Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Filtering by Tag: Led Zeppelin

Joni Mitchell's Biography

Author David Yaffe is an unabashed Joni Mitchell fan, and his admiration oozes in nearly every paragraph of his 376-page biography, Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. As a reader who knew little about Mitchell aside from her musical output from 1970 through the early 90s, I found this book to be an enlightening read that offered a glimpse into how Mitchell developed creatively, broke down barriers, explored new terrain, and how the difficulties she experienced in her personal life fed her art. Still, at times Yaffe’s love becomes overbearing, his writing devolving into a fawning fit of approbation.

Yaffe certainly knows his subject, and the book is buoyed by direct quotes from Mitchell herself, as well as many of her ex-lovers, fellow artists and friends, not to mention concert and album reviews from publications as Mitchell’s career unfolded. Fortunately, Yaffe doesn’t gloss over Mitchell’s less admirable qualities, allowing her cantankerous personality to barge through as she blasts the likes of Thomas Dolby, Joan Baez, ex-husband Larry Klein, and even her daughter, with whom she reunited thirty-three years after placing her up for adoption. The most revealing remark in the book may be from Klein, who concludes, “I think that the seed of the angry, narcissistic element of her personality was always there, but I think that it was a gradual process of that part of her growing, and the curious and joyful part gradually receding.”

Too many biographies are too thin on the creative process and too robust on private life (Daniel Lanois’s autobiography being Exhibit A), but Yaffe may be the first author I critique whose summary of an artist’s output becomes too much at times, especially as he describes Mitchell’s career of the late 70s that delved deeper and deeper into jazz influences and esoteric lyrics. When a subject’s lyrics are obscure, more grounded prose would be helpful, but some of Yaffe’s detailed analyses of Mitchell’s lyrics are as hazy as the source. Consider the following description of the final verse of “Paprika Plains” off of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter:

“Changing weather becomes changing rhythms. Now the disco ball is shining on the dancers, illuminated by an artificial globe. It’s a continuum. She’s still as ‘wide-eyed open to it all’ as she was when she was ‘three feet tall.’ Everywhere she looks, she sees patterns and makes poetic images out of them. Like a medicine ball, the mirrored ball is moving, yet it is also a center, like coming back to middle C. That mirrored ball shines on everyone.”

This kind of writing bogs the book down.

But there are other moments when Yaffe hits the nail on the head. When describing the effect that Mitchell’s reimagining of her classic song “Both Sides Now” in 2003 had on the orchestra and conductor Vince Mendoza, Yaffe writes:

“The arranger and the musicians were losing it, but Joni was smiling. She had them exactly where she wanted them. She knew she had achieved spectacular theater just by getting older and going back to a song people thought they knew.”

Simple and straight forward, but effective. 

The coolest tidbit I learned was that the line from Led Zeppelin’s ”Going to California” – “to find a queen without a king/they say she plays guitars and cries and sings” – is a reference to Joni and her first track off her first album, “I Had a King.” I wish I’d known this when I was a 12 year-old putz claiming Zeppelin to be the greatest band of all-time.

It’s funny that certain words stand out when reading a book, and in Reckless Daughter Yaffe’s love for the word ebullient is almost as apparent as his love for Mitchell. If I had a digital copy of the book, I’d do a quick count. And he refers to Mitchell on several occasions as a “goddess,” which – to me – reads over the top, as if he’s projecting his own fantasies with the younger Mitchell. That’s quibbling on my part, but there are meatier grievances, particularly those pages where Yaffe reveals his own prejudices. His blanket statement about 80s music being “the aural equivalent of fluorescent lighting” is, of course, ridiculous. Let’s not forget that in the 80s many of Mitchell’s peers released some of their best work: James Taylor, Paul Simon and Jackson Browne among them. Mitchell didn’t. It was her choice to follow trends, but there was nothing inherently bleak about the 80s music scene. Great music was there for the taking. Mitchell didn’t create much, if any. 

And Yaffe inexplicably critiques artists of that decade: “If Nietzsche was disgusted by Wagner, what would he have made of Hall and Oates, or Phil Collins? The sickness of the decade even plagued music that might have otherwise been good. The standards, in other words, were low, and the people were sheep.”

Ouch. Okay, Yaffe, you got your licks in, but I confess without shame: I would rather listen to 1980s Phil Collins – and hell, even 1980s Hall and Oates – over 1980s Joni Mitchell any day of any week of any year. Don’t blame these guys on Joni’s poor output that decade

Still, Reckless Daughter is a good read and it educated me on several blind spots I had regarding Mitchell’s discography. One habit I employ that I would recommend to anyone reading a book about music: have your streaming app handy. It took me a while to finish Mitchell’s biography because every other page led me to listen to another song on Napster, and there are some gems I hadn’t heard before, or at least hadn’t paid much attention to: most notably, “I Had a King” and my new favorite, “Roses Blue.”

