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Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter as Joni Mitchell’s Hajj Print-ready version

by Jared Gentile
October 2019

Joni Mitchell has always been a traveler. From Song to a Seagull to Hejira, she consistently chooses freedom and a life on the move over settling down into domesticity - though the choice is never an easy one to make. On Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, she tackles the idea of home head on, utilizing experimental musical techniques and imagistic, stream-of-conscious lyrics to delve into what she feels is her home - as the place she lives in, the world she comes from, and the parts of herself that she cannot escape - and the ways in which "belonging to her home" is a complicated and challenging notion for her to make peace with.

Over the course of the album, Mitchell delves into the world of her upbringing, Canada, and how she identifies with the place, as well as the ways in which she is hesitant to attach a part of her identity to her homeland, or any place at all. At the top of the album, with "Overture-Cotton Avenue," Mitchell returns to the theme of going into the city as a young girl which she previously explored in "Night in the City" and "In France They Kiss on Main Street." However, the straightforward groove and rhythm of the earlier songs is delayed in "Cotton Avenue. Instead of simply rhapsodizing the freedom and energy of the city and youth, Mitchell begins the song removed from a time signature, with no distinctive groove. She croons airily over multiple tracks to jangled, echoing chords, invoking a sense of floating and dissociation. Possibly brought on by all the traveling she did over Hejira, or by the idea that the more you see and the more you live, the less sure you are about where you stand. However, this airy tone gives way to a grounded melody as Jaco Pastorius slides in on the fretless bass, seemingly to suggest that Mitchell has rediscovered her home, or at least is remembering it. The first verse is striking in its imagery: "A red sun came rolling down a grey sky / And the frogs and dogs and night birds then / Started up singing sweet country lullaby." The sun setting almost seems to be stripping the drab day away, awakening the country's lively creatures into singing a kind of shared chorus that Mitchell finds comforting, or redolent of home. While a chorus of frogs, dogs and birds doesn't seem like it would make for harmonically pleasing music, Mitchell's multi-tracked vocals emphasize the sweet quality of the sound - to her it is the comforting sound of home in the country. And from the country she can see "Cotton Avenue," where, she says, "I'm going to take myself tonight / With a spit shine on my dancing shoes." Mitchell often mentions her love of dancing in her music, as well as the allure that the city has over her. However, the chorus of the song provides a new, interesting perspective on those themes: "If you got a place like that to go / You just have to go there / If you got no place special / Well then, you just go no place special." While acknowledging the pull of "Cotton Avenue," Mitchell also raises the question of whether the "specialness" of a place really matters in the end, as people will always find somewhere to go, even if it's not a place they particularly like or have any sentiment for. She answers her own question in the beginning of the second verse, singing, "I guess it's just the summer in the young blood." Thus, while Cotton Avenue may have been the place to go for young people, Mitchell decides that it was the young people themselves that contained the thrill of the summer in their very blood. Her description of the young people's blood as "Ripe and juicy" likens their blood to fruit, which also harkens back to the "sweet country lullaby" from the first verse. By uniting the ideas of home and the young people she knew and spent time with in her own youth, Mitchell suggests that it was not necessarily the place of "Cotton Avenue" that feels like home, but the people she knew there.

