Blue is one of the very best albums of the early seventies, a golden era for collector favorites — this record in particular deserves its enduring popularity. Joni Mitchell’s use of alternate tuning creates a compelling sound from the very beginning of the optimistic opening song, “All I Want.” Grounded by rolling piano ballads, Blue is a deceptively simple album from a time when many artists were adding everything but the glockenspiel to each new song — what really seems to keep people returning to this album is Mitchell’s nakedly honest depiction the arc of a relationship, its sometimes manic highs and lows (“I hate you some, I love you some”) before leaving us with a harrowing look at the scars our failed loves leave in “The Last Time I Saw Richard.”
Copies are tough to come by, usually in and out of the shop in a day or so — gosh, you hardly ever see the original blue inner sleeve anymore! Last week we recorded our copy for a friend whose gone digital, and realized it’s as full of pops as the jacket is of wear. Sort of a fitting state for Blue, but we’ve started eying a copy of Rhino’s recent re-mastered 180g reissue in the shop.
One might be surprised to learn the album was nearly released without the first and last tracks — “All I Want” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard” were both recorded after the album was mastered for production, implying the classic album might nearly have been very different.
We find it difficult to imagine the album beginning without the hopeful, but slightly desperate please of “all I really want our love to do, is to bring out the best in me and you.” And by the end, after two of Mitchell’s most-loved songs take heartache in very different directions (mournfully in “River,” and with devoted resignation in “A Case of You”) there’s really no way we think this record could end but at a cafe in Detroit.
“The Last Time I Saw Richard” is one of a handful of Mitchell’s songs to reflect on her life before moving to New York in 1967. It sums up the feelings of love and loss that run throughout the album, and is assumed to refer to her first husband, Chuck not Richard, from whom she got her surname and whom she left in Detroit. You would think, from most of her songs, that she left Saskachewan a fully-formed, if scarred, adult with a book full of folk songs, but in fact she had a long journey from her start in Canada before she settled in New York.
To make room for the new songs, two others had to be cut. Both had been cut from previous albums as well. She performed one of them at a 1970 fundraiser for Greenpeace, a recording of which was bootlegged by TMOQ in the seventies and officially released decades later (as Amchitka). “Hunter (the Good Samaritan)” was in a medley of songs that would be recorded and released on Blue.
A demo recording of “Hunter (the Good Samaritan)” which may have been the one cut from Blue can be heard on a bootleg disc called The Seeding of Summer Lawns (who says there’s no reason to collect CDs anymore?). You can hear it on a Youtube video here.
The other Blue outtake was “Urge for Going,” which had been a hit for George Hamilton IV years earlier, when Mitchell first arrived in New York. It was her first appearance (as a songwriter) on the Billboard charts. Another singer, Tom Rush, first heard her perform the song and brought it to Judy Collins, who passed. What a dummy. Mitchell’s own recording, cut from Blue, was finally released as the b-side to “You Turn me on I’m a Radio,” the single from her next album in 1972.