Yep, those are old songs. What can I say? I’m a melody guy, and when it comes to heartfelt lyrics and melody, you can’t do much better than Joni Mitchell’s first decade of recordings.

When Music Meant Going to Hell

As a thirteen year-old in 1981, I was faced with the unpleasant realization that my favorite pastime of listening to rock music was leading me into the fiery depths of hell.

Word of the subliminal message craze had reached the masses, and as a soon-to-be confirmed Lutheran, this was serious shit. I’d already worn out the black Led Zeppelin T-shirt I’d purchased in sixth grade, my copy of Physical Graffiti wasn’t far behind, and now I was being told that they were devil worshipers. Just look at the symbolism on the intricate artwork of their third album, people told me. A goat’s head! Pentagrams! When I’d purchased the album I thought nothing of stars and goats. So what? Ah, but this seemingly innocuous artwork was code for something more sinister, to say nothing of the discovery that “Stairway To Heaven,” when played backwards, invited the listener to worship Satan, and – if interpreted a certain way – when played forward notified the listener of this very fact. (“In case you don’t know, the piper’s calling you to join him.”) 

This was an unwanted addition to the growing list of concerns in my life. As if acne, divorced parents and a math teacher who entered my school straight from the Third Reich weren’t enough to worry about. Now I had to fear for my very soul.

I was a good, church-going-because-my-mom-makes-me kind of kid. Sure, I’d toilet papered a few (dozen) homes, hung out with a boy who shall remain nameless who vandalized a car, and shot off firecrackers on the front stoops of people’s homes from time to time, but deep down in my essence I was a pretty decent human being.  (This would become more apparent a decade or so later – call it a long road to maturity.) So hearing that my favorite pastime of rock music was jeopardizing my cushy afterlife was extremely troubling.

I’d avoided the overtly satanic bands like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. Their covers alone were enough to put the fear of God into me. But even comparatively airy fairy band favorites like Supertramp were under fire. While driving up to northern Wisconsin with my friend Todd, his brother’s girlfriend informed me that the song “Goodbye Stranger” included the line, “Say the devil is my savior/but I don’t pay no heed,” and she said this was a sign of devil worship.

I shouldn’t have paid any heed to the stupidity of that conclusion, but as a young teen who’d been taught about the very real existence of hell and who’d made the serious blunder of watching The Exorcist on network TV a year earlier, I absorbed this information with great trepidation. After all, if Satan could enter the body of Linda Blair, what was stopping him from entering me?

I soon learned about a lecture taking place at nearby Brookfield Assembly of God, where a pastor was to discuss rock and roll lyrics. I don’t know what the heck I expected. I guess I was secretly hoping he would say, “This is all nonsense.  Don’t worry about it.” Instead, I sat through a litany of offenses committed by my favorite bands. I may have been in the clear with the hard core metal groups, but the pastor went on to attack many of my favorite artists, concluding with a long dissertation about the Pink Floyd song “Sheep,” in which an alternate version of Psalm 23 is recited. The pastor found particularly offensive the use of the word “bugger,” even reading aloud the word’s definition from the dictionary (but avoiding – if memory serves – the anal intercourse meaning).

I went home distraught, wondering how I was going to live my life without rock music, knowing full well I couldn’t, which only meant one thing: eternal damnation. My mom was in her familiar perch on the family room recliner with a bowl of popcorn in her lap, our dog Butch begging for a piece from the floor. Noticing the apparent look of dread on my face, she asked me about the evening. When I shared with her my concern, she responded with something along the lines of, “You’re a good kid.  I don’t think what you listen to matters all that much.” This was from a woman who to this day is a God-fearing Lutheran. 

Chalk one up for level-headed parenting.

I’ve learned since that lyrics are a slippery thing, often meaning little if anything at all, sometimes meaning much more than they would suggest. Just yesterday I listened to the song “Dance Hall Days” by Wang Chung, reading the lyrics to the song for the first time ever, and was floored to learn that the line isn’t “We were cool on Christ” as one of my Christian friends told me back in high school, but rather, “We were cool on craze.” 

Hey, whether it’s craze or Christ, I’m cool with all of it. Whatever. You aren’t the words you listen to, and in my case, I’m not even the words I sing, as I’m now a Jew who in my classic rock band sometimes has to sing, “Jesus Is Just Alright” from The Doobie Brothers.

