Joni Mitchell's clear-sightedness has always cut through the cant and glitter of not only the music business, but her adopted country, America, writes Warwick McFadyen.
This is a nation that has lost the ability to be self-critical, and that makes a lie out of the freedoms.
- Joni Mitchell
Canadian Joni Mitchell has never been blinded by the sheen of bright surfaces. Her clear-sightedness has always cut through the cant and glitter of not only the music business, but her adopted country, the US.
Mitchell's preceding quote was from an interview with fellow songwriter Elvis Costello in a recent issue of Vanity Fair. The context was the release of The Beginning of Survival, a compilation of Mitchell songs from the '80s and '90s.
There is a large difference, however, between this selection and her Dreamland CD, which was released about the same time. Whereas the songs on Dreamland were picked by Mitchell to be representative of her career, Survival is more specific in its aims and themes.
Mitchell told Costello that she regarded Survival as "her best work".
This is some claim to make on two counts. First, in light of her earlier work, such as the classics The Circle Game and Both Sides Now and the albums such as Blue, Court and Spark and Hejira; and second, that in the main, the albums from which Survival was drawn were largely ignored by the public.
"They were introduced into a very awkward period in American culture," she told Costello, "when people just didn't want to look at it . . . It's a bad time to be right. This (Survival) is my best work, and it has not gone into the culture. I wanted to be a voice in there. I wanted to participate, but the songs had been deemed sophomoric and negative."
It is true that the songs don't skip down the sunny side of the street on Survival. Mitchell puts society, particularly American society, under the microscope. The cells of moral decay are magnified and then held up to the light. It is dissection by artistry.
Mitchell the vivisectionist doesn't stand alone in her work; she calls in giants of philosophy and literature to be with her.
How many artists would have the temerity, and the talent, to approach W.B. Yeats, Nobel prize winner, and tack on their own words to a piece of his? Mitchell did it on Slouching Towards Bethlehem on Survival, originally from her 1991 album Night Ride Home.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, one of Yeats' greatest poems (note to record company - Yeats is spelt thus, not Yates as in the liner notes), has three Mitchell stanzas woven into it. Next to "for what is this rough beast its hour come at last slouching towards Bethlehem to be born", Mitchell sings "hoping and hoping as if by my weak faith/the spirit of this world would heal and rise/vast are the shadows that straddle and strafe and struggle in the darkness troubling my eyes".
In another, The Three Great Stimulants (Survival, originally from Dog Eat Dog, 1985) she takes the thoughts of the 19th-century German philosopher Nietzsche and puts them in a modern context.
Nietzsche had said that life had three illusions: "One is chained by the Socratic love of knowledge and the delusion of being able thereby to heal the eternal wound of existence; another is ensnared by art's seductive veil of beauty fluttering before his eyes; still another by the metaphysical comfort that beneath the whirl of phenomena eternal life flows on indestructibly . . . The more nobly formed natures . . . must be deluded by exquisite stimulants into forgetfulness of their displeasure. All that we call culture is made up of these stimulants."
Mitchell has always been seen as the model confessional songwriter, but it does an injustice to the sweep and scope of her work to downplay her concerns in relation to culture and society.
An illustration to this is seen in part of the Vanity Fair interview in which she speaks about the The Three Great Stimulants: "The three great stimulants of the exhausted ones are artifice, brutality and innocence. It should be 'corruption of innocence'. The more decadent a culture gets, the more they have need for what they don't have at all, which is innocence, so you end up with kiddie porn and a perverse obsession with youth."
Apart from calling her cat Nietzsche, Mitchell has a link to the philosopher going back to schooldays in Canada, when one of her teachers, Arthur Kratzmann, formerly of Queensland, and described by her as a seminal influence, urged her to "write in her own blood". It was an echo from Nietzsche.
Six songs in the middle of Survival are the album centrepiece: The Beat of Black Wings, No Apologies, Sex Kills ("Sex sells everything. Sex kills."), The Three Great Stimulants, Lakota and Ethiopia. They stand out as equal to anything the singer-songwriter has done. If nothing else, this collection forces a reassessment of her work from the '80s and '90s, when Mitchell was using technology more in the studio and painting canvases of sound, both dense and, as it turned out, demode.
The title, The Beginning of Survival, is taken from a letter (reproduced in the liner notes) by a native-American Indian, Chief Seattle, supposedly written to the government in the 1800s. The validity of the letter, and its authorship, have been questioned.
The letter is a plea against the destruction of his people's way of life, and with it their environment. "Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? . . . And what will happen when we say goodbye to the swift pony and hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival?"
One suspects that whether myth or substantially true it is, for Mitchell's purposes, beside the point. The metaphor is the message.
Despite her reputation and her awards, such as Grammys, and induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Mitchell and the music business have always been at loggerheads.
Two years ago she was leaving the "corrupt cesspool". Fifteen years ago she said that she felt she didn't fit in anywhere in the industry.
It adds verisimilitude to this exchange with Costello.
Mitchell: "I can't remember anything I ever wrote."
Costello: "Do you know other songs?"
"I don't know anything."
"You don't know any songs?"
"By other people?"
"No. I don't know my own songs."
The pity is, even if Mitchell is being slightly disingenuous, there has been a collective loss of memory towards her music. The Beginning of Survival is the water bottle in a cultural desert. Drink.
The Beginning of Survival and Dreamland are out now.
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Added to Library on March 24, 2005. (2653)
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