Wednesday, December 22, 2010

For a Song: Moon at the Window

Joni Mitchell: Moon at the Window


Consider the following:

The thief left it behind:
the moon
at my window.

The haiku above is called The Thief Left It Behind, and it was written by the Japanese Buddhist priest Ryokan (1758-1831). There is a Zen teaching tale in which a thief enters the home of a poor monk. Intending to rob him, the thief is surprised by the monk, who proceeds to give the thief all of his meager possessions. The baffled thief leaves, and the monk is left with just the moon. This is a happy ending, for the student to contemplate. The moon, in Zen thought, represents enlightenment.

In light of all this, Moon at the Window seems to be not so much about material possessions as emotional baggage. The song comes at a turning point in Joni Mitchell’s career. After the album Mingus, Mitchell summed up her jazz period with the live album Shadows and Light. Next was the source of this song, Wild Things Run Fast. This album finds Mitchell working with a new bass player, Larry Klein, after working with Jaco Pastorius for the last few years. Pastorius had died, and, with Klein on bass and helping to produce, Mitchell embarked on an exploration of rock music. Moon at the Window shows that Mitchell had not given up on jazz entirely, and it shows up from time to time from this point on. But now jazz is just one color in Mitchell’s palette, no longer the focus.