Joni Mitchell is here, there and everywhere right now-which makes this the perfect time to submerse ourselves in our prairie muse.
She is a giggler. This is not what you were expecting. The cliched view of Joni Mitchell is more like this, courtesy of a Vougue writer in 1995: " Though she's warmer than cordial she's a bit distant, a bit beyond reach-like a painting behind glass." Silly man. You should have just challenged her to a game of pool. She's actually a good-time gal,who can run up a million on a pinball machine, goes all out at Halloween and jumps up with joy in her kitchen like a seven year-old. Her laugh, which is as broad, blue and endless as a prairie sky, has deepened over her 64 years, but it erupts from a solid, steady sense of self that took root at birth. How else do you go from being Roberta Joan Anderson, the only child of a small town Alberta grocer and schoolteacher, to Joni Mitchell,one of the most original influential and enduring artists of the 20th century? That last statement would sound like so much hype, except that she has continually...relentlessly...ambitiously proven it to be true.
She's been such a consistent icon that it's difficult to appreciate the ripple effect her accomplishments have had on the Canadian psyche (without her, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen, we'd just be say, Switzerland, a nice place to visit but hardly the breeding ground of once-in-a-lifetime geniuses). In a way, her being limped in with Neil and Leonard has blinded us to her fearlessness. At nine, she contracted polio, but refused to succumb to the iron lung. At 21, she was a pregnant college dropout, with no money, no formal musical training, and no connections, determined to sing, as she put it, "long tragic songs in a minor key." At 25, she had already written "The Circle Game" and "Both Sides Now", making her Bob Dylan's peer at the folk/rock scene and Johnny Cash's choice to duet with him on his ABC TV show. She was making $500,000 (US) a year, which meant she could go her way for the next five decades. Look inside the Nov. 20, 1968 issue of Vogue, and there's Joni, grinning, her hands over her mouth and those famous blonde bangs in her eyes.
She's still smiling. You've probably read the interviews in which she skewers the music business, not so much for its chauvinism as for its short attention span. "I'm a very analytical person, a somewhat introspective person; that's the nature of the work I do," she once said. "But this is only one side of the coin, you know. I love to dance. I'm rowdy. I'm a good-timer."
Joni, Joni, quite contrary, but oh, how your garden grows. Actually, let's bring the metaphor closer to home and call it a field, which Mitchell periodically lets go fallow to replenish the soil before she re-seeds. Right now, for example, she is set to release her latest artistic crop to the world. She's finishing a new record, her first set of original songs since 1998, and there's a tribute album coming in the spring from Nonesuch, featuring Bjork, Prince, Annie Lennox, Elvis Costello and Sufjan Stevens. At this very moment, she's here in Calgary,collaborating with Alberta Ballet's Jean Grand-Maitre on an original ballet called Dancing Joni, the Fiddle and the Drum, which premieres Feb. 8 to 10th at the Jubilee Auditorium.
"She's a woman of opinions, but I can say that I've now worked with one of the most vulnerable and open artists I've ever worked with," says Grand-Maitre. He'd originally pitched her on a semi abstract work about an artist who lost a child when she was very young and got her inspiration from that experience. Mitchell hated it. The saga of her quest for her daughter, who was conceived while she was an art student at SAIT in 1964 and then given up for adoption,had been told and retold, tied up with the ribbon of her reunion with her daughter and grandson. But Mitchell was intrigued by the freshness of working on a ballet, so she had Grand-Maitre fly to her home in L.A to see her current artwork. "She'd had a camera set up in front of her flat-screen TV for about a year and was taking photos of all these images that looked like negatives- the hands of a child holding a gun, dancing girls, a tank," he says. "She's created triptychs from all these images; they'll be projected onstage during the ballet."
Dancing Joni is set to nine of Mitchell's songs, many of which can be found on her tongue-in-cheek titled Misses, a 1996 compilation of overlooked songs she wanted us to reconsider. It deals with big themes,from war and the environment to AIDS. It also hints at the thrust of Mitchell's upcoming album, which my gut says could be a definitive,deeply personal statement, the 2007 version of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. Joni Mitchell you see, has a black man's soul, which is pretty out there for a fair skinned chick from Canada. When she received her honorary doctorate from McGill in 1995, she was most delighted by a prose poem about her jazzy, hip-hop sensibility called "How Black is Joni Mitchell," delivered by urban American writer Greg Tate. "She's not a parrot, a pirate, or a parody," Tate wrote in another piece called "Black and Blond." "In point of fact, she's her own damn genre. Joni Mitchell is hard-core."
"As part of a video she produced for the ballet, she's painted herself as a black soldier in 'The Beat of Black Wings,' " says Grand-Maitre, referring to a song about Vietnam, that originally appeared on 1992's Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm. Feeling that the hostility toward American soliders who had fought in Vietnam was inappropriate, Mitchell asked to play at Fort Bragg where she met Killer Kyle, whose experiences she channeled in a song that could have been written today about Iraq: "There's a man drawing pictures / On the sidewalk with chalk / Just as fast as he draws 'em / Rain come down and wash 'em off / Keep the drinks comin' girl / 'Til I can't feel anything / I'm just a chalk mark in a rainstorm / I'm just the beat of black wings."
Grand-Maitre says the reason Mitchell said yes to doing a ballet is that she's still driven to communicate. "We're paying her dismal ballet fees," he says. "But she's so engaged as an artist; she's wants to communicate with people in different ways. I've heard the new songs and I think they're comparable to the best she's ever written; she's really engaged with social issues. She's coming out with the new music at a time when people need to hear Joni again."
Damn right. But it must be pretty daunting for an artistic director from Quebec to collaborate with someone David Crosby famously described "as being as modest as Mussolini." How do you tell La Mitchell when she has a bad idea? "She never does have a bad idea" shrugs Grand-Maitre. " She's very open, she loves dance, she wanted to be an athlete. She's also extremely humble and quite vulnerable in creation. It's always, 'Is this good enough?' "
She is, you see, an enthusiast. She's the toddler who collected broken coloured glass in her cheeks to bring home undetected because the liked to look at the light through transparent glass.
'She's the teen who organized Wednesday-night dances in Saskatoon because she simply couldn't wait for the weekends.
She's the 19-year old art student who was the delighted runner-up in the 1964 Queen of SAIT competition (see right in the Pale Pink organza dress), and a dedicated member of the bowling club.
She's the twenty-something homebody, immortalized by Graham Nash in "Our House," with two cars in the yard. How many times have we all sung that song, longing for that elusive domestic bliss: "Staring at the fire / For hours and hours / While I listen to you / Play your love songs / All night long / Only for me." It was Joni who bought the vase for the flowers,baked the rhubarb pies and made their house a home.
She's the 35-year-old superstar who felt a sweet giddiness when jazz great Charles Mingus played her "the fastest, smokingest thing you ever heard" and challenged her to write the lyrics.
She's the middle-aged newlywed on a road trip to Fort Macleod, singing, "I love the man beside me / We love the open road... Once in a while / In a big blue moon / There comes a night like this."
She's the polio survivor who is now challenged by post-polio syndrome, similar to the effects of multiple sclerosis. And yet, at 64, she is still dancing, with a cigarette in one hand even though she knows it makes her lungs black and her skin more wrinkled. She's decided that happiness is the best facelift.
It all adds up to a rather straightforward enigma. You write a masterpiece like Blue, and everyone wants you to stay this sad-eyed lady of the lowlands. How dull. How limiting. How not Joni.
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