I know a guy who bangs drums for a living—he’s a big guy, and he’s an intimidating guy. He’s been playing loud and heavy modern rock professionally for over twenty years, and he’s seen it all. His many nicknames include: a juxtaposition of his last name with the name of a natural disaster involving tremors in the Earth’s crust; an illustrative personification of a body limb that activates the kick pedal on a drum set; and my favorite, “Superbear.” And while Superbear’s imposing figure and demeanor could certainly dragoon a meeker individual into doing whatever—stop talking, make Superbear a drink, go do Superbear’s laundry, etc.—he never uses his sheer size as currency in personal matters. Contrarily, he’s an intelligent guy, and this makes him even more dangerous. Superbear, a giant in physique and personality, can and will bite; he is not to be crossed.
That is, unless you know his Achille’s heel: Help me, I think I’ve fallen in love again. Shhh, let’s talk in the other room; Superbear’s sleeping.
In 1974, Joni Mitchell released her most successful album, Court and Spark, and, while not taking anything away from the rest of her brilliant catalogue, I stand by the assertion that it is her masterpiece. Every few months or so I like to accompany a time-consuming task (like a deep house cleaning or, in this specific case, making eight years worth of soup) with listening to a big chunk of a venerable recording artist’s works; I enjoyed the Pixies the last time, and I enjoyed Joni Mitchell recently. As usual, I worked chronologically, starting with Clouds (1969) and working through Ladies of the Canyon (1970), Blue (1971), and For the Roses (1972) until ending up on the subject of this article. After finishing my soup I should have been sick of the young and smoky Canadian, but I wasn’t. I ended up taking C&S in the car and keeping it in my CD player for weeks (yes, I still use a CD player).
A few days ago, Superbear and I hopped into the Battle Steed (my Dodge Intrepid) to get some Spirit Elixir (Starbucks). We were fervently discussing the best hard rock records to introduce to his nearly teenage daughter until he said:
“Shut up for a sec.”
“Okay,” I replied. It’s best to do as Superbear says, after all.
He turned my volume knob to an uncomfortably loud setting and passionately sang every word to “Help Me,” track two on C&S. I joined in on the backing vocals and the funky bari sax lick. After the song ended, he turned the volume back to a reasonable level (bummer, too, because “Free Man in Paris” is my favorite) and said:
“Sorry. That’s my favorite song of all time. Anyway, what do you think for Maddie? Tool, System of a Down, or Rage Against the Machine?”
“How about Joni Mitchell?” I replied.
“Hmmm, no, not yet. She’s too young.”
We laughed at the time, but I wonder now if there wasn’t some truth in what Superbear said. Joni Mitchell explores some mature themes: unwholesome apathy in “People’s Parties,” sleazy sexuality in “Raised on Robbery,” not to mention underage drinking (way underage) in the good-humored “Twisted.” In the lyrics of the aforementioned heavier artists, the worst a listener will encounter is anger, frustration, and cynicism. Well, hell, isn’t that what being a teenager’s all about? That, and getting scholarships for college. But, since writing about high SAT scores makes for boring pop music, heavy rock artists tend to stick to the stuff that helps teenagers cope with finding themselves and their places. To drill the message home, heavy rock music tends to be aggravatingly and monotonously loud, and amen to that, brother.
Joni Mitchell’s music—which is much heavier, in the metaphysical sense—is gentle and subtle. She utilizes jazz harmony not for spice or pretense but to accommodate her complex lyrics. Singing about sex being fun requires three chords at most, but singing about sex yielding subsequent feelings of anxiety and an inferiority complex as in “Car On a Hill” requires a much larger musical toolbox. In other words, you gotta get a guitarist like Wayne Perkins on the job, which Ms. Mitchell did, and amen to that, sister.
Court and Spark is a strictly adult record. Now, I’m in no way suggesting that Joni Mitchell’s work is objectionable and should be censored to young folks. It’s sophisticated and intelligent stuff, though, and its subtle messages can be lost on or misinterpreted by a lot of people, particularly young folks who listen closely. On the other hand, what’s so dangerous about a little heavy rock n roll? I remember becoming disillusioned with the pitfalls of purblind patriotism and perjurious political pundits at age twelve; Rage Against the Machine’s first record was the kind of stuff that inspired me to get an education—to work towards change. Court and Spark is the kind of record that puts my education and experience to work and enriches a life whose idealism was already sold out in monthly payments. Superbear may or may not agree. I look forward to getting his two cents.
Tripper Ryder is a composer and session bass player in Nashville,TN. When not studying counterpoint, he enjoys the music of Madonna and Meshuggah.