New biography tries, fails to capture Joni Mitchell’s spark

David Yaffe’s fawning 'Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell' takes a scattershot approach to biography.

by Charles Cross
Seattle Times
October 15, 2017

"Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell"
by David Yaffe
Sarah Crichton Books / FSG, 420 pp., $28

Joni Mitchell has always cast a certain kind of spell over music fans. Her classic '70s albums like "Blue," "Court and Spark," or "Hejira" created a fan base besotted by Mitchell. Fans thusly gave her Godlike qualities, and reverence.

This bewitching has also, at times, taken over music writers, which may be part of the reason Mitchell, now 73 and in poor health after a brain aneurysm in 2015, doesn't have a definitive biography. Mitchell is known for doing sit-down dinner interviews with journalists for newspaper articles, and then calling them up after such pieces appear to dress them down on what she thinks they got wrong.

David Yaffe is one such writer who had a dinner with her, and his biography, "Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell," is essentially his extended riff on that encounter. It features some deft musical analysis of her albums but is not above "the occasional bit of good old-fashioned gossip."

That last description is not just my opinion: It is in the book's press sheet, where the publisher describes it as "replete with colorful stories," and "gossip." I've never quite seen a music book's press sheet like that.

Yaffe writes in the first person, and his narrative voice when he's describing Mitchell's albums can be effective. On "Blue," which he correctly places as her masterpiece, he writes, "Joni was translating those emotions no one would want to have into music that everyone would want to hear."

But that same narrative breaks down when tackling her personal life, in part because Yaffe is mostly culling from other sources, "gossip." Yaffe told the Columbia Journalism Review he "didn't want to write a book about everything there is to know about Joni Mitchell. Music critics have the tendency to do that, and that's why, when they get the chance to write a biography, it takes a long time. They spend too much time on childhood."

There is a place for "portraits" in music biography, but the problem with Yaffe's book (apart from the simple fact that Mitchell fans actually want "everything there is to know") is that his narrative voice is too fawning by half. At his 2007 interview, Mitchell "looked strong, resilient, defiant, head held high. Ready for battle."

On her early life, Yaffe writes, "the stage would be set for her to be the hero of her own life." Later, "she had so much courage, and yet there's that Joni vulnerability." In love, "Joni never shied away, in music or in life, from how much romantic love meant to her." These analyses don't add anything to the discourse on Mitchell.

Meghan Daum wrote an excellent chapter on her own "dinner with Joni" in "Unspeakable," while Malka Marom turned such a dinner into a book of Mitchell interviews ("In Her Own Words"), and Sheila Weller's 2008 "Girls Like Us" was a skilled mini-group bio. The latter has been optioned for film.

Yaffe fares best in a couple of interviews he did land, with Mitchell's ex-husbands Larry Klein and Chuck Mitchell, and in his secondary source telling of her relationship with Graham Nash. Mitchell broke up with Nash by telegram, writing, "if you hold sand too tightly, it will run through your fingers."

In a way, Mitchell's telegram sums up the problem with Yaffe's book: Mitchell is an elusive quarry. Yaffe's scattershot approach to bio as portrait, with selected source material thrown into much analysis, doesn't ultimately snare her. As a narrator, he never manages to get us to trust that he knows her better than she knows herself, which, in a way, is what a great biographer achieves.

Mitchell remains, as Yaffe writes in language that would never cut the muster for one of her lyrics, "the hero of her own life." She stands uncaptured, still free.


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