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Joni Mitchell ~ An Artist's Journey Print-ready version

by Phillip Rauls
January 27, 2011

It's confession time, okay? Finally I'll admit the fact. It's not easy to say... but I'm a closet Joni Mitchell fan. There, I've said it. As much as I've tried to conceal the truth, I am just now freeing myself of the secret that has been kept inside me for many years. Privately I've been obsessed with her music for decades. She's my Bessie Smith, Billy Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, all rolled into one. That's a pretty bold statement coming from a guy who cut his teeth on R&B music and even promoted several of Aretha's Franklin's biggest hits - mind you. But Joni Mitchell is one of the most respected singer/songwriters in history and no doubt she set the bar for modern music. In short, she is my all-time unrestricted favorite female artist. To this very day, Joni Mitchell never ceases to amaze me with her captive lyrics while still continuing to inspire me with her evolving talents. But you may ask, why am I just now coming to the forefront by revealing this secret? After all, she has not held reign over the pop charts for some time now. Plus, she's already been inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame way back in 1997. Maybe you are asking, what's the big deal? Why keep this love affair with her music under wraps? Well, if the truth be known, as a former promoter of the imperious field known as Rock Music, this category is a man's game and previously dominated exclusively by the male species. Right? So with that being the case, secretly I didn't want any of my friends to accuse me of being ... a girly man.

In spite of those obvious shortcomings, consider this posting as my official paean to Joni Mitchell. I'll admit that sometimes us macho-guys have real difficulties in revealing our sensitive sides. But now the cat's out of the bag. Let me explain. Let it be known that I have spent countless hours alone while indulging myself with her splendid sounds and thought-provoking lyrics. Yet, when I would have any guests visit my house, I would mask my passion for her soft pliable tones by always pulling-out the Zeppelin albums and cranking the volume up to 10. This little charade would always bring out a loud, "Yeah, kick-out-the-jams!" from visitors. Later when my house guest would saddle-up on their Harley choppers and depart, I would always resume my Joni Mitchell pilgrimage. As you have it, many music promoters want their careers to be associated with artists who play ear-piercing Les Paul guitars blasting thru Marshall stacks. While some Rock promoters liken their backgrounds to be associated with screaming vocalists or keyboardists playing high frequency synthesizers that can break glass. Still, several of my distinguished colleagues want to be mentioned only in connection with Blues artist or Jazz musicians. And that's cool too. But Joni Mitchell's soft and romantic lyrics combined with her innovative cord changes don't quite fall under the category of say...Rock Music. Oh-but wait you say! Quite contraire my dear blog editor. Joni Mitchell is the poster-child of Pop Music in the late 20th Century. And to those well-informed music lovers, I gladly acknowledge the fact.

Much has been documented about this great artist. Somehow I feel that I owe something back to Joni Mitchell for the enormous contributions that she has given me. My question is, how could she have known the exact thoughts that I was feeling inside for all those many years? To put it into proper perspective, there's an entire generation of devoted followers who clung to her every word while interrupting her lyrics and using them as road maps towards guiding their own lives. And I happen to be one of those who hold reverence. Let us review a brief snap-shot of her brilliant career.

