"I will be honest," Katherine Monk assures the reader at the outset of her biography, Joni: The Creative Odyssey of Joni Mitchell. "I wasn't a huge Joni Mitchell fan before all this started." Monk associated her subject with "mournful love songs delivered in high soprano" and with "macramé plant holders."
This is understandable. Joni Mitchell, who will turn 69 next month, enjoyed a career of about 40 years before retiring to her home on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, experimenting with many different musical and personal styles along the way. The iconic Joni Mitchell dates from the '60s and early '70s, however, the "winsome bittersweet blond," in the words of one critic, singing to the heart of macramé fanciers everywhere.
That she is among the most talented of the '60s crew of singer- songwriters - only her nemesis Bob Dylan can match her versatility - is undeniable. Monk, no longer associating Mitchell with macramé plant holders, now proclaims that her work will "live on for centuries." Who cares if Mitchell also gives the strong impression that she lives in a world of her own? In Monk's eyes, that's almost a virtue. A good portion of her book is devoted to Freud, Jung, Nietzsche, Camus, Heidegger and lesser known psychologists whom she mines for insights about the nature of the artist and then applies to her heroine as a kind of validation. It is no accident that Monk thanks her therapist in the acknowledgements. Such is the tone of the book - Mitchell's anima and animus are given a good workout under the unsmiling gaze of Jung and Nietzsche.
The book is not a biography, then, but a critical study. Monk has not interviewed Mitchell, and seems not to have talked to many of her colleagues. Her research, in fact, appears to be based almost wholly on previously published sources, the results of which are conveyed to the reader in a breezy tone. (This is the first non-fiction book I've ever read that uses the word "copacetic.")
Still, the book is an interesting read even for non-Joni Mitchell fans. She is clearly an exceptional person, if not a great artist. Born Roberta Joan Anderson in Fort Macleod, Alta., the daughter of a flight lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Air Force, she fell prey to the polio epidemic of the 1950s, a disease which damaged her left hand. As compensation for what she calls her "clumsy" left hand, Mitchell developed notoriously odd guitar tunings. "Only two songs in Mitchell's catalogue are written in standard tuning," Monk writes. In the past, this unconventionality has reinforced a suspicion among her fellow musicians that she hailed from another planet.
Those who still view Mitchell as a hippie goddess may be surprised to learn of her early, and lasting, love of fine apparel. "I'm a clothes horse," she told a reporter in 1979. "I love fashion." She wrote a column for her high school newspaper entitled "Fads and Fashions," and earned money to buy her own wardrobe working after hours at a store called Ricki's Ladies Wear. In the meantime she was also studying Pete Seeger's How to Play Folk-Style Guitar. She learned well enough to perform in her first professional gig at Louis Riel's Café in Saskatoon on Halloween Night of 1962 - an appearance followed by years of playing in coffee houses. Her performances on that circuit were augmented by what Monk calls her "ethereal" good looks.
"What a mug it was!" Monk elaborates in characteristic prose. "Glowing under the scorching TV lights, her blonde hair picking up the hot glint with every cock and spin, she looked like the fairest maiden folk music had ever seen."
The career was barely interrupted in 1964 by her liaison with an art student, a short-lived affair that resulted in Mitchell's pregnancy and the birth of a daughter she named Kelly Dale. Mitchell kept this episode secret even from her mother, who learned of it, along with the rest of the world, in the mid-1990s. "This is really embarrassing," the mother told the Calgary Sun. Otherwise, the incident seems not to have been traumatic.
A few years after that episode Mitchell married a Detroit folksinger named Chuck Mitchell, who provided her with a new last name and - most important of all - a green card for work in the United States. Her important relationships during the 1960s, however, seem to have been with three other men, according to Monk: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Her affair with Cohen lasted four months and was doomed from the start. "I'm unstable," he told Mitchell. "Maybe I'm more unstable than you," Mitchell replied. Neither appears to have bested the other in the instability department, although Mitchell did end up writing a few good songs about Cohen, which is something.
There is no doubt that Mitchell learned a good deal about song lyrics from Dylan, but that too was a relationship fraught with peril, if for no other reason than that Mitchell was constantly being compared to Dylan. In revenge, Mitchell went out of her way to characterize Dylan as derivative, while she herself was a true original. Her first impression of Dylan, she later claimed, was that of a "Woody Guthrie copy cat." She told a reporter, "He's a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I."
The two never slept together, which was probably fortunate for all concerned, and not surprising given that Dylan, according to Mitchell, neglected to brush his teeth and suffered from bad breath.
As for Nietzsche, or that "syphilitic nihilist," as Monk calls him, Mitchell studied carefully his great poetic manifesto, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which Zarathustra proclaims, "I have grown weary of the poets the old and the new ... They have not thought deeply enough." To which Mitchell responds, "I see a new breed. They are penitents of spirit. They write in their own blood." Needless to say, she included herself in this breed.
Heavy intellectual weight for a tunesmith to bear, even one as sophisticated as Mitchell, but her self-esteem was up to the job. The depths of that esteem are not in doubt - regarding her album Mingus, for example, Mitchell declared, "I hope people will find it accessible, but I know how intimidating great musicianship is to a lot of people." But no one can accuse her of selling out or taking it easy. Everything from her album covers - Mitchell is a visual artist of considerable talent - to her publicity - Mitchell, in the era before blogging, was perhaps the only recording artist to write her own bumf, according to Monk - bears her creative stamp.
It is impossible, in some respects, not to admire her defiance of the proprieties, including her defence of smoking. "I couldn't have gotten through life without it," she says of her habit. Her love life has raised eyebrows as well, beginning with the February 1971 issue of Rolling Stone, which named her "Old Lady of the Year," and unpleasantly implied that she went through one well-known folkie musician after another. Monk doesn't go out of her way to highlight this aspect of her subject's life, but a reader, relying solely on this biography, can come up with an impressive list of lovers. That reader may also conclude that sex has little to do with these amours. Mitchell, who has been cool to feminism, did prefer playing with the boys, from the days of her childhood on. Assuming the role of what she called a Don Juanette may have been an extension of her desire, finally, to be one of the boys.
Of her music the book is sparing in critical comment. There is little sense of her development from album to album, a lack underlined by the absence of a discography at the end of the book. Still, Freud aside, Joni is a sympathetic and readable study of the woman, as Monk puts it, "with the high cheekbones and big Canadian teeth."