck’s sexism presumably provided a template for Joni’s questioning of same. Or did it? This theme is unfortunately not really taken up by Yaffe, even though it represents a key dissonance in then-contemporary gender relations.

In our current, hyper-sensitive era, her decision to ‘black up’ (most famously on the cover of Don Juan…) seem puzzling, if not exactly offensive somehow (it would have been, if, for example, Robert Plant had worn blackface?). Her tobacco smoking habit also seems to catapult her back to a different time (file along with Frank Zappa and George Harrison, in this instance, puffing compulsively in nearly every shot), but the big mystery with this superlative artist, is what happened after 1979 and Mingus? Quantum physics issues are probably easier to solve, in terms of Joni’s catastrophic qualitative fall. None of here post-1980 recordings hold a candle to her Canonical Six.

But, ultimately and arguably, Joni Mitchell’s achievement is of being the greatest songwriter, lyricist, composer, guitarist, pianist and (phew!) painter that the ‘classic rock’ era ever saw, all facets of her genius being taken into account. The fact that she is a woman is notable, but ultimately a side issue. This is an consummate artist.

Joni Mitchell - A Seventies Can(n)on   Part One

I’ve been having a bit of a Joni Mitchell ‘binge’ of late, and have finished reading two books on the great songwriter - David Yaffe’s intermittently interesting 2017 biography “Reckless Daughter”, and Sean Nelsons disquisition on Court and Spark (C & S), part of the 33 1/3 Press series of record album tributes. I’d have been just as happy to see a book on Hissing of Summer Lawns (HOSL), to be frank, but, as Nelson points out, how to award competitive points to Mitchell’s glorious six-album ‘run’ from 1970-1975? Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, For the Roses, C & S, HOSL and Hejira form a peerless series, and that’s leaving out the 1974 live Miles of Aisles and the late-seventies controversies, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus, both of which pretty much cooked her goose as the general public were concerned, and much to David Geffen’s chagrin. Shame, I still rate Mingus highly, although it does lack the internal coherence of the canonical six.

What other ‘runs’ are there of equivalent heft in this time period for single artists? I’ve given this some thought, and came up with John Martyn’s Island Records sequence, ending conclusively with Grace and Danger in 1980 (absolute disaster then ensued for this apparently unpleasant drunk); Tom Wait’s Asylum Records series, concluding with, again in 1980, Heart Attack and Vine (although I’m not  a fan of the latter recording, nor Blue Valentine) - however, other great runs were still to come for Waits in the eighties and nineties; Neil Young, from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere through to Rust Never Sleeps (but also acknowledging a couple of stiffs during this eleven year run, including Journey Through the Past and On the Beach); Scott Walker’s four solo albums from 1967 to 1970, and, of course, David Bowie’s incredible through-seventies masterpieces from The Man Who Sold the Earth to Scary Monsters (I still don’t like Diamond Dogs, though, and the first two Berlin albums are uneven in the extreme, imho).

There are hardly any weak tracks on Joni’s sextet of classics, which cannot be said of any of the above. One of her many achievements is that they were made in an age of hippie/yuppie male chauvinism, summed up famously by the preposterous Rolling Stone magazine, which in 1971 ‘named’ her ‘Old Lady of the Year’, and charted her various relationships with male musicians (mostly of far less talent than she), such as Leonard Cohen, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, James Taylor and David Crosby. Just imagine if male artists were held up to the same hypocritical standards - blokes such as Picasso and Warren Beatty and Mick Jagger, just to name three with severe trouser-problems, were equally ‘slaggish’ (to name the subtext of this asinine ‘tree of shame’). Mitchell had the self-confidence (and self-knowledge) to give the middle finger to such passive-aggression, and produced six albums that could all be potentially finalised for ‘Top 100 Albums of All Time’, or suchlike. It’s easier now for female artists, but it must have got “so lonely” at that time (to quote from ‘California’) for female artists, who knew that they had the talent to put their male contemporaries into the shade. Just think of the relative pygmy-talent of the likes of Nash, Crosby and Browne. Reading Yaffe’s book, the crap that Joni had to put up from ‘ex-lovers’ like Browne, drummer John Guerin (who specialised in double standards, by the sound of it) and the physically abusive ‘Othello-syndrome’ (basically, alcohol-fuelled pathological jealousy) jerk, percussionist  Don Alias, whose presence on Bitches Brew does little to excuse his abusive behaviour. 

Graham Nash comes across as one of the few famous amours in her life who weren’t in some way abusive, but Joni’s powers of forgiveness appear to be saint-like with regards to them (but not to others, it seems, as we will see).

To be continued...

