“There but for the grace of god go I” and all that.
I’m not sure how F Scott Fitzgerald, Alfred Hitchcock and Thom Yorke reacted to the negativity visited upon their great works.
Perhaps, like Eric Morecambe, they carried the worst notices in their wallets. Morecambe, now regarded by one and all as a genius, would often ponder the review predicting the TV set would be “the box in which they buried Morecambe and Wise”.
In an interview she gave last month, another genius contemplated her attitude towards criticism of her usic.
“I thought, why is it that people are so hard on this stuff?” reflected the great singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell.
Blue, one of the greatest albums of all time, is 50 years old. When it was released, in June 1971, it sold badly – and garnered poor reviews.
One of the tracks, according to Timothy Crouse in Rolling Stone, was “an extended mea culpa that reeks of self-pity”.
A Canadian magazine remarked that Mitchell was “apparently on a romantic bummer”.
At the end of Nick Hornby’s novel About A Boy, the 12-year-old Marcus, troubled son of the “liberal-hippy” Fiona, declares his hatred of Mitchell. His friend Will, writes
Hornby, “knew Marcus would be OK”.
And even this week the Daily Telegraph’s Charlotte Runcie said of Blue: “One thing’s for sure – you wouldn’t want it stuck on repeat during Antarctic midwinter.”
In my view, the album is a work of unsurpassed brilliance. I first listened to it in the 1980s and its openness, vulnerability, emotional complexity and plaintive sense of longing still move me.
It has wonderful melodies, of course, and is awash with suspended chords.
But it’s the lyrical poetry which has stayed with me for half a century.
Especially lines like “Richard got married to a figure skater, and he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator.”
Or: “I want to wreck my stockings in some jukebox dive”.
Not to mention: “I am on a lonely road and I am travelling, travelling, travelling. Looking for something, what can it be?”
It is, in short, a perfect record.
Even if you are not so keen on the confessional earnestness, and the downbeat nature of the song-writing, you must acknowledge its influence
on all the singer-songwriters who have fallen under its sway.
This was apparent in Laura Marling’s documentary on Radio 4, which acknowledged Blue as one of the finest modern song collections ever written.
Another musician, Marika Hackman – one of many to have covered the track River – wondered “what today’s musical landscape would sound
like if Blue had never been written”.
Apart from Marling and Hackman, Blue has influenced Björk and Beth Orton. Prince was a devotee, covering A Case of You two decades ago. Taylor Swift regards it as her favourite album of all time.
Bob Dylan, in his masterpiece Blood On The Tracks, paid homage to Joni’s tour de force by naming one of his songs Tangled Up In Blue.
The New York Times reckons it represents one of the “turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music”.
Mitchell defies categorisation. As if to make up for the magazine’s 1971 denunciation, Rolling Stone recently published a piece arguing “she’ll go down as maybe the greatest formal innovator in modern pop. Where so many of her contemporaries built on familiar folk or rock ‘n’ roll models, Mitchell devised her own musical language”.
The themes may be dark, but Blue remains a beautiful album. She sings beautifully, writes beautifully and plays her instruments beautifully.
Even her painful lament for the Woodstock generation is beautiful: “Reading the news and it sure looks bad. They won’t give peace a chance. That was just a dream some of
Hornby was pretty scathing in his dismissal of Fiona’s Joni-love in About A Boy. And he allows Will, in the novel, to poke fun at her liberal-hippy utopianism.
But, as another musical genius once sang: “What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?”