My relationship with Joni Mitchell and her music moves through two stages. My early admiration for her—in the seventies—in some ways anticipated the zeitgeist. Then I stopped listening to her for about a quarter of a century. I began to rediscover Mitchell’s work in the new millennium, when, by coincidence, so was the rest of the world.
I grew up in Bombay in privileged circumstances. But privilege didn’t just have to do with money. Some people in the set I’m thinking of had less money; others had more. In fact, having too much money was looked down upon. The time of my growing up—the sixties and seventies—overlapped with and succeeded Nehru, and carried forward his fastidious, progressive legacy of socialism and the “mixed economy.” A “mixed economy” meant that the market was controlled, and subject to any number of restrictions. So businessmen were often glorified traders: they made their money on the sly and contributed to the huge “black” economy. The privilege I’m talking about claimed to keep its distance from this world.
My father was a company executive. When I was growing up, he was in charge of finance; when I was nineteen, he took over the company. This sounds grand, and it is, but not as grand as you’d expect. Twice a week, he flew to Delhi to deal with government bureaucrats, given the restrictions on the private sector. He met Indira Gandhi twice. Indira Gandhi, an autocrat susceptible to conspiracies and conspiracy theories, did a lot of irretrievable harm to Indian politics, but, early on, she also took some radical socialist measures. She went on a nationalization spree (the company my father worked in wasn’t among the ones nationalized); she stripped royalty of its titles and took away its allowances (the “privy purse”)—unlike, say, the English, who robbed the maharajahs of their political power but fetishized their lineage. She set a ceiling on salaries for private-sector executives like my father (his salary never rose higher than seven thousand five hundred rupees), and then imposed a tax of eighty percent upon them. The main attraction of company life in Indira Gandhi’s time wasn’t the income but the perks—luxuriously furnished flats in prime locations, the membership of clubs, the chauffeur-driven car, the paid holidays within India. My parents knew well that, when my father retired, they wouldn’t be able to afford the flats in which we were living. I was aware of it too. So I experienced privilege as something of a performance.
I knew that when I grew up I wouldn’t be able to lead this life through inherited wealth—since there wasn’t that much wealth to inherit. The only option was to become my father. It became clear early on that I wasn’t going for that option—this, I suppose, was the greatest privilege available to me: one exercised by few in my class, but one that I chose. My father spotted my plans to make an exit from his world, and didn’t intervene. Instead, he abetted my egress. Almost every other month, he bought me the latest in A. Alvarez’s Penguin Modern European Poets series from the Nalanda bookshop at the Taj Mahal hotel.
The decade I’m describing is the long seventies, from 1970 to 1981, which I identify with the twelfth-storey flat we then lived in, looking out on the Marine Drive and the Arabian Sea. The flat was in a building called Il Palazzo on Malabar Hill. The performance of privilege on various levels—including those of resistance and rejection, of exploring philosophy and music, wearing torn kurtas and chappals and mimicking a sort of poverty—worked beautifully here. I began to listen to pop and rock music in 1970, when I was eight years old, removing it from its original context and freely making it integral to mine. I acquired and absorbed the Bee Gees; The Who; The Beatles; Creedence Clearwater Revival; Pink Floyd; the Carpenters; Neil Diamond; Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young; Simon & Garfunkel. All this was accessible locally, at Rhythm House (or Hiro Music House or Melody). Some records had become extinct—out of print in India—by the time I grew interested in them: Sweet Baby James, for instance. The more arcane contemporary stuff, like Jethro Tull, I asked my father to get for me from London. He’d begun to go there every few years because the company he worked for had a substantial British shareholding. These were business trips, but he found time to frequent Our Price shops and return to Bombay with the records on my list. Meanwhile, in 1974, I began to play the guitar. My mother and I accompanied my father on a couple of his London sojourns, and it was probably in 1977 that we—all three of us—explored Denmark Street, and my father bought me a sweet-sounding Yamaha acoustic.
