In April 1970, the Canadian singer Joni Mitchell released her third album, Ladies of the Canyon. The cover featured a linear black and white self-portrait of Mitchell hovering over a colorful inset of Laurel Canyon, the Los Angeles neighborhood where the artist and songwriter lived with her boyfriend Graham Nash. Her face and body, incomplete, merge with the white background. Ladies of the Canyon included “Woodstock,” Mitchell’s response to the August 1969 festival in upstate New York. “Woodstock” would become one of her most famous songs, often recorded and twice anthologized in print (Forbes 184-85; Paglia 225-26). It is her most misunderstood song, too. Like Mitchell in the self-portrait, it is remote and pensive, hardly the anthem it is made out to be.
“Woodstock” is a skeptical lyric, troubled by putatively countercultural models of masculinity. Its author was a questioning and increasingly gender-savvy woman among boyish men and a genuine non-conformist in a period comically ignorant of its own attraction to conformity. Beginning with Ladies of the Canyon, Mitchell assessed the threat to individualism lurking in the collectivist enthusiasms of a generation of men whom she regarded as dissolute, often destructive, and increasingly violent, if not therefore charmless. Mitchell would later say, “I wasn’t really a hippie at all. I was always looking at it for its upsides and its downsides, balancing it and thinking, here’s the beauty of it and here’s the exploitative quality of it and here’s the silliness of it. I could never buy into it totally as an orthodoxy” (“Our Lady” 167). “Woodstock” is a focused expression of this equilibrium, a habit of mind previewed more generally in “Both Sides, Now.” Like much of Mitchell’s contemporaneous oeuvre, “Woodstock” criticizes hippiedom for failing to accommodate independently minded women.
One needn’t look far to see what Mitchell was up against. Several weeks before the release of Ladies of the Canyon, her friends Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (CSN&Y) issued their undeniably anthemic version of “Woodstock” on Déjà Vu. Unlike Ladies of the Canyon, Déjà Vu is comfortably enmeshed in the sordor of its period, down to the cover photograph of six bleary men surrounded by a mélange of guns and guitars. The cultural nexus of the band’s preening thuggery could hardly be less attractive. Five days before the record was released, the Weather Underground had blown up a townhouse in Manhattan, killing three people. Three months earlier, a Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway in California had become a spectacle of violence. Bullets would soon kill Fred Hampton as they had killed Martin Luther King, Jr.; Robert Kennedy; four kids at Kent State; and thousands of people in southeast Asia. Flickering, detrital also-rans scrapped for the drugs and the dreams effortlessly available to stars like CSN&Y and, for a few short years, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. CSN&Y represents a mainstream of artists either insufficiently contemplative to recognize the ugliness that underlay the period’s rhetoric of collectivism or sufficiently prudent to retain their remunerative fidelity to that rhetoric. Mindless of irony, the group planted “Woodstock” smack-dab in its author’s anxiety zone.
Mitchell’s remove from the hippie masculinism of CSN&Y soon became more apparent. On her next record, Blue, Mitchell would regret a lover’s cavalier attitude toward “Acid, booze, and ass / Needles, guns, and grass” (“Blue”) and would broadly ponder the difficulty of finding intimacy in a stoned and self-indulgent culture. This record, she remarked recently, “horrified” men in a “men’s world” at the time of its release; her detractors included the anti-establishmentarians Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash (Ghomeshi interview). Listeners of such tender sensibilities perhaps preferred CSN&Y’s follow-up 4 Way Street (1971), which included a paean to rote promiscuity (Stephen Stills’s “Love the One You’re With”); a pompous man’s offer to share himself equally with two clueless and indistinguishable women (David Crosby’s “Triad”); and, somewhat less certainly, a call to take up arms against the police (Neil Young’s puzzling “Ohio”). Neither CSN&Y nor Mitchell did much to bolster the credibility of “Woodstock Nation.” This was fine with Mitchell, I suspect.
Mitchell was not the only artist openly skeptical about the gendered assumptions of the counterculture, but she was one of a depressingly small number. Although this essay is principally concerned with her, I will in its latter portion consider an adjunctive case-the “coda” of my title-in order to contextualize Mitchell’s incidental sympathy with the discontents of second-wave feminism and to emphasize the breadth and dignity of a protest that required courage as well as discernment and eloquence. Just on the other side of the early 1970s watershed, the British playwright Caryl Churchill revisited the inequities of phony “togetherness” that had bothered Mitchell. In her play Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1977), armed, ultra-left anti-monarchists in the English Civil War (1642-49) spring giddily into and reel dissolutely out of their collectivist moment. Mitchell’s concerns about gender also surface in Churchill’s play when a putatively democratic movement fails to honor its own boozily egalitarian platitudes. Churchill in 1977 was an ideologist, something Mitchell has never been. But what Mitchell feared personally, Churchill represented socially. Both women criticize collectivism from a gendered position to which hippiedom was notoriously insensitive, thus bracketing a period devastating in its inability to apply the ideals it professed.
Mitchell herself did not attend the three-day “Aquarian Exposition” in, or just outside of, Woodstock. Having been chauffeured to a chartered plane with Nash and his bandmates, she learned that she could not be guaranteed a return trip to New York in time to appear on television that weekend. She watched broadcasts of the festival in the apartment of the entrepreneur David Geffen, where she wrote her song. Several days later, she played it for an appreciative CSN&Y, still a-buzz from their experience (see Ruhlmann 37-38; Weller 290-92).
Given that much of Mitchell’s early oeuvre is concerned with the instability as well as the allure of the men she knew, Nash included, there is no reason to suppose that Mitchell merely tried to express what her friends were experiencing. Indeed, Mitchell’s composition draws on her absence from the event. “I wrote it from the point of view of a kid going there,” she recalled, “If I’d been there in the backroom with all the cut-throat, egomaniacal crap that goes on backstage, I would not have had that perspective” (Ghomeshi interview). The “intense angle” that distance afforded her manifests itself as something like Brechtian alienation, the result of “a representation . . . which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar” (Mitchell, qtd. in Ruhlmann 37; Brecht 192). Mitchell is able to be “socially critical” of the participants even as she writes herself into their story (Brecht 139). Her assertion that the song “was written with empathy” does not prevent her from regarding the event, unfamiliarly as Brecht would have it, as the “culmination” of a process that produced a “liberated, spoiled, selfish generation” (Ghomeshi interview).
Commentators have made the song into “a generational anthem” and its author into a mouthpiece for an uncomplicated myth of group cohesion (Mercer 18). In its most ambitious form, this tradition presents Mitchell’s lyrics and her music as unconsciously in conflict. Camille Paglia argues that the singer’s “hesitations and ravaged vibrato” convey “doubts” (232) about the “lovely dream” (231) articulated in lyrics of “healing amelioration” (229). The “heady vision of the sixties counterculture” is “already receding and evaporating” (227)-not because Mitchell says so, but because she sounds so. Sheila Waller juxtaposes “communal countercultural” (335) lyrics and “counterintuitive” music that suggests “a primordial, Nordic winter-forest sound” (291). Monk settles for a similar point: “Mitchell seemed to catch a glimpse of her own mythologized reflection, stand back, and question. In the very same breath, she created an anthem for the collective myth of her generation” (89). Lloyd Whitesell’s erudite musical-theoretical reading contrasts “utopian” lyrics with the music of “lament” (33). The lyricist becomes a conduit, not an artist or a thinker, an incidentally talented crafter of cultural commonplace. Mitchell becomes ours, or an emblem of us-a hideous possibility to an individualist like her, I’d think, as well as an unseemly act of appropriation.
