It’s part of the Kurt Blumenau mythology, a factoid that anyone close enough to me to be reading this has probably heard multiple times. I’m not sure why I keep repeating it … I think I hope I will someday figure out why it mattered at the time and why I still remember it now. Anyhow:
Thirty years ago at this time, I was heading into the backstretch of my senior year of high school, juggling pretty good grades, a garage band, a girlfriend, and a mediocre winter track career.
And every night as I sat down to dispatch my senior-year homework, I put on Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark and listened to it straight through while I worked. Literally every single night over the course of the year, or very, very close to it. I had plenty of other records, and I’m sure I gave those some spins as well. But only Court and Spark was as much a part of the routine as pens and notebooks.
I have often wondered why the wanderings of a wealthy, footloose, romantic professional woman in Seventies L.A. should be so engrossing to a teenage boy in the Great Lakes suburbs of the early Nineties. It might have been the music more than the words. Joni had the balance of complex and catchy pretty well nailed by that point, and I remember thinking of the arrangements at the time as “wide-screen,” in particular the lengthy orchestral interlude that swells up in the middle of “Down to You.”
Anyway, I thought it might make for value-added interwebs content to revisit Court and Spark and rank its 11 songs from worst to best, as we blogger-types sometimes do with albums we like. It would have been interesting to compare this if I’d made the same list 30 years ago; I never did, but I suspect my rankings have not seismically altered over the decades.
11. “People’s Parties.” Of all Joni’s adventures, this seemed the least relatable or compelling: Our heroine fumbles around at parties to the accompaniment of a big baggy open-tuned guitar. The featured guest is a beautiful woman who sees no difference between laughing and crying, and that about says it all.
10. “Trouble Child.” This mysterioso ode to an institutionalized young person would have scored a lot higher with me in 1991, just on musical mood alone. Now I’m more likely to cock an eyebrow at lines like the Jon Anderson-ish “Dragon shining with all values known” and the closing rhyme of “knock you”/”clock you.” And I never come out the other end of this song entirely sure what its narrator wants me to think about the title character.
(Obligatory disclaimer applies: The most successful song I’ve ever written was about the Presidential Physical Fitness Exams, so any criticisms I have regarding song construction should probably be taken with a grain of salt.)
9. “Twisted.” OK, this bit of secondhand vocalese would have been last on my list in 1991. I don’t usually like vocal jazz, and the campier or more self-consciously clever it gets, the worse it is. But, y’know, since I started putting on my grown-up pants I’ve come to sorta like this. It has gained in my estimation as its predecessor “Trouble Child” has declined. Joni has the voice to pull it off, and it’s pleasant to hear her enjoying herself.
8. “Raised on Robbery.” I was gonna put “Just Like This Train” in this slot but swapped it with this one at the last second. This is Joni’s big rock n’ roll move, with fellow Canuck Robbie Robertson lending support on guitar, and a Maple Leafs name-drop for a little extra north-of-the-border colo(u)r. It’s well enough done — some of the lines are funny, and extra points for the way the lyrics shift perspective after the first four lines — but I never really turned to Court and Spark for rock n’ roll. I don’t want the songs to pump past quickly (see #7.)
7. “Just Like This Train.” A slow and lazy reverie, sung from the point of view of a ramblin’ dame on a train journey with a bottle of German wine who lets slip that she’s found love — or has she? Honestly, I think I like this song because the languidness that pervades it makes it seem twice as long, and I would stay for several hours in the Court and Spark soundscape if allowed.
6. “Car on a Hill.” “I’ve been sitting up waiting for my sugar to show / I’ve been listening to the sirens and the radio” is a great evocative opening, redolent of hot dark spooky summer nights in idyllic and high-priced Western canyons. The song doesn’t evolve that much further from there, but Joni lets you see enough to make you wonder whether the narrator should be as attached to her man as she seems to be. I also go for the wordless, ominous, screeching bridge, though your mileage may vary. “He makes friends easy / He’s not like me…“
5. “Help Me.” You know this one — one of the album’s two hits. Catchy and concise; takes off in the bridge; and packs one of the album’s defining lines (“You love your loving, but not like you love your freedom“) … maybe should have placed higher. Maybe it’s just a bit of fatigue at this point.
4. “Court and Spark.” The album opener and scene-setter, with JM tinkling the joanna. The door swings open, the math book does too, love comes to Joni’s door with a sleepin’ roll, and off we go. This song is just the right length at 2:46; it would have dragged at any greater duration. “You could complete me / I’d complete you” is pretty much the whole burrito, refined down to one flawless mouthful of beans and rice. Calling Los Angeles “city of the FAL-LEN AN-GELS” is a howling cliche — maybe less so in 1974, but only slightly less so. Still Joni sings it like it stings her, with a turbulent and bruised-sounding instrumental passage in its wake, and it sneaks by.
3. “Down to You.” A rueful deep-dive into the way love fades, aimed at a “constant stranger” who is both kind and cold — a reminder of how we hand our hearts to other people and then find out what we’re in for. (I don’t entirely understand the sidetrack into the singles bar; is that the narrator’s amour who’s sneaking around, or is she recalling her own previous — or even current — misadventures?)
I could bathe in the previously mentioned instrumental break; this is where the musical glory of Court and Spark is most let off the leash to frolic. If Wiki is to be trusted, Joni and Tom “Triple Scale” Scott shared a 1975 Grammy Award for this song, in the category of Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s). 1991 Kurt says they deserved it, and the repeated plays 2021 Kurt is giving it suggest that not every molecule in him has changed since he wore long hair.
2. “Same Situation.” The last chord of “People’s Parties” (remember that? if you forgot it, that’s OK too) fades into this, Joni’s keenest and most acidic dissection of relationship tangles on C&S. The image of being “tethered to a ringing telephone / in a roomful of mirrors” has stuck with me over the years, well out of proportion to its actual application to any situation in my own life.
Another of the lyrics here – “Like the church, like a cop, like a mother / You want me to be truthful / Sometimes you turn it on me like a weapon, though / And I need your approval” — also turned my head around when I was younger. It was a passkey that opened up a room in which I considered the unthought and implicit demands I made, or would make, in romantic relationships. A sort of heads-up: People play mind games and make unrealistic demands. Check yourself: Which ones are you guilty of?
(I’m not saying that couplet actually made me a better person; but it took self-satisfied teenage Kurt and made him think, and anything that could do that must have had something going for it. And anyway, a lyric Joni delivers late in the song, over a subtle swell of strings – “Send me somebody / who’s strong, and somewhat sincere” — suggested that one didn’t have to be perfect to make a connection.)
1. “Free Man in Paris.” The other big hit, entering in a gale of puffy flutes, and (AFAIK) introducing the phrase “star-maker machinery” to popular culture.
I’ve been in the full-time working world for 25 years now, and this anthem of one-of-these-days-I’m-gonna-check-out has played in the back of my head for most of that time. This is sort of the thinking white-collar person’s equivalent of “Take This Job and Shove It” or “Nine to Five” … not a complete shucking of one’s duties, but a sigh and a long gaze out the office window, and a look forward to a delicious day when it all disappears (with an empowering undercurrent of I’m-only-here-because-I-choose-to-be.)
I don’t know where 1991 Kurt, who only worked menial jobs in the summers, would have placed this, but Adult Kurt has lifted it, rather unconsciously, to the level of a statement of purpose.
I do my best, and I do good business … and “if I had my way, I’d just walk through those doors and” — and here Joni’s voice leaps brilliantly into the clouds — “wan-DERRRRRRR down the Champs-Elysees.” (How many American Top 40 hits mention the Champs-Elysees? Hell, how many mention Paris?)