JONI MITCHELL & BOB DYLAN
Heartbreak and anger in the mid 70's
by Jim Parker
Relationships in the 1970's were a dark mirror to those in the 1960's. Transience and sexual freedom as cornerstones turned out to be not so great after all. The liberal dream of carefree inconsequential 'free love' was just that, a dream; love was, and is not, free. In the 1970's, divorce laws were relaxed so it was easier to end long term relationships. However long (and how much) it took to end it, the security and confidence in an imagined future based on a stable relationship vanished. For many, when a relationship ends, one is left anxious and most of all, restless. The coming of this cultural change was no better encapsulated by the end of The Graduate (1967) which set the scene for relationships in popular America in the 1970's. Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross sit in the back of the bus after fleeing her wedding. They don't look at each other, but instead look straight ahead. Their futures are blank, ambiguous and uncertain as to what replaces the lost. Their relationship is clearly over, inviting us to think and making us feel restless: 'What next?'
Testament to the prescience of The Graduate and changes in the cultural perception of relationships within American society, the 1970's was the decade of the big selling break-down in relationship albums. One of the biggest selling albums, Rumours (1977) by Fleetwood Mac, is a classic of the genre. It was formed during a notoriously harrowing recording period which included affairs between members of the band and breakups fueled by near constant cocaine and alcohol abuse. It was a miracle it ever saw the light of day. Reflecting the intense drama, Rumours is spiteful, full of pathos and melodramatic without irony. Most of all, it is bitter. There is reflection, but it is not exactly subtle and for the most part, it is sugar sentimental. Rumours does not have a destination. It is stuck in the present and not distant past. The modern day equivalent of initially passive aggressive instant messaging that slowly becomes more aggressive as the bottle(s) of wine get emptied.
On two of their major albums during this period, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell (who just had a spectacular comeback at the Newport Folk Festival) explored the end of relationships more thoughtfully and should be seen as being representative of societal changes. Hejira (1976) by Mitchell and Dylan's Blood on the Tracks (1975) convey the impact of a relationship ending through a sense of restlessness rather than malice. At this period in their musical careers in the '70's, both Dylan and Mitchell were at the peak of their powers. To a great extent, the complications of human relationships had always been at the core of their song writing, but at this juncture in their careers, their lyrics had become more refined through experience. In other words, the confidence and skill to show and respond to vulnerability was at its peak. For Dylan in 1975, his song-writing was more complex and most of all spoke of a life lived. By this point, he had been through several serious relationships and a marriage that for many reasons (numerous affairs, cocaine) was collapsing. Of course, it is a fallacy to suggest that Blood on The Tracks is about Sara Dylan and the women he was having an affair with, but what is more difficult to deny is that even if the listener isn't privy to Dylan's personal dramas, it is a collected depiction conveying the restlessness and vulnerability intertwined with relationships ending.
Mitchell was arguably at the tail end of a run that comprised at least three of the best albums ever produced- Blue (1971), Court and Spark (1974) and Hissing of the Summer Lawns (1975). These were albums written at a consistent level of immense creative powers, lyrically and musically. This is not to denigrate Dylan's work during the 1970's but he had been patchier since the end of the 60s after his trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home (1965) Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966) He was still producing peerless material that musically delved further into traditional Americana instrumentally, most explicitly on John Wesley Harding (1967). Typical of her creative drive, Mitchell wanted to do something different. She was moving deeper into experimentation that was ethereal sounding, less structured and jazzier. With the direction that Mitchell took after this album with Mingus (1979), it is clear that Hejira was certainly the tail end of general accessibility. Compared with Hissing of Summer Lawns, which was about the listlessness of domestication, Hejira is about relative freedom and exploring vulnerability through the solitude of a road trip. While Blue was certainly Mitchell's rawest album and contains genuine moments of visceral despair, Hejira is more mature; its responses to relationships ending is more reflective and rooted in acceptance of being vulnerable and restless. Her guitar shimmers throughout, backed up on occasion by the unique bass playing of Jaco Pastorius. Both Blood and Hejira share a sense of restlessness and vulnerability acknowledged and explored either by looking back into the past, or accepting an uncertain ambiguous future.
