both sides now

The song starts with angel hair, ice-cream castles, and feather canyons.  But soon the clouds that inspired those idyllic visions take a turn; “they only block the sun, they rain and snow on everyone.”  That prompts a reassessment:

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,

from up and down and still somehow

it’s cloud illusions I recall;

I really don’t know clouds at all.

It is, of course, the masterful work of Joni Mitchell.  “Both Sides Now” appeared on Clouds, her second album, in 1969.  Mitchell describes herself as an artist first, and the self-portrait that served as the cover art shows the innocence and beauty of youth, and depth in her bright eyes.

The second verse is all “moons and Junes and Ferris wheels” — until it’s not.  This time the illusions are of love, which she doesn’t really know either.

Then life itself, with its ecstasies and despairs.  And uncertainties:

But now old friends are acting strange

they shake their heads, they say I’ve changed.

Well, something’s lost but something’s gained

in living ev’ry day.

After my father’s burial on a fifty-degree day on the Minnesota prairie in January 2002, there was the usual lunch in the church hall.  Stories and laughs and memories.  As the day went on, I felt like going for a drive and headed north out of town, past the cemetery, and then turned west to chase the late-day sun.

As I looked off in that direction, “Both Sides Now” came on the radio.  It was the Judy Collins version, the one that hit the charts before Mitchell’s own was even recorded.  It had an upbeat tempo that seems off in retrospect, but it was the rendition that I knew when I was young.

And something else happened on that road shortly after I made the turn.  Two pheasants — roosters — flew up out of the ditch.  My dad grew up on a farm sixty miles away, hunting fields under the same sky with his buddy Gene and his dog Brownie, a time he cherished.

I had felt an unexpected calm for most of the day, but the song and the birds made me lose it.

Around that same time, Mitchell released an album called Both Sides Now.  It also featured a self-portrait of hers, which made it evident that those who said she hadn’t seen enough of life in her twenties to do it justice in song could no longer make that claim.  This time there are flecks of gray in her hair and the eyes are no longer wide; she has a cigarette in her hand and a glass of wine on the table.

The version of the song on the album is much different than the original.  The years had changed Mitchell’s voice and the strumming of her guitar was replaced by a full orchestra.  Slowed down and aged.

Fast forward to CODA, in which the passions of a young life are in conflict with each other.  The title of the movie is an acronym for “child of deaf adults.”  It is the story of Ruby, a gifted singer.  But her parents and brother can’t hear her sing.  They are a fishing family, and they rely on Ruby for her labor and for her translation of and connection to the wider world.

She has a dream, one that they do not understand.  Through the exposition of the two sides of her life, we see her being forced to make an impossible choice between the family she loves and her ambitions.  And her family is facing one too, fearful of life without her and not really understanding her feeling that she needs to do something else.  Eventually, they accompany her to an audition for admission to the prestigious Berklee College of Music.

In the climactic scene, her family sneaks into the balcony of the recital hall that is otherwise empty except for the judges and her teacher, who is playing the piano, as she sings “Both Sides Now.”  After the first few bars of the song, she begins to sign the words, and her two passions meld in a way that gives each its due.  Tears were streaming down my cheeks when I saw it.

Joni Mitchell had polio when she was nine and has said, “I always think that polio was a rehearsal for the rest of my life.”  It was the first of many health problems, including a brain aneurysm in 2015, after which she couldn’t walk.  Her time as a performer was over.

Brandi Carlile was one of the many musicians and friends who rallied to support Mitchell and get her involved in projects that celebrated her career.  The renewed attention was capped off when she was named a Kennedy Center honoree in 2021.

No one was prepared for what happened in July of this year, when Carlile brought Mitchell onto the stage at the Newport Folk Festival, where she had first played shortly after Clouds was released more than fifty years before.  She sang a number of songs, including “Both Sides Now.”  The official film of it from the festival shows her phrasing, her spirit, and her genius shining through, despite the obvious wear and tear of years.

Before I knew that version existed, I had seen a video of the performance that was recorded by someone in front of the stage.  It revealed another dimension of the scene.  One of the assembled musicians was Wynonna Judd, who was sitting behind Mitchell.  She had lost her mother and singing partner just two months before, and the impact of the song on her in that setting was inescapable.

We are marked by great love and great suffering.  In “living ev’ry day,” as we have heard, “something’s lost but something’s gained.”

During the song at Newport, there was a bit of a lull before the last verse, so Carlile provided a prompt, singing:  “Tears and fears and feeling proud,” at which point Mitchell came in with a full-throated finish of that line, “to say ‘I love you’ right out loud.”  One of the most memorable phrases in a song packed full of them, it must have captured how she felt, bringing her words to life again.

Subscribe: email | twitter