Not long after "Both Sides, Now" was written, the folk pioneer Joan Baez caught a Chuck and Joni set at the Gaslight Cafe in New York. "I remember thinking, 'You gotta drop this guy,'" Baez recalled. Soon after, Joni did. Leaving Chuck Mitchell was her first hejira, a variation of an Arabic word she'd later stumble upon in a dictionary that, too, would snag something in her - it means a "flight or journey to a more desirable or congenial place," or "escape with honor." There would be many more. Decades later, in a 2015 interview with New York, though, Mitchell reflected on the decision to leave her first marriage. She quoted an old saying: "'If you make a good marriage, God bless you. If you make a bad marriage, become a philosopher.' So I became a philosopher."
It did not take long. In the opening moments of her first album, 1968's Song to a Seagull, she bid goodbye not only to Chuck, but to the roadmap of a traditional life. This is the chorus of a song called "I Had a King."
I can't go back there anymore
You know my keys won't fit the door
You know my thoughts don't fit the man
They never can
They never can
There is right now a spirited conversation about women and canonization happening in the music world, and there is right now a new biography of Joni Mitchell on the shelves. If you pay more than passing attention to these topics, you will know that neither of these occurrences is particularly rare, but they are as good reasons as any to take stock of Mitchell's singular, ever-changing legacy, in the always-fickle light of right now.
In late July, NPR published an extensive, ambitious list of "The 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women." Mitchell's piercing 1971 album Blue was voted no. 1. "After nearly 50 years," wrote the critic Ann Powers, "Blue remains the clearest and most animated musical map to the new world that women traced, sometimes invisibly within their daily lives in the aftermath of the utopian, dream-crushing 1960s." The NPR list pursued a revisionist take on rock-canonical list making, which the writer Sarah Vowell once derided as "the mostly-male record-collector geek habit of reducing rock and roll to baseball card collecting."
And yet, Blue was also the highest-ranked album by a woman on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" (it came in at no. 30), perhaps the most quintessential list of the type NPR sought to subvert. This overlap raises some tricky questions: Is the NPR list truly revisionist if it still agrees with Rolling Stone about what is "the greatest album ever made by a woman"? Why is Joni Mitchell the token female musician that even the most macho rock guys are comfortable calling "great"? (Jimmy Page has gone on record saying that her music makes him weep; Jimi Hendrix, in his journals, called Mitchell "a fantastic girl with heaven words.") Is the very idea of a canon - or "greatness," or even "genius" - inherently male, and if so, should women chuck all those words and ideas out the window and look for new ways to talk about and value the art they make?
"Before canons are handed down, someone has to make them," Wesley Morris recently wrote in New York Times Magazine. "The atmospherics around that consecration tend to default to masculinity because the mechanisms that do the consecrating are overwhelmingly male." Inspired by NPR, Morris decided to listen only to music made by women for several months, and to write about his experience. He started with all 150 albums on the NPR list and eventually added 72 more. The result was a sharp, thoughtful essay, but, as critic Judy Berman pointed out on Twitter, it may have mapped a territory that only seemed uncharted to men. "Gorgeous piece," she wrote, "but jarring that one of our best male critics had to hear 150 albums to get something all women know... I would never think to write this essay, because it just seems obvious to me, but maybe men need to have the conversation amongst themselves."
Morris's essay, though, was astute in identifying the cultural forces and biases that combine to create the idea of legacy. It's true that we're living through an exceptional time for women in pop music, with mainstream artists like Beyoncé, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and Adele all pushing boundaries and/or dominating the charts, but, Morris wondered, "What happens in 20 years?" He used the (somewhat selective) example of Donna Summer, who once seemed winningly ubiquitous in the pop world: "Now she's the epitome of a bygone era instead of the musician who paved a boulevard for lots of women who top charts." Men, of course, are perceived to grow older more "gracefully" in our sexist, ageist culture. It follows that the masculine forces of canonization and legacy-making are stacked against female artists as they age, and that perhaps the most crucial time to assert female artist's importance isn't so much in the moment of their domination but in that crucial "20 years later."
