Friday, December 02, 2005

Clouds of Unknowing

Upon giving a friend the Joni Mitchell CD Dreamland, one of her recent retrospectives, I happened upon three new gems: three old songs re-recorded in her now gravelly voice, with a full orchestra behind her.

I was particularly touched by the new version of "Both Sides Now." You know the song ... particularly the refrain

"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"

Behind it, this time, her voice seems more hesitant, as if she's really, really, really looked at things from various angles and concluded, as we all eventually do when wisdom begins, that she knows nothing at all.

Before, in her young and haunting voice, or in the orchestral arrangement once sung by Judy Collins in her young voice, the refrain was the fatuous claim of a youth. Yes, at 20-something, or even 10 or 20 years later, we think we've seen it all and we think we know it all.

Most of all, we think we're immortal and accordingly live hard.

But to really know requires being able to sing from experience as Joni now does: "So many things I would have done ..." To have regrets and should-have-beens -- in Joni's life perhaps it is the child she regretfully gave away for adoption in a turbulent time of her life. Even though the story had a happy ending, it takes living through it to realize that life is what happens when you had other plans.

That's more or less when it hit me: the retired musician Joni Mitchell ("I'm a painter now") now knows she is going to die.

Wouldn't it be something if, a few years before singing no more, each of us got a chance to sing one of our old compositions -- even a wordless, soundless song, in a medium other than music -- with a retrospective flair? What if we, too, had an orchestra backing us up, with a soulful clarinet wailing the lament that all the life's learning was only to arrive at not knowing life -- hit it, Joni -- "at all."
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