The Listening Club, a program hatched and sustained by Wilkinson Public Library staff, convenes again Monday at 6 p.m. at Telluride Music Co. and via Zoom. Sign up at telluridelibrary.org.
The featured album this month is none other than Joni Mitchells’ 1971 masterpiece, “Blue.” The discussion will be led by local music-lover, Suzanne Cheavens. So weighty and revered is “Blue,” that Cheavens hesitated for months before deciding to tackle it.
“It’s such a masterful record, filled with nuance and pain and joy,” she said. “Fifty years on, it has not lost any of its impact. It’s daunting, to me, to try to talk about it, because its artistry is beyond exquisite.”
Cheavens knew she was going to choose something from Mitchell’s vast catalogue. Listening Club picks since the group’s inception last fall have mostly featured male artists. She felt women artists demanded equal attention.
“As a KOTO DJ, music writer, living room guitar queen and lifelong record collector, it’s obvious to me, not to mention deeply inspiring, to take note of the amazing music created by female musicians,” Cheavens said. “I stuck with the guitar and songwriting because of people like Joni, Chrissie Hynde, the Wilson sisters and countless others. They are massive role models.
“Blue,” released in June 1971, is considered one of Mitchell’s best records. Many critics consider it one of the best records of all time. David Mitchell (no relation) wrote in 2017 for the Newstatesman (London) that the vulnerability and raw honesty in Mitchell’s lyrics were eye-opening and revelatory.
“This naked honesty in music was new to me until I heard ‘Blue’ (and to Kris Kristofferson, whose response to the album was reportedly, ‘Joni! Keep something of yourself!’). The notion that, in art, nakedness is armour was new to me until I heard ‘Blue.’ Truthful songs of female experience and female agency were, likewise, new to me until I heard ‘Blue.’ (Kate Bush a sole exception.) Time and the changing world have not been kind to many albums that were important to me as a kid, but ‘Blue’ is art, so ‘Blue’ is ageless,” Mitchell wrote.
Irish musician Morgan MacIntyre told the Irish Times in 2019 that “Blue” changed her life.
“I was 18 when I first heard Joni's voice,” she said in an interview with writer Niall Byrne. “I had just passed my driving test and broken up with my first boyfriend. A friend made me a mixed CD and I played it while driving mournfully around the Belfast suburbs. The last song on the CD was ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard,’ the final song on ‘Blue.’ I remember it playing for the first time, I parked up, turned off the engine and sat still trying to catch every lyric bouncing towards me from the dashboard. Headlights off, eyes closed, I played it again, this time trying to taste them.”
MacIntyre’s experience was similar to that of Cheavens’ when, as a teen, ensconced in her childhood bedroom, “Blue” played over and over.
“To me the record dug deep into this emotional well that struck me as so relevant and meaningful, like she was speaking to me,” Cheavens recalled. “As a young teen, you have no idea what love is or can be, or not as the case may be. I studied those lyrics more than I studied for anything in school. She seemed so wise and vulnerable and brave all at once.”
“Blue” is a study in heartbreak and possibility, and is master-level storytelling. Its beginnings were born on the island of Crete where Mitchell, escaping the glare of fame, disappeared in a hippie enclave in a remote fishing village. From there to Paris and back to Los Angeles, the songs took form. They reflect her breakup with Graham Nash and her brief, intense relationship with James Taylor, her life and loves an open book for anyone to peruse. Its simplicity of instrumentation offers a prefect showcase for Mitchell’s extraordinary vocal work on the record.
"The ‘Blue’ album, there's hardly a dishonest note in the vocals,” Mitchell told Cameron Crowe in 1979. “At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn't pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.”
That’s strong medicine for angsty, lovelorn teens like Cheavens who preferred to spend hours alone with a pile of records and a Green Stamps turntable and speakers combo.
“It just spoke to me about emotions in ways I could never articulate as a teen,” Cheavens said. “The honesty of it just brought me to my knees. It still does.”
The Listening Club takes place Monday at 6 p.m. at Telluride Music Co. or via Zoom. The library supplies pizza and sparkling water. All participants are entered into a drawing for each presentation’s featured record, including “Blue,” donated by Telluride Music Co. Sign up at telluridelibrary.org.