‘Reckless Daughter’: A Protective Biography of Joni Mitchell

by Francine Prose
New York Times
November 28, 2017

RECKLESS DAUGHTER- A Portrait of Joni Mitchell
By David Yaffe
Illustrated. 420 pp. Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $28.

Reading "Reckless Daughter," David Yaffe's biography of Joni Mitchell, I was surprised to discover how many of her songs I remember, more or less in their entirety. What a tribute, it seems, that her evocative character sketches and laments for doomed love - melodically unpredictable, literary, convoluted and mostly lacking catchy pop refrains - should have remained so familiar, and that they should still strike us as so beautiful, smart and inventive.

Her music has aged well, partly because of the risks she's taken and the depths she's plumbed. She reminds us of the fact that the women who most passionately love and need men are, by necessity, the most acute and dispassionate observers of male behavior and of the ways in which men - rattling on, as if to themselves - reveal themselves to women. Her observational skills enable her to assume the personae - to channel the voices - of the opposite sex. Simultaneously boasting and complaining about the burden of power, a record producer celebrates a respite, as a "Free Man in Paris," from the weight of his own importance. In "The Last Time I Saw Richard," an embittered, lonely cynic projects his romantic disillusion onto his friend, mocking her taste for "pretty men" when he is the one who will marry "a figure skater," a union sealed with the purchase of a dishwasher and a coffee pot.

Ruing the ease with which success can wreck an artist's pleasure in making art, "For Free" is yet another chapter in Mitchell's continuing report from the war between two irreconcilable desires: the need for independence and the longing for security. Inspired by her romance with Leonard Cohen, "A Case of You" is as rich with detail as a short story - a highly compressed narrative about a woman who will never get over the lover who describes (or masks) his feelings for her by paraphrasing Rilke and quoting Shakespeare. Among the things that make the song so unusual are that it begins with a quick, brainy argument that the woman wins, and it includes an admission that her memories of the lover mostly affect her writing. ("Part of you pours out of me / In these lines from time to time.") Mitchell sings it movingly, accompanied by the spare, insistent zither, but let me also recommend Prince's wrenching cover, a full-out emotional rendition that, by contrast, makes us aware of Mitchell's wry, knowing reserve.

"Reckless Daughter" takes us from the Canadian town - Fort Macleod, Alberta - where Roberta Joan Anderson, born into a conventional household in 1943, loved nature and hated school. Childhood polio damaged her left hand, a handicap that would later inspire her to use the open guitar tunings that became her trademark. Her family moved to Saskatoon, and she attended art school in Calgary, where she performed in folk clubs, and where she became pregnant after a brief affair. She married a singer, Chuck Mitchell, who agreed that she should surrender her infant daughter for adoption, a decision that would haunt her. Still in her 20s, she outgrew Mitchell after their move to Manhattan, where she played in downtown clubs and had her first major hit when Judy Collins recorded her song "Both Sides, Now." Professional and artistic triumphs followed, as did love affairs with, among others, Cohen, Graham Nash, James Taylor, Sam Shepard, Jackson Browne and Jaco Pastorius.

We hear about the influences that included Dylan, Piaf, Nietzsche, Brando, Mingus and Mitchell's seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Kratzmann. Yaffe, a music critic and a professor at Syracuse University, has immense respect for his subject's stamina ("Joni became Joni through the ten-thousand-plus hours she put in on the road") and for the talent that Cohen recognized even in the speed with which she tuned her guitar: "Just to hold all those tunings in her mind indicates a superior intellect. I remember being overwhelmed by the fertility and the abundance of her artistic enterprise, because it was so much more vast and rich and varied and seemingly effortless than the way I looked at things."

As "Restless Daughter" tracks Mitchell's musical development and her battles for creative control on tour and in the recording studio, its readers come to understand how much integrity was required for her to allow her love for jazz (never the most lucrative genre) to exert an increasing influence on her work. Equally admirable is her resilience in overcoming setbacks - dimwitted reviews, disappointing sales, an unproductive flirtation with 1980s synth-pop - and her struggles with substance addictions, among them a four-pack-a-day cigarette habit that affected her voice.

In a preface, Yaffe describes the enchanted night, in 2007, when he stayed up talking to Mitchell for an interview for The New York Times - and the ensuing warmth that stopped cold when the article appeared. "There were things about it that felt to her like an invasion, a betrayal." Years later, a mutual friend brokered a rapprochement, and throughout "Reckless Daughter," one senses Yaffe's reluctance to make the same mistake twice. I can't think of another biography in which I felt so strongly that the writer was worried about preserving the good opinion of his subject.

Perhaps as a consequence, Yaffe declines to question some problematic choices, such as Mitchell's appearance in blackface on the cover of her 1977 album, "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," and dressing as a black pimp for Halloween. While admitting that "what was troubling was that her desire to be the black man on the street superseded the unsettling history," he ascribes it to her innocence of the "historical baggage" of minstrelsy. This sounds a little dubious. I was alive in the 1970s, and no white person with any brains was unaware of the "baggage" of blackface. Yaffe assures us that "Chaka Khan, who, as a teenager, had been a member of the militant Black Panther party, had no problem with the cover of the album for which she provided vocals." And Yaffe manages to make things even worse when he attempts to explain Mitchell's behavior by quoting W. E. B. Du Bois on the "double consciousness" experienced by black people: "Joni in her own way was pushing back against the limitations of a society that didn't know quite what to do with her mix of creative muscle and distinctly feminine sensibility."

Yaffe staunchly defends his subject from criticism; Rickie Lee Jones's accusation that Mitchell "didn't walk on the jazz side of life," Yaffe writes, prompts an outraged rebuttal: "Rickie Lee Jones sang with a fake black accent. Wasn't that pretentious?" Only at rare moments does the biographer let Mitchell's dark side - evident, for example, in how pitiless she can be toward former lovers and spouses - speak for itself. Chuck Mitchell was a "major exploiter," Leonard Cohen a "phony Buddhist" and "the high prince of envy." Mitchell's second husband, Larry Klein, was one of several "puffed-up dwarfs." James Taylor "was incapable of affection. He was just a mess."

Uncritical admiration can make "Reckless Daughter" seem like a 400-page fan letter, though one certainly prefers Yaffe's approach to that of biographers who despise their subjects. Championing Mitchell, right or wrong, and trying to stay on her good side is not exactly the same as taking her seriously as a composer and performer. Ultimately, it hardly matters. The person who wrote and sang "Blue," "Court and Spark" and "Hejira" doesn't need protection from readers who, decades after those albums appeared, remember Mitchell's songs. Anthems not only of restlessness and heartbreak but also of intelligence, insight and courage, they are tributes to the power of music to imprint itself indelibly on the consciousness of its listeners.


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