Sue Thomasís books include the novels Correspondence and Water, and the story anthology Wild Women. An excerpt from Correspondence appeared in Reload: Re-thinking Women and Cyberculture. With Teri Hoskin, she co-edited the Noon Quilt website and book. She is Artistic Director of the trAce Online Writing Centre in Nottingham Trent University.
Travelling with Joni
Joni Mitchell has been a constant presence in my life for many years. I can't even remember when I first discovered her songs but somewhere along the way I acquired several of her albums, the best of which are Song To A Seagull (1968) and Blue (1971). They have travelled with me for a long time.
In the late 1970s I lived in the suburbs of Nottingham with my then husband and our two small daughters. I was an earth-mother and rather enjoying it. But at some time during those years my husband made a comment which has stayed with me ever since. I was doing the family ironing and, as usual, playing a Joni Mitchell record to sing along to while I worked. It was probably the first album. Yellow, psychedelic, flowery, Side 1 was prefaced 'I came to the city' and Side 2 'Out of the city and down to the seaside'. Songs of streets and beaches, leavings and lovings. Which one I visited depended on my mood, it switched from one to another. That day, as I sang to the speed of my iron, my husband walked into the room and commented bitterly 'I know why you play Joni Mitchell songs - it's because they make you feel free'.
I was surprised. I'd never thought of it like that. This music signified no conscious desire to do anything beyond experience the joy of listening to it. I didn't feel especially trapped at the time, but in fact he was correct to be suspicious. Even then, our marriage was imperceptibly disintegrating and in 1984 it collapsed completely.
After the break-up I took great pleasure in using those long evenings alone after the kids had gone to bed to rediscover who I used to be. I played my records and spent a lot of time on the shoreline with Joni, but never had any curiosity about which beach she was singing about or where it might be. It was, indeed, just the place where she - and I - could be free. An abstraction of light and sand and ocean, lovers, and friends.
Move on a few years more, and I had become an writer. Joni had no presence in my first novel but when I came to write my second, Water, a story of love and sex and the sea, I suddenly found myself listening to Blue all the time. In the book I wanted to quote her line about songs being like tattoos but when I checked the rights I found I couldn't afford even that one single line of lyric. So I forswore it. But is it a coincidence that on the day of publication, hours before my public reading and launch party, I was suddenly impelled to rush out and have a large and complex tattoo inscribed onto my forearm? Was Joni at work there? Maybe she was.
The years passed. My daughter was a good pianist and she too was drawn to Joni's songs. She liked to play and sing but only when she was alone and in private, so I would often hear the strains of Blue. It was a huge pleasure, and remains so now.
In 2002 I visited California for the first time and suddenly realised that I would be at the actual birthplace of many of the songs I had listened to regularly for over twenty years. And so it was that in October, the day before I was due to return to England, I was walking along Zuma Beach watching the dolphins cruise along the tops of the waves when I stepped into a blob of tar and discovered the infuriating mess this can cause. As I tried to pick it off my toes, only to spread it onto my fingers, I could hear her shrill voice singing 'Carey' from the Blue album. She was ready to go to Europe, she sang, she was tired of having filthy fingernails and beach tar on her feet.
So there I stood on Zuma Beach, feeling (despite the tar) the most free and happy and complete that I had ever been in my entire life, and I could not help but say aloud so that any passing dolphin could hear 'OK Joni, I get it. The joke's on me. Thanks a lot!'