Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Books for the News, Literature

An excerpt from Mary Cappello’s Life Breaks In


From Mary Cappello’s Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack, as excerpted at Berfrois:

To have such mood-cloud experiences or vice versa is one thing; to make art from such encounters quite another. “We are the first generation to see the clouds from both sides,” Saul Bellow’s narrator remarks in his novel, Henderson the Rain King, “First people dreamed upward. Now they dream both upward and downward. This is bound to change something, somewhere.” Henderson is a many-times-married millionaire who has this thought as he’s purveying the clouds from the vantage point of an airplane on an ostensible pleasure trip: en route from the United States to Africa, he’s accompanying friends who are traveling there on their honeymoon. A kind of lost soul who feels guilty about his wealth and insulated from the truth of things, he wanders in search of a purpose trying to get in touch with the world—for example, getting really earthy, he tries pig farming, but that fails. “I like the idea of clouds from both sides and some other things from both sides,” singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell says after offering this préçis of Bellow’s character in her introduction to her 1967 performance of the song that she composed after reading this passage in the novel. Mitchell sounds like a school child or unassuming naif when, in a quiet voice, she says, “I call my song, ‘Both Sides Now,’” then proceeds to perform a master folk work of the greatest beauty and profundity.

Mitchell never finished reading the novel; she didn’t need to. “Left up in the air,” as she put it, she was inspired by the provocation of seeing clouds from both above and below by a character much like us all—in search of “what life was all about [to him].” The resulting song with its familiar refrain, “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,” and its humbling conclusion, “I really don’t know clouds at all,” is as powerful in its harmonies and dissonances (in Mitchell’s rendition at least) as it is roundabout in its ability to find its way into our hearts: each stanza opens not with a pronouncement of I-centered “feeling,” but with a litany or collection of evocatively subjectless things, in the first instance, of shapes of clouds: “Bows and flows of angel hair / And ice cream castles in the air / And feather canyons everywhere / I’ve looked at clouds that way.”

Some songs run like a vein of ore in our blood even if we don’t realize how integral a part of our cloud makeup they are until we hear them for the first time again after a period of many years. Then, it’s hard to know if the force of recollection makes the song feel suddenly essential or if it really is part of a mood-shaping bedrock of our being. “Both Sides Now” is one of those pieces of popular music inextricable from the year of its composition (1967), defining of an era, and belonging to listeners who were alive at that time—a song one calls one’s own and that of others: part of a collective mood. The curious thing is that, affected as I feel by the song, it wasn’t its author, Joni Mitchell’s performance that I would have heard or grown up on. Judy Collins’s cover of “Both Sides Now” familiarized it for American audiences, leaving me to worry that voice is arbitrary in how we come to incorporate a piece of music into ourselves: we don’t know what we’re missing, and we don’t know what we have (which is not quite the same as not knowing what ya got till it’s gone; more like, not knowing what ya got because ya didn’t know what else there was to have).

By 1968, “Both Sides Now” enjoyed at least a dozen different covers in addition to Judy Collins’s hit single. Listening to Collins’s version is like revisiting a first crush, or better: it calls up the mood of macrame. Though I don’t know how old I was or in what circumstance when I first heard the song (I was only eight years old in 1968), and even though Collins’s version is polyester to Mitchell’s leather, listening to Collins sing it again stirs me: I’m not sure if it’s the force of will with which she sings the song that most moves me, or if there is something to feelings being buried in daisy-patterned wallpaper with matching kitchen cupboard contact paper because that’s what the clavichord accompaniment reminds me of. The way her voice cracks on “at all” in the line “I don’t know clouds at all” and later is held on these same words beyond what the song’s tempo will allow: maybe this is what fills me with a sense of this cloud-themed song being about the ineffable something that is always held back in us, in me. Suitable to both a rainy-day pub or a daisy-filled meadow, pathetic as it sounds, the song features me stuck inside our family’s powder blue Ford Falcon while harboring a yen for a red balloon–colored Mustang convertible.