Such readings overlook Mitchell’s tendency to present herself disjunctively with respect to her environment. “Woodstock” is bifurcated from the get-go. The lyrics record a dialogue between the narrator and the unnamed “child of God” whom she encounters walking to the site and who declares his intention to “join in a rock ’n’ roll band” upon arrival (Mitchell, Complete Poems 58). Either the pilgrim is a musician traveling on foot to join his own small group of performers or a concert-goer anticipating incorporation into a massive “band” bonded by shared ideals or interests. The prominence of the musician/lover in Mitchell’s early lyrics and her closeness to “the boys” with whom she had nearly traveled (qtd. in Monk 94) suggests the relative weight of the former possibility. But ambiguity works to her advantage. The pilgrim could hardly “be,” say, Nash, simplistically: the performers neither strolled into the throng as rustics in a pastoral poem might stroll into a threshing festival (see, for example, Monk 91), nor did they “camp out on the land” with the hoi polloi, as the speaker means to do (Mitchell, Complete Poems 58). If the pedestrian is among those whom Mitchell saw on television, the diction (“band”) that Mitchell assigns to him points up the fervency of his desire to imagine himself into the upper ranks of a celebration that pretended to embrace ranklessness. Both readings lead to a dangerous place between pretense and actuality, a fantasy zone that dulls distinctions between oneself and one’s imagined “band,” a smaller category in the case of, say, Nash, a larger one otherwise. These “bands” do not intersect. They pretend to do so, sometimes by mutual consent and always to the enrichment of the smaller group. And perhaps Mitchell invokes a pastoral simplicity in keeping with the venue but at odds with the event. Against the implied backdrop of Wordsworthian hips and haws, she asks us to imagine a sweaty throng of “half a million” (59) crusted with mud and bombarded by loud music. In such disjunctions resides a familiar sort of irony. Centuries earlier, Jonathan Swift and John Gay had superimposed the language of pastoral verse onto images of filth and overpopulation, thereby suggesting the impossibility of recapturing innocence that Paglia and others find Mitchell naively endorsing.
The pilgrim is short on the locutional clarity that makes Mitchell an outlier among songwriters of the period. “I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm,” he says; “I’m going to join in a rock ’n’ roll band”; and “I’m going to camp out on the land” (58). The progressive aspect underscores the idea of the journey beloved of Mitchell from here to Hejira (1976), her “traveling album,” written during a cross-country ramble (“Our Lady” 174). The clipped, egoistic anaphora, however, suggests the pilgrim’s stolid unwillingness to engage his would-be companion as he pushes onward, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim uninterested in anything that might retard him, even a local instance of the community he claims to seek. And the primness of the written passage cannot survive the syllabic demands of utterance. Mitchell writes “going to join” and “going to camp,” but inevitably the speaker/singer is “gonna” do these things.
As often in Mitchell’s work from this period, the narrator is an adjunct to a man less verbally dexterous than herself. (Mitchell plays with a convention, encoded in ancient comedy and vibrant ever since, according to which verbal equality signifies sexual compatibility. Her bumblers are often sexually unfaithful.) In “Conversation,” also from Ladies of the Canyon, a rival for the narrator’s love who “speaks in sorry sentences / Miraculous repentances” affords the narrator an opportunity to speak in bravura iambic tetrameter (48). The evisceration is syntactical, metrical, and characterological. More to the present point, the beloved fares poorly. The lyric anticipates him “speak[ing] his sorrow endlessly” and asking “questions” that the narrator will endeavor to answer. In his one instance of direct speech, he splutters, “Why can’t I leave her?” His torpor is both metrical and behavioral, and the emotional wallop comes from Mitchell’s aerial glissando, not from the speaker’s words. Mitchell’s pain is clear to us, the more so as the worthiness of the man who occasions it is not. In “Woman of Heart and Mind,” Mitchell’s “You imitate the best, and the rest you memorize” also does much of its damage rhetorically, positing the subject’s lack of originality in the form of a deft chiasmus (105-06). The target, again, is condemned by both form and substance. Even the Shakespeare-spouting soon-to-be ex-lover of “A Case of You” gets his comeuppance. When he declares himself “as constant as a northern star” (cf. Julius Caesar 3.1.60), the narrator zings him with “constantly in the darkness / Where’s that at? / If you want me I’ll be in the bar” (79).
In these lopsided encounters, we witness the narrator’s strained solicitousness for someone who cannot rise to her level of expression: her men are made interesting only by her critical manner of representing them. So it is in “Woodstock.” The whiff of supplication in the second verse’s “can I walk beside you”-or is it unearned politesse?-flat-out hurts. He should be so lucky, the narrator’s polished phrasings will soon suggest.
