Although I lack data to support this assumption, I would bet money on a natural human inclination that among songs we are drawn to upon first hearing, that is the version we will prefer for the rest of our lives, no matter how many cover versions follow as other artists explore a great song’s nearly inexhaustible interpretive possibilities.
That said, sometimes we experience a huge “Wow!” as we listen to a cover version of an old favorite.
Sometimes the “Wow!” occurs because an artist brings a different musical genre altogether to a song. Jimi Hendrix’s take on the “Star-Spangled Banner” may be the most dramatic example there, but “Wows! can also happen when a female covers a male’s original song (or vice versa), or a young artist covers an old artist’s song (once again, vice versa), or any artist goes louder or softer, faster or slower, or emphasizes lyrics that open up another dimension to a song we hadn’t considered in the original.
But sometimes, instead of “Wow!,” we respond “Euwww!” to a cover version that seems to violate an original version that we love, even though we may not be able to specify exactly what we object to.
Perhaps 20-somethings, as both Collins and Mitchell were when they recorded the song, should more realistically limit themselves to “I’ve looked at clouds from 1.1 sides now…”
I alluded to some of the travesties (and triumphs) in this matter in a two-part, 2015 series here and here, entitled “Imperfect Interpretations: When the Song Sung Isn’t What the Song Said.” But for our purposes here, I will focus only on triumph.
One song: Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Three artists: Mitchell, Judy Collins, who released the first version of the song, which Mitchell later “covered” (I put that in quotes only to note the strangeness of a writer covering her own song), and Annie Lennox.
Four versions—the Collins original, Mitchell twice (one young, one older), and Lennox, quite recent, in her maturity. The latter’s was the big “Wow!” for me that inspired this post after beholding it in last month’s PBS documentary, “Joni Mitchell: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize.”
So, let’s get started.
It could be said that Judy Collins launched her career to the great heights it has attained on the back of her part-friend, part-rival Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” True, Collins is more than four years older than Mitchell and was far better established when Mitchell presented the song to her in what was most likely early 1968 or a bit earlier.
Collins recorded it later that fall on her “Wildflowers” album, the single vaulting to No. 8 on the U.S. charts, winning her a Grammy Award for “Best Folk Song,” and putting Collins onto millions of turntables around the world.
Yes, turntables have become scarce since then, but Collins is still going strong at age 84.
Last year, she told British magazine “Far Out” about her first encounter with the song:
“After hearing Joni Mitchell sing ‘Both Sides Now’ over the phone, of course, I was just blown away. It was the middle of the night when she called. I was probably drunk. I was definitely passed out. I woke up to the phone ringing, and when I heard her sing it, I just thought, This is it.”
Collins is a classically beautiful singer, her crystalline soprano voice bespeaking both innocence and sincerity. She brings those qualities nicely to bear in her rendition of “Both Sides Now,” which Mitchell reportedly didn’t care for. No surprise there—Mitchell, at least in her younger days, was well-known to be averse to others’ treatment of her songs, though we can assume she felt just fine with the royalties flowing her way.
That said, as we shall hear below, the Collins and Mitchell original versions are more similar than not, distinguished more by the arrangements than their vocal textures. For my tastes, the Collins version clips along a little too jauntily, with slightly annoying percussive accompaniment that competes with rather than complements her voice.
But at base, the song’s sheer beauty and poetry make it hard to turn away.
This despite the fact of the singers being two youngish women giving their most ardent expression to lyrics perhaps better projected by older women who have lived long enough and endured the twists, turns and travails that life visits upon virtually everyone who has managed to survive the more innocent days of their youth.
So, with the caveat that perhaps 20-somethings, as both Collins and Mitchell were when they first recorded the song, should more realistically limit themselves to “I’ve looked at clouds from 1.1 sides now…”, let’s play the young Judy and Joni versions before fast-forwarding to appreciate the dramatically different interpretations the mature Joni and Annie bring to the fore a few decades hence.
As you’ll hear now, Mitchell avoided coming anywhere within shouting distance of the Collins version’s accompaniment, Joni using only her guitar and a slightly more tremulous and vulnerable voice to distinguish her version in this live performance from 1970. It differs only in minor vocal emphases from the studio version a year earlier. Live concert footage being otherwise clearly preferable, let’s listen as the second of two lovely, not terribly dissimilar soprano voices carry the song to the treasured status it enjoys in the pop lexicon.
