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Joni Mitchell: Chinese Café/Unchained Melody

Updated: May 6, 2020

Neil Morton

The lonely painter who ‘lived in a box of paints’ has turned full circle. Perhaps this is the carousel of time she referred to in The Circle Game all those decades ago. Roberta Joan Anderson became Joni Mitchell, folk singer, and eventually the world’s greatest female songwriter. Now, in her dotage and slowly recovering from illness, she paints but, we are given to understand, the musical pen is idle.

The 73-year-old Canadian has described herself as ‘a painter derailed by circumstance’. We will cherish her as an artist with a vast canvas of enchanting songs. It would be easier to pick out a playlist of 20 tracks rather than single one out, or at least choose any of the jewels on her seminal work, Blue, such as River, Carey and A Case Of You.

But the song I treasure and frequently turn to is Chinese Café/Unchained Melody, an old classic wrapped in a new one, which appeared on her 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast. My wife and I had moved to Singapore to work, having shipped out half of our vinyl collection, including Mitchell’s complete works of course. The first album I bought there was Joni’s latest, and the song in question was played just after our first visit to the city state’s Chinatown.

There can be tenuous and fragile reasons for songs reminding us of home but Joni specialises in the ‘comfort of melancholy’, lost love, the passing of time and haunting regret, and she once again found the sensitive spot with this track.

Down at the Chinese Café

We'd be dreaming on our dimes

We'd be playing

‘Oh my love, my darling’

One more time

Chinese Café is a solemn rock ballad that gets under your skin. Joni finally and agonisingly addresses the sensitive subject first raised on Blue’s Little Green: ‘My child’s a stranger, I bore her, but I could not raise her.’ She and Kelly, the daughter she gave up for adoption in 1965, were eventually reunited in 1997.

In the song Joni is visiting an old friend who travelled the orthodox road to family life and conventional values…

Caught in the middle

Carol, we're middle-class

We're middle-aged

We were wild in the old days

Birth of rock 'n’ roll days

Then she turns to politics, echoing Big Yellow Taxi’s admonishments for those who ‘pave paradise and put up a parking lot’.

Uranium money

Is booming in the old home town now

It’s putting up sleek concrete

Tearing the old landmarks down now

Paving over brave little parks

Ripping off Indian land again

How long, how long

Shortsighted businessmen

Instead of ‘You don't know what you've got till it’s gone’, Chinese Café offers the nagging refrain: ‘Nothing lasts for long, Nothing lasts for long, Nothing lasts for long…’

Meanwhile the dimes are feeding the jukebox, with dreams attached. The manner in which Unchained Melody, written in 1955 by Alex North and Hy Zaret, is threaded through the patchwork is sublime, teasingly hinted at before being given full respect with an entire verse and chorus at the end.

The song, which handed the Righteous Brothers a massive hit in 1965 and has been covered by more than 650 artists worldwide including the late DJ Jimmy Young and Liberace, was composed as a theme for a prison film entitled Unchained. The lyricist Zaret apparently refused to use the word ‘unchained’, much to the film producer’s chagrin. Incidentally, the Righteous duo weren’t brothers, with the hit performed as a solo by the wondrous tenor Bobby Hatfield. Had Bill Medley lost that loving feeling?.

The song’s cameo role in Chinese Café is almost as moving, the sliding, swooping bass of co-producer and future husband Larry Klein enhancing the syncopated rhythms so beloved by Joni who, after her jazz-infused material of the 70s, was being influenced by bands such as Steely Dan and The Police in the return to a more accessible sound.

The album, the first of four for Geffen Records (David Geffen had been the subject of Free Man In Paris), did not escape the often heavy-handed over-production values of the 80s but at least Thomas Dolby’s influence was still an album away. Give me Joni’s piano instead of a synth any day.

The song ends with the most touching and pertinent verse…

Christmas is sparkling out on Carol’s lawn

This girl of my childhood games

With kids nearly grown and gone

Grown so fast, like the turn of a page

We look like our mothers did now

When we were those kids' age

Those last few lines rival any delivered by their creator. I have always enjoyed her literary and classic allusions and the facility with which she uses unusual, unwieldy words in a song and makes them sound natural, such as the ‘hexagram of the heavens’ in Amelia, the ‘different sets of circumstance’ in Coyote, or particularly ‘chicken scratching for my immortality’ in Hejira.

Chinese Café retains her stamp of sophistication but there is a plaintive simplicity as the melody easily accommodates her lyrical musings. One suspects her songs begin with the words, poetry prioritised before the outer musical casing, invariably in open tuning, is created.

Joni’s searing confessional honesty, about which Sean O'Hagan wrote so eloquently in the Observer in 2014, has always been her strongest suit, an attribute which prompted Kris Kristofferson to implore her to ‘save something of yourself’. She hasn’t. Joni Mitchell has produced her most enduring, endearing music despite the high emotional cost, and that is why it still resonates for her devotees. This devotee will be forever in her debt.


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