Lyrically, both Dylan and Mitchell use distinctly American images to anchor their erratic restlessness and to an extent assuage their vulnerability. However, the contrast between Dylan and Mitchell is notable; one is specific and one is more abstract. Dylan is more specific. This precision is shown naming the places where a woman could meet him to begin a new or rekindle an old relationship. Of all places, he romanticizes Minnesota and Kansas as places to meet on "Meet Me in The Morning."
Meet me in the morning
56th and Wabasha
Meet me in the morning
56th and Wabasha
Honey, we could be in Kansas
By time the snow begins to thaw
Kansas and 56th and Wabasha (in Minnesota) are such idiosyncratic places to refer to because their location in the American Midwest speaks to two different sides of the same coin. On one side, it's an idealization of the possibilities of reinvention in the near middle of America. Like the pioneers/farmers from Eastern Europe, those from present day Ukraine and Poland, who came to America to set up farms in the vast empty tracts of land in the Midwest, Dylan is promising the real possibility of a new life together. The invitation suggests a rural domesticated idyll of plenty and stability; both factors being an aspiration for most. The implication is that if she comes at spring, then the seeds of a new start both figuratively and literally could be planted at an ideal time. Furthermore, he is assuming that's what she wants.
The other side of the coin is also fantasy, because achieving it is unrealistic. The Minnesota that lured people with visions of not just endless shimmering fields of ripe golden crop, but also unlimited fertility is a past one that cannot be reclaimed. It is a place where settled domestic bliss is becoming less and less viable. Rural Lives are barely sustained because of the lack of rainfall and shallow depths of now near exhausted fertile soil. Communities are fast fading into emptiness. This process of time that Jonathan Raban described in 1997 as being, 'It had not always been so empty here'; one can only imagine how empty it is now. Yet, contradictorily, Dylan invites her to live this life (maybe as a farmer's wife: is that what she really wants?). Dylan's specificity in his idealism is only that, an ideal. It is so personal because of its irrationality that it is inaccessible to only himself. But, presenting this idea in a song is a profoundly vulnerable act. Dylan invites scrutiny towards his ideal but inherent in the impossibility of this ideal exposes the seeds of its restlessness. You get the impression this is one fantasy of many because of its dislocation to reality. It comes across as desperation, and knowingly so.
In contrast, Mitchell is not specific. She could be anywhere in the vast open spaces of middle America. "Coyote" contains fragments of images, "a freeway, a hitcher...farmhouse burning down in the middle of nowhere." These are cliches to an extent, but mainly so because of the ubiquity in being completely recognizable and relatable parts of American culture. In this context, they invite the listener to imagine for themselves and to be part of her intimate vulnerability. Instead of an individualistic and inaccessible fantasy like Dylan's, this is a restlessness that is universal because it isn't focused on oneself. These images are encapsulated in and are familiar from American road movies depicting an unlimited number of narratives ranging from the supernatural in Near Dark (1987), the doomed romance of Badlands (1973), the comedy of Planes Trains and Automobiles (1987) and the bathos of Little Miss Sunshine (2006). In contrast to the specificity of Dylan, Joni's fragments of images provide material for our own stories that could temper our own restlessness and give us respite. "Coyote" acknowledges restlessness, but is also alive with possibility while acknowledging our own vulnerabilities. We all desire stories to give our lives meaning. The possibilities of stories we can imagine are endless but are of course bound to everyday reality. We are all "prisoners of the white lines on the freeway."
Evoked by these American symbols and places are myths as symbolic narratives depicting the future or the past. An enduring part of its creation as a nation of immigrants, the cultural fabric of America is a vast place where people can remain but reinvent themselves and atone for the past. It is a mythical space with the potential to create stories and new beginnings. The flip side is that one is made restless and vulnerable because of the pressure to reinvent themselves through atonement. The possibility of America as a symbolic place for the creation of myth to project oneself into the past or the future is illustrated by two songs on each album. Both Dylan and Mitchell refer to the vast abstract distances of the country, both horizontally, and in Mitchell's case also vertically, in their narrative songs, "Tangled Up In Blue" and "Amelia." On "Tangled Up In Blue," Dylan looks back in time from the present creating a restless mythical narrative structurally rising and falling whilst criss-crossing horizontally across America. This is illustrated by Dylan "heading for the East Coast" but is then abandoning a car out west. In myths, time and space are compressed and the vast journeys pay no heed to the logic of the latter and former. This sense of the myth as fantastical extends into an American literary culture full of narratives portraying restless men longing for the return of an idealized past they have created; an idealized past that is a myth because only the good parts, the good feelings are remembered. One is certainly Jay Gatsby looking at the green light across the bay, the green light in the distance hoping to return there. Both Gatsby's past and future are imagined; an idealized past that sustains an idealized future in which the moment that broke the dream is atoned for or changed. For Gatsby and Dylan, the present is a constant period of restlessness, of waiting and imagining what was and what could be. Indeed, "Tangled Up In Blue" opens with the narrator stuck in the present "Early one morning the sun was shining, I was laying in bed, wondering if she'd changed it all."
