Why Joni Mitchell’s Blue Isn’t Just About Heartbreak
Placed at number 30 in Rolling Stone’s ‘500 Greatest Albums of all Time‘ listing and widely heralded as a masterpiece, Blue is the album that took Joni Mitchell’s fame to new heights, helping to shape music of the 1970’s and beyond.
Once lauded by The Atlantic as ‘The greatest relationship album ever’, Blue’s contemporary appeal as an emotional compass is evident. Taylor Swift named it her all-time favourite album, while in the 2003 RomCom Love Actually, Emma Thompson’s character tells her husband that “Joni Mitchell is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to feel”. In the 2010 Sundance hit ‘The Kids Are All Right” starring Annette Bening and Marianne Moore as a married couple, Blue is used as an agent for character and plot development.
It is difficult to separate the songs from the singer in Blue, not only due to its intimate, confessional style but also because the autobiographical aspect of it has been so well documented, even by Joni Mitchell herself.
“At that period of my life, I had no personal defences. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defences there either”
In the years either side of its release in 1971, Joni Mitchell’s personal life was subject to close scrutiny in the music press – a famous example of which is the ’Hollywood Hot 100’ feature in Rolling Stone magazine, which included an illustrated diagram of her various heartbreaks.
Although her tumultuous relationship with the singer James Taylor (at the height of his heroin addiction) was “the pivotal experience…that drove the emergence of the album” (Ref), the songs are a composite of several relationships and situations encountered by Joni during the 1960’s. A significant one of these was her idyllic relationship with Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills & Nash), who she lived with during the height of the counter-culture music scene of Laurel Canyon in LA. The union ended when she took a break from the pressures of the industry by travelling around Europe, a trip that would inspire a number of the songs on Blue.
From a relationship point of view, the album builds a strong conceptual narrative. The youthful, repetition-heavy urgency of love in ‘All I Want’ (“Applause, applause – life is our cause/When I think of your kisses my mind see-saws”) and the ideals of first love in ‘My Old Man’ (“We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall”) give way to reflections on the consequences of youthful love in ‘Little Green’ (“Call her Green for the children who made her”).
The flings and reckless love that follow in Carey (“met a redneck on a Grecian isle, he did the goat dance very well, he gave me back my smile, but he kept my camera to sell”) predicate a longing for something more permanent in ‘Blue’ (“Crown and anchor me/Or let me sail away”) and finally migrate to a deeper connection in which “love is touching souls” in ‘A Case of You’ but makes a person “cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café” in ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’. This reading illuminates the album as a linear depiction of a break up, and a thematic exploration of the complexities involved in loving and being loved.
But are relationships really what drives this record? What if we view them as the stories found on the way of a literal and metaphorical journey?
‘All I Want’, track number 1 on the album sets the tone for this immediately with its very first line, which, despite being about a relationship, positions Joni on a solitary path.
“I am on a lonely road, and I am travelling, travelling, travelling
Looking for something, what can it be?”
In storytelling from The Odyssey to On The Road, there is mythical and symbolic power in the taking of a journey. Placing this album in cultural context, it is interesting to note that Blue was released in 1971; a time in the Western world when many of its listeners were – as the album does – looking back on the decade that had just passed, a decade rife with change. The 1960’s was an age of both macro and micro revolutions, and travel – or ‘journeying’- was in many ways at the centre of this. From the birth of the package holiday to man landing on the moon, travel was becoming an accessible ideal. Sexual freedom and drug use were also seen as new frontiers ready to explore and experience.
Travel is a principal aspect of the narrative in Blue, with the sentiment of the above lyrics echoing across each song in a way that impresses a distinct sense of a voyage that is both symbolic (emotional and spiritual) and literal, in that we see Joni in various places across Europe whilst also remembering and retelling past scenes from California, Canada and Detroit.
An interplay between these two parallel journeys is indicated by opposing themes of restlessness and longing, permanence and transition, home and away. The middle of the album sees Joni hardly ever indoors, and never at home. Whether “back on a plane to Spain”, under a “starry dome” or thinking she “shouldn’t have got on this flight” the state of being ‘away’ highlights the contradictory nature of her quest. She sits in cafes, bars, parks and planes and longs for places and people who aren’t there.
It is in the song ‘Carey’ that Joni first sings of a combined sense of geographical and spiritual displacement. Appearing midway in the album, this song documents the time that Joni spent living in Matala, Crete at what became known as the ‘hippy caves’; a magnet for the flower children of the 60’s seeking beach-side freedom and free love.
