On Jan. 28, Joni Mitchell will be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, and I'm praying that no one serenades her with River.
The uninvited soundtrack to Christmas 2006 was Sarah McLachlan's low-fat, fun-free, vanilla-latte version of Mitchell's 1971 classic River. Between the first and 24th of December, every time I found myself wading through a snake pit mega-chain toward the last stripy scarf in the bin, Sarah McLachlan was there, too, braying the theme song of my holiday disorganization with all the laziness that typifies a one-off Christmas cash grab: "I wish I had a river so looong..." I swear she yawns during the word "long."
There is something peculiar about McLachlan, founder of the successful women's music festival Lilith Fair, covering Mitchell. Mitchell has always shrugged off the "woman genius" mantle, despite her status as musical pioneer and adopted mommy figure for legions of female singer songwriters. She once told a reporter: "One guy came up to me and said, You're the best female singer-songwriter in the world.' I was thinking: What do you mean female? That's like saying you're the best Negro.'"
Point taken; it's a backhanded compliment with a ghetto sting. But as a teenaged girl in the mid-'80s encountering Blue (the album containing River) for the first time, the fact that the songs confessional but not solipsistic; folk but not earnest; pop but not empty were written by a woman felt thrilling. Mitchell sang of adventure, disappointment, God, love, disaster. Not only was the music emotionally bloody and intricate, the lyrics her busy phrasing pushing the words to spill out over the song's structure made it seem like she was living a gigantic life.
Pre-Google, I harassed my favourite clerk at the local second-hand record store for information, researched her in back issues of Rolling Stone, and learned that Joni Mitchell was a painter, too, and a poet. She owned all the rights to her songs. She had been smoking since she was nine. She occupied the world. That this music didn't come from Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen (her contemporaries) or REM's Michael Stipe and the Fall's Mark E. Smith (mine) provided a kind of comfort I didn't know I needed: greatness and arrogance and artistry could be female, too. That Mitchell didn't want to be considered a feminist paving the road for female musicians only made her more intriguing (though her very existence did, and still does, seem like feminism to me); that was a way of being I hadn't known, either.
I first heard the song River and this is so very sad during an episode of the yuppie angst TV drama thirtysomething when I was 16 or 17. The female singers of my generation were Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Whitney Houston: teeny boppers, vocal acrobats and hired hands, mostly singing songs written for them by other people often men, or Carole Bayer Sager. They sang about liking boys, and wanting to dance with somebody. I was just old enough to recognize how hard this stuff sucked, and I was rabid for music more like the poetry and fiction that had my head spinning; something speaking of all the possible ways to exist. I knew, as all teenagers do, that I was leaving adolescence, and I heard the thrill and sadness of adulthood in River's opening note, that repeated one-finger Jingle Bells piano, and then the lyrics: "It's coming on Christmas/ They're cutting down trees/ They're putting up reindeer/ Singing songs of joy and peace/ I wish I had a river so long/ I would teach my feet to fly..." A song about ice-skating ! (Lou Reed didn't have one of those!) The rumours were true, then: Joni Mitchell was Canadian, too.
By the end of the '60s, Mitchell had become a darling of the Laurel Canyon So-Cal folk scene. Though singers like Judy Collins and Buffy Saint-Marie had made hits out of Mitchell's songs, her own stardom wore on her, and in 1970, Mitchell "quit this crazy scene" (a phrase from River), writing most of Blue in self-imposed exile while travelling through Europe. Big Yellow Taxi and Both Sides Now may be her best-known songs, but it's the entire album Blue that is still her most resonant work. In an upcoming tribute disc, three of the 12 songs come from Blue. On Rolling Stone's Top 500 Albums of all time, it's ranked No. 30. Her long career since has been marked by departure and reinvention, most famously her collaboration with jazz idol Charles Mingus. At the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony, Margaret Atwood will read her poetry, and jazz musician Herbie Hancock and soprano Measha Brueggergosman will perform her songs. Mitchell, who hates a box, is sure to love this.
But no matter how experimental the evening gets (I fear interpretive dance), many of us watching will be hearing the clean, raw precision of Blue in our heads. The record feels like it could only exist as an album, something from before the fragmentation brought on by iPods and downloads, when you were forced to witness the whole vision, track by track. The thing Mitchell built was a house of postponed grieving: maybe for her privacy, her relationship with Graham Nash or the daughter she gave up for adoption a few years before. In the mid-'90s, when Mitchell publicly reunited with that daughter, the cryptic lyrics to Little Green made sense: "He went to California/ Hearing that everything's warmer there/ So you write him a letter and say Her eyes are blue'/ He sends you a poem and she's lost to you...." It's a perfect rumination on sorrow. Mitchell has said: "At that period of my life, I had no personal defences.... There's hardly a dishonest note in the vocals."
Mitchell's work, while not a roadmap to her life, has always been far too personal to pass as hippie banner-waving. The exception may be the anthem Woodstock, a hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but Mitchell never actually made it to the festival, choosing instead to make an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. Still, the vagabond principle of the era is all over Blue, as in the song Carey: "Carey get out your cane and I'll put on some silver/ Oh, you're a mean old daddy but I like you fine." Silver, linen, African winds there's a vaguely Wiccan, Tiffany-lamp vibe to Mitchell, and her dedicated followers, that I've always tried to ignore. Yet Blue doesn't feel like an artifact. If Mitchell were merely a boomer hero, she wouldn't matter so much to Sufjan Stevens and Bjork, who cover her on the upcoming tribute disc. If she were merely a female hero, Prince and Elvis Costello wouldn't cite her as a major influence; they appear on the tribute, too. The song Prince chose to cover? A Case of You, from Blue, in which Mitchell famously sings: "I drew a map of Canada/ Oh Canada..." and the word Canada loops up and down and closes in on itself.
That Joni Mitchell is Canadian, and female, matters almost not at all to me now; role models get less necessary, or are abandoned entirely, with age. But studies have shown that the music we meet at our most self-involved, in youth, is the music that hits us deepest. McGill professor Daniel Levitin has done research to show the music of childhood almost burns itself into our brains, which is exactly how it feels.
Maybe that's why the ubiquitous Sarah McLachlan cover of River is so grating: the River part of my brain is well travelled, sacred territory. There's no room for anyone else there. On the other hand, McLachlan's cover lacks that unfathomable combination of gravitas and weightlessness that defines Mitchell's singing, even now, with a voice smoked down to a crackling ember. Mitchell can never hit those Blue notes again, but I can always turn to them and remember who I was. When I listen to Cat Power, Lucinda Williams, Tracy Chapman, Jenny Lewis, Martha Wainwright, Will Oldham, Ben Harper I think of Joni, who came first, reluctantly, and right on time.
Hosted by CBC Radio's Andrew Craig and Radio-Canada's Sophie Durocher, the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame gala will take place on Sunday, Jan. 28 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
The following day, CBC Radio will broadcast segments of the tribute gala, beginning with Sounds Like Canada on Radio One at 11 a.m. and as a two-hour special beginning at 8 p.m. on Radio Two. A CBC-TV production will follow on March 5.
Katrina Onstad writes about the arts for CBC.ca.
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