Songs Are Like Tattoos–Vera Wildauer


Ink on a pin
Underneath the skin
An empty space to fill in

From Blue, Joni Mitchell

Freshman year of college I moved in with a girl from high school.  I didn’t know Y. well even though we were both in the arts.  She took visual arts classes; I was in the theater.  We both worked on the school’s literary magazine. Our friend circles, however, barely intersected. At a graduation party we discovered we both were going to the same nearby urban college and impetuously decided to be roommates.  Everyone thought it was strange.

We moved into a second-floor apartment in a beige brick building four blocks from campus. I ended up with the small bedroom in the back because her big antique bed and matching mahogany vanity with the giant round mirror wouldn’t fit. My twin bed, wooden rocker, and chest of drawers barely did.  For her bedroom, she sewed a curtain out of floral sheets to hang in the archway between what would have been a living room and the dining room.  Her bank of windows looked out onto the street and straight into the second story of fire station across the street. The firemen liked to wave at us while they ate their dinner. We flirted with them.

I had the only record player, one with a smokey plastic dust cover and separate speakers, and I also had the records: a strange mix of albums. Those my father bought me—Sly and the Family Stone and the Crusaders, hoping to stretch my musical taste–, and those I’d bought with my allowance, Phoebe Snow and Janis Ian and Joan Armatrading. All those woman singers telling the stories of my life, or rather the life I imagined while sunk into my lime green bean bag chair. My father also gave me Court & Spark. Joni Mitchell folk, yes, but Joe Sample and Tom Scott played in the band, so maybe he could get me to be a jazz fan yet.

I came late to Joni’s Blue, discovering it after her latest album, Hejira, came out that fall. While I loved that record, too, it was Blue that I played on repeat, first side one for two or three times, and then side two, and then back to side one. It was the spareness that pleased me, just one instrument and her voice floating high and then plunging low, wrapping around the piano or guitar like a bird swooping on wind currents. I recognized every pop and crackle on that album so that they almost became part of the song itself, a sort of punctuation that customized each song for me alone. It was strange to listen to that album when I bought it again on CD years later and all those pops and crackles were missing.

Y. and I only lasted as roommates for nine months. Two country girls alone in the big city, we spent too much time together. On Y.’s insistence we bought matching silky robes (hers blue, mine pink) and matching velvet blazers. We drank the same coffee—a blend of Nescafe’, instant cocoa, sugar, and cinnamon, Y. had concocted. I’d sprawl across her big bed, while she posed in front of the big mirror on her vanity, trying on different “going out” blouses, while the strains of Joni rang from my bedroom. We went to art openings at the student gallery, and she came to my cast parties. People started to think we were a couple.

We weren’t. Any male friend I’d introduce her to would ask about her later, sure that she’d been flirting with him. But her eyes, they said, utterly besotted.  Those bedroom eyes. Ironically, she never took up with any of these friends. She sought out older men, law students or even men who were done with university who took her to fancy restaurants.

I moved out in the summer. To a spacious one-bedroom all my own. I got a job at a movie theater that showed independent films. I made new friends.  When not in school or at the cinema, I sometimes walked to Crystal Ship, a massive record store that occupied part of a 1910 building, and worked my way backwards through Joni’s albums, to the earliest one that came out when I was ten. Every morning, I’d start the day with a strong black pour over and one of Joni’s albums, parsing her lyrics and the stories of a new life I was making.

In the ‘80s and later, I bought every one of Joni’s albums as soon as they came out. The lyrics still slayed me, and I respected her musical exploration—all that jazz and later the symphonics. But it’s Blue that is still under my skin.


Vera Wildauer lives in Manzanita with her husband, Mickey, and two cats.  She co-founded the Manzanita Writers’ Series and has continued to lead the Writing Programs at the Hoffman Center for the Arts ever since. Still loves Joni Mitchell.