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by Jaffe Cohen
Gay & Lesbian Review
September 2000

Both Sides Now; Joni Mitchell in concert

IT was 3 PM and we were just getting onto the Connecticut Turnpike. Because of heavy traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway we were running an hour late for the concert. In order to steady his nerves, my new friend Michael from Texas pressed a white rose to his nose and breathed in deeply. He had bought this particular flower to honor his idol, the woman he worshipped as nothing less than Aphrodite and Athena combined: Joni Mitchell.

"We certainly lost a few in the 80's," he whispered in a mournful tone. "But they're all coming back now! This concert has been sold out for weeks!" I thanked him for the ticket. "It was either you or my darn sister, and all she cares about Joni is those rock-and-roll songs from Court and Spark. Now what would get us into the mood? I have everything here from her middle period." Michael began thumbing through a bagful of her least successful albums from that unfortunate decade from The Hissing of Summer Lawns to Mingus.

"Whatever you want to hear," I replied cheerfully. In truth, I hadn't known Michael long, and was reluctant to admit that I was one of those wayward fans he despised--the ones who abandoned Joni in the mid-70's at about the time that she was abandoning catchy melodies for jazz. "Shadows and Light is really my favorite," Michael announced in his oddly delicate drawl. "It's the concert album where Joni simply lets herself be Joni!"

"I've never heard of that one," I replied.

Michael gave me the fisheye. "And you call yourself a fan?" He shook his head sadly. "You don't fool me. You're like all the rest who didn't want her to change. Well, honey, the girl's an artist and an artist can do whatever the hell she likes!" Just then the first track kicked in, and the air became heavy with discordant saxophone riffs. I gritted my teeth and prayed we wouldn't hit any more heavy traffic. Michael, however, closed his eyes and swayed contentedly. But soon he broke in, "Someone said that there are two types of people in the world, those who find Joni Mitchell depressing and those are already depressed and find her comforting."

"Very interesting," I replied, not sure if I fit into either category.

As we sped through Hartford I began to reflect upon my history with Joni, and on why I'd volunteered to drive ten hours to see her with this kook. Mainly, it was her music. Michael was right in saying that there had been a twenty-year period when I'd strayed, but Joni's more recent releases--Night Ride Home, Turbulent Indigo, and Taming the Tiger, featuring her electronic guitar and her now husky voice--had managed to get under my skin in a big way. After 1995, she seemed to regain her tunefulness, and while her lyrics never sounded as complex or relevant as those on Blue or For the Roses, these later albums had become lifesavers for me as I drove home late at night in Los Angeles.

After that came her two compilation albums, Hits and Misses which reminded me of how wonderful the old Joni had sounded. Finally, there was her most recent release, Both Sides Now, in which the Diva of Depression had decided to sing a handful of torch songs accompanied by a seventy-piece orchestra. In addition to such war-horses as "You've Changed," "At Last," "I Wish I Were in Love Again," and "Stormy Weather," Joni Mitchell had rearranged two of her own classics, "A Case of You" and "Both Sides Now," and created a concept album tracking the rise and fall--and fall, and fall--of a typical modern romance. I'd bought the album after some initial resistance to the lush orchestration and an occasional weakness in her cigarette-ravaged voice, but found myself returning to it again and again. In truth, these songs were well-chosen for their wit and wisdom, and Joni sang them with honesty. Once again she was re-inventing herself as a mature lady, slightly frayed, who has earned the right to sing the blues. After t he empty vocal gymnastics of a Whitney Houston, a Celine Dionne, or a Mariah Carey, it was refreshing to hear a wise old owl who couldn't lie if she tried.

While all this was happening, Joni finally seemed to be getting the recognition she deserved. Since 1998 she's been sampled by Janet Jackson, voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and declared by a VH-1 expert's poll to be the fifth most influential woman in rock and roll history (after Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, and Bonnie Raitt). Recently she was feted by the Turner Network with a star-studded salute featuring Cindy Lauper, Winona Ryder, Elton John, and her old flame, James Taylor. Partly because of all this media play, Both Sides Now started doing decent sales and her concert tour was getting rave reviews.

