"I've looked at life from both sides now,
From up and down,
And still somehow,
It's life's illusions I recall;
I really don't know life at all."
A couple of years ago Joni Mitchell was singing these lyrics to small crowds at the original Orillia-based Mariposa folk festival and in folk clubs in Toronto and Montreal. Now she sings in Carnegie Hall and at large rock festivals (at one of which she left the stage in tears). She still returns to Mariposa and to various large halls in Montreal and Ottawa, but her home now is in Laurel Canyon, California (famous for Frank Zappa, Suzy Creamcheese, John Mayall and others).
It would be unfair to judge Joni Mitchell's progress as a singer-composer solely on her recordings, Song to a Seagull and Clouds. From the guitar accompaniment to the cover art, which she designs herself, practically everything involved in making her two albums what they are, is totally different.
The differences in the cover art provide valid parallels to the differences in the two performances.
The cover for Song to a Seagull is done in watercolor, wild with imagination - completely unprofessional, but rich in color and almost naive in its beauty. The cover for Clouds, a self-portrait in oils, however, is very professional and very cold.
As far as performance is concerned, Song to a Seagull shows Joni Mitchell as a fledgling folk singer with an innocent, almost virginal, approach to her music and her poetry. A song loke [sic] "Night in the City" is so happy that as the song before it on the album comes to a close, your senses perk up and your feet get ready to start dancing. Most of the other songs deal with city life compared with country and seaside life:
"I came to the city
and lived like old Crusoe
On an island of noise
in a cobblestone sea"
Throughout the album Joni makes herself vulnerable through an unashamed purging of her sadness and happiness. The voice - pure, thin and flighty at times - is always in complete control of the lyrics and melody. She is, technically, not a good singer, but that is irrelevant. Things like understanding, feeling, and intelligence comprise a great deal of the ability to sing.
The title of her most recent album, Clouds, is also the alternate title to "Both Sides Now". One gets the impression that she made the album because she thought people wanted to hear her sing "Both Sides Now". Most people probably think that Judy Collins wrote it.
The few good songs on this album happen to be old Joni Mitchell songs - "Chelsea Morning" (the necessary happy song), "Song about the Midway", "Both Sides Now", and "I Think I Understand", which is the best song on the whole album. This was written as a kind of ode to the Lady Galadriel in "Lord of the Rings".
In a lot of songs on this album, Joni seems to be settling for second best - precious, irrelevant imagery:
"Varnished weeds in window jars
Tarnished beads on tapestries
Kept in satin boxes are
Reflections of love's memories"
An attempt at protest songs falls miserably in her apace rendition of "Fiddle and the Drum". Even Dylan doesn't do protest songs anymore.
Joni Mitchell lives with Graham Nash (of Crosby, Sills [sic], etc.) in Laurel Canyon. Nash wrote about what it was like living with Joni in the song "Lady of the Island" on the CSN album. This practically ruined her image for me.
And then at this year's Mariposa Folk Festival, she tells us about having mononucleosis. My God, it can't be true! What has happened to the virginal, innocent country girl from Saskatoon who went to New York City and was so upset by what she saw that she dedicated a whole album to it? Is the Americanization of Joni coming to a head?
Gordon Lightfoot wouldn't play at Mariposa (his training ground) unless he made about ten thousand dollars on it. Joni Mitchell plays there every year for $75, and the people love her. Her concerts are always sellouts in the States.
Only time and her next album will tell what influence America and its big money have had on her. An artist has got to grow and to nourish himself on his environment. Most artists want recognition and acknowledgement of their art. The United States can provide this better than Canada. Most talented Canadian artists make their way to the States eventually. It's completely natural.
I've seen Joni Mitchell twice at Mariposa and once at Place des Arts. With the exception of her piano numbers, almost everything else she does is pure Mitchell. The sound of applause frightens and embarrasses her. Her between-song chatter is nervous and natural. And when she is singing well, the silence of the audience is hers. Similar to the high school amateur folk singer who comes across really well at all those special Christmas concerts. Moments of disbelief when she thinks - here I am singing my songs in front of people - and they're actually listening and liking it!
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