Which brings us to Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, an extensive new Joni Mitchell biography by the Syracuse professor and New York Times contributor David Yaffe. It is by no means the first book about Mitchell - actually, you could topple a small bookshelf with its predecessors: Barney Hoskyns's extensive collection Joni: The Anthology; Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words (a candid 2014 collection of interviews with the Canadian broadcaster Malka Marom); and Sheila Weller's Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon - and the Journey of a Generation (a three-woman biography) to name just a few. But Yaffe does have a few new brushstrokes to add to the canvas, thanks mostly to a series of interviews he's conducted with Mitchell over the past decade. He flew to her California home in 2007 to interview her for the Times; after the piece ran, she called Yaffe, "bitched [him] out," and painstakingly enumerated every detail she thought he'd gotten wrong. They didn't speak for years. Then a mutual friend reconnected them, and over marathon hours and seemingly billions of cigarettes (Mitchell's longest love affair has, quite possibly, been with American Spirits), the loquacious artist held court while her biographer was given a second chance to tell her story.
Reckless Daughter is an engrossing, well-told, but ultimately conventional biography. It reanimates Mitchell's incredible history, but it also left me wondering about her current influence and relevance outside the pages of prestigious newspapers and hardcover books. While I was reading the book, a few people mentioned to me that they weren't sure if Mitchell's influence was carrying over to millennials. I'll admit that there's definitely something internet-proof about her: An unruliness that makes it difficult to distill the adoration down to a gif or a well-chosen photo as it does with, say, boomer-turned-Tumblr-icons like Stevie Nicks or Joan Didion. And yet, Mitchell has, in the past, prided herself on being out of step with the times when she did not believe the times were worthy of her footwork. When people told her she was "out of sync" with the '80s, she felt relieved. To be "in sync with the '80s," Yaffe quotes her saying, would have been "degenerating both morally and artistically."
I was in my mid-20s when I started to realize - with absolute exhilaration and a little fear - that my life was not going to play out on the same traditional feminine timeline as my mother and grandmothers. Then, late last year, I felt a certain cosmic vertigo when I passed the age that my own mother had been when she gave birth to me. Unlike she was at 29, I was without a partner, a mortgage, or a concrete five-year plan. Friends were getting married in barns and having children on purpose and putting down payments on houses in the suburbs. I had, a few years prior, moved to New York to write and make new friends and go to the movies alone when I felt like it and live in a rented apartment. Throughout my adulthood, I had made certain choices that had at times looked reckless to the people around me - abruptly leaving unsatisfying jobs or rejecting perfectly decent men - though I knew, intuitively, that they were the correct choices for me at the time. I am happy and secure and without any major regrets, but I have sometimes had to crane my neck around for other long-term models of how to be a woman who lives, as it were, off-road. This is all a long-winded way of saying that, like so many people before me, in my 20s I went through a Joni Mitchell phase.
Those many people before me, of course, are not just women. Mitchell gestures towards the elsewhere at all kinds of angles, which is intrinsic to her mass popularity. No matter how you look at her, she provides an alternative to something. One example of many: Two years ago, Dan Bejar, the eccentrically talented songwriter of Destroyer and the New Pornographers, was asked by the music site The Quietus to pick and discuss his 12 favorite albums for their "Baker's Dozen" feature. His first six choices were, in order, Court and Spark, Hejira, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, Mingus, and Turbulent Indigo. (Blue, he actually considered too canonical to mention: "It's so etched in stone that I wouldn't know how to draw from it.") The interviewer took the bait and asked him why so much Joni Mitchell. Bejar, then 42, said of her freewheeling, jazz-embracing late period in particular, "Listening to [her] I realized that this is a path I could follow, which I always search for, because at this point in my career, in terms of pop music years, I think I'm supposed to die. So when you find a different path that you can follow, it's more exciting than the idea that you should just die."
Indeed it is. And yet I think - much in the way that she can appear both on the Rolling Stone and NPR lists - that Joni can both mean something deeply to men and something a little different to women. I will never forget the evening I first encountered Woman of Heart and Mind, Susan Lacy's excellent 2003 American Masters documentary about Mitchell enlivened by one of the most stirringly candid interviews Mitchell ever gave. In the middle of it, she discusses her circa-1970 decision to leave her devoted partner Graham Nash and flee on the whirlwind, transcontinental journey of introspection and self-discovery that would inspire what two major institutions now believe to be the greatest album ever made by a woman.
