I've been listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell lately, and I'm not sure exactly why.
Perhaps it's because of my still fresh memories of researching Joni's connections to Neil Young for my just-published book, Neil Young FAQ
Neil Young FAQ - a story rife with both romantic scandal, and the more innocent story of how Neil first came to meet "Sweet Joni." Or, perhaps it is because of the resulting, unreleased song Neil wrote about her (again, see book).
Or, maybe it's because, following a week of unseasonably sunny weather here in Seattle, we have settled back into our far more familiar pattern of grey skies and rain. Nothing makes for a better musical companion to an evening of May melancholia in Seattle, than a cup of Earl Grey (or a particularly strong microbrew), and a Joni Mitchell CD - preferably one from her mid-to-late 1970s "jazz period."
Full disclosure here: I've never been a huge Joni Mitchell fan. And I was particularly oblivious towards her early years as the penultimate, sensitive hippie chick - singing songs about paved paradises and big yellow taxis, and what-not.
I did, however, develop a begrudging appreciation for Joni's artistry later though.
In fact, I even briefly dated a girl in high school who fit the perfect description of Joni's "hippie-folkie chick" stereotype - complete with the granny glasses and the flowing dresses. "Karen," while not completely living up to my own erotic expectations, nonetheless hit that one to a tee. In retrospect, her striking resemblance to "Sweet Joni" was most likely the reason why, too. I just didn't realize it at the time.
But even if I may have subconsciously made the same erotic connection there that people like Graham Nash did, its musical equivalent was completely absent. To this day, music critics routinely cite albums like Blue and Court And Spark as examples of Mitchell's greatness.
I've never quite got that.
Of the latter, it sounds like Joni's desperate grab at the same sort of commercial payday that similar artists from the same late-1970s singer/songwriter boom like Jackson Browne were already cashing in on - but one which nonetheless proved wildly successful in Joni's case.
Still, to me, that album reeks of L.A. studio stink to this day. Sorry. But I gotta call it as I see it there.
However, it did yield one very significant reward.
In making her commercial breakthrough with a bunch of seasoned studio pros like Tom Scott And The L.A. Express, two things happened: One, Joni broke through to the pop mainstream of mid-1970s stardom, big-time. But secondly, and more importantly for the long-haul, she also rediscovered her artistic muse, and subsequently redefined it with a series of amazing albums most often referred to today as Joni's "jazz period."
Gone forever was the wistful hippie chick who once sang of "getting back to the garden" at Woodstock, and who finally hit massive, mainstream commercial gold with the slickly produced mix of elevator jazz and singer-songwriter pop that was, and is Court And Spark.
In its place, a completely reinvented Joni Mitchell emerged - one who had one foot newly planted in the smoky jazz clubs where names like Miles, Mingus and Coltrane are whispered in tones of reverence. While on the other hand, Joni's new music was given a long overdue upgrade, and appropriately taken back to its original bohemian coffee house heritage.
Gone forever was the winsome hippie folksinger - and in its place, emerged a torchy, darkly erotic sort of poetic chanteuse whose last call beckoning promised to take you to new, previously uncharted territory.
To me, this is where the more erotic, sensual - and indeed sexual - aspect of Joni Mitchell as an artist first began to make sense. The unlikely appropriations of her best known songs by artists like Janet Jackson notwithstanding, this is where Joni really began to matter, at least for me.
Maybe it was that hidden nude photo of Joni on the cover of Don Juan's Wreckless Daughter that first grabbed me. To be honest - all these many years later - I'm not really sure. That picture does reveal a magnificent set of - well, you know.
And certainly one that I could see breaking poor old Graham Nash's heart, once he no longer had access to them.
But what I hear - and what finally made me get Joni Mitchell as an artist - on those amazing albums from her mid-1970s "jazz period" - is the sound of someone who always had "it" - and making that final connection to her own voice.
There is good reason I will never be able to make my own connection to albums like Blue. For me, the idea of the hippie folksinger from Canada was just never completely there - flowing granny dresses of peace and love innocence, notwithstanding. But the mix of freestyle, beatnik poetic imagery, and last call jazz grooves conveyed on albums like The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Hejira, and Mingus...
Now, that is something I can definitely get behind.
This is where the image of the great Joni Mitchell I prefer to take to my grave - that of the singularly gifted, uncompromisingly strong poet, matching her lyrical gifts to music, which far transcends her much more obvious physical attributes - really makes sense. The very same one that I might add, that made me make brief notice of her as an oversexed teenage fan.
To me, the intellectual Joni will always be far more arousing than the sexual one, though. Personally speaking, I've always found the rock and roll bitch-goddesses like Grace Slick and Chrissie Hynde - as well the punk-poetesses like Patti Smith (now, there's a story!) - far more attractive and interesting. No matter. Either way, I still love Joni. And especially, I love Joni's "jazz period."
As a final footnote to this story, the one time I saw Joni Mitchell was at the old Coliseum in Portland in 1979. Joni was touring at the time with an all-star band of jazz pros - her band included guitarist Pat Metheny, bassist Jaco Pastorius, and the horns of the Brecker Brothers. The performance was spectacular.
After the show, the friends I had made the trip down from Seattle with met up for a round of drinks at the nearby Days Inn. About midway through our first round, we were joined by the accapella singing group the Persuasions, who had opened Joni's show that night.
It was at about that time that the Persuasions were gathering around the piano bar for an impromptu set, that a naked hippie chick showed up. As in stark, buck freaking naked. I'm not sure if she ever got the drink she ordered from the Days Inn bar at last call (or how she would have paid for it - she had no clothes to keep a wallet, and I shudder to think of the alternatives). But I do remember the Persuasions getting quite the chuckle out of it, just before the cops came.