Song For Sharon – Joni Mitchell
…I went to Staten Island
To buy myself a mandolin
And I saw the long white dress of love
On a storefront mannequin
Big boat chuggin’ back with a belly full of cars
All for something lacy
Some girl’s going to see that dress
And crave that day like crazy…
The first Joni Mitchell song I heard was Both Sides Now – but sung by Judy Collins – “…it’s clouds illusions I recall, I really don’t know clouds at all…” It was 1968 and I was living in a small village in East Sussex with my Mum and two younger brothers. We had Radio One on all day. It seemed like a sad song.
The second Joni Mitchell song I heard was Stardust – but sung by Crosby Stills Nash & Young – “…we are stardust we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden…” It was 1970 and unbeknown to me I was in the last few weeks of my idyllic village life. It was a wise song, biblical yet green, and also rather yearning.
The third Joni Mitchell song I heard was Big Yellow Taxi – sung by Joni herself – “…they took all the trees, put ’em in a tree museum, then they charge all the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em..” It was 1970 and she sounded like a teenage girl, but she was already on her 3rd album. I was 13 and billeted with Pete Smurthwaite and his Mum Sheila in Lewes since we’d got evicted from the village house for not paying rent. This song was an eyes-open description of a catastrophe.
The first Joni Mitchell LP I bought was Court and Spark in 1974 with its brilliant title track, the thrilling Raised On Robbery, the swooning Help Me and the stunning Free Man In Paris “…stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song…”. I was in Hailsham, had a new young sister, and I was a late-flowering 16-yr-old glam-rock hippy. Joni was urgent, caustic, clever and brilliant to mine ears.
LSE 76-79. “Blue” The masterpiece. Much later, in the 90s this would become one of mine and Jenny’s top LPs, top five listens that would go on the turntable, or later the CD player on a daily basis – All I Want, Carey, A Case Of You, River, The Last Time I Saw Richard. The shapes of those songs, of those melodies, the sense of a fully-formed musical genius spilling out her feelings is a pure joy. Jenny sang A Case Of You for Amanda Ooms at a Bohemia Special Birthday Party one night in Brighton – acapella – and years later Glen sang “River” one Christmas at a Brighton Beach Boys gig at The Old Market accompanying himself on piano. Two magical moments from a magical LP.
And over the years I’ve filled in the dots, bought The Summer Of Hissing Lawns, For The Roses, Clouds, Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Mingus, Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm, Taming The Tiger, Ladies Of The Canyon and Herbie Hancock‘s 2007 album The River which is a jazz tribute to her music. There is a wonderful depth to her music, both lyrically profound, often startlingly honest, and the music itself, rhythmically loose and swinging yet played with such crisp feel by Joni herself and the amazing musicians she assembles to play her creations. Every album is worth examining, plunging in, submerging, re-emerging refreshed and moved.
No song of Joni’s touches me more deeply than Song For Sharon, from the 1976 LP Hejira. It’s very much set in New York City, opening on the Staten Island Ferry in the opening verse. She sees a wedding dress in a shop window, and this triggers an 8-minute meditation on love and marriage, success, family and dreams.
Shine your light on me, Miss Liberty
Because as soon as this ferry boat docks
I’m headed to the church to play Bingo
Fleece me with the gamblers’ flocks
That’s a pretty astounding lyric, using the double meaning of “fleece” but she tops it in the next verse, talking about gambling with her heart :
I can keep my cool at poker
But I’m a fool when love’s at stake
Because I can’t conceal emotion
What I’m feeling’s always written on my face
There’s a gypsy down on Bleecker Street
I went in to see her as a kind of joke
And she lit a candle for my love luck
And eighteen bucks went up in smoke
Joni is laughing at herself here and goes on to talk about leaving her man behind at a “North Dakota Junction” and moving to the Big Apple to “face the dream’s malfunction“…why don’t her relationships last, why isn’t she married ? The song, admitted by Mitchell to be written whilst on cocaine, fades in and out of her past memories, to her present on the Ferry, to her reactions to a woman friend drowning herself and the depression that then flooded in, and the advice from those around her on how to cope. Then she’s back in teenage Canada again:
When we were kids in Maidstone, Sharon
I went to every wedding in that little town
To see the tears and the kisses
And the pretty lady in the white lace wedding gown
And walking home on the railroad tracks
Or swinging on the playground swing
Love stimulated my illusions
More than anything
So Sharon is her childhood friend, and is married with children and a farm. Joni has never settled down. The contrast for Joni is stark and she explores it further, deeper…
And when I went skating after Golden Reggie
You know it was white lace I was chasing
– Chasing dreams –
Mama’s nylons underneath my cowgirl jeans
He showed me, first you get the kisses
And then you get the tears
But the ceremony of the bells and lace
Still veils this reckless fool here
Joni is alone, and it seems to her, terminally so. She actually had been married in 1965 to Michigan folk singer Chuck Mitchell, just after giving up her out-of-wedlock first child for adoption, (Little Green on “Blue” is about this girl) but the relationship had lasted less than 16 months. After her affair with Graham Nash of The Hollies she hooked up with David Crosby and then others but none of these affairs took root. Sam Shepherd, Jackson Browne, Don Alias, none of them could couple with her restless spirit, so evocatively captured in the swooning backing vocals and sexy rolling shuffle of the rhythm guitar, played by Joni herself throughout the winding sinuous storytelling of Song For Sharon. The song is, in its unfolding of doubt and longing, its honesty and questioning, a masterpiece. Or should that be mistresspiece ? Her mother suggests ecology to counter the blues but –
Well, there’s a wide wide world of noble causes
And lovely landscapes to discover
But all I really want right now
Is find another lover…
Last summer, 2014, Jenny’s older sister Marlyn came to visit us from Grenada where she is lives as a nun and teaches teenagers. Or more accurately, a Franciscan Sister Of The Sorrowful Mother. We were sub-letting in Washington Avenue at that point, and I slept on the sofa for ten days. One day we took the ferry from DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan-Brooklyn Overpass) to Wall St, walked down a few blocks and boarded the Staten Island Ferry which is a giant yellow edifice towering over Battery Park and facing due south. It is a free service, run by the City and runs 24/7. From it, you get the most impressive views of Downtown Manhattan receding, and it chugs right past the Statue Of Liberty too, and Ellis Island. Marlyn, Jenny and I had a little walk along the Staten Island shore, saw the 9/11 Memorial and then took the ferry back, Joni Mitchell’s beautiful clear voice singing through my head all the way across the harbour. Marlyn is a beautiful woman, so open and sweet-natured, not heavily promoting her faith at all, but supported and strengthened by it. We laughed a lot during her visit.
There are two versions of Song For Sharon below – the original from Hejira, stunning, eternal, majestic, then below that a live version from Wembley 1983 with an entirely different arrangement, no backing vocals, rocked-up, bold, brilliant.
…It seems we all live so close to that line, and so far from satisfaction…