In this season of speeches and debates, I find myself thinking about verbal communication. Words can clarify or obscure, with or without intent. I am fond of saying that the internet has no tone of voice, but that doesn’t mean that hearing a voice with the words clarifies everything. There are times when a person hears words and meaning they have waited for for a long time, but also other times when the right words will not come. For songwriters, who after all live by finding the right words, all of these possibilities are potential subjects for their art. This week, then, we will be looking at songs that explore words said and unsaid.
Joni Mitchell’s song Conversation is an obvious starting point. Her narrator could be said to be having an affair. However, all they do is talk. The narrator is a sounding board for a man in an unhappy relationship. Mitchell creates a contrast between how easily the conversation flows between them and how broken the lines of communication are between this man and “his lady”. Even so, there are words that cannot be spoken in this situation. Conversation appeared on Mitchell’s album Ladies of the Canyon in 1970. Three years earlier, Mitchell sang the song at a club called the 2nd Fret with a different set of words at the end of the song:
He's acted down all evening
Maybe it's over now
Maybe she's finally leaving
I'd like to show her now.
But friends are friends forever
So hard to change their role
Laugh with him, cry together
A friend feels so old.
Hey friend, it feels so whole
But you keep your feelings deep inside
You talk of them and think of pride
Now is the wrong time
But maybe if a dozen days are warm and right
You'll hear him say "I've wanted you baby for such a long time."
He comes for conversation
I comfort him sometimes
Comfort and consultation
He knows that's what he'll find.
Especially for Joni Mitchell at that time, this would have given the song an impossible fairy tale ending. But the final version of the song still contains these words as an implied wish. Mitchell never sings them, but her voice tells you that her narrator would like them to come true. In a haven where words flow freely, there are still things which must remain unsaid.
By the way, I would gladly have posted this song as an mp3 if I had hosting. Barring that, I would have liked to post an “official“ video, or at least a concert performance. Alas, I could find any such thing. The song is still important enough to me that I wanted to share it somehow, and I was happy to at least find a video that was artfully made. I hope nobody minds.
Young Words Are Mumbled
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