When a friend whose judgment I trust recently expressed a lack of fondness for John Lennon’s much-covered Imagine, I felt rueful for a few seconds – I’ve always loved that song, although my relationship to it has changed over the years. But I also understood what he meant. I remembered what happened to me when I last sat through Michael Wadleigh’s monumental Woodstock documentary. From the start, my reaction was more tentative than it had been in the past, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then, when the crowd started chanting to try and stop the rain, I suddenly felt an unbridgeable gap between myself and those chanters. I had seen an irony that had escaped them, and having seen it, I could never unsee it again.
I first heard Joni Mitchell’s song Woodstock, from 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon, on one of the cassette tapes that were handed down to me by my older, wiser sisters. It had been taped from an old record, borrowed from the Worcester Town Library. Mitchell accompanies herself on electric piano, an instrument I had never heard then, and her otherworldly original version of the song is much more tentative, less strident than the cover versions that were to follow in its wake. There is an urgency to Mitchell’s performance that can still take me by surprise.
When I was fifteen, the song’s celebration of personal and political freedom seemed to promise that both those ideals could be attained at the same time. It now strikes me that Mitchell had the sense to keep the song open-ended: the transformation from bombers into butterflies in the final verse is something she dreams, a vision whose beauty depends on the impossibility of its fulfillment. As an adolescent I was prepared for the fact that the world could fail such a vision. What I wasn’t prepared for was that the vision itself should be in any way inadequate or flawed. That was what I felt the last time I watched Woodstock, and the fact that the experience was funny made it all the more devastating.
I still listen to Mitchell’s songs, early as well as late: they are extraordinarily fine for their own sake and on their own terms; I find that Imagine still has a resonance for me. But differently: whereas before it had been a clarion call to independence from superstition and materialism, I now feel a certain tenderness when I listen to it, as if I am confronted with a younger version of myself.
I don’t think this is primarily due to getting older, though age is no doubt a factor in such things. I smiled in recognition recently when I heard the Smiths’ Death of a Disco Dancer for the first time. “It happens a lot round here”, we are told. “And if you think peace is a common goal / That goes to show how little you know.” The guitar swirls around Morrissey’s voice like broken glass, and the effect is both troubling and strangely exhilarating. “Love, peace and harmony?”, chants Morrissey, “Oh, very nice, very nice, very nice, very nice / But maybe in the next world …”
Would I prefer the Smiths over Mitchell and Lennon for desert island listening? Probably not: Mitchell went on to become an artist of many voices, and Lennon’s genius more than matched his hubris, though these days I am more moved by his O My Love, also from Imagine, than that album’s title tune. In it a beloved is addressed in terms of wonder: “O my love, for the first time in my life / My eyes are wide open …” Significantly, though, the world that is embraced here includes sorrow as well as dreams, minor as well as major chords.