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CRITICAL MASS: Joni Mitchell — Don't interrupt the sorrow

by Philip Martin | April 14, 2019 at 3:30 a.m.
Joni Mitchell is presented with a birthday cake onstage during Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration on Nov. 7 in Los Angeles. (The Associated Press)

When an artist ceases to work, they don't cease to be an artist. The same neurons snap, the same intelligence contemplates the world. It is selfish to want more than the artist is willing to show; these days Joni Mitchell paints for herself, and maybe sings (she once said she'd never give it up), if only in her head.

We have become used to the elderly on stage, the bands reformed for one last (right) cash-in tour. Mick Jagger apologized for delaying a tour from his hospital bed after heart valve replacement surgery. Bob Dylan soldiers on, the tour endless. Leonard Cohen finally gave it up at 82.

But Our Lady of Saskatoon retired -- or at least semiretired -- nearly 20 years ago. There were compilations with some old unreleased tracks in the first years of the 21st century. Then she released Shine in 2007; on the same day her friend and sometime collaborator Herbie Hancock released

Joni Mitchell and Herbie Hancock (Democrat-Gazette file photo)
Joni Mitchell and Herbie Hancock (Democrat-Gazette file photo)

River: The Joni Letters, a valedictory collection of Mitchell covers that went on to beat out Amy Winehouse's Back to Black, Foo Fighters' Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, Vince Gill's These Days and Kanye West's Graduation for the 2008 album of the year Grammy. That same evening, Mitchell won the Grammy for best instrumental pop performance for "One Week Last Summer," the opening track from Shine.

Since then, Mitchell has busied herself with writing her memoirs -- promised since the 1990s, a proposed four-volume set with the opening line "I was the only black man at the party" -- working with a ballet company in Calgary, allegedly directing a documentary and, as always, painting. She declared herself out of the music business in 2010, and in a ferocious exit interview with the Los Angeles Times, bristled when she was compared in passing to Dylan.

"We are like night and day, he and I," she told Times writer Matt Diehl. "Bob is not authentic at all. He's a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception."

In November, she made a brief smiling appearance at a 75th birthday tribute concert that took place over two nights at Los Angeles' Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. James Taylor, Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Graham Nash, Kris Kristofferson, Los Lobos, Seal, and Rufus Wainwright were a few of the artists who interpreted Mitchell's work; a live album and concert film, both called Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration, were produced. (The film was screened in select theaters on Feb. 7; streaming and home video details have yet to be announced.)

We may never hear much from her again.


Grief mightn't be the appropriate emotion, but sadness leaches through us with every marker of mortality. Mitchell gave us the '70s and '80s -- a long-enough career. Her discography counts 19 studio albums and nine compilations.

Not bad for a prairie girl who was first a painter. She started singing for campfire kicks and pocket change; by 1965 Joni Anderson -- as she was known before she married Chuck Mitchell; she always regretted the name change she said he forced on her -- had already begun to "attract a following." She played on the Canadian TV program Let's Sing Out, a bel canto chanteuse with an immaculate vibrato and breath control playing a four song set (notably in standard guitar tuning) of a couple of traditional ballads, John Phillips' "Me and My Uncle," and working in an original, "My Favourite Colour," a bit of cloying juvenilia Mitchell had the taste never to release.

Sample lyric:

Man is many colours child:

Some are yellow,

some are brown.

And some are black

as sightlessness,

Some white as eiderdown.

She took her crayons

from a box

And placed them

in my glove

And said, "By mixing all

of these

Comes my favourite

colour -- love."

Despite that, one could make the case for Mitchell as rock's greatest lyricist. Her words were fine-wrought and disciplined; she was no emotional fire hose, no spewer, never one who wore her pain as an ornament. She was not about image over substance, she was no gartered bluffing poseur glaring through black mascara. Mitchell worked at forging language and matching it to complex, snaky melodies. She understood song as more than a poem set to music, that the words were integrated into the music, that they were sounds first, that the human voice was an elastic instrument, a conduit of emotive flow as much as a conveyor of data and sense.

Mitchell did have a poet's sense of the connotative quality of freighted words: "Newsreels rattle the Nazi dread" sounds less like a line from a pop song ("The Tea Leaf Prophecy" from 1988's Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm and reprised with Hancock on River) than an outtake image from one of William Carlos Williams' notebooks. "Rattle" is the only word for this context, for its novelty and suggestion of discomfiting frenzy, as well as for a certain onomatopoeic quality.

It also has the right meter and mouth feel, a flutter of hard consonants swallowed by the singer in that offhand conversational contralto she smoked herself into. You could argue that it's a minor song on a minor album, a moment barely considered, but it nevertheless stands as evidence of a mighty discipline.

It's not poetry -- it's something more and less, a different kind of art form from the kind of art songs (and you can call them that) of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht as they were from the juney moony vernacular of the greasy kids' stuff. Mitchell understood that it was ultimately the sound of the song that mattered, but it was her command of the language that attracted a certain kind of Joniphile.

Mitchell took Dylan's imagistic playfulness, focused it to laser acuity and turned it on herself with an unflinching, sometimes cringe-inducing honesty. Mitchell was not afraid to reveal herself as shrill and unkind as well as vulnerable. In the lyrics of "Not to Blame" from her 1994 album Turbulent Indigo, Mitchell seemed to indict her former friend Jackson Browne, who'd been accused in the tabloids of battering his then-girlfriend Daryl Hannah.

Browne's first wife, Phyllis, committed suicide when their son Ethan was 3 years old. (One can consult Browne's "Sleep's Dark and Silent Gate" on his 1976 album The Pretender for his side of the story.)

