[SoundStage!]For a Song
Back-Issue Article

August 2005

Up and Down and Every Which Way: Joni Mitchell’s "Both Sides, Now"

Both Sides, Now

Rows* and flows of angel hair, and ice cream
   castles in the air,
And feathered canyons ev’rywhere, I’ve looked
   at clouds that way.
But now they only block the sun, they rain and
   snow on ev’ryone.
So many things I would have done, but clouds
   got in my way.
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,
   from up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall; I really don’t know
   clouds at all.

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels, the dizzy
   dancing way you feel,
As ev’ry fairy tale comes real, I’ve looked at
   love that way.
But now it’s just another show, you leave ‘em
   laughing when you go.
And if you care, don’t let them know, don’t give
   yourself away.
I’ve looked at love from both sides now, from
   give and take and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall; I really don’t know
   love at all.

Tears and fears and feeling proud, to say "I
   love you" right out loud,
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds, I’ve
   looked at life that way.
But now old friends are acting strange, they
   shake their heads, they say I’ve changed,
But something’s lost but something’s gained,
   in living ev’ry day.
I’ve looked at life from both sides now, from
   win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall; I really don’t know
   life at all.

*The songbook The Music of Joni Mitchell says "Bows"; the Clouds album cover says "Rows."

The Clouds album cover provides very little punctuation, none at the end of any line, and divides each verse into three, indicated by line breaks. I use the punctuation provided in The Music of Joni Mitchell as the song’s logic indicates three verses rather than nine with three each on one topic.

Recorded on Joni Mitchell’s second LP, Clouds, in 1969, but already famous as a hit single from Judy Collins’s 1967 Wildflowers album, "Both Sides, Now" is one of very few popular songs that leap from Mitchell’s large and brilliant body of work into listeners’ minds when they hear her name. Because the opening lines consist of cloud images, many people incorrectly think the song is called "Clouds."

Each of the three six-line verses contains three distinct couplets. The first describes the singer’s unspoiled childhood-fantasy view of some occurrence. The second part describes the singer’s actual experience of the same thing -- unpleasant, not the stuff of fantasy. The third part declares that the singer has experienced the fantastic and the actual side of each phenomenon and finds both illusory and mysterious: "It’s cloud / love’s / life’s illusions I recall; I really don’t know clouds / love / life at all."

I used to think that the cheerier tone of Collins’s better-known recording emphasized the "positive" aspects of these experiences, and Mitchell’s more somber tone, the "negative." Now I don’t think it is that simple. Finding Mitchell’s original recording truer to the lyrics’ precise meanings, I think the immense popularity of Collins’s and the relative obscurity of Mitchell’s could reflect America’s penchant for youth, easy gratification, and an absence of ambiguity. Even the most aggressive promotion would not have landed Mitchell’s version on the charts. But it is not "positive" versus "negative" so much as "simple" versus "complex."

Ice cream castles & sun blockers

I don’t recall ever seeing even clichéd images like Elvis in clouds, but many people, especially children, fantasize images in clouds’ varied and ever-changing appearances. The possibilities are endless, and from infinite choices Joni Mitchell picked angel hair, ice cream castles, and feathered canyons. How do these details operate together, suggesting the first verse’s contribution to a unified composition?

Little gives more hope than a belief in angels -- from "guardian angels" who protect us from danger to winged figures in scripture who hint at meanings of Christianity’s protagonists’ otherwise perplexing experiences. How reassuring to think ubiquitous clouds offer such benevolence and security. And how fine to discover that they even deliver tasty treats in quantities the size of a king’s home. Maybe we could even live there and spend our days eating from the walls!

More peculiar, "Feathered canyons everywhere" describes a vast skyscape of clouds. Perhaps as a child the singer had fantasies of flying and so describes clouds as canyons, having seen them from above in those fantasies. Maybe the singer "now" has flown in planes above the clouds and has literally seen clouds "from both sides, now." Both could be the case. Their being feathered suggests a softened version of canyons’ usually steep, rocky sides -- a magical, safe fantasy landscape.

This fantasy view of clouds gives way through experience to a negative, practical aspect of clouds as blocking out sunshine -- making a nice day not so nice -- and as producing precipitation that keeps people, especially kids, from doing things they otherwise would have done, like playing outside.

Ferris wheels and ridicule

In addition to the amazing succinctness with which Mitchell’s genius links images associated with romantic love -- moon and nighttime, flowers blooming in spring, dates at the fair, soaring above the ground, dancing, feeling dizzy, happy-ever-after fairy-tale endings -- the second verse relates young-adult imaginings of love not unlike the childhood fantasies about clouds in the first verse.

