Joni Mitchell famously wrote the lyrics to Both Sides Now on a plane. Looking at clouds from both sides becomes a very literal endeavour on a plane — unless it is a single engine propeller plane in which case you are not allowed to rise above the clouds. Of course the metaphors that lie behind it, and how in each verse she changes the object of the gaze from clouds, to life and to love are absolutely stunningly deep and wise. Especially, for someone who has enjoyed the maturity age for merely a good handful of years.
She was criticized for claiming that at such a young age she had really looked at life and love from both sides. To be honest, and the world probably did not know this at the time, she actually had experienced a lot. She was pregnant and dropped by her boyfriend before she even knew she was pregnant. She married a guy hoping he would agree to be the father of her child but she was wrong, so she had to give it up for adoption. When she said yes at the altar, she knew it was a mistake, a trap. In those days in Canada an unmarried mother was not part of the fabric of possible life styles. She became a singer to make money to survive. She really wanted to become an artist, a painter, but the relationship between giving a concert and being paid for it, was more likely than creating a painting and getting paid for it. If that isn't looking at life from both sides, the positive and the negative, I don't know what is.
Joni's artistic voice was somehow fully formed when she appeared on the music scene. Even her earliest songs were unlike anyone else's. She spoke in a musical language that she invented and nobody else could speak but her — many tried — but everyone could understand it.. It is much like when the bible referred to how the Holy Spirit spoke to St. Francis through the birds. He could understand them and it was the most beautiful language he had ever heard but could not speak it himself. In that sense, she is a genius as she invented something that had not existed before. She had no predecessors. Her melodic and harmonic structures were new, her approach to lyrics drinking from the deep well of personal emotions and experiences were unheard of. She put herself into the songs. She was the wound and not the knife. She was loved by her fans and still is today.
I think for her that was the great revelation of the two tribute concerts at Massey Hall we hosted at the 2013 festival. There are still people who care, that her music still matters even to a generation who did not even grow up with her. When she walked on that stage she was greeted with a frenzy that Justin Bieber could not have matched.
It makes sense to muse on Joni Mitchell sitting in a plane while I fly back to Toronto from San Francisco. There are no clouds in the sky. . I can see the world very clearly from up here. It seems that from this Aristotelian perspective things all of a sudden make sense and even the scars that we leave behind on the surface become beautiful. Joni Mitchell sees what the world and the human soul really is. By looking at something from both sides you can also see through it. It seems that the ideal listener to Joni Mitchell's music is someone who can see themselves in her lyrics and music. Her songs offer to lift you up high from where you can observe yourself. If you admire her too much, if her music becomes a fetish, it will not tell you enough. You have to fly yourself.
If you discover, in Joni's music, that she has figured out how to speak about you, in a way you could never speak about yourself, her music will be ultimately rewarding as you will discover something new in it all the time. She is like a good friend that follows you through life. But good friends can also hurt and challenge you.
Pop music today seems to be the exact opposite. I do not think that anyone could claim they can see themselves in a Lady Gaga or Katy Perry song.. I don't think there are many people who would say that these pop songs accompany them through life — maybe through a night in a disco or through a bout of acne. The songs last a moment, they are frozen in time and melt away. They never seem to be about the listener but always about something they cannot reach. They want to be admired like a church icon. That is how they gain power — they suck energy from their congregation. Pop stars and the icons of the church follow the exact same path: they want obedient followers. Joni doesn't. A Joni Mitchell song can speak to you and challenge you for your entire life and change its meaning over time.
It is her 70th birthday today. How does someone like her live with her songs I wonder? Who is the musical companion of her life?
I talked to her for the first time about a year ago. We wanted to pay her tribute at the Luminato Festival and to celebrate her 70th birthday. I wanted to make sure that she was comfortable with Luminato paying tribute to her. I hate doing things that the artist does not want to do.
We spoke on the phone for about an hour and a half. She was in her home in British Columbia, a place that only exists in my mind. Her dog Bella (from Bella Lugosi) was actually the first thing I heard in the background when she picked up the phone.
I have since gotten to know Bella quite well. We hung out a lot when I visited Joni at her LA home and played with the figs from the fig tree by the koi pond in the garden. Joni has one of the most beautiful homes I have ever been to. Her taste in furniture, objects, plants and how to arrange everything is absolutely impeccable. Bella is obsessed with those figs and will for hours run after them if you are prepared to throw them. Just like her owner Bella never gets tired first. Joni always has another story to tell, she always has another imitation of a person she can do and Joni always has more interesting things she can say about music, the arts, the environment and politics.
Joni's memory is absolutely impeccable. If she were to write her autobiography, and I dearly hope she will, it would likely take her entire life to pen it as she remembers every second. And I am sure she would live it again in exactly the same way. I wish that she could live another 70 years to write down everything about her extraordinary life.
I remember when I picked her up at the airport in Toronto when she came in for the festival this year. Her plane was delayed by hours and when it finally arrived at 4.30AM: she looked so fresh coming out the glass doors at Pearson. She was wearing an amazing pant suit, sun glasses and had a smile on her face. She was not even surprised to see me there at that hour. Time does not have a concept for Joni. When we arrived at the hotel, she went straight to the piano — it was a blond Fazioli with lyrics of one of her songs engraved in the underside of the lid. She knew about the piano because the hotel had asked her to come for the unveiling of the instrument.
There was only a cleaning person, a security guard with us in the lobby of the hotel. The cleaning person was vacuuming and the machine did not produce a a gentle sound. I pulled away the black cover of the Fazioli as she sat down. The security guard came up to us to prevent her from playing. He didn't know who she was obviously. I told him: 'You don't know how many people would kill to be here at this moment's Joni started playing as the cleaning person continued vacuuming in the background.
To me, this moment was the perfect picture of Joni Mitchell. It was the most uncompromising gesture, there was nothing heroic about it (a hero needs an audience). She just did what she wanted to do when she wanted to do it — and did not feel that anything or anyone could compromise what she was doing. I do not think she even noticed that anyone wanted to stop her. But she did it when she wanted to and not when she was asked. What she might have tried to say on a more metaphorical level is that maybe by not asking, you actually get an answer. She played that Fazioli in the end. But she did it when she wanted to and not when she was asked.
Happy birthday, Joni. Thank you for letting me spend time with you, for letting me learn from you and for pouring that beautiful port wine of a voice over us at Massey Hall this summer!
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