Mitchell hints at Woodstock’s fog of delusion in the first recitation of the famous chorus, ending “we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden” (58). The designation “child of God” establishes “the garden” as the fecund plat “eastward in Eden” (Genesis 2.8). This is not surprising. Mitchell was “going through a kind of born again Christian trip,” she said later; “Suddenly, as performers, we were in the position of having so many people look up to us for leadership, and for some unknown reason, I took it seriously and decided I needed a guide and leaned on God.” Woodstock “impressed [her] as a modern miracle, like a modern-day fish-and-loaves story” (qtd. in Ruhlmann 38). Mitchell, that is, was awed by but not acquiescent in the deification of popular musicians. Confronted with an unexpected elevation in status, she turned to a power higher than that recognized by the adulatory mob whose destructive energies would soon prompt a hiatus from live performance and with whom she would always have a difficult relationship (see, for example, Ruhlmann 38, 40).
The feeding miracles of the Gospels are in Mitchell’s account replicated by the performers, from whose “egomaniacal backstage crap,” again, the songwriter was remote both perspectivally and physically. Mitchell is impressed that performers can convert small songs into mass nutriment, but she distances herself from the analogy of Jesus and performer, which is in any case incompatible with her solicitation of God’s aid in understanding the cultural weirdness that her analogy illuminates. Religion gave Mitchell her language, but her “serious[ness]” worked against her endorsement of that which she expressed. Brecht would have loathed the religion but appreciated the effect.
The Old Testament provides Mitchell’s critique with much of its feminist bite. The mundane garden that Mitchell invokes has of course been shuttered, its entrance guarded by a cherubim and “the brandisht Sword of God,” in Milton’s rendering (12.633; cf. Genesis 3.24). The compensatory “paradise within thee” that Milton’s angel pitches to Eve (12.587) is a “paradise” of female subordination in which Eve will be “rule[d] over” by a husband whose incuriosity is thematic to the narrative (Genesis 3.16). Neither “paradise” offers much to an intelligent woman, like the uncomfortable social gatherings that Mitchell describes in “Lesson in Survival” and “People’s Parties.” In “Harry’s House-Centerpiece,” Mitchell would portray a radiant (saintly?) woman driven to rebellion against circumambient male privilege: “Shining as she reeled him in / To tell him like she did today / Just what he could do with Harry’s House / And Harry’s take home-pay” (Mitchell, Complete Poems 149). A horticultural-cum-Genesiac reference to “climbing ivy for the bath” (149)-another ironic invocation of the pastoral-drives the point home. When Mitchell does imagine verdant retreat, there is not an Adam in sight: “I’m learning / It’s peaceful / With a good dog and some trees / Out of touch with the breakdown / Of this century” (99). One searches Mitchell’s oeuvre in vain for a populous garden, actual or metaphorical.
The terminal chorus of “Woodstock,” delivered by the narrator, is laced with qualifications. The pat bits about celebrants as “stardust” and “golden” ring hollow, voiced by a narrator conscious as the pilgrim is not of the evanescence conveyed by “stardust” and the tension inherent in that image’s juxtaposition with “golden,” a descriptor that suggests folly as well as permanence (59). The lines containing these terms are now modified by references to the throng as “billion year-old carbon” and as “caught in the devil’s bargain.” The merger of the individual and the collective in the first addendum criticizes the unacknowledged confounding of the two in “[gonna] join in a rock ’n’ roll band,” equating coalescence with insentience and nodding at a defining fallacy of the pharmatopian culture under consideration. “Devil’s bargain” declares an awareness of risk and complexity at odds with the single-mindedness of the pilgrim, who would naively condescend to the mob. Mitchell’s introduction of “back to some semblance of a garden” in the 1974 live version is clunky but canny, a further withdrawal from a conceit central to “Woodstock.”
The narrator delivers the second and third verses, both of which testify to her lack of connectedness to the event. The mechanistic imagery of “I feel to be a cog in something turning” hints at a deism far from the dewy intermingling that the song supposedly celebrates and remote from the idea of pilgrimage (58). This is not the re-creation myth promoted in contemporaneous exercises in primitivism like “Wooden Ships,” written by Crosby, Stills, and the Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner and played by both their bands at Woodstock. In that song, snotty, fructivorous youths huddle tightly in the aftermath of nuclear war, the apex of technology and thus the antithesis of the title’s hand-wrought ships. Even Kantner’s more crudely petulant anthem “We Can Be Together,” is structured as an appeal to a human community, albeit a community of the “obscene, lawless, hideous, dangerous, dirty, violent, and young.” As far as I know, “cog” is not an image that claims any positive connotation in the popular music of the period. It more nearly recalls chilly expressionistic exercises like Elmer Rice’s play The Adding Machine (1923) and Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927). And the self-conscious sustaining of the iambic rhythm with “to be” gives the line a studied feel that again emphasizes the narrator’s distance from the spondean pilgrim of “gonna.” The metrical and rhetorical contrasts of “Conversation” reappear.
