Two and a half days from now I’ll take my first flight since I escaped the hospital, and as fate would have it I’m going to my favorite place-I-want-to-visit-but-could-never-live, the Bay Area and Napa. I doubt it will do anything for my lungs but I am certain it will clear the poison out of my blood. It’s my fifth trip there in the past year and the third since April, which is worrying because it indicates that, as is also the case with the modern crop of broad-spectrum antibiotics, the efficacy of this particular treatment is diminishing as the illnesses it treats become more resistant to it.
“Joni wrote Blue in a house by the sea,” Mr. Mayer tells us in Queen of California, “I’ve got to believe there’s another color waiting on me.” Those of us who have read extensively about the lives of both artists (don’t be ashamed, raise your hand… is that a hand up back there? No? Just scratching your head? It’s just me then? Joni and John? Mayer and Mitchell? Anybody? Just me then?) know there’s a bit of irony there. The idea of California meant escape to one and entanglement to the other.
I feel bad for people who grow up in Los Angeles or San Francisco. Where do you go when it’s time to reinvent yourself? Fucking Portland or something? California is the edge, the end of the country. It’s a place where the future is baked fresh, railroad containers of fiber optics dreamed up in Mountain View carrying news of the latest Hollywood movie, a perfect synergy of producing nothing tangible, thank Christ they closed up the assembly plant that made the third-generation Camaro, there was something shameful about that. If you drive around inland Cali a fair amount, as I do, you’ll see the endless farms and the stooped backs of the migrant workers and the 120-degree desert and the half-empty strip malls but that doesn’t represent the true meaning of the place any more than a cameraphone video of Michelle Yeoh experiencing stomach cramps on a dirty Hong Kong toilet would communicate the woman’s grace and strength.
Roberta Anderson, single mother and poverty-stricken rural Canadian, completed her transition to “Joni Mitchell” when she returned to California and recorded Blue. It’s about the idea of California as destination. She’d been in this sort of odd commune situation in Greece, under the sway of a “mean old daddy” in a relationship the sexual extent of which has been deliberately obscured by all parties involved. What’s clear is that she arrived in California still very much in love with someone. She was looking for healing and a renewed identity. She’d gone from being a top-40 artist to living as just another half-naked mountain dweller. How odd, to simply lose yourself, to shed the personality you’ve built to succeed, the vehicle you drove out of Saskatchewan. How often does that happen? Isn’t that part of the Iron John story? Yes, it’s the time of ashes — but that’s a story for men, not for millionaire blonde alternate-tuning guitarists. Every man should have a time in his life where he experiences unfiltered sorrow and misery, but we’d keep women from that if we could. How ironic, then, that we’re so often the cause of it for them.
By the time John Mayer decided he didn’t want to go to L.A. anymore, Joni Mitchell had become an institution, Saint Joni, responsible for launching the careers of Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, Don Alias, and Lyle Mays at the expense of her own. Joni was not permitted to become anything more than what Court and Spark had crystallized her as. A few years ago, I had the worst nightmare of my life with her brilliant song Jericho as the soundtrack. I dreamed I met Jaco right before he was killed but he refused to admit who he was. To some degree, I think I bought my Jaco Artist bass and started playing fretless to ward that fucking dream off, to keep it from being part of the settled landscape of repeating nightmares I enjoy from time to time. I’m prepared to take a lot of risks now and in the future but I’m not prepared to dream about Jaco’s death again.
You can argue that Joni’s decision to hire Jaco led directly to his death. The best of intentions and all that. Doesn’t matter. All you have to do is watch Joni’s “Shadows and Light” video, watch the crowd hating her for playing her new music. It’s the same treatment Mayer gets when he plays the blues. Respectful silence at best. We are unwilling to permit our chosen idols to change very much. Who pulled it off? Dylan and that’s about it.
Joni fled to California. John had to wait until “the Queen of California was steppin’ down.” Every time I hear that song I think of someone I called “The Wicked Witch Of The West Coast” until I adopted the sobriquet “Queen Of California” for her. Not a witch or a queen, really. A pixie, a woman who vibrates with an insane energy. You deserve what you get, for messing with her. The last time I saw her in public I think she was wearing a Holstein-print fur parka. The kind of woman who will punch you with the shot glass still in her hand, who can run into four moving lanes of traffic and have them come to a halt without any harm to herself or anyone else, because even in the dead of night she glows. Now I’m getting sentimental so I will remind myself right here in bold print
no more of those electric-crazy Sirens, no more of the hyper-animated drama queens, not a single additional woman who thinks she can “manifest” things, not now not ever
Just in time, really; I was about to start reading her Twitter account for not-so-veiled references to how much she despises me, which she thoughtfully provides in a quantity that is not so infrequent as to fail to reward my search yet is not such that it becomes crass. Oh, I almost forgot the time she devoted an entire blogpost to hating how my hair smells and gave me a total fucking complex that causes me to wash my head in DL Hand Cleaner every time I have the color touched up, which immediately removes almost all of said color. What can I say? My hair is so stubbornly 100% white now. It’s been that way since I was twenty-eight years old. The chemicals it takes to make it anything but bright white haven’t been tested on animals because every animal who ever saw them died at a distance before they could accept the testing. I can see how you wouldn’t want to wake up on the top floor of a five-star hotel with someone whose head smells like Union Carbide’s secret laboratories. But, you know, at least I don’t prance around Long Beach with a fuckin’ miniature horse. Because that’s soooooo much more sane than coloring your hair in your thirties. I hope the horse goes grey prematurely and you have to slather it with Matrix Socolor 5N.
But I digress. California: a place to escape your lover or a place where your lover sits to be avoided. A destination. Somewhere to open up the throttle with the rock face to your right and the thousand-foot drop to your left. A place to hold someone’s hand and run into the cold surf. A place to open the windows on a cool Napa night and empty that poison out of your blood. Not a place for me to be someone else. How could I be, when I was baked into this reluctant form at birth, a bitter clay, my arms the same size if I’m curling 35 a side this month or 60, my teeth that used to break the orthodontist’s wires, my hair that is thick like wire and requires industrial solvents to change color, my eyes appearing in my son’s head, still waiting to grow up or even change, really. Nothing but possibilities. Born in Brooklyn, residing in Ohio, who knows where I will die, but in-between, alive in the shadow of the bridge and the shade of the redwood, smoking the back tires past that old stone one-lane arch you get in all the press drives, still the same myself, but myself somewhere else.