A Film and a Gig - the first since March

So, on Friday (4th. September), I went to the cinema with my son in the afternoon, for the first time since mid-March - to see ‘Tenet’, Christopher Nolan’s completely chaotic and incoherent new blockbuster. There were only about 8 people in the place (Crouch End Picture House), so it bore some comparisons to a free improvisation gig! At least the audience at I’Klectik on Sunday managed to reach into double figure (the maximum allowed in had been set at twenty), but that admittedly included a few people who were working there. Like the cinema, physical distancing was thus easy peasy to accomplish, but the compulsory wearing of face masks was a constant reminder of the ‘new reality’(as opposed to the ‘new normal’). Still and all, it felt so good to be back in a live music scenario that all other factors and considerations could be put aside, even if only temporarily.

The evening consisted of members of the London Improvisers Orchestra (LIO) performing two separate paying performances; mine was from 19.30 to around 20.30, and the following from 21.00 onward. The earlier consisted of a sextet of Charlotte Keefe on trumpet, Adrian Northover on alto sax and introductions, Douglas Benford performing with a ‘harmonium’ (in fact, it was a digital sqeezebox, which was unfortunately only able to make an impression in the quieter passages), Jackie Walduck on vibes, bassist Geru Kempf and percussionist David Fowler and a modest, but effective, drum kit. I was unfamiliar with any of these LIO members, but they produced an interesting tapestry of ‘pointilliste’ free improv, putting me mostly in mind of the Withdrawal -era Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) of 1967, probably down to the imaginative use of the vibraphone (played, uniquely, by saxophone colossi Evan Parker. and Trevor Watts in the SME). It seems instructive to remember that this music is now over fifty years old, and what was once radical now seems almost quaintly institutionalised, forming  a definable and recognisable ‘style’. Some (not me, I hasten to add) might even suggest that it has even become an ossified form.

The LIO’s ‘eminence grise’, Steve Beresford, had sent in a five-minute prepared piano improvisation, and it was great to see a Founding Father starting off this performance by younger improvisers, if only from a social distance. There were good performances from all involved, and I was particularly impressed by Charlotte Keefe, who demonstrated a Lester Bowie-like command of various trumpet stylings. What did come to mind, however, without wanting to sound too critical of what was a very enjoyable event, was the problem of ‘endings’ in this music. There was an encore (or at least it felt like one), and after about ten minutes, there occurred what sounded to me like a perfect full stop in the sound (it proved to be a caesura), and I thought to myself, “lovely,  a perfect end to a very coherent set” (unlike Nolan’s film). What then occurred was what seemed to be some kind of interpersonal dissonance, and the bass player (I think) seemed to want to carry on, when the others, as far as I could ascertain, seemed to sense an appropriate ending - I could be totally imagining this, but the group seemed from this point on to flag somewhat, as if flailing about for lost connections,and the music seemed to be ‘going through the motions’, rather than creating a dynamic and genuinely interactive soundscape. I got to thinking once more, what a delicate process free improvisation always is, a tightrope walk, and it only takes a moment’s indecision or misunderstanding, to topple a carefully constructed edifice.

Of course, this was my very personal reaction, and the group’s experience may clearly be totally at odds with this. But this is a music that does have a ‘heart and soul’, whatever its detractors may think, and small, even imperceptible events, do affect the listener, thus validating many improvisers assertions that there is such a thing as ‘creative listening’ from an audience. I would further assert that free improvisation demands creative listening from its audience, in order for the latter to gain anything of use from it.

Staff informed me that, while things certainly remain uncertain, they hope to have more in situ gigs in October. Let’s hope so.

English Never Trumpers (ENT)  Part Two

“This constant coverage becomes a compulsion fixation for us all…Yet, we gorge ourselves on such toxic infotainment with a niggling sense of impending doom” (Betty T. Peng, in Lee,  pp. 231-2).

I am no exception. I’ve ‘gorged’ myself on the following since early 2018:

Fire and Fury - Michael Wolff; Fear - Bob Woodward; Everything Trump Touches Dies - Rick Wilson.  All 2018.

Siege - Michael Wolff; A Warning - Anonymous.  Both 2019.

A Very Stable Genius - Phillip Rucker & Carol Leonnig; A Year at the Circus - Jon Sopel.  Both 2020.

Add to these seven the above mentioned Mary Trump and Bandy Lee books, and you have NINE tomes. So, as opposed to books on Trump’s ‘malignant narcissism’ and the ‘malignant normality’ that it engenders, I have less on Bob Dylan, and I’ve been buying books on him since 1972! What on earth is it all about then? One theory is that it represents an epistemological ‘anxiety attack’, ‘DERIVED FROM A REALITY ONLY HE KNOWS’ (Teng, page 230, my upper-case), which invites a paranoid existential weltanschauung. ‘Trumpanschauung’ is not ‘objective’, so we sink into its world of subjectivity, which only the Trump Corporation can explain. Look at the medieval Catholic Church for another example of ‘reality banditry’, one which I’m sure that Mike Pence would fully endorse.