In the epic of the album, the sixteen-minute long "Paprika Plains," Mitchell further dives into her childhood and her notion of Canada as home, for better and for worse. The song begins in a stifling bar, which Mitchell leaves to watch the rain come down outside. While watching the rain, she recalls, "Back in my hometown / They would have cleared the floor / Just to watch the rain come down / They're such sky-oriented people / Geared to changing weather." Unlike the women in the washroom at the beginning of the song who just look at themselves in make-up mirrors, the people of Mitchell's hometown are more concerned with the majesty and sweep of the natural world, a sensibility which Mitchell is clearly proud to claim as her own. Her voice soars upwards on the word rain, while the melody delicately traces the phrase sky-oriented people, showcasing Mitchell's tenderness for Canada and the people there, as well as her identification with their ideology. From this memory, Mitchell "floats off in time," akin to the floating of the overture before "Cotton Avenue." The next verse is accompanied by strings, lending the scene a grandness and sweep that parallels the expanse of Canada's sky: "When I was three feet tall / And wide eyed open to it all / With their tasseled teams they came / To McGee's General Store / All in their beaded leathers / I would tie on colored feathers." As a child, Mitchell was observant and open, much in the way she describes the Indigenous people as watchful and "sky-oriented." Her awe of them and their "tasseled teams" is ironically undermined by the fact that she sees them in some general store, where they have clearly come to sell Native apparel to white people to make a profit. However, at the time she was unaware of that exploitative dynamic, and eagerly donned the feathers and the drum, aligning herself with the Indigenous people and their colorful way of life. The line "I'd beat the drum like war," extends that same tragic irony, as in her childhood glee and passion for the Native culture she was unaware of the sordid history between Europeans and the Indigenous people. Thus, in her identification with the Native people, there also lie the complications of war and the sad truth that her ancestors benefited from the marginalization of the Natives - the sad truth that her home is a stolen place, that it couldn't be her home without the suffering of the Natives that she feels such a spiritual bond with. She sings her sorrow for this history in the next verse, lamenting that "when the church got through / They traded their beads for bottles / Smashed on Railway Avenue / And they cut off their braids / And lost some link with nature." After colonization and the missionaries cut a swath through Canada, the Natives exchanged their beads and their braids (i.e. their "tasseled teams" and "beaded leathers," the parts of themselves and their culture that Mitchell admires) for alcohol, sinking into a kind of despair. Along with their lost reverence for nature, they smash their bottles on Railway Avenue, conjuring the equivalent images of lost or broken dreams. Singing this line, Mitchell's voice rises high and thin in a plaintive, mournful tone, almost like a keen for the loss of the once great Indigenous cultures. Before the song shifts into the rising and falling of Mitchell's orchestral dream, she sings, "I dream paprika plains / Vast and bleak and God forsaken." In these lines, Mitchell inverts the majestic vastness of her home that she lauded beforehand into a bleak, desolate landscape, devoid of hope. By bending the imagery in this way, Mitchell shows how her home is an awe-inspiring place and yet also exudes its shameful history - it is vast both in beauty and despair.

From her close look at her past and Canada in "Paprika Plains," Mitchell transitions to a song about her current home: America. In her song "Otis and Marlena," Mitchell examines American life in all its superficiality and ugliness, along with the malfunction and allure of the American Dream. The song follows a couple, Otis and Marlena, as they vacation in Miami "for fun and sun," oblivious to the grotesque horror going on around them. Over inconspicuous chords that almost sound like a country shuffle, Mitchell sets the scene: "Miami sky / It's red as meat / It's a cheap pink rosé." Unlike the bleakness of the drab grey sky in "Cotton Avenue," here the sky contains the violence and excess of American life, including the oblivious consumer mentality of the Miami tourists - both images of the sky are foods, albeit somewhat grotesque and trashy ones. But while the Miami vacationers have "come for fun and sun," Mitchell sings, "Muslims stick up Washington." That lyric is a reference to the Hanafi hostage situation of 1977, when several Muslim gunmen took 149 hostages at the Jewish organization B'nai B'rith. By referencing this current event, Mitchell makes an implicit criticism of the hedonistic, fun-obsessed Miami vacationers who are too focused on relaxing to care about the horrific things going on in their own country. As she sings the lyric, the drumming of a snare comes on, perhaps suggesting the "drum of war" from "Paprika Plains" has arrived in America, though no one is listening to it. In the second verse, Mitchell describes the hotel as a "royal travesty," where "heads of state" and "rented girls" shamelessly intermingle, though it's clear that the girls are the ones that have to bear the brunt of the golden fantasy's weight, as Mitchell sings, "The jiggle into surgery / Hopefully beneath the blade / They dream of golden beauty." Jiggling into surgery is a grotesque image, but nothing is more delusional and twisted than the idea of someone being hopeful that by being sliced into and rearranged, they will attain some unreal level of beauty that will make them desirable enough to fit into the sick dreamscape of the Miami vacationing scene.

And yet, from this poignant criticism of America and the American dream, Mitchell seamlessly segues into "The Tenth World," singing the lyric, "Dream on" high and airy. "The Tenth World" is almost entirely percussive and drum-based, and the lyrics are sung by a man in a Spanish dialect. The track is loaded with energy and comes off almost as a street performance, possibly one that Otis and Marlena might see on the streets of Miami from South American or Caribbean immigrants. Mitchell's reverence for street performers can be seen throughout her career, and by lending a song of the album to a simulacrum of such a performance, she suggests the part of the American Dream that she finds appealing - namely the raw exuberance and freedom of immigrants and the clashing of cultures on the streets, emphasized by the man singing (in Spanish), "I bring it to you [the rumba] / So that you will enjoy a good thing / Enjoy it with the rest of the world / With the African and the rest of the world / Dance to it / Gringos!" Here Mitchell highlights the exchange of music across races and cultures and the universality of its enjoyment, and clearly America is known for its status as a mixing pot of various cultures and art forms - a status that Mitchell is proud to participate in. However, at the same time, the lyrics of this song are in Spanish, whereas most Mitchell's listeners are primarily English speakers - thus even in the sharing of cultures and music, there are still barriers between people that prevent complete communication and mutual understanding. Yet even with the remaining barriers, Mitchell launches into the African-influenced beat on "Dreamland," embodying the cross-cultural exchange of ideas and expression even as she sings of poor "Donkey vendors" in Canada and "the suntan slave" of America. Mitchell acknowledges that they were the victims and casualties of Europeans, exploited throughout North America's history along its path to becoming a free and inclusive society - one that has sacrificed much in the name of dreams, yet has also created many things of beauty from that same dreaming impulse.

