hallo my loves.
it's time to Thing.
$3+ patrons, we are about to email download codes! $5+ patrons, i'm going to send you a recording of the original piano demo i sent to zoe! be on the lookout for those emails.
i just came back from the mermaid parade in new york and i'm collapsing, but before i collapse...this song. i am so proud to finally share this finished master with you. it's special and relevant.
the origin of this cover is kinda beautiful and very roundabout.
maria popova (who runs and writes for the site brainpickings.org), invited me last year (in 2017) to be a part of a now-annual NYC people-read-poetry-about-nature benefit she throws called "The Universe in Verse". the event in itself was inspired by a spontaneous pop-up poetry party she threw when trump was elected. she couldn't believe how many people were INTO poetry and how healing and inspiring and soul-nourishing the show was. so she made it official. last year, neil wrote a pro-science, pro-feminist poem for the event called the mushroom hunters, and i performed it for him, since he wasn't in new york. and it was truly beautiful (and went viral). the event itself was everything maria had cracked it up to be. a few hundred people celebrating poetry and stories about knowledge, science, truth and human progress. art and poetry as protest. it was really powerful.
this year, maria invited us back for the event - this past april. neil couldn't come again since he was in the UK with good omens, so he offered to write a new poem that i would perform (don't worry - that one is coming in a few months) and maria also asked a musical favor of me, since the whole evening was in honor of rachel carson, the environmentalist who wrote "silent spring" in 1962. that book kicked off the environmentalist revolution, and the song "big yellow taxi" by joni mitchell, which was direct-line inspired.
but i had a problem.
i love joni mitchell. her music and her personhood. i really do. deeply. she's a totally authentic, punk-rock, give-no-fucks, absolute artist-artist. i have often listened to "blue" on repeat, and my regard for her is about as high as it gets. this is the woman who made me stand up and cheer while reading a magazine about 15 years ago when i saw her declare the music industry "a cesspool" in a rolling stone interview. she's an incredible everything. but i confess.
i've just never liked "big yellow taxi".
i'm sorry. i've tried. the song has been around my life forever, and i think we even sang it when i was in 4th grade in elementary school.
here's the original joni version, to freshen up your memory:
i love the words. but the music, i can't get past it. the part of me that has a kind of allergy to bouncy 70's music just can't get over the rhythm and the cheerful back-up vocals.
so maria texted and asked me to cover it, and i said "yes, but i am going to totally goth it up." and maria was like "oooh nooo what does that mean this song is going to be at the end of the night and i need people to feel redemption" and i was like "don't worry girl i know my shit, this is gonna be the big yellow taxi that makes people cry" and she was like "but i don't want people to be sad i want them to feel hope and joy amanda what are you doing" and i was like "no not sad, melancholy and deeply committed to the earth for fucks sake maria do you want me to do this song or not" and she was like "uh yeah i do i am just worried you're going to bum people out" and i was like "TRUST ME I AM A PROFESSIONAL".
so she trusted me.
i then found out that my bestie zoe keating was going to be reading a poem at the event. maria is a long-time fan of zoe's. i can't remember if she knows her work through me or some other avenue, but i remember maria once mentioning to me that she would put on zoe's cello music and write for hours. zoe's music is incredible that way. like bach. it doesn't get old.
zoe would be there. zoe would be there. zoe would have her cello. zoe always has her cello. i'd been working on the dilemma of whether to cover the song on ukulele or piano. ukulele seemed like it was going to be too silly and impossible, especially since the guitar of the original just doesn't do it for me, and i needed to change this fucker UP. so i texted zoe, a fellow goth (and, as it turns out, fellow original-big-yellow-taxi-cringe-er), to see if she would add some cello to the song, and maybe we could do up some sort of perfect cello-and-piano arrangement.
she was really busy at the time, working on a talk for TED. let me go on an important tangent here.
zoe lost her husband, jeff, to brutal and sudden brain cancer a few years ago. their five-year-old son, alex, lost his dad forever. i was following all the time, watching as she reeled and careened, and on top of everything - on top of all the pain - she had to deal with the harrowing american kafka-esque medical-insuranc-industrial-complex nightmares that nobody should have to deal with when they are overwhelmed and grieving. she handled it all with such grace. she was a hero to me. and to neil.
her TED talk is a simple masterpiece of truth and pain....and most importantly, music. music that heals, music that binds and connects and plugs holes and wounds and transcends.
you should watch it (and listen....with headphones). maybe even pause now and watch/listen to this first, because it'll help add depth to the joni-taxi cover....it's 15 minutes.
here's the link.....
back to the story.
so i asked her if she'd join me for this one-time-only covert song. and zoe said yes even though she didn't have the time and bandwidth, because she's like me and she tries to do everything.
then i sat at the piano.
i thought. i listened to the original a few times. i picked a tempo. i fiddled around.
and i sent zoe a super-rough piano demo.
i hit the wall of what to do with the back-up vocals. i gotta be honest...i hate those back-up vocals. and i checked in with maria to see if there were any other poetry readers at the event who might be up for doing some gothed-out back-up singing. it was then that i found out that john cameron mitchell (another bestie) and sean ono lennon (john lennon and yoko ono's son, who i met last year at a conference) were also going to be there. so i emailed them and was like: do you wanna sing back-ups on a goth joni mitchell song? john said YES. and sean said: YES and can i play guitar? and so it came to be that we turned into a BAND.
