Joni Mitchell: Every Picture has its Shadows
Updated: Jun 17, 2022
We are the first generation to see clouds from both sides. What a privilege! First people dreamed upward. Now they dream both upward and downward.
— Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King
Joni Mitchell turns me on. I’m a radio. She also pisses me off. If you want me, I’ll be in the bar.
I grew up a few blocks from her house in Saskatoon. Have a memory, probably as false and concocted as some of hers seem to be about that place and time, of a body oiled and shining at the public swimming pool.
You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, of course, but I’m floating off in time and I honestly think it was her.
Cue six white vapour trails across the bleak terrain.
The public swimming pool was Lathey on Taylor Street, about a block from Aden Bowman High School, where Joni was in Grade 10 during the senior year of a first-rate newspaperman I’d meet years later at Saskatoon’s daily newspaper.
“As you must recall from your own high school days, two grades’ separation meant near total apartheid,” former Star Phoenix associate editor Wilf Popoff told me in an email. “My late brother was in her class. I knew who she was but not because she distinguished herself in any way. She was a somewhat attractive and diminutive girl.
“In those days we were required to change classrooms in military double file. Anyone stepping out of formation could be shot by a teacher standing at the classroom doors we marched by. I recall passing Joni on these sorties. Never exchanged a word with her.”
Back in 1957
We had to dance a foot apart
And they hawk-eyed us from the sidelines
Holding their rulers without a heart
And so with just a touch of our fingers
I could make our circuitry explode
Back in 1961 or ’62 at Lathey Pool, I wasn’t much of a swimmer at six or seven. But for a chance to munch on soggy popcorn kernels tossed in by my best buddy, I was willing to take a flying leap into the deep end. I was willing to take a flying leap at the moooooon.
We really didn’t know life at all but were playing real good for free.
My friend and I would take turns, daring to jump farther and farther from the edge of the pool each time. Our folks were at work or at home (24-7 parental helicopters had yet to be invented) and I don’t remember eliciting more than a cursory glance from a bored, whistle-bearing lifeguard. But I do recall a kindly teenager we must have alarmed or amused with our giddy gasping and rudimentary dog-paddling. She folded her arms and leaned by at the ready in case either of us got into trouble.
You’ve got to keep thinking you can make it through these waves.
I remember this girl as being blonde and wispy and blue-eyed and somewhat attractive and looking a hell of a lot like the young Joan Anderson the rest of the world would meet in a few years as Joni Mitchell. I remember big teeth and a slight overbite.
After rattling the very latches of Davy Jones’s locker (not that Davy Jones), my friend and I reached the bottom of the popcorn bag instead and returned to the shallow end. Lost sight of the girl from the deep. All romantics meet the same fate some day.
Cue Aeolian harp.
Probably was someone else anyway, someone who never amounted to more than a name on the door. (Is this song quoting starting to annoy you yet? Who needs the static on the 33rd floor in the air?) But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Who knows why random memories stick in anyone’s head? It’s life’s illusions we recall. No regrets, coyote.
I’m floating off in time. I’m floating off, I’m floating off in time …
Joni is a decade older than I, but our painted ponies go up and down the same week each November, dragging our feet as we mark another circle around the sun. Our moms both celebrated their birthdays on the Victoria Day weekend. They both bought groceries, rarely exceeding $20 a week, at the OK Economy chain for which her dad worked as a merchandising co-ordinator.
When we’d go to the Dairy Queen or the A&W or the Dog n Suds or the El Rancho on Eighth Street that the Andersons surely also patronized, like all solid Saskatonians who lived on the east side of the South Saskatchewan River, my mom used to wave from the passenger seat every May 24 as if she were Queen Victoria in a particularly dignified frame of mind. My brother and I would duck down in the backseat in abject embarrassment, desperately hoping none of our friends would notice. I doubt whether anyone did, but my parents always had a good laugh.
Joni’s mom cared more than mine — a secretary to a name on the door — what other people thought and, from the sounds of it, didn’t have a lot of laughs. Myrtle Anderson (née McKee) was conservative even by the standards of the time, unhappy in her marriage (She says: “I’m leavin’ here” but she don’t go), and frequently butted heads with her wilful, reckless daughter as Joni hit adolescence.
