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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A STARtling Revelation I (dreamed I) saw in Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”

Last week, I happened upon a YouTube video of a live performance by Joni Mitchell in 1970, when she first reached her peak as a singer songwriter working on the album Blue. The video is of a haunting solo performance of her (45 years later, still) iconic song “Woodstock” (which pals Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young covered with great success and rock elan not long afterwards). So, if you have the time, first just listen, watch, and enjoy:

For those who don’t already know the lyrics by heart, here they are, for ease of reference, then I’ll tell you what I (dreamed I) recently saw (or heard) in them for the first time:

I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him where are you going
And this he told me
I'm going on down to Yasgur's farm
I'm going to join in a rock 'n' roll band
I'm going to camp out on the land
I'm going to try an' get my soul free

We are stardust  
We are golden
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Well then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well and maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it's the time of man
I don't know who I am
But you know life is for learning


By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and a celebration
And I dreamed I SAW the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation

We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden

Here’s what Camille Paglia wrote insightfully about it: “It’s an extraordinary song when heard in her voice…with her just sitting at her electric piano, [it] is very bleak. It’s like a lament or a dirge. You hear her critiquing utopian ideals….this is an anthem for an entire generation…”

And many listeners have picked up on the obvious general Biblical aura in that getting back to the garden as a yearning for a return to a peaceful Biblical paradise, in being caught in the devil’s bargain, and in miraculous metamorphoses like bombers becoming butterflies.

But I woke up yesterday realizing that there was something very specifically Biblical in Joni Mitchell’s prophetic anthem that has not previously been recognized, as far as I can tell. No doubt it’s because of my recent intense revisiting of my 2014 discovery of the connected SATAN acrostics hidden in Romeus & Juliet,  Romeo & Juliet, and Paradise Lost, and their common literary ancestry in the two books which comprise the alpha and omega of the Christian Bible --- i.e., Genesis and Revelation. In short, it dawned on me for the first time (after what must be a few hundred listenings to the song, almost all of the CSNY version of “Woodstock” on their classic album Deja Vu) that, behind the obvious reference to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before the Fall, Joni Mitchell must have “drunk” a large “case “ of Revelation as well!

Subsequent checking on my part has shown that on a couple of occasions later in her career, Joni Mitchell wrote song lyrics with explicitly Biblical allusions. But in the remainder of this post I’ll lay out some of the reasons which occur to me, upon reflection, for why I feel so strongly that Joni Mitchell’s musical poetry in “Woodstock” was significantly Revelation-inspired, and intentionally so on her part, even if she chose to keep that allusion implicit and subterranean.

But ultimately, —whether it was conscious or not, whether it was parody or emulation, or some complex combination of same----I just hope by this exercise to get you thinking about “Woodstock” from a fresh angle, and see what you see.

For starters, Revelation--of course, as I said, the last book of the Christian Bible---is filled with the dreamlike ecstatic visions of a prophetic speaker, which describe fantastical events and chronologies in a cosmic war between heaven and hell. I’ve skimmed through the 22 short chapters of Revelation, and the following are the verses upon which I believe “Woodstock” was principally patterned:

12: 1-6, 14:  And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days…..And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.
14:6 & 14  And I SAW another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people,….And I looked, and behold a white cloud, and upon the cloud one sat like unto the Son of man, having on his head a golden crown, and in his hand a sharp sickle.
15: 1  And I SAW another sign in heaven, great and marvellous, seven angels having the seven last plagues; for in them is filled up the wrath of God.
18: 1,6  And after these things I SAW another angel come down from heaven, having great power; and the earth was lightened with his glory. …And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.
21: 1-4  And I SAW a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
21:10, 24-6  And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God,…And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it. And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there. And they shall bring the glory and honour of the nations into it.

Without ever using the actual word “revelation”, then, I see and hear Joni Mitchell as evoking the spirit of John of Patmos’s ecstatic proclamations, by certain word choices which are distinctively connected to Revelation in particular among all the books of the Christian Bible:

The climactic image of “Woodstock”, I think it fair to say, is “I dreamed I SAW the bombers flying shotgun…turning into butterflies above our nation”. It is climactic, because it is a culmination of the spontaneous uniting into a nation of souls “a half a million strong”---which unleashes a mystical power that sparks a miracle that symbolizes the nonviolent victory of the forces of good that in Revelation is manifested in the victory of God and Jesus over the forces of evil.