i decided to ditch the piano altogether and leave the job up to the cello and guitar. that's goth enough.
and once this was happening i was like: we have to record this. it's going to be too good to not record and we are going to all be there anyway trying to rehearse this sucker all day...let's just get to the venue early and set up a mobile recording studio. we have the patreon money to cover it. and that's what we did. we met up around noon, spent a few hours arranging and rehearsing in a beautiful loft-y room at pioneer works, where the show was held in red hook, brooklyn. a great engineer named dan brantigan set up a whole rig in this light-filled palace and we got down to it.
here's zoe and sean, working:
....and this recording ended up being a blessing, because the live version that we did of the song on stage that night was....well, let's just say the acoustics were impossible and we didn't exactly nail our parts. :)
we also "named" our supergroup on stage. everybody was quipping about the one-off nature of the band, and how we had no name. it needed to be something poetic and enviromental.
i suggested "the decomposers".
(get it? stay tuned for world domination. next, we will cover slayer. sadly, and slowly).
sean also took the final mix home with him and added more texture and instruments...some organ, some bass, it's just gorgeous. and zoe layered on a little more cello. it was a group recording effort.
here's me, listening to mixes with sean at pioneer works:
i hope you appreciate what we did with the back-up vocals (that's me and john cameron mitchell ooohhh-aaaahh-ing, in case you were confused).
i gotta say, i really loved the challenge of having to nail this recording within a single afternoon...and i also found myself getting quite emotional, unexpectedly.
there's a lyric in the song that i wouldn't have understood as a teenager:
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 that you don't know what you've got til it's gone...
that "old man" line always threw me.
didn't "old man" mean father?
what did she mean? that her father died? i never really quite got it as a kid.
i remember seeing "The Doors" (excellent film, i'm a fan) and hearing the phrase used by pam ("sure i'll head off into the LSD night with you jim morrison but i'm gonna have to check with my old man")....it wasn't until i was well into my twenties that i finally clocked that it was 1960s slang for "husband/lover" AND "father", which is just fuckin weird when you think about it but whatever it was the 60s.
sayings, and words. they have all sorts of meanings.
in joni's case, she was talking about her husband/lover leaving. er, or was she? maybe only joni knows. a visit to songmeanings.net also pointed out that police cars in toronto (joni-land) were yellow...but i think that's a stretch. i think her main squeeze ditched and she was like: ugh, men, the environment, life, it's a bitch.
while we were doing the second or third take of the song i looked at zoe, who just lost her old-man-husband, and i looked at sean, who lost his old-man-dad when he was just about alex's age. i thought about little ash.
the word "gone" has never felt quite so real.
i sang it from the core. quietly.
here are the final credits.
Sean Ono Lennon - upright bass, electric & acoustic guitar, percussion, keyboards
John Cameron Mitchell - Vocals
Zoë Keating - Cello
Amanda Palmer - Vocals
Sean Lennon & Matthew Cullen - Audio Mix
Matthew Cullen - Extra Engineer
Kevin Blackler - Mastering
Dan Brantigan - Live Engineer
Eric Cullen - Additional Mix Engineer
Dustin Yellin - Artwork
Art design by Braxton Carter at Fame House
that's the story, loves.
i hope you love what we've done. and i hope you can feel the full thrust of my gratitude to you all, because i NEVER would have had the balls to do this project without the patreon as a financial safety net.
the patreon money covered all the costs and engineers and mastering, paid the musicians and the designers, and makes it possible for all the profits of the song itself to go to charity, while i can keep our staff and offices rolling and the lights on.
this is just amazing.
without further ado...
here it is.
HERE IT IS!!!!
listen/stream/share(!) now on bandcamp:
all $3+ folks will be getting download codes in a second, but beyond that, 100% of the digital sales from this song (bandcamp, itunes, etc) will go to The Natural Resources Defense Council, who, in their own words, "work to safeguard the earth - its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends." the NRDC (which was the charity to which "The Universe in Verse" gave all its profits) has been doing advocacy and litigation work on behalf of climate change, clean water and our precious goddamn earth since 1970. give generously.
i'd also love to give a huge shout-out to dustin yellin, the artist who founded pioneer works, the space we performed and recorded in, and he also donated his OWN artwork for our cover image - it couldn't have been more perfect for the message of the song.
here's more about dustin: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dustin_Yellin
the song will be on itunes, spotify, apple music etc. soon (if it isn't already.)
you can also read maria's beautiful write-up about it on brainpickings:
one last photo....
the whole supergroup live at "The Universe in Verse", from left to right: zoe, me, john and sean....and above us, saint joni.
(photo by michael kelly)
(photo by maria popova)
i love you all.
thank you for being on this journey of Art And Life with us.
and thank you so much to my team for helping to put this all together...and thank you to maria, zoe, sean, john, dustin and everyone who hopped on this Thing Ride.....
------THE NEVER-ENDING AS ALWAYS---------
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