She don’t like my kick pleat skirt
She don’t like my eyelids painted green
She don’t like me staying up late
In my high-heeled shoes
Unlike Myrtle — who, upon spotting her wunderkind’s de rigueur, hippie-dippie-gypsy outfit 15 minutes before a triumphant first solo concert at Carnegie Hall in 1969, helpfully blurted: “Oh, Joan, you’re not going on in those rags!” — that’s certainly not what pisses me off.
“It’s a long way,” Joni said with a laugh to open the concert, “from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to Carnegie Hall.”
It is. And it’s even farther from Fort Macleod, Alberta, where she was born in 1943, and the family’s two Saskatchewan stops, Maidstone and North Battleford, before winding up in the relative metropolis of Toon Town — which then had a population a little in excess of 100,000 — when she was 11.
“Don’t throw me in the briar patch! I was born in the briar parch,” Joni would later plead, after being pelted by ice at the Conspiracy of Hope benefit concert for Amnesty International in 1986.
The briar patch.
What gets under my skin, up my nose and through my Morgellons fibres (I don’t actually have any, as poor Joni believes she does) is the snobby, patronizing, condescending, disdainful, supercilious, lofty, vainglorious — I could go on, but let’s cut to the chase — pretty people reading Rolling Stone, reading Vogue, Margaret Atwoodish manner in which our Lady Oracle often paints the “Paris of the North,” the Prairies and the period as a cultural backwater incapable of appreciating the budding supernova of heart and mind that had mysteriously arisen in their midst.
“I worked in ladies’ wear and I modelled,” Joni told Rolling Stone in 1979, describing her dreary Saskatoon existence. “I had access to sample clothes that were too fashionable for our community, and I could buy them cheaply. I would go hang out on the streets, dressed to the T, even in hat and gloves.”
Credible, I guess, if a little snooty. But this is where the self-mythologizing gets fetched pretty far, proving yet again that if you smoke enough dope, the past will rewrite itself.
I hung out downtown with the Ukrainians and the Indians; they were more emotionally honest and they were better dancers. … When I went back to my own neighbourhood, I found that I had a provocative image. They thought I was loose because I always liked rowdies.
I thought the way the kids danced at my school was kind of, you know, funny. I remember a recurring statement on my report card — “Joan does not relate well.” I know that I was aloof. Perhaps some people thought that I was a snob.
Perhaps. The few who noticed her.
And maybe anyone who grew up in Saskatoon in Joni’s epoch would find the hanging-with-rowdies claim ridiculous, with gusts to risible.
It wasn’t until the late Seventies that the bona fide total apartheid system that prevailed for nearly a century on the Prairies — which barred treaty Indians, as they were then known, from leaving their reserves unless they had a pass from a federally appointed Indian agent — started to break down.
Growing up, I hardly ever saw a First Nations person in Saskatoon, save for some lost souls shuttling between a couple of derelict 20th Street hotel bars (at the edge of downtown but certainly not dancehalls). Oh, and as Wilf reminded me, a circle of teepees would be set up every year in conjunction with a celebration of “days gone by” called Pion-Era, along with obsolete threshing machines, hand butter churners and like that. It was a taste for white folks — to employ an offensive idiom from the time — of “honest injun,” Wild Bill Hickok-style entertainment, and the mostly Cree participants in the teepee encampment were returned to their reserves pronto at the end of the week. Get outta Dodge.
“When I was three feet tall and wide-eyed open to it all,” Mitchell relates in her 16-minute, fully orchestrated Paprika Plains, she made a stereotypical observation of Indigenous people to which most Prairie white kids from the era can relate. The song, which dreamily unspools over a full side of the 1977 album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, continues:
With their tasselled teams they came
To McGee's General Store
All in their beaded leathers
I would tie on coloured feathers
And I'd beat the drum like war
I would beat the drum like war
I'd beat the drum, I'd beat the drum like war
But when the church got through
They traded their beads for bottles
Smashed on Railway Avenue
And they cut off their braids
And lost some link with nature.
