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We should be so lucky

I often listen to live music and radio shows, which are somewhat live. The aspect of a knowledgeable DJ putting together a good set adds excitement. Live music is exciting. It’s not just a song heard, it’s a performance experience. It’s a chance to see an artist be an artist, and I don’t particularly care if that artist messes up a little or embellishes. Departing from the predictable adds charm.

That’s getting away from my point, which is an artist being an artist, and that brings me to Joni Mitchell. Every so often, a video of a performance will affect me in a halting way and narrow the world to that small display. Scads of hip-hop, Nina Simone, James Brown, Q-Tip, Tori Amos, the artists vary. But this is one of those songs and videos:

It’s Joni Mitchell playing the song “For Free,” just her and a piano and a mic. And it’s a pretty spartan video — no great production values, no big surprises. The song starts out with a simple intro as she gets into the story.

Still…

You notice during the first line she smiles just a little as she closes her eyes, and you know this song is something real to her. And then she rocks her shoulders briefly. This isn’t a simple song, this is a feeling in musical form.

This is a performance, surely, and at times she looks the audience’s way, making sure they know the story. There is a point in the second verse where she says, “quick lunch stand,” more than sings it. It’s out of lyrical rhythm and tone. But it adds a spoken-word touch to let you know what you’re hearing is absolutely a tale and not just a pretty melody. It’s one of those nice variations during a live performance that might not be heard on a slick LP.

But you also get the sense this is slightly invasive, asking her to perform like this. She’s exposed, on the stage by herself with her piano. And she’s playing a song filled with notes she didn’t merely slap together. They mean something. This isn’t saying anything revolutionary about a genius who invented dozens of tunings because they worked better. But the notes are a perfect fit for the point of the story, which deals with fame — specifically, how fame can distort your intentions and approach, and how the most humanly worthwhile things in life aren’t necessarily the most heralded.

That’s a theme nearly as old as money, but the way it’s layered into the song is melancholy and beautiful and not easy for the listener to fit into a mental compartment. It’s not easy to imagine the scenes, listen to the notes and go, “eh.” If that’s your reaction, you’re not really listening.

And because of the notion that she’s exposing her emotions, sections of the song send chills down my spine. I’m no sonic expert. I have vague ideas about why certain sounds make people feel certain emotions.  Yet I can’t help think that she designed some note progressions to make stop what you’re doing and cry.

In the first verse she sings, “let out from the schools,” and whatever note she hits at ‘schools’ penetrates. It’s almost a setup for later in the verse during, “waiting for the walking green.” In the second, it’s “escorting me to the halls” before “or if you’re a friend to me.” In the third verse, “they passed his music by” before “maybe put on some kind of harmony.”

Watching her sing those sections seems almost like watching a person pleading with the audience to be more human, or at least make listeners understand how important it is to be kind and loving. When she sings, “they passed his music by,” she sings “by” almost without voice. It’s lovely, and that’s fitting, because this is a love song.

And I think Joni masterminded all of this. Notice as she finishes the final verse, the side of her mouth curls up a little, just before throwing in a high note for good measure. Maybe she’s enunciating. Maybe she’s smiling because she had a clean performance. But I like to think she smirked a little, knowing that everyone in the audience gets it. I wasn’t even alive then, and I do.

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