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Never too late to do the right thing for Joni Mitchell Print-ready version

It is a mystery how Saskatoon and Joni Mitchell have been like star-crossed lovers, each wanting to do the right thing, reaching out but saying the wrong thing, writes John Gormley

by John Gormley
Saskatoon StarPhoenix
May 4, 2018

Joni Mitchell visits Saskatoon in 2000. STARPHOENIX FILE

In 1962, a small prairie city could no longer contain the dreams, passion and genius of a winsome young woman sitting on a stool in a coffee shop and strumming a guitar.

Less than five years later, Joni Mitchell would play Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village, where rave reviews followed. Soon after, a legendary music career launched that still today places her among the most influential forces in modern folk, rock, pop and blues.

Next month, Saskatoon will finally name a walkway along the city's River Landing the "Joni Mitchell Promenade" and the University of Saskatchewan will, at long last, recognize her with an honorary doctorate.

For the city and university, it is never too late to do the right thing. And they have.

It is a mystery how Saskatoon and Joni Mitchell have been like star-crossed lovers, each wanting to do the right thing, reaching out but saying the wrong thing, second guessing, keeping track of slights and eventually no one can remember how things got so screwed up.

Perhaps it was the rapid ascent to celebrity during the tumultuous 1960s of a small-town hippie chick who folks turned their back on because they thought she got too big too fast. Perhaps it was Mitchell's own perceptions of the world; who knows? But none of it matters.

A household name anywhere in the world, Joni Mitchell speaks fondly of her formative Saskatoon years and her "great memories ... it is a nostalgic experience as soon as I hit town."

Notoriously media shy from the start, Mitchell is a superstar now in her mid-70s and shows no signs of giving up her fiercely private and, at times, reclusive style. She is of an era long before social media, shameless self-promotion, artist saturation and chronic fame overexposure.

In Saskatoon, like everywhere else, Mitchell rarely does public appearances - just five in the last 30 years.

In 2000, the international Joni Mitchell "Voices" art exhibit debuted at Saskatoon's Mendel Gallery. Still today her website has affectionate accounts from international art critics and observers who salute her hometown for its hospitality, beauty and bridges.

Beyond Mitchell's last public appearance in the crowd at Saskatchewan's 2005 Centennial Gala, she quietly commuted for years from L.A. as her elderly parents faced declining health. The obituary for her dad, Bill, who died in 2012 at 100, was vintage Mitchell, touching and poetic.

Over the decades, in that respectful way unique to smaller communities, people would spot Mitchell in Saskatoon and give her space - even politely ignoring her - not as a snub but knowing that in other places in the world a Joni Mitchell sighting would have had fans leaving her uncomfortable or even feeling violated.

But the quid pro quo for celebrities from small towns is not to appear aloof or be seen trying to hide from local folks.

Ironically, at the same time that Mitchell's career arced to the stratosphere, Saskatoon's other most famous citizen, Gordie Howe, even at the height of his fame as Mr. Hockey, could be found strolling down a Saskatoon street and saying hello at the crosswalk.

In recent years, in a huff over attempts to pay tribute to her, Joni Mitchell unfairly described Saskatoon as "bigoted" and "very isolated, very unworldly, and doesn't grasp the idea of honour."

Regardless of what's been said or done in the past, any other city's visitor and tourist guides would proudly tell the story of a famous daughter.

Yet Saskatoon has not one walking tour, statue, set of plaques or signs promoting the "home of Joni Mitchell"; nothing marks her family home, schools or the places that fuelled the dreams, imaginings and creativity of a young girl who would become an iconic singer-songwriter of our age.

The decision now to commemorate Joni Mitchell takes the first step toward a resolution. And it's long overdue.

John Gormley is a broadcaster, lawyer, author and former Progressive Conservative MP whose radio talk show is heard weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on 650 CKOM Saskatoon and 980 CJME Regina.

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