‘We’ll Talk In Present Tenses . . .’

Originally posted June 24, 2008

I made an off-hand comment the other week while writing about the music that helped keep me sane during my invalid summer of 1974: “I tend to think that ‘Help Me’ is the best thing Joni Mitchell has ever recorded over the course of her long career.”

Since then, I’ve been pondering that thought. I know I’m not nearly as familiar with Mitchell’s (admittedly sparse) work in the past fifteen years as I am with the music that came before. Given critical reaction, I should get hold of last year’s album, Shine, and then see what I think. But beyond that album, based on what I’ve read and heard and remember hearing on the stereo, I don’t think I need to dig too deeply into the 1990s or even the 1980s work by Mitchell to review my comment.

I’ll grant Mitchell one huge thing: She’s never been afraid to experiment. It sometimes seems, looking at her catalog, that since 1974’s Court and Spark, her career has been one long experiment, starting with this quartet of 1970s albums: The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Hejira. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. Mingus. They pulled influences and ideas from all over the musical map, delighting some listeners, dismaying others and confusing many. I hadn’t followed Mitchell as closely in the first half of the Seventies as I’d followed other musicians, so it didn’t upset me when she embarked on her explorations, but I found her work not only less accessible but less likable, as well. It was challenging, certainly, and that’s not a bad thing. But it wasn’t fun anymore. And I quit listening.

I picked up a few later-era Mitchell albums during the 1990s – Wild Things Run Fast, Dog Eat Dog, Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm and Taming The Tiger come to mind – and found myself listening to them once and then shelving them. I recognized the effort, the reach, but again, I got little pleasure. During that time, I made a lot of mix tapes for friends as my music collection grew, drawing music from a wider range of artists and styles month by month. But I recall that I rarely pulled any of the later Mitchell albums from the stacks, declining to even listen to single tracks as I made tapes. I wondered: Was my disinterest in Mitchell’s more challenging work a deficiency? Well, I finally answered myself, if it is, then so what? Life is too short to listen repeatedly to music one doesn’t like.

My hope is to someday soon dig into Mitchell’s later work again to see if my reactions to it have changed as time has passed. But for now – and pending a listen to Shine, which has had nice things said about it – I’ll hold to my comment about “Help Me.” Trailing behind it in my list of favorite Mitchell tunes would be “Chelsea Morning,” “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” Free Man In Paris” and “Songs to Aging Children Come.” (“Both Sides Now” and “Woodstock” are great songs but have gotten a little tired.)

The obvious thing to do here would be to offer a cover version of “Help Me.” A check at All-Music Guide shows more than 300 listings for “Help Me,” but many of those are for other songs with the same title. (A good share of them belong to the blues tune of that title by Sonny Boy Williamson II, a nice piece but not at all what’s being sought today.) At a rough guess, maybe a fifth of the entries listed, maybe about sixty, are recordings of Mitchell’s tune. And it turns out I have none of them in my collection (a gap that will be filled).

The crop is a little leaner for “Chelsea Morning,” but oddly enough, I have two of the twenty or so cover versions listed. As to other versions, I’m sure I’ve heard Neil Diamond’s 1971 version, from his Stones album, and I know I’ve heard Judy Collins’ version, which was on Living, also from 1971. I have the version that Fairport Convention recorded for its 1968 self-titled album. But I decided to go a slightly different direction and offer the version that Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 recorded for the group’s 1971 album, Stillness.

Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 – “Chelsea Morning” [1971]

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