Translated by Chris Clason
HIPPIE-CAPITALIST: JONI MITCHELL
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan – these are picturesque names, but they bespeak no Canadian Idyll, rather: the prairie. Endless, freezing steppes, such as Western films never show them, where you find iron-tough pioneers – like that Norwegian immigrant who instead of a piano got eleven kids and a miserable alcoholic (without complaining), or Sadie McKee, who mastered the ox-plow, organ and pen. That’s when the granddaughter of those two frustrated female musicians, Roberta Joan Anderson, was said to have created music out of prairie.
The sickly only-child, born in 1943 of affectionate, down-home parents, got her craftsperson education from her tolerant father, and from her old-fashioned mother she got her naturalness and her romantic attitudes. To be as practical and self-reliant as a man – that became a matter of course for her; the sounds of the landscape were her music; as late as 1994 she was tuning her guitar “according to the coastal sounds of British Columbia – to the birds, the tonality of the day.”
After a bout with polio in 1952, during which she managed to escape death, an iron lung, and a wheelchair through almost superhuman willpower, she held onto her desire to live “anti-intellectually to the core,” and so she did embarrassingly little reading for a long time. Nevertheless, her artwork attracted the attention of her art instructor, Arthur Kratzman, who mentioned to her that “if you can paint with a brush, then you can also do so with words.” The first word with which she painted was her stage name, which for visual reasons she changed to “Joni.” A postcard sketch brought in her first honorarium, a Miles Davis record, and so she became a jazz fan. Then she came upon Folk-Music, and eventually took up the guitar.
Quickly frustrated with her art studies in Calgary (she wanted Realism, but all her professors gave her was Expressionism), she nevertheless earned money with her guitar and her songs in nightclubs. Thus encouraged, she traveled to Toronto in 1964, where she met and married American folk-singer Chuck Mitchell. But all that remained of her marriage by the end of that year was her last name – and a new residence in Detroit, in the USA. “There I actually began to write, that’s where I found my voice.” Eric Andersen showed the self-educated woman alternative guitar tunings, “and through them I now had the complex harmonies that shook loose my inner wellsprings.” This in turn inspired Tom Rush, who encouraged the uncertain Joni to move herself to New York, while he recorded her “Urge for Going” that began to open doors for her. And so, in her New York apartment, she pursued fashion design, busying herself throughout the day at fashion boutiques – but spending nights singing her songs in clubs. When the first royalties came in, the best time of her life began: “I was free. I enjoyed my appearances. I had $400 in the bank, and so I was obscenely rich. Nothing was out of proportion.”
Misunderstood as a romantic flower-child, already in 1968 she portrayed herself as an enigmatic, self-aware, committedly unattached woman, her heart just as hollow as full (“Cactus Tree”), skeptical (“Both Sides Now”), and wise (“The Circle Game”). Even the dreams of “Woodstock” she described in such perceptive naiveté (“jet planes… turning into butterflies”) that her wishes and doubts resonate to the same extent. It did not bode well that the hippie turns-of-phrase that she most likely intended were hardly sustainable. The mendacity of the times caused her to withdraw on several occasions, retreating for months into the Canadian forests, to Europe, to Crete – in order to reappear, artistically mature with a notebook full of marvelous songs, back in the recording studio. At first she recorded her spartanly instrumented album, “Blue” (1971) – a stroke of genius on which practically every song paints a painfully intimate psychological portrait. In her open wounds the music press stirred up speculations over the identity of the lover she described in her songs. So, once again she took a rather long retreat back to Canada and once again – with “For the Roses” (1972) she leaped light years ahead. The turn toward contemporary jazz with “Court and Spark” (1974) bestowed legendary status upon her.
Her jazz-fusion style, documented on the wonderful “Miles of Aisles” ’74 tour and live album with the L.A. Express (and Joni herself on the piano, dulcimer, and guitar), was surpassed by the next studio albums: on “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” (1975), a work of ambitious world-music (years before Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, and Sting) Joni paints language portraits of “beauty-parlor blondes with credit-card eyes”; it’s in the title song that a woman experiences the distance from her lover as the “hissing of summer lawns.” One further trip, this time after a failed relationship, produced “Hejira” (1976) a trauma album, which transforms “private pain into happiness for everyone” (Karl Bruckmaier). Joni’s superior folk-rock-jazz-fusion style evokes precisely the monotony of the Midwest, while the lyrics thematize profound and humorous street experiences (“Coyote”) and self-reflection (“Amelia,” “Song for Sharon”). In this album one can also hear echoes of bebop legend Charles Mingus. For “Mingus” (1979) she composed the enchanting lines in “Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat" about Lester Young, and in “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines,” a verbal, Bebop-channeling ride; and then her jazz-phase came to the end of its era.
