Some singer-songwriters are innate storytellers. Their songs encompass the sum total of all their experiences and the world they live in. This is why, even though such a song may just be about a few moments of personal reflection, it is so much more than an act of introspection or a historical time capsule. And, beyond the emerging science of song and power of music, its timelessness and universality are both due to how the singer-songwriter conveys those few moments of reflection through his / her song performance – so that it is fresh each time and evokes some of those very moments in the listeners.
In this sense, Joni Mitchell has been in a class of her own forever. In all her work, whether singing or painting or writing, she puts everything on the line. And, while the entire album, one of her earlier works, is an outstanding work of art and technical proficiency, the title track is like listening to a best friend gently share a personal story of love and heartache. There’s a live version somewhere with a deeper, huskier tone too. Read the lyrics here.
It is said that she wrote this about a crazy busker she met in Berkeley, CA, who thought that she had written some of her prior songs specifically for him. Not just “about him”, but “FOR him”. So, of course, he had the understandable urge to find and “court and spark” this amazing woman. (Note: I don’t have a viable source for this other than hearsay, so if anyone reading this knows more, please add in the comments section. Thank you.)
Like many of Mitchell’s songs, this one features a significant place – People’s Park in Berkeley, CA. Today, this is a much quieter spot with a well-known history but, during the late-1960s / early-1970s, it was a hotbed of socio-political protests. In the present time, an unofficial memorial pays homage to another Mitchell song, “Big Yellow Taxi”, with the words inscribed: “Remove parking lot, put in a paradise” vs her “paved paradise to put up a parking lot” (Side-note: this latter song was actually written when she first visited Hawaii and did not really have to do with People’s Park.)
One more story related to this particular song: In a 1979 Rolling Stone interview, Mitchell told Cameron Crowe that, when she first played this song back in the studio, Bob Dylan happened to be present and promptly fell asleep listening to it. She added that he may well have been playing “cute” as label boss Geffen was in the room.
The album cover art was done by Mitchell as well, Renaissance woman that she is. They don’t make ’em like her anymore.