And Paris Will Set You Free:
Listening to Joni Mitchell with My Mother
We were always restless people.
Me with my maps and globes, imagining cities and the routes between them. My mother, leafing through books, marking the pages, music in the background, cooking food from whatever country I happened to be interested in, hoping I’d stay interested. You grow up with that and it never leaves you. I come back to thoughts of the house we shared and it seems we were always looking to the world outside and forgetting the life occurring in our own home. We had our reasons.
She understood my cartographic obsession immediately. Sticking a map in front of me remains a great way to get me to shut up for hours at a stretch. I’ll build maps in my mind of what a place looks like, imagine who lives in the small towns that dot the roads. A girlfriend once gave me a giant map of Morocco for my birthday. “For your wall,” she said. I never put it up, possibly because I rarely keep the same walls for long, and possibly because I get scared to claim anything I might lose.
She would spend days reading through travel guides, imagining different places (and I think, in retrospect, different lives). I picked up on that, and I believe she got a kick out of my eagerness to aid her research. We planned trips we would never take, imagined meals in restaurants we would never visit. We bonded over this. It was nice to sit with someone I loved and dream and dream and never be told that the dreams were impossible. I’m sure she felt the same — excited that so many lives still felt possible to her, and excited she could share that excitement with someone else, even if that someone was too young to know better.
I’m older now, and my mother is gone. There is so much I want to tell her about. Sometimes I do, talking to her as I walk. I carry conversations in my head that blur over between what was said and what should have been. Maybe she can’t hear me, maybe she can. I get comfort from it either way. But I’m sorry I can’t ask her more questions.
I’d like that. I’d like to ask her about Paris. About the record player in her apartment. How she felt when the needle touched down and Joni Mitchell came flying out.
Of all the artists out there — singers, painters, movie directors — there is no one I associate more closely with my mother than Joni Mitchell. And of all Mitchell’s works, it’s the album Court and Spark that will always send me back to a time when I was with my mother, and we were happy.
She lived in Paris when she was young. Young and free and everything ahead of her. She worked as an au pair for money and sang in nightclubs for fun. It was one of the great times of her life, so much so that, as the years went by, I always felt like she was trying to find that girl again, to remember what an unlimited life felt like, a life I secretly worried I helped to limit.
I’m realizing how sad that last sentence reads, but those notes hang in the air when I talk about her. She’s been gone nine years now, and it still feels like I spoke to her last week. Not all of that is nostalgic. Our relationship rose and crashed and rose and crashed again and again. I remember little stability, and sometimes that was glorious and exciting and other times it seemed the walls had teeth. I spoke to her only intermittently in the last year of her life. But as I get older and the distance between myself and the bad years grows, I find the memories that stick with me are the best ones. I think of her singing, playing the piano, filling the house with art and life. And I think how that young girl in Paris was still there with us, in every interaction. I could see that, and I wish she could have seen it too.
She carried a running soundtrack in our house, and there are plenty of singers whose music I became familiar with simply because she loved them. But there was something so distinctly penetrating about Joni Mitchell’s voice. For years I didn’t know her name, I just knew that one voice that was different than all the rest of them. You hear Joni Mitchell and you know it’s her.
I remember my mother listening more deeply to her songs than to anyone else’s. There seemed to be an unspoken understanding in the room that this was something different, special. I’m not even sure that I liked the songs when I was little, but I was impressed by them. Impressed by how distinctive the voice was, and impressed by how seriously my mother took her music.
There are other reasons for the association. My mother was also a singer, and a very talented one. Like Mitchell, she also played piano and guitar. And their appearances are similar enough that watching videos of Joni Mitchell performing occasionally evokes a deep sadness in me.
Court and Spark was released in January of 1974, which means it would have just overlapped with my mother’s time in Paris. She was twenty-one years old when it came out, and I like to believe it was one of the records she gravitated to right away. She once told me that her Paris apartment, which she shared with several others, had a rotating lineup of albums that they would play through the day, one after the other. Sometimes they’d sing along. My mother would practice her guitar, and maybe the piano if there was one in the apartment. I know for a fact that one of the records in the rotation was Al Green’s I’m Still in Love with You, because that’s the record we were listening to when she told me this. I’m pretty sure that Joni Mitchell’s Blue was another one, but I can’t recall that conversation. There’s traces of a memory there, and as much as I try I can’t quite grab it.
I’d like to ask her.
“Free Man in Paris” is the third track on the album, and was the third single released from it (after “Raised on Robbery” and “Help Me”). The subject of the song is an unnamed record producer (in actuality, Mitchell’s friend David Geffen, who would go on to become one of the titans of the entertainment world), who looks around at his hectic life and reminisces on how much happier he was wandering Paris, responsible to no one but himself, away from the madness that was making him admired and wealthy.
My sister and I piece our mother together from shared memories, and when we come to Joni Mitchell, we both mention “Free Man in Paris.” It was her favorite song. Both of us know that.
Then my sister told me, “Mom said she always imagined this song was written just for her.”
My mother never told me that. No one had. I wonder how I knew.
In 2007 I moved to New Orleans. I was just out of a divorce and emerging from the lowest point of my life when I fell madly in love with that city, moved there on a hunch, and began to write letters to my family about it. My mother understood immediately.
I have to be careful when I write about my memories of that time. It was two years after what everyone simply referred to as The Storm, and any paradise I was finding there sat on the wreckage of lives that had been invested in the ground for generations. Knowing that sobered me, but I can’t deny that those first few years were the happiest I’d ever been. The walls swayed with music. The streets offered up stories. No matter what I aimed at, I couldn’t miss.
And my happiness fed hers. She loved reading about my life in that city, hearing how my days unfolded. Now I think a part of what made me so happy those years was the way she and I communicated. It was the closest we’d been in years, and the last time we would ever be that close.
I remember one letter in particular. “I want to live in YOUR New Orleans!” she said. I knew intuitively that she understood what I was in the middle of better than I did. It was a phase of life that was exciting, free, unpredictable and, ultimately for me, unsustainable. But what mattered was that moment, and who we got to be in it. That girl in Paris was right there with us in those conversations, and I want to go back and say it.
“She’s still here,” I want to tell her. “You’re still here.”
Nine years. Nine years this March.
I have your guitar in a case nearby. The one you played songs to me on, and that you gave me when I turned thirty. And I’m listening to “Free Man in Paris” as I write. I’ve been listening to this whole album on a loop for months. I don’t have to work hard to find you in it. The cast of smart alecks, dreamers, heroes of reckless living and people overwhelmed by the beauty of the life around them — like they’ll never be able to take in enough of it, or give enough back.
I no longer live in New Orleans. I’m getting older, afraid my years are running out. I’m staring through the lens of a pandemic and wondering if I’ll be able to build lives that make me feel as free and happy as others did, just like you must have wondered. And I’d like to make another life you’d be excited about, maybe just to prove to both of us that it’s possible to keep doing that forever.
I want you to know that you were right. This is your song. It was always your song. It was written just for you. Not only for that girl you missed, the one you were afraid you lost. For all of you, even when you left.
I hope you can hear that. I hope you feel unfettered and alive. I hope Paris is as beautiful as you remember.
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