Photo by NORMAN SEEFF
Long blonde hair, acoustic guitar, songs about clouds and roses and romance.
In the late 1960s, Joni Mitchell epitomized the new breed of singer-songwriter; less psychedelic than dyspeptic, they concocted anthems for the Woodstock generation from white nouveau blues, bad poetry and ego-stained, pink ink anguish.
But while many of her contemporaries stayed trapped within the genre, their reflectiveness dwindling into self-regard, Mitchell embarked on a career as daring as any in modern pop. Her music grew catholic, taking in facets of rock and jazz, and her lyrics became less fanciful, replaced by a tougher, allusive style that laced emotional insight with irony and passion. Her LPs were a kind of growing up in public; each delved deeper into her strengths and obsessions, her paradoxical role as a woman star in the male rock world, and cut to the quick with their revelations of hard-won awareness, anima rising.
But now the doubts which fuelled her self-analyses have been swept aside for a celebration of "solid love". Her happiness itself is not the problem — though, as Tolstoy said, happy families are boringly alike — rather, that she's chosen to express it in rock'n'roll. And Joni Mitchell is just not very good at rock'n'roll.
WILD THINGS RUN FAST, her latest LP, made this clear; and her Wembley show underlined how gauche Mitchell can be when she tries to rock out. I mean, would you buy a Leiber and Stoller song from someone wearing plus-fours!
Her Baby, I Don't Care was a fraud, the same kind of cultural slumming as Jackie Kennedy doing the Twist. And her band were terrible. A vicious hard-rock kicking of Song For Sharon was the nastiest mess I've seen since Raging Bull — the ref should've stopped it in the first eight bars.
Mitchell's few solo spots were a different story, tales with the sting intact. Her jazzy phrasing retraced old tunes with new inflexions, and she re-established the quiet intimacy that marks her finest lyrics. A Case Of You, her tangle of loss and lust, and Amelia's ghostly probing of "dreams and false alarms " were the highlights — a pin-drop tension, and all the wincing truth of open-hearted art, the wit and the wounds laid bare.
Then the band came back, Mitchell reverted to Raunch Chic, and I wished I'd stayed at home. Her husband can't be blameless, an archetypal rock'n'roll bassist who was way too high in the mix and looked like he should have married Genya Raven. As Tolstoy also said, never trust a man in leather trousers.
At the end, Mitchell did solos of Both Sides Now and Woodstock. I thought at first it was self-indulgent but she sang superbly, turning them into troubled accounts of middle-aged disillusion. The final effect was of a remarkable anti-nostalgia, a sudden chilling dread at what we have already lost. Cruise missiles in The Garden.