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Joni Mitchell’s Stunning Volume of Handwritten Lyrics and Drawings Reviewed

by Sam Stone
Second Disc
October 21, 2019

Joni Mitchell doesn't look back. That's what fans have come to understand about the fearless songwriter, singer, poet, and visual artist. She's famously rejected reissue campaigns, career-spanning box sets, cash-in live albums, and hits collections. Over the years, though, she's begun to come around. She approved the DVD/Blu-ray of her 1970 appearance at the Isle of Wight and the LP reissue of the box set Love Has Many Faces, helped organize the Joni 75 tribute concerts, and recently gave the OK for Brandi Carlile's live performance of Blue.

Now, Joni is reappraising her visual work with a new book called Morning Glory on the Vine: Early Drawings and Poems, which sees its first-ever wide release tomorrow, October 22. Originally released in a limited edition for close friends in 1971, Mitchell has revisited and expanded the collection with 128 pages of watercolors, felt-tip pen illustrations, handwritten lyrics, and unreleased poems and songs from the early '70s and beyond. For longtime fans of Mitchell's music, the book offers a rare, intimate glimpse into the artist's visual world.

Crack open the gorgeous hardbound volume, with its bronze-inked embossed details, and you'll find a new foreword from Joni herself, written in May 2019. Here, she explains how her original edition came to be. "In the early 1970s, I used to carry a sketchbook around with me everywhere I went," she writes. "I drew with colored pens." These fantastic illustrations were as compelling as her songs, and at times they captured more of her attention than her musical commitments. When it was coming on Christmas 1971, Joni chose to collect some of these drawings and poems together to give her "kind of nouveau riche" friends something special. Now, she's revisited the design and offered it anew for fans everywhere.

And whether you're a new initiate into the world of Joni's work or you're a longtime admirer, there's plenty special to behold. "The Fishbowl," her first poem, opens the book. It's a harsh critique of fame inspired by her empathy toward the teen idols of the late '50s.

As she said in a 2013 interview, "I'm not a kid that played air guitar in the bedroom and [went], 'Oh! I'm gonna be rich and famous!' and all of that. I felt sorry for stars. Sandra Dee was all over the local magazines with her mascara running down ... she was breaking up with her husband, it was misery. 'Oh,' I thought, 'the poor woman. What if they did that to me in the school newspaper?' I had to write in blank verse on assignment. And I was getting my hair done for some beauty contest at the hair school by amateurs. And there were these stacks of these magazines with Sandra Dee crying on the cover, so I wrote this poem called 'The Fishbowl' about Hollywood before I ever was here." Folks who have followed Joni's work will know that this distaste for fame has long been a theme in her work, and she's often mentioned that January 1960 poem as the piece that started it all. But there's something special about reading those words, not as repeated to an interviewer, but in her own, ornamental handwriting next to an abstract watercolor of a fish waiting to be caught.

Handwritten lyrics to hits like "Woodstock," "Big Yellow Taxi," and "A Case of You" follow, alongside character studies like "Marcie" (spelled "Marcy" in her hand), "Michael From Mountains," "Nathan La Franeer," and "The Dawntreader." Detached from the intricate musical accompaniment as lines on a page, Joni's mastery of words is clearer than ever before. But the pieces that are most surprising are the 25 that never appeared on an album: the simple yet heartbreaking personification in "I Am A Guitar," the humorous reflection on gluttony called "Tempting," the terse "Tapwater." "Where Is the Thief?" "Rooms," "Like Attics," "Road Song," "Like Veils" (a For the Roses outtake), "The Louisiana Fiddler," even "Penelope," an abstract poem with a stunning opening line that shocked even Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention when Joni jammed with them one night at The Fillmore.

Like her best songs, these poems offer a look into Joni's soul and craft. They're at times personal, inviting, funny, and always unique. Most often, they evoke her home in Laurel Canyon. The carefree exuberance expressed in "Morning Clinks Sunny" recalls the muffin buns and rocking chairs along "Sisotowbell Lane" or the brownies, threads, and songs offered by the "Ladies of the Canyon." Those Canyon ladies and the joyous life there also inspired many of the drawings we find throughout Morning Glory on the Vine. With Magic Marker, she draws beautifully detailed still lifes of her dining room, plus portraits of loves and visitors like Graham Nash, David Crosby, James Taylor, Judy Collins, Dallas Taylor, and others.

Over the course of the book, we see how Mitchell's visual style progressed along with her music. The first sketch, "Siquomb," depicts the queen of a mythical land that Joni wrote about beginning in 1966. The ornate line drawing features interconnected figures and landscapes that reflect an over-the-top royalty. Those Laurel Canyon portraits in felt-tip pen are more direct, though they offer up considerable depth in color. At some point along the way her style became more sparse. After expressing concern about her ornate mythical drawings, an artist friend convinced Joni to draw his portrait in one line without looking at the paper. What emerged informed what would be a new style with simpler lines, often juxtaposed with just enough color. Think the famous cover to CSNY's So Far or that lovely marker drawing of Judy Collins as seen on For The Roses, the latter of which is presented brilliantly in the book.

Morning Glory on the Vine also showcases Mitchell's poems from her time in Matala and Hydra as she escaped the industry armed only with a dulcimer to write music. "Cary" (as it's written on her original poem), "California," and other Blue gems are present, as are unreleased pieces like "Hydra" and "Matalla Moon." We're also treated to lyrics from For the Roses, Joni's critique on the music industry. Poems from this era that are only just seeing widespread publication here include "Applause, Applause" and "Company."

The book concludes with art that wasn't included in the original handmade pressing. These later pieces include a stunning watercolor of Neil Young (used to promote his album On The Beach), a portrait of fellow Canuck musician Murray MacLauchlan, a stunning painting of Georgia O'Keefe juxtaposed with southwest mountains, and a watercolor of Elliot Roberts, her longtime manager who passed away earlier this year.

Between the beautiful line art, felt-tip pen drawings, paintings, and handwritten lyrics to legendary and unheard songs alike, Morning Glory on the Vine: Early Songs and Drawings offers treasure after treasure. It seems miraculous that Joni - who once so sternly objected even a greatest hits album - has chosen to reappraise her work in this way, but as she writes in her foreword, "Work is meant to be seen, or heard, as the case may be." How fortunate we are that fans and new initiates alike are now able to enjoy this unprecedented look into Joni Mitchell's most intimate work. Super fans can only hope that this isn't the last opportunity to enjoy unreleased work (oh, to hear "Like Veils" as laid down during the For the Roses sessions...), but if it is, it's a remarkable collection that belongs in any fan's home.

Morning Glory on the Vine: Early Songs and Drawings is available today in standard and deluxe editions from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. You can secure your copy below!

Standard Edition: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
Signed Deluxe Edition: Premiere Collectibles / Barnes and Noble Link TBD / Waterstones (UK)

NOTE: This review originally first published on and cross-posted on by permission.

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Added to Library on October 21, 2019. (5243)


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