Thursday, May 14, 2020

Mayday/Danger: Help Me

Joni Mitchell: Help Me

If you believe Wikipedia, the use of the word “Mayday” as a distress signal began in 1921, when a radio officer at Croydon Airport near London was asked to come up with an appropriate word, and because much of the air traffic then came from Paris, he settled on “Mayday.” derived from the French word m'aider ('help me'), a shortened form of venez m'aider (“come and help me”).

So, it is appropriate that we discuss Joni Mitchell’s song “Help Me,” from the great Court and Spark album (which also includes “Free Man in Paris,” which doesn’t appear to relate to air traffic, but which did supply this blog with its name). A breezy, jazzy tune, it was written and produced by Mitchell, using the fusion band L.A. Express as the backing musicians. “Help Me” was Mitchell’s highest charting hit—at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100, it was her only top 10 hit, and it topped the easy listening chart. Joni considered “Help Me” to be “a throwaway song, but it was a good radio record. My record companies always had a tendency to take my fastest songs on albums for singles, thinking they'd stand out because they did on the LPs. Meantime, I'd feel that the radio is crying for one of my ballads!”

Not to turn this into some sort of treatise on sexual mores, but as one commentator noted:

Like the erotica of Anais Nin, the songs of Joni Mitchell have been a move, in a world generally dominated by men, to express the experiences of physical and spiritual love solely from a purposeful woman's vantage point. Through an often-angry admission of her emotional weakness for and dependence on the opposite sex, of her foolhardy miscomprehensions and unrewarded acts of faith, and of her ability, however imperfect, to make the process of self-love and the search for romantic fulfillment compatible, she has forged a fresh image of the autonomous female artist. It is not a political representation, tied to trends or to movements like Women's Liberation, but a forceful announcement of her own singularity. She began by embodying the archetypal fair-haired hippie-chick singer, ornamenting the male folk-rock enclave, taking lovers (Graham Nash, James Taylor) from among her associates, yet making it plain that they were her peers, that she claimed co-ownership of the experiences, and that she reserved the right to think out loud about them. Mitchell, like the rest of the obstinate rock and roll community, was on the way to satisfying herself, and she made no bones about it. 

I note that this excerpt, from the 1988 book Rock Lives, by Timothy White, appears on Mitchell’s personal website, and probably wouldn’t be there if Joni thought it was hogwash. And it is clear that Mitchell’s love life was quite varied. This 2017 Washington Post review of David Yaffe’s biography of Mitchell, Reckless Daughter, which also appears on Mitchell’s website, points out:

Mitchell's list of lovers boggles not because of its quantity but its quality: Leonard Cohen, David Crosby, Graham Nash, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, John Guerin, Sam Shepard, Jaco Pastorius, Don Alias and Larry Klein, among others. Many of her songs reference those lovers - "A Case of You" is about Cohen; "Coyote" about Shepard - and seldom in flattering ways. 

But the question to me is Mitchell really asking for help? The song’s first line, “Help me, I think I'm falling in love again” doesn’t register as a true plea for assistance, but instead a recognition of “here we go again.” She knows that the love affair is doomed—he’s “a rambler and a gambler and a sweet-taIking-ladies man.” But, she acknowledges that as much as she loves their “lovin’” they both love their freedom more:

I think I'm falling
In love with you 

Are you going to let me go there by myself 
That's such a lonely thing to do 
Both of us flirting around 
Flirting and flirting 

Hurting too 
We love our lovin' 
But not like we love our freedom 

True, long lasting, relationships require, I think, giving up some of your freedom in exchange for the other stuff—the “lovin’” the “sitting there talking/Or lying there not talking.” Which Mitchell, assuming that this song was at least in part autobiographical, wasn’t willing to do.

Somehow, this makes me think of how these days we have to give up some of our freedom—to get haircuts, see friends and family, eat in restaurants, see concerts, and wear masks—in exchange for the other stuff—like not infecting people with a potentially deadly disease.

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