I was checking out You Tube one evening last week, watching Joni Mitchell play “A Case Of You”. A song of incredible sadness and vulnerability, it speaks of lost love and the pain of letting go. The raw honesty and the craftsmanship of the song’s album, “Blue“, made it a commercial and critical success and helped establish Mitchell as one of the most influential singer songwriters of the late 20th century.
I stayed up late into the night watching videos; from 1965, Joni Anderson, before she became Mitchell, on a Canadian hootenany show, Let’s Sing Out, in black and white, fresh faced, a young girl on the verge of realizing a dream. In another, more recent video, a much older Mitchell in front of an orchestra singing “Both Sides Now“, her trademark falsetto gone now, and in it’s place, the smoky and husky voice of age and experience. I wondered how it felt for her to sing this song about perspective, 30 years after she penned it. Perhaps she felt more keenly the truth of her lyrics that “something’s lost but something’s gained”.
As I continued wading into the video past of 70’s singer- songwriters, (yes I am aging myself, that’s kind of the point) I came across a live version of James Taylor and Mitchell singing a duet on Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes“. A few more clicks and there’s a video of one of James Taylors early television appearances; young, almost adolescent, a full head of hair, wispy moustache, looking like someone needs to give him a good meal. He sings “There’s a song that they sing when they take to the highway, a song that they sing when they take to the sea“. His journey takes him through self commitment to a mental institution and 18 years of heroin addiction. He talks about this in another video; he is balding, lines in his face, in the sunset of his career. “I should have died four or five times” he says. Next, I’m watching videos of Sting and Allison Krause playing at a James Taylor tribute. Would there have been a tribute if he had not experienced what he did?
These are songs I grew up with, and they made me think about my own journey. Closing down my computer close to 1 a.m., I went outside to my backyard, stood in the full moon’s glow and thought about my travels as a single guy. I remembered playing my guitar alone in a cabin in Montana, in the shadow of the Continental Divide. I recalled partying and dancing joyfully with fellow members of a theater group, at the director’s house in Bisbee, accompanied by whatever we could find, egg shakers, bongo drums, claves. In my mind’s eye I looked down from the top of Wasson Peak on solitary monsoon clouds drifting across the Tucson basin like air ships floating over a desert sea.
Other memories came to me as well, not as pleasant. Sitting in a Civil War battlefield in Petersburg, Virginia, miserably unhappy, wondering why the hell I was so far from home. I understood then why someone would want to kill themself. I thought of standing on the mall at the University of Arizona, watching the same moon, cold and alone.
I went inside my house and checked on my sleeping children, and laid down in bed next to my sleeping wife. I missed my carefree life, playing music, hiking, travelling. It’s true that something is lost there, in time and age, but so much more is gained. Maybe more valuable than what you lost, if you can choose it to give it to yourself.
The song that you sing when you take to the highway is not the song you sing when you take to your plow. On the highway there is exploration, out in the fields you work, decision. There’s an intention there to create, to plant a seed, to stick around and nurture it and to see what you can harvest, even if you don’t feel like it. Transformation can happen in an instant, I have seen it, but most of the time it is a slow process, sometimes painful, almost always messy, as we struggle out of the skin of what we are comfortable with and into what are becoming.
To move forward you must let go, and it’s not easy and sometimes it’s not pretty. Change will happen with or without you, but transformation, that is, change into who you want to be, that requires intention, focus, energy, and a willingness to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. If you are lucky you can make it happen. If you are luckier it may happen to you.