By this time, one of the fantasies germinating in my head had to do with being a singer-songwriter. The fantasy had its physical outgrowths: I began to sport long hair, which got me into trouble at school, and which looked unpleasantly flat, because my hair was greasy and I seldom shampooed. It had dulcet effects: I loved the acoustic sound, the tones produced by strumming and plucking. I was mesmerised by “sustained” and “add ninth” chord formations. By 1978, I wanted more Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Leonard Cohen from the Our Price shops. I also began to ask for Joni Mitchell. I can’t remember what led me to ask my father for her records. She was famous, of course. I’d have seen her as part of the folk phenomenon, but I may not have distinguished her at first from the likes of Joan Baez. Here was another ethereal being who combed her straight hair with puritanical dutifulness, eschewed rock amplification, strummed, and sang heartfelt lyrics. That she was Canadian would hardly have registered with Indian listeners; politically, her country of origin was a place that Sikhs had migrated to, but otherwise had no existence—for Indians—independent of America. Nevertheless, her presence on my list must represent some sort of evolution, because I find the records in my possession belong mainly to the phase when she was on a cusp, between playing folk music and discovering jazz. In other words, I didn’t have the early acoustic material that made Mitchell well-known. The albums I acquired between 1977 and 1981 (in 1979, I visited America, so I would have purchased a couple then) were For the Roses, Miles of Aisles, Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, and Mingus. The last named I may well have bought on my American trip, as it came out the same year. The list is predominantly a seventies list; The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira were released in 1975 and 1976 respectively, and they would have reached me two years later.
By the standards of the speed at which “Western” ideas, books, and technologies arrived at Indian shores (or vice versa, for that matter), this relatively short timelag had, historically, been the norm for three hundred years. Hundreds of copies of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man had come on a ship to Calcutta in the 1820s, three decades after publication: not a great gap for the era. This gap decreased soon after. It seems very likely that Rabindranath Tagore read William James on “stream of consciousness” in Psychology a year or two after it was published in 1892 (James probably borrowed the notion from Buddhism). Indeed, Tagore was the first writer anywhere to import James’s concept into critical discourse, mentioning it in an 1894 essay on Bengali nursery rhymes. Here, Tagore uses the Bengali phrase “nityaprabahitachetanarmajhe”: “in the midst of the daily flow of consciousness.” As to vinyl—it had been India for a long time, as had HMV. (My mother, a singer of Tagore songs, had cut her first 78 rpm disc with HMV in 1965.) In the seventies, stacks of pop and rock records were available to browsers at Rhythm House in Kala Ghoda. Even those that were harder to come by, like The Hissing of Summer Lawns, would have made their way to India by one means or another—my own case was one example of how this happened.
I probably first heard Joni Mitchell’s early songs on the radio, or in other people’s homes—and in other people’s versions. Mitchell’s work was subject to its own timelag. She was a successful songwriter first, and slightly later a successful singer. Towards the beginning of her career, her work became iconic in renditions by established “artists.” There was, for example, Judy Collins’s “Both Sides, Now.” I got to know Mitchell’s “Woodstock” through Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, who converted it into a pop tune you could hum along with. Those who expressed their admiration at Mitchell’s later “covers” of her own songs in the albums Both Sides Now (2000) and Travelogue (2002)—both of which invite the listener to note how the orchestral arrangements and slow tempo make room for a voice transformed by age and smoking—forget that she began her career by covering her compositions. When she recorded “Both Sides, Now” in 2000, Mitchell commented that she’d hardly experienced, firsthand, any of the song’s themes—love, life, and disillusionment—when she’d composed it in 1967. More than thirty years later, then, she could speak, or sing, about them from the vantage point that the song had long ago anticipated. But if you listen to Collins’s 1967 interpretation, which made the song famous, and then Mitchell’s own version in 1969, you feel a great deal of time has already elapsed between Collins’s mellifluous, plangent rendering and Mitchell’s light but ponderous guitar strokes and melodic, deadpan singing.