In the bad old days of residential schools, the Sixties Scoop of native children by culturally insensitive social workers, and overt, state-sanctioned racism, most of the city’s Métis residents — who now proudly proclaim their Indigenous heritage — publicly identified as French or Scottish or even Italian. That’s true even of Métis singer-songwriter Don Freed, who would wind up in a romance with Joni in the 1990s after collaborating with her on the album Taming the Tiger.
The song Cherokee Louise, on Joni’s transcendent 1991 album Night Ride Home, takes place partly under Saskatoon’s Broadway Bridge, where she visits a ... well, let’s let her tell the story, as she did before performing it at L.A.’s Autry Museum of the American West:
I had a best girlfriend when I moved from North Battleford, Saskatchewan, to Saskatoon, which was the closest thing we had to a big city up there. The Paris of the North! The City of Bridges! And the Broadway Bridge was a big concrete-span bridge. And the boys did their youth rites there. You had to crawl across it on your belly from one side to the other. And the river was wide, like the Mississippi, so it took some daring. I had a girlfriend who got misunderstood in the community, basically because of her genetics. She was an Indian kid in a foster home. This is her story.
The South Saskatchewan is nowhere near as wide as the Mississippi, but I was one of those climbing, crawling boys myself and I know what she’s talking about. The tragic plight of the Indian kid in the foster home, who wouldn’t have been Cherokee though kids could certainly have called her that, is that she is being sexually abused by her white foster father.
It’s a powerful song about the time and place that rings absolutely true, because horrific stuff like this happened to so many girls taken from their struggling parents and placed in non-native foster homes. I would meet a lot of them as a Star Phoenix reporter:
Cherokee Louise is hiding in this tunnel In the Broadway bridge We are crawling on our knees We've got flashlights and batteries We got cold cuts from the fridge
Last year about this time We used to climb up in the branches Just to sway there in some breeze Now the cops on the street They want Cherokee Louise
People like to talk Tongues are waggin’ over fences They’re waggin’ on the phones All their doors are locked God she can’t even come to our house But I know where she’ll go
To the place where you can stand And press your hands like it was bubble bath In dust piled high as me Down under the street My friend, poor Cherokee Louise Ever since we turned 13 It's like a minefield Walking to the door Going out to get your third degree And comin’ in you get the Third World War
Tuesday after school We put our pennies on the rails And when the train rolled by We were jumpin' round like fools Going: “Look no heads or tails” Going: “Look my lucky price”
Then she runs home to her foster dad He opens up his zipper And he yanks her to her knees Oh please be here, please My friend poor Cherokee Louise
Cherokee Louise is hiding in this tunnel In the Broadway bridge We’re crawling on our knees I've got Archie and Silver Screen I know where she is The place where you can stand And press your hands like it was bubble bath In dust piled high as me Down under the street My friend poor Cherokee Louise
Oh Cheeroke Louise Cherokee Louise Cherokee Louise Cherokee Louise Cherokee Louise Cherokee Louise Cherokee Louise Cherokee Louise Cherokee Louise Cherokee Louise Cherokee Louise
Can’t listen to that without tearing up. But it is fair, I think, to point out that Saskatoon was no better and no worse than anywhere else in Canada when it came to this sort of shameful abuse. Joni just happened to grow up there. And is it churlish to observe that I’m just just as Scandinavian ethnically as Joni is, but unlike her, I don’t think that automatically qualifies me to claim likely Sámi ancestry? High cheekbones be damned. She is most certainly not Lakota, as she pretends in a song from the 1988 album Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm.
As for those rowdy Ukrainians, holy Roy Romanow! Like most urban centres on the Prairies, Saskatoon has a sizable Ukrainian population that, apart from a higher-than-average consumption of borsht and perogies, is otherwise indistinguishable from the rest of the settler population.
Just as we did, the Andersons surely had Ukrainian neighbours on their block. But though this is a story that’s a drag to tell, there were no brightly painted, vodka-swilling, bandora-plucking Ukrainian caravans parading through the downtown streets in florally embroidered blouses, babushka scarves and vyshyvanka shirts.
Those sweetly parodical SCTV Happy Wanderers skits, featuring Stan and Yosh Shmenge on clarinet and accordion, were a more accurate portrait of the entertainment at Ukrainian cultural centres and church basements throughout Melonville-era Canada than the bohemian skein Joni stitched together for the gormless Rolling Stone journalist between what must have been exceedingly long puffs of her beloved dual-filter, we’d-rather-fight-than-switch Tareytons (or perhaps something a little weedier and seedier).
