Today’s post is the next installment in my newest concept – the Contrast Series. Today I’ll cover Mavin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” and “Trouble Child” by Joni Mitchell.
Aside from the obvious fact that both songs have the word “trouble” in their titles, you might be surprised to find out they are connected far more intimately.
Marvin Gaye’s song was the title track for the soundtrack album to the Blaxploitation film directed by Ivan Dixon that was released in 1972. Dixon was best known for his acting roles in a couple of Twilight Zone episodes and as “Kinch” Kinchloe in the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes on CBS running 1965-1971.
“Trouble Man” describes the sticky situations the film’s lead, Mister T, encounters.
I come up hard baby, but now I’m cool
I didn’t make it sugar, playin’ by the rules
I come up hard baby, but now I’m fine
I’m checkin’ trouble sugar, movin’ down the line
I come up hard baby, but that’s okay
‘Cause Trouble Man, don’t get in my way
I come up hard baby, I’ve been for real, baby
Gonna keep movin’, gonna go to town
I come up hard, I come up gettin’ down
There’s only three things that’s for sure
Taxes, death and trouble, oh
This I know, baby, this I know, sugar
Girl, ain’t gon’ let it sweat me, babe
That part about “taxes, death and trouble” might relate more to Gaye’s personal life.
Joni Mitchell was fond of this song. By 1998, she had added it to the set list for some of her concert performances. She once explained “In the process of learning [the song] for performance, I discovered how truly original and eccentric the form of it is.”
In the early 2000s, Starbucks released a series of exclusive CD albums called Artist’s Choice. For each, a famous musician was asked to curate an album’s worth of their favorite songs. The Joni Mitchell version that came out in 2005, had 18 selections, the 15th being “Trouble Man.” In the CD’s liner notes, Mitchell explained why she chose each of the songs on the disc. For “Trouble Man, she said “I had this song on an album and I kept the needle on this track—playing it over and over. It was so influential to my music and my singing. It excites me from the downbeat—the way the drums roll in – the suspense – the approaching storm of it.”
Mitchell’s 1974 classic, Court and Spark, included a song called “Trouble Child.”
There is speculation that Gaye’s “Trouble Man” influenced this song. While the lyrical theme isn’t the identical, there are similarities. Gaye’s subject is in trouble with the law and gangsters. Mitchell’s subject’s trouble is with inner conflicts and self-doubt.
Up in a sterilized room
Where they let you be lazy
Knowing your attitude’s all wrong
And you got to change
And that’s not easy
Dragon shining with all values known
Dazzling you, keeping you from your own
Where is the lion in you to defy him
When you’re this weak
And this spacey
So what are you going to do about it
You can’t live life and you can’t leave it
Advice and religion, you can’t take it
You can’t seem to believe it
The peacock is afraid to parade
You’re under the thumb of the maid
You really can’t give love in this condition
Still you know how you need it
Lyrics aside, the jazzy sophistication of the music is undeniably similar to the direction Gaye pursued.
These are both songs that are under the radar but deserve closer listening.
Enjoy… until next week.