Mitchell performs a similar task with “Woodstock,” a song that Crosby, Stills, & Nash and she recorded more or less simultaneously in 1970, but she seems to come to after CSN have acquired ownership of it. CSN add rock guitar and tempo and turn the song into an anthem. This is the version I listened to in Bombay. I had bought the predominantly white-jacketed Greatest Hits from Rhythm House; its cover had a doodle of CSN, with their d’Artagnan, Neil Young, appearing on the right. I often played it on the hi-fi that had been placed in the unwieldy wall-unit in the drawing room. To my right was the balcony, at a lower level than the rest of the flat, two steps going down to where it hung like a promontory over a view of the Marine Drive. “Almost Cut My Hair” emerged from the crevasse; and “Wooden Ships”; and “Teach Your Children”; and “Woodstock.” Mitchell’s interpretation of her composition, which I heard years later, is quite different. It’s as if she has no natural right to it, and needs to repossess the song. Her attempt at doing so is slow-paced and sparse, dominated by electric piano and her voice. The slower tempo means she can elaborate on the tension within the phrases that CSN swallow up or elide, and which allude to the appropriation, by the pop industry, of the impulses that Woodstock briefly celebrated: “We are stardust / Billion year old carbon / We are golden / Caught in the devil’s bargain.” Her auto-covers, right from the start, were a means to being obdurately opposed to such pop appropriation, and her versions of “Both Sides, Now” and “Woodstock” have that stripped-down, stubborn quality. They also bear the mark of lateness, of the performer having lighted upon something—her own songs, in this case—after the moment of superficial excitement has passed. This reminds us of Mitchell’s great preoccupation (as a songwriter, certainly, but as a performer too): time—its unfolding and return, its destructive and renovating influences. Time makes Mitchell not only a composer who survived the originary moment in the late sixties that created her generation. More significantly, it makes her a curator of music: others’ and her own.
Which brings me back to the zeitgeist. For some reason, the Mitchell album that had the deepest impact on me was Hejira. I recall that I grew convinced that it was her defining achievement—indeed, not only hers, but a pinnacle of songwriting, musical arrangement, and performance. Why I thought so isn’t clear. I certainly didn’t have the authority, at seventeen, to make such a judgement. The songs, anyway, were unconcerned with enticing the young listener. They had none of the features that a teenage pop aficionado depends on: hooks, choruses, bridges—not even (and this is true of much of Mitchell’s oeuvre) a recognizable exploration of the blues scale or a basic rock-and-roll structure. There were the tantalizing, emotionally inconclusive jazz-fusion arrangements, of course (she was working with Jaco Pastorius, the bass guitarist who’d embarked on his remarkable fusion experiments on the album Weather Report five years prior to Hejira); but, unlike in jazz, there was much repetition, and an almost obsessive return, at the end of each stanza, to either the tonic or the key—like a prolepsis of trance music. No wonder, then, that the album, despite being praised by critics, failed to find a large audience or get nominated for awards, and took roughly three decades to be acknowledged by some of Mitchell’s supporters as her best work. In this way, my early bond with Mitchell through Hejira was out of sync with the time that she and I were living in.
To be so out of sync is—for listener and artist—to be surreptitiously connected. The two may not know of the connection, but it exists. Just as the listener feels that an album that has been generally overlooked is somehow significant, the artist too is aware—whatever its reception—of her album’s importance. Its time is to come. This belief places both artist and listener in a tiny minority. The artist may not have an explanation for why she believes this: but this experience, of a writer or filmmaker or musician concluding that a work she feels close to has been bypassed, isn’t uncommon. The work often represents a convergence of personal resonance with immense creative innovation. It’s evident that Mitchell knew Hejira had a special quality; she’s talked about how it came to her when she was traveling the American highway and was seized by “inspiration.” She wrote up and recorded the songs very fast. It would then take years for Hejira to be properly discovered. While the process of valuation took place, there was the loneliness, for me, of holding in high esteem something that wasn’t widely popular or even known, a loneliness that felt less like a privilege than an anomaly.