While Mitchell examines her birthplace and her chosen home over the course of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, she also takes a long look at herself, considering her habits and tendencies in an attempt to answer the questions of who am I, and what do I always return to? In "Talk to Me," she explores the wildness of her nature and her desire to form connections with others, which is further explored through the vulnerability and openness with which she pledges to love on "Jericho." However, Mitchell draws perhaps the most complicated and full portrait of herself on the eponymous track of the album: "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter." The song is a restless, chorus-less foray into mystical symbolism and questioning chords, anchored by Jaco Pastorious's drum-like bass playing. In the first verse of the song, Mitchell consults with a Native spiritual advisor of some kind, who has this to say to her: "Snakes along the railroad tracks...Eagles in jet trails...Coils around feathers and talons on scales / Gravel under the belly plates...Wind in the wings...Big bird dragging its tail in the dust / Snake kite flying on a string." Mitchell sings these lines with the voice of a man echoing them in a low, billowing voice, once again aligning her with the Indigenous people of Canada and their spiritual culture. The lines themselves are evocative images, and outline the duality that Mitchell traces through the song - that within her is "The serpent fighting for blind desire" and "The eagle for clarity." However, as the lines from the first verse begin to suggest, the two animals are not so clear and distinct - instead they are wrapped and coiled around one another, along with the motifs of flight and crawling on the ground. Mitchell suggests that desire too is a means of flight, and detached clarity can just as easily feel like dragging yourself through the dust. She views this conflicting duality as a particularly American struggle, one that she completely identifies with, singing, "Here in Good-Old-God-Save-America / the home of the brave and the free / We are all hopelessly oppressed cowards / Of some duality / Of restless multiplicity." Perhaps due to the very freedom of being that attracts Mitchell to America, she argues that Americans are paralyzed by an ocean of choices and paths that seem to oppose each other, yet that each invoke different aspects of Americans' desires (i.e. work vs. family, independence vs. commitment, freedom vs. responsibility, etc.). Thus, people make their choices, but are never quite satisfied: "Restless for streets and honky tonks / Restless for home and routine / Restless for country safety and her / Restless for the likes of reckless me / Restless sweeps like fire and rain / Over virgin wilderness / It prowls like hookers and thieves / Through bolt locked tenements." Mitchell sees the conflict of clarity and desire, innocence and knowledge, country and city, and the duality wrestling within everyone in these lines, and investigates the notion that things that seem like complete opposites are not only not so dissimilar, they also depend on and balance each other. This conflict can be destructive, "like fire and rain," yet it can also lead to "country safety" and "home and routine," and the dichotomy is difficult to reconcile. However, Mitchell accepts that while there is no easy resolution, the conflict within begets a wealth of experience: "And we are twins of spirit / No matter which route home we take / Or what we forsake / We're going to come up to the eyes of clarity / And we'll go down to the beads of guile / There is danger and education / In living out such a reckless life style." Mitchell's imagery here evokes something of a dance between two partners, possibly between her and her lover, or the two parts of herself, or both. It is worth noting that she feels no matter what she chooses, each route leads to a kind of "home" within herself and the world. Similarly, the elevation of clarity and the comforting, rooted nature of earthly love (however cunning and strategy-based it may be) both seem like inevitable experiences to her, ones that are inextricably bound and dependent on one another. Continuing on with the complex nature of her relationship with herself and with love, she paints this scene: "I touched you on the central plains / It was plane to train my twin / It was just plane shadow to train shadow / But to me it was skin to skin." On the majestic and significant plains of Canada, Mitchell and herself, or Mitchell and her lover, touch. Whether this interaction was "two ships passing in the night," or two restless, boundless entities merely overlapping their shadows, to Mitchell it is everything, and the closeness and intermingling of people, of love, of the parts of herself, of cultures, of America and Canada, the touching that each opposing part of life imprints upon each person, in their dreams and in their realities, is the core of who she is.

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Added to Library on August 6, 2021. (3131)


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