Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Both Sides Now

"Both Sides Now" is one of Joni Mitchell's most famous songs. Written in 1967 the song began to get covered by other artists almost immediately from Judy Collins and Dave Von Ronk to showmen like Frank Sinatra and Robert Goulet. The song ranks as #171 on Rolling Stone's list of all-time greatest songs.

The  appeal of the song is undoubtedly due in part to its simplicity and universality. Who among us has not experienced the emotions that accompany optimism toward love and life, and the subsequent disillusionment and despair. Mitchell's concise cycle-of-life story is presented in beautifully painful prose.

According to Wikipedia the catalyst that set Joni Mitchell's pen in motion was the experience of reading a passage about clouds while in a plane flying over the clouds herself. The poet penned lines that dance, the imagery so apt. "Row and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air and feathered canyons everywhere..."

But now, looking at clouds from another angle, they only block the sun. Who hasn't experienced this? The grey, the chill of our sun's warmth being blocked.... and the epiphany: "I really don't know clouds at all."

This is the pattern. We see. We think we understand. Then we see more and realize the smallness of our understanding.

In the second section of the song she turns her attention to love and the "dizzy dancing way you feel" when under its spell. But like clouds there's a dark side and in the end "it's love's illusions I recall, I really don't know love at all," she sings.

The final section repeats the pattern, with the subject being life.

Mitchell was 24 years old when she recorded this song.

Both Sides Now

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I've looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

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

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I've looked at love that way

But now it's just another show
You leave 'em laughing when you go
And if you care, don't let them know
Don't give yourself away

I've looked at love from both sides now
From give and take, and still somehow
It's love's illusions I recall
I really don't know love at all

Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say "I love you" right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I've looked at life that way

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 every day

I've looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all

I've looked at life from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all

© 1967 Gandalf Publishing Co.

Judy Collins' more familiar version of the song has an airy upbeat quality that doesn't entirely correspond to the melancholy conveyed by Mitchell's lyrics. Here is a version sung later in life by Joni Mitchell herself.


Trivia: Both Joni Mitchell and Neil Young were afflicted with polio in Canada's 1951 polio outbreak just before Jonas Salk discovered the vaccine that bears his name. She was eight, he was five.

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