Also like clouds in the first verse, love in the second ends up bringing disillusionment. Rather than true love, the singer experiences the mere appearance of love -- "just another show"; humiliation -- "you leave ‘em laughing …"; and the lesson that showing your heart makes you vulnerable and subjects you to pain, "don’t give yourself away," also suggesting the giving-away of a bride at a wedding. You don’t want to wed yourself to someone who might turn out not to love you.

Though the third part of this verse has the singer looking at love "from give and take," not "from up and down" as with clouds in the first verse, part of the song’s artistic structure is that the images in the second verse nevertheless denote things at different heights: the moon, an age-old subject of fantasy and mythology (particularly related to love), like clouds; the Ferris wheel, which typically takes lovers high above the crowd (dreams of flight are associated with sexual fantasies); and dancing, which one does with feet on the ground -- dizzy in this case because love has struck. So, even without "up and down," love is seen at different heights as well as "from give and take."

Sorrow, love, fun, loss -- that’s life

As time moves on, the singer learns about not only clouds and love, but life itself. The fantasy this time is that life is all about experiencing emotions ("Tears and fears and feeling proud…") and relationships with others ("to say ‘I love you…’ "; "schemes and circus crowds") to the fullest, overcoming fear, forging ahead, and pursuing "dreams" so as to have rich experiences and achieve fulfillment. The singer is able to say "I love you" unabashedly despite youthful disappointments in love. Life is "Tears and fears and feeling proud" -- a mixed bag, to use shabby vernacular. "[S]chemes" suggest the singer, too, is now capable of getting her way by deception when necessary, having learned that others deceive, like the "fairy tale" and other details in the second verse.

What comes of all this experience, maturity, and the examination of one’s experience that is part of its richness? Old friends shake their heads and say you’ve changed!

Huh? You mean that even when you’ve got it all down, it's not good enough? Apparently this song is saying that even living life to the fullest has its downside: your friends fall by the wayside. They’re disappointed that you continue to grow after "growing up." They’re not changing, too, along similar lines. True intellectual and spiritual maturity -- looking at "both sides" of everything and finding much still uncertain, mysterious, unresolved -- is not for everyone. Many don’t share in the spirit of this paean to infinite curiosity and growth.

As a college student in a class I taught once said to me, it’s too hard to seek the truth all the time. Even when one does it right and is seen as a great talent, one’s path in life may not be appreciated by one’s friends.

Perhaps these unspecified old friends are not friends anymore -- or at least look askance at the singer -- because they have refrained from living and examining life fully and therefore have remained childlike, perhaps due to fear of pain and disappointment, whereas the singer has moved forward by delving into whatever comes her way.

More than two sides

A superficial reading of this classic song might lead one to claim that it is merely about "growing up" -- how we fantasize as children and face hard realities as grownups. It is not that simple, though it might be for the "old friends" who might not be friends of the singer’s anymore or might be old in spirit, in contrast to the singer, because they have refused life the only way it comes -- as a rich, mysterious, joyous, painful onslaught of people, events, and experiences. Despite "both" in the title and each verse, the song really is about a third "side" of everything, the side that emerges once we recognize that ups and downs don't mean things are either good or bad in themselves. It's living every day -- perceiving, interacting, losing and gaining, dealing as we will with whatever comes down the pike without necessarily knowing beyond illusion -- that makes life as rich as it can be.

How do we know the singer remains young in spirit though childhood is in the past and friends are "old"? The third couplet of each verse says, "It’s cloud / love’s / life’s illusions I recall." But the first couplet of each verse describes the early fantasy of clouds, love, and life. At the conclusion of each verse’s observations, the singer’s recalling only illusions at first seems to put the singer at the beginning, when reality is not known. But experience has taken the singer beyond that, to a different kind of illusion: the illusion that one can fully know anything. Experiencing life’s true complexity means even close examination does not enable one to reach conclusions like those of early life or those of older people who have not matured and achieved the song’s perspective.

Thus, in "Both Sides, Now," being young means always continuing to experience and learn, and being old means cutting oneself off from experience, learning, and therefore, life itself -- enduring a living death. This is consistent with the '60s youth-culture’s warning against trusting "anyone over thirty." But all generations have their young and their old of all ages -- some who do and some who don’t look at both sides, now.

...David J. Cantor

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