Kansas native Michelle Mercer examines the life and work of Joni Mitchell
"Isn't that one of our defining myths, that Kansas girls can go anywhere and do well, provided they have some Munchkins helping them out?"
That's how Conway Springs High School grad Michelle Mercer describes her good fortune after leaving her native state. She grew up on a dairy and wheat farm between of Conway Springs and Argonia, Kan.
Having attended the University of Kansas, Wichita State University and the University of Arizona, she went to New York, where her fascination with jazz led her to write a series of articles for Downbeat, The Village Voice, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. She's also produced a series of commentaries for National Public Radio.
Her current project, however, recounts the life and work of another woman who was born on the prairies, but a bit farther to the north. Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period examines the Canadian singer-songwriter's career from her 1971 album Blue through her 1976 recording Hejira.
Mitchell, whose songs include "Help Me," "Big Yellow Taxi" and "A Case of You," has defied easy categorization because her tunes cross folk, rock, pop and jazz. Her lyrics are also frequently autobiographical, but they have a resonance that goes beyond simple navel gazing.
For example, her song "A Little Green" may have dealt with having to give up her daughter for adoption, but Mitchell wouldn't have influenced artists from Madonna to Annie Lennox to Sonic Youth if she only sang for herself.
"It's not as if she's just spilling her guts and her heart onto the page or the tape," says Mercer by phone from New Orleans. "She's transforming it for the sake of art. Sometimes she happens to write about herself and write about herself in an intimate way. But her main objective, I believe is a poet's objective, which is to find and express universal human truths."
While Mercer's book is not an authorized biography (she also talked to some of Mitchell's friends and collaborators), it is the first time that Mitchell has agreed to talk to a biographer, much less about the most intriguing period of her career.
"She's never cooperated with somebody who's doing a book before, partly because she's working on her own memoirs, I believe and wanted to save that material for her own. She was interested in talking with me about this topic because she feels so strongly about it."
Mitchell has reason to be defensive about how she's perceived. During the early 70s, her songs were labeled as "confessional," as if she were coerced to reveal her deepest inner torments. It is also doubtful Mitchell, who is now 65, would still be living if she were as fragile and self-destructive as she's previously been depicted. The "confessional" term also didn't indicate how complicated her ideas and lyrical structures really are.
"There's a lot of careful consideration that goes into the selection of every word, and in Joni's case, in the pairing of each word with each note in her songwriting," says Mercer. "That's where she comes to her hatred with the 'confessional songwriter' tag. She feels as if she's been grouped with lesser songwriters. I'm not going to name any names."
Condescending and downright sexist music journalists writing during the era irritated her as well. Rolling Stone once published a tree list of her former lovers. It's hard to imagine a similar piece, say on the prolifically lecherous Mick Jagger.
Her own label Reprise put out an ad for Ladies of the Canyon that featured an annoyingly cutesy short story, which implied the music on the album was similarly frivolous.
For one thing, Mitchell's music is often more sonically complex than that of her male counterparts. She uses dozens of odd guitar tuning styles that baffle less accomplished musicians.
"Her left hand was weakened because as a child she had a bout with polio. So that's why developed these alternate tunings to relieve the stress on her left hand. However, the effect is this dramatic rendering of emotion through sound," says Mercer.
To give readers a fuller picture of Mitchell's complicated personality Mercer included a list of things Mitchell loves from the song "You've Got the Music in You" by the New Radicals to Reader's Digest to pinball.
"I was worried it might be sort of a (teen pop magazine) Tiger Beat gesture, but after my analysis, I thought it was important. In interviews, she often comes off as imperious and disparaging, and I don't think that's fair. I believe she has as much enthusiasm for people, places, and things as anyone," says Mercer. "She's a lot of fun. She's extremely witty. Even when you're writing about somber beats, you can't be an uncheerful person and really face those things."
Both Sides of the Border
Mercer says that she and Mitchell have similar geographical roots. "I've visited all her childhood homes in Maidstone and Saskatooon in Saskatchewan," she says. "Joni's music has often been described as having a panoramic sound. She calls herself a prairie girl and says the sound of the prairie is in her music. Maybe growing up in the prairie itself had something to do with her creativity. If you already have a creative bent and all around you are wide open spaces, it kind of stands to reason that you would need to fill those up with your imagination."
In the book, Mercer describes how as a Kansas teen, she used Blue as a litmus test for potential boyfriends. She has also helped introduce a new generation and even some of her own family to Mitchell's legacy.
"As a little test, I played ("A Case of You") to my nieces, who are five and seven, and asked them what it meant," Mercer recalls. "They said, 'Well, I think somebody is having trouble with a boyfriend, but she can still stand up, and everything's OK.' It's so evocative that even a five-year-old can understand it."