Not to belabour the point, but if she had really been dancing with those rebel-rebel Ukrainians, it was to either high-stepping folkloric, Cossack-style hopaks or sedate Lawrence Welkian polkas, her knapsack on her back, as Mrs. Vilve Yachke rattled coffee cups and cabbage rolls somewhere in the back. Val-deri. Val-dera. Ukrainians might indeed have been the finest dancers in the city, but considering that the competition was mainly Baptists and Mennonites, that was setting the limbo bar pretty high.
Remember, when the name is Shmenge, you know you got something.
When the name is Atwood, to return to my shoulder-chipped leitmotif of annoyance, resentment and general pissèdoffedness, you know you got something else.
I know she’s a world-class writer and I usually agree with her stances on politics and social issues, but I can’t bear her novels because I read/hear them in that condescending voice of infuriating, nasal superiority that blue-collar Prairie types like me — my dad was a welder, not some hoity-toity grocer with a desk job, not an entomologist like Atwood’s — instinctively associate with the elite Central Canadian artsy establishment.
Here, for example, is the doyenne of dystopia at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2007:
Joni Mitchell and I have some things in common. Though I’m older and she’s blonder. For instance, we were both members of the Canadian Lunatic Generation.
This was in the early Sixties when Canada was a blank spot on the map of global culture. If you said, “Say, I’m a novelist,” or you said, “Hi, I’m Joni Mitchell and I’m going to be a world-famous singer-songwriter,” other people said, “You’re a lunatic.”
Joni was in the audience and laughed heartily, according to Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell biographer David Yaffe, as Atwood added:
Multiply that by 10 for being from the Prairies. But Joni did it anyway. And aren’t we all glad that she did?
I’m a mega Joni fan, despite the impression I’ve given so far, and I’m exceedingly glad that she did.
Somebody break out the dulcimer for A Case of You.
But Atwood’s tribute — like Hillary Clinton’s famous remark about not being “some little woman standing by her man like Tammy Wynette” (just before standing by her cheating man, unlike Tammy Wynette, she of the double divorces and double annulments) — was the sort of tone-deaf, self-congratulatory putdown that turbocharges “I love the poorly educated” Trumpism south of the border and Pierre Poilievre’s bid to become the next prime minister in this country.
“Multiply that by 10 for being from the Prairies” translates down on the farm, back at the ranch, everywhere at Tim Hortons — and even so far as Des Moines, I’d venture to say, where the dry cleaners all wear polyester suits — as:
They think they’re better than you. Let’s torpedo gun control, defund the CBC and see who’s laughing then. Hell, yeah! Give ’er!
If you’re living in the Prairies or the Canadian North or the American South or Midwest and are repeatedly ridiculed for inhabiting an intellectual, artistic vacuum — a wilderland of stepping stones or sinking sand, a blank spot on the map of global culture — from which people with brains and talent have no choice but to escape, you’re walking around on fertile ground for reckless demagogues who know how to channel resentment. Especially when the witty, urbane detractors have never lived among you, like Atwood, or Mitchell since 1965.
In Joni’s hubristic response to a stuttering attempt in Saskatoon a decade ago to honour her with a museum, statue or maybe even a café — a bid that faltered partly due to financial constraints (damn the philistines and Babbitts who always want to spend the money instead on potholes and health care) — she ripped the city in an interview with the Star Phoenix as “an extremely bigoted community. It’s like the Deep South.”
People don’t get me there. They don’t get my ideas. I feel that it's very isolated, very unworldly, and doesn't grasp the idea of honour. …There are so many things I want to do, that I should be doing, without getting sidetracked into these dubious and eventually nonexistent honours.
Joni’s dressing-down didn’t stop intrepid supporters from eventually installing a plaque in her honour outside one of her old coffee house haunts, awarding her an honorary degree from the University of Saskatchewan and designating a Joni Mitchell Promenade along the river.
