Library of Articles

  • Library: Articles

Dial it down, lose the signal Print-ready version

by Karla Peterson
San Diego Union Tribune
March 31, 2003

For artists, opinions and creativity go hand in hand

In the new "American Masters" documentary on Joni Mitchell (airing Wednesday at 9 p.m. on KPBS), many famous people say many glowing things about this Roman candle of talent. But even as David Crosby, Graham Nash and friends send up flares of praise, the real sparks come from the firecracker herself.

I am on a lonely road and I am traveling, traveling, traveling, traveling.

If you tune in, that line from "All I Want" is the first thing you'll hear. And like the many other lyrical snippets producer Susan Lacy weaves through her absorbing 90-minute film, those words harness Mitchell's light with diamond-cutter precision.

But there is more to "Joni Mitchell: A Woman of Heart and Mind" than one woman's formidable songbook.

In a time when many people are wondering why entertainers can't just shut up and entertain, the impact of Mitchell's live-wire music reminds us why an artist in a bubble is the last thing we want. And why an observant artist on the road can be the best messenger we have.

At 21, Mitchell was unmarried and pregnant with a baby she would have to give up for adoption. At 22, she was unhappily married to a man she would soon divorce. At 25, she released her self-titled debut album. It was 1968, and Mitchell's songs about her own rocky pursuit of sexual and social independence had a whole generation tuning in.

I can't go back there anymore, sings the conflicted heroine of "I Had a King." You know my keys won't fit the door/You know my thoughts don't fit the man/They never can.

"I just started to sob," says musician and novelist Malka Marom, remembering when she heard Mitchell sing "I Had a King" for the first time. "She was my voice. She was everyone's voice. She was a universal voice."

By the early '70s, Mitchell wanted to get out of the guru business. But no matter how hard she tried to evade the public eye, Mitchell could not escape the cry of the zeitgeist.

The scorching honesty of 1971's "Blue" was supposed to strip her of the hippie-chick gauze and that worshipful flock. But fans reveled in her sea of doubt, and "Blue" ushered in a wave of self-help rock that would soothe millions and spawn a genre.

On 1974's "Court and Spark," Mitchell ditched the stark acoustics of "Blue," wrapping her serrated relationship commentaries in yards of gleaming pop-rock. The new formula inspired the L.A.-rock confessionals of Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, not to mention the devotion of wised-up love children who heard Joni sing about bar pickups and bad parties and saw themselves.

"People didn't just love her the way they loved the Rolling Stones and Motown," VH1 honcho Bill Flanagan says in the documentary. "They really felt that, 'This woman, by the light of this record player, is looking into my soul.' "

She has held bitter grudges against critics and been dismissive of other female artists who look up to her. And she has been way too indulgent of her restless muse, not to mention her chain-smoking habit. Not surprisingly, Mitchell's most recent flurry of publicity was not generated by her music, but by a 2002 Rolling Stone interview in which she called the music industry "a cesspool."

Little of this cantankerousness comes through in the otherwise fascinating "A Woman of Heart and Mind." What does come through is Mitchell's searching curiosity, her rebel stubbornness, and her amazing ability to broadcast inner monologues on a universal wavelength. It's the classic artist's trick. When you run a world of static through your own personal filter, the signal you send back is crystal clear.

"(The music) isn't vague," Mitchell says. "It strikes against the very nerves of (people's) lives, and in order to do that, you have to strike against the very nerves of your own."

Lately, it's the idea of the invasive artist that has struck a nerve. In these times of turmoil, we're not so sure how much life we want our artists and entertainers to have, and just how much of the world we want them to take on.

It's OK for the Dixie Chicks to sing about the scars of Vietnam in the touching "Travelin' Soldier"; it was apparently not OK for Chicks singer Natalie Maines to express serious doubts about President Bush's plans for war.

In Louisiana, disgruntled fans made their feelings known by running over a bunch of Dixie Chicks CDs with a tractor. The nation's country radio stations had to settle for keeping the Chicks off the airwaves.

In Hollywood, Oscar voters loved Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" documentary enough to give Moore an Academy Award last Sunday. But when Moore brought the film's rabble-rousing spirit to his acceptance speech, he was met with both a standing ovation and some very audible dissent. Was that booing you heard erupting from some of those limousine liberals? Yes it was.

Just as artists have the right to express their opinions, we have the right to reject those opinions. We also have the right to crush our Dixie Chicks CDs, tune out the bellowing Michael Moore, and refuse to see another Susan Sarandon movie as long as we live.

But when we do that, we are rejecting the artist's right to be a whole person. And then, we're just hurting ourselves.

Why do people like the Dixie Chicks so much? Probably because they are the kind of big-hearted, straight-shooting country gals who say what they mean and don't take guff from anybody. Including presidents.

Why do people buy Michael Moore's loudmouth books and give awards to his flame-throwing documentaries? Because he is the kind of bulldozing guy who is not intimidated by the National Rifle Association, General Motors, or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

As "Joni Mitchell: A Woman of Heart and Mind" reminds us, the artists who illuminate our world are the ones who are plugged in to life. They are people of heart and mind, passion and opinion, ego and charisma, empathetic insight and flawed humanity. They are people who can't shut up, and the urge that compels them to speak out is the same urge that compels them to create.

"The artist is the canary in the coal mine," Mitchell says at one point. "We're supposed to be out there on the fringes."

And what's the point of having them out there, if we don't want them to sing all the songs they know?

Copyright protected material on this website is used in accordance with 'Fair Use', for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of the copyright owner(s). Please read Notice and Procedure for Making Claims of Copyright Infringement.

Added to Library on April 4, 2003. (2490)


Log in to make a comment