And the phrase “I dreamed I saw” picks up both on the universally recognized dreamlike quality of Revelation, which, paradoxically, at no point uses the word “dream”. And the idea of dream vision is conveyed repeatedly in Revelation by the ambiguous phrase “I saw”—which in ordinary speech, refers to what ordinary people see with our eyes in ordinary life, but which in both Revelation and “Woodstock” refers to a higher order of ecstatic, prophetic “seeing”.

And I am not exaggerating when I say that the phrase “I saw”, as the above quoted verses illustrate, is THE signature phrase of Revelation. There are in the King James Version of the Bible (KJV) 103 verses with “I SAW” in them, and an astounding 33 of those usages-- nearly 1/3 of the total----appear in Revelation alone, which is, in words, less than 1/60 of the length of the Bible. I.e., “I saw” appears 20 times more frequently in Revelation than randomly expected. The next most frequent Book is Ezekiel comes in at a very distant 13 usages, and most of the books in both the Jewish and Christian portions have 5 usages or less.

And some of what Joni Mitchell “sees” is, like the bombers turning into butterflies-- in the sky, or, in Biblical terms, heaven, as is also the case with a great deal of what John “sees” in Revelation.

“We are stardust….”     In light of the foregoing, it should come as no surprise that 1/5, or 13 of 65 of the references to “stars” in the KJV are in Revelation. And I don’t need to tell you how significant “dust” is in Genesis, which is the “Alpha” which John of Patmos never lost sight of as he wrote—but Joni Mitchell has upped the ante on the Biblical notion of human beings as dust which comes from and then returns to the earth—she has picked up on modern cosmology, and recognized that the Earth from which we sprang, itself was formed from stardust. I hear in this updating of ancient wisdom Joni Mitchell’s gentle suggestion that we could, at the end of the 20th century, imagine victories over evil that are more like the nonviolent victories that Jesus achieved when he used his outside the box wit to save the adulteress from death by stoning.

“…we are golden…”    And in the same vein, the word “golden” also appears far more frequently (12 out of a total of 61 in the KJV) in Revelation.

And, for me, the line in “Woodstock” which is most like a wormhole leading to a rich vein of meaning is:    “And I feel to be a cog in something turning.”

It might feel to Sixties survivors like myself that we invented alienation from a soulless military industrial complex out of thin air, but that perspective was definitely already that of the author(s) of Revelation as well two millennia earlier, writing from under the harsh imperial thumb of the military might of Rome. And I have a strong hunch that Joni Mitchell picked up on that strand of meaning from Revelation as well.

As for that sort of subversive interpretation of Revelation, check out the following excerpts from a truly marvelous reading of Revelation in Borderline Exegesis by the wonderfully outside the box scholar Leif E. Vaage:

 P. 131: “What the world as it is, as we have known it, relentlessly continues to unfold as ever, insisting with growing vehemence on total conformity to the current order of things, with “zero tolerance” for all exceptions to this rule? What does one do when the insistence is imposed globally, multiculturally, willy-nilly, sometimes through economic sanction, sometimes through military force…. My proposal will be to read the work …as a case of collective dream work….the Book of Revelation..can be understood to articulate the outer edge of a social experience that has been shaped by enduring dissatisfaction, organized suppression, fearful anxiety, and hopelessness.—even as the same discourse simultaneously gives a certain voice to a still unvanquished desire to be and ongoing effort to exist.
…..How specifically can that ‘thing with feathers That perches in the soul’, as Emily Dickinson once described it, finally become something more or other than the eternal recurrence of the repressor… Through its collective dreamwork, the Book of Revelation struggles to keep alive, in the belly of a desperate beast, some borderline of hope…Precisely because the impulse that first gave rise to the writing was not an ideal truth but, rather, some ‘wild’ desire no longer to be a subservient cog in an imperial machine—because the apocalypse registers an endangered effort to dissent by resisting integration into an alien rule—the resulting script of another possible world in the Book of Revelation manifests, inter alia, the same sort of bricolage…” END QUOTE

The idea of the power of collective dreamwork fits perfectly with “Woodstock:”.

And so, I will end there, and leave you by reiterating my suggestion that you read Revelation (it really isn’t long at all) and then listen one more time to Joni Mitchell singing “Woodstock”,  and then sleep on that experience, and let the interaction of the poetry of both percolate in your mind and soul, and, if you’re lucky, create a few butterflies.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Sue Tierney said...

Wow, Arnie ... this essay will have me thinking for weeks. I am not opposed to the notion of Joni Mitchell as a herald ... She is a poet of great might! Thanks for this very thoughtful piece.