Written and performed live by Joni in 1966, Both Sides Now was first recorded by Judy Collins in 1967, and Mitchell’s version wasn’t released until her album Clouds hit the racks in 1969, the same year this angelic performance was captured on the Mama Cass Show, when she was still just 25, and seemed an ethereal being.
She really was looking at clouds when the inspiration hit her, gazing out the window of an airliner, up in the burning blue, from where they always appear so very white and fluffy, very much, she thought, like ice cream castles in the air. On her lap was a novel by Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King, in which she’d just read this evocative, philosophically bitter-sweet passage, also about looking down at the cloud deck from high above: I dreamed down at the clouds, and thought that when I was a kid I had dreamed up at them, and having dreamed at the clouds from both sides as no other generation of men has done, one should be able to accept his death very easily. The mood thus set, Joni wrote a song about disillusion, loss, ambivalence and uncertainty, in a voice too old for her years, drawing on a life experience that already included a few hard knocks, including the giving up of her daughter for adoption when she was only 23, a trauma she kept secret for three decades.
It seems like almost everybody recorded a version. Beguiled by the winning melody, artists of every stripe glommed on to what they were sure could land them a hit, including older crooners like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, younger crooners like Neil Diamond, unlikely cover artists like Herbie Hancock and Leonard Nemoy (!), plus Dolly Parton, Glen Campbell, Willie Nelson, and even Doris Day and Nana Mouskouri. Folk singer Judy Collins had the most success with it, reaching #3 on the Easy Listening chart, with a rather over-arranged pop-toonish take that Mitchell herself heartily disliked:
It’s not terrible, I guess, but there’s really no comparison, is there?
The magnitude of Mitchell’s songwriting talent tends sometimes to overshadow appreciation of the beautiful, supple voice with which she graced her compositions, often written specifically to exploit her range and unusual facility with notes in the upper octaves (according to my brief research, she would have been classified as a mezzo-soprano based on her singing above, but later became something closer to a contralto). Her strengths as a lyricist can also distract from her gifts as a melodist and musician, and in particular her expert, innovative guitar playing, in which she employs all sorts of unusual tunings and subtly novel chords. Rolling Stone once ranked her among the best guitarists in history, down at #72, which seems a little low (though she was the highest-placing woman on the list – harumph), but the competition in this category is, after all, fierce.
Both Sides Now may seem rather an obvious choice from such an extensive, varied, and multi-faceted catalogue, but refocusing attention on the usual suspects, and trying to hear them fresh, the better to grasp how they became standards in the first place, is part of the mission statement here at Songs of the Day. It’s pretty much a perfect song, and a very fine piece of pop poetry, and it never hurts to remind oneself that certain works of art can blend in to the day-to-day until they’re about as familiar as old furniture, yet still remain utterly magical.