As Rick Davies of Supertramp sang, “I don’t pay no heed.”

Record Night Returns

Record Night returned with a vengeance last Friday at a new venue and with an addtional medium, as five of us met in Wauwatosa, where – in addition to music – a half an hour of Zeppelin’s 2007 reunion DVD made it into the mix, along with a turntable that jumped the groove if one stepped in the wrong location of hardwood flooring.   It was a minor hurdle to overcome in the name of Record Night.

The themes: Kevin’s was “Concerts I would have liked to have seen or that I would like to see again.”  Paul’s was “Stuff I’ve purchased in the past three or four months.”  JB, Pete and Frank had no theme and generally grabbed a selection from one of two boxes of LPs, though the miracle of wifi allowed us to tap into a few Youtube videos and mp3s.  In this sense, it was our first 21st Century Record Night.

And away we go… 

Paul       Hall and Oates, Bad Habits & Infections

Pete       Rickie Lee Jones, Weasel and the White Boys Cool

Kevin     Sly and the Family Stone, A Simple Song

Paul       The Shins, A Simple Song

Pete       Cheap Trick, Ooh La La La

(JB was busy getting the record player moved, a more technical task than one would think).

Kevin     Andy Gibb, Shadow Dancing

(Kevin’s first concert, 1978, Wisconsin State Fair)

Paul       Badfinger, Without You

Frank     Bad Company, Bad Company

(Interlude – white JB works on turntable, we watch Zeppelin’s DVD from their ’07 reunion concert.  Fantastic!  WAY better than I expected).

JB           Honeydrippers, Good Rockin’ At Midnight

Pete       Spinal Tap, Big Bottoms

Frank     The Firm, Satisfaction Guaranteed

Paul       XTC, Great Fire

Kevin     KC and the Sunshine Band, Who do you Love

(his second concert, 1979, Wisconsin State Fair)

(JB remarks, “I have no theme!”  It’s okay, man.)

JB           OMD, Forever Live and Die

Frank     The Kinks, Conservative

Pete       Joe Walsh, The Confessor/Rosewood Bitters

Paul       Big Country, Wonderland

JB          Paul Westerberg, Silver Naked Ladies

(Frank departed at this juncture.  Something about a job, kids, a life…blah, blah, blah).

Kevin     X Cleavers, 18 (Unprotected)

(a band from Milwaukee!

JB           Tin Lizzy, Romeo and the Lonely Girl

JB           Ian McLagan, Mystifies Me

(in honor of the maestro who recently passed away)

Paul       Harry Nilsson, One

Kevin     ELO, Sweet is the Night

Pete       Shooting Star, Last Chance

JB           Neil Young/Stills, Long May You Run

Paul       David Bowie, Diamond Dogs

Kevin     Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

Paul       Beck, Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime

Pete       Macklemore, Thrift Shop Feat

JB           Grateful Dead, Terrapin Station/Estimated Prophet

(The Dead - a first for record night!  Kevin is still not sold on this band.  Nor am I)

Paul       Geddy Lee, My Favorite Headache

(Pete was forced to stay for one last song before exiting)

Kevin     The Kinks, I took my Baby Home/Stop Your Sobbin’

(I still don’t get this band.  Always sounds like an out-of-tune garage band to me).

 JB           Beck, Paper Tiger

Paul       The Call, Let the Day Begin

(Another dead guy!)

At this point things are getting ugly, as Paul attempts to discredit The Who due to their meager output.  Several beers have made their way into our systems, and it seems like it’s a race to the finish – i.e. sleep – at this point.

Kevin     James Gang, The Bomber/Bolero

JB          The Who, The Seeker

(JB attempts to discredit Paul's discrediting of The Who.  Fairly successfully too, I might add.)

Paul       REM, Gardening at Night/Finest Work Song

Kevin     Bee Gees, Ordinary Lives

JB          Faces, Cindy Incidentally

Paul       Elton John, Honky Tonk Woman

Kevin     Duran Duran, New Religion

JB           Eddie Vedder, Hard Sun

Paul       The Alarm, Deeside

Kevin     Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Welcome to the Pleasuredome

John       The Jayhawks, Straight Face Can’t Hide 

And there you have it.  It’s true, JB managed to finish the evening without having played a Replacements’ song, but only succeeded on a technicality, as Paul Westerberg made the list. 

Next up?  We shall see, but I’m leaning toward a secret theme that attendees have to guess throughout the evening.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved