Home Commentary The Way I See It: Aspirations and Illusions Inspire Gifted Musicians

The Way I See It: Aspirations and Illusions Inspire Gifted Musicians

The opening notes were quickly recognizable, but the camera was in a tight close-up of a Black woman’s hands playing the guitar, so you couldn’t see who it was.

The camera gradually pulled back, revealing the grinning woman who had won her first Grammy for that very song, 35 years before. At the peak of her career, she disappeared to live a reclusive life in San Francisco, and has not released new music for 15 years. She was not listed on the program, so her appearance was a jaw-dropping, although hoped-for, surprise.

A little later, on a different set, a piano played through a darkened stage. A chair with its back to the audience gradually turned, presenting a dignified 80-year-old woman with her trademark braided blonde hair and beret. She had won 10 Grammys, but never performed at the ceremony before. Her appearance had been announced and was highly anticipated, yet it exceeded expectations.

So opened two extraordinary performances at last month’s Grammy Awards: Tracy Chapman singing her iconic song “Fast Car” with Luke Combs, and Joni Mitchell performing one of her iconic songs, “Both Sides, Now.” 

“Fast Car” climbed to the top of country charts last year, when Combs, a very popular country singer, released a cover that stayed very close to the original, which he said had been his favorite song since childhood.

“His eyes shone with irrepressible respect,” New York Times columnist Lindsay Zoladz wrote the next day. “Here was a grown man, an assured performer who sells out stadiums, visibly trembling before the sight and the sound of the folk singer Tracy Chapman.”

Such was the greatness of the moment. The Times headline called it a rare gift to America — harmony — and Zoladz called it a reprieve from the culture wars.

“It was a rare reminder of music’s unique ability to obliterate external differences,” she said. “‘Fast Car’ is about something more internal and universal. It is a song about the wants and needs that make us human: the desire to be happy, to be loved, to be free.”

You got a fast car

I want a ticket to anywhere

Maybe we make a deal

Maybe together we can get somewhere

Anyplace is better

Starting from zero got nothing to lose

Maybe we’ll make something

But me myself I got nothing to prove

Mitchell’s performance was both stunning and a relief. After suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015, she had to relearn how to walk, talk and sing, and her public appearances have been very limited.

But there she was, in what could almost have been an elegant living room with chandeliers and ornate furniture, accompanied by a covey of much younger musicians playing piano, strings, and woodwinds, and singing backup on a song that gives so much more pause coming from the octogenarian Mitchell than it did from her energetic 20-something self.

Mitchell’s voice is much lower, and she sang the song more slowly, more somberly and at times, sorrowfully. She had questions about clouds, love, and life when she wrote the song at 24, and she still has them now, with 56 more years behind her.

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

Sitting in a white and gold Victorian chair, dressed in black, keeping beat with her cane topped by a jeweled cat head, and looking serious, she emphasized that last line. When she wrote the song, she had already faced big challenges. She had been married and divorced, and a boyfriend had left her pregnant and broke, prompting her to give up the child for adoption.

Widely considered one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, Mitchell has won more than 60 awards, and 173 of her songs have been covered by other musicians, including 14 that have been covered more than 100 times. “Both Sides, Now” has been recorded by other artists an astounding 1,668 times.

Chapman, who will turn 60 later this month, also has a long list of achievements and awards, including 13 Grammy nominations that resulted in four Grammys. As with Mitchell’s performance, her duet with Combs is available on YouTube as a stand-alone clip. 

In her moving, reflective performance, the lyrics in another part of the song that Mitchell stressed were redemptive: “Well something’s lost, but/something’s gained/in living every day.” These strong, talented women are gifts to us all. Their resilience is inspirational, and their Grammy performances are treasures.