At the city’s now defunct Mendel Art gallery in 2000, there was a retrospective of her visual art, which I — knowing nothing about the matter — would charitably characterize as Maud Lewisesque, country station, a little bit corny, I-live-in-a-box-of-paints folksy. (John Ruskin probably would have had gooder words.)
On display, for example, were: an oil painting of a snow-covered rural Prairie road at dusk titled 40 below O; a re-creation, but with her own face, of the iconic ear-bandaged Van Gogh painting for which she won a Grammy on her 1994 Turbulent Indigo CD; and a quick backstage sketch of Neil Young not terribly more accomplished than what scores of smitten schoolgirls must have doodled in the margins of their Hilroy exercise books in the late 1960s.
My friend Kim Ennis, a superb sculptor, painter, art historian and teacher, took in the Mendel show: “It was a lot of paintings of herself, her boyfriends and her lewdly kissing her boyfriends. But it was well painted. When I saw the show I realized for the first time that her entire musical oeuvre is exactly the same.”
He was less impressed by a follow-up presentation: “She showed a bunch of giclées when I was working there in about 2005. It was crap, even more self-indulgent than usual but without the element of skilful painting. It was low-grade reproductions of photographs she took of her TV screen. War and other bad stuff, you know. I didn’t meet her but the staff who worked with her characterized her as unbearably arrogant and demanding. As you likely know, she is the only person in the world who is allowed to smoke (or was) in the galleries.”
Thousands of adoring fans attended the opening night of the 2000 show, including some who flew in from as far as Britain and Australia, at least as much to catch a glimpse of the lonely painter as of the works themselves. (The self-portrait that I’ve attached to this piece, by the way — the cover of her of contemplative 1969 album Clouds — shows her holding a western red lily, Saskatchewan’s floral emblem, with Saskatoon’s châteauesque Bessborough Hotel in the background on the west side of the river. That is not a Pacific sunset, as biographer Yaffe supposes. It’s paprika plain prairie all the way.)
These are the clouds of Michelangelo
Muscular with gods and sungold
Shine on your witness in the refuge of the roads
But no amount of adulation and outright obeisance seems to be enough for a star perpetually wrestling, as she jokes in the live version of Coyote on her resplendent Shadows and Lights album, “with my great big eeeeeeeego.” (Ten bonus points, fellow Joni heads, if you already knew the coyote in question was none other than actor Sam Shepard, who had a wife at home, another woman down the hall and seemed to want her anyway).
Why'd you have to get so drunk
And lead me on that way?
You just picked up a hitcher
A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway
Because they’re so good at endlessly expatiating on the matter, we all should have some appreciation of the bitter chafing, the sense of the suffocating frustration, the quotidian humiliations of great artists, particularly women, saddled with humble origins in small-town Canada even now.
They have to either be born with or develop the supreme confidence of a Mitchell or an Atwood, who has her own roots in Sault Ste. Marie and the backwoods of northern Quebec, where her father went about his business, to fend off the pressure to conform, to run with the herd, to settle for a mediocre life they consider bleached, wearisome and bone-washed dry. You know. Like the rest of us live.
It’s not an accident that Alice Munro won a Governor General’s Award and a Nobel Prize for the book of short stories that sums up the prevailing parochial attitude perfectly in its title: Who Do You Think You Are?
As Mitchell put it in an interview I stumbled upon on the Net:
I was a very reluctant star, you know, to be that high profile. You know, I mean, coming from small towns in Saskatchewan, you’re trained to a certain conservatism. You know, it’s almost like a crime to stick your head above the crowd.
It is quite a cross to bear. And I’m only partially kidding.
Joni’s classical agon — that’s not too strong a word, though I’m being a bit Atwoody myself in unleashing it — with the conservatism of her mother, with the social constraints and soul-sucking standards that we were all immersed in at birth — is expressed so journalistically in her song Face Lift that I’m going to quote it at length here.
The tune from her 1998 Taming the Tiger CD is about visiting her parents for Christmas and staying at a hotel with a lover. I surmise from the lyrics that it’s the Bessborough and Freed she’s talking about, though I could be wrong on both counts:
I went so numb on Christmas Day
I couldn't feel my hands or feet
I shouldn't have come
She made me pay
For gleaming with Donald down her street
She put blame on him
And shame on me
She made it all seem so tawdry and cheap
Oh, let's be nice, Mama, open up your gifts
You know, happiness is the best face lift
I mean, after all, she introduced us
Oh, but she regrets that now
Shacked up downtown
Making love without a licence
Same old sacred cow
She said, "Did you come home to disgrace us?"