In the third and final verse, the narrator encounters but does not merge with the celebrants. At an event remembered for its hyperkinetic intermingling, she dreams, necessarily alone, of “bombers . . . turning into butterflies” (59). Paglia wonders whether this vision is “a shamanistic or psychedelic hallucination” (230). The former adjective suggests the musician-god paradigm that Mitchell mistrusted; the latter makes the narrator into an acidhead, as her creator was not (see, for example, Sutcliffe interview 144). Crucially, Mitchell’s narrator dreams the hallucination: there are several layers between the writer and her “butterflies.” The narrator’s vision is mediated by the author’s self-consciousness, more nearly an act of Brechtian social criticism than an adventure in shamanism or psychedelia. Mitchell’s larger oeuvre again provides support. Drugs for Mitchell tend to be part of a gender-specific amalgam that also comprises violence, infidelity, and other threats to interpersonal connectedness. Blue and For the Roses in particular are catalogues of messed-up and inaccessible men. A friend from 1968 is remembered for the “tombs in [his] eyes” (“Last Time”); a hippie/junky, ironically, is “bashing in veins for peace” (“Cold Blue Steel” 88). Again: “Needles, guns, and grass.”
Although dreams and hallucinations are unique to individuals, Paglia mistakes the narrator’s vision for a platform. “We cannot live as flitting butterflies,” she chides; “Civilization requires internal and external protections and is far more complex and productive than the sixties credo of Flower Power ever comprehended” (231). This schoolmarmish snit has the curious effect of suggesting that Paglia has promoted the canonization of an imbecile. Mitchell has not proposed a “project” or a “credo.” To the contrary, in her diction and imagery less abstractly than in her “ravaged vibrato,” she has described a dream that, as a dream, is a vision inaccessible to others. Woodstock is 500,000 discrete dreamers. And dreams in Mitchell’s work are hermetic, not vatic as they tend to be in more strident writers. “Rainy Night House” describes a man watching the narrator dream, hoping “to see / Who in the world [she] might be.” She in turn watches him sleep and wonders about him. The man’s departure for a life alone in the desert confirms the separateness that the lyric has already established. Even in Mitchell’s lament that “they won’t give peace a chance / That was just a dream some of us had” (73), the narrator assumes a collective identity only to indicate the insubstantiality of collective imagination (or credos).
In its horrified vision of a torporous mass of dreamers, Tennyson’s poem “The Lotos-Eaters” provides a sounder analogue to “Woodstock” than the trip-and-strip banalities of CSN&Y and the Jefferson Airplane. Tennyson’s portrayal of Ulysses and his becalmed mariners contrasts “dreamful ease” (line 98) to lost muscular commonality. Music delights and deadens, rendering solipsistic those seduced by “the mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters” (line 27):
Branches they bore of that enchanted stem,
Laden with flower and fruit, whereof they gave
To each, but whoso did receive of them,
And taste, to him the gushing of the wave
Far far away did seem to mourn and rave
On alien shores; and if his fellow spake,
His voice was thin, as voices from the grave;
And deep-asleep he seemed, yet all awake,
And music in his ears his beating heart did make. (lines 28-36)
The “sweet music” that Tennyson’s travelers hear “gentlier on the spirit lies, / Than tired eyelids upon tired eyes”; it “brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies” (lines 50-52). Finally, the men long only “[t]o dream and dream, like yonder amber light, / . . . / To hear each other’s whispered speech; / Eating the Lotos day by day” (lines 102-05). “Speech” is a sound, a parody of what was, not a meaning. If “credo” had an opposite, it would be “hallucination.”
