Song of the Day #855: ‘Free Man in Paris’ – Joni Mitchell

I have to admit, I feel a little bit guilty about this one. Joni Mitchell is a legend by any definition who has inspired countless artists over the years, including many I hold near and dear. She is a gifted poet and a peerless songwriter, nothing less than an American treasure.

But I just can’t stand listening to her. Both her voice and her manner of singing are off-putting to the point of annoyance.

I want to get past that, because lord knows I’ve scoffed at that argument for disliking Bob Dylan over the years. It seems like such a silly reason to avoid such a talent. But we’re talking about music here… you have to listen to it. And if the actual listening isn’t any fun, it kind of defeats the purpose.

The male analogy to Joni Mitchell for me isn’t Bob Dylan. I mean, I like Bob Dylan’s voice, even though I understand why many don’t. No, the male Joni Mitchell is Neil Young. He’s another legendary talent whose voice works on me like nails on a chalkboard. I would have chosen to highlight him today but I didn’t want to subject myself to that.

Mitchell sometimes breaks through and performs a song in a way that reaches me. The first Joni Mitchell album I owned was 1991’s Night Ride Home, and that one had a few songs I really liked. Later I heard Court and Spark and Blue and could appreciate the artistry enough to get past the vocals, at least on occasion.

But give me Cyndi Lauper singing ‘Carey’ any day over the whine of its composer (and thanks to Amy for featuring Lauper’s version on this blog).

Here’s a song from Court and Spark that’s both an example of Mitchell’s great songwriting and a perfect showcase of why I hate her singing.

The way I see it he said, you just can’t win it
Everybody’s in it for their own gain, you can’t please ’em all
There’s always somebody calling you down
I do my best and I do good business
There’s a lot of people asking for my time
They’re tryin’ to get ahead
They’re tryin’ to be a good friend of mine

{Refrain}
I was a free man in Paris
I felt unfettered and alive
There was nobody callin’ me up for favors
And no ones future to decide
You know I’d go back there tomorrow
But for the work I’ve taken on
Stokin’ the star maker machinery behind the popular song

I deal in dreamers and telephone screamers
Lately I wonder what I do it for, if I had my way
I’d just walk through those doors, and wander
Down the Champs Elysees
Going cafe to cabaret, thinking how I’d feel when I find
That very good friend of mine

15 thoughts on “Song of the Day #855: ‘Free Man in Paris’ – Joni Mitchell

  1. Amy says:

    And I would choose this song as a great example of what I love about her singing, so there you go šŸ™‚

    I’ve been waiting for Joni all week – ever since I read your rationale for the week and assumed you created this theme in part to take on Ms. Mitchell. While this is the sort of post that could generate a 30+ battle among us (admit it, you don’t find Joni pretty enough!! ;), I am going to throw in the towel on my very first comment (knowing, of course, that Dana will rant for a half dozen more)

    If you don’t like her voice, you don’t like it. At least you recognize all the reasons why she is considered the musical genius and talent that she is.

    I will tell you why I DO like her voice. It’s cool and trippy and she accentuates words in unique ways that I don’t always expect, and she seems to be interpreting the poetry of her songs (which, she, of course, has authored) with every utterance. For instance, the way she sings the final verse of this song, really every single word of it, but especially the “Down the Champs Elysees/ Going cafe to caberet” bit – I just love it.

    One of my very favorite of her songs is “Chelsea Morning,” both because of the lyrics themselves and the way she makes them even MORE poetic, which seems impossible, by her delivery – Just listen to “there’s a sun show every second” and tell me that this woman is not a poet.

    Of course, you won’t tell me that. You’ll tell me that she’s a poet you don’t like. And I
    respect that. But I’m glad you featured her on your blog just the same šŸ™‚

    (Daniel just walked by – “Oh, I love that song,” he expressed)

    Now, just for the record, I bet we both agree that the chirping thing she does at the live performance adds nothing to the rendition! šŸ˜‰

  2. Clay says:

    Apart from that chirping finish (which is rough), I think that’s a fine performance. She doesn’t do the sliding thing that grates on me so.

  3. Dana says:

    I’m really not going to take Clay on here. I understand why he may not care for Joni’s voice. It is, to be sure, unique and perhaps an acquired taste. In fact, I can’t honestly say that I love her voice either, though I appreciate the points Amy made in defense of it.

    But here’s the thing….at some point, when the songwriting is so damn good, in fact, not just good, but really on a plane above nearly any writer out there, I think you have to look past the voice. I feel the same way about Neil Young–not necessarily a voice I love or even like a great deal, but he has written songs that make me stand up and take notice (and really like) anyway. I also, by the way, feel that way about Rufus Wainwright. I generally find his voice extremely off putting, but the man can compose a song.

    Still, even though I understand your dislike of Joni’s voice, I just wouldn’t be me if I left it at “the ear wants what the ear wants.” However, I’m not sure any theories come immediately to mind as to what extrinsic or intrinsic forces may be at play here for you. I can tell you that, for me, I tend to shy away from the “pretty and pure” voice, whether it be male or female and, while Joni may be trippy in her interpretation and her sliding around notes, she is nevertheless very pure in tone.

    I tend to like my singers with a bit more grit, grime and grist. That might explain why I also don’t love Young’s voice. Even though it is not nearly as technically proficient, pretty or pure as Joni’s, it tends to still somehow lack the gruffness, as he often sings in that kinda wimpy falsetto. Now, what in my youth or influences or experiences drives me to prefer the rougher voice over the smooth one? Not sure, although I can remember being in chorus in junior high and high school and having any of the roughness drummed out of me (and the rest of the singers) while the most pure in pitch and tone voices were praised, so maybe I rebel against that in my musical taste.

