My education in Joni Mitchell has been spotty.
I’ve read about her in numerous rock magazines during high school, and on more than a few occasions, Blue would be played on the in-store system at Waterloo Records during a shift. Máire Brennan of Clannad introduced me to “Big Yellow Taxi”, which Janet Jackson would sample to great effect.
But it wasn’t until I picked up Court and Spark at the Friends of the Seattle Library Book Sale that I made the connection with “Help Me”. I didn’t realize Joni Mitchell had recorded that song.
Even now, “Help Me” is indelibly tied in my head with one particular radio station in Honolulu — KSSK, or K-59. In the ’70s, KSSK (590 AM) was the top-rated station in Honolulu with a playlist that featured all the big hits of the day.
In the ’80s, car stereos improved, and FM stations gained popularity. KQMQ (93.1 FM) captured mindshare among young people, but my mom stubbornly refused to let us listen to it. She preferred the traffic and news reports KSSK provided, and since she was behind the wheel, that information would be important for drive time.
But oh my GOD, KSSK didn’t update their playlist as the decade switched over from the 70s to the 80s. They were still playing music that was considered absolutely square by my siblings and me. Duran Duran, Madonna and Huey Lewis were doing wonderful things with synthesizers. Why did we have to be subjected to this easy listening junk from Carole King, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell??
“Help Me” stood for everything that was wrong with KSSK’s playlist. It was that jazzy, inoffensive, reliably adult kind of music that was automatically branded “boring” by anyone under 20.
Maybe the station might play a Sheena Easton single or some pre-Thriller Michael Jackson, but Prince was verboten. And good luck catching any Eurythmics. Otherwise, it was the Eagles, baby.
I haven’t listened to radio since the ’80s, but I assume if I were to tune into KSSK right now, the playlist would still be stuck in the ’70s, and “Help Me” would be right there.
Of course, now I listen to “Help Me” with terrific fondness, and 30 years of music education has given me a far deeper appreciation of Court and Spark. When I didn’t have John Coltrane and Charles Mingus as a point of reference, the album would have remained square to me. Instead, I understand why Court and Spark is a big deal. Mitchell retains her folk sound, but she makes it swing.
At some point, I’ll revisit Blue, but right now, Court and Spark is my go-to Joni Mitchell album.