“Free Man in Paris” Joni Mitchell Tribute Album
By Sufjan Stevens
Wednesday, May 30th, 2007

Joni Mitchell Tribute Album / Nonesuch Records
“Free Man in Paris”

In the ignorance of youth, I lumped Joni Mitchell with Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Mary Travers: iconic songwriters from the 60s and 70s whose albums graced the shelves of women’s dorm rooms around the country. Years of more patient and revelatory listening have taught me Joni Mitchell cannot be catalogued so comfortably. No other songwriter of her generation captured voice, tone, and point-of-view quite as precisely. Some of her best songs embark on the persona of conversation, capturing the voice of the people she observed around her. Did her friends tiptoe around the vigilant songwriter, worried they may one day be rendered in the inquisition of a song? If so, Joni’s radio hit “Free Man in Paris” may have been music entrepreneur David Geffen’s worst nightmare. The song is built around Geffen’s own words, laid out verbatim, in quotes, taken, perhaps, from some offhand remark he let slip in passing: a cool, condescending diatribe against the headaches of the music industry.

If taken at his word (or Joni’s translation, per se), Geffen comes off an as A&R curmudgeon, wary of the tedium of Hollywood, pining for the romance of Paris. The obvious irony, of course, is that Geffen’s indignation is aimed at the very industry he helped create. His Machiavellian imprint on the entertainment business spans from discovering celebrated songwriters (including Joni Mitchell herself) to producing movie blockbusters (like Risky Business) to fashioning one of the largest new Hollywood film companies (DreamWorks), making him one of the richest men in the industry. Self-righteously, perhaps, I pretend not to understand Geffen’s point of view on matters of the music business. I consider myself part of the New Populist Approach, in which artists no longer rely on the “star-stoking machinery” of the music industry, and instead focus on more sustainable means motivated by modesty, autonomy, community, loyalty (and other benign abstractions).

Assembling a cover of Joni Mitchell’s popular “Free Man in Paris” required more than a few musical somersaults. Who can possibly surmount Joni’s rollercoaster vocal lines with all those odd syntaxes and off beat emphases? My final attempt was less homage and more deconstruction, unfortunately, an exercise in lambasting French while eluding Joni’s vocal lines, some of them as brilliant and varied as bird calls. But the biggest obstacle was David Geffen himself. Could I honestly empathize with the arrogant demands of the corporate music world? Could I put myself in the shoes of a grumpy billionaire with an ear for talent? To be fair, a closer, more careful inspection might reveal a less spiteful portrait of a man burdened with the responsibilities of stardom. The song is not simply a grumpy diatribe. It’s also just fed up, a sentiment I can get behind. It summarizes a universal predilection of the working man: being sick and tired of the Day Job— the familiar ball and chain of employment. Even a job in music can be tedious, drudging, infuriating, and monotonous. Haven’t we all grown wary of phone calls? Wouldn’t we all love to outrun the marathon of work schedules and business calendars? Haven’t we all objectified the canals and cobbled streets of Paris? Haven’t we all craved the cafes and cabarets?

In this light, my approach to covering the song became less an exercise in empathy, and more an experiment in tone. I could not even presume to fathom the jazz voicings of the original, nor could I traverse the pronunciation of French avenues or Joni’s rollercoaster vocal lines. My approach was much more primitive: what would it sound like if David Geffen had, in fact, left the humdrum of the music industry for a fantasy weekend getaway to Paris? I decided to conjure up a party song, with strings and trumpets and trombones and vibraphones marching in a parade down the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe, all lit up with fireworks. Wouldn’t we all like to be there right now?

For more information on the Joni Mitchell tribute album, including interesting personal responses by contributors (i.e. Björk, Emmy Lou Harris, Annie Lennox, Brad Mehldau, and many others.) visit http://www.atributetojonimitchell.com/

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