Mitchell may or may not have known Tennyson’s poem, but as we have seen she knew those who benefited from the bogus theology of “Gods together, careless of mankind” (Tennyson, line 155). Caryl Churchill knew them too, and Light Shining in Buckinghamshire perhaps unexpectedly makes common cause with Woodstock.” Churchill’s play nods at the type in the Protestant extremists who fancied themselves “saints” destined for power in post-Caroline England, only to be disenfranchised by the re-centralization of government under Oliver Cromwell. The play first exposes the contradictions of bourgeois collectivism in its treatment of class in Cromwell’s Model Army. The effort to depose Charles I, albeit gender-exclusive, was meant to be undiscriminating with respect to social status, recognizing only the distinction between damned royalists and a blessed subculture that answered directly to God while awaiting Jesus’ return to lead the government. What Churchill called “a revolution that didn’t happen” (qtd. in Kritzer 96) implodes at the Putney Debates of 1647, where the country’s future was mapped and the spoils of the war were divided. The ultras’ dream of equality is destroyed by the new government’s retrogressive insistence on the sanctity of property. As in Churchill’s model Brecht, top-down ideology is ad hoc and opportunistic, a tool for the enlistment of stooges eager to believe in the virtue of those who espouse it. We recognize Churchill’s newly ennobled corn factor and recruiter Star as a charlatan when he speaks to the laborer and soldier Briggs, who was not, then briefly was, then again was not his equal: “The army was united. I gave orders from God and you all heard the same orders from God in you. We fought as one man. But now we begin to be thousands of separate men” (40). Having chosen sides at the start of the war, God trimmed the roster after it. Star enjoys the estate that the army has requisitioned in the name of Jesus. Briggs goes to London to commune with a group of Ranters-a sect espousing “an anarchic belief in economic and sexual freedom,” Churchill reminds us (iii)-on the fringes of a society starting to look like the one it has replaced. Mitchell’s disdain for her generation’s embrace of their parents’ materialism (see, for example, Ghomeshi interview) provides one pertinent analogue.
The silence about gender in these scenes prepares the reader for the dissident characters’ replication of hierarchy: Briggs and others, disadvantaged by their poverty, will disadvantage women on the basis of their sex. The laborer Claxton is intrigued by the millenarian preacher Jane Hoskins, who has been beaten for championing promiscuity and rejecting the Genesitic inheritance of woman’s sin. He describes his journey to hear Hoskins preach: “as I walked, I found my heart was pounding and my breath got short going up the hill. My body knew I was doing something amazing. I knew I was in the midst of something. . . . I felt myself moving faster and faster, more and more certainly towards God” (37). Like Mitchell’s pilgrim, Claxton is “going to join in a . . . band,” moving single-mindedly toward the presumption of rapture. This band beckons the “child[ren] of God” mystically. The gentleman Cobbe, saved by a “tiny spark of transcendent, unspeakable glory,” hears a voice telling him, “’Go to London . . . that great city, and tell them I am coming’” (20). He goes. As in Wordsworth’s Westminster Bridge sonnet, and as in the ad hoc metropolis in upstate New York, the city is the new garden.
This garden, however, is no more hospitable to women than the gardens of Genesis or “Woodstock.” Hoskins inadvertently raises a red flag. By “next year,” she says,
Christ will be here in his body like a man and he’ll be like a king only you can talk to him. And he’s a spirit too and that’s in us and it’s getting stronger and stronger. And that’s why you see men and women shining now, everything sparkles because God’s not far above us like he used to be when preachers stood in the way, he’s started some great happening and we’re in it now. (52-53)
Prediction is not prophetic in this utterance, which is egoistic, not pietistic or, we will learn, creditably vatic. The now-jaded Claxton respond drunkenly, “St. Paul to Timothy, ’Let the women learn in silence’” (53; cf. 1 Timothy 2.11). Then Hoskins: “Jane Hoskins to St. Paul, ’fuck off you silly old bugger’” (53). They laugh together and engage in a gross parody of Holy Communion. We are not meant to laugh with them or to imagine them shining and sparkling. Hoskins’s enthusiasm for a Jesus “like a man” is pathetic, and Jesus’ stubborn incorporeality will leave Hoskins bereft. The exchange between Claxton and Hoskins extends the theme of winnowed privilege evident in the Putney Debates and Star’s dismissal of Briggs, but Claxton’s ejaculation is only Churchill’s bluntest expression of anxiety about the gender-specific perils of communal affiliation. The drunken convocation of the Ranters_a Woodstock avant le lettre, if you will_comprises much of the play’s second act, in which Churchill focuses the misogynist energies that trouble her throughout the play.
