I’ve been thinking these past few days about Court and Spark, the album that Joni Mitchell released in 1974. As always, you are probably wondering: what on earth does an old Joni Mitchell album have to do with Katherine and Raymond’s Manse in Queensborough, Ont.? Well, as always, I’ll tell you.
The regular soundtrack to life at the Manse back when I was a kid and young teenager growing up there was the transistor radio in the pantry tuned to CJBQ (Belleville and TRENton!!!!, as their jingle went), at 800 on your AM dial, then as now. And in those aforementioned early-teenage years of mine, the striking and intelligent songs of Joni Mitchell were as apt to waft over CJBQ’s airwaves as were less memorable (except they’re stuck in my memory forever) songs like King Fu Fighting and I Got You Babe and (oh, preserve us) the execrable Having My Baby.
My Court and Spark thoughts were triggered in part by hearing a couple of guitar chords when a song came on the radio (CBC 2) the other morning when Raymond and I were driving to work. Instantly I knew what it was. You know how the songs that were popular in your teenage years stick with you forever? A few bars later, when Joni started singing “Help me, I think I’m falling…” – well, I just sang along with her. And remembered singing along with that song back in the Manse kitchen way back in the middle of the 1970s, when Help Me was a hit single from Court and Spark. And it was a happy memory.
So that was one Court and Spark trigger. The other was watching an instalment of PBS’s American Masters series a week or so ago; the subject was record producer/movie mogul/utterly ballsy self-made man David Geffen. It was a fascinating program, and especially fun to watch because many of my musical heroes (who’d recorded on Geffen’s labels) were there to weigh in: Neil Young, Jackson Browne, the Eagles – and of course Joni.
And of course it was Joni who wrote a very famous song about David Geffen, called Free Man in Paris. That was another one that was on Court and Spark, and on the CJBQ playlist back in the old Manse days; I found it then, and still find it now, an incredibly catchy song – especially given the very complex lyrics. Call Me Maybe this is not, let’s put it that way.
Really, there’s something to be said for an era (the 1970s) when such intelligent songs were not only to be found on the AM radio, but were providing turns of phrase that became part of the popular vernacular. Like “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” from Joni’s huge hit Big Yellow Taxi (from the 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon, which is smashing). And that amazing chorus from Free Man in Paris, as she brilliantly and musically quotes (or paraphrases) David Geffen:
I was a free man in Paris
I felt unfettered and alive,
Nobody was calling me up for favors
No one’s future to decide.
You know I’d go back there tomorrow
But for the work I’ve taken on
Stoking the star maker machinery
Behind the popular song.
They just don’t make songs like that anymore. Here’s Joni singing it live; and here’s to the soundtrack of the Manse kitchen. Then as now.