Joni Mitchell's Ferocious Gift

by Heidi Kreilkamp
Public Books
January 23, 2018

When Joni Mitchell first came to prominence, in the late-1960s "Summer of Love" era, she was often perceived as a kind of "poetess" or "nightingale" folk singer: a putatively pure origin of beautifully natural-seeming songs ("Clouds," "Chelsea Morning, and "Both Sides, Now," among many others).1 When the rapper Q-Tip declared (on Janet Jackson's 1997 song "Got 'Til it's Gone") that "Joni Mitchell never lies," he articulated a familiar understanding of the singer as, above all, truthful and authentic.

But Mitchell's brilliant art was always a product of artifice as much as it was of honesty. Her song "Woodstock" is now remembered as one of the most iconic musical artifacts of the late 1960s American counterculture, but it's worth remembering that it was written by a Canadian artist who did not perform at (or even attend) Woodstock. Although she could play the '60s folk-singer goddess role very well, Mitchell's gifts were in fact better suited to the moral complexities of the dark Nixon years; she came into her own in the early 1970s as a performer whose words and music dramatized the modern female self's divisions and complications, not its simplicity and wholeness.

Mitchell has declared, "I am first responsible to my words," but she was also the most musically original singer-songwriter of the period (and yes, that includes Bob Dylan). In his biography of Mitchell, Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, David Yaffe explains some of the effects of Mitchell's idiosyncratic departures from "standard tuning" - the six guitar strings normally being tuned to E, A, D, G, B, and E - in favor of alternate, open tunings that are "notable for their resonant sound, as the open strings drone off one another."

After first borrowing from existing open tunings, Mitchell then began to "turn ... them into something that no one had heard before ... creating complex, almost orchestral melodies." Accompanied by Mitchell's swooning three-octave singing voice, this approach to songcraft yielded dazzlingly inventive results. I've always felt that certain of Mitchell's songs - "Little Green," "Blue," "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" - achieve effects resembling synesthesia, seeming aurally to conjure colors.

While the stereotypical Joni Mitchell fan may be a melancholic young woman listening to Blue on repeat in a college dorm room, one pleasure of Yaffe's excellent biography is the spectacle it offers of some of the era's biggest male rock stars turned into awestruck and bashful fanboys in her presence. Led Zeppelin's song "Going to California" was rumored to be a tribute to Mitchell; Jimmy Page commented, "She brings tears to my eyes, what more can I say? It's bloody eerie." Of Mitchell in 1969, Leonard Cohen commented, "It was already current at that time that Joni was some kind of musical monster. ... There was a certain ferocity associated with her gift."

David Crosby explains the pleasure he took in blowing the minds of fellow musicians such as Eric Clapton by introducing them to Mitchell's music: "I would say, 'Joni, can you sing a song?' and it was just a delight to watch their minds crumble out their noses when they heard this girl." Probably the most famous obsessive Joni fan, though, was Prince, whom she later remembered sitting, at age 15, with his "unusually big eyes," in the front row of a mid-1970s concert in Minneapolis. She recalled, "Prince used to write me fan mail with all the U's and hearts the way that he writes. And the office took it as mail from the lunatic fringe and just tossed it."

Mitchell's seventh-grade teacher told her, adapting Nietzsche: "You have to learn to paint and to write in your own blood."2 To this day, Mitchell epitomizes the confessional singer-songwriter, whose art dramatizes her own experience. This musical mode is now often justly criticized for its over-valuation of authenticity, sincerity, and the natural. But if the naive singer-songwriter assumes that the "self" can simply be presented in song - in a process not complicated by recording, mass mediation, or the pop marketplace - Mitchell's own self-performance always contained depths of complex artistry and artifice.