Although the song is addressed to ‘Carey’ – in real life Cary Raditz, a man with whom Joni had an affair during her two months on the island – the song seems more focused on the place and its role in Joni’s quest.
“The wind is in from Africa
Last night I couldn’t sleep
Oh it sure is hard to leave here
But it’s really not my home”
Interestingly, where this song title is the name of a person – the track that follows it is the name of the place that calls her away from him: ‘California’.
“I might have stayed on with him only my heart cried out for you, California”
By ‘A Case of You’, the penultimate song of the album, she has doodled a map of her home country and likened it to an ex-lover. Furthermore, the friction between the notion of belonging to a place or a person is heightened by the inclusion of the Canadian national anthem into the lyric.
“I drew a map of Canada, oh Canada
With your face sketched on it twice”
In this song, Joni makes it clear from the beginning that the love is “lost”, therefore again documenting – and battling with – conflicting feelings from a point of distance. In the following song, ‘River’, she again picks up this theme. Having “made my baby say goodbye” she concludes that she has “lost the best baby that I ever had”.
Using distance as way to reflect on and assess situations is of course an old habit in humankind. In ‘Letter to Hester Thrale’ (1773), Samuel Johnson said “The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are”.
But this distance also has another purpose. It allows not only the confrontation of hard truths, but the telling of them. Just as along with an external journey in Blue there is also an interior one, distance can also be a psychological state – something that in the song ‘Little Green’ is actually used as a tool. The true story of how in 1965 the young art-student Joni gave up her baby for adoption is described to us through second-person narration.
“Child with a child pretending
Weary of lies you are sending home
So you sign all the papers in the family name
You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed”
Here the real ‘I’ becomes a lyrical ‘You’. It is through this technical position as an outsider that Joni is able to (covertly – as it actually remained unknown to the public until it was ‘exposed’ by the press in 1994) recount a traumatic life event – and effectively give a secret story a voice.
Thus we see the journey in all its forms as a way to exhort, exhume or exorcise ghosts, demons and emotional wounds.
It is these stark observations of love and loss, delivered with such emotional rawness that professedly prompted Kris Kristofferson to exclaim, upon hearing it “Joni! Keep something of your self!” (Ref).
Ironically, ‘self’ is arguably the biggest and most defining journey of the album. By framing the combined literal and emotional landscapes offered in these songs as a narrative of identity, it becomes clear that the real journey is a quest not just for self-exploration but for self-growth, or in psychology terms ‘self-actualisation’.
In fact, in the same era that saw the experiences that would go on to make Blue, significant steps were also being made in psychological approaches to theories of self (defined here as a “humanistic term for who we really are as a person”). This movement was spearheaded by Carl Rogers, whose ground-breaking publications on the topic centered on the idea that there are three contributing components to the development of the sense of self: self-image, or the ‘real self’ (how you view yourself and who you are in the real world), self-esteem (how others view you- or how you perceive others to view you), and the ideal self (the person you wish to be). According to Rogers, self-actualisation (a term coined by the psychologist Abraham Maslow to describe the realization or fulfilment of one’s potential) occurs when a person is in a state of ‘congruence’, i.e. the real-self behaviour, actions and decisions are in line with the ideal self.
In an album that seems to be in constant debate with the hold that places and people have on her, Joni’s quest is an attempt to reconcile the longing to belong with the desire to escape. This ambivalence is shown through the frequent contradictions and juxtapositions placed in the same songs, where ‘home’ and love are at once synonymous and at war with her idea of ‘self’.
In ‘All I Want’ for example, Joni sees love as a way to grow…
“All I really, really want our love to do
Is to bring out the best in me and in you”
…but notes that instead it tends to bring out the worst in her.
“Do you see
How you hurt me baby
So I hurt you too
Then we both get so blue”
Simply Psychology explains: “The closer our self-image and ideal-self are to each other, the more consistent or congruent we are and the higher our sense of self-worth. A person is said to be in a state of incongruence if some of the totality of their experience is unacceptable to them and is denied or distorted in the self-image”
Where Joni feels not-at-home, or at-home but restless, she is in a state of incongruence. The journey is both a search for self-actualisation and a path to the congruence that enables self-actualisation to take place.
In fact, this is one of the first themes we are introduced to in the album, with ‘All I Want’ neatly addressing how, to Joni, love is a thorny voyage of its own that demands self-abandonment.
“I hate you some, I hate you some, I love you some
Oh I love you when I forget about me”
The theme strengthens in the second track on the album, ‘My Old Man’, where in the midst of a romantic relationship that is “tied and true”, the ‘self’ seems fragile and unformed.