I said, "Why is this joy not allowed?"
For God's sake, I'm middle-aged, Mama
And time moves swift
And you know happiness is the best face lift
Oh, love takes so much courage
Love takes so much shit
She said, "You've seen too many movies, Joni"
She said, "Snap out of it"
Oh, the cold winds blew at our room with a view
All helpful and hopeful and candlelit
We kissed the angels and the moon eclipsed
You know, happiness is the best face lift
We pushed the bed up to the window
To see the Christmas lights
On the east bank across the steaming river
Between the bridges lit up Paris-like
This river has run through both our lives
Between these banks of our continuing delights
Bless us, don't let us lose the drift
You know, Happiness is the best face lift
That river runs through my life, too, and the song makes me homesick to the marrow in my cancer-ridden bones. It neatly encapsulates the conflict we Boomers had with the Greatest Generation, mostly over those very good friends of ours.
A lot of Joni’s better songs were either for or about the men who passed through her life: A Case of You, This Flight Tonight, Rainy Night House, The Gallery and possibly That Song About the Midway (though David Crosby still insists that it’s about him) are the sonic offspring of her relationship with Leonard Cohen, who called his mother. She was very tense.
In A Case of You, Joni drew a map of Canada, O Canada, with the face of pop’s poet laureate, the high priest of pathos, the godfather of gloom, sketched on it twice.
The Dawntreader was certainly about Crosby, an incompetent producer — he screwed up the mix on Joni’s debut album, Song to a Seagull, in 1968 — but a skilled sailor who took her on a schooner and treated her like a queen.
The song Blue — with its “acid, booze and ass, needles, guns and grass” — is about James Taylor in his “hell’s the hippest way to go” days. Lots of laughs? Joni didn’t think so but was willing to “take a look around it though.”
That openness helped precipitate her own unruly cocaine habit even before Taylor, scared sober by the fatal overdose of fellow addict John Belushi, had learned to push away from the buffet table. Sweet dreams and flying machines and pieces on the ground.
My Old Man and River (not to be conflated into Old Man River) were inspired by Graham Nash, the best baby Joni ever had. So was Willy, and I ain’t touching that one (OK, I will; Willy is Nash’s nickname).
Free Man in Paris is about Asylum Records co-creator and all-round business magnate David Geffen. Carey, dating from Joni’s brief period with a cave-dwelling hippie colony beneath the Matala moon, is about Cary Raditz, a bright red devil and mean old Daddy who had volunteered for the Peace Corps.
It’s Warren Beatty, who’d had lots of lovely women and probably still thinks Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain is about him, who turns his gaze to Joni in her song Same Situation, “weighing the beauty and the imperfections to see if I’m worthy.”
A Strange Boy was a flight attendant in his thirties who lived with his parents. Whatever turns you on. (But still, as a general rule, try not to tryst anybody over 30.)
Cue polychords with idiosyncratic open tunings.
With Joni as a muse, her musically minded lovers couldn’t help but reciprocate. Cohen, as constant as the northern star, had her in mind when he wrote Joan of Arc (no man to get her through this very smoky night).
You Can Close Your Eyes was Taylor’s offering; she “could sing this song when I’m gone.”
Come to me now and rest your head for just five minutes while listening to Nash’s Our House about the couple’s idyllic Laurel Canyon period among cloisonné boxes, art nouveau lamps and at least one vase at 8217 Lookout Mountain Avenue.
(Score another 10 points on the El Lay Mitch-o-Meter — an offensive Rolling Stone invention — if you knew the disaffected Hollie fell in love with Joni while standing on her doorstep and wound up harmonizing with Crosby and Stephen Stills for the first time a few minutes later in her living room.)
Joni and Bob Dylan were never an item, but he says he was Tangled Up in Blue — c’est-à-dire, her 1971 Blue LP — when writing the opening track for Blood on the Tracks four years later. Both are regarded by many rock critics as among the finest albums of all time. Neither is rock.
Cue the Appalachian dulcimer.
I could go on making gossipy connections garnered from various sources, counting them like railroad cars — stay with me if you can, if you’re really prepared to bleed — but the point is that the songs stick in our heads, like my memory of the radiant girl shimmering by the pool, because they’re really about us: who we are when we first heard them and who we are now. “Otherwise,” as Joni cautioned Yaffe, “you’re just rubbernecking a car accident.”
Now that we’re closer to the hissing of cemetery lawns in this journey between the forceps and the stone, it’s impossible to deny that the young girl who looked at life from both sides a long, long time ago has lent a multi-octave voice to some stunningly universal truths.
That left hand, weakened by polio, just a single finger running up and down the neck.
Who has yet to discover that after the rush, when you come back down, you’re always disappointed? Nothing seems to keep you high:
Drive your bargains
Push your papers
Win your medals
Fuck your strangers
Don't it leave you on the empty side
For a generation schooled on loving the one you’re with, here’s a bit of hard-won wisdom from a temporary defector from the petty wars:
I know no one's going to show me everything
We all come and go unknown
Each so deep and superficial …
Well, I looked at the granite markers
Those tributes to finality to eternity
And then I looked at myself here
Chicken-scratching for my immortality
In the church they light the candles
And the wax rolls down like tears
There's the hope and the hopelessness
I've witnessed 30 years
We're only particles of change I know I know
Orbiting around the sun
But how can I have that point of view
When I'm always bound and tied to someone
White flags of winter chimneys
Waving truce against the moon
In the mirrors of a modern bank
From the window of a hotel room
I'm travelling in some vehicle
I'm sitting in some café
A defector from the petty wars
Until love sucks me back that way.
Now that’s what I call chicken-scratching for one’s immortality.
Half a bloody century ago, reviewing her 1972 appearance at Carnegie Hall, Don Hackman confessed in the New York Times to the suspicion “that in her own way Joni Mitchell may be one of the most genuinely gifted composers North America has yet developed. That she chooses to express her art in small forms and personal sentiments in no way reduces either its impact or its importance.”
That’s the nub of the argument, the core of her appeal. Songs about tin soldiers and Nixon comin’ or epic Democratic National Conventions age. Small forms and personal sentiments — disclosure, vulnerability, desire, anger, jealousy — never do. There’s a reason Joni’s immense fan base includes great jazz musicians like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, whose tribute album River: The Joni Letters won the 2008 Grammy Award for Album of the Year. There’s a reason Jimi Hendrix and Prince were so crazy about her. Check out His Royal Badness’s Ballad of Dorothy Parker:
Mind if I turn on the radio? Oh, my favourite song, she said. And it was Joni singing, Help me, I think I’m falling …
Love came to Joni’s door many, many times. As have scores of laurels, including this year’s tribute concert at which the 78-year-old — slowly recovering from the 2015 aneurysm that had rendered her incapable of speech or walking — was honoured by the likes of Hancock, Meryl Streep, Jon Batiste, John Legend, and Beck as the 2022 MusicCares Person of the year, a gala event put on by the Recording Academy two days before the Grammys.
“Not unlike people who lived in the time of Shakespeare, and of Beethoven, we are living in the time of Joni Mitchell, and it shows tonight,” said Brandi Carlile, who sang a version of Woodstock. According to a gushing Associated Press report, “the song began as a quiet ballad before the house band kicked in and Stephen Stills — who played on the most famous version of the 1970 song with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young — joined her for an electric guitar solo.”
Cue Cyndi Lauper on the mountain dulcimer.
Led Zeppelin’s song Going to California (To find a queen without a king; they say she plays guitar and cries and sings) was naturally about you know whom. Janet Jackson’s Got ’Til It’s Gone, which heavily samples Big Yellow Taxi, features the rapper Q-Tip cantillating the background mantra: Joni Mitchell never lies … lies … lies.
And I guess that’s what pisses me off. Like Icarus ascending on beautiful, foolish arms, maybe I’m getting too close to the sun. Avez-vous une allumette? But sometimes it’s better to prevaricate. Nothing lasts for long.