Joni Mitchell is a Canadian-born singer/songwriter whose career path started in the mid-1960's as she began singing in small clubs in Toronto and then ventured to a blossoming folk scene in New York City's Greenwich Village. Joni's youth is not without flawed circumstances while as a child at the age of 9 she was diagnosed with polio. She helped herself recover from this dreadful disease by learning to sing while spending idle time in the children's recovery ward. Years later and after she began preforming in coffeehouses on the local folk scene Mitchell gave birth to an out-of-wedlock daughter which she was unable to raise. With no real job or home she was forced to give up her daughter for adoption. She kept the matter secret for much of her career yet made reference to this later in several of her songs. On the rebound Joni Mitchell married folk singer Chuck Mitchell which she later openly admits was for "all the wrong reasons." The twosome performed as a duo and worked the club circuit for a period however the marriage didn't last and Joni decided to go her own way. Her first notoriety came in 1968 when Judy Collins recorded "Both Sides Now" written by Mitchell and became a huge top 10 hit. Upon that success, Mitchell began playing coffeehouses on the East Coast while continuing to build a name for herself. At this early stage, Joni was approached by a budding talent agent named Elliot Roberts who would manage her career for years to come. While playing in a small club in Coconut Grove, Florida, another folk singer named David Crosby, formerly of The Byrds and later Crosby, Stills & Nash, entered the club and became quite taken by her performance. Crosby was so impressed that he convinced Mitchell into joining him on a trip to Los Angeles where he introduced her to friends. Within a short period, Crosby's name recognition helped Mitchell obtain a solo artist contract with Reprise Records, a subsidiary of power house Warner Brothers Records.

Joni Mitchell would record two respectable albums with the label yet her paper-thin soprano vocals and acoustic backing lacked the punch for mainstream acceptance. Joni Mitchell's third album titled "Ladies Of The Canyon" was released in April, 1970 was a reference to the lifestyle inside of Laurel Canyon in Southern California. This breakthrough album was programmed heavily with FM Radio's new found influence while AM Radio airplay was strong. Her experimentation and refinement with open-tuning on the guitar and introduction of the Dulcimer into her music were both innovative and pioneering accomplishments. Supported by these essentials, retail activity reflected a star in the making. It was during this noted period that the youth movement gained added recognition and refused to be ignored. Protest songs and soul-searching music became in vogue as the counter-culture established it's presence. At this time, Joni Mitchell's music would come into the forefront and develop from being called Folk Music and evolve to becoming a dominant force known as, Folk-Rock. This marked a significant period which her music would set it's hooks into the mainstream of American music while striking gold.

The thriving music scene in California was now home for Mitchell as she began hanging with her musical counterparts such as newcomer Jackson Brown, Joni Mitchell, Mama Cass of the Mama & Papas, talent agent and manager of several notables, David Geffen, and vocalist Ned Doheney. Times were good for the Love Generation as the movement was well on it's way to creating an icon.

The Laurel Canyon area was home to many artists including former member of The Hollies, Graham Nash. Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash soon became an item and moved-in together. Out of that relationship came several notable songs including Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Our House" penned by Nash and "Willy" written by Joni Mitchell. Her composition "Woodstock" also recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young became a big hit for the boys as Joni would chalk-up still another hit song while building up her catalog. It now appeared that the grass was even greener as Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell's relationship became the focal point of the new counter culture while appearing to be the ideal couple living the free lifestyle in the warm California sun. But Mitchell soon became confused with love's illusions as the restless poet within her compelled Joni to move on and seek artistic heights. Aside from being a single woman again, she kept her sense of humor as her next single "Big Yellow Taxi" was a noted hit while the song's intention was to point the finger at the nation's total disregard for ecology. The success from this hit single helped propel the "Ladies Of The Canyon" album to her first platinum sales award and peaking in 1970 on Billboard's LP chart at #27.

Mitchell's next release was the critically acclaimed "Blue" album which was her most introspective work to date. Released in June of 1971, this album also gained platinum status and clearly separated her from the herd of singer-songwriters pouring onto the scene. Noted changes in this album are her compositions now included Joni moving from guitar to piano for most of the album while lyrically she became more self-analytical. At times Mitchell even confesses a revealing self-portrait of her endless frustrations of the complications of romantic relationships. Featured guest on the album were James Taylor on guitar, Stephen Stills guitar & bass, Russ Kunkel on drums, and Sneaky Pete on pedal steel. The album peaked on Billboard LP charts at #15.

By now, Mitchell had clearly matured as an artist and hit her stride. Her work was drawing praises from music critics as with every new release her albums became more musically sophisticated. In October of 1972 Mitchell released her first album on David Geffen's new Asylum label titled "For The Roses." It featured horns, woodwinds, reeds and strings on her compositions which was a departure from her previous outings. This diversity no doubt expanded her popularity within Pop audiences. And example of this growth was her hit single from the album "You Turn Me On (I'm A Radio)" and offered a twanging country style not heard before on her music. A personal favorite was the album's cover and inner photo that had you hypnotized and starring deeply into her soul. "For The Roses" was certified gold and hit #11 on the Billboard's album chart.

It was well over a year later before Joni Mitchell's next album hit the stores. But worth the wait as in January of 1974 she released the dazzling "Court And Spark" album. Songs like "Help Me" and "Free Man In Paris" blanketed the radio while the title song still rings out with fond memories. This album sounds just as good today as it did the day it was released. Musicians on the album were an all-star cast featuring Tom Scott, Max Bennett, Wilton Felder, Robbie Robertson, Milt Holland, Chuck Findley, Joe Sample, Jim Hughart, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Susan Webb, Cheech & Chong, Jose Feliciano, Larry Carlton, Dennis Budmir, and swamp-rocker Wayne Perkins. Joni Mitchell's growth as an artist had spread to the very top of the Pop and Rock arena as "Court And Spark" conquered the #2 spot on the album chart while selling over 4 million copies. Clearly this album stands alone while offering to be one of the finest albums in modern music history.

Joni's next offering was in October of 1974 with the release of "Miles Of Isles." This album was a selection of live performances and displayed her growing appreciation of Jazz-fusion. Again, like in her previous outing, the work of arranger Tom Scott and his LA Express is highlighted while the album scored a #2 on Billboard's LP chart. "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns" was released in October of 1975 and met with mixed reaction. Clearly the album (#4 1975) was a elaborate collection of complex songs that included African rhythms while venturing into the stage of world music. Significantly, Joni Mitchell was no longer a Folk singer. This album underlined Mitchell's desire to expand and explore into new horizons but it was not without critics. Just about the time that Mitchell was about to lose some of her core audience with this seemingly uncharted course, she began to acquire new listeners who enjoyed the journey. During this phase, another key element entered into the mix of her schooled journeymen, the adventurous Jaco Pastorius and his fretless bass. In November of 1976, the ever-restless Joni Mitchell released the "Hejira" album (BB chart #13) which prominently featured Jaco Pastorius and his spine-tingling lead bass runs. His style of playing was very important to Mitchell's sound and helped propel her to a new plateau. In an interview with Musician Magazine, Mitchell acknowledged his peculiar tones and claimed that "Jaco never played the root of a cord and had this unusual wide, fat swat of a sound" a tone that she craved for her songs. "Hejira" turned out to be a splendid album and struck the heart of many listeners while bearing her soul out-there for her audience. Songs like "Coyote" offered a return to Mitchell's confessional testimony of the growing conflicts of her romantic affairs (and break-ups) with a who's who in the music industry. Still, as the women's movement was gaining national attention, "Amelia" was Mitchell's contribution to the campaign while being an eye opener to a legend some had forgotten. Also on the album, "Furry Sings The Blues" was a touching story of a real down-and-out blues singer that she had paid a visit to in Memphis and shared a song about the dark experience. "Hejira" is a definitely a 5-Star classic album and highly recommended for the library of every music lover.

Mitchell's appreciation for Jazz rhythms continued while in 1977 the release of "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" (BB #25) as she departs from her confessional style songwriting and enters new territory with her delivery. "Mingus" was her next work (BB #17 1979) and a collaboration with noted Jazz bass player Charlie Mingus prior to his death. Both albums sold well considering Jazz music generally doesn't reach chart positions of this nature. No small feat for Mitchell and certainly a testament to the steadfast support of her fans.