All right, let’s move along another 30 years. Mitchell has turned 56 now, a whole raft of high-profile artistic-creative loves and their accompanying heartaches behind her. (Leonard Cohen, Graham Nash, David Crosby, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Sam Shepard, et al, most of whom she wound up incorporating into one song or other over the years.)
Anyone who has traversed the territory knows that while you can almost convince yourself in your early 50s that you still retain a passable dose of youthful élan, as you turn the corner toward the 60s, it’s a much harder case to make to both your mirror and your mates.
Mitchell has lost all her soprano here, age and a decades-long smoking habit having brought a not unappealing husky contralto into her voice. In that sense, she more clearly inhabits the overt pathos of the song’s central theme, starting with the first stanza exulting in the play of clouds:
…But quickly doing a 180-degree turn because on the other hand, excuse me, the other “side”:
It goes that way throughout, as life and love about-face from:
Below, you will hear her dramatically slow the pace, each word and its accompanying feeling enunciated, probed, felt—a harvest of deep experience seeing right into the true dark and joyful and real depths of human experience. Her voice still retains dramatic, occasionally near-soaring capability, but its pure, unadulterated highs, like the highs of life itself, are leavened and ground through a mill.
Triumph and tragedy are now long acquainted and accepted as the very bread of life—because, really, what other choice do we have? The audience, as you see, just eats it up as Mitchell stands humbly before them, laid bare in a way that simply wasn’t part of her emotional armature at 25.
At the Newport Folk Festival last summer, Mitchell, seven years after an aneurysm upended her life, gave the song another go at age 78. The result is perhaps surprisingly still powerful, pathos and joy mixing freely with a little help from her friends. I’ll include that version as a sign-off at the end here, sans discussion, just in case you want a chaser.
Meanwhile, I can’t let this version pass without a nod to the arranger, Vince Mendoza, a little known giant in the music industry, whose gloriously restrained, quivering string sections never rise even a smidgen above the do-more-with-less perfection that supports and amplifies Mitchell’s treatment without ever upstaging it for a second.
Finally, Annie Lennox, who has been tearing through the pop/soul-singer-songwriter music worlds since the 1970s, always elegant, energetic and just edgy enough to have viewers and listeners inch toward her, expecting something exceptional.
Which she delivers in almost breathtaking fashion on “Both Sides Now.”
There’s barely a winsome or shy or lamenting note in Lennox as she climbs right on top of the song and commands it with an exuberant defiance that I had never even considered as within the song’s emotional range.
Collins and Mitchell approach life’s both-sidedness with a mature and studied acceptance, slightly wounded but, they think, the wiser for it. And we think in turn: “Yes, so very beautiful, it just breaks my heart, and I’ll surely feel better if I just fold up here for a spell and have a good cry.”
Lennox gives us the impression she’s either done that already or just never had time for it in the first place.
She does so with a carefully crafted three-step, starting softly while seated at the piano for the first stanzas until about the 90-second mark. Then, refusing to be contained, she goes forth to stand at the microphone and her voice goes deeper, sometimes nearing a foghorn or whinnying horse. There go another 90 seconds.
Then the long building climax of the last two minutes as she goes big, detaches the mic, and breaks into dance steps, amping everything up to claim the song’s—and her own—raw power, out from under its wistful covers.
Unbowed, joyous and unapologetic, Lennox seems to be rather slyly winking, “I really don’t know life at all” with a smile and look of huge authority on her face as she goes underneath the song’s gorgeous veneer of poetry.
There, she conveys a more important, unspoken assertion: “YES, I’ve seen clouds FROM BOTH SIDES NOW! And you know what—they’re ALL beautiful!! The big, bright and bawdy, the dark and brooding—bring ’em on!!! I’m still here, and I’m beautiful, too!!!!
And so she is, as the song is, Lennox’s startling treatment bringing the house down as the second song in the program, everything old and beautiful about it made beautiful yet again in a big joyfest of hosannas for musical kinship and deep professional regard.
And the chaser…
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