On a fairly regular basis, Joni Mitchell's official Twitter feed posts vintage photos of the genre-defining singer-songwriter. A few weeks back, up popped one of the most surprising - a shot of a fairly glam Mitchell and her former manager and label head David Geffen happily partying at Studio 54 in the late Seventies. It was a just-for-fun tweet, but also a trenchant reminder that Mitchell has never been predictable. She's long shunned the cliches of her profession, and that's also true of the journey heard in The Early Years (1963-1967), the first archival excavation from her vaults.
The story rolled out here adheres to a long-established narrative arc for for her generation of singer-songwriters. Dating back at least to Bob Dylan, the fledgling balladeer starts his or her career singing traditional folk tunes and covers in bars or coffeehouses. Inevitably, he or she begins writing original songs, gradually revealing a sensibility of his or her own and leaving the folk oldies behind (but never straying entirely from those roots, either). It's the unplugged equivalent of a rock band playing in a garage or a hip hop artist making mix tapes in a basement, copying other emcees until a distinctive flow emerges.
On The Early Years - a collection of folk club tapes, radio broadcasts and home-made demos from her pre-recording-artist years - Mitchell's saga sticks to the script, at least initially. Gently strumming a guitar and singing in an austere soprano, the 20-year-old Mitchell gives herself over to folk story-songs like "John Hardy" or the contemporary murder ballad "The Long Black Rifle" in the set's earliest offerings. But by the time the five-disc box wraps up, Mitchell is singing her own words - waxing philosophical, sifting through her neuroses and analyzing the end of her first marriage - and using unconventional tunings that lend her guitar its distinctive wide-screen sound, its rustling-leaves beauty. In just a few very compact years, compared to her peers, she's transformed from Roberta Joan Anderson to Joni Mitchell.
As The Early Years makes clear, Mitchell deviated from the norm almost immediately. As the rising folkie heard on the first fifth of the set, Mitchell performs songs every troubadour was required to learn back then: "House of the Rising Sun," "Copper Kettle," "Fare Thee Well (Dink's Song)." She comes off austere, a little stiff. But on Woody Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty," another part of the folk club repertoire of the time, she doesn't sound like just another balladeer copying Guthrie. She inhabits that song to such a degree that it sounds as if she wrote it herself; there's no trace of Guthrie's phrasing in her rendition. Whether she intended it or not, the performance is a statement: I am not a typical folkie, nor will I ever be.
Mere months after some of those recordings, Mitchell is already rolling out her own compositions. Again, not unusual - but the first one we hear, the wintry "Urge for Going," feels fully formed as both a song and a performance. It's "acoustical pop" - a term she uses later in the box set when talking about Dylan - but it sports neither the typical chord changes or sing-songy rhymes of some folk songs. And its opening lines - "I awoke today and found the frost perched on the town/It hovered in a frozen sky, then it gobbled summer down" - signal a heightened literary sensibility.
Very soon after, she's introducing the prematurely rueful "Both Sides Now," the swooping, joyous "Night in the City," and an abandoned song about a romantic rendezvous, "Eastern Rain," that's riddled with second thoughts ("And I know I shouldn't be here/Yes, I know I should go home"). It's not simply that she became Joni Mitchell, but how quickly she became Joni Mitchell; she never really went back to that coffeehouse Joan Anderson.
In Girls Like Us, her bio of Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon, Sheila Weller recounts a story about Mitchell and then-husband Chuck recruiting jazz-trained Motown musicians to write lead sheets (transcriptions) of her songs around 1965: "They listened to Joni and said, 'She's something else!' and they looked at her hands and said, 'Play that again?'" Chuck Mitchell told Weller. Hints of that sophistication - which would lead to equally rewarding and confounding musical adventures - are sprinkled throughout The Early Years. Her guitar playing moves from delicate chording to more complex open tuning. In a bit of between-song improv between songs, she plays and sings wordless vocals; it's brief, but you can hear the roots of the more freeform style she would later develop on albums like Hejira and the underrated Don Juan's Reckless Daughter.
