1971 – “River,” Joni Mitchell


Here’s a pretty good version of  “River” by The Bleeding Heart Show with myself and the SFL on vocals: http://music.unclechux.com/tno/20091209/River.mp3

1971 … so far, the toughest choice (although the 80s aren’t going to be a cakewalk, I suspect). There were literally dozens of classic albums released that year, including five of my favorites,

  • Led Zeppelin IV
  • Who’s Next
  • Blue (Joni Mitchell)
  • Every Picture Tells a Story (Rod Stewart)
  • Madman Across the Water (Elton John)

My criteria pretty much cancelled out Led Zep and The Who for me: I know most of the songs (the ones worth knowing, in my opinion – “My Wife” and “The Battle of Evermore” just don’t rate, sorry) on both. I love “Tiny Dancer,” “Levon,” and “Holiday Inn” on Madman, and trying to translate John’s piano lines to guitar isn’t all that difficult, but its Bernie Taupin’s lyrics that I never could quite wrap my head around; he and John are a magical pairing, but part of that magic is that neither makes much sense without the other … and I’m no Elton, as far as interpreters go — not that I haven’t donned a Donald Duck suit or twelve in my time.

Now, I’ll make fun of Rod Stewart just as much as the next rock and roll snob. Never has a talent been so totally squandered as Rod the Mod’s – “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”? – ’nuff said –, but when he was in his element — that is, with The Faces and even more so on his Faces-era solo albums Every Pictureand Never a Dull Moment — he was damned near untouchable as a vocalist, arranger, and even as a songwriter (“Maggie May” fer crissakes!). Still, his persona is so much a part of his songs that I would feel silly singing “Every Picture” or “Maggie May”: I’m no roving Casanova/pool shark/soccer hippie, nor will I ever be able to pose convincingly as such.

So we come to Blue (“songs are like tattoos”). At first I dismissed Joni as too difficult to tackle. Her vocal range, the album’s instrumentation (guitar, dulcimer, piano), and the intimate songwriting are all extremely intimidating for a white male interpreter such as I (however, if you ever get a chance, listen to Prince’s take on “A Case of You” — best Mitchell cover you’ll ever hear). On top of that, as probably the most prominent female singer-songwriter of the rock era, she is an icon. She wrote some of the most resonant songs of the 60s and 70s – “Both Sides Now,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” “You Turn Me on I’m a Radio,” “Free Man in Paris”); played with and upstaged Dylan and Leonard Cohen (on the same night, in Canada, during The Rolling Thunder Tour … thanks to Ratso’s On the Road with Bob Dylan for that story!); played the roles of muse, competitor, and companion for Graham Nash, Neil Young, and David Crosby.

So, when I mentioned to my wife how difficult it was finding a song to cover for 1971 — the year of her birth — and asked her to make the pick, of course, she had to pick Joni. And of all the incredible songs on Blue, she picked “River.”

“River,” unlike my previous picks, is a song that’s been a part of my life for a long time, and while “Ballad” is a song I came very late to, and “Customer” a song I’d listened to in my parents’ record collection since I can remember listening to music, “River,” and Blue, the album it graces, were college discoveries. Blue was actually one of the first three CDs I ever purchased (think about that, kiddies — I didn’t own a CD until I was 20; hell, they didn’t even really exist on the mass market until I was 18), the other two being Van Morrison’s Avalon Sunset and Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.

“River” is a lament on love, sex, escape (from guilt, from sorrow, from the repurcussions of ones guilty actions), and being a Canadian living in LA. I can related to the first three — can’t we all, in one way or another — and I know T can relate to the last, being a Wisconsinite consined to the south.

The chorus is my favorite part, lyrically, and the most challenging musically.

Oh, I wish I had a river
I could skate away on.
I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly.
Oh, I wish I had a river

I could skate away on.
I made my baby say goodbye

I’m having to change the key, from Joni’s C to a more do-able G, and even that’s going to be a stretch (quite literally). I don’t think I’ve really worked on a falsetto since I was in high school. Well, here we go!

