One of my first ever blog posts was about Joni Mitchell. In that essay, I made the point that a lot of Mitchell’s songs were, to use her own word, “theatre”. That is to say that, even though she frequently favours a “first person” narrative approach in her songs, the “I” is not necessarily Joni. Sometimes, though, her songs are personal and – indeed – confessional.
One such is Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody from her 1982 album Wild Things Run Free. The song also touches on her political and environmental concerns, but at its core it is nostalgic and ruefully reflective and at times acutely personal.
Nostalgia is the nub. The Chinese Cafe of the title is where the young Joni and her friends (in particular a friend called Carol, to whom the song is addressed) would spend time “dreaming on [their] dimes” as they fed the jukebox. The favourite jukebox number was the Hy Zaret and Alex North classic Unchained Melody; and it is the opening phrase of Unchained Melody picked out in an unadorned C major that we hear first.
Unadorned, yes, but placed over a brooding pedal note, on a synthesiser, of D natural. Immediately, then, Mitchell has set up a harmonic tension that will pervade the whole song. After the statement of the Unchained phrase we slip into the song’s main key, D major with a bass guitar figure that settles on E natural providing a harmonic suspension that establishes further the sense of nostalgic ache.
The main verse of the song follows. Here we have yet another example of Mitchell’s gift for creating natural, conversational melodies. The tune, at first, fits into a fairly orthodox four-bar pattern but Mitchell’s natural tendency to phrase across bar lines soon wrong-foots us, so that by the time we get to the third phrase of the tune (“My child’s a stranger. I bore her…”) the melodic line is extended into a fifth bar. Bar six begins with a telling rest before: “…but I could not raise her” leading into a seventh bar. A second strain to the tune follows (repeating the words “nothing last for long”) which is also a seven-bar phrase.
This leads into the chorus – “Down at the Chinese Cafe we’d be dreaming on our dimes. We’d be playing…” beginning with a repeated C-natural, heightening that tension between C and D that was established at the outset. The second part of the chorus is a direct quotation from the beloved jukebox song Unchained Melody in C major. As we dip into the classic chord progression it feels as though we have settled into the home key. But, of course, we’re not really in C (that’s an illusion). The familiar C-Am-F-G progression of Unchained is curtailed, uncomfortably. Mitchell substitutes the expected dominant chord, G with a D to bring us back to the present day, the real home key, and bitter-sweet musings with those E natural suspensions on the bass which opened the song.
The next verse follows closely the musical path of the first. Here Joni expresses concerns about the property developers “tearin’ the old landmarks down” and “rippin’ off Indian land again”. The ensuing chorus, this time, quotes not from Unchained, but from Carole King’s Will You Love Me Tomorrow?
It is only at the end of the third verse, in which Mitchell returns to personal matters, and to Carol, “This girl of my childhood games, has kids nearly grown and gone”, that we are finally allowed to dwell on the comforting C major nostalgia of Unchained Melody with an entire verse – with its C-Am-F-G progression – quoted.
Bitterness and regret win the day however. The final cadence of Unchained Melody clearly should lead to C major – “God speed your love to me”. That “to” sitting on the dominant preparing us for the tonic C natural (“…me”). Yet, Mitchell substitutes D natural, and the D major with suspended seconds fades out at the end of the song, with Joni singing “Time goes. Where does the time go?” repeatedly.
As a friend of mine recently put it, the “important thing about Joni Mitchell is … that she composed songs of a musical sophistication, a verbal complexity and an expressive perspicacity all too rare in popular music”. Ain’t that the truth?