Both sides now

Fake Out

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The first concert I ever went to was Joni Mitchell’s. I still hadn’t been born yet. Mom wanted to go see her that much, so she sweated out a humid Louisiana April afternoon, still pregnant with me in 1995, just to see Joni Mitchell perform. That was my last chance to see her live. I’m sure she was brilliant.  

“It’s cloud illusions I recall. I really don’t know clouds at all.”

I’ve felt lost for words this week. My voice feels hollow. My words feel cheap. My only solace has been Joni Mitchell’s songs. Her words have calmed my anxiety and kept me centered.

I need your confidence, baby.”

I drank half a bottle of wine Wednesday and went to Oakland for the protest. Kendrick Lamar was blaring across the streets from speakers set on the back of a truck. His voice felt like a breath of fresh air. It felt like everyone was on the same page about the state of the union. We didn’t really have to say anything. Kendrick said it for us.

“They won’t give peace a chance. That was just a dream some of us had.”

I saw someone in the crowd waving the United States flag, and I started crying. It’s the dream we’ve all been singing about, the dream Joni sang about.

“Leave behind your streets, he said, and come to me. Like a promise to live free. Dolphins playing in the sea.”

Protest music isn’t just reserved for protesting.

I can feel it — that stirring to real revolt. Mitchell’s was an era of revolt like ours, when art and life was always done in protest. I feel a deep, urgent need to live like that now, to dig my heels in and grip arms with strangers and sing with them.

Nobody’s not singing right now. I feel something maternal coursing through my veins. I feel Joni crying. I feel my mother crying. I feel all our mothers weeping together. They’re crying in Joni’s voice. I’m going to have to keep living with this precedent of evil hanging over my head. Let’s let all our tears drown it all and let this country go belly up. Let’s cry with them and laugh, too.

“Laughing and crying, you know it’s the same release.”

She isn’t an object. She can never be “grabbed at.” She is a feminine divinity, a holy spirit of womanhood. She’s my mom and my nana and the daughter I hope to have. She’s Joni. She’s every woman that has ever loved me. She laughs at us, and she heals us. I feel her cutting through my hurt. She’s warbling “Nathan la Franeer.” We tell her who we elected, and she laughs. She always knows better. Still, she lets us do just what we were going to do to begin with.

“You come to me like a little boy, and I give you my scorn and my praise.”

I feel like we all became ourselves Tuesday. I became me, and I feel scared. Already, each day since Tuesday brings stories of brazen white supremacist slurs and queer-bashing hate speech. But I know that that comes from deep pain, too. We’re all hurting each other and feeling hurt, and we don’t know why.

“Did you see how much you hurt me? So I hurt you too, and we’re both so blue.”

To those fearful enough to vote for a demagogue, I feel you crying now. I still can’t totally understand you, but I can hear Joni begging me to try.

“I want to make you feel better. I want to make you feel free.”

All the hurt is so naked everywhere. I feel like everyone just woke up together to cold water splashed in our faces. We’ve all just realized at once that our words were real and that our worlds were real.

“Hunger is human, and humans are hungry for words they can’t share.”

The lyrics to “Woodstock” ring so false now, but I’m silently willing some organic community to form.

We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

I feel like a fool for my expectation that we weren’t still as evil as we are. I feel like a child again, petulant and indignant. I feel like a wound with a song. I feel the bodies. I feel your body. I feel mine. Still somehow, nobody can hear any of us.

“Will you take me as I am?”

We all see the blood. We all see the exceptional U.S. we thought was there. Don’t pretend over Thanksgiving. Don’t fake the holidays. They were built off of centuries of other people’s hurt to begin with. Let it rot.

“We can’t return. We can only look behind from where we came.”

All I’ve been trying to do this whole time is get to Joni. I hope she can hear my new resolve being born today. I’m not ready to be indignant. I feel too wounded. For now, I’m putting on Joni, whatever that means.

“This song wasn’t made for one little lonely voice. It was made for out of tune singing.”

This hurts, so grieve. Sing to your wounds. Sing out of tune with your little lonely voice and know I’m doing the same.

Justin Knight writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on building identity by consuming culture. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @jknightlion.