“When you’re gone, me and the lonesome blues collide
The bed’s too big, the frying pan’s too wide”
When her lover is absent Joni appears to be dwarfed, or lost in the domestic items that they share. There is an implication that, as a unit, the relationship is almost too consuming, contained and complete. As a result, when Joni is alone, she finds she doesn’t ‘fit’ in the house. It is she – through the depiction of the household items – that is shown as unable to function outside of the relationship.
Symbols of domesticity in fact seem to be strategically staggered at key points in the album: the beginning, middle and the end.
After ‘My Old Man‘, the next time material objects are dwelled upon is in the midst of Joni’s travels, dancing under the ‘Matala moon’ of Crete in the song ‘Carey’. It is at this point – midway through the album – that Joni begins to identify her sense of self and belonging with objects, jubilantly rhyming – and therefore associating – “not my home” with “I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne”.
Emotionally, the song is a high point. The spirited and fast-paced tone and energy as she sings “maybe I’ll go to Amsterdam, maybe I’ll go to Rome” suggests that the pursuit of defining ‘home’ is also a process of identifying what it is not. In this way, the middle of the album concentrates on the peak of this search – the point when the ideal self is only on the path to being found. According to Rogers, this is the best part; the dream self should always be just out of reach.
“It seems to me that the good life is not any fixed state. It is not, in my estimation, a state of virtue, or contentment, or nirvana, or happiness. It is not a condition in which the individual is adjusted or fulfilled or actualized… The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction not a destination”
From a narrative point of view, the process of identifying objects that can be missed also acts as a reconstruction of the abandoned house in ‘My Old Man’, picking out the elements that make it home. Linen and perfume are home comforts but also identity markers– signs and symbols of her tastes and preferences, and the part of her ‘real self’ that is congruent with her ideal. In the context of this song, the objects are used to delineate a part of her identity. They are part of a process.
By contrast, the tone and spirit with which domestic objects are referenced in the album’s final track, ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’, is somewhat bleaker
The song depicts Joni revisiting a scene from the past in which she finds her friend Richard, a former ‘romantic’ now turned cynic.
“The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68 and he told me
All romantics meet the same fate someday
Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café
You laugh, he said you think you’re immune
Go look at your eyes, they’re full of moon
You like roses and kisses
And pretty men to tell you all those pretty lies”
When the song cuts back to the present day, we learn what happened to him after this encounter.
“Richard got married to a figure skater
And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator
And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on
And all the house lights left up bright”
Meanwhile, it transpires that Joni is now the ‘Richard’ as she last saw him, “hidin’ down bottles in dark cafes”, as he predicted she would one day be. Contrary to the advice that she gave him then, (“When you gonna get yourself back on your feet? Love can be so sweet”) she resolves to literally and metaphorically extinguish the search.
“I’m gonna blow this damn candle out
I don’t want nobody comin’ over to my table
I got nothing to talk to anybody about”
In this context, what do the coffee percolator, the dishwasher, the TV and the electric house lights (contrasted with Joni’s candle) symbolise? Did Richard ‘settle’ for a material version of love? Is his house a front to an unauthentic or incongruent self? To Joni, are these items of domesticity indicative of Richard’s happiness or defeat? Hope or resignation?
In its first review of the album, The Rolling Stone opines that for Joni, “love has become a religious quest, and surrendering to loneliness a sin”. If this is the case perhaps it is these material goods and images of a relationship built on objects that represent the surrender and the sin.
Meanwhile, through the extinguished candle, we see a new deployment of distance. This time, Joni’s place of ‘away’ is entirely internal. She validates this emotional and social shutdown, this hibernation from self-enquiry as being a rite of passage.
“All good dreamers pass this way some day”
Joni begins the album – and therefore the journey – with chords of hope, lightness and light, boldly “sorry but not ashamed”, not knowing who she is or where she’s going. She finishes “constantly in the darkness”, “selfish and sad”, a “lonely painter”, a “good dreamer” and seemingly on the cusp of a transformation.
Singing “only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away, only a phase” the album ends with a beginning; with the promise of change and the potential for escape.
You can listen to the whole of Blue here. I’d love to hear your own experiences and stories of it.
 Purportedly Leonard Cohen, also from Canada
 As My Old Man is widely believed to be a song about Graham Nash, it is interesting to note that CSN’s ‘Our House’ – described as “an ode to countercultural domestic bliss” was written by Nash whilst living with Joni in Laurel Canyon. The house they shared became a defining feature of their relationship, gaining further 60’s mythology credentials by being the site where Crosby, Stills and Nash first ‘discovered’ a synergy in their vocal harmonies.
 She’s ‘going’ to. Does she?