Even if humility has never been her thing and the sunlight of all that adoration has renewed her pride — Yaffe quotes Crosby as calling Mitchell “about as modest as Mussolini” — it must take some pretty vigorous stoking of the star-making machinery behind the popular song to regularly compare oneself to Miles Davis, Beethoven, Picasso and Van Gogh.
Jesus, Joni. Let the acolytes and courtiers, like Carlile — who does several splendid renditions of River on YouTube, by the way — do that. You’ve seen too many movies. Snap out of it. We’ll all walk green pastures by and by.
Maybe I’m a sexist pig and wouldn’t be saying this about male superstars who occasionally come across as vain and petty-war combatants in their public pronouncements. Maybe you have to be soaking in amour propre and turn yourself into a bit of a monster to survive in showbiz.
As Joni told Cameron Crowe in a cover story for Rolling Stone after the release of Blue:
I came to another turning point — that terrible opportunity that people are given in their lives. The day that they discover to the tips of their toes that they’re assholes [solemn moment, then a gale of laughter]. And you have to work from there. And decide what your values are. Which parts of you are no longer necessary. They belong to a childhood’s end. Blue really was a turning point in a lot of ways.
But Joni Mitchell pisses me off because in the world I want to live in — a world of moons and Junes and ferris wheels — anyone who can reach out to others the way she does (“love is touching souls,” Joni sang, quoting Cohen quoting Rilke) — shouldn’t be a narcissistic asshole. They can’t be. They just can’t. I’ve got a head full of quandary and a mighty, mighty thirst.
Don’t give yourself away.
As a fellow hunk of billion-year-old carbon, I want Joan Anderson to be better than the snippy stardust who routinely writes off Dylan and Cohen as mere “pacesetters” to her genius.
Maybe, if you’ve never really loved (I guess that is the truth) and spent your whole life in clouds at icy altitudes, it’s easy to dismiss Judy Collins — whose 1967 recording of Both Sides, Now was a career breakthrough for both of them — as sounding “like the damsel in the greenroom. There’s something la-di-da about her.”
Maybe making your babies cry and issuing brutally honest, cutting assessments of parents and peers — in the wake of one failed relationship after another (Jackson Browne, “the worst one of all, the very worst one,” committed the unpardonable sin of pulling the plug first) — is an unavoidable, people’s-parties byproduct of the three great stimulants: artifice, brutality and arrogance. As golden Reggie taught her way back in Maidstone, first you get the kisses, then you get the tears. Wild things run fast. She’s so busy being free.
Cue the beat of black wings.
It’s one thing to be cursed with sincerity and not have a public persona, à la Dylan or Cohen, to hide behind, as Joni has often lamented. But if you care, maybe it really would be better to never let them know. Ever.
Back in your hometown on the partly out-of-tune (like the strings in the song) paprika plains, where simple, racist, sky-oriented people geared to changing weather would have cleared the floor just to watch the rain come down, there’s really no call to publicly denigrate your old homies — the hayseeds, the boors and the bumpkins, the yahoos, the Clem Kadiddlehoppers, the hillbillies — for being insufficiently shocked and awed.
Woman from Martensville (or thereabouts), this time you went too far.
That’s not a judgment of the moon and stars. Just a boy’s at the pool — my secret place — born in the dreary gap between what we have now and what we wish we could have.
On the inside of 1972’s For the Roses album, there’s a photo of a 20something Joni standing on a rocky promontory outside her refuge on the Sunshine Coast. She had wanted it to be the cover, but caved — uncharacteristically — when her manager asked her: “Joan, how would you like to see $5.98 plastered across your ass?”
Joni orchestrated the photo session, of course. “It was going to be like a Magritte or a Starry Night,” she told Yaffe. “And it’s a very innocent nude. It’s like Botticelli’s Aphrodite. I’ve had a few bum comments. It’s a nice bum. It’s no big deal. The cock of the leg is Aphrodite rising from the clamshell.”
See the blue pool in the squinting sun? The cool, clear water? The kind girl, oiled and shining? Shining hair and shining skin. Shining as she reeled him in.
I’m floating back. I’m floating back to you.
Before we both get any sicker, I want to wreck our compression stockings in some Ukebox dive.