This week’s Torah reading includes a series of stages reported like this:
[The people set out from] _Place X_
[and encamped in] _Place Y_.
E.g., (Num 33:5): וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס וַֽיַּחֲנוּ בְּסֻכֹּֽת
[Bnei-Yisrael set out from Ramses and encamped at Succoth.]
This series of journeying stages, or “marches,” begins at the start of the second portion in this week’s double-Torah-reading: Matot (Numbers 30:2-32:42) and Masei (Numbers 33:1- 36:13). The idea of leaving one stage to reach another was reverberating for me while Joni Mitchell sang at the recent Newport Folk Festival:
Late last night, I heard the screen door slam
and a big yellow taxi took away my old man
don’t it always seem to go
you don’t know what you’ve lost til it’s gone
Watching video from Mitchell’s surprise appearance on 7/24/22, I was reminded of something I learned many years ago, from Amy Brookman at Fabrangen Havurah, in reference to the portion Masei: We have to “set out” to get to anywhere new.
From One Stage…
It is now possible to see Mitchell’s “Last Waltz” performances — The Band’s farewell, 11/25/1976, at Winterland — via the Music Vault on YouTube. Robbie Robertson and the crowd enthusiastically welcome Mitchell, and she performs two songs from her Hejira album/tour: “Coyote” and “Furry Sings the Blues.”
The Last Waltz also included Laura Nyro and the sisters of the Staple Singers, but Mitchell is the only woman on the stage for the closing numbers. And I’ve come to think of that image, one woman among a stage full of men, as a kind of encapsulation of how the industry functioned then. (A cropped section of that final stage grouping is the feature image for this blog; description below.) See also footnote from a musician present at the time
Moreover, when Mitchell appears in the 1978 Scorcese documentary, only “Coyote” is included — the film includes only one number from most of the guest performers; and I believe the director made the choices — and she is introduced on the heels of an interview segment called “Women on the Road” (see below). That is, Scorcese chose to place Mitchell’s welcome onto the stage immediately after leering remarks from The Band about “women” as objects. To be extra clear about the causality: the director of a concert documentary chose to introduce an influential musician and composer with ugly, sexist and unrelated blither, rather than, say, thoughts about musical composition or influences — which the documentary does also include — or just with Robbie Robertson announcing, as in the above raw footage, “Joni Mitchell. Right!” (The audience is yelling her name, as if guessing who was next up.)
The film’s presentation of Joni Mitchell has been stuck in my consciousness since I first saw it at a theater in 1977. On the one hand, this was a boorish artistic move by one man; on the other, it was emblematic of a time. In both ways, experience of the film shaped my brain and body, in ways that I can sometimes recognize today and in ways that I probably do not even know.
….And, for the record: I do love and recommend the movie, for all the anger I harbor toward its director over many of its specifics. It’s available through Kanopy streaming and local libraries. (And I believe there is some kind of remastering with additional numbers originally omitted, including Mitchell’s “Furry Sings the Blues.”)
On July 24 at Newport, Mitchell was surrounded by musicians of different musical backgrounds, gender identities, skin colors, and ages — many of them born long after Mitchell’s last appearance at Newport, in 1969, or her participation in The Band’s “Last Waltz” at Winterland in 1976.
Comparing the two images — Mitchell surrounded by collaborative, supportive (really, adoring) fellow performers in 2022 and Mitchell a powerful, lone woman actively denigrated by the filmmaker (if not her fellow performers) — brought me to that idea, from this week’s Torah portion, of needing to leave one stage in order to get to another. Of course, Mitchell’s reception and introduction in 2022 owes much to the strength of her long career and her personal hard road to physical recovery.
But this is not just a personal progression: We, as a society, had to leave the 1970s to get to later stages in the musical world and beyond. Watching the varied musicians collaborate with Mitchell through “Big Yellow Taxi” and the other numbers shared by Newport Folk Festival, I couldn’t help but think:
yes, often we don’t know what is lost til it’s gone; but sometimes, it’s a blessing to watch that taxi pull away.
Some background footage, FYI:
Here is some material from the film (inexpertly shared, complete with clutter from my den and an annoying lamp reflection):
Beginning: from early in the film — one of the few times we see the director — Martin Scorcese and Robertson talk about “The Last Waltz” concept
1:19 Robertson explains, backstage, that Ronnie Hawkins first hired him saying, “well, son, it doesn’t pay much, but you’ll get more pussy than Frank Sinatra.” This is spliced into the launch of Ronnie Hawkins’ performance on stage.
1:43 “Women on the Road,” as the scene is called on the DVD: backstage interview with band members. at 2:55 Levon Helm (1940-2012) offers “I thought you weren’t supposed to talk about it too much” — earning him my personal, undying gratitude from my teenage years onward. Rick Danko (1943-1999) says something about how “as we’ve grown, so have the women,” and Richard Manuel (1943-1986) just leers.
WARNING: Both Canadian and U.S. Confederate flags appear on the walls in this interview scene. (I don’t know enough about The Band to add any context beyond that they were Canadian born and did write songs about the U.S. South.)
This haphazard presentation of clips from “The Last Waltz” is fair use for purposes of review and discussion; it does not include the actual performance of “Coyote” from the 1978 documentary. The latter is widely available on YouTube, etc. in form that will be easier to enjoy — without violating copyright
L-R in still from 1978 Doc — so all in clothes popular at the time: Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson on stage at The Last Waltz concert. Dr. John is wearing a baret and sunglasses, looking at distance. Joni is wearing a long-sleeve leotard-type top and lots of necklaces, looking a little annoyed and (accidentally?) facing the camera. Neil is wearing a t-shirt with an open workshirt over it, smiling in a buzzed kind of way, looking outside the frame. Rick and Robbie are looking down at their guitars, but only Rick’s guitar is visible; both are wearing long-sleeve button-down shirts.RETURN