Among the group is Margaret Brotherton, earlier “stripped to the waist” and beaten out of a parish for vagrancy (5), and later shown resisting a man’s offer of a half-penny to “come and lie down” (9). Later still, a starving woman meant either to be or to suggest Brotherton tries to suppress her love for her infant sufficiently to leave it outside the house of a wealthy citizen. Brotherton does not fare much better among the Ranters. By handing her an apple, Cobbe forces her into service as the Biblical temptress and so endorses the metaphor that disturbs Mitchell in “Woodstock.” God, in everything, is in the apple, Claxton assures Brotherton. This God/apple “wouldn’t have you whipped,” he adds with an unmistakable leer and a comical ignorance of the image’s absurdity. “Touch it again,” Claxton continues; “It blesses you. And my hand. Touch my hand” (50). To touch the apple is to touch God and therefore, bathetically, Claxton. When Brotherton insists that “nobody touches me” (50), Claxton and Hoskins press her for details about her last sexual encounter, presumably the coupling that produced the child she has abandoned. After more sophistry, Claxton recurs to his masturbatory gambit: “Do you want me to touch your hand?” Brotherton remains firm: “no” (51).
Brotherton’s agonies over what she comes to represent as infanticide threaten the self-exculpatory moral relativism of a “band” that refuses to admit her on her terms. Mitchell might have appreciated her dilemma, as the young mother of a child she could not keep (see Weller 143-52) and as a sexually engaged but discriminating women at a time when, she remembers, women “were supposed to be tied down” (qtd. in Mercer 139). “There was no such thing” as “free love” for women, Mitchell recognized, noting the almost pornographic press her high-profile relationships had generated (qtd. in Mercer 138). Brotherton would learn this lesson, too. Her comrades seek to absolve her and she tries to accept their absolution, specious though it is. The exchange ends with Briggs declaring, “You can be touched. It’s not so terrible” (60). Ex cathedra, Brotherton is pronounced fit for the sort of sexual commerce that has devastated her, now without even the pretense of choice. She does not again speak in this scene.
Brotherton appears once more in the epilogue, destitute and gleeful that a theft she committed has been blamed on another woman. Claxton, who had sought an “age of the spirit” with “everything shining” (52), now lives in seclusion. His “great desire” is “to see and say nothing” (62). Like Nebuchadnezzar and Swift’s Gulliver, Briggs lives among the animals he has taught himself to imitate. Hoskins frets that “Jesus Christ did come and nobody noticed” (61). The unnamed Drunk of the convocation scene gets drunker. Mary Luckhurst observes that the play “crackles with the energy of numerous characters . . . embarking on journeys of unprecedented self-discovery,” but she adds that the characters in the epilogue “reveal their broken spirits in a moving lamentation” (59, 62). She might as well be writing about the trajectory of the American counterculture, and perhaps lamentation is the fate of movements prosecuted by those unable to interrogate their own assumptions. Mitchell, at least, suggested as much during a later “age of the spirit.”
“Though nobody now expects Christ to make heaven on earth,” wrote Churchill rather too confidently in her foreword to Light Shining, the “voices” of the blighted revolutionaries are “surprisingly close to us” (iii). Indeed they are. They belong, as I have suggested, to those whose instinct to love was perverted in the service of a culture of “Acid, booze, and ass / Needles, guns, and grass.” For some survivors, they may recall rail-thin sisters, sinister cousins of schoolyard chums, twitchy Jesus freaks, and luminous children become residual and blank, band-less, still searching for stardust but settling for smack. Mitchell heard these voices in 1969 and, to her credit, was sufficiently heedless of vogue to declare them troubling.
