I recently had a Tweet from a reader asking me to retweet as part of her campaign to bring herself to the notice of Joni Mitchell.
Two weeks later, my reply is still being retweeted and favourited by people I’ve never heard of.
You never know with the internet, do you? You work your socks off trying to be noticed (blogging, Facebooking, SoundClouding) and then an off the cuff remark grabs all the attention.
This is what I said, in reply to @SarahGSings, who wants to be noticed by Joni Mitchell:
I did, honest! On release in 1976, I reviewed Hejira for a weekly music magazine (long gone). Obviously, I raved about it. I finished up the review with the observation that “it’s better than sex”.
I wasn’t knocking sex. But while you can’t always get what you want in some spheres of life, music is always available to thrill, caress and lift you to heights…..oh, you know what I’m saying.
I was in a funny place in my life in 1976. After nine years of secure employment since leaving school, work was scarce and unreliable.
I was also going through an episode of what was later diagnosed as depression.
I felt, in a word, transient.
And then along comes Joni with a whole album about transience. The word Hejira derives from the Arabic for migration, or exodus.
She had already hit unbelievable heights with Court & Spark. But with Hejira she entered a whole new domain – she became, overnight, one of those rare birds in popular music. You could now regard her as an artist rather than as a mere musician or singer.
In one song, she’s talking to her lover, a ranch owner who is “brushing out the blue mare’s tail, as the sun is ascending, and I’ll just be getting home with my reel to reel” (that’s a pre-digital studio reference for you young’uns).
In Amelia, she addresses the wanderlust of aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart. Joni’s “driving across the burning desert“, when she spots “six jet planes, leaving six white vapor trails“. They are “the hexagram of the heavens, the strings of my guitar“.
You need to be unattached, restless, with a lot of time on your hands to notice these things and write them down. But you need to be an artist to come up with that last line.
Lyric after lyric on the album spoke to the deepest depths of my soul.
But my favourite lines, which are never far from my mind, are:
“There is comfort in melancholy, when there’s no need to explain. It’s just as natural as the weather in this moody sky today“.
I imagine those words resonate with everyone who has suffered from depression. Melancholy is a familiar state of mind, and – naturally – it feeds creativity (well, I would say that, wouldn’t I?).
It’s a funny thing, depression (or, in my case, bipolar). Unless you’re at the extremes of the spectrum – being sectioned or even straitjacketed – even friends find it difficult to accept that you’re not well, simply because you have learned to cope and behave in a ‘normal’ way.
I had not begun to talk about my condition, which had been diagnosed 20 years earlier, until nine years ago. Mostly I was met with comments of the “you’re not depressed!” or “pull yourself together!” variety. The breakthrough for me came when Stephen Fry did his two-part documentary for BBC in 2006.
As Fry described his manic phases for the tv cameras – shopping for England, buying again things he already had, moving at 100 miles an hour – friends were calling or texting me saying, “Oh my God, it’s like being with you!”
Being manic was wonderful. Almost everything I’ve achieved in my life of any note (other than my children) has been during a manic phase. I can move mountains. Nothing gets in my way. I say “was wonderful” because I haven’t had a manic episode for nearly 10 years. I really miss them.
But it is odd that people can recognise that aspect of your behaviour, but still struggle to understand that the other end of the spectrum, the depression, is anything more than feeling a bit down.
It’s also quite sad that people you’ve known for years suddenly start treating you like a leper. Not close friends, not people you can sit and talk frankly with. But some quite important bits of my life fell apart when I opened up about being bipolar.
Well, in the immortal words of J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs, ‘Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke’.
I wrote my own song about it, comprised in large part of things I used to tell people to try and help them understand. It’s called Trouble With Me.
I’m going to leave you with that. I don’t think it’s a ‘depressing’ song. It’s really a country blues. In the tradition, the lyrics are personal and explicit about feelings and about the reason for the feelings.
Joni Mitchell is much, much, much better at that than me.
Hallo? Joni? Are you listening…..
Sorry, @SarahGSings – can’t help. Joni’s just not paying attention.