“Rows of flows of angel hair, and ice cream castles in the air, and feather canyons everywhere, looked at clouds that way.”
Do you recognise that brace of couplets? They’re pretty exquisite, even typed, let alone sang right out loud. Indeed, most song lyrics don’t stack up on the page, but then these were penned by Joni Mitchell and she knows her way around the written word. These are of course the opening lines from Joni’s (we’re on first name terms for the remainder of this piece) eponymous 1967 composition “Both Sides, Now,” a song which has been covered in one guise or another a staggering 1,000 times, and counting. This is the song which I associate with her the most, and adore her for. It had its first outing as a recording by Judy Collins, and has gone on to be given the reworked treatment by artists as diverse as Bing Crosby and Carly Rae Jepsen. The two standout versions of the song by the composer herself were committed to vinyl in 1969 and the year 2000, respectively. It’s an extraordinary journey in under ten minutes to listen to both and compare and contrast her vocal dexterity from two periods so far apart. Her wide-ranging, blue-bright yodeling from the sixties and early seventies (think “California” and “Carey”) have been replaced by a hushed, seductive force by the turn of the century. The passing of the years shaped her vocals into an operatic sturdiness; think Doris Day but with a dose of Ritalin thrown in. I trust you to listen to both versions and conclude, like I did, that the version from the millennium year is far superior and powerful. In part this can be attributed to the award-winning arrangement on this recording; the music glides, squeaks with flute and slowly erupts into an understated glissando, keeping you gripped as effectively as Joni’s husky overtures do. This later version leaves you pinned to the back of your rocking chair rather than teetering on the edge of your seat - it’s all the better for doing so.
Lockdown and day-dreaming are the order of the day and as tempted as I was to simply discuss clouds here, à la Bart Simpson and co. in “The Telltale Head” episode, there’s more to explore. I must confess, my introduction to “Both Sides, Now” came not through Joni, or Bing, but by another American icon of the sixties and seventies - Neil Diamond. His version is a wholly different cocktail to Joni’s, but a swashbuckling tonic nonetheless, all rolling chords and “Sweet Caroline” pop vibes. As kids of 6 and 8 or 7 and 9, myself and my sister would spend our summer holidays in Devon or Cornwall with our Grandparents. You know the kind: Grandparents collect scrappy paper coupons from tabloids and over the course of a year, their dedication would be rewarded with discounted trips to West Country caravan parks. A British institution which I suspect has been lost or has faded dramatically.
These were the great British Summers of New Labour, of my favourite football team finally becoming relevant, of Ken Doherty halting Hendry’s domination at The Crucible, of first girlfriends, of cheating at apple-bobbing and of the promise of UK sun for a mighty seven days - if you were willing to make the 6-hour car journey from Yorkshire - which of course, most loving Grandparents are. So off we went, to mysterious places, called Bude and Truro and Fowey. Towns as exotic sounding as anything we’d ever known - having not yet succumbed to the cheapo-Spain option for the few family trips we could afford. In the back of Grandad’s silver roof-racked Proton; the 400-mile journey outlined by burning rubber foot mats causing nausea. But there was music too, and lots of it: the aforementioned Neil Diamond, Herman’s Hermits, Peter and Gordon, The Cascades, John Leyton and lots of Johnny Cash. Nothing as predictable or as bland as The Rolling Stones or The Beatles, thankfully. This bounty of cassette tapes was our earliest musical education, and it remains by our sides to this day. In 2020 the sharing of a song on Spotify or social media tagging pertaining to a certain band, can kick up memories which require no further explanation. On shorter, less glamorous journeys with our parents, Dad set about introducing us to The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, The Stranglers, Elvis Costello and endless Thin Lizzy. Contrasting styles - perfect pop and the golden age of punk - sat wonderfully alongside each other for many happy years and car journeys, until it was time for us to carry the baton forward ourselves, into our mid-teens and CDs and Walkmans. Middle of the road, throwaway music was never going to suffice.
Back to clouds. Looking towards the sky now in the tiny porch we’re fortunate to have at the front of our flat, I can’t look up to the sky to make out shapes representing anything of great importance. I certainly can’t look up and see or talk with my late Grandad, but it is a glorious April day full of sun and wispy white blotches. If I look to the West I can see the beginnings of Hove in the form of rows of white houses, and further than that along the coast come Hampshire, Dorset, Devon and finally Cornwall. And although we’re bound to our front doors and bankrupt of so many things for now, I am rich in reflection. And Joni has just come on the speakers.
“Well something’s lost, but something’s gained, in living every day.”