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Touching Souls Print-ready version

Joni Mitchell’s lessons in love

by Dan Chiasson
The New Yorker
October 2, 2017

Mitchell wanted to make a new kind of song, one in which conversation could flower, in mid-phrase, into music. Photograph by Mark Roth / Globe Photos / Zuma Press

In 1969, Cary Raditz, a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina, quit his job in advertising and headed to Europe to bum around with his girlfriend. They ended up in Matala, on the island of Crete, where they found a bunch of hippies living in a network of caves. Raditz soon decamped for Afghanistan in a VW bus; when he returned, his girlfriend had bailed, but there was word that a new girl was headed to Matala. Raditz didn’t know much about Joni Mitchell, but “there was buzz” among the hippies, and, soon enough, he found himself watching the sunset with one of the most extraordinary people alive. Raditz and Mitchell shared a cave for a couple of months, travelled around Greece together, and parted ways. That’s where you and I come in, because Mitchell wrote two songs, among her greatest works, about her “redneck on a Grecian isle”: “California” and “Carey.” I’ve been singing along to those songs, or trying to, since I was fifteen. I learned from them what you learn from all of Mitchell’s music, that love is a form of reciprocity, at times even a barter economy: “He gave me back my smile / but he kept my camera to sell.” Mitchell’s songs were the final, clinching trade.

Joni Mitchell’s gift was so enormous that it remade the social space around her. As David Yaffe’s new biography, “Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell” (Sarah Crichton Books), suggests, it is no small burden to possess something as valuable as Mitchell’s talent, and it meant that this girl from the Canadian prairie would be in the world, whether she liked it or not. All she needed was her lyrics, preternaturally analytic, wry, and shrewd; her chords, largely self-invented, a kind of calligraphy of the moods; and her voice, which modulates from patter to rue to rhapsody in a single phrase. In concert, she sometimes trained her attention on a single listener in the front row, casting the stranger as the vivid “you” of a song who in real life may have been Sam Shepard, James Taylor, or Leonard Cohen. The best pop music is often preening and shamanic. Mitchell’s is almost always about what two articulate adults mean, or once meant, to each other.

Mitchell writes about emotional information: who controls it, and how it is squandered or hoarded, withheld or weaponized. This requires some reconnaissance, which for Mitchell involves falling in and out of love, over and over—not so much a research method as a form of self-surgery. Her songs report on those lessons, which are, in an instant, in performance, happily forgotten. She is always thinking about the ways in which calculation fails, as guile yields again and again to innocence. As she put it in “Song for Sharon”: “I can keep my cool at poker / But I’m a fool when love’s at stake.”

She was never a fool for longer than her art required, though, and she could be withering, in interviews, about the lovers who misread her patient scrutiny of them for acquiescence. David Crosby, who produced Mitchell’s first record, would “trot me out” in front of his friends, she said, “and watch me blow their minds.” Crosby is the smooth operator in the first verses of “Cactus Tree”:

There’s a man who’s been out sailing
In a decade full of dreams
And he takes her to a schooner
And he treats her like a queen
Bearing beads from California
With their amber stones and green

It sounds like a cross between a hippie valentine and an abduction scenario. As the tune progresses, one suitor after another makes his approach, but Mitchell’s refrain wards them off: “She’s so busy being free.”

That freedom was hard-won. Men often wanted Mitchell to be a wife, a muse, a siren, or a star. Instead, they got a genius, and one especially suited to deconstructing their fantasies of her. When David Geffen, her manager, implored her to write a hit, she came up with “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” which mocks the request while heedlessly fulfilling it:

I come when you whistle
When you’re loving and kind
If you’ve got too many doubts
If there’s no good reception for me
Then tune me out, ’cause honey
Who needs the static
It hurts the head
And you wind up cracking
And the day goes dismal
From “Breakfast Barney”
To the sign-off prayer