This new world has its own Trump-related pathologies/norms/symptoms, which is a remarkably perverse triumph/achievement for the former ‘reality TV star’, who has now achieved an almost Palmer Eldridge-type (dis)continuity over his ‘world’ (a reference to the Phillip K. Dick novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldridge), with Chew-Z and Can-D replaced by hydroxychloriquine and  bleach/’light’ injections. This is truly the stuff of horrors. Some have come up with diagnoses such as ‘Post-Trump Stress Disorder’ (with PTSD- like effects) and ‘Trump Anxiety Disorder’, to reify the New Era of Trump-related symptomatology. One simple definition of a ‘delusion’ is ‘a fixed, false belief’. so are Trump and his followers deluded and ignorant, or merely suffering from ‘magical thinking’? Or all three, in one toxic package?

This is merely one conundrum for the Goldwater/Tarasoff disputants to argue out. Whatever the ‘confidentiality’/’duty to warn’ dilemma, there are many of us who worry that “Donald Trump is causing a trauma epidemic” and at times feel “overwhelmed and immobilised by anger or anxiety in the face of Trump’s erratic and vindictive behaviour” (Lee, pp. 223-4). And that’s before we get onto the more parochial topic of Brexit and Boris Johnson’s government-of-all-the-crooks, which is our very own creek/paddle, self-imposed nightmare.

Confessions of an ENT (English Never Trumper) Part One

I’ve just finished reading one of the first of the now many, many books exploring the #Donald Trump phenomenon. This is a 2017 compilation of 27 ‘duty-to-warn’ American mental health professionals, edited by forensic psychiatrist Bandy Lee, with an epilogue by Noam Chomsky even, so it’s hardly a ‘kiss and tell’ opportunist project. The latter category might be applied to the work that I finished reading just before commencing The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, written by Trump’s niece Mary, and published only a couple of weeks ago, called Too Much and Never Enough. In fact, the latter is probably, on refection, the best account that I have read on the subject of Trump World, in that it describes the ‘making of a monster’ in a dispassionate manner, and is a valuable first-hand account of the sheer dysfunctional quality of the Trump family/menagerie, going a fair way to explaining why ‘The Donald’ is such a fuck-up, both as a human being and a effective leader of the Land of the Free

I appear to be one of those middle-aged UK men who have become discombobulated by the Trump saga of ‘falling upwards, all the way to the very, very top’ (thus giving hope to us all?). Acronyms for this process include: ENT (as in this blog’s title), TOB (Trump-Obsessed Brit) and MABOT (Middle-aged Bloke Obsessed by Trump). My family certainly think that I have ineluctably become a member of this club, however it is acronym-ed. Some quotes from the Lee-edited compilation will serve, however, to indicate that my Trump ‘addiction’ is hardly a solitary one. To start with:

“Trump has mesmerised our national psyche like no other public figure in memory”. (Singer, page 281) 

There might be a few musical/sport/entertainment figures who can be said to have occupied this role, but surely not a Republican politician? On page 294, Thomas Singer, a Jungian analyst, opines, in his chapter entitled ‘Trump and the American Collective Psyche’ that “one of the most disturbing thoughts about the Trump Presidency is that he has taken up residence not just in the White House but in the psyches of each and every one of us”. Trump is imagined here, as both an Internal Persecutor and as a psychic ‘rapist’ (or, at the very least, a frotteur of cosmic proportions) - “the way a president lives inside each of us can feel like a very personal and intimate affair…(Trump’s) masterful skill at invading and groping the national psyche” (page 295).

Just in case you though that Trump was a-religious, he here presents a messianic message, one which I am sure that he entirely convinced about:

“I AM THE TRUTHFUL HYPERBOLE”. (a mission statement originally put forward in his co-written book with Tony Schwartz, The Art of the Deal.

Yet another bellicose and hubristic big-up of himself, this book of questionable-truths, was an early Trump bible, a tablets-from-the mountain account of his extraordinary deeds and pronouncements. With his (and his enablers in the GOP) ongoing propositions of ‘alternative truths/facts’, and, taking this to its reductio ad absurdum of alternative realities’, who has need of hallucinogens when you’ve got Trump, the alt right’s own Timothy Leary? This b/s fundamentally calls into question one’s perceptions of both truth and reality, and any ideas of ‘consensus’, in either realm, start to fragment under Trump’s ruthless assault on both. 

Trump’s epistemological dirty fighting, between belief and mere opinion, has become, over just three and a half years, a scary attack on decent values and the decent ideation that must underlie these.

To be continued.

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