Joni Mitchell’s song about David Geffen and the music industry
The year was 1974. Joni Mitchell had just written her smash hit “Free Man in Paris,” about a trip she took with the president of her record label, David Geffen. Geffen, as it turns out, was not too pleased.
It’s not that Joni and David weren’t friendly. In fact, they shared a house at one point (apparently no romantic involvement here, but there were certainly rumours). Geffen gave Mitchell her big break when he signed her to his label, Asylum Records, producing other big stars such as Bob Dylan and the Eagles. Yes, they were pals, but that doesn’t mean Geffen had to be happy about Joni using his life as song-writing material.
Mitchell comments, “He didn’t like it at the time [ . . . ] He begged me to take it off the record. I think he felt uncomfortable being shown in that light.”
This light she speaks of would be one of vulnerability and unhappiness. The song discusses Geffen’s feelings regarding his work in the music industry. Mitchell says she was inspired to write the song by a lot of things that Geffen had told her. The chorus sums up his feelings: “I was a free man in Paris / I felt unfettered and alive / There was nobody calling me up for favors / And no one’s future to decide / You know I’d go back there tomorrow / But for the work I’ve taken on / Stoking the star maker machinery / Behind the popular song.”
While recording the album, Mitchell was excited about how the song was turning out. The excitement only grew when guitarist José Feliciano joined the team. Feliciano was working with John Lennon at the time in a studio along the same corridor where Mitchell was recording. Things weren’t working, Lennon got drunk, and Feliciano wandered down the hallway, only to hear “Free Man in Paris” escaping from Mitchell’s studio door. Already an acquaintance of Mitchell’s from some work they did together in Canada, Feliciano simply walked into the room and told Joni that he thought he could add some good electric guitar to the song.
Feliciano explains, “The great guitarist Larry Carlton of the L.A. Express was already on the track, but I knew I could hold my own with him. Joni didn’t try to direct me at all, just let me do what I do, and it turned out really good.”
Court and Spark, the album in which “Free Man in Paris” appears, was released to wonderful reviews and overwhelming popularity. The album influenced many other musicians; Madonna is quoted as saying, “In high school, I worshipped Joni Mitchell and sang everything from Court and Spark, my coming-of-age record.”
After the success of her first single, “Help Me,” Mitchell thought the next single off the album should be the love song, “Car on a Hill.” However, the record label released “Free Man in Paris” instead, a song which Joni never saw as holding single potential. But it was a good thing that the label didn’t listen to Mitchell because the song became her biggest international hit and is ranked #470 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It’s also one of her most covered songs, with everyone from Elton John to Neil Diamond to Sufjan Stevens taking a whack at it!