While Mitchell has said the song is "about the batterers of women ... it's dumb to reduce the song to the portrait of an individual," it's clear Browne thought the song was about him. He gave dozens of interviews about it; he said Joni was not well, he suggested she was bitter and disappointed.

Leaving aside the questions raised by the song -- is the doe-eyed embodiment of the sensitive California singer/songwriter really a thuggish girlfriend beater? -- it's possible to argue that "Not to Blame" was an irresponsible gesture on a couple of levels. It's one thing to suspect an acquaintance of behaving like a cad. It's quite another to attack him publicly on a record album.

Maybe "Not to Blame" is indicative of a certain tendency to stridency that is Mitchell's least attractive quality as a lyricist. "Big Yellow Taxi" may be her biggest hit, but it's also one of her least successful, most on-the-nose lyrics. It could have been written by any number of lesser lights, it sounds like the novelty song it has become.

"Not to Blame" is an example of Mitchell's willingness to push on into darker channels, even when it's obvious the probe is not in her larger commercial interests. Lyrically, songs like "Sex Kills" (also off Turbulent Indigo) display a remarkable lack of subtlety and seem like a retreat from Mitchell's earlier work. In some ways she never surpassed the confessional classics of 1971's Blue. While Mitchell's musical sensibilities grew more catholic, she never wrote lyrics better than "Case of You," "Carey," "California" and "All I Want."

In the end, it seems that Mitchell might agree with that assessment; in a 2004 interview with Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn, she admitted that "everything in my later career, with few exceptions, has been compared unfavorably to my early work. I've done 16 records hearing people say, 'You're not as good as you used to be. Finally, I said, 'OK, I agree with you.'"


There is another aspect of Mitchell that deserves to be considered, a gift she has that exceeds her way with words. She is an extraordinary musician, blessed with one of those freakish ears for arrangement. It's said her unique guitar tunings (her "weird Joni chords") evolved from her physical inability to barre an F chord, that she re-ordered the fret board to compensate for this supposed weakness and found rich veins to exploit.

That's sexist garbage. She simply hears things we don't.

Listen to her albums in rough chronological order and the musical genius of Mitchell -- a genius she probably didn't even know she owned while she was growing up smart and arty back in Fort Macleod, Alberta -- emerges as she gains confidence and competence, moving from the straightforward folk of her early stuff through the exhilarating whitewater precipitousness of her jazzy midcareer albums to the command of a grand master on her later works.

Starting with the still underrated The Hissing of Summer Lawns in 1973 and continuing through Hejira (1976), Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977) and Mingus (1979), Mitchell charged through the traditional boundaries of pop music, leading us on a magical mystery tour that is by turns jazzy, propulsive, funky and self-indulgent. Not many followed her through the swooping loopiness of this musical walkabout, but those who could recognize that she was far more than a lank-haired girl with a guitar. This run is evidence that Joni Mitchell was a bigger influence on Prince than Jimi Hendrix or Michael Jackson.

After that, Mitchell had pretty much transformed from a singer/songwriter with certain commercial expectations to a kind of icon, a singular artist with a cult. She was ripe for parody -- especially self-parody -- but she was also insulated from the vagaries of careerism. She had fans who would support her in the style to which she had become accustomed. She had her work to sustain her. She married fusion bassist Larry Klein and together they put out a nice record called Wild Things Run Fast in 1982. And Dog Eat Dog in 1985 seemed almost matronly, the product of a domesticated goddess. The brilliant Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm came out of nowhere in 1988, with Mitchell developing into an astute observer of others as well as a self-revealer.

Then there were the albums of the 1990s -- Night Ride Home (1991), Turbulent Indigo (1994), Taming the Tiger (1998) -- all fine, substantial and evocative works of a mature and disciplined artist. More recently there were reworkings of standards and the orchestral greatest hits package Travelogue (2002).

Shine was a throwback to the early '70s work, a sometimes prickly album that nodded to the past with a reworked (and jittery fatalistic) version of "Big Yellow Taxi" but also gave us the poly-rhythmic "Night of the Iguana," which features both her most aggressive acoustic guitar playing and a typically precise and (atypically compassionate) dissection of human nature in the lyric:

The jasmine is so

mercilessly sweet

Night of the iguana

Can you hear the


It's the widow

and her lover boys

Down on the beach

It's like David Hockney wrote a song with Tennessee Williams and Carlos Montoya.

Joni Mitchell shows her excitement after her first, sold-out performance in New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1969. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)
Joni Mitchell shows her excitement after her first, sold-out performance in New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1969. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)


Mitchell hasn't dealt with the star-maker machinery for a long time. Her back catalog will sustain her, it will generate generational wealth. She will not do a greatest hits tour, she will not play an oldies show.

Still, it is difficult to imagine any of her albums were ever out of print -- Dog Eat Dog and Wild Things Run Fast were for a time, available only in the cutout bins (a string of words that might make no sense to anyone under the age of 45). Now a few clicks will allow you to celebrate her entire catalog. Joni's deep career is available, her back pages still open for inspection. No doubt someone is just now discovering Song for a Seagull.

It is funny how it has come to this, difficult to imagine the stars you grew up with growing old while retaining a place in the culture. Elvis is ageless; you are as likely to encounter him as a black-haired and droopy-eyed post-adolescent as the sad fat man in the jump suit. Mitchell is still the slender blonde with the guitar and the overbite, cigarette sizzling between her thin fingers. We are star dust, we are carbon -- and a few of us are something more durable, something indestructible echoing out in the vastness, refracting off the vaults of heaven.


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Style on 04/14/2019

Print Headline: Joni Mitchell: Don't interrupt the sorrow


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