What could have drawn me to it? What, listening to it in Bombay, was I encountering that I hadn’t before? If mere social identification accounts for my taste for Joni Mitchell, then The Hissing of Summer Lawns, with its brilliant, angular depictions of the sterility of the well-to-do, should have spoken to me directly. For I was unhappy in Bombay, miserable at the Cathedral School, safer at home in Malabar Hill but still in exile. I found the Gothic buildings within which I was educated intimidating, as I did the quasi-colonial regime in which sporting glory was everything. Home was simply too high up; too removed from the street, too non-physical, for me to be entirely convinced it was home. When we moved, after my father became chief executive officer, across the Marine Drive and the inlet created by the Arabian Sea, to Cuffe Parade and into a twenty-fifth-storey apartment, I was unhappier still. PerhapsThe Hissing of Summer Lawns was too close to me to make sense; or possibly I was too young to understand the source of my unhappiness. But evidently I was old enough to recognise something in Hejira. My experience of Hejira was primarily an aesthetic one, and it’s the only creative work that I assigned a value to when I was seventeen or eighteen whose status hasn’t changed for me over time. Otherwise, my responses then were awry and often intensely wrongheaded. In the late seventies I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Malone Dies, all of which I failed to get a handle on and dismissed. I’d need to reach the age of twenty-four and begin rereading the first two to understand their importance to me.
From Hejira, I’ll dwell only on two songs. The first is “Song for Sharon,” which opens the record’s B side. At almost eight and a half minutes, it’s unthinkably long for a pop song. Its chords avoid development, and their main action is to circle around the tonic and return hypnotically to the key, E-flat. Musically, both “Song for Sharon” andHejira represent Mitchell’s preoccupation with circularity (“And the seasons, they go round and round /And the painted ponies go up and down”); with whether repetition is necessarily entrapping, or if it renovates us spiritually.
“Song for Sharon” reintroduces us to what may be Joni Mitchell’s greatest conceptual innovation: the interlocutor. Fundamentally, the interlocutor is music. The singer/songwriter has had a chance encounter with music in a way that’s changed her life. But the interlocutor is invariably embodied: he or she is a person. Here, it is Sharon. And, even if Sharon isn’t a straightforward symbol of music, she raises the question of its custodianship.
Ostensibly, the tension played out in the song has to do with marriage: Sharon is happily married; the singer who addresses her (and who yearns to possess the “long white dress of love”) isn’t. The singer is a disappointed romantic, not to mention an itinerant. “Song for Sharon” talks of other things besides the desire for a husband: the suicide of a friend; the wish to buy a mandolin; the exhortations of relatives (“Find yourself a charity / Help the needy”); sex (“all I really want to do right now / Is find another lover”). It concludes with a verse that I found extraordinary when I first heard the record:
Sharon you’ve got a husband
And a family and a farm
I’ve got the apple of temptation
And a diamond snake around my arm
But you still have your music
And I’ve still got my eyes on the land and the sky
You sing for your friends and your family
I’ll walk green pastures by and by
“You still have your music”? So there’s the paradox of Mitchell’s songwriting: it’s always someone else who’s the singer, while the songwriter herself is unmoored, with her “eyes on the land and the sky.” Who, then, is the custodian of the pop song, and the dreams it promises to fulfill? Is it the songwriter, or the addressee? It’s a question that Mitchell had put to her audience before, when she conjured up the interlocutor in “The Last Time I Saw Richard” in Blue. There, the singer and her crusty old friend Richard are in a bar or café; Richard admonishes her for investing in the fantasies that pop music creates: “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.” Again, there’s the encounter with music, and the matter of custodianship: Richard “put a quarter in the Wurlitzer and he pushed / Three buttons and the thing began to whirr.” Richard (like Sharon—who is, however, more affectionately portrayed) gets married (“to a figure skater”) and settles down (“he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator”), while the singer continues to hover hopelessly on the outskirts of sociability.
