At the end of six glorious summer weeks kicking back at my mum’s house in Australia, I suddenly had to leave. I cleaned my face before bed with a cosmetic wet wipe I’d picked up from the airport, and so intoxicating was its duty-free fragrance of stewardesses, of overpriced miniature things, of killing time, that I instantly yearned for more international travel.
So, I bought me a ticket. I caught a plane to Spain.
It was late January 2015, and there I was on a month-long winter hike across a very snowy northern Spain. Around the midway point, I would enjoy a 48-hour binge of Joni Mitchell’s Blue album on a loop.
I came to Joni Mitchell late in life. Blue was introduced to me by a poet friend in London around 2006. The album was striking and the melodies unexpected; I immediately wondered why I hadn’t delved into Mitchell earlier. But it was only now, ten years after first hearing them, that the map of her lyrics came into focus. Her desire to forego all this European travel and get home to California made me yearn for my own California, my own place to call home. A place to miss when I was gone, a place to return to with sighs of warm relief. A place to throw myself down just once in a while.
And it was then that the realisation hit me. I didn’t have my own California and perhaps it was too late to make one.
While listening to Joni in Spain, I was reminded that over the previous year, I had found myself in Mexico, the UK, Cambodia, Australia, Ireland, France and Italy, as well as upwards of 40 states across the USA. That doesn’t include past travails across other continents. And, though some have been the best of times, it also feels like I’m on a life-long slalom and I can’t get off. I’m writing this from India.
Joni opens her album telling us she is on a lonely road and she is travelling travelling travelling/ Looking for something, what can it be? Her jingly tempo masks a suffocating story. Mitchell had split from a long-term relationship with Graham Nash and moved into an intense and troubled love affair with heroin-addicted James Taylor, for whom the song was written. She trills I want to knit you a sweater/I want to write you a love letter/I want to make you feel better. A desperate list of all the fruitless things she has already done that have not brought him any closer.
So, she takes herself away. To Europe.
In Greece, she says goodbye to Carey. She complains My fingernails are filthy, I got beach tar on my feet/ And I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne. She tells him it’s hard to leave him, but it’s really not her home. But she makes no attempt to go home. Instead, she clutches at new options – maybe I’ll go to Amsterdam, maybe I’ll go to Rome. It feels as though her refrain in River (Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on) is echoed throughout the album.
A good storyteller invites the audience to fill in the gaps. The listener, transposing herself into the place of the performer, composes the unsung lyric to fit her own story. For me, the yearning that runs through Blue, the wishing for places and countries and movement and change, always seems to suggest that on finding that special destination we can be happy.
But can places really provide the comfort we crave? After all, what are they but masses of land, ice, deserts, streets and buildings, particular arrangements of smells and light invoking a partial recall of simpler times, memories of people that no longer exist, of people who have since moved on?
In The Last Time I Saw Richard, Richard’s choice of a domestic life is depicted as moribund – he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on and all the house lights left up bright. It feels profane in comparison to her own exquisite adventures. But she’s already admitted to us that she’s alienated by the pretty Vogue-reading snobs in Spain, has had her camera stolen by a a redneck in Greece and that she’s bored in Paris. Sure there are ‘sights’ to see but it’s too old and cold and settled in its ways.
Oh, but California!
Blue is a concept album about imprisonment and escape and the fluidity and coexistence of both. And it’s very much about seeking – but not finding – answers from sources outside of ourselves. Whether that be validation from another individual or happiness in a far off place, whether it be home or an exotic foreign land. Any place but here.
Urge For Going was cut from the album. It includes the lyrics I get the urge for going/ When the meadow grass is turning brown/ Summertime is falling down and winter is closing in. So is this album about running away and not having the strength of conviction to face the internal winters, the hurdles and challenges, doubts and rejections? The winter that follows you wherever you go, the winter that cannot be thawed by a roomful of flowers, Egyptian cotton sheets, or a litre of Chanel No.5?
Or perhaps it’s about recognising that warmer climes come from changing what we make and do. And not from where we happen to be on the planet.