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The genius of Joni Print-ready version

by Philip Martin
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
September 28, 2004

An unflinchingly honest self-revealer, Joni Mitchell says she will sing no more forever but her words and music still echo.

It has been two years since Joni Mitchell sort of announced her retirement from songwriting and performing. She gave it all up in favor of painting, the craft she first studied and which she has always maintained was her prime impulse. Mitchell started singing for kicks and pocket change - there is a sense that it was always less important to her than the sustenance she drew from her oils and canvases.

One guesses that Mitchell would be sensitive to the hyperbolic blare of entertainment journalism, the sort of blather that announces Hilary Duff as a "recording artist" and argues for the importance of ruined-looking boys who pose in magazines. It's probably too much to declare even Mitchell herself a "poet," though there is - was - a certain discipline in her fine-wrought lyrics. She was not a spewer, not one of those silly free girls wearing pain as an ornament or a bluffing, black-glaring poseur in mascara. Joni Mitchell worked at forging language and matching it to complex, snaky melodies like no other pop songwriter of the rock 'n' roll era save perhaps Paul Simon or Elvis Costello.


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 had 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) 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. It's a minor song on a minor album, a moment barely considered, but it nevertheless stands as evidence of a mighty discipline.

But it's not poetry - it's something more and less, a different kind of art form, as different from the kind of art songs (and you can call them that) of Cole Porter or 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. (Not that her willowy looks hurt her cause either.) Still, Mitchell can be credited as one of the inventors of the confessional singer-songwriter mode. She took Bob Dylan's imagistic playfulness, focused it to laser acuity and turned it on herself with an unflinching, sometimes cringeinducing 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. In the final verse of the song she sings:

I heard your baby say
When he was only three
"Daddy, let's get some girls
One for you and one for me."
His mother had the frailty
You despise
And the looks
You love to drive to suicide

Anyone conversant with Browne's career will remember his 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 Browne and Hannah have repeatedly denied allegations that Browne struck her, and while Mitchell herself 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 a bitter and disappointed woman.

Leaving aside the questions raised by the song - is the doe-eyed embodiment of the sensitive California singersongwriter really a thuggish girlfriend beater? - it's possible to argue that "Not to Blame" was a reprehensible 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 offered for sale. Not only did it accuse Browne but it insinuated young Ethan was somehow complicit in his father's reckless womanizing.

And, given the sensational nature of the song, wasn't it fair to see it as a kind of stunt, a cheap way to attract attention and gin up sales?

Maybe. And 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 one of her least successful, most obvious lyrics. It could have been written by any number of lesser lights, it sounds like the novelty song it has become.

Yet the other side of "Not to Blame" is more intriguing.

While it's not her most accomplished work, it 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 recent 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.'"

Mitchell contends she quit show biz because it has become all schlock and shock, that it's not about creating music but images. She doesn't want to participate in that kind of spectacle, and at 60, she doesn't have to - she can stay at home and paint and pick and choose which of her old songs will be resequenced and reissued in new anthologies for the faithful. She says she doesn't want to get into merchandising her paintings, her art - that might prove too painful.


There is another aspect of Joni 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 evolved from her physical inability to barre an Fchord, that she reordered the fret board to compensate for this supposed weakness and found rich veins to exploit.

If you listen to her albums in rough chronological order, you begin to hear the genius of Joni - a genius she probably didn't even know she owned while she was growing up smart and arty back in Fort Macleod, Alberta - emerge 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 (and, at the time, violently misunderstood) 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 commercial pop, leading us on a magical mystery tour that is by turns jazzy, propulsive, funky and self-indulgent. Not many followed her through the swinging, swooping loopiness of this musical walkabout, but those who could recognized Joni Mitchell was far more than a lank-haired girl with a guitar.

Put it this way: this brace of albums is the evidence that Joni Mitchell was a bigger influence on Prince than Jimi Hendrix or Michael Jackson.

And after that, well, Mitchell had pretty much transformed herself from a singer-songwriter with certain commercial expectations to a kind of icon, a singular artist with a cult (and a corresponding cadre of Joniphobes). She was ripe for parody - especially self-parody - but she was also insulated from the vagaries of careerism. She had her fans, they would support her in the style to which she had become accustomed. She had her work to sustain her.

She married jazz fusion bassist Larry Klein and together they put out a nice little 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, disciplined artist. More recently there were reworkings or standards, and the orchestral greatest hits package Travelogue (2002).

Now she is retired. A rash of product has been released - the albums Dreamland and The Beginning of Survival repackage her old album cuts to bring out new resonances, to highlight different areas of concern. Old concerts have been released on DVD. No doubt the vaults will be scraped clean - if not now, then later, after Joni Mitchell has relinquished control of her estate.

She says she will sing no more forever. Or maybe it is not like that, maybe it is just that she has decided to refuse to cooperate with the industry, the star-making machinery behind the popular song. Maybe she will still sing, for herself, for the few people who matter to her. Maybe she will change her mind. Maybe this is just another variation on the old "I vant to be alone" routine.

She probably doesn't know herself. It probably shouldn't matter, because there's plenty of other product on the shelves available for download. Mitchell's albums are still in print - Dog Eat Dog and Wild Things Run Fast were cut out for a while, but now it only takes a few clicks on to retrieve them from the dusty archives. Joni's 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. We grew up with these stars, and it is difficult to imagine them growing old while still retaining a place in the culture. How old is Elvis anyway? Ageless, of course; you are still likely to encounter him as a black-haired and droopy-eyed post-adolescent as often as the fat man in the jump suit. We throw these images off into space and they bounce off satellites and come back to us - Joni Mitchell is still the willowy blonde with the guitar and the overbite, cigarette sizzling between her thin fingers. We are star dust, we are carbon - but a few of us are also something more durable, something indestructible echoing out in the vastness, refracting off the vaults of heaven.

Joni Mitchell may be a drag as a human being, she might be a scold and nag and difficult to live with and haunted by unhappy memories and unfulfilled aspirations. But she is also an angel, one who might come to you - maybe in your time of sorrow or your hour of need - as a voice on the radio, flung from somewhere back in 1971.


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Added to Library on March 11, 2006. (3825)


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