"Tangled Up In Blue" is a mythical narrative in which he admits his mistakes, atones for them and gets the girl again. But, tellingly, this still does not satisfy him so he goes on his journey, "keep on moving on like a bird that flew," unable to escape the restlessness of the present. As an opening track, it is significant because it sets the scene for the rest of the Blood On The Tracks. "Tangled Up in Blue" is one narrative of many on the album looking backwards, trying to atone and explain. Ultimately, despite the myth making, the promises (and options) of a wonderful stable life together at times dramatically and sentimentally denying it ("You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go"), the effect is one of pathos. "Buckets of Rain" ends the album with the idea that actually happiness in life is only possible being in a relationship.
You do what you must do and ya do it well
I'll do it for you
Honey baby, can't you tell?
He cannot move on and so the restlessness is permanent. Again, we are left with the image of Benjamin Braddock at the end of The Graduate sitting at the back of the bus staring into space. Despite everything, the pleading, the vulnerability, nothing remains but an unacceptable and maddening uncertainty in which self-made fantasies circle and repeat endlessly.
While Hejira has its moments of despair at a relationship ending (in particular the title track), it is reflective and accepting rather than pleading to start again. Like Dylan, Mitchell also refers to America as a place of myth with both vertical and horizontal space. This interpretation makes the song deeper and more realistic in its attempt to be three or even four dimensional in time. In "Amelia," the figure of aviator Amelia Earhart is used as a mythical cipher in a song that looks around and up, taking in everything and coming to a very different conclusion than the one left by Blood On the Tracks. Earhart is depicted as a spirit still present in America as a mythical figure (of course, the pioneering of air travel is distinctly American). Her presence is internal and external: "a ghost of aviation...like me she had a dream to fly." She is ever present in the sky in a reminder of the expectation of what freedom at the end of a relationship is possible.
When I spotted six jet planes
Leaving six white vapour trails across the bleak terrain
Like the hexagram of the heavens
However, the narrator is still agonizingly attached to terra firma. In other words, there is the possibility of freedom, but it will always be tempered by reality. Here is an acceptance that living a life based on myth is unattainable but still inspiring. Acknowledging that dreams are possible and having them is important, but knowing their reality is impossible, "Dreams Amelia, dreams and false alarms." Unlike Blood on The Tracks that looks back in the past to reinvent and to atone, Hejira evokes moments of living in the present and a future that is abstract. Atonement is rejected, and instead of pleading or living a life stuck in the present, existence is restlessly moving forward and she is accepting her vulnerability. Unlike the depressing (and distressing) future presented at the conclusion of Blood on the Tracks, by being vulnerable and accepting that freedom comes with restraint, the future is still full of freedom although compromised. No better is this compromise exemplified in "Black Crow."
My whole life has been
And diving diving diving diving...
Just like that black crow flying
In a blue sky
The black crow is free but is always discovering through illumination and coming to terms with the up's and down's, the potential corruption of life. It does not look backwards but lives in the present with the potential for a future in which it is possible to both dive and fly.
While both Mitchell and Dylan respond to the end of relationships in distinctly different and unique ways, Hejira and Blood On The Tracks can both be regarded as key and important responses to changes in American society happening in the 1970's. Both albums have endured and will continue to so for their themes and responses are so fundamentally human and challenging.
See Jim Parker on Bandcamp
Also see these other articles:
Dylan's 'Love and Theft'
Dylan's Christmas album
Dylan biographer Dennis McDouglas interview
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