I can’t help wondering: why the reluctance to recognize in Mitchell an intelligence and a temperament hostile to the writing of anthems? Nothing else in her oeuvre suggests a sympathy with this tedious form. Perhaps we do her an injustice by discussing her work in the context of intellectually torpid fist-pumpers like CSN&Y but not thoughtful artists like Caryl Churchill. And has any female contemporary proposed that hippiedom dealt self-consciously, much less liberally, with matters of gender? Or are the complaints of second-wave feminism not supposed to have sullied the ears of waifish folksingers? Mitchell’s many listeners will grant that her orientation is unrelentingly personal; but critics, in the teeth of evidence, would make an exception of one of her most famous songs. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that we filter Mitchell’s recording through the CSN&Y version that throbbed over the closing credits of Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary and that remains a staple of classic rock radio today, now as then unmindful of the song’s subtlety. Or maybe commentators of a certain age hold too tightly to an appropriative, self-aggrandizing myth of corporate identity. Both possibilities suggest the wisdom of Mitchell’s skeptical response to her generation’s masculinist collectivism.
- Mitchell, who loathes labels, has criticized a “feminism” that she associates with man-hating “Amazons” and, more creditably, first-world elitism (Ghomeshi interview).
- The tenuousness of the pretense is evident in Mitchell’s account of the 1970 Isle of Wight festival: “A handful of French rabble-rousers had stirred the people up to feel that we, the performers, had sold out because we arrived in fancy cars” (Sutcliffe interview 141–42).
- The tenuousness of the pretense is evident in Mitchell’s account of the 1970 Isle of Wight festival: “A handful of French rabble-rousers had stirred the people up to feel that we, the performers, had sold out because we arrived in fancy cars” (Sutcliffe interview 141–42).
- The diction is pointed. See also “A Case of You”: “I’m frightened by the devil / And I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid” (79).
- Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Ed. and trans. John Willett. 1964. New York: Hill and Wang, 1992. Print.
- Churchill, Caryl. Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. 1978. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1996. Print.
- Forbes, Peter, ed. Scanning the Century: The Penguin Book of the Twentieth Century in Poetry. London: Penguin, 1999. Print.
- Kantner, Paul. “We Can Be Together.” Perf. Jefferson Airplane Volunteers. RCA, 1969. LP.
- Kritzer, Amelia Howe. The Plays of Caryl Churchill: Theatre of Empowerment. New York: St. Martin’s, 1991. Print.
- Luckhurst, Mary. “On the Challenge of Revolution.” The Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill. Ed. Elaine Aston and Elin Diamond. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. 52-70. Print.
- Mercer, Michelle. Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” Period. New York: Free Press, 2009. Print.
- Mitchell, Joni. Complete Poems and Lyrics. New York: Crown, 1997. Print.
- —. Interview by Jian Ghomeshi. Q. CBC Radio Podcasts. 11 June 2013. Web. 30 July 2013.
- —. Interview by Phil Sutcliffe. May 1988. The Joni Mitchell Companion: Four Decades of Commentary. Ed. Stacy Luftig. New York: Schirmer, 1999. 139-52. Print.
- —. “Our Lady of Sorrows.” Interview by Barney Hoskyns. Dec. 1994. The Joni Mitchell Companion: Four Decades of Commentary. Ed. Stacy Luftig. New York: Schirmer, 1999. 161-75. Print.
- —. “Woodstock.” Miles of Aisles. Asylum, 1974. LP.
- Monk, Katherine. Joni: The Creative Odyssey of Joni Mitchell. Vancouver: Greystone, 2012. Print.
- Paglia, Camille. Break, Blow, Burn. New York: Pantheon, 2005. Print.
- Ruhlmann, William. “Joni Mitchell: From Blue to Indigo.” 1995. The Joni Mitchell Companion: Four Decades of Commentary. Ed. Stacy Luftig. New York: Schirmer, 1999. 21-40. Print.
- Tennyson, Alfred, Lord. “The Lotos-Eaters.” Tennyson: A Selected Edition Incorporating the Trinity College Manuscripts. Ed. Christopher Ricks. Berkeley: U of California P, 1989. 70-79. Print.
- Weller, Sheila. Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon-And the Journey of a Generation. New York: Atria, 2008. Print.
- Whitesell, Lloyd. The Music of Joni Mitchell. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
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