The Infinite Jukebox: Judy Collins’ ‘Both Sides Now’

As 1969 wound down to that moment I would automatically put Radio 1 on on a Monday morning, as opposed to merely Saturday and Sunday, there were some songs I did actually get to hear. Not many, and the one that made the most impression on my eardrums was Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’, as interpreted by Judy Collins and taken to no 12. in the British chart.
Apparently, Joni was unhappy about Judy’s interpretation of the song, and I can understand that she might not appreciate the musical prettification of the same. The original is a more reflective performance, its only instrumentation Mitchell’s acoustic guitar, her voice swooping and gliding in the way we expect of Joni Mitchell, creating the impression that she is working out her feelings, her words, as she is going along.
In contrast, the Judy Collins treatment is a more pop-oriented approach. There is considerably more instrumentation, including strings, the song prettified immensely, her singing more ringing and clear, and full of more cheer and body.
I’m obviously far more familiar with Judy Collins’ version than the original, but to me her angelic tones, overlaid by a slight vibrato, open things out. The song is not quite so personal, it is more of a universal condition, than a single person’s dilemma.
Listening to the song now, I doubt that I would have understood its deeper concerns originally, not at just turned fourteen. I would have understood it as it first paints itself to be, a word picture of clouds, those ice cream castles in the air, masses of clean, white, solid cloud built up in ramparts into an otherwise blue sky, standing separate and proud from everything else.
But this is a song about life, and the illusions it creates, and how everything breaks down, sooner or later, leaving you with no understanding of clouds, of love, of life. The clouds that ride high and proud exciting you with the visions they inspire are the same clouds that conceal the sun, that rain and snow upon you: so many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way.
Yet even seen from as many angles as there are, from both sides now, it’s the brightness and the illusions that impress themselves the more firmly upon you. We will always turn first to our illusions, instead of the let-down of how things really are.
But the clouds are just a metaphor. The song expands to apply its three-part structure to love, first to the crazy, bursting out of your skin period, where life moves onto an escalated plane, moons and Junes and Ferris wheels, the dizzy dancing way you feel when every fairy tale comes real. And then the way it all dissolves into indifference, when they have changed and you have not, hiding what was once behind laughter meant to suggest nothing matters, and that incredibly sad line, and if you care, don’t let them know. Instead of being open and upfront, you are disguising yourself. Yet still you remember love’s illusions.
And from there to life, the whole show, the gamut of emotions, the stirring declarations, tears and fears and feeling proud to say I love you right out loud. Collins fronts up to this, emphasising those words, confronting life and the ways to live it with warmth and strength, yet even so she has to acknowledge that friends change, and they say she’s changed and ultimately life is a matter of gaining and losing things every single day.
Joni Mitchell sang as if she was trying to work it all out in her head as she went along. Judy Collins sang as if she had solved enough of the puzzle to be accepting of its inherent contradiction, to divine the difference between reality and illusion, but still to desire the illusion.
At just turned fourteen, I didn’t understand anything of this, but I recognised in Judy Collins’ voice the meaning of the words, the underlying yearning for the surface that deludes yet delights, the hope and the despair and the determination to keep going, to accept what life offers you, and to accept what it takes away. I had no real understanding of what it was like to have things taken away until the following year, but I heard that in music, before I finally began to become absorbed in music, and I am haunted by it still.

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