The song checks all the boxes: it’s hummable, it’s accessible, it’s a love song—but it’s also a sabred refusal of all of the above. Mitchell was frank but weirdly Parnassian about male sexual appetite, which she saw as not so different, finally, from her own. When she resisted the advances of Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, it was partly because she recognized her own techniques in their vulpine attentions. (She always said that she preferred “the company of men.”) In “Coyote,” a song about her fling with Sam Shepard, Mitchell describes his roving eye: “He’s staring a hole in his scrambled eggs / He picks up my scent on his fingers / While he’s watching the waitresses’ legs.” The detail is crude and adolescent, but it’s also very sexy, and Mitchell sings those lines to sound like a boast. Prowess is prowess.

She was born Roberta Joan Anderson in 1943. Like many pop musicians, she suffered a childhood of utter tedium, a bright star against the faint backdrop of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. On the airwaves, she heard “Mantovani, country and western, a lot of radio journalism,” and, once a day for an hour, “The Hit Parade.” A soulful girl, she watched the trains approach and depart, or pored over the Sears catalogue. (She called it “the book of dreams.”) When Mitchell was eight, she contracted polio and was quarantined, for several months, in a hospital close to home. Her mother came to see her once, on Christmas; her father never did. Polio patients were told to keep perfectly still—it was believed that any movement might cause the disease to spread—so she spent the time alone and on her back. When she was released, her left hand was damaged (it would make conventional guitar playing difficult for her, and led her to experiment with her own, idiosyncratic tunings) and she had lost the speed in her legs. But, she said, she “came back a dancer.”

It was painting that took her away from Saskatoon. It is practically a default for aspiring musicians to attend art schools—“holding pens for dropouts and rejects,” as Yaffe puts it—and Mitchell soon enrolled in the Alberta College of Art and Design, in Calgary, paying the bills by working as a model at a department store. She taught herself to play the guitar by listening to a Pete Seeger instructional record, and played the ukulele in coffeehouses around the city. But performing was a “hobby”—she reserved her ambition for the canvas. Because she was, she said, “the only virgin in art school,” she found an agreeable, square-jawed man, Brad MacMath, and became pregnant immediately. The child, a girl, was put in a foster home until Mitchell could care for her.

At twenty-two, Mitchell was poor, alone, and the mother of a daughter she felt she had abandoned. The swain who materialized had certain advantages: Chuck Mitchell was an American musician, well connected in the Detroit folk scene, and, at first, willing to adopt her child. But after they married he reneged on his offer, and the child was given up. The marriage ended and the heartache was immortalized in “Little Green,” a song about her daughter. Mitchell is a “child with a child pretending”:

Weary of lies you’re sending home
So you sign all the papers in the family name
You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed, little green
Have a happy ending

The words are a slight nudge into oblivion, like a paper boat being launched into a swift current. The undertone of sadness in all of Mitchell’s music derives from that gesture, as does the impulse toward flight. (From that essential bind we get “River,” the song that, almost two thousand years late, made the Christmas season bearable.) Mitchell wrote “Little Green” in 1966, shortly after signing the surrender papers for her daughter. The song wasn’t released until five years later, on “Blue,” the album that made her a star.

Yaffe’s book is partly a study of what happens when a great artist, emerging as part of a scene, resists that scene’s assumptions and categories. The sixties had set a place for Joni Mitchell, but her essence was noncompliance. She would not fall in line behind fashionable causes; she deemed free love a “ruse for guys” and performed at Fort Bragg during Vietnam. The classic example involves Woodstock. Mitchell missed the festival: she was booked to appear on “The Dick Cavett Show,” her major American television début, the next morning, and the reports of mud and throngs put her off. David Crosby and Stephen Stills, along with Grace Slick, leading Jefferson Airplane, were also on the broadcast. Mitchell looks more irritated at having to share the stage with them than disappointed to have missed out on doing so in a field of muck. Her song “Woodstock,” which became a hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, was written in her hotel room, watching the festival on TV. She intended the song to be a “dirge,” not the anthem that it became in others’ hands.