At age 10 in 1950s Saskatchewan, Mitchell (then still Roberta Joan Anderson) was struck by polio and spent several months barely able to move, quarantined in a hospital. After recovering, she became an avid dancer and, in Yaffe's words, "an artist of her own expressive body," transforming her experience into art that left behind simplistic conceptions of the unmediated voice or self. Yaffe quotes the critic Bill Flanagan on the ways Mitchell adapted the potent iconography of "the California girl, the Beach Boys girl" to her own purposes: "Joni not only was the girl, she was also the Bob Dylan, the Paul Simon, the Lennon-McCartney, writing it. ... She was the subject and she was the painter and that was incredibly powerful."

But painting words and music in your own blood, making art for an eager audience out of your own eroticized body, can be uncomfortable, even frightening. Working on her fourth album, Blue (recently named the greatest album recorded by a woman in the past 50-plus years by NPR3), Mitchell was haunted by disquieting visions: "I dreamed ... I was a plastic bag with all my organs exposed, sobbing. ... That's how I felt. Like my guts were on the outside." In this period Mitchell said she felt as vulnerable and without defenses as "a cellophane wrapper on a packet of cigarettes." "People became transparent to me," she said, wondering if she were having a "shamanistic breakthrough." In Mitchell's hands, the singer-songwriter ideals of transparency and self-revelation were radicalized, made strange.

The keynote of Mitchell's 1970s music, especially during the three-year run from Blue (1971) through For the Roses (1972) and Court and Spark (1974) - one of the greatest album sequences in pop history - is emotional vulnerability and exposure, as if Mitchell were turning herself inside out for her listeners, while developing new vocabularies for intimate self-disclosure. Of the still-little-known artist in 1967, Yaffe comments that "those who had seen her were enthralled by this Aeolian harp ... and how she whispered back the secrets of their heart, with an honesty that could be terrifying." The image of the Aeolian harp refers to an instrument played directly by the wind; Romantic poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley often made it an emblem for poetry itself, understood as a purely natural creation.

IN MITCHELL'S HANDS, THE SINGER-SONGWRITER IDEALS OF TRANSPARENCY AND SELF-REVELATION WERE RADICALIZED, MADE STRANGE. Mitchell herself often emphasized her music's embeddedness in the natural world. In 1969 she told the New York Times, "My poetry is urbanized and Americanized, but my music is influenced by the prairies. When I was a kid, my mother used to take me out to the field to teach me bird songs." The cover photograph of For the Roses shows her on a rocky promontory over the water near her home in British Columbia, her pale white skin clothed in a green outfit that makes her seem to merge with the foliage around her.

But "honesty" in art is, of course, also an aesthetic effect. If this child of Saskatchewan seemed to associate Canada with childhood, pure self-expression, and the natural - with those bird songs of her youth - she was at least as much an "Americanized" modern rock performer. Mitchell's first top-40 hit, "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio" (1972), was an emphatic declaration that she was no longer simply that Canadian songbird or Aeolian harp (not that she ever really had been).

And where much of the singer-songwriter fare of her peers now feels dated in its naive faith in naked honesty, Mitchell's 1970s music became increasingly complex, both musically and lyrically, going far beyond traditional folk and rock idioms into highly original modes of performance and self-fashioning. Eventually, in the later 1970s, Mitchell embraced an experimental jazz/rock fusion that left behind most of her mass audience.

In many of Mitchell's songs, the "I" who sings and the "you" whom she addresses, often a lover as well as the song's listener, become prone to strange reversals, shifts, and slippages.4 In "A Case of You," for example, she addresses an ex-lover who is also a songwriter (probably Leonard Cohen), adapting his musical bromide about love as the merging of souls into a complex doubled reflection on musical self-expression as citation: "I remember that time you told me, you said / 'Love is touching souls' / Surely you touched mine / 'Cause part of you pours out of me / In these lines from time to time." At moments like these, Mitchell explores stances and feelings that float somewhere between first and third person.

"You want me to be truthful / Sometimes you turn it on me like a weapon, though," she would later sing in Court and Spark's "The Same Situation." What would it mean for Mitchell to be entirely "truthful"? Or, as she frames it in Blue's "California," to "come home"? To be taken by a lover or an audience "as I am"? Her great 1970s albums circle around such questions, pondering "reckless" sexual desire after monogamy (but before AIDS).

