She Had a Mouth Like Yours

drinking Joni Mitchell’s holy wine

When Joni Mitchell was rushed to the hospital, reportedly found unconscious in her home last month, I felt surprisingly detached. “How strange,” I thought, “I live in the same city as Joni Mitchell.”

And then today, walking home from the bus with headphones in, I hit shuffle in iTunes and the first song to play was Prince’s version of “Case of You.”

For me, his cover transcends comparison to the original and simply inhabits the space Joni made. He only sings one of her three verses, and then breaks open her chorus through his vocals and a musical exploration of her lyrical meaning-making. “Case of You” is about what Joni is about, what Prince is about, what I strive to be about.It’s about being an artist and being a person who loves, who gives, who bleeds — who is able to do all of these things and still be on her feet.

Joni Mitchell was most present for me as a teenager and college student. A time when seemingly everything is relevant and new and about your own life — from Shakespeare to Billie Holiday. So much rushes in, and no such thing as cliche. Even now, I recognize that many people grew up listening to Joni Mitchell, buying her records as they were released, or introduced to her since, and are moved by her music as I was; and yet, another part of me can’t help but feel that her music existed only for me, only in those crucial years coming of age in Wisconsin and Minnesota. That when I tell people my favorite song, I am telling them my favorite memory.

Growing up as a young woman with artistic aspirations, it seemed to me I had two choices: be a muse, a temporary vessel for love on its way to becoming art, or choose art instead of love, and display the scars of that decision as a warning to women who might choose the same.

In unwavering soprano, “Case of You” describes loving, creating, and being human in a way that is more expansive — if not any less painful. Love can get lost, as the song’s first line foretells, and yet it’s not lost. It’s in our blood, it “pours out of me / In these lines from time to time.”

I remember that time you told me you said
“Love is touching souls”Surely you touched mine
‘Cause part of you pours out of me…

“Case of You” allows a glimpse of non-linear time and relationships. Joni refers to the past, just before “love got lost,” and yet declares, providing possibility of a future, “I could drink a case of you, darling / And I would still be on my feet.” Love is touching souls, present continuous. The beloved is in your blood, in your art, in a stranger you meet:

She had a mouth like yours
She knew your life
She knew your devils and your deeds
And she said
“Go to him, stay with him if you can
But be prepared to bleed”

I see now how easily one could read this verse as a despicable call for women to stay with a man, despite his deeds — ostensibly done to her — and to prepare for more pain. But that’s never how I heard these lyrics. At this point in the song, it’s established that blood isn’t a mere stand-in for pain, and staying with someone doesn’t have to mean remaining in a relationship as such. Blood is a signifier of touching souls, of identifying, it is how someone might stay with you after love is seemingly lost, how you might choose again and again to drink them in as holy wine. Bitter and so sweet. And to prepare to bleed is not (only) a preparation for pain, but for recognition. Prepare to see the loved one in these lines — musical, drawn, written — time to time.

Certainly for a teenager beholden to and rebelling against a Catholic upbringing, love as transubstantiation had its allure. It carries a resonance with how relationships can be at once familiar (filial, conjugal) and also mystical, ineffable. It carries also with it the idea of sacrifice.

But what is sacrificed here need not be either one’s autonomy and artistic vision, or the chance to love and be loved. And most thankfully, “Case of You” does not sacrifice a woman’s ability to deliver sharp and witty critique to a lover’s platitude:

…you said
“I am as constant as a northern star”
And I said “Constantly in the darkness
Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar”

“Case of you” doesn’t offer me any answers to these grand questions of sacrifice, art, and love. Rather, it cuts through the cultural cliches I inherited and mistook for truth and makes a space that is comfortable in its questioning. Each initial harmonic and melodic leap throughout the song subsequently steps downward. Steadying and balanced we return to a center. We stay on our feet.

Compare this to the track that follows on Blue, “Last Time I Saw Richard.” Richard proclaims, he has answers, he is as constant as a northern star, and sometimes those men can still hold sway. But despite all the declarations: “all romantics meet the same fate,”

You like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you
All those pretty lies pretty lies

and Joni’s apparent acquiescence to them, “All good dreamers pass this way some day / Hidin’ behind bottles in dark cafes dark cafes,” which closes out the album, her melody belies her deep discomfort with such simplicities. Where “Case of You” was grounded in its questioning, the melody of “Richard” is practically unhummable in its aimless wandering. It doesn’t stick in our ear, let alone our blood.