"I had sworn my heart to Graham in a way that I didn't think was possible for myself," she says of the days prior to Blue, "and he wanted me to marry him. I'd agreed to it. And then - " the words, at this point, begin to tumble out of her at an odd velocity, as if coming from someplace just beyond herself - "I just started thinking, my grandmother was a frustrated poet and musician. She kicked the kitchen door off of the hinges on the farm. I thought about my paternal grandmother who wept for the last time in her life at 14 behind some barn because she wanted a piano and said, 'Dry your eyes, you silly girl, you'll never have a piano.' And I thought, maybe I'm the one that got the gene that has to make it happen for these two women. As much as I loved and cared for Graham, I just thought, I'm gonna end up like my grandmother, kicking the door off the hinges, you know what I mean? It's like, I better not."
Like Frida Kahlo, Roberta Joan Anderson's development as an artist was born from an experience of intense physical pain. An only child raised on Canada's Saskatchewan prairie ("sky-oriented people," she'd later call her stock; at a young age her mother taught her bird calls out in the yard), she developed polio at the age of 9. She spent several months in the winter of 1953 quarantined in a local hospital and barely able to move; her father never visited and her mother came only once to bring her a small Christmas tree just before the holiday. (Years before they met, let alone performed "Helpless" together during the Last Waltz, Mitchell's countryman Neil Young contracted polio from the same Canadian epidemic when he was 7.)
Looking back, Mitchell now recalls it as a transformative, character-building episode - one that caused her to develop self-reliance and a slow, almost meditative way of being in the world. "I would have been an athlete," she said years later. But after polio, "I lost my speed, so that I was never gonna win a swimming contest. I turned to grace. I turned to things that didn't require such speed: water ballet, dance. And I think that it was a blessing in a way because it developed the artistic side."
When she was a teenager she wanted a guitar but couldn't afford one - "Oh, no, no," her mother said, "You'll buy it and you'll just quit" - so she saved up $36 and bought the next best and smallest thing, a ukulele. It was soon ubiquitous, a new appendage. Her teen years were a time when, according to Joni, "rock and roll went through a really dumb vanilla period. And during that period, folk music came in to fill the hole." Flaxen-haired Joni strummed her miniature instrument at parties and riverbank barbecues while the guys in the group she hung with (and it was mostly guys in the group she hung with) recited dirty jokes and limericks. "Somehow," her friend John Simon later recalled, "she became one of the boys."
Roberta Joan Anderson was, as she tells it, "the only virgin left in art school." After failing 12th grade ("Joan doesn't relate well to others" would be a particularly ironic comment on her report card when, years later, she learned to articulate the most intimate pain of so many strangers), she enrolled in art school at Calgary's Alberta College of Art and Design with dreams of being a painter. She eventually lost her virginity to a friend, Brad "Moochie" MacMath. She became pregnant "right out of the chute," in her words, which she'd later attribute to her school's inadequate sex-ed curriculum (she remembered them telling her, quite erroneously, that a woman cannot become pregnant right after her period). Though she still prided herself on being "one of the boys," Mitchell's pregnancy was the first time she'd really experience how differently the cards were stacked for rebellious men and rebellious women, even in the coming countercultural time of so-called "free love." Moochie moved in with her for a little while in an apartment in Toronto, but he quickly grew restless. While she was still pregnant, he left in the night, leaving a letter comprising a single quotation from a Japanese Buddhist priest. Joni, like so many unwed mothers, could not afford to be so blithely literary or fleet-footed. She dropped out of art school, moved into a cheap room, and prepared to deliver a child she wasn't sure she could afford to raise.
And yet in this time of her bleak self-reliance, she was learning something incredible about herself: She could write songs. The first one she composed to completion happened not long after she became pregnant, the eerie, mournful "Day After Day." "Wish I could turn around and run back home again," she laments in a lilting soprano, "I've been so empty since I caught that eastbound train."