And even during an era when "confessional" songwriting was rearing its head, Mitchell was ahead of the curve. Hearing an early take of "Conversation," it's hard to imagine anyone else writing a detailed, nuanced account of a rapport between a troubled man and a comforting, platonic female friend. Before singing another rarity, "Winter Lady," she calls it "a love song for a man to serenade a woman," but she says she wants to sing it anyway - another sign of the later, bullheaded Mitchell who would release albums like her jazz experiment Mingus whether it was the accepted route or not.
In song introductions that pop up throughout the box, Mitchell periodically explains what inspired her to write particular songs. Given how little we've heard her speaking voice in recent years, due to her brain aneurism and fall five years ago, those comments are now welcome, even educational. Before "Urge for Going," she details how it was inspired by the brutal winter weather in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where she moved right before her teen years. Mitchell delivers these comments with an endearing giggle and a hint of nervousness or flightiness. But as with every other such moment on The Early Years, she's all business once she opens her mouth to sing; she's never in less than command of her songs and her voice.
The Early Years also reminds you how early some of her greatest early songs were written. By 1967, Mitchell had already wrapped up "Little Green" (about giving up her daughter for adoption in 1965), "Morning Morgantown" and "Conversation," all of which wouldn't appear on records for another three or four years. The collection includes 29 songs she didn't put on record, and the fact that she left that many in the dust before she cut her first album shows her quickly her work was accelerating. Given its brisk melody, it seems odd that she shelved "Born to Take the Highway," although perhaps even Mitchell realized that its gotta-roam lyrics were a bit too pat and that she was destined for more ambitious writing. "Just Like Me" is another lost, lively gem, its music a eurphoric unplugged rush. Even though it was supposedly written about Stephen Stills, Mitchells seems to relate to the aloof, needy character in the song.
The outtakes also show that Mitchell clearly made wise choices on what to include (or not) on her albums. "I resented being called a folk singer," Mitchell tells Cameron Crowe in an interview included in the liner notes, "and I turned my back on all that early work as being childish and immature." Of the collection's unearthed songs - or those covered by other acts but never released by Mitchell herself, like the Fairport Convention-rendered "Eastern Rain" - some are indeed tentative and slight. "Dr. Junk," about a dentist who collects rusted art objects, is a little cutesy; the allegorical "Cara's Castle" is a little too Renaissance fair. It's fascinating to hear one of her first songs, "Day By Day," but it's a pretty mopey and not especially monumental song.
The Early Years would have benefited from pruning in other ways too. It's not clear why we need to hear multiple versions of some of these songs - three each of "Urge for Going" and "Both Sides Now," none of which is dramatically different.
But given how little outside material she included on her early records - as in none - it is a kick to hear her tackle Neil Young's "Sugar Mountain" in a live 1967 set (she praises it as a "great" song, and it would inspire "The Circle Game") and John Phillips' "Me and My Uncle." We also receive a jarring dose of Sixties sexism in the music business. Introducing her at some Canadian gigs, Oscar Brand - the veteran, tweedy folkie two decades her senior - remarks of her songs, "She writes them beautifully and she sings them beautifully, and she looks beautifully at the camera too" and later calls her "very, very ornamental, I can tell you that right now."
Although gems are scattered throughout The Early Years, its last two discs - a homemade demo followed by two 1967 sets at the Ann Arbor club the Canterbury House - are the keepers. (The Canterbury material is also available as a separate high-grade three-LP set, although be forewarned that it will set you back $60.) By then, the fully formed Mitchell is in the house. Whether in her apartment in New York or on stage in Michigan, she gives commanding performances of "Both Sides Now," "Urge for Going," and the painfully conflicted "I Don't Know Where I Stand."
The Canterbury tapes also contain plenty of between-song comments, some of them enlightening and others amusingly audacious. Talking about Dylan's Don't Look Back doc, which she's just seen, she admits to not feeling influenced by his work. But then she adds that she's honoring Dylan anyway: "I've lengthened all my A's in this next song."
Even if Mitchell was half-joking (she later participated in his Rolling Thunder Revue tour), up-and-coming songwriters weren't supposed to say anything remotely disparaging about Dylan back then. But as a small but telling example of the way she went her own way, it's of a piece with her narrative. The Early Years lays out the road map she would follow for decades to come. It's a route many subsequent songwriters, male and female, would also try to navigate, and many still haven't caught up.
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