From Bing Crosby, Robert Goulet, and Frank Sinatra, to, across the ocean, Marie Laforêt and across the universe, Leonard Nimoy, all manner of crooners chose Mitchell’s song as their vehicle. The problem, though, may have been that they treated the song as a form of mood music rather than a song about the inscrutability of life, whether viewed from above or below. The song seems to want an alternative to illusion or disillusion as epistemological options; only a knowing being can admit that it does not know. In a YouTube video, Bing Crosby refuses to be a knowing being: he resembles a big-eared cartoon character; he sings the first few verses with his arms folded; he does something funny with his mouth—flicking its corners, as though groping for an absent cigarette; he tries, and fails, to achieve a Sinatra-esque understatement. Sinatra’s rendition, meanwhile, might be characteristically swank, but he rushes through the song and jabs at the words like he’s sparring with a silent partner (maybe Crosby?). By the time he riffs on the last line, interjecting the abbreviated “don’t know it” between the eloquent, “I really don’t know life at all,” we’re embarrassed by what feels like some form of oleaginous illiteracy. For Goulet, accompanied by marimbas, maracas, and tambourines, the song is all larynx. You can’t sing a folk song as though you really wished you were singing an aria from Il Trovatore. This Adam’s apple version may have worked to make the song popular as a form of bachelor pad Muzak or for housewives lost in the swirl of an alone-time afternoon drink with the shades drawn and the air conditioner set to high. Laforêt has French in her favor—all of those “ahjdge” sounds produced by a voice that is breathy, whispering, and deep make me feel she’s at least trying to give an account of the song’s mood, until, at the point of the second refrain, her voice suddenly morphs into a plaintive saxophone screech as though the song had put her to sleep and she were trying to ignite her own stupor. Nimoy’s take is at first accompanied by an instrument that sounds like finger cymbals and later an electric piano busy with the sound of an unrelated computational analysis—a coy reminder of Spock? Straining to hit the song’s high notes, Nimoy is forced at one point to speak the lines.

How many times will you listen to a song before deciding you’ve had enough of it? And if it makes you weep, does it only do that when you’re in a particular mood? In Joni Mitchell’s song, clouds are metonyms for that other great mystery of mysteries—not moods, but love, and by the end of the song, life itself. The lyrics say I used to see clouds in a dreamy way—as emblems of possibility; then I saw them as obstacles—they block the sun, they rain and snow; they’re the reason I was stopped from doing things. Having seen them in these obverse ways, I still don’t see them clearly or understand them any differently: I still fail to see them for what they are. The sentiment at the heart of the song isn’t what makes me cry every time I hear it, and I think I could listen to the song endlessly, even in its bubble gum versions for the way they at least confirm the song’s compulsive interest. There are three particular lines that always set my eyes to streaming: “Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels / The dizzy dancing way you feel,” and “To say ‘I love you’ right out loud.”

I’m with a friend and we’re trying to tease out the difference between Joni’s and Judy’s songs. It’s a canyon-feathered cloud of a day of recurring “deliciousness,” which is one of my friend’s favorite words. It’s summer time, and we’re breaking from a vacation day of bike ride followed by swim to make huevos rancheros with fresh eggs and lime, sweet onions and goat cheese feta, dashes of hot sauce and midday white wine. It’s a most-splendid-of- days sort of day of reading quietly together and embracing—my friend is a perpetual hugger one of whose favorite utterances is “yay!” She’s the sort who smiles with her whole body, and whose insistent delight fills the room. In spite of this, I’m aware in me of a muted darkness, a vacancy that wants to turn nimbus, cut off, suppressed. For the whole course of our conversation, in my line of vision: a pink flamingo in the nearby woods—a souvenir of another Maine-transplanted, originally Floridian, friend who disbanded her collection of Maine-staked pink flamingoes one to each of us before she died last winter. The friend who is my afternoon companion is her partner.

We compare the versions: Joni’s guitar isn’t simple “accompaniment”— this is a major difference. She lets the guitar sing in parts and waits for it to finish before following up with her voice. Joni’s range, even inside a single word like “lost,” is as warm as it is piercing, dense as fabric, transparent as glass. The song, in her handling of it, is made of carefully graded steeps and moment-to-moment shifts of octave, of clouds as seen from above or below: her singing, a lonesome calling across a cavernous sky like a yodel. Still, it’s Judy’s, the popularized version, that moves us both—I’m crying; my friend is weeping.

The dizzy dancing way you feel at a carnival: it must have a nostalgic pull for me, evoking a way I think I once felt—it’s so recognizable—but a mood one can never know again (it’s attached to youth, and 1968). As for saying I love you “right out loud,” I must be moved by the blunt blatancy of it, the way speaking truth and welcoming consequences feels. Then there’s a global feeling that could account for both our tears: the way that a mood-evocative song like this confirms existence. Decades ago, you were where it was when it entered your airwaves; it reminds you of your having been. Now you are here, but someone else is gone who had been with you then, just as you will someday disappear. Can a song retain within its reverberating strings and chords a trace of all its listeners? “Both Sides Now” moves us as a remnant of our own existence—that existence needs confirmation is enough to make a person cry, but it met a local grief for us that day as well. We were saved by its cloud occasion in this: to share what we could neither adequately say nor feel.

To read the excerpt in full at Berfrois, click here.

To read more about Life Breaks In, click here.