The incredible "Blonde in the Bleachers," from For the Roses, begins with Mitchell addressing a male rock star over a spare, circling piano melody: "The blonde in the bleachers / She flips her hair for you." Mitchell narrates the predictably recurring situation - the "blonde" following "the rock 'n' roll man" home - with a mixture of irony toward, and sympathy for, the male star:

'Cause it seems like you've gotta give up
Such a piece of your soul
When you give up the chase
Feeling it hot and cold
You're in rock 'n' roll
It's the nature of the race

Up to this point in the song, Mitchell is the female folk singer-songwriter, to the side of both the male rock star and the female groupie, her lyrics offering distanced commentary on the erotic "chase," just as her elegantly restrained music also sits to the side of (not "in") "rock 'n' roll." But then, 90 seconds in, the song splits startlingly in two, becoming the rock 'n' roll it had previously been describing. "She tapes her regrets / To the microphone stand," she declares, as a stately "Stairway to Heaven" drum beat suddenly leads the song toward an extended amplified guitar performance laid down by Stephen Stills and credited on the album as "Rock 'n' Roll Band."

The address shifts, too, as Mitchell now speaks on the part of the "blonde": She says, "You can't hold the hand / Of a rock 'n' roll man / Very long / Or count on your plans / With a rock 'n' roll man / Very long." A multi-tracked female chorus - all Mitchell herself - chimes in on each "very long," accentuated by subtly destabilizing tempo shifts.

With her next, no-less-brilliant album, Court and Spark, Mitchell would move more unambiguously into rock 'n' roll (as she would also subsequently retreat from it). But I especially love For the Roses for its ambiguities and ambivalence. On it we can hear Mitchell working through the tensions and conflicts that structured many of her performances throughout the 1970s: between solo folk music and communal rock 'n' roll, the Canadian natural-rural and the American artificial-urban, the positions of the desired sex object and of the desiring subject, romantic stability and the pull of restless exploration. The just-under-three minutes of "Blonde in the Bleachers" breathtakingly incorporates and dramatizes all of this.

The last few decades have been marked by major recognitions and honors for Mitchell, but also, it seems, by pervasive bitterness and anger. "Joni hates everybody," her former lover David Crosby remarked. She feels that she's been exploited and misunderstood by the music industry; in 1996, already long past her commercial heyday, she claimed that she hadn't "seen a royalty check in twenty years" and characterized the contract she'd signed with her old friend David Geffen (the subject of her song "Free Man in Paris") as "slavery with tenure," a notion perhaps influenced by her acolyte Prince publically writing "slave" on his face that same year as a protest against his exploitive label, Warner Bros.

Mitchell suffered serious brain trauma from an aneurism in 2015. Now 74 years old, she also believes herself to suffer from Morgellons disease, usually described medically as a form of delusional parasitosis: "Fibers in a variety of colors protrude out of my skin like mushrooms after a rainstorm," she pronounces to Yaffe; "they cannot be forensically identified as animal, vegetable, or mineral."

I'm skeptical. That said, if anyone were in fact to grow mysteriously otherworldly, multicolored fibers out of her own skin, it would most likely be Joni Mitchell. I'm sure Prince would have agreed. icon

1. On the "poetess" as a "nightingale" figure, see Cheryl Walker, The Nightingale's Burden: Women Poets and American Culture before 1900 (Indiana University Press, 1982), and Tricia Lootens, The Political Poetess: Victorian Femininity, Race, and the Legacy of Separate Spheres (Princeton University Press, 2016).

2. Nietzsche's actual words, in R. J. Hollingdale's translation: "Of all that is written I love only that which is written with blood. Write with blood: and you will discover that blood is spirit." In Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Penguin Classics, 1969), p. 67.

3. "The 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women," NPR Music, July 24, 2017.

4. For an extended consideration of "'voice' in its literary-technical sense" in Mitchell's songwriting, see Lloyd Whitesell, The Music of Joni Mitchell (Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 41 - 77.


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