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Monday, 21 November 2011

Songs in the Key of Griff; Both Sides, Now

Welcome to the latest installment in the 'Songs in the Key of Griff' series, in which I attempt to provide meaningful analysis to the lyrics of a song which has come to have a very special meaning for me (see 'here' and 'here'for previously featured songs). Tonight's song is 'Both Sides, Now' one of the best-known songs written by the Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. Most of you will be familiar with this track, as it was written way back in 1967. Shortly thereafter, in 1968, and before Mitchell had even released it herself, Judy Collins' recording of the song reached Number 8 on the U.S. pop singles charts. That same year, Collins' recording reached Number 3 on Billboard's Easy Listening survey and, sadly, that has often been the story of the song since; killed by the dead hand of mainstream music. Just think of an 'easy listening' artist from the last 30 years and then Google to see if they've released a cover version of this song. Yep,they're all there; Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Roger Whittaker, Clannad & Paul Young (in the ultimate double whammy of blandness), Doris Day, Ronan Keating and (Oh, the Horror!) Susan Boyle. So, why on earth am I mentioning this song on 'The Streetlamp'; I mean it's hardly our usual fare, is it?

Well, actually, I like to think that it is. 'Both Sides, Now' is truly a magnificent song, and that's evident when you hear Mitchell's own versions. However, most artists cover it like it's a facile ballad from a West End musical when, in my opinion, it's nothing of the sort.And when you hear the right artist perform it in the right way, then the subtleties of meaning can be teased out and the song can be truly special again, as you will hear; but more of that later.
Firstly, let's have a look at the lyric.

Bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere, I've looked at clouds that way.
But now they only block the sun, they rain and snow on everyone.
So many things I would have done but clouds got in my way.

I've looked at clouds from both sides now,
From up and down, and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall.
I really don't know clouds at all.

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels, the dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real; I've looked at love that way.
But now it's just another show. You leave 'em laughing when you go
And if you care, don't let them know, don't give yourself away.

I've looked at love from both sides now,
From give and take, and still somehow
It's love's illusions I recall.
I really don't know love at all.

Tears and fears and feeling proud to say "I love you" right out loud,
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds, I’ve looked at life that way.
But now old friends are acting strange, they shake their heads, they say
I've changed.
Something's lost but something's gained in living every day.

I've looked at life from both sides now,
From win and lose, and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall.
I really don't know life at all.

On the surface, this is a song, as so many of Mitchell's are, about loss - loss of innocence, loss of love, loss of self. But there's something deeper at work here too and a good interpretation can tease it out. When I hear this song; or any song with an often missed 'deeper' theme, like Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen; properly interpreted I'm always reminded of this passage from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis;

"But what does it all mean?" asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.
"It means," said Aslan, "that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation."

So, what am I talking about, and why an I quoting C.S. Lewis, and more importantly, what do I think is going on in this song? My feeling is that Mitchell is taking us here on a trip into the world of the mystic. In particular, she seems to be invoking the concept of Maya (illusion), an idea central to many Indian religions. While Maya has multiple meanings, its basic premise is centered on the fact that we do not experience the environment itself but rather a projection of it, created by us; the universe as a dream, if you will. Now have a look at the lyric above again. I love the central conceit of this; the comparison between the nebulous, intangible clouds and life and love. This along with the realisation at the end of the song that our perception of things, both emotional and physical, must always be a less than perfect conception of an unattainable ideal make this, for me, a song of true depth and artfulness, and Joni Mitchell's finest song in a career of fine songs.

Now, I want you to hear a version of this song from an artist whom we've previously lionised here as writing songs which are "profound dense, implicative and pregnant with myth and meaning... (whose songs) bear repeated listenings as slowly and magically the full hidden treasure of each is revealed."

I am referring, of course, to long-time Streetlamp favourite Syd Lane (see 'here'). If you're not familiar with Syd (where have you been?) you should know that she is a prolific, Dublin-based writer of pyschedelic-flavoured dream-pop songs and that she releases all of her material for free on her bandcamp site. The good news is that Syd has just released her latest album 'With Your Shield Or On It', and that, as usual, it is chock-full of wonderful, fragile pop nuggets. The really, really good news is that the final track on the album is a cover of...yep, you guessed it, 'Both Sides, Now'. Talk about the right singer and the right song; this is a marriage made in Heaven. I embed it below, for your pleasure, with only this for comment about Syd's version;

She has looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she has read there a different incantation.


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