The question I asked myself as we parked the car and joined the crowd entering the Fleet Pavilion--an impressive outdoor space on Boston Harbor looking like a circus tent attached to a band shell--was whether Joni could be classified as a "gay icon." The boomer crowd that waited patiently to enter the pavilion certainly had its share of same-sex couples, but it was defined more by its middle-aged demographics than by its queer quotient. Before leaving New York I had asked a younger gay friend if he'd ever heard of Joni Mitchell, and he hadn't. He'd heard of some of her songs including "Both Sides Now," "The Circle Game," and "Help Me" -- but he didn't know that one woman had written them all.

I tried to remember any specifically gay content in Joni's lyrics, and all I could recall was the David Geffen-inspired "Free Man in Paris," wandering down the Champs Elysees looking for "that very good friend of mine." Or possibly "Amelia" from the Hejira album, which had been written for some lesbians. Then, too, there's the fact that Joni has a drag impersonator in the amazing John Kelly, who sings her songs in his own voice at well-attended concerts in New York and Provincetown. Still, it was hard to think of Joni in the same league with Liza Minelli, Carol Channing, or Cher.

Just then Michael handed me a white rose of my own and the orchestra started playing something I didn't recognize. Michael whispered in my ear, "Debussy's The Clouds. How appropriate!" A few minutes later, Joni herself ambled onto the stage wearing an elegant, albeit matronly, orange pants outfit that Lauren Bacall could plausibly have worn. Explaining that she'd be singing mostly torch songs from her newest album, she slid gently into a deeply felt rendition of "You're My Thrill." Some people in the audience, expecting more of her old songs, were visibly disappointed; some wouldn't return for the second act.

Joni's singing exceeded my expectations. Her voice was stronger than it had sounded on her latest CD. Visually, she was no longer that saturnine young woman hunched over a guitar. She'd gained a few pounds and sang without her instrument, allowing Joni to lean back and roll languidly with the music and use her large, expressive hands to caress, implore, and cajole. Only when she spoke did she remind me of that awkward bohemian of yore. Her comments between songs were scripted and brief, and several times she giggled at the strangeness of the event. At times she looked like she would have preferred to be working quietly somewhere, but at others she seemed to lose herself in the music, beaming occasionally when a fan whistled or called out, "We love you, Joni!" To be sure, she was no Judy Garland gleefully baring her soul to her acolytes, but neither was she a neurotically withdrawn and totally teleprompted Barbra Streisand. She was, in short, as unfathomable and complex as ever.

Was Joni, then, to be judged a Gay Goddess? I reminisced about listening to the song "Conversation" while having a hopeless crush on a straight boy in my Eastern Philosophy class. Then there was "Ladies of the Canyon," "filling my drawing book with lines," as I fell in love with a naked male model. I remembered going home for a miserable winter break in 1970 and listening to "River," Joni's famous anti-Christmas carol, and wanting a river of my own on which to skate away from suburbia.

On balance, however, I think Joni Mitchell has been less a gay goddess than a pansexual John the Baptist who pre-paved the way for my coming out. It was as if I'd listened to her in the darkness of my closet but with the door cracked open just enough to hear. She had been important to me in that strange, pre-dawn period between thinking I was homosexual and knowing I was gay. Three years later--out, loud, and proud--my musical tastes had changed, and show tunes had replaced folk songs. In 1971 "Chicago" was a rock group, but by 1976 it was a musical by Kander and Ebb, and Joni Mitchell was no longer being played by me or by my new friends. Indeed, I had abandoned Joni even earlier than I'd admitted to Michael--not when her record sales were down but when her career was peaking. In fact, by the time Court and Spark came out in 1974, we were already going to discos, and Joni Mitchell was a singer for earnest straight people who didn't know how to dance.

After the intermission, Joni returned to the stage in a metallic blue dress that would have been suitable for a trip on the Enterprise. Alarming as this was, a few minutes later she was singing her new interpretation of "Both Sides Now," and one's fears were allayed. Slowing down the tempo and letting the orchestra create an atmosphere of magic and mist, she chanted this poem of hard-earned ambivalence like a high priestess casting a spell. It emanated from her 57-year-old body as if she were channeling it on the spot, and I marveled at how she could have written it at the age of 22. Magnificently, she conveyed the pain of an artist facing old age, knowing that it can only end in surrender and darkness. "Both sides now," I meditated as she sang: how the fun of the 70's had twisted into the horror of the 80's. "I really don't know life at all," Joni repeated several times, getting quieter and quieter as if it were a mantra taking us to the point where consciousness empties into the void. A few moments later the audience was leaping to its feet.

 

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