    So, Clay, care to offer any theories as to what extrinsic or intrinsic forces may impact your visceral negative reaction to Mitchell or Young?

  4. Clay says:

    Nothing leaps to mind. And as a big fan of people such as Dylan, Wainwright, Lucinda Williams, Shakira and others who have voices I can understand are off-putting to a lot of people, it’s not as if I gravitate toward only “good” voices.

    One theory I have is that if you get past the barrier of a bad voice early enough, it ceases to be an issue. Perhaps if I discovered Bob Dylan today I wouldn’t give him enough of a chance to become a favorite. But because he’s been a favorite of mine for 20+ years, I can enjoy even his extremely limited vocals on his newer material.

    And on the flip side, if I’d discovered Joni Mitchell in high school, maybe I’d be a big fan today. But it’s hard to know how I would have reacted to her voice when I was in high school. After all, when I first heard Dylan, I loved his voice, and he didn’t exactly sound like Nat King Cole back in those days either.

  5. pegclifton says:

    First of all, I like the sound of Joni’s voice and I don’t like Neil Young’s voice. Just wanted to get that out of the way. I do agree with the theory that if someone has been a favorite for a long time, you tend to “forgive” the limited vocals later on, for example, Sinatra in the 60’s and 70’s was at his peak, and when he was limited later, he approached his music differently when he couldn’t hit the high notes anymore. But we forgave him šŸ™‚ I don’t know much of Joni Mitchell’s music, but it reminds me of the Joan Baez and folk music we listened to in the 60’s. As for Dylan, he just has a sound that works for me even in the Christmas music šŸ˜‰

  6. Clay says:

    I do hear a bit of Joan Baez in there, though I prefer Baez’s voice.

    I have another theory, Dana, unrelated to Mitchell’s voice. I tend to like artists who are more emotional and gritty (not just vocally but in their lyrics and performance) and Mitchell strikes me as very cold and cerebral.

    Now that might be totally unfair, because I know about 12 Joni Mitchell songs and she’s recorded hundreds. But the ones I know tend to live very much in the head and not enough in the gut. I have the same problem with a lot of Indigo Girls songs, though they get gritty on occasion (especially Amy Ray).

  7. Dana says:

    But couldn’t the same be said about David Byrne, Paul Simon or Elvis Costello, i.e. that they tend to be more cerebral than emotional?

  8. Clay says:

    Yes. Actually, I meant to make that point. Costello tends to lose me when he gets too cerebral… that’s one reason I find his earlier material in large part fore effective than his later material (with exceptions, of course).

    I find Paul Simon very emotional.

    David Byrne is an interesting case (and another weird voice). I don’t even know if cerebral is the right word for him. He’s almost like a visitor from another planet. But I find his music incredibly intricate and interesting, especially when he started tapping into the Caribbean and African sounds.

  9. Amy says:

    Just because a lyric might take some more (cerebral) work does not make it automatically less emotional than one that is immediately apparent. That’s just silly. That’s like saying a Hallmark card contains more emotion than an e.e. cummings poem. Preposterous!

    Joni Mitchell writes and sings some of the most profoundly moving songs I’ve ever heard, so I can’t leave that charge unanswered. Take, for instance, “A Case of You.”

    Originally, I only intended to share the 3rd and 4th stanzas (the chorus and 3rd verse) to illustrate my point, but I realized that every lyric – “I drew a map of Canada… with your face sketched on it twice”!!!) deserves to make this point.

    Just before our love got lost you said
    I am as constant as a northern star
    And I said, constantly in the darkness
    Where’s that at?
    If you want me I’ll be in the bar

    On the back of a carton coaster
    In the blue TV screen light
    I drew a map of Canada
    Oh Canada
    With your face sketched on it twice

    Oh you’re in my blood like holy wine
    You taste so bitter and so sweet
    Oh I could drink a case of you darling
    And I would still be on my feet
    Oh I would still be on my feet

    Oh I am a lonely painter
    I live in a box of paints
    I’m frightened by the devil
    And I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid
    I remember that time that you told me, you said
    Love is touching souls
    Surely you touched mine
    Cause part of you pours out of me
    In these lines from time to time

    Oh you’re in my blood like holy wine
    You taste so bitter and so sweet
    Oh I could drink a case of you darling
    Still I’d be on my feet
    I would still be on my feet

    I met a woman
    She had a mouth like yours
    She knew your life
    She knew your devils and your deeds
    And she said
    Go to him, stay with him if you can
    But be prepared to bleed

    Oh but you are in my blood you’re my holy wine
    You’re so bitter, bitter and so sweet
    Oh I could drink a case of you darling
    Still I’d be on my feet
    I would still be on my feet

    Now, you meant to tell me that you don’t feel the emotion in that song? Or in “Chelsea Morning” or “Both Sides Now”? Or “River”????

    These songs command your attention, your thoughtfulness, and sometimes even your ability to interpret, but they are all profoundly emotional, and I defy you to say otherwise. That’s right – I DEFY YOU! šŸ™‚

  10. Amy says:

    Didn’t mean to include the lyrics twice. I intended to share “River” instead.

  11. Dana says:

    I think we need to distinguish between emotional lyrics (or emotional songs) and emotional singing. I think Clay may have been speaking of her singing, not necessarily the lyrics or music, but I’ll let him respond to the charges brought against him:)

  12. Clay says:

    Well, I meant the whole package. I do like ‘Case of You.’ ‘River’ not as much (I’ve never liked the ‘Jingle Bells’ business).

  13. Dana says:

    Oh, if you meant the whole package, then I’m with Amy. You’re nuts:)

  14. Clay says:

    Dana made the point (offline) that perhaps it’s not emotion than Mitchell lacks, but passion. And I think he’s spot on.

  15. Amy says:

    Nonsense!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.