Both Sides Now
A Reason To Smile
You may have seen the news recently about Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone magazine and for decades a powerful gatekeeper of which popular music was critically revered. Wenner is out with a new book, The Masters, which he calls “a visit to the Mount Olympus of rock.” Seven artists are featured in Wenner’s Pantheon of greats: Dylan, Lennon, Jagger, Townshend, Garcia, Bono, and Springsteen. All of them are undoubtedly masters. And all of them are also white men.
In the introduction, you acknowledge that performers of color and women performers are just not in your zeitgeist. Which to my mind is not plausible for Jann Wenner. Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, Stevie Wonder, the list keeps going — not in your zeitgeist? What do you think is the deeper explanation for why you interviewed the subjects you interviewed and not other subjects?
Well, let me just. …
Carole King, Madonna. There are a million examples.
When I was referring to the zeitgeist, I was referring to Black performers, not to the female performers, OK? Just to get that accurate. The selection was not a deliberate selection. It was kind of intuitive over the years; it just fell together that way. The people had to meet a couple criteria, but it was just kind of my personal interest and love of them. Insofar as the women, just none of them were as articulate enough on this intellectual level.
Oh, stop it. You’re telling me Joni Mitchell is not articulate enough on an intellectual level?
Hold on a second.
I’ll let you rephrase that.
All right, thank you. It’s not that they’re not creative geniuses. It’s not that they’re inarticulate, although, go have a deep conversation with Grace Slick or Janis Joplin. Please, be my guest. You know, Joni was not a philosopher of rock ’n’ roll. She didn’t, in my mind, meet that test. Not by her work, not by other interviews she did. The people I interviewed were the kind of philosophers of rock.
Needless to say the interview went over about as well as a punk rocker in a three-piece suit. It was discordant — not only with our times, but with the truth. And it prompted all sorts of necessary soul-searching over what types of music and musicians have been valued, and who was doing the judging.
With this recent news in mind, we decided for this week’s A Reason To Smile to feature someone worthy but who didn’t measure up to Wenner’s definition of greatness. Let’s just say it wasn’t hard to come up with dozens of names. What was difficult was choosing among so many great artists.
So we figured we would limit ourselves to the name raised prominently in the excerpt above, Joni Mitchell. Even in her canon, there are so many wonderful options. We are choosing a special favorite: “Both Sides Now.”
The song is about life, love, and the variety of perspectives that come with the passage of time. As with many of our choices, we suspect it will yield both smiles and tears. Mitchell said she was inspired by a passage in the Saul Bellow novel Henderson the Rain King, where the titular character looks out of an airplane window at the clouds below. Mitchell happened to be reading on a plane herself. “I put down the book, looked out the window and saw clouds too, and I immediately started writing the song.”
It is striking to think that she was only in her early 20s at the time. Such wisdom in the lyrics. Such brilliance in the music. Judy Collins was the first to record it and won a Grammy. Many artists have covered it as well, and it has appeared prominently in movies and on television.
One particularly powerful example comes from the film “CODA,” which won the 2022 Academy Award for Best Picture. It is the story of an aspiring young singer from a working-class family whose parents and brother are deaf. In a pivotal scene, the young artist, played and sung by the British actress Emilia Jones, uses “Both Sides Now” to audition for the Berklee College of Music. Her family sneaks in to watch. We are sharing the scene here because it is a magical rendition of the song. But it also contains spoilers, in case you haven’t seen the film yet (we highly recommend that you do).
We also wanted to share a version of the song from Joni Mitchell herself. The one below is incredibly moving. It is from the 2022 Newport Folk Festival, Mitchell’s first time back to that hallowed venue in 53 years. Mitchell suffered an aneurysm in 2015 and had largely retreated from public view. But backed by a slew of famous musicians, she gives a heart-stopping performance. More than 50 years of life separate the singer from the songwriter.
As the lyrics say, “something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day.”
After the performance, Brandi Carlile, who appeared on stage with Mitchell, asked the crowd, “Did the world just stop? Did everything that was wrong with it just go away? I feel like it did.” We do as well, at least for a moment. Smiles and tears and everything in between.
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