She got another chance at camaraderie in 1975, when she joined Bob Dylan’s cocaine-dusted Rolling Thunder Revue, partly to get to know “Bobby,” who acted, she said, like a “perverse little brat,” forgoing actual conversations for Delphic, leering remarks. Dylan’s childishness is the subject of “Talk to Me,” a song on “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter”:

We could talk about Martha
We could talk about landscapes
I’m not above gossip
But I’ll sit on a secret where honor is at stake!
Or we could talk about power
About Jesus and Hitler and Howard Hughes
Or Charlie Chaplin’s movies
Or Bergman’s Nordic blues
Please just talk to me
Any old theme you choose
Just come and talk to me
Mr. Mystery, talk to me

Mitchell’s deep strain of propriety comes out in these episodes: she said that she didn’t “know anyone” in the music business who acted with a “proper adult response” when he ran into an old friend. Her exasperation suggests an expectation of dignity that would have been familiar in the forties, in Saskatoon, and which saturates Mitchell’s music. She had a right to expect from “Mr. Mystery” the rudiments of a decent conversation. It didn’t need to shake the earth; it just needed to express, and answer, basic human longings.

Yaffe, who teaches at Syracuse, charts these encounters with a sure hand, and is a brilliant analyst of how Mitchell’s songs are made. But he leans a little heavily on quotations familiar to fans: many of his most revealing takes are culled from “Woman of Heart and Mind,” an excellent PBS “American Masters” documentary. He also seems to have let Mitchell get inside his head. In a strange preface, Yaffe describes interviewing Mitchell for a New York Times piece in 2007, going to her house, and talking through the night, but getting “bitched out” by Mitchell once the piece was published. Then silence from “Joni” until years later, when, through a back channel, he’s taken back into her good graces. At times, his book feels as if its main objective were for him to never again be rebuffed by the “strong, resilient, defiant” woman he admires, who looked “more beautiful than she did in the ads for Yves St. Laurent that were in all the magazines.” Add Mitchell’s biographer to the list of men she played like a paddleball.

The frisson with his subject was perhaps inevitable. The collaborator in Mitchell always, in time, brings out the solo flier. It’s hard to think of a songwriter who has drawn so much from conversations but recorded so few duets. The pull of dialogue is countered by Mitchell’s strong solitariness, a tension that she works out in the lyrics of her songs. She sang with Chuck Mitchell early on, but they were “horribly unsuited” to each other as performers, and the aversion to sharing the stage with other singers was consistent throughout her career. On the live album “Miles of Aisles,” there is a spacious version of “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” where a second, complementary voice appears to break in, weaving itself into the melody. Listen harder, though, and you realize that it’s a guitar, played to sound almost identical to Mitchell. It’s a commentary on her antipathy to others’ voices. The musicians she respects the most, Dylan and Leonard Cohen, are both notoriously limited singers, a fact that Mitchell reports frequently, and with evident joy.

Mitchell’s work often seems to be a repudiation of mere songwriting. Spoken stretches transfigure into melodies, which climb and play in the thermals; or her vocals gather steam only to break apart into stray phrases and verbal gestures. Her inspirations, she said, were the crooners of the pre-rock era, and Dylan, who could string lyrics together without the promise, or the threat, of an impending tune. (Dylan’s harmonica passages sometimes act as the only punctuation for his long musical sentences.) Mitchell had to make a new kind of song, in which conversation could flower, in mid-phrase, into music. Her tunes wander and veer; they manage their own beauty, bringing it forth at variable intervals. She wanted to create what she called “plateaus” for her lyrics, spans that she could prolong or cut short depending on the demands of her words and the emotional content that they ferried. In “A Case of You,” a song about Leonard Cohen, the lyrics turn on two reported fragments of speech. Both contain literary allusions; Mitchell was drawn to Cohen’s bookishness:

Just before our love got lost you said
I am as constant as a northern star and I said
Constantly in the darkness
Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar

“Constant as a northern star” is from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” but Mitchell’s retort wins the opening skirmish. Later, though, a line inspired by Rilke turns the tables:

I remember that time that you told me, you said
“Love is touching souls”
Surely you touched mine ’cause
Part of you pours out of me
In these lines from time to time

It is impossible to detect the duration of those phrases on the page, which is the point. When Mitchell started to play with jazz musicians, especially the bassist Jaco Pastorius, she would elongate the lyrics of her songs almost indefinitely, as she does on “Song for Sharon” or the title track of “Hejira.” One way of thinking about her turn to jazz, on “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter” (1977) and on “Mingus” (1979), her collaboration with the bassist Charles Mingus, is that she needed longer and longer plateaus, stretching her lyrics over more even rhythmic surfaces. The only hint of a tune in “Coyote,” for example, comes with its minimal refrain, “You just picked up a hitcher / a prisoner of the white lines on the freeway”—phrases whose delivery relies entirely on factors localized within a given performance of the song.

The principle of delay works also with Mitchell’s rhymes, which are often the off-the-rack, Tin Pan Alley pairings that Dylan would adopt and, in songs like “Desolation Row,” deconstruct into prophetic nonsense. Mitchell does something different. Here is her take on “June” and “moon,” from the final track of “Hejira,” “Refuge of the Roads”:

In a highway service station
Over the month of June
Was a photograph of the earth
Taken coming back from the moon
And you couldn’t see a city
On that marbled bowling ball
Or a forest or a highway
Or me here least of all

The extra syllables building up to “moon” force you to take a longer than expected “road” to the destination. But the song’s exaggerated horizontality (coming at the end of a record about the highway) is neutralized by the cosmic scale that replaces it, which freezes everything in a single frame. It’s a painter’s way of resolving a set of dramas that are inherently narrative, as subject waits for verb, verse for refrain, lover for lover, coast for coast. As Yaffe points out, Mitchell learned from painting how to yoke “past, present, and future” together in one image.

Mitchell is now seventy-three. She hasn’t performed in a decade, and her health has been in steady decline for some time. In 2015, she had a brain aneurysm, and she suffers from Morgellons, a condition that causes the sensation of parasites crawling under and around one’s skin. She began chain-smoking when she was nine; the strong middle range of her voice, which allowed her to alternate so flexibly between high and low, was partly created by her habit. You could argue that it was also unmade by it—long ago, she began losing octaves, until her entire soprano range was depleted.

Still, it’s hard to think of a string of records as consistently powerful, shape-shifting, and durable as Mitchell’s albums from the seventies, beginning with “Ladies of the Canyon,” in 1970, and concluding, in 1979, with “Mingus.” These works are divided between fantasies of invisibility and flight, a teen-ager’s classic choice of superpowers. I was one myself when I plucked “Blue” out of a pile of albums in my aunt’s bedroom and played what seemed a distillation of the adult dilemmas I had been overhearing, throughout my childhood. This was Vermont in the seventies, and people everywhere discussed depth and superficiality, fate, luck, and the fluctuations of the moods, all in a vocabulary that Joni Mitchell had helped devise. Newlyweds were chilling out from the convulsions of the sixties. They had gone indoors, or joined the PTA. Tense and tragic Vietnam veterans opened shops full of glassware. The New Age was starting up, and meditation was practiced in church basements. It was the last moment in American pop when the modulations of ordinary existence were studied with any seriousness, and refined in songs that made family life meaningful and profound. It seems almost absurd to praise Mitchell for her ambience, when her songs are among the most stunning ever written. But the ambience comes back even now, very vividly, when you put those records on. You feel what Mitchell felt about Woodstock: the urge to get back to the garden, fully aware that it can’t be, that it’s impossible and faintly annoying to think otherwise, but knowing also that people’s best intentions are always beautiful. ♦

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Added to Library on October 2, 2017. (54619)


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