She Shampooed & Renewed Us

David Gahr/Getty Images
Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen at the Newport Folk Festival, July 1967

In an interview with Gene Shay for the “Folklore Program” broadcast on March 12, 1967, Joni Mitchell revealed the improbable origins of one of her best-known and most frequently covered songs:

I was reading a book, and I haven’t finished it yet, called Henderson the Rain King. And there’s a line in it that I especially got hung up on that was about when he was flying to Africa and searching for something, he said that in an age when people could look up and down at clouds, they shouldn’t be afraid to die. And so I got this idea “from both sides now.”

In the event, Joni would never finish Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, a novel she had been instructed to read by her soon-to-be-ex first husband, Chuck Mitchell, a college graduate who, it seems, had only derision for his wife’s ditty; but virtually everyone else who heard the song was rapidly conquered by it. Later that spring the irrepressible Al Kooper, famous for not being an organ player and yet coming up with the greatest organ riff in all rock history for Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” met a girl in a bar:

She and I were talking and she told me she wrote songs. She’s good-looking and I figured I could follow her home, which couldn’t be a bad thing no matter how you look at it.

Back at her apartment on West Sixteenth Street, the newly met singer-songwriter played him “Both Sides, Now,” and although it was 3 o’clock in the morning Kooper at once telephoned Judy Collins, a major participant in the folk music scene of those years, with news of his discovery. Joni repeated her performance over the phone to a sleepy Collins, who instantly woke up:

Absolutely mind-boggling. I had an album that was being recorded right then and I wanted to record the song right away. That night, I went crazy and said, “I must have this song.”

And her instinct wasn’t wrong; Collins’s version was not only a hit but won a Grammy.

The passage in Bellow that caught Mitchell’s attention might serve as an epigraph to her checkered career, which now, alas, may be nearing its close (she suffered brain trauma from an aneurysm in March 2015, although she has since made significant progress toward what is to be hoped will be a full recovery, and—who knows?—she may yet be lured back on stage or into the studio): “We are the first generation to see clouds from both sides,” muses an airborne Henderson. “What a privilege! First people dreamed upward. Now they dream both upward and downward.”

For those who dreamed upward in the late 1960s, there was not only Woodstock, there was also its commemoration…

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