My favourite Joni Mitchell song (though, thankfully, no-one’s forcing me to choose) is from the 80s. ‘Two Grey Rooms’ is about a narrator who rents a flat so that they can watch somebody walking to work, someone who used to be their lover, though he or she looks to be too young.
You look so youthful/time has been untruthful/heaven knows, I loved you thirty years ago. Joni once told the LA Times the song was inspired by a story from the youth of the German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. ‘It’s a story of obsession… about this German aristocrat who had a lover in his youth that he never got over. He later finds this man working on a dock and notices the path that the man takes every day to and from work. So the aristocrat gives up his fancy digs and moves to these two shabby grey rooms overlooking this street, just to watch this man walk to and from work. That’s a song that shows my songs aren’t all self-portraits.’
Two Grey Rooms has a haunting melody (I once bought a CD box set called The Geffen Years solely in order to hear the song’s original demo, Speechless. the demo, which finds the music almost complete, can now be found, with an interesting introduction, on YouTube). Mitchell first recorded it in ’82 but didn’t come up with the words for another seven years. I’ve often thought that if anyone commissioned me to contribute to an anthology of short stories based on songs, that’s the one I’d choose (I’m open to offers, but the song works so well on its own, is so economical, that I doubt writers much better than me could add anything worthwhile to it).
This morning, I was working on a story idea, and Two Grey Rooms crept into it. Rather than retrieve the LP or CD from downstairs, I typed the title into YouTube and was startled to discover that, at some point, Joni made a video for the song (it first appeared on a video compilation, only ever available on VHS, called Coming In From The Cold in 1991). I’ve just watched it for the second time. The first striking thing about the video is that it looks like a Fassbinder film, which is apt. The monochrome opening shots of the street and rooftops viewed from the flat also remind me a little of Wim Wenders’ movie Kings of the Road.
Then Mitchell appears. I’ve had a crush on Joni Mitchell since I was 15 (tall, blonde, intelligent, arty women who love pinball in general, but her in particular), so the second thing that strikes me is how beautiful she is in it. She’d be in her early forties when it was made, and has never looked more beautiful (at the time, she was with her second husband, who was my age, which would have riled me more at the time had I not just set up home with my own tall, blonde pinball-player). We don’t see her object of desire, can’t make up our mind whether the guy she’s watching could be the love from her youth or is someone who happens to look like him. Which is as it should be, because the song is set on a Sunday, when he would not be at work.
The weekends drive me mad/Holidays are oh too sad/ ‘Cause you don’t go/ Below my window We see Mitchell write some lyrics, lays on her bed, looks out of the window, looking gorgeous in every shot, a precursor, in her way, of the arty types who endlessly publish pretty pictures of themselves on Instagram or wherever, hoping we’ll confuse their looking good with proof that they must be a good artist. I’m not sure the video entirely works, this tantalisingly beautiful women hiding in a two room flat so that she can glimpse some bloke who doesn’t know she’s there on his way to and from work. Mitchell said that the song isn’t a self-portrait. The video, inevitably, turns it into one. Even so, I enjoy looking at Joni looking lovelorn and the short film doesn’t distort the song (which is gender-neutral).
Masterfully, the lyric unfolds backwards, so we only get the back story in the final verse: No one knows I’m here/ One day I just disappeared/ And I took these two grey rooms up here. The song ends with a wistful, repeated chorus of ‘below my window’s. The camera pans away. We’re unsure what happened and have to go back to the start and listen again, see if we can make more sense of it this time. What makes this song so great is how much it leaves out, leaves to the imagination. Knowing the Fassbinder story distracts, but only briefly. In recent years, Two Grey Rooms has had a few cover versions. Perhaps it’s being belatedly recognised as one of Mitchell’s greatest works, much like Cohen’s Hallelujah which also came out in the mid-80s, but wasn’t widely noticed until much later.
This morning I watched Joni take a bow at last night’s Grammy awards. She’s relearning to speak after a brain haemorrhage, which is horrible, but at least she’s still with us, and – I hope – able to fully appreciate all of the tributes she’s been receiving in the year of her 75th birthday. Many people who love her words and music are able to tell her how much we’ve been enthralled and inspired by her – in my case, for forty-five years. Thank you, Joni.
PS. A couple of days after I wrote the above, this was taken: two of my favourite artists. Yorkshire meets Saskatchewan. So I had to finish with it.