Inside Story

Shades of blue

Joni Mitchell’s Blue suffuses Amy Key’s memoir of single life

Zora Simic Books 11 September 2023 1272 words

Key shapes for herself a “life that has its own rituals, events to assign meaning to and rules to live by.” iStockphoto

Joni Mitchell’s classic 1971 album Blue came out seven years before English poet Amy Key was born, but growing up she “instinctively knew that I would one day spend time with her music.” Key was fourteen when she first heard the album on a cassette borrowed from her sister Rebecca (an “emotional inheritance”). While she had yet to experience the intensity of womanhood — unlike her best friend who was sleeping over and engulfed with period pain — what the music foretold was a future filled with the highs and lows of romantic love. “I’d hurt someone. They would hurt me.”

The ostensible hook of Arrangements in Blue, a memoir in chapters that correspond to the album’s ten songs, is that Key’s love life has not turned out as she eagerly anticipated when she was fourteen. Now in her forties, Key has not had a serious boyfriend since she was twenty-two, though not for want of yearning or trying. She lives alone with her two cats and has heard Blue so many times that she can “summon every element of the music” in her head without having to play it. The book opens with Key telling a taxi driver she’s come to Los Angeles to write a book about Joni Mitchell.

Middle-aged woman writes a book about being single and loving Joni Mitchell. Perhaps especially for readers like me who are of a similar age and circumstance to the author, and/or who share her music obsession, that summary is as enticing as it gets. Yet it only hints at the riches on offer. At least two entwined stories reflect the influence of Blue. One is the story of how the pursuit of and desire for romantic love have loomed over Key’s life, with Blue serving as a kind of aspirational benchmark. The other is about how for Key, Blue became “part of the language I had to express myself.”

What Key heard that night back in 1992 when she first encountered Blue was a woman who took herself and her art seriously. Key does similar work in Arrangements in Blue, and it has not been without struggle. She writes early on that it “scares me to lay out all the ways in which absence of romantic love touches my life.” In reckoning with the enduring desire for a relationship, and with the shame she sometimes feels about it, Key takes stock, the song cycle of Blue providing the structure that otherwise may have taken the form of more conventional life markers like marriage and children.

Mitchell and Key, poets both, are attuned to quotidian details and their larger resonance. In “My Old Man” Mitchell sings that when her lover is away “the bed’s too big, the frying pan’s too wide.” Key observes the “easy intimacy” of a couple sharing a pillow on a plane, and watches with “deep interest” the “ordinariness” of couples interacting at home. Among them are her maternal grandparents, whose ordered, tranquil domestic world provided an alternative to her parent’s unhappy marriage.

Although the rite of passage that is moving in together has not so far been part of Key’s experience, home-making and home-owning have. She captures their hard-won satisfaction and pleasure without side-stepping the difficulties or the persistent longing for a romantic love that she imagines feels like her ideal of home: “warm, intimate, symbolic in all the aesthetic details of it, and after the inevitable addictive whirr of lust, secure.”

In Mitchell’s heavily autobiographical catalogue, the song about giving up her daughter for adoption, “Little Green,” is among the most poignant. Key connects with it through recounting her abortion as a teenager and the vicissitudes of her feelings about children and parenting since. The link to Mitchell’s experience is historically contingent, with their reproductive lives defined by different options, but Key finds solace in the singer-songwriter’s words to her daughter: “sometimes there’ll be sorrow.” As a contribution to the growing canon of literature about maternal ambivalence, Key’s is distinguished from another notable work, Sheila Heti’s Motherhood (which she mentions) by being less tethered to the art vs. motherhood conundrum.

Every chapter in Arrangements in Blue is revelatory in some way. In the contemporary belief in self-love as a prerequisite for any other kind of love, for instance, Key sees a “terrible burden” that can lead to debt and more self-loathing. She prefers the “less intimidating” idea of “self-friendship,” captured in the “ordinary joy of supermarket flowers around my room, rather than the unattainable perfection of a long-stemmed red rose.”

Without the validation or momentum of a partner and family, Key shapes a “life that has its own rituals, events to assign meaning to and rules to live by.” She vows to swim “in every body of water” she encounters before turning forty; and through repeated attempts comes to properly inhabit the confident persona of a solo traveller in a world where “public space is not designed for a person on their own.”

Inevitably, for a memoir written at midpoint, there is regret and grief. If in life Key is “too often held back by my own censure” when speaking of “painful feelings,” on the page she doesn’t hold back. She stands crying outside the old house in Laurel Canyon where Joni Mitchell wrote Blue, hoping no one passing by will notice. “I didn’t understand how I’d got to this point in my life.”

In writing it out, though, Key gets closer to the sources of her pain, some of them beyond her control (childhood abuse and trauma), but not all. Her “undealt-with heartache for romantic love,” she shares, “had begun to make me bitter” and negatively affect her friendships, of which there are many. Readers may think Key is too hard on herself, but there is something both deeply relatable and hopeful in how she comes to comprehend her own self-delusions.

Among the men Key has been entangled with, but with a special spot of his own, is the late Scottish poet Roddy Lumsden, who died in 2020 from cirrhosis of the liver. Key’s talent and her love of language saturate every page, but it seems she came to poetry as if by accident and had the good fortune to have Lumsden as her teacher and then, quickly, her close friend.

Lumsden’s words preface the book alongside Mitchell’s and his influence is at least as profound as hers, with the added messiness and intensity of an intimate friendship that did not fit the container of a conventional relationship. Even more so than Key, Lumsden sought “romantic salvation,” including with her. It was not to be (she did not feel the same way) and in his darkest hours she was “sometimes a bad friend.” Still, in the dedicated chapter Key magnificently does what she struggled to do at Lumsden’s funeral: “explain the nature of my relationship with him.”

In 1979, Joni Mitchell told Rolling Stone magazine that “there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals” on Blue. “At that period of my life, I had no personal defences. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a packet of cigarettes.” Arrangements in Blue is Key’s equivalent. I predict that, like Blue, its fans will find in it both enduring companionship and new “chords of inquiry” for years to come. More than homage, Key has paid Mitchell the ultimate tribute by creating a transcendent work of art, wrought from one woman’s bountiful life. •

Arrangements in Blue: Notes on Love and Making a Life
By Amy Key | Jonathan Cape | $36.99 | 240 pages