While at art school, she'd finally gotten her hands on a guitar and attempted to teach herself the cumbersome, unfamiliar instrument with a Pete Seeger instructional record. She didn't have the patience or the follower's temperament for the musical equivalent of paint-by-numbers. And anyway, she couldn't move along the frets exactly like Seeger told her to because polio had weakened her left hand. So she invented her own way of playing open chords, tuning not so much to a universal law of musicality as a deeply felt inner state. People would, from then on, talk about Joni Mitchell's "weird chords." But in Woman of Heart and Mind, she scoffs at the very idea. "How can there be weird chords?" she asks. "Chords are depictions of emotions. These chords that I was getting by twisting the knobs on the guitar until I could get these chords that I heard inside that suited me - they feel like my feelings. I called them chords of inquiry. They have a question mark in them. There were so many unresolved things in me that those chords suited me."
Joni's only daughter was born on February 19, 1965, with - as millions of other people would one day know by heart - "the moon in Cancer." She named her Kelly Dale and left her in foster care, hoping that her circumstances would soon change and that she'd be able to come back and care for the child. Things did change, quite rapidly: Not long after giving birth she met Chuck Mitchell, that well-educated 29-year-old folk singer from Michigan. They fell in love; when she confided that she had a baby daughter, he said he'd help raise her. Naturally, she married him. In the meantime, they went on tour as Chuck and Joni, though their varied tastes and musical abilities were beginning to expose a rift between them.
Maybe he changed his mind once she agreed to marry him, and maybe she was having second thoughts about raising a child, too. Whatever the reason, Joni's daughter was put up for adoption. Chuck and Joni Mitchell ended things on bad terms and have not spoken in many years, but Yaffe corresponded with him via email for Reckless Daughter. He found Chuck Mitchell to be an affable, colorful, and at times even warmly self-deprecating presence in the messages they exchanged, though Yaffe does quote Chuck Mitchell assuring him, "We were both talented, remember that, if in quite different ways."
Yaffe writes, perceptively, "That Mitchell feels the need to assert, decades later, that he, too, was talented, hints at what might have eventually driven the couple apart."
During the brief, intense relationship that would inspire Mitchell to write "A Case of You," one of Leonard Cohen's acquaintances asked him, "How do you like living with Beethoven?"
It was said with a bit of a sneer; in the eyes of this person, Yaffe writes, "Joni's genius somehow made her less feminine." Mitchell - and, to his credit, Cohen - didn't agree. She was a woman in pursuit of radical freedoms, and since there were so few female artists that would evoke even a snide comparison to Beethoven, what could be more freeing than to be a woman in pursuit of that type of greatness? "One good thing about being a woman is we haven't too many examples yet of what a genius looks like," Sheila Heti wrote in her 2012 novel How Should a Person Be?. "It could be me. There is no ideal model for how my mind should be. For the men, it's pretty clear. That's the reason you see them trying to talk themselves up all the time. I laugh when they won't say what they mean so the academies will study them forever."
Perhaps the most annoying aspect of genius is that it almost always involves the person identifying himself as such. For good and at times for ill, Joni Mitchell believes she is a genius. When she first discovered Picasso as a teen, she felt she'd communed with a kindred spirit - ditto with Miles Davis. This kind of male-hero worship has made Mitchell a difficult figure to some feminist critics, since both Picasso and Davis behaved badly toward the women in their lives. But inspiration is inspiration. "Most of my heroes are monsters, unfortunately, and they are men," she has said. "If you separate their personalities from their art, Miles Davis and Picasso have always been my major heroes."
That genius swagger and provocateur attitude has, at times, given her a bullheaded justification for her missteps. The most notorious example is Mitchell's repeated insistence that she has some sort of kinship with black men - a misguided belief that led her to dressing up in blackface to disguise herself at a Halloween party and later posing in this same costume on the cover of her 1977 album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. The unfortunate costume came from the dual impulses of wanting to disappear from her fame (which reached its height in the mid-'70s) and an attempt to pay homage to the black male jazz masters with whom she was beginning to collaborate. But it was glaringly tone deaf, and her explanations of this incident over the years haven't indicated that she was receptive to criticism ("When I see a black man sitting," she said in that 2015 New York piece, "I have a tendency to nod like I'm a brother"). Perhaps there would have been more blowback had her disguise been acknowledged more publicly: It speaks volumes about the way news traveled in the pre-internet age that many record buyers did not even realize that the black man on the cover of the album was actually Joni Mitchell.
