For a while, in high school and early college, I was in love with Joni Mitchell. By which I mean, not the biographical Joni Mitchell, about whom I knew nothing, nor even the “real” (-ish) Joni Mitchell revealed through interviews. Rather, I mean the persona the songs delivered to me: cerebral, serious, artistic, clearly smart, clearly high maintenance. (I’m not sure I knew that phrase back then, but I knew the concept and knew I had what it took to rise to it.) And by “in love,” I don’t mean literally in love like I wanted to meet Joni for a few drinks at a Hollywood bar and work my charm. Rather, Joni’s songs provided a template for the person I wanted to be in love with, with whom I knew I’d feel an instant connection.
When I discovered the Roches the summer after my sophomore year of college, I was ready for a paradigm shift. I’d read the adulatory reviews of their first album in the Village Voice, but I’d early on realized that on my work study allowance I couldn’t buy everything about which I read adulatory reviews in the Village Voice. (I did try for a while.) Then I stumbled over their second album, “Nurds,” in the cassette cutout bin in Caldors, and took a chance. I was back the next week buying their first album at full price.
This song isn’t the best Roches song–that might be “Hammond Song” or “Losing True”–and probably isn’t the best song on the “Nurds” album–that might be “One Season,” unbearably deep, don’t get me started–but it’s the one that I remember as best representing why I threw over Joni for the Roches. (The Roches are three sisters, and although I know their individual names I always thought of them as a single unit, a single person.) The song’s narrator is talking about a fellow performer she is certain has a crush on her; of course, she’s the one with the crush, which her friends cheerfully point out to her in counterpointing lines. In the chorus, she lets loose a tumble of details that perfectly captures for me the grasping way you try to explain to someone else why someone you’ve just met whom you know is special really is:
He was in a plane crash
He plays the clarinet
He’s trying to stop drinking
But his girlfriend hasn’t left him yet…
There was an appealing confidence here: the singer knew the girlfriend would eventually leave, and she’d take her rightful place in that role. (She probably knew in her heart the guy would continue to drink even after that happened.) There was a groundedness, an appreciation of everyday detail you didn’t find in Joni Mitchell. The Roches were smart, artistic, but also clever, knowing, self-mocking…again, qualities you didn’t find in Joni, especially the last. They liked men as much as Joni did, but were far less sentimental about it. They seemed like someone you could hang out with, have a few laughs, but still share deep thoughts when the occasion presented itself. They reminded me of a younger version of the short story writer Grace Paley, with whom I was also recently enamored.
That fall, I’d transfer to a college where I met many women who were versions of the Roches, which was my good luck, although I’d soon find out everyone is high maintenance in their own way. I’ll assert that having listened to the Roches helped me get along better with these women, which I’m not sure would have been true had I met my Joni earlier on. I still own that “Nurds” cassette, too, though it’s too warbly to play anymore. Sentimental value.