Learning about life from Joni Mitchell

by Michael Dobie
February 10, 2024

The first notes were not perfect, a touch flat, off the familiar line of melody. But as the chair in which the singer sat swiveled to face the audience, Joni Mitchell settled into a lyric familiar yet instantly fresh, the songwriter reinterpreting her song within her new limitations.

In a week in which the musical touchstones came fast and furious, her performance at the Grammy Awards was singular.

It stood apart from the endless recollections of the Beatles' arrival in America 60 years ago, the moment when music and culture and pretty much everything changed.

And from the sight of Taylor Swift cementing her grip on all of us, taking two more awards at the Grammys, taking over Tokyo with four more concerts, and taking over the minds of NFL-loving conspiracy theorists spouting Super Bowl delusions that she was part of some presidential election plot.

And from the sad death of Seiji Ozawa, the irrepressible Japanese conductor who destroyed the prejudice that Asian musicians might have great technical facility but lacked the well of emotions needed to interpret Western classics.

Music is universal. It's the currency common in all of our lives. That's why these moments matter, for the way they touch us. And nothing, and no one, touched quite like Joni Mitchell.

That was due in part to the circumstances. Joni is one of America's musical grande dames, a peerless songwriter and melder of folk, pop and jazz with roots in the '60s and relevance always. But in 2015, she suffered a rupture of a brain aneurysm. It robbed her of her ability to speak and, for a longer period, her ability to walk and play guitar and piano. Recovery was long and arduous. She made it back onstage in 2022 in a huge surprise and played one other concert before last week's Grammy performance, her first, and the first time most of America would see her perform live.

She's 80 now, and still seemed to be fighting her way back, sitting in that stuffed chair, a silver-tipped cane in her right hand. But as she made her way through "Both Sides Now," you heard the deep husk of her voice, the lovely and well-timed tremolo, the unexpected burst of strength at the right moments. And the wisdom that comes with pain and recognition as she sang:

But now old friends are acting strange,

they shake their heads and say, Joni, you've changed,

well, something's lost but something's gained

in living every day

A passage she concluded with a wistful grin.

There was much both obvious and subtle to take away from that. We do lose and gain every day, often in unequal measure. Sometimes we overcome, sometimes we compensate, sometimes we adjust, but always we change. Here I am, Joni was saying, still living every day.

And what about the rest of us?

When life robs us of some part of ourselves, how do we balance the loss and the gain as we try to live every day? When life robs others, from our loved ones to our leaders, can we summon the grace we need to consider their loss and gain as they try to continue living every day? Can we find the wisdom Joni has accumulated to really look at both sides now?

Joni might not be what she once was. But by taking that stage, she forced us to see that in some ways she might be more. She clearly has lost, but just as clearly has gained. And she transformed the valedictory of the song from something wonderfully appropriate to something searing for the brutal honesty with which she delivered it:

I really don't know life at all.

May we all try to summon that humility as we judge those who are living every day.

Printed from the official Joni Mitchell website. Permanent link: https://jonimitchell.com/library/view.cfm?id=5683

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