One of my favorite aspects of Mitchell's chatty songwriting voice is her tendency to address marble-bust figures like they're her old college buddies. William Shakespeare is, on Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, "Willy the Shake"; Beethoven gets "Judgement of the Moon and Stars," a deeply empathic ode that closes For the Roses and is subtitled, chummily, "Ludwig's Tune." And yet there is, too, an odd loneliness about this communion with historical figures. Take for example two of the songs on 1976's Hejira, one of her finest albums. "Song for Sharon" is a long open letter to Mitchell's childhood friend Sharon Bell, who stayed in Saskatoon and led a much more conventional life: "Sharon, you've got a husband / And a family and a farm / I've got the apple of temptation / And a diamond snake around my arm." Mitchell was nearing her mid-30s when she wrote those words, and yet for all their intimacy, she'd barely spoken to Sharon Bell in years. She is looking across a gulf that isn't as present on "Amelia": Yaffe notes, astutely and with just the right note of melancholy, that Mitchell speaks to the disappeared aviatrix Earhart "as intimately - maybe even more intimately - than she addressed Sharon Bell."
She could also quite often feel alienated from her male-genius contemporaries. I've always been struck and a little saddened by "Talk to Me," an underrated gem that she wrote about Bob Dylan being too "aloof" to make small talk with her on the Rolling Thunder Revue:
Oh I talk too loose
Again I talk too open and free
I pay a high price for my open talking
Like you do for your silent mystery
Come and talk to me
Please talk to me
Years later, in 1983, she'd tour again with Dylan and complain to the sound man that he played too loud for his lyrics to be discernible. "No, that's the way Bob likes it," the sound man told her. "He likes to be an enigma."
By the mid-'70s, Mitchell had developed a disdain for much of the pop music world; in the '80s, it curdled into outright disgust. There's a hilariously biting scene in Yaffe's book chronicling the backstage drama at a 1990 charity concert celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall. The rock stars of the day were constantly falling short of her expectations. Cyndi Lauper was acting "childish," Bryan Adams was rude to his girlfriend in front of Mitchell, Sinead O'Connor ("a passionate little singer") looked down at her feet rather than making eye contact. "The childish competitiveness, the lack of professionalism - I don't have a peer group," she told Yaffe, recalling this era. "All of them, these spoiled children. It's not what I would have expected in an artistic community."
And so - to the frustration of some of her fans - as the years went on she sought out her artistic equals in the jazz world. One of her first collaborators to truly challenge her was the electric bass iconoclast Jaco Pastorius; they started working together on Hejira. "Nearly every bass player that I tried did the same thing. They would put up a dark picket fence through my music," she recalls in Woman of Heart and Mind. "Finally, one guy said to me, 'Joni, you've gotta play with jazz musicians.'" Eventually, in 1978, she was summoned for her most daunting collaboration yet, working with the legendary Charles Mingus on his final album, while he was dying of ALS. Though plenty of jazz purists scoffed at Mitchell's involvement, she earned the admiration of her brilliant, cantankerous collaborator. (He called her, affectionately, "motherfucker.") As her music grew less commercial, it sometimes felt - for better and worse - that she was simply sending out dog whistles to other musicians as accomplished as herself. The very first time she met Mingus, he said to her, "The strings on 'Paprika Plains' - they're out of tune." Far from offended, she was delighted - the strings were out of tune, and "she wished someone else had noticed." Only a fellow genius would have noticed, and introduced himself like that.
It was the detailed precision of her lyrics - that teetering on the edge of oversharing - that made listeners connect so intimately with her. (Zadie Smith, in 2012, wrote, "I can't listen to Joni Mitchell in a room with other people, or even on an iPod, walking the streets. Too risky. I can never guarantee that I'm going to be able to get through a song without being made transparent - to anybody and everything, to the whole world.") But it also made some of the men in her life palpably uncomfortable. When Blue first came out, she recalls, "All the men around me were really nervous. They were cringing. They were embarrassed for me. Then people started calling me confessional, and then it was like a blood sport. I felt like people were coming to watch me fall off a tightrope or something." Most famously, when she first played Blue for Kris Kristofferson, he reeled, "Oh, Joni. Save something for yourself."