The Eighties decade produced four credible albums; "Shadows And Light" (BB #38 1980) which was a live album featuring Jazz-Rock guitarist Pat Metheny and the aforementioned bassist, Jaco Pastorius of Weather Report along with a cast of great musicians. A video from this concert tour was later released and highly recommended for music lovers. Yet, music critics were having a field day trying to dismantle Mitchell's musical journey while claiming her work was unadventurous and lacked depth. Questions lurked; Was she a Adult Alternative artist - a Pop Rock artist - or a Jazz Fusion artist? Of course, everyone's entitled to their own opinion but Mitchell refused to be pigeon holed into a senseless catagory and forged on with her musical journey. In 1982 Mitchell signed a multi-year contract with Geffen Records and released "Wild Things Run Fast" (BB #25). The label's debut album was met with popish reviews with her material being targeted as commercial. That year also marked an additional union for Joni Mitchell as she married her new bassist, Larry Klein. In October of 1985 "Dog Eat Dog" was released (BB #63) as the album was co-produced by high-tech wiz kid, Thomas Dolby. With Joni Mitchell's reluctance and David Geffen's insistance, Thomas Dolby weaved his magic on the album combined with a well-chosen guest appearance by Michael McDonald. On this album Mitchell's material notably shifted to the social issues of the day. Her final album of the decade was "Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm" (BB #46 1988) and featured a tasteful series of duets with Peter Gabriel ("My Secret Place"), Willie Nelson ("Water"), Billy Idol & Tom Petty ("Dancin Clown") and Don Henly ("Snakes And Ladders"). This noteworthy selection of songs were certainly a welcomed return to Mitchell's finer days as she radiated the positive on this memorable album. Not to mention she was happily in love during this time also.

Although it's hard to believe, especially with so many grand achievements at this stage for Joni Mitchell, but the Nineties decade proved to be the absolute grandest period of all. Listen to this; Mitchell's 16th album titled "Night Ride Home" (BB #41 1991) was praised by all music critics and album reviewers alike while being hailed as a return to the familiar form of her "Hejira" album. With hints of a career resurgence, in 1994 Mitchell released the well received "Turbulent Indigo" album (BB #47) that yeilded her second Grammy Award this time for the "Best Pop Album." A short time later she was awarded the prestigious honor of "Billboard's Century Award" which was perhaps an award long overdue. Closing out the decade in 1997, Joni Mitchell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Certainly no walk in the park. Plus, from her haunted past, Mitchell was joyfully reunited with her daughter that she had reluctanly put-up for adoption during her younger years. Going into her 5th decade of public appearences, Mitchell began to wind-down her performance schedule and focus on her longtime love of painting by opening exhibitions held in London, New York and throughout her native homeland of Canada. She did however perform on several TV programs during this time and also a brief concert tour with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. In the 21st Century Joni Mitchell recorded several albums yet it was becoming obvious that her vocal range had become limited as her singing became huskier. This issue Mitchell attributed to vocal nodules and a compressed larynx. Plus her longtime smoking habit was also rumoured as a contributing factor.

Mitchell's remaining album catalog; "Taming The Tiger" Sept. 1998, "Both Sides Now" Feb. 2000, "Travelogue" Nov. 2002, "The Beginning Of Survival" June 2004, "Dreamland" Sept. 2004, "Songs Of A Prairie Girl" April 2005, "Shine" Sept. 2007 and several compilations of greatest hits albums.

Joni Mitchell's body of work stands completely alone in a musical catagory made of her own creation. She inventend sounds with her open-tuning guitar and introduced alternative metering never before heard in musical compositions. She produced or co-produced all her albums and provided her own photographs or paintings for album art. She has maintained control of her master recordings and music publishing from the very begining. Mitchell found contentment in staying ahead of the game with her complex arrangements and lush textured style which made her music sometimes undefined yet thrilling to experience. She strived to constantly recreate herself in every aspect of her work. Her artistic depth far exceeds her contemporaries as her poetry and philosophy captured the emotions of an entire generation. Her dexerity and grace always accompanied during her long and adventurous journey. She is regarded as one of the greatest singer/songwriters of all time.

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