Burning Bright

by Christoper John Farley
Time (Magazine)
October 12, 1998

Joni Mitchell keeps her own time. Twenty-nine years after Woodstock, 29 years after she turned back en route to playing the original, generation-defining concert because she had heard about the mud, heard about the traffic, heard that it was all a disaster anyway, 29 years later, she is at "A Day at the Garden," a memorial concert held in August at the site of the original fesitval in Bethel, New York. "Took 30 years to get here," she cracks as she takes the stage. The crowd at that first Woodstock was half a million; at this sequel it's about 20,000.

No matter. Mitchell is in a good mood and in good voice, and she delivers a jazzy, ebullient set, floating through a few songs from her latest CD, Taming the Tiger. Then, alone with her guitar, she offers up a spare, resonant reading of her gently anthemic song Woodstock. "We are stardust...And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden...."she sings. The lyrics seem to belong to another age, an era of idealism and Abbie Hoffman and moon landings and electric Kool-Aid acid tests and B-52's bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But even as she sings, Mitchell is planted in the present. There's a rootedness about her; she's too grounded to be carried off by gusts of nostalgia. She keeps her own time.

With protest songs such as Big Yellow Taxi and classic folk-pop albums like Blue, the Canadian-born Mitchell established herself as one of the most important singer-songwriters in rock. But she doesn't consider herself a folkie; she sees herself somewhere between Miles Davis and Bob Dylan - unclassifable. She has bebopped with Charles Mingus and explored African rhythms with the warrior drums of Burundi. A record store of younger artists - Seal, Sarah McLachlan, even Janet Jackson - has acknowledged her influence. Virtually every act on the first Lillith Fair owned her a debt, if not royalties. But because she's been no groundbreaking, so musically mercurial, she has not always reaped the critical and commercial rewards she so richly deserves.

The industry dropped me for 20 years," says Mitchell, now 55. "They wouldn't let me in. No matter what I did, they wouldn't let me on the radio (or) or MTC." She says most of what she hears on the radio is "crap". It's all about Wall Street now. And the record is just a poker chip. And these, you now, artists are going willingly into the slaughter. "There are, however, a few things she likes. "Most of my favourite artists are black," says Mitchell, who admires James Brown, Etta James and Duke Ellington. "All modern music is black." She also has nothing but praise for Janet Jackson's song Tot Til It's Gone, an R&B reworking of Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi. But she has mostly contempt for alternative rock. "Everybody says Kurt Cobain was a great writer. I don't see it," Mitchell says. "Why is he a hero? Whining and killing yourself - I fail to see the heroism in that."

Taming the Tiger doesn't sound like anything else on the radio right now; that's both the CD's strength and its burden. Mitchell refused to rest easily in the folk-pop genre she helped establish. Tiger is composed of crystalline tones: breezy guitars that ring like wind chimes; crisp, jazzy vocals. A few of the songs attack pop radio ("Boring!" she sings). On other numbers Mitchell gets more personal, recounting her mother's disapproval of a live-in boyfriend. Mitchell's reply: "For God's sake! I'm middle-aged, Mama." And on the album's best song, Harlem in Havana, Mitchell summons up childhood memories of sneaking off to watch risque carnival sideshows. "Aunt Ruthie would have cried," she sings. "If she knew/We were on the inside."

In the past, Mitchell's introspective song lyrics have been laced with references to a haunting event from her youth. In 1964, when Roberta Joan Anderson (Mitchell's given name) was 21, she gave up her daughter for adoption. Last year, however, Mitchell and her daughter Kilauren Gibb were reunited. The singer says she is now learning how to be a mother. "It's tricky to mother someone who's a grown woman," she says. "We've had a couple of skirmishes already. We worked our way through them. she was going through second teenage rebellion with me. It's interesting."

At a time when acts like 'N Sync and Backstreet Boys cavort in the upper reaches of the charts like kids atop a treehouse, a CD such as Taming the Tiger, whose title song was inspired by 18th century poet William Blake, is a tough sell - unless you're selling it to fans of 18th century English poetry. But Joni will be Joni when the trends have trended out. To paraphrase Blake, she still burns bright."

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