Save something for yourself. Very often, women who live as freely and hedonistically as the average man are criticized by outside forces for not behaving correctly, for not taking proper care of their bodies. Mitchell, a lifelong chain-smoker who sometimes burned through four packs a day, has often been accused of, as Yaffe puts it, "not being a devoted custodian to her own instrument." She tried to quit smoking several times, but Larry Klein, her second ex-husband, recalls "on some very deep level" she needed to smoke to survive - at times it has resembled a kind of vocal death drive. You can, of course, chart the transformation of Mitchell's voice across her albums. In her early years, she had a three-octave range; by the late '80s, her entire soprano had basically vanished. I don't know that I'd necessarily call it a degradation, though. In the soprano's place came a barrel-aged lower register that had become deeper, huskier, androgynously universal.
In 2000, she re-recorded "Both Sides Now" with 70 members of the London Symphony Orchestra; her vocal performance was so richly stirring that several members of the ensemble broke down in tears during the recording. ("It was quite amazing," Klein remembered, "to see an English orchestra get that emotional.") Of course, this version of the song is now best remembered for soundtracking the tearjerker scene in the 2003 movie Love Actually, when middle-aged mother Emma Thompson realizes that her husband is cheating on her and that, after all this time, that she really doesn't know love at all. Strangely enough, because of the movie, it is this version of Mitchell's voice with which millennials are more familiar - or at least it's how many of them first heard her. On YouTube, a video of Mitchell's 1969 version of "Both Sides Now" has two million views; the 2000 version has 4.7 million.
Reading Reckless Daughter, I was struck by how many of Mitchell's greatest successes sprung directly from her ability to tune out the men who so authoritatively doubted her - who told her, simply, assertively, that the way she did things wasn't the way things were done. With all of the stories we currently hear about men in creative industries using power to silence women, this quality in Mitchell feels especially valuable. But it also makes you mourn for how much music by women didn't get written just because not everyone can be as nervy and impervious to male authority as Joni Mitchell. Had she listened to her husband at the time and crumpled up that little song he'd "ridiculed," there wouldn't be any version of "Both Sides Now," let alone the dozens and dozens of covers other artists have performed over the years. Had she listened to Kris Kristofferson and some of her male peers at Laurel Canyon, there'd be no Blue, or at least not one so emotionally vulnerable. A female genius must have talent to spare, yes. But just as crucially, she needs a stainless steel bullshit detector.
On a terrible night in March two and a half years ago, many people feared the worst for Joni Mitchell. She was discovered unconscious in her California home, having suffered a brain aneurysm. The detail that haunted me was that she'd been lying unconscious for three days before she was found. Was that the price to pay for a lifetime of independence? Do all romantics really meet the same fate? I could not bring myself to listen to Blue that night. I did not want to entertain the possibility that Richard had been right.
She survived. Alive, alive, although it seems unlikely that she has, or will, make a full recovery. In the past two years, she has been photographed outside her house only a few times - in a wheelchair, enjoying a jazz concert, attending Elton John's birthday party. Yaffe has not spoken to her since the aneurysm, so who knows if she's happy with how the book turned out, but since it's Joni Mitchell, I'm sure she has at least a few major qualms with how someone else is telling her story. To object, to quibble, to take issue with how other people are doing things - these have always been Mitchell's way of asserting that she is alive.
About a year after Mitchell was hospitalized, though, we lost one of her most devoted fans, Prince. When he was a teenager in Minnesota, he wrote Mitchell fan mail, "with all of the U's and hearts that way that he writes," she once recalled, tenderly. She claims to have noticed him from the stage when he was about 15 and she played Minneapolis around the time of Court and Spark: "You couldn't miss him - he was a little Princeling." They became friends once he got famous; he once played her his own interpretation of "A Case of You" on her piano. Her own portrait of Miles Davis hung on the wall; someone else in attendance recalled that even the way Joni talked to her cat sounded like music. I like imagining that night: a quiet, private moment between two musical geniuses who existed somewhere beyond the confines of gender, stardom, and - at that moment at least - the grinding machinery of the canon. Just two sky-oriented people, looking down to nod at each other as they crossed paths.
This article has been viewed 51,500 times since being added on October 16, 2017.
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