Earlier entries of this series can be found here: http://www.acclaimedmusic.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=3065&p=45337&hilit=archive#p45337
“They took all the trees/ And put them in a tree museum/ And they charged all the people/ A dollar and a half to see 'em”
91. Joni Mitchell – Big Yellow Taxi
Album: Ladies of the Canyon.
Acclaimed Music ranking: #847.
Song ranking on Acclaimed Music in the artist’s discography: 1st.
Ranks higher than Heat Wave by Martha & the Vandellas, but lower than About a Girl by Nirvana.
Place in the Acclaimed Music Song Poll 2015: Unranked.
Written by Joni Mitchell.
Produced by Joni Mitchell.
Vocals by Joni Mitchell (yes, the backing vocals are Joni Mitchell too, just humorously credited as The Saskatunes).
Guitar by Joni Mitchell.
Percussion by Milt Holland.
There is no way for me to speak about Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi without first commenting on the Counting Crows’ 2003 cover. And no, this is not going to be one of those comparisons where I lambast the newer pop hit and then go on to praise the near-inhuman perfection of the old classic. I might write such reviews again in the future, but not today.
The thing is, sometimes the effect a song can have on you is really dependent on when you hear it. Age also plays a part in this. When you are young observations that may seem cliché and obvious at a later age can be real eye-openers. I’m half-embarrassed and half-amused to admit that when I was a teenager the lyrics to Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life seemed like the most deeply philosophical words ever spoken. “It’s my life/ It’s now or never/ I ain’t gonna live forever/ I just wanna live while I’m alive”. Just to cut my status on this forum down a little more I have to say that the version I listened to was the acoustic version from 2003 album This Feels Right and not the rock original. That acoustic version seemed ubiquitous on the radio for a while, but seems to have been collectively forgotten. Except by me, which doesn’t quite mean I still like it. Honest.
Around those times that Bon Jovi went Confucius on acoustics, The Counting Crows released their take on Big Yellow Taxi and they too had a big hit with it. I hadn’t heard it in ages, but re-listening to it again for this review I noticed I still liked it. I don’t know how Joni purists look at it (and I’m almost a Joni purist), but this version works very well.
I was in high school back then and I was fascinated by this song. Partly because it was weird and partly because it seemed deep. You can probably guess which line struck me most as being profound: “Don’t it always seem to go/ That you don’t know what you’ve got/ ‘til it’s gone”. Which lines struck as weird though? These: “They paint paradise/ To put up a fucking lot” (and yes, you are allowed to say or sing “fuck” on Dutch radio). I didn’t have a clue what that meant. No wonder: it actually took me years, until I heard the Mitchell original, that I noticed that the lines were: “They paved paradise/ To put up a parking lot”. Now I get it.
But let’s get back to those lines that I will refer to as the “’til it’s gone”-lines. As still a young boy I never considered the idea that you can miss something only when it’s gone. Nowadays that seems obvious to me. I can mention several instances in my life when that happened in lighter or heavier ways. So can everyone else, I suspect. These few lines have become immortal and I’d argue that this is because everyone could have written them. But Joni Mitchell was the one to actually do it. She has a great discography with many amazing songs with superb lyrics. Many of them, I would argue, are better songs than Big Yellow Taxi; lyrically, musically and vocally. But those “’til it’s gone”-lines struck a chord. Everyone could relate to them and everyone wanted to sing those words.
And many people did sing those words. From the get-go many people covered the song. In fact The Neighbourhood already had a hit in the USA with it before Mitchell’s original was actually widely released. Even Bob Dylan wanted to cover it immediately in 1970 for New Morning, although that (awful) version wasn’t released until the 1973 album named Dylan, which contained only songs Dylan himself didn’t want to have released. No matter, the fact that Dylan of all people felt that it was worth covering goes a long way to show the immediate appeal the song had.
Mitchell herself had to wait to gain success with it until 1974, when she released a musically very different live version that did quite well in the US (the original take was more successful worldwide). That take was very jazzy and seems actually a less likely version to become a commercial success I would guess, but that is how it goes sometimes. Funny detail: there is no mention of a taxi in that recording: instead a “big yellow tractor” appears that “pushed around my house/ pushed around my land”.
After Mitchell the song kept popping up on the charts or on albums frequently in various variations. Most notably, Janet Jackson and Q-Tip sampled it for their collaboration “Got ‘til It’s Gone”, a song that appears on the Acclaimed Music Top 6000 Songs too and if you ask me it is one of the worst songs on the whole list. Yes, I know many people here love Janet Jackson and her album The Velvet Rope (where the song comes from), but I’m afraid I’m not one of those people. When I hear it I think of lines like “They plasticized Joni Mitchell/ To put out a boring song” or “You don’t know what you’ve got/ If you keep misusing it”.
