Joni Mitchell: prime progenitor of pop

by Doug Fischer
Ottawa Citizen
October 28, 2001

With all due respect to those other icons of Canadian popular music -- Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, Paul Anka, perhaps -- Joni Mitchell stands alone as the country's most important and influential recording artist. Whoever ranks second is not even close.

In fact, when all is said and done, Joni Mitchell probably deserves a place alongside, or just a notch below, Bob Dylan, Lennon & McCartney and Elvis Presley as one of pop music's great creative forces. The list of those who consider her an essential influence -- Sting, Van Morrison, Diana Krall, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Alanis Morissette, Tony Bennett, Elvis Costello, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Wayne Shorter, Elton John, Public Enemy, Kris Kristofferson, Bill Frisell, Michael and Janet Jackson, James Hetfield, Snoop Dogg, Sarah McLachlan, Joshua Redman, James Taylor, you get the idea -- encompasses the spectrum of popular music in the late 20th century.

Uncompromising and daring, for 35 years -- and especially for a dozen shining years from 1968 to 1980 -- Mitchell has confounded expectations at every turn. Driven by restless inventiveness, her music emerged from folk stylings of near innocence into intensely personal and intelligent pop, jazz, avant-garde and world music, foretelling the multicultural experimentation of the '80s and '90s by more than a decade.

Throughout, Mitchell recklessly defied the whims of mainstream audiences and the demands of Top 40 radio and the male-dominated recording industry. Decades after they were recorded, some of her albums -- Blue, For the Roses, Court and Spark, Hejira, Mingus -- are still described with reverence by musicians of all stripes. The Artist Who Wants to Be Known Again as Prince has called Mitchell's 1975 album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, the "most perfect pop record ever made." Kris Kristofferson recalls being so stunned by the nakedness of Mitchell's lyrics on Blue that he wrote to urge her to be "more self-protective ... to save something for yourself." Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny says Mitchell's uncanny use of odd guitar tunings and harmonics on Hejira produced a "musical brilliance unprecedented in pop."

Still, Mitchell never had a No. 1 hit single, and her albums never sold in anything like the same quantities as those of her male contemporaries -- not to mention females like Carole King, Janis Joplin or Aretha Franklin. But none experimented so freely with their artistic identities or so fearlessly explored the turf outside of pop's accepted confines. The result was a fractured fan base, confused music critics and a creative legacy that transcended race barriers like no one before her and cleared the path for the two generations of music experimenters, especially female, who followed: Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, Tracy Chapman, Madonna, Courtney Love, Alanis Morissette, Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams.

Given all that, it seems remarkable that until now Mitchell has not been the subject of a thorough biography. And Karen O'Brien's Shadows and Light is nothing if not thorough. A BBC producer and author of Hymn to Her, a 1995 collection of writings about female musicians, O'Brien has produced a work of awesome research. Even after four years of collecting data, it's difficult to imagine she had anything left in her notebooks when she fired the last chapter off to her editor.

Charting Mitchell's beginnings in small-town Saskatchewan and Alberta, where she was born Roberta Joan Anderson in 1943 and stricken with polio at the age of nine, through her hard-scrabble days as a Toronto folkie, her teenage pregnancy and impulsive marriage to Detroit folksinger Chuck Mitchell, and on through hundreds of concerts, 21 albums, countless triumphs and tumbles, numerous art exhibitions and encounters with famous friends, the much publicized reunion with the daughter she gave up for adoption and dozens (it seems) of celebrity lovers, O'Brien has evidently spared us no detail. (We even get a full account of how Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump, the national park near Mitchell's Alberta birthplace, got its name.)

It's easy to understand some of O'Brien's reasoning. The broad sweep of her research broom allows her to make a convincing case for Mitchell as a pop music legend. More than that, the book was written with the full co-operation of Mitchell, usually something of recluse when it comes to discussing her personal life in the media ("I leave that for my songs," she has said). As a result, O'Brien is able to offer, for the first time, observations from Mitchell -- and many of the people closest to her, including former famous boyfriends -- on nearly every significant development in her career and her life, something that can be both enlightening and maddening, depending on the circumstances. O'Brien might have made her book a bit crisper by leaving out a few of the less revealing bits.

Even so, there are fascinating details to be mined -- accounts of Mitchell's 1967 show at Ottawa's Le Hibou coffeehouse and her 1969 encounter with Jimi Hendrix at the Chateau Laurier are delicious discoveries for Ottawa readers. And all of them would be worth wading through if they were eventually brought together to provide some broader perspectives.

O'Brien repeatedly returns to Mitchell's unease with feminism, for example, offering tantalizing examples of the singer's impatience at being labelled a role model for female musicians and with women unable to match her level of fierce independence. Yet O'Brien makes only a half-hearted effort to get behind the queasiness -- there's no evidence she asked Mitchell directly -- leaving the issue frustratingly unsettled.

Similarly, she provides plenty of rich detail about Mitchell's music, often putting to rest years of speculation about which lover is being discussed in which song, but failing to offer a wider context for the Mitchell canon. It's one thing to list musicians who have been influenced by Mitchell, it's another to say how and why that happened, and what it means. And for all the intimate detail about the sources of Mitchell's starkly confessional songs, there is surprisingly little analysis of the lyrics as poetry.

Still, there's lots to like. The book is exceedingly well organized, written with straightforward readability and approached with honesty and without pandering to either the subject or to celebrity-obsessed fans. It also contains a delightful appendix of Mitchell miscellany that includes an eclectic array of letters, reviews and newspaper articles, and comes with a comprehensive discography complete with details on all of Mitchell's recordings, cover versions of her songs, other musicians with whom she's recorded and background on her art exhibitions.

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