free“Free” is the key word for “Free Man in Paris” from Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark album. How many other songwriters could come up with a piece like this, which maintains a unusual degree of freedom from the conventional musical language, phrasing, form and subject matter of the typical pop song, yet at the same time is mainstream enough to have been a substantial hit single? Mitchell wrote this after going on a trip to Paris with David Geffen (a close friend but also the boss of her record label), and seems to have pieced together sentences he might actually have spoken and used them for lyrics that, when read on the page, appear to have little structure. He’s complaining about his job, the people he has to deal with and his yearning to escape. That’s something that most of us can identify with, even if we might feel that Geffin, with his luxurious globetrotting lifestyle, probably hasn’t got that much to complain about.

I deal in dreamers
And telephone screamers
Lately I wonder what I do it for
If I had my way
I’d just walk through those doors
And wander
Down the Champs Elysees
Going café to cabaret

It must have been strange for him to have seen this put into a song for all to hear, and Mitchell (who artfully distances herself as narrator right at the start of the song with that unhurried “he said” – almost like Conrad) has revealed as much: “He begged me to take it off the record. I think he felt uncomfortable being shown in that light.” Of course it’s more than personal, it’s a comment on show business pressure, and a glimpse behind the curtain to reveal “the star maker machinery/Behind the popular song” that Mitchell herself is a caught up in, and certainly not happy about. All of this is set to jazz tinged music using a blend of acoustic and electric guitars that on the whole sticks to a regular 4/4 meter, except for instrumental passages in between the verses that miss beats and introduce some disorientating syncopations. It’s really the vocal style and delivery that succeeds in somehow fitting the words, always straining for the freedom of regular speech, into to the metrical harness of the popular song. And that’s what the song is all about.

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