That aside, there were also big hits for Amy Grant and finally the Counting Crows, who had the most successful version with it. That way they introduced the song 33 years after its creation to a new generation and to me. Why is that important for this article? Well, I’ve never been able to appreciate Joni Mitchell’s own take quite as much simply because the Counting Crows also did it. Not because their version is better, but because I heard it at an impressionable age. I don’t think that if I heard it for the first time now it would have a similar impact. I would probably still think it was a good song with strong lyrics, but it wouldn’t quite be the same. Back in 2003 I didn’t know who Joni Mitchell was and it would take a few years before I found out.
Nowadays I hold Mitchell in great esteem. Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, Court and Spark and especially The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira are big favourites of my album collection. But up until now, if you would have asked me about my top 10 or even top 25 favourite Mitchell songs I’m sure Big Yellow Taxi wouldn’t have come up. Blame the Counting Crows who simply dulled the sense of discovery for me here.
Yet there it is, as the highest ranked song by her on Acclaimed Music. Initially I thought that was an odd choice. Surely Mitchell has made more impressive songs, with more lyrical depth, outstanding singing and more musical range? Is this really all that different from your standard singer/songwriter fare? Much of Mitchell is, but this one? Joni Mitchell herself seems to have rather mixed feelings about this song’s success. Just like Leonard Cohen once despaired about the fact that Hallelujah started to dominate over his whole back catalogue, so Mitchell once was very concerned about the fact that something she compared to a nursery rhyme became more well-known than her more ‘grown-up’ songs.
Despite this, she herself doesn’t let the song alone. She recorded it several times, in wildly varying instrumental arrangements. If she was really tired of it, why did she include it on her 2007 album Shine? That album was welcomed as her first non-covers album in a decade, but still it included a new take on Big Yellow Taxi. Of all her old songs she could pick, she chose this one.
And perhaps, after all, I can relate to that decision. No, it will probably not become my favourite Mitchell recording. A Case of You and the overlooked Song for Sharon have a huge grip on me. But I have to admit that there is something to Big Yellow Taxi. Part of its appeal is its simplicity. It is clear and focussed, tight and sharp, but not obvious. Almost every line is memorable on its own. Even if this is typical singer/songwriter stuff from anno 1970, it also relatable. It helps that it hasn’t dated at all. This kind of acoustic guitar songs always age well with ease, but also the references in the lyrics hold up. Vanishing nature is an even bigger issue now than then. Parking lots still aren’t famous for their idyllic charm. DDT in farming has been banished for the most part, but GMO’s have started a similar scare. Big yellow taxi’s still take away our loved ones. And it still always seems to go that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Heck, even the tree museum is an actual place that still exists. Nowadays you can see the trees for $20,- (link to the place: http://www.friendsofhonolulubotanicalga ... Foster.htm).
Mitchell is still around, but she hasn’t recorded or performed in ages and she has had some serious health issues. That’s someone I really miss already, before she has definitively gone. Some things you don’t have to lose to know that you appreciate them.
The ‘til-it’s gone’-lines weren’t just important to me, but also to… rappers?! Who ever thought they payed attention to Joni Mitchell? But these lines have been sampled not only by Janet Jackson and Q-Tip, but also by Kelly Rowland on Gone, by Labrint on the oddly and endearingly ecstatic Sundown and by Markus Feehily as an intro on Butterfly. Sure, that’s only four song, so James Brown won’t be impressed, but how many hippie-type folk songs appear on hiphop tracks? Q-Tip even goes so far as to say that Joni Mitchell never lies. I may not like the song, but I tip my hat to Q-Tip for this.
Then there are more covers than I can count or listen to. For what I have heard I can say two things: 1. None is bad, but 2. I still miss that one inspired cover that usually stands out here. The variety is pleasing, with some up-tempo, some downtempo, some jazzy, some folky, some other-language, and some rhythmic with African roots versions. But none really goes out of its way to do something new with it. No hard rock version, no punk despair (I could totally see this really), no blues take, no electronics and not even a baby jingle.
I have a hard time picking a version that deserves a special mention. Yes, the Counting Crows but I already went on about them. Perhaps the 1970 hit by The Neighbourhood feels most unique. I should probably name Amy Grant once again, as she too had a hit with it, but she has one of the few takes I don’t get. She sounds so happy on it, apparently missing the cue that there is a source for melancholy here. The weirdest thing is that when she says that they build “a swinging hot spot” she sounds like she really can’t wait to go there.
The 1970 recording by The Neighbourhood that was a hit in the US: