The first line of this song is “Willy is my child, he is my father.” The song goes on to reveal that Willy, besides serving as simultaneous progeny and ancestry, is also a reluctant lover who can’t quite commit because of past wounds. “Willy” is a love song, but the jury is still out on whether Joni is incestuous and—let’s just say it—a little icky, or whether she has expressed the most profound and beautiful sentiment about love ever made. I shopped it around to my friends to see if I was in the sicko camp for thinking it was the latter.
The first time I tried this, I was in free-thinking Washington Square Park playing my guitar with my best folk-singer-in-the-making girlfriend. I had just come strong off “Case of You,” which she’d never heard and was wild about, so I thought I’d give “Willy” a good ol’ whirl. I started the mournful opening chords and my friend was riveted. “Willy is my child, he is my father,” I sang cautiously.
“Ew!” Her face screwed in disgust. “That’s gross. That is a really gross song.”
I tried it out on a couple more people, but eventually I had to stop. The result was clear. Nobody saw the line “Willy is my child, he is my father” the same way I did. People couldn’t separate their sexual lives with their lovers from the other various roles they played. But the song seemed to be strikingly apropos for the relationship I had with my own partner. I remember the day it was raining and I was crying because I couldn’t find my socks and how he had to comfort me even though I was acting like a stupid spoiled child. I think about how I once cautioned him not to eat the candy he had purloined from the doctors’ office because it would spoil the penne arrabiata I was making for dinner. He is my child, he is my father. Strange but true.
There comes a time when you have to separate yourself from everything you know and say what’s honest. Every time I hear Joni Mitchell, I know I’m hearing something that’s stripped bare, that’s passed every bullshit test in the book, something that very possibly took a massive amount of emotional bloodletting to get down on paper. My heart breaks and swells every time I hear this song. I once knew a musician named Blue (remarkably by coincidence) who told me that the first time he heard a Joni Mitchell album he sat down and wept afterward. Joni can do that to you, but only if you admit the things that scare you the most.
At the end of the song, Joni gives us this jewel: “I feel like I’m just being born / A shiny light breaking in a storm / There are so many reason why I love him.” I’m newly married and I have to admit, I don’t always feel like a “shiny light breaking in a storm,” but I understand what she means. There’s something about new love that stirs the soul and something about old love that allows your lover to fill every need that you have. It’s a miraculous statement about the human condition that we can do this for each other.
In the court of public opinion, the general consensus seems to be that I’m in league with the sickos. But in my own private court of opinion, I have a feeling that Joni knew what she was talking about all along.