But the singer, for Mitchell, occupies the outskirts in many ways. “Song for Sharon” underlines Mitchell’s sense of lacking ownership—not just of a husband, a family, a percolator, not even of the song, but of the identity of being a ‘songwriter.’ She came upon the pop song by accident: it—like family and the accoutrements of domesticity—really belonged to someone else. She has told interviewers more than once that she wanted to be a painter, and isn’t sure how she ended up a songwriter. In 1994, when she was (somewhat reluctantly) plugging the album Turbulent Indigo and playing its lead track, “Sex Kills,” at various venues, she said on the BBC’s Late Review that, if the pop industry annulled artists like her, as it had been doing for fifteen years, she would go back to painting. In a club in Toronto that year, the prefatory remarks she made to a terrific acoustic performance of “Sex Kills” are even more revealing. The song had been provoked, she said, by a personalized number plate Mitchell had spotted in Los Angeles on the last night of the riots in 1992: it said JUST ICE. This led Mitchell—given the context—to read up on a word (justice) from which she’d been duly estranged by that number plate. One of the books she read was Plato’sRepublic. “But [the Socratic just society] would have been unjust to the likes of me,” she told the audience in the bar in Toronto, “because it’s a society of specialists. You had to be a painter or a poet or a musician, but you couldn’t tackle all three. So I would already be pinched in this society….” Mitchell’s words, both in her songs and in her interviews, let slip the fact that she’s uncomfortable with the idea that an artist’s best-known work must encompass her.
Nearly every track on Hejira is exceptional. But the other song I was arrested by all those years ago was “Furry Sings the Blues,” the fourth track on Side A. Again, it asks: Who owns this music? Again, the singer confronts, or is confronted by, her interlocutor—in this case, “Furry,” based on the blues singer Furry Lewis, whom Joni Mitchell met in Memphis in 1976. Mitchell is empathetic (“there was one song he played / I could really feel”), but the two share only an uneasy understanding. On one level, Furry is like Richard; he’s skeptical of the younger singer’s motives. Music, however, has brought interlocutor and songwriter together again; it was the Wurlitzer in the café, and it’s the blues on Memphis’s Beale Street. But “I don’t like you,” says Furry; and here, Mitchell abandons melody to mimic the old man’s voice. In live versions of “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” too, she mimics the barmaid who warns them: “Drink up now it’s getting on time to close.” There’s music; and there’s the unadorned human voice, expressing urgent needs, prejudice, and resistance: “Furry sings the blues / Why should I expect that old guy to give it to me true.”
The scene is firmly, powerfully, located, not only on Beale Street but in the damage caused by time: “Pawn shops glitter like gold tooth caps / In the grey decay / They chew the last few dollars off / Old Beale Street’s carcass.” Never before, it seemed to me, had the material context of music been captured with such immediacy. The deep visual impact of the song helped me understand the journeys Mitchell was making (to Beale Street; towards her own creative idiom) and sense her position as interloper in Furry’s room. I myself was more than an eavesdropper. I was an interloper too.
Those years, when I was listening to Hejira—the late seventies to, say, 1981—were, for me, a time of change and unraveling. For one thing, I’d become interested, from 1978 onwards, in North Indian classical music. In 1979, I began to formally learn singing in that tradition. My apprenticeship was partly a response to my belated discovery of that tradition’s incredible beauty, and partly a cultural turn that almost had the intensity of a religious conversion. This music is mine, I felt; it is my land’s, and expresses its light and seasons more truthfully than Western pop music. (I conveniently ignored that what I peremptorily termed “Western” music was woven into Bombay’s life, even into its film songs.) The raga introduced to my day a punishing regime of practice and preparation. It was one of the reasons I began to withdraw from the institution I’d been enrolled in as a high school student—Elphinstone College—where I would have continued as an undergraduate. Without formally dropping out of Elphinstone, I began to spend most of my time at home: practicing ragas, writing poetry. I never took my undergraduate exams. Instead, I began to prepare for GCSE A Levels with the help of a correspondence course from Oxford, with an eye to going to England for my further studies and becoming a published poet. My father arranged for the correspondence course: he almost always backed my quixotic projects.
