This holidays I’ve been reading a few books. I finished the 1971 biography of Bob Dylan by Anthony Scaduto. This was a follow-on to my reading of Joan Baez’ autobiography, And A
Voice to Sing With: A Memoir, last year and The Mayor of MacDougal Street a few years before. I know I have quite a few more Greenwich Village biographies to read to fill out the picture of New York folk in the 60s, including Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell and others.
At the same time I have been reading Leonard Cohen’s posthumous collection of poems and lyrics, The Flame. So when someone on the Joni Mitchell Facebook group posted A Case of You and mentioned that it was their favourite love song, it got me thinking.
The other book I’m reading is Boys Will be Boys, by Clementine Ford. I haven’t finished the book but it is a sequel to Fight Like a Girl and tackles many of the same issues. While confronting, I highly recommend reading both of these books.
How does this all fit together? Well I read that A Case of You was about Leonard in this
cohencentric post detailing the relationship between Joni and Leonard in 1967-1968 and since. Of course there are other claims that the song might be about Graham Nash or possibly James Taylor. Unfortunately the weight that can be placed on ‘she told me in confidence’ is fairly negligible. In reality, for the subject of this post it doesn’t matter which male rising-star of the New York 60s art scene it was.
Now to the song. I first heard this song sung by Tori Amos, and more recently a cover by one of my favourite contemporary artists, Mike Rosenberg (Passenger). The lines that strengthen the case for a Cohen subject are the drawing of a map of Canada with portraits of the subject (The Flame is absolutely full of self portraits of Leonard). The use of holy wine in the blood, love as ‘touching souls’ and fear of the devil are very similar to the imagery common to Cohen’s work.
Just like Clementine Ford, I am about to step on a great many toes and probably upset a few idealists. Unlike the ‘love song’ interpretation that prompted this article, I think A Case of You is a song throwing some serious shade. Shade written in the subtle and beautiful way that was/is
expected of a female artist (until the arrival of our gracious queen Taylor Swift of course).
I think some people interpret it as a ‘love song’ because they see it as someone mourning a relationship that didn’t work out because it was too intense, or the other party had problems.
Looking closely, I don’t see it this way. I see it as the 1960s equivalent of #metoo. If a woman
thought that a relatively famous man was a narcissistic, shallow rake then it could be very detrimental to her career to say so publicly. We cannot imagine that the 1960s music business was a nicer place than the 2017 Harvey Weinstein world of film.
At the time of their relationship, Leonard was a 33yr old accomplished poet and Joni was just 24 and at the very beginning of her music career. A detailed read of the Cohencentric article cited above paints a clear picture of the relationship and the ongoing fallout. Just to be clear, I am not insinuating that any non-consensual activity took place.
I am a big fan of Leonard Cohen as the many covers I have done of his songs attest. However, reading The Flame, I get the impression of a man who is deeply confused regarding his relationships with women. The classic (and toxic) religious iconography of the whore
or virgin dichotomy runs strongly through his words. This didn’t anger me reading the book, it made me sad. The desire to love, but the incapacity to form healthy, mutually respectful and honest relationships is tragic.
I can hear Clementine say “boo hoo for him”, and indeed, the trail of shamed, hurt and discarded women that suffer at the hands of men who have been raised dysfunctional is a worthier
problem than one lonely heart.
In this particular case, a careful reading of the lyrics reveals that Joni got her own back in a song that has been covered over 300 times, long before Taylor was lambasting (yes I had to look it up) her ex-lovers in song.
The song starts with the lover claiming to be “constant as a northern star”, a reference to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Interestingly, the reference is from the point in the play just prior to Caesar’s demise. Joni goes on to point out that a star is constantly in the darkness.
My favourite part of the song, and the one which I think has most listeners confused is the statement in the chorus that “I could drink a case of you and still be on my feet”. In Australia
the purpose of alcohol is usually to get one drunk, preferably too drunk to stand. It might be that Joni sings this so beautifully that we assume she is paying a compliment.
Any Australian who had consumed a case of wine and was still standing, would immediately be asking for their money back. The line implies that whatever you drank was weak, ineffective and
‘low strength’. Not very complementary.
The final verse speaks of a universal sisterhood of past-boyfriend gossip. The line “go with him, stay with him but be prepared to bleed” doesn’t sound like good advice. In some ways it
echoes the terrible advice that some women who have been physically abused by their partners get from family and friends. If you can, get out of there, it’s broken.
At the core of the two books by Clementine Ford is the pervasive, structured, power imbalance in society between men and women. The books go into detail on how these imbalances have
been built, how they are maintained and the consequences for both men and women.
For Joni to come out publicly and shine a light on a famous male Canadian poet’s inadequacy when it comes to healthy relationships would likely have spelled the end of her career. My main
takeaway from the Bob Dylan biography was the narrow and treacherous path that he took to success musically and financially, it wasn’t a given that talent brought you money or fame, even for a white male. Phil Ochs was a key example of how it went wrong if you didn’t shake the right hands and keep the right friends. A Case of You, seems to be Joni having her say in a public way, but subtly enough that the less perceptive would misinterpret it, even propagate it.
I’m not wanting to paint heroes and villains here. Everyone has their problems, and life, let-alone romantic relationships is/are hard. But I think we can all benefit from taking out our
pre-programing every now and again and checking it for validity.