There’s something arresting about the opening line of Joni Mitchell’s song “The last time I saw Richard,” the final track on her 1971 LP Blue.
The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68,
And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday
Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe.
You know several things straightaway: The singer and Richard used to be in a relationship (otherwise why would she care, or remember where she saw him last), and that it didn’t end well, and that this was definitely down to him, not her.
She has your attention right there, right now.
“Richard” is probably Chuck Mitchell, briefly Joni’s first husband and also her musical partner for a short period in the 1960s. And in fact the song is a sustained piece of character assassination. A bit later on we learn that,
Richard got married to a figure skater
And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator
And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on
Even these days buying this stuff would be a pretty empty materialist gesture. But in 1971?
I was listening to Blue again after reading an article by Sean O’Hagan about Joni Mitchell’s golden period, broadly from Blue to Hejira. O’Hagan writes that on Blue she “single-handedly redefined the notion of the singer-songwriter.”
One of the reasons for this was her willingness to expose her intimate self in these songs. As well as writing about “Richard”, another, “Little Green”, alludes, cryptically, to her daughter, given up for adoption in 1965. Other songwriters were shocked. As O’Hagan relates, “On first hearing them, her friend Kris Kristofferson exclaimed: ‘Oh Joni – save something of yourself!'”