by Johnny Black
When Joni Mitchell played the finished tapes of her 1974 album Court and Spark for her Asylum Records labelmate Bob Dylan, the venerated spokesman of his generation fell asleep. "I think Bobby was just being cute," is how Mitchell figures it.
It's certainly hard to imagine that Dylan was bored, because the album included what turned out to be Mitchell's biggest hit singles: 'Help Me' and 'Free Man in Paris'. Had Dylan paid a bit more attention, he might have realised that the subject of the latter tune was standing in the room beside him.
"I wrote that in Paris for David Geffen," Mitchell has explained, "taking a lot of it from the things he said." Geffen and Mitchell went a long way back. He had been her agent at the start of her rise to fame in the '60s, and by the time she wrote 'Free Man in Paris' he owned the record label for which she (along with the Eagles, Jackson Browne and Dylan) was recording. The pair were such close friends that they even shared a house, but despite wide speculation about a romantic entanglement, theirs was more akin to a Will & Grace relationship.
Ned Doheny, another guitarist-songwriter who was managed by Geffen at that time, has characterized the dynamic young executive as an unhappy man despite his wealth and power. "There was always something kind of desperate and sad about David," he told author Fred Goodman, noting that Geffen paid an unusual amount of attention to the progress of his clients' romantic affairs.
"People assume everything I write is autobiographical," Mitchell complains. "If I sing in the first person, they assume it's all about me. With a song like 'Free Man in Paris', they attribute almost every word of the song to my personal life, somehow missing the setups of 'He said' and 'She said'."
Geffen, then, is the one who, in the words of the song, "felt unfettered and alive" in Paris because "there was nobody calling me up for favours". The song articulates his desire to rid himself of the "dreamers and telephone screamers" and other hassles of being a music-industry mover and shaker and return to the freedom he had felt while strolling down the Champs Élysées.
Although Mitchell's early career was founded in folk rock, by 1973 she was having trouble finding rock musicians who were sensitive to the way she structured her songs and phrased her melodies. "I had no choice but to go with jazz musicians," she says. "I tried to play with all of the rock bands that were the usual sections for James Taylor when we made our transition from folk to folk rock. They couldn't play my music, because it's so eccentric. They would try, but the straight-ahead 2/4 rock & roll running through would steamroller right over it."
Mitchell had started moving toward jazz on her 1972 album For the Roses by bringing in woodwind player Tom Scott. She then hired his entire band, the L.A. Express, for the recording of Court and Spark in 1973 at A&M's suite of studios in Los Angeles.
"When Joni gets musicians in the studio," noted her engineer and co-producer, Henry Lewy, "the first three or four takes are usually just for listening. She doesn't really want to think too much about them – she just wants to play, and frequently you get some real magic happening in those takes."
The breezy 'Free Man in Paris' opens with guitar, percussion and Tom Scott's flute. "I refer to our experience together as a real ping pong match," he says, "where I'm out in the studio and she's in the booth, and I play this, and she'll say, 'That's great; why don't we try this?' It's back and forth. We were co-creators of that aspect of her records."
The track was already evolving nicely when fate lent a hand. "I was working with John Lennon in a studio along the corridor," recalls guitarist José Feliciano. "We were doing his back-to-roots album Rock'n'Roll, but things weren't going too well. John had got very drunk, so I got bored and walked out into the corridor."
Hearing 'Free Man in Paris' wafting out of Mitchell's studio, Feliciano recognized it as something that fit nicely with his own style. "I already knew Joni from when we both worked in Canada," he explains, "so I walked in and said I thought I could play some good electric guitar for it. The great guitarist Larry Carlton of the L.A. Express was already on the track, but I knew I could hold my own with him. Joni didn't try to direct me at all, just let me do what I do, and it turned out really good."
His contribution in the can, Feliciano then favoured Mitchell with some advice. "She was playing with her guitar in an open tuning," he recalls, "so I pointed out that although open tunings are nice, they can be restrictive. I said that she'd be better off just to tune her guitar in the normal way. She didn't like that. I think it put her off me a little."
Although Mitchell was pleased with the song, which features David Crosby and Graham Nash on backing vocals, Geffen was not so sure. "He didn't like it at the time," she says. "He begged me to take it off the record. I think he felt uncomfortable being shown in that light."
Court and Spark was released in January 1974 to glowing reviews, but its eventual multiplatinum success has been a two-edged sword for Mitchell.
"Court and Spark was about as popular as it got," she says. "Everything after that was compared unfavourably to it." It's responsible for influencing subsequent generations of musicians, including Madonna, who once noted, "In high school, I worshiped Joni Mitchell and sang everything from Court and Spark, my coming-of-age record."
The album's first single, 'Help Me', hit number 7 on the Billboard charts, and when the time came for a follow-up, Mitchell's thoughts turned to the forlorn love song 'Car on a Hill'. "I wanted to release it as a single, and [Asylum Records] fought me on it. Instead, 'Free Man in Paris' was released, which never sounded like a single to me."
The public, however, thought otherwise, pushing it to number 22 in the U.S. and giving Mitchell her biggest international hit to date. The song has also become one of her most-covered compositions, with Elton John, Neil Diamond and Shawn Colvin among the many who have taken it to heart.
As for Geffen, he never did manage to quit the music industry. He's now a billionaire and part owner – the G – of the vast multinational entertainment conglomerate DreamWorks SKG.
(This feature first appeared in Blender, September 2004)