Next week, Joni Mitchell will become the first Canadian to win a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. Bruce Ward looks at the vagabond spirit that took her from the Prairies of Saskatchewan to the canyons of California.
If you remember the 1970s, then you must remember the mellowness movement that came in the latter days of the Vietnam War. Take it easy, The Eagles advised, don't even try to understand ... just lighten up.
It was a wry sensibility embodied by those willowy California girls in gauzy clothes who could bake bread and roll joints with the same easy fluency. Their generic L.A. honorific was Lady, as in "my old lady."
The weird thing was, Canada's Joni Mitchell led this laid-back California trend. Her 1970 Ladies of the Canyon album became the template for the times.
Nobody stood for the tends-her-own-garden, independent woman of the day more than Mitchell, who next week will become the first Canadian to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys.
In her songs she was free and swinging: "unfettered and alive" in Paris, falling headlong in California, rueful but not fussed about the Greek dude who stole her heart and then her camera. Mitchell experienced the life we dreamed about growing up tethered in suburbia.
Rolling Stone magazine was so impressed by her magnetism it named her "Old Lady of the Year" and ran a chart listing her rock star lovers that ran from James Taylor to Graham Nash and Jackson Browne.
How Mitchell got from the Canadian prairies to the canyons of L.A. is a well-known tale by now. Born in 1943, she grew up in Saskatchewan and went through a bout with polio at age nine that seemed to give her the restless, vagabond spirit that would mark her best songs.
"We lived out on the highway," she said, recalling her childhood. "Traffic was pretty sparse but the train came every day. So I used to hear the whistle blow at the curve and I'd run to the window, see that puff of smoke, and I'd wave at the conductor."
After she regained the use of her legs -- contrary to the doctors' expectations -- Mitchell loved to dance. "I celebrated my legs," she said, "but I turned to grace instead of speed." In high school, she was queen of the hop.
"For dancing, I loved Chuck Berry, Ray Charles' What I'd Say? I like Elvis Presley...the Everley Brothers. But then this thing happened: rock and roll went through a really dumb vanilla period. And during that period, folk music came in to fill the hole."
Joni got herself a guitar so she could sing Kingston Trio songs at parties. "It was no more ambitious than that."
Headed for art school, she completed her commercial coursework then split for Toronto and sang at pass-the-hat gigs in Yorkville's folk clubs. She married a singer named Chuck Mitchell, and when the marriage broke up after two years she wound up in New York writing songs for Tom Rush, Judy Collins and Buffy Sainte-Marie. In the late 1960s, she was singing at a Miami coffeehouse when ex-Byrd David Crosby walked in.
"She was standing there singing all those songs ... Michael From Mountains, Both Sides Now and I was just floored. I couldn't believe there was anybody that good. And ... I loved her, as it were." With his bushy moustache and druggy paranoia, Crosby put Mitchell in mind of Yosemite Sam, the Bugs Bunny character. But he was useful. He introduced her to Peter Fonda and other L.A. scenemakers, and he produced her first album.
Mitchell, a self-admitted confronter in her relationships, never really deserved that mellow mood label. Her music was edgier -- jazzier, too, with her odd but magically right guitar tunings -- than anything else that flowed from the L.A. singer-songwriter scene.
She turned out one great album after the other -- Blue, For the Roses, Court and Spark. Mitchell was rewriting womanhood, as critic Gerri Hirshey put it, with songs that were all metaphor and melody. That urge for going she sang about -- men felt it, too, not just smart girls in college dorms.
"For a while it was assumed that I was writing women's songs," Mitchell said several years ago. "Then men began to notice that they saw themselves in the songs, too. A good piece of art should be androgynous. I'm not a feminist. That's too divisional for me. This guy came up to me ... and he said, 'Joni, you're the best woman songwriter in the world.' And I went, 'Ha,' and he insisted. 'No, you are the greatest female singer-songwriter ever.' And I walked off. And he thought it was because I was being modest. But this whole female singer-songwriter tag is strange. You know, my peers are not Carly Simon and these other women."
But Mitchell began to feel hemmed in by fame, and by the expectations of her audience. You can hear her ambivalence in the onstage banter she blurts out between songs on Miles of Aisles, a 1974 live album that served as her first greatest hits collection.
"That's one thing that's always been a major difference between the performing arts and being a painter. A painter does a painting and that's it. He's had the joy of creating it and he hangs it on some wall, somebody buys it, somebody buys it again or maybe nobody buys it, and it sits in a loft until he dies. But nobody ever says to him -- nobody ever said to Van Gogh, 'Paint A Starry Night again, man.' He painted it. That was it."
As it turned out, 1974 would be a watershed year for Mitchell. That fall Miles of Aisles sold more than a 100,000 copies before it hit the stores and Mitchell was featured on the Dec. 16 cover of Time magazine with the coverline "Rock Women -- Songs of Pride and Passion." And her new album, the wonderfully realized Court and Spark, was in heavy rotation on radio. By year's end, the single Help Me had sold more than 800,000 copies. Two other songs -- Free Man In Paris and a live version of Big Yellow Taxi -- also made it to the Top 20.
Mitchell was rich, famous and feeling trapped. She began kicking against the boundaries of pop with a series of albums -- The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, Don Juan's Restless Daughter, Mingus -- that confused and alienated fans who had never tired of Chelsea Morning.
Her albums of prickly songs and jazz bohemianism sold weakly in the 1980s as Mitchell faded from the music scene to concentrate on her painting. Years later, she would explain about her deep-rooted need for change at any cost. "Miles Davis and Picasso have always been my major heroes because we have this one thing in common. They were restless. I don't know any women role models for that."
In '94, Mitchell shocked the music world by winning a Best Pop Album Grammy for Turbulent Indigo. Like several of her '80s records, it had barely dented the charts. Then three years later she released Taming The Tiger, a collection that again reached out to a wider audience. At its heart is the tender Stay In Touch, a song about getting to know the now-grown daughter she had given up for adoption at birth.
Her last record came out in 2000. In a nod to her past, it was called Both Sides Now and mixed new songs with standards such as Stormy Weather and I Wish I Were In Love Again.
She has spent much of the last few years in quiet reassessment of her remarkable career, putting out a book of her poems and completing a memoir. On Wednesday, Mitchell will be at the Grammys again, this time for the sum of her work. The honour comes 34 years after the kid from Saskatoon got her first record deal.
Across the years, she has influenced Madonna, Chrissie Hynde, Janet Jackson, Bob Dylan, Prince, and P.J. Harvey. Everybody had a crack at her material. The more than 300 covers of Both Sides Now include versions by Frank Sinatra, Pete Seeger, Kiri Te Kanawa and Hugh Masakela.
Recurrent polio effects have slowed her restless spirit.
"I think about what kind of old lady I will be," Mitchell, who turns 60 in May, said recently. "I'm going to go lame eventually. I've got a collection of canes ready, and I'm going to poke people with them."
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Added to Library on February 25, 2002. (2864)
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