At the beginning of 1980, Joni parked her 69 Bluebird in front of a record shop, went in, and never saw her car again. “And from then on everything went downhill.” In the US, acquisition and an infantile fascination with status symbols took hold. Furthermore, the US financial authorities found a stipulation for a huge tax claim against her, (which was successfully shot down after a ten year long legal hassle), Geffen Records, whose first record offer she had refused as “slave labor,” suddenly was treating the woman like unprofitable old inventory. Privately she was happy with her new husband, and her vision became all the freer for criticizing the predominant spiritual-moral wasteland (“In the 80’s the heart died.”) and produced her “most rapidly aging work” “Dog Eat Dog” – because to her no one else was being critical enough. In any case she was writing songs without specific direction, in search of songs with contemporary sound – but lacked that ultimate “spark.” Only in 1991 with “Night Ride Home” did she find her way to a guitar-oriented post-folk music, while in 1994, with the similarly highly praised “Turbulent Indigo” her career was supposed to have come to an end.
The Pleasure of Experimentation:
Yet, in 1996, she was lured back to the studio by the pleasure of experimentation with a Roland guitar-synthesizer (“my savior”) once again. The result was “Taming the Tiger” (1998), whose breezy guitars and jazzy vocals” perceived time as a class by itself: “Joni will always still be Joni, even if the trends have gotten old.” Anyhow, her music was never “made to be immediately enthralling, but rather to be carried with you for a lifetime like a great musical body of work.” She also demanded a great deal from accompanists like Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, and Vinnie Colaiuta, and let her work scarcely ever be included in songbooks; in standard tuning, her reckless, ambiguous chords in daring modulations require bizarre voicings, which then don’t seem to sound authentic at all. The reason: Joni, unschooled in any music theory, shapes chords with the simplest voicings through her unusual tunings and so she produces the most complex harmonies. She conceives of the guitar as an orchestra, “on which the three highest strings function as muted trumpets, the middle strings as French horn and viola; the thumb provides a short, eccentric bass.” In addition she has always written and thought “like a painter” with chips of a verbal kaleidoscope, which fit together in always new, striking combinations of senses: “You turn me on/ I’m a radio / I’m a country station / I’m a little bit corny / I’m a wildwood flower / broadcasting tower waving for you.”
At such a level she really holds a unique position, “somewhere between Bob Dylan and Miles Davis” (self-description), as an inspiration for Prince, Michael Hedges, Madonna, Seal, Suzanne Vega, Annie Lennox, Tracey Chapman, Tanita Tikaram, Courtney Love, Alanis Morrissette, and Ani DeFranco, and as a sharp-tongued critic of the present, whether radio (“junk”), Kurt Cobain (“not a good lyricist and also not a hero”), or Sting (who sounds “like a child of James Taylor and me”). “Independent thought and integrity have generally diminished,” she says, but she doesn’t spare her own generation in her analytically brilliant, breakneck trip through over the past 30 years: “We hippies had good arguments, but no plan. When the older generation then said “Good, so do something!” the hippies retreated, sucking their thumbs. That led to the apathy of the ‘70s. And then once again to the yuppiedom of the 80’s. And so yuppiedom brought forth Gen-X, a generation of nihilists.” What you really hear in this judgment is the down-to-earth spirit of the Canadian prairie, which she – although she has lived in Los Angeles since 1968 – will probably never escape: her life-partner is the singer-songwriter Don Freed – from Saskatoon.
In 1967 she signed with Warner, and the enthusiastic David Crosby produced her first album, while he practically added nothing to it. Then he introduced Joni to the Southern California party scene. She was like an alien: a flower child with hip-length blond hair and a four-octave voice, whose radiance and talent exceeded everything. Instantly she belonged there, lived as if in a dream, had Crosby’s love, found riches, enjoyed admiration everywhere – in any case mostly, “because I smelled like success.” By 1969 the hippie-capitalist felt like she was in a golden cage: “The dream of success separates you from real life” – and robs creativity. Only by being creative did she feel alive.
Joni Mitchell (1968)
Ladies of the Canyon (1970)
Court and Spark (1974, jazz-rock)
Miles of Aisles (live, 1974, jazz & folk)
The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)
Shadows and Light (live 1979, jazzier than 1974).
Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977)
Turbulent Indigo (1994)
Taming the Tiger (1998)
Both Sides Now (2000)
A Kind of “Best of”:
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Added to Library on January 23, 2023. (902)
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