Jealous over Joni Mitchell biography
Michelle Mercer's all ready to talk about her excellent critical analysis of Joni Mitchell's Blue period (Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period, Free Press, $32.99), but I'm too busy trying to get over a difficult interview I did with Mitchell over 20 years ago.
And I'm a little jealous. Mercer was able to arrange four extensive conversations with Mitchell for her book, about the singer's watershed release of her Blue album in 1971, whereas Mitchell was hard to penetrate during the meagre half-hour I spent with her when she was promoting her Turbulent Indigo disc in 1994.
"She's actually a lot of fun," Mercer says on the phone from her headquarters in Colorado. "People have taken away this idea about her personality that she's kinda sober or even sombre and self-scrutinizing, when actually she's the life of the party and the girl you want to dance with."
"Really?" I say, trying to disguise the harrumph in my voice. "I found her elitist and condescending." I recollect her trashing the Canada Council for promoting mediocrity and hissing how she hated the word "hip" since it evoked the herd instinct.
Mercer allows that Mitchell can be intimidating in conversation. Remembering a dinner part she attended with the legendary singer/songwriter, Mercer speaks eloquently about her tendency to dominate the table talk.
"She held forth in her trademark combination of poetry and philosophy," she recounts. "She speaks in paragraphs. She's a woman of ideas, and I don't think it's too extreme to say that she strives for truth and beauty when she talks."
Except, Mercer admits, when she's in a room with those she perceives to be peers.
"When she's hanging out with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, she's happy. She feels acknowledged and understood and becomes playful but never less striving toward insight."
I'm thinking maybe I was too cowed when I had my opportunity to speak to Mitchell. Mercer contends that Mitchell may not seem to want an encounter with an equal willing to talk back, but that's exactly what she's looking for. At one moment during the dinner party, Mercer remarked how humour can be a form of enlightenment.
"Joni just tore into me, not so much because of what I said, but because I wasn't afraid to talk and she's used to holding court. She said, 'Don't say humour is a form of enlightenment - that's ignorant.'
"Well, no one likes to be called ignorant, and there was a sting. But I realized that she does want somebody to get into an argument with her. She gets excited when she meets someone who can hang with her intellectually."
Inside that cold exterior, says Mercer, is a woman terribly afraid of being misrepresented. Mitchell spent a lot of her career being pigeonholed, first as a folksinger, something she never was, then as the rock stars' "old lady," according to Rolling Stone. Ridiculous, since she was a more accomplished songwriter than any of the guys she slept with, including Leonard Cohen. And then she got that label she hates, that of confessional songwriter, which has hung around her neck like an albatross ever since Blue, the centrepiece of Mercer's book, was released.
"She called me out of nowhere, asking, 'What is the book you're writing?'" recalls Mercer. "'Why are you roping me in with these confessional people?' She just screamed - there was a lot of hostility and argument."
Mercer explained to her then and to me during our discussion that she was interested on the major holes in Mitchell's career. Why did she retreat to her hermitage off the coast of British Columbia after Blue's release? It was supposed to be a retirement from the industry, but then she emerged 10 months later a changed woman.
The Blue period of the book title refers to the creative time that spawned Blue and everything that came after until the album Hejira. Mercer looks at Hejira as the bookend to Blue and to probes why Mitchell moved away from autobiographical songwriting and toward working with a band.
"And I was willing to put up with what has to be called verbal abuse, because even if someone's yelling at me that I don't understand St. Augustine (a key figure in Mercer's discussion of the origins of confessional writing), the fact that there's a woman in the 21st century who cares about St. Augustine and his relationship to her music - that's fascinating enough to me to stick to the conversation.
"Her ego is vast and it's crystalline, and I think it goes back to that time when her fans turned away from her as she went into jazz and world music. When she launched what was her most creative and innovative period, musically speaking, her fans left her and demeaned her."
It's at that point that I confess my main issue with Mitchell, one I harboured even before my less than successful encounter with her.
"Frankly," I finally say, "I don't think she likes women very much."
To her credit, Mercer actually suggested that very thing to Mitchell during her interviews.
"I put the question to her directly. One of the things she said is that she felt like she was more comfortable with men because of their sense of playfulness and daring. She found herself worrying about motive when it came to women, that they had motives other the ones they were presenting her with.
"She felt like women often needed affirmation, and she's not one to give the 'Yes, I know what you mean' response. It's been proven that women tend to phrase things in a more interrogative way than the declarative way that men do, so that's another thing that put her off. Her mind leaps to the next idea, so she doesn't have time for that relationship affirmation that she saw women as needing."
Mercer is aware that Mitchell is included in Sheila Weller's tryptich of biographies Girls Like Us. But she doesn't agree with Weller's assessment that Mitchell's creative output was driven by grief over having to give up her child when she was a young, struggling singer. She says that's been used as a convenient explanation for more complex existential angst.
And, she says, Weller's title is all wrong when it comes to Mitchell.
"Joni Mitchell is not like us. She's driven to recreate herself as an artist in ways that very few people do. She's been through so many stages of regeneration. I don't think she needs human relationships the way other people do."
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