If you don’t know the song, I urge you to go to my blip.fm site and listen. I’m going to be posting my song choices, as I can find freely available, there athttp://blip.fm/invite/rob4drok

First, let me just say that this blog, and the nice feedback I get on it (who knew there were so many Joni Mitchell lovers among my friends on Twitter/Facebook/blip.fm?), is a bright spot in every week. I’m so glad when I make the time to write — makes me feel like I could absolutely get used to waking up at 5:30 am (or staying up to 2 am)and writing for an hour and a half every day on this lovely blog.

“River” is a song that has a lot of memories attached for me. The first thing I think of is sitting in John Barto’s apartment on Locust Street listening to records, playing guitar and singing for hours and hours. John’s one of the best “natural” singers I’ve ever heard — and had the added bonus of being a trained singer, as well. I met him when I was in my first year at ETSU; he was waiting tables at the Down Home and playing gigs around town with Mike Knowles and Donna Maurer, about two or three years out of Milligan College. John later replaced me as the lead singer in The GrooveMasters, and I believe trumped both Tim and myself in longeviety — he doubled our tenures, at the very least. While he could certainly sing blues and jazz, jazzy-rock and folk-rock were his specialty, and he loved Joni, CSN&Y (particularly Crosby), and Richard Thompson.

I’ve always been a lead tenor and a horrible harmony singer, but it’s not from lack of trying. Some people, like John Barto and my long-time Loser partner David Hart, have a natural ear for harmony. But John and Dave both have the rare gift of being able to be both great harmony singers and strong lead vocalists. I’ve been lucky enough to harmonize with both of them, through little effort on my own part, and feel myself blessed as a result.

The first time I heard Blue was at John’s apartment, in the winter of ’88-’89. On at least one occasion during that time I drank too much gin and lemonade at John’s place and decorate the tree streets’ sidewalks with yellow vomit on my way back to the dorm. My memories of Joni are much less traumatic: sitting on the carpet in John’s apartment, listening to record after record, hearing Barto break down the harmonies and tell all the stories behind the songs: “This one’s about Graham Nash … and this one she wrote after sleeping with some Greek guy while she was dating David Crosby.” He was a living rock and roll wikipedia.

But it wasn’t until a little later, until I owned the album myself, that the album really sunk in for me. The album’s simple instrumentation (guitar, dulcimer, piano — rarely more than two instruments at a time backing the vocals) and the lure of Joni’s voice, with its inimitable range and  jazz-like sense of phrasing are the elements that have brought me back to it year after year, carrying me through good times and bad. It’s one of the few “singer-songwriter” records of the early 70s that I don’t feel is dated in any way: she is in her element, in her rawest state, and the songs shine through with a clarity that can be chilly, funny, sad, sometimes joyous.

“River” is one of those songs whose meaning changes depending on the context you hear it in, and who sings it. Joni’s context back then, as the muse of the canyon, leads a listener into one reading: the singer is regretful, but not entirely so, content to dream of escape that’s on the horizon. A friend of mine on FB, Allun, pointed me to the Robert Downey, Jr. version, and in that context (and it’s a great arrangement — in G, with piano, guitar and viola, and a female harmony vocal coming in and out on the chorus), the song changes again. This time the regret isn’t light: it’s like a shroud. Not that RDJ is Nick Cave, but it’s definitely an interpretation informed by the singer’s time on the dark side.

I can proudly say that I did perform “River” for the first time today, at the college’s Earth Day celebration (on the day after Earth Day?), and I didn’t muff it at all. I took Downey’s key only bc I forgot my capo (I would’ve preferred it in A or G#), but I sure did hit those notes on the chorus, which I don’t know if I could ever hope to do in Joni’s key.

I did, however, make some slip ups on my 1972 choice, which I also performed: David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” from Ziggy Stardust. But more on that later.


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