And what do we have here? A short book by Sean Nelson. And who is this Nelson? The man is a singer (most notably for Harvey Danger) and a writer (most notably for The Stranger). Until two years ago, he was an associate editor for the paper that's now in your hands (or on your screen), and since the mid-'90s, his career has vacillated between the poles of full-time singing and full-time writing. The new book is something of a synthesis: Nelson writes about music, or more precisely, the musician Joni Mitchell. The book is part of the 33 1/3 series published by Continuum. Each book in this series has a writer focusing on an album that arguably plays an important role in the development of pop music since the '60s. In this case, that album is Court and Spark, which Nelson argues is the peak of Joni Mitchell's peak period—1971 to 1975.
Court and Spark, the book, begins where it ends: the backseat of "a navy blue, late-'60s model VW with black and yellow California plates." The driver of the car is the author's mother, the boy in the backseat is the author, and all round them is the "sprawling, horrible, beautiful" city of Los Angeles. Here "between 74 and '79," in the backseat of the car, Nelson discovers Joni Mitchell. It is also the place he discovers his mother ("during her first marriage"), his state (California), and the tone of the decade of his birth (post-Watergate, post-sexual revolution, post-hippie). This is where the "pop consciousness" of the boy begins.
Because Nelson takes Mitchell seriously, Court and Spark must be read as a serious book. The substance and structure of the work has themes and patterns we rarely find outside of modernist novels. The main substance is the apprenticeship of an artist—the author himself. This theme (how one became an artist, or, better yet, the portrait of the artist) obsessed all high modernist writers—for sure, did they write about nothing else? The structure of Court and Spark is that of a grand modernist novel (it ends where it begins), and within this whole we find a number of mini modernist fixtures and patterns, the most apparent of which is the leitmotif, the leading motive, the process by which Thomas Mann made his heavy prose musical. One of Nelson's approaches is to establish a phrase, a figure/fixture of speech, and then, with a timing that can only be caught by the ear of a good musician (or comedian, or pastor), repeats that figure with an effect that's often at once echoic, humorous, and sad. One of the many excellent examples of this leitmotif involves Van Gogh's Starry Night.
But the most fascinating (and revealing) aspect of this book is not its substance (the apprenticeship of the author) or its structure (novelistic) but that it treats Mitchell's album (or the albums that make up her most creative period) not like music, nor even like poetry, but like a novel. Court and Spark and the other albums of this period tell us the story of a woman, her friends, her city, her society, the ideas of her time, and the failures of her time, her lovers, her life, her dreams. The attention Nelson pays to the stories communicated by Mitchell's lyrics is such that, while reading the book, you mostly hear her words and almost none of her music. Some critics of pop albums, like Kodwo Eshun or Ian Penman, make every effort to bring into their words the music they are writing about. Nelson does a little of this, but it's not where his mind is at. What draws him to Mitchell is, specifically, her language and, generally, her story subjects. What is she saying in this song, and how does this story or narrator or character study connect with the other stories and narrators and character studies in Court and Spark (and the other albums that define her peak)?
Describing the moment that Mitchell transitions from a rising artist to an actual one, between 1970 and 1971, Nelson writes: "Suddenly, the flaxen-haired Canadian prairie girl—who was typically reviewed as either exotic goddess or miraculous object—was singing about a world in which her disillusioned contemporaries had turned to 'acid, booze, and ass/needles, guns, and grass/lots of laughs, lots of laughs.' Not only were these lines frank, they were savage, even swaggering... Mitchell's transformation wasn't just from folkie to blunt confessionalist, it was from tunesmith to songwriter—emphasis on 'writer.'"
Two important points can be drawn from this passage: One, though Court and Spark succeeds in bringing together sophisticated, song-written studies of real life situations, relationships, and emotions with tunes that are commercially sensible, the fact is Nelson really admires Blue, the album that inaugurates Mitchell's peak period, and is certainly her most internal, darkest, and most literary work. The grim shadow of Blue ("frank... savage... swaggering") is always just behind the brighter, more friendly Court and Spark. The best writing in his book is that which turns back to "the soul-baring agony of Blue." It is here, more than anywhere else, you find the real reason why the writer of the book is also a writer of songs. Which brings us to the second point: "emphasis on 'writer.'"
Nelson writes: "I've attempted a critical appreciation of the record from the lyrics outward... Because that's how I enter music, and that's what I'm most taken by when I listen to music." The reason Nelson picked Joni Mitchell as the subject of his first book is because he wanted to write not just about songwriting but writing itself. What page after page of Court and Spark makes abundantly clear is that when Nelson is not writing he is not doing what he does best.
Sean Nelson reads from Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark at Sonic Boom (3416 Fremont Ave N, 633-2666) on Thurs Feb 8 at 7:30 pm, and it's free.