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Will You Take Me as I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period   Print

by Marcy Sheiner
Dirty Laundry
September 1, 2009

After enjoying Girls Like Us so much, I began looking around for other books about the most interesting of its three subjects, Joni Mitchell. Lucky for me, bios of Joni seem to be on the way to becoming a cottage industry. Will You Take Me As I Am is described by its author, Michelle Mercer, as an investigation into what she calls Mitchell's "Blue Period," encompassing the albums Blue, For the Roses, Court and Spark, and Hejira.

The release of each one of these albums, with the exception of Hejira, coincided with a different man in my life, and each reflected perfectly the flavor of its respective relationship. That is, of course, par for the course among women of a certain age during a certain era in history: Mitchell's expression of the universal in the personal is the primary reason she caught fire among us. As Mercer notes, "She doesn't strive to tell the truth about herself. She strives to find and express human truths, and in the process, she happens to reveal quite a bit about herself."

In my opinion Hejira doesn't belong in this grouping, and not because I didn't have a man to go with it. Mercer almost completely ignores The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which came after Court and Spark and, to my mind, belongs here more than Hejira, whose melodies are disjointed; more important, the lyrics seem almost intentionally obscure and distancing compared to the preceding albums. At the time I worried that Mitchell was going in a direction I'd be unable to follow, but four albums later she seduced me anew with Wild Things Run Fast. I've come to view Hejira as a bridge to her expansion into jazz and other musical genres, a herky-jerky first attempt that paved the way for the vastly underrated Mingus and WTRF's seamless fusion of jazz and rock.

But although the author's premise doesn't hang together for me all that well, it hardly matters: the book is a loving assemblage of revelations about the life and work of one of our greatest living singer songwriters. It was delightful to pick up and impossible to put down. Unlike other books written about her, Joni participated in this one's creation. It's been said that she wasn't happy about Girls Like Us, at least in principle, and it isn't hard to imagine that Joni Mitchell probably didn't cotton to the comparison with Carly Simon and Carole King. Speaking musically, who can blame her? I adore Carly Simon's bouncy songs and heartfelt ballads, but I don't put her in the same category. As Mercer points out, Simon's songs contain "little of the investigation that turns over relationship woes for insights into human behavior" and, further, "her melodies and lyrics were dim picture negatives of more artful songwriting."

Ostensibly glad for a book of her own, Joni gave generously to Mercer with interviews, opinions, pithy quotes, and even a tagged-on list of her favorite things. These include, as everyone who follows her knows, smoking cigarettes. As a smoker myself, I so appreciate Joni's refusal to surrender her rights, her pride, and her self-esteem to those who'd malign her for persisting with the habit. Uncowed by the PC anti-smoking fascism of our times, she maintains without apology that it's "a focusing drug. Everybody should just be forced to smoke." Hell, if all it took was tobacco to get everyone as focused as Joni Mitchell, I'd second that emotion.

This book confirmed something else I've long suspected about Joni: she's a man's woman, the kind of gal who prefers hanging out with men. She's been a tomboy since childhood and plays pool like a hustler. The only female musician she mentions with any degree of respect is the late Laura Nyro. As for male influences, she clearly points to Dylan and Neil Young. She still seems to respect and like Graham Nash. About Leonard Cohen she's a bit more equivocal: though he did influence her music and her thinking when she was younger, she's come to regard him as somewhat superficial. He cannot, she says, only partly facetiously, write a song without putting the phrase "naked body' into it. There's no humor or equivocation when it comes to Jackson Browne - she loathes him. Except for Dylan (about whom I've no idea), Joni had love affairs of some sort with all these men, but Browne seems to be the only one who left her foaming at the mouth. As Mercer says, "Don't get her started on Jackson Browne, the Catholic Church, or modern medicine."

I know there are lots of women - and men too - out there who, like me, love Joni Mitchell both as a musician and as a woman. To all of them I recommend this book, and give it five fat juicy golden stars. She is stardust, she is golden...

 

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