Transcript 53: Both Sides Now

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final product exactly. 

Episode 53, October 13, 2018: BOTH SIDES NOW

You’ve done it again! You’ve found the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.  

My name is Claude Call, and I bring you greetings from the past! I hope podcasts are still a thing now.

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Ooh, I’ve got a fun trivia question for you this time around. There’s a website out there called Deadlists Dot Com, that keeps track of Grateful Dead concerts. Not only do they track the shows, they have a setlist for every show that the Grateful Dead has ever played. According to this website, between 1965 and Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, the one song that the Dead have played more than any other was not written by a member of the band, but rather by Papa John Phillips, which he wrote in 1963 before forming the Mamas and the Papas. What is the name of that song? I’ll have the answer for you at the end of the show.

Most people remember the song “Both Sides Now” as a big hit for Judy Collins back in 1968, and while she’s the first person to record the song, what many people don’t realize is that it started with another musician.

[CHELSEA MORNING]

Joni Mitchell was a young singer-songwriter in 1967, and at that time she was a star on the rise. At that point she was mostly known as a song WRITER, largely because she hadn’t released any records of her own yet. But around that time she was getting to be fairly well-known especially among the folk music crowd, because the songs she was writing, like “Chelsea Morning” and “The Circle Game” were being played and recorded by other artists, while she herself was making the move from Canada to the US so she could play in clubs across the country.

It was in 1967 that Mitchell wrote “Both Sides Now”, describing it later on as a meditation on reality versus fantasy. A few years ago, writer Brad Wheeler noted that it has a feel of deep retrospection despite the fact that it was written by someone who was only 24 at the time. And while he described it as “an instantaneous standard,” it was also a deeply personal realization that there was a lot ahead, and a lot that would have to be left behind.

Mitchell told the LA Times in 1996 that she was on a plane, reading Saul Bellow’s “Henderson the Rain King”. Coincidentally, in the book the character of Henderson was also on a plane, flying to Africa. He looks out of the plane and sees some clouds. She put down the book and looked out the window, and also saw clouds, and she immediately began writing. She said that she had no idea that the song would catch on as powerfully as it did.

As I noted before, Mitchell didn’t have a recording contract at this point, so let’s switch the focus over to Judy Collins. In an interview she did with Roy Trakin at the Grammy Awards website, she was asleep in her apartment in New York City when Al Kooper called her on the phone, telling her that he’d just met a songwriter in a bar, and she had a song he thought she could record. Collins says that Kooper put Joni Mitchell on the phone, and she sang it to her over the phone. Based on that, Collins met with Mitchell that night and that was the genesis of her taking on the song.

[COLLINS]

Judy Collins wound up recording “Both Sides Now” for the “Wildflowers” album, and it’s the only track on the album to have any guitars at all on it. Joshua Rifkin, who arranged and conducted the music, also came up with the idea of using a harpsichord, and while Judy Collins has a credit on the album for keyboards, it’s not clear that she played the harpsichord on this track, since most of the other musicians aren’t credited.

Now, while the album was released in October of 1967, the single wasn’t released until a full year later, so 2018 is the 50th anniversary of the record’s release. Over the next year or two it climbed the charts in the US and worldwide, reaching Number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Number Three on the Adult Contemporary chart, Number 14 in the UK, Number 6 in Canada and while it was a Top 10 hit in New Zealand, it didn’t even crack the Top 30 in Australia. All of this activity was enough to push the album into the Top Five on Billboard’s album charts.

[MITCHELL]

As it happens, by most accounts Joni Mitchell doesn’t like Judy Collins’ version very much, and when she finally scored a recording contract she cut the track herself, as the title track. As you can hear, Mitchell has a slightly slower tempo going on, and it sounds perhaps a little more introspective on the surface.

Over the years, Joni Mitchell has had her share of medical issues, and her voice, like that of so many singers, has changed since they were younger. Most people thought that it was a lifetime of smoking cigarettes, and I’m sure that contributed to the changes. But Mitchell herself has said that she’s suffered from vocal nodules and a compressed larynx, and when she was a child she had polio, which can have effects that last throughout your life.

[2000 VERSION]

So Joni Mitchell’s vocal range has gone through some definite changes, and in the year 2000 she re-recorded the song on an album she called “Both Sides Now.” Incidentally, I haven’t addressed this yet, but Mitchell’s original title has a comma in it; it’s “Both Sides, comma, Now” while Judy Collins version doesn’t have the comma. Which is fine, I guess, but the 2000 recording of “Both Sides, comma, Now”, is on an album title “Both Sides Now,” without a comma. At any rate, the album has a bunch of jazz standards on it and updated versions of some other classic songs, and it’s all backed by orchestral arrangements. It’s very beautiful and very lush, and I have to admit it took a couple of listens to really appreciate it, but it really carries off the melancholy feel of someone looking back on life.

[SWINGLE]

As far as covers of the song go, there’s practically no end to the artists who have covered this song, It’s a long and diverse list ranging from Robert Goulet to the Osmond Brothers, to the Swingle Singers, which is what you’re listening to now, from 2009. Hugh Masekela did an instrumental version of the song in 1970, and I’m really sorry I couldn’t find a copy before recording this. But I did manage to find this, from 2015:

[KC]

This is KC and the Sunshine Band. And I really dig this, from Sesame Street in the mid-90s. It’s titled “Three Sides Now” and framed as a parody of the song, but other than the title and a little bit of the verse structure, there’s not much resemblance. But you do get to see Herry Monster wearing a vest and a bandana, and playing a guitar…

[THREE SIDES NOW]

In the long run, though, I think Judy Collins’ version is pretty definitive, because it deceives you with it’s overall lighter feel and faster tempo. And here’s my reasoning behind that:

[COLLINS EDIT]

When “Both Sides Now” was climbing the charts and getting lots of airplay on the radio, I was about five years old. Now, my parents were both in their early-mid 20s, so they still tended to listen to Top 40 radio and as a result, I have some fairly clear memories attached to pop songs from the late 1960s. And I remember telling my father that the song made me want to cry a little bit. He seemed kind of surprised by that and asked me why. I told him, “I don’t know, she just sounds sad.”

So, there you go. Judy Collins managed to reach a five-year-old kid.

It’s time now to answer that trivia question. Back on Page Two

[ME AND MY UNCLE]

I asked about the song that the Grateful Dead played more than any other in concert between 1965 and 1995. The song is called “Me and My Uncle,” and according to Deadlists Dot Com, the Dead played it in concert 607 times. “Sugar Magnolia” comes in second with 591 plays, “Playin’ in the Band” is at 587, “The Other One” is at 585, and “China Cat Sunflower” rounds out the Top Five with 546 plays. For what it’s worth, “Truckin’”, which was probably their biggest single before 1987’s “Touch of Grey”, is in eighth place with 519 plays.

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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is to Walk on the Wild Side. It’s gonna be a fun ride, keeping the show family-friendly.

Thank you so much for listening, and I will see you then.