Another reason I’d withdrawn into myself was the increasing corporatization of Bombay. Economic deregulation—India’s entry into the free market—was a little more than a decade away, but I could sense its imminence without having any idea of the specific changes at hand. The great classical singers who lived in and near Bombay then—Kishori Amonkar, Pandit Jasraj, Kumar Gandharva, Bhimsen Joshi—were in peak form. Their music had reached my ears. It galvanized me. On the other hand, the victory of the free market in the West was pushing the singer-songwriter underground, or into oblivion. New forms of music heavily dependent on the synthesizer began to emerge. My turnaround was complete: I embraced Indian classical music and went off Western pop at about the same time.
By 1982, I didn’t so much forget Joni Mitchell as believe, with a certain sadness, that the world had forgotten her and her ilk—as, indeed, it had. I shed my acoustic-guitar-playing songwriter self. That year, I cut my hair to a manageable length. In 1983, I went to London as an undergraduate to read English, lived in a studio flat on Warren Street, and threw myself into my tussle with Hindustani classical music. My neighbors and I were constantly at loggerheads. At home, my father retired eight years too early to benefit from the post-1991 boom. Privilege, in his life, had been performance. He and my mother moved quite happily in 1989 from Bombay to Calcutta, a once-great city I’d grown to love on my visits as a child to my uncle’s house.
For about two decades I listened to no Western popular music. I became a published novelist in the UK in 1991, the year of my marriage, and I recorded my first album in North Indian classical music with HMV India in 1993. I returned officially to India (to Calcutta) from the UK in 1999. My father was 77, my mother 75—I am an only child, and my parents were one of the reasons for my return. Another reason was my ten-month-old daughter; another was my ongoing relationship with Indian music; yet another was the intolerable ethos of Blairite Britain.
One of the first things I did on my return was get my hi-fi and record player fixed. The age of disco, glam rock, and chain-wearing singers—once the eternal present of popular music—was finally over. Besides, the ferocity of the ideological turn that had informed my early immersion in Indian music had waned. Gingerly, I began to play one or two records from my collection again—restricting myself mainly to Jimi Hendrix. I went back to England a couple of times a year for short visits. There were no direct flights except the thrice-weekly British Airways plane to Heathrow: one of the many consequences of Calcutta’s long decline. Bombay and Delhi had become India’s major centers with globalization; Calcutta occupied the periphery.
I think British Airways stopped flying out of Calcutta in 2009, around the time the Left Front government’s attempts to reindustrialize West Bengal came to a sudden end with Tata aborting its Nano “small car” project outside Calcutta, in the face of a huge controversy to do with a government-led land grab. Whether the scrapping of the BA flights was in any way a response to the scuppering of the Nano factory is hard to know. In the absence of a direct connection to Heathrow, many travellers, including myself, went for the best new alternative: Emirates. You flew to Dubai on a functional aircraft with staff who were pleasant enough. Then you changed planes and got on to a huge, resplendent A380 to Heathrow, with astonishing in-flight entertainment for seven hours. It was during this leg of the journey, after turning at some point from movies to listening to music, that I became reacquainted with Joni Mitchell.
One of the options Emirates offers under “CDs” is “Essential Albums.” Here, besidesDisraeli Gears, The Dark Side of the Moon, Are You Experienced, and many other albums you’d have heard ages ago, is Joni Mitchell’s Blue. On the flight from Dubai to Heathrow (and back), I began to investigate an album I’d heard only in bits and pieces when I lived on Malabar Hill, and never in its entirety. I was transfixed not only by the guitar-playing—or by the cascading piano-playing, for that matter—but by the bodiless daring of the voice, the way it rose, dipped, and wove waywardly, never deviating inadvertently from pitch. I’d forgotten what an astonishing singer she was. The unfettered, risk-taking vocalizing, along with the complex harmonic context of the chords, created a sound richer, more produced, than the acoustic recordings of Dylan or Cohen, whose characteristic texture was raw. Mitchell had the temperament and capacities of a jazz soloist long before she’d made any gesture in that direction. No wonder I’d been listening attentively to her just as I’d segued into Indian classical music.
Emirates’s “CDs” also has a section called “Playlists.” It includes a Joni Mitchell playlist. I have, since 2009, listened to it many times. I’ve found on it songs I’d missed from the early years, like “The Gallery,” an elegant but mischievous study of the connection between a man’s sex addiction and his paintings. Here I discovered the magnificent auto-covers with strings recorded in the present millennium, from Both Sides Now and Travelogue; and “Sex Kills,” from 1994, which dwarfs anything else in popular music from that decade: “And the gas leaks / And the oil spills / And sex sells everything / And sex kills.” Half the tracks on the playlist I hadn’t heard, because of my turn away from Western music in the eighties, or because Mitchell herself seemed to disappear at the end of the twentieth century. That she’d never gone silent was evident to me now. And that the world was acknowledging her was clear too: just as, in 1978, its general indifference to Hejira had been clear. The fact that Joni Mitchell’s songs were part of the Emirates collection was no coincidence—it was tied to a wider, contemporary reassessment. In this way, my own relationship with Mitchell had come together with the zeitgeist, the mood of the time.
On that playlist I heard “Chinese Café / Unchained Melody,” which I think is her greatest composition. It’s available on Wild Things Run Fast, released in 1982—the year I snapped my ties with Western music. And there’s the 2002 version (which Emirates had chosen) from Travelogue, recorded with strings when Mitchell was 59. There she is in the café again, with her interlocutor and friend: “Caught in the middle / Carol we’re middle class / We’re middle aged / We were wild in the old days / Birth of rock ’n’ roll days.” Once more, the addressee has settled into a rhythm, while the singer’s life has a certain lack of finality, creating a frisson, a striking asymmetry, essential to the songwriting: “Now your kids are coming up straight / And my child’s a stranger / I bore her / But I could not raise her.”
What’s at the heart of the song? There’s Carol, of course; and the glimpses of Mitchell’s life, the reference to the child she gave up for adoption when she was twenty-two (she was reunited with her daughter only in 1997); and, in the context of the friendship between the two women, there’s music: the pop song on the jukebox. “Down at the Chinese café / We’d be dreaming on our dimes / We’d be playing ‘Oh my love, my darling’ / One more time.” The song the two women play repeatedly is “Unchained Melody,” released in the fifties and further popularized by the Righteous Brothers in 1965. Mitchell weaves and incorporates the song into her composition; this constitutes a musical departure on many levels. Generally, when Mitchell pays homage to a pop music genre or style in her lyrics—as in the line “We were rolling, rolling, rock ’n’ rolling” in “In France They Kiss on Main Street”—musically, the song itself is a million miles away from what’s being paid homage to. “In France They Kiss on Main Street” has nothing of rock and roll in its music; its chords come from jazz; its melody is sui generis. The same could be said of “Furry Sings the Blues”: the blues is the last thing you think of while listening to its tune. In “Chinese Café,” the harmonic context for “birth of rock ’n’ roll days” is the G major ninth chord: hardly rock and roll. In other words, classic popular music is an invisible—a near-inaudible—presence in Joni Mitchell’s songs, her avowed love of the rock and roll genre expressing itself in her work through elision. This ties up with the invisible presences Mitchell is constantly working with. There’s the presence of the songwriter: hidden, never fully inhabited. There’s the invisibility of national identity: the Canadian working in the American idiom, seeming to become American (“I went to Staten Island, Sharon / To buy myself a mandolin”), but never wholly so. Mitchell, like Cohen and Neil Young, is what Deleuze and Guattari describe as a practitioner of “minor literature,” a practitioner who writes her work in a major language which is not her mother tongue. Such a practitioner is necessarily political, say Guattari and Deleuze, but, in Mitchell’s case, being a Canadian in America—and the practitioner of a “minor” mode—liberates her from being the sort of national spokesperson Dylan was. Then there’s gender. Despite her many incomparable portraits of women, the fact that Mitchell is a female songwriter has seemed almost as contingent to her as being a musician. This has made her elect not to be a spokesperson for her sex; because, as she implied to the Late Review interviewer in 1994, her gender was never a given: “a gypsy…a Sikh” once told her that this, in fact, was her first incarnation as a woman. She’d been “an English gent” in her last life, and “an Arab rug merchant” in another one. Gender only appears to be central to the songs; it’s like the deceptive references to the blues and rock and roll.
Which is why the incorporation—the audible presence—of “Unchained Melody” in “Chinese Café” is unusual. Mitchell brings the two sections together, but never irrevocably, allowing one to float on the other, like oil on water. They don’t become inseparable, yet they fuse. It’s an enactment of a coming-together and separation at once accidental and predetermined, like the loss of, and still-unforeseen reunion with, the daughter. Also woven in are the depredations of capitalism (described before in “Big Yellow Taxi” and in the description of Beale Street): “Uranium money / Is booming in the old home town now / It’s putting up sleek concrete / Tearing the old landmarks down now.” “Nothing lasts for long,” goes the refrain, “nothing lasts for long.” But, on the other hand, “Unchained Melody,” which ends the song as a coda, says, “And time goes by so slowly / And time can do so much.” The song hovers between the two poles—memory and hope, loss and replenishment, time as loss and as renovation and desire, “caught in the middle.” Musically, the composition has two homes, beginning and ending on the tonic, D major, but straying, each time it visits “Unchained Melody,” into C major, as if it were a remembered world.
Thousands of feet above the ground, you find life as you know it replicated, abbreviated, and changed: the alternation of darkness and light; the meals on trays; the movies on small, bright screens; the sight of people wrapped in blankets; the periodic visits to the toilet. In other ways, you’re released from the deadlines of earthbound existence, to which you secretly long to return. Between watching movies and nodding off, you think of life as a spirit might, loosened from earthly ties. This transcendence is not a happy feeling; it’s frustrating. On the journeys on the A380, the discrete currents of my existence became apparent to me: the irretrievable loss of my childhood, for instance, and of Bombay. But surely that should have been a cause for rejoicing? I’d never before mourned the end of my childhood—because I’d never been happy as a child, or growing up in that city. My father’s dementia, first noticeable in 2008, presented itself—the spectre of a living person’s shameful inaction and forgetfulness. Then, in 2013, the unthinkable—his death. For long stretches of time, the plane didn’t seem to move; it was as if we were stationary, pinned to a solid foundation. Then we’d hit a bump, short-lived turbulence shaking the aircraft, and we’d know what we already knew but had forgotten: there was nothing beneath us. Once or twice, I wept upon leaving Calcutta, realizing, as we cruised and found our altitude, that the journey couldn’t be reversed. “Nothing lasts for long,” said the voice in my ear. It was a voice the world had first heard in the Upanishads. It was also a familiar voice, known to me from my teenage years. I hadn’t expected to hear it again.
Amit Chaudhuri is the author of six novels, the latest of which is Odysseus Abroad. He is also a critic and a musician. His many awards include the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and the Infosys Prize for outstanding contribution to literary studies. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.