(15) Paprika Plains



"Sorry Vio, I got cut off from this phone call selling me more speed and bandwidth which I DON'T NEED. Let us get back to Paprika Plains. If it's too long and boring, just quit anytime.

Even though Blue is her most successful and beloved record, don't get stuck there. In fact her work got more and more interesting in the seventies. Joni was adventurous, brave and lucky. She was a magnet, attracted and surrounded by other talented musicians - either she looked for them or they came to her. The hard-to-settle woman jumped from one lover to another, not just because of mutual attraction, but also for inspiration and challenge to move forward. Her love was full and honest and you see - almost all her lovers were musicians. It was one relentless pursuit after another - of the men and their genius in music. My mind keeps strolling away and I have not found a suitable entry point into Paprika Plains. Or perhaps, there are too many ways to cut in and we can start from any point and anywhere.

Her music is unclassifiable. Even back to her earliest record 'Song To A Seagull' in 1968, it was not the folk music as we knew. In the early seventies she did rock and roll for a while but then devoured the flesh and kept the bones. We really ought to look at her as a creative artist, treating her every album as a new canvas, shedding her skin as she evolved. In fact, how many of us have such capacity and patience to understand her every move? We just wanted immediate access, settling ourselves quickly in familiar musical settings. To our frustration, it was not at all the case. We need to do more work.

From the lyrics of Paprika Plains, this line keeps playing in my head: "When I was three feet tall, and wide eyed open to it all..."

This wondrous child, when became a woman, was still wide eyed, and open to it all. Was it naivety or overindulgence, that boosted her confidence as an untrained musician, to challenge herself into creating something bigger in music? The 1977 Paprika Plains is a rare collaborative musical work incorporating a song, an orchestral work and a jazz improvisation. This was something very unexpected at that time in popular music, no, not even what one would try today. I am not going to labour on how the piece was created. You can listen to the song and, at the same time google all the background story.   

Surely some critics did question her adequacy to produce a masterpiece score, but she didn't mind. Who says a bird must learn to sing before it can sing? By nature, we are free to express if we have a voice. I admire her boldness, genuineness, ability and ambition to create something so contemporary and epic. Regardless of what others felt or said, she completed herself, recounted and relived moments spanning half her life time, from childhood memories to later encounters. This song is so full of visuals, people, land, smells, sound of rain, and for a short 16 minutes we ride through a musical wonderment, another composition tour de force far ahead of its time. It's like, yes, she was using music - to paint a song, and extending it further into cinematography.

You might be interested to look at a simple synopsis of the song:

Beginning scene : A soliloquy by the narrator accompanied by piano work, of a late-night gathering in a bar frequented by native people, permeated with drugs and alcohol, a rainstorm broke out. The narrator leaves the scene to watch the rain and falls back into fragments of her prairie childhood.

Middle section: The narrator enters into a state of dream, improvised piano work support by a full orchestra. The 72 lines of unsung lyrics were printed in parentheses, of innocent childhood memories, a nuclear explosion, and finally returning to the beginning, where a band of Indian men took stage.

Ending scene: The narrator returns inside after the rain, creates another scene inspired by former conversation with Bob Dylan. Mirrored ball now shines on everyone. With her fingers hitting hard on the piano keys, the jazz kicks in, jamming, partying and peaking at a jubilant finale.

It sounds almost like a play isn't it. Paprika Plains is not like fast food, its nutrients require a process of slow digestion. I urge you take some time, put Paprika Plains on, and follow the words. And do not forget, be grateful (like her) to all her collaborators, who are equally great musicians of our time: Michael Gibbs, the orchestra arranger and conductor, the jazz musicians, Jaco Pastorius (bass), John Guerin (drums) and Wayne Shorter (soprano Sax). Their participation had added valuable layers of colour and texture to this song."

Mrs. Bento couldn't understand it. What's all this endless bragging about pepper plain? She craved to hear this song and gave her own rating. Not difficult at all, for among the line of cds filling up the top shelf on the opposite wall, she found many Joni Mitchell's compact disks. One of them featured a black hipster, a woman with a top hat and a boy, was the album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter.