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The Anatomy of Melancholy Print-ready version

How Joni Mitchell Changed my life and why she should change yours, too

by David Yaffe
Apex Art
December 1, 2015

Double Take 15
Tuesday, December 1: 7 pm, Apex Art Gallery, New York City
Watch the video presentation here.

Organized by Bookforum Editor Albert Mobilio, Double Take is a unique reading series that asks award winning and emerging poets, novelists, editors, and artists to trade takes on shared experiences.

When I was 15, I had a high school girlfriend who was a couple of years older—dog years in those days. She had a piano and a stereo in her room, and very tolerant parents. We were both music students at the Booker T. Washington High School for Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas; she sang, and I played piano. We had a ritual of lying down in bed together in pitch darkness, taking in what we were hearing with everything we had, whether it was The Velvet Underground or Miles Davis. One day, she played me Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Joni said that when she made that album she was “as vulnerable as cellophane on a packet of cigarettes.” Me, too. Those dissonant dulcimer strums, the voice of gorgeous and adult romance, one that had gained in profundity through lots of experience. “All romantics meet the same fate someday,” she sang at album’s end. Really? I wasn’t ready to be jaded yet, but I was ready to be seduced by such glorious ennui. Blue was an explosion of colors, many suspended and stacked chords, along with the mixed emotions they were emulating. Where to concentrate? “I want to wreck my stockings in some jukebox dive”—that sounded appealing. The resonance produced by what I would later learn were open tunings, resonating with overtones of chords reverberating from other chords? This stunning woman creating these sounds, with voice that could make you fall in love, surrender to heartbreak, and keep coming back for more. I learned from D.H. Lawrence, then from life, that you could love someone and hate them at the same time. I would later learn that Charles Mingus—who wrote his final melodies for Joni to sing—punched a trombone player for falsifying his emotion, and that Joni understood this. Joni hated phonies. She hated girls singing with affected catches in their voices that sounded like fake coming, which she heard everywhere. Joni once cried when she heard that art meant artifice, but she was on acid. There was no fake anything with Joni. It was real, and it sounded like it was there just for you, even though it wasn’t. I looked at the record jacket for answers and I just saw a grainy photograph of a woman lost in ecstasy or melancholy or both. The credits were in tiny letters. I saw the names James Taylor and Stephen Stills but did not see a record producer.

“All I Want” is a deceptively modest title. This is a woman who could never really have what she wants. (When Leonard Cohen was in his brief but indelible fling with her, he was asked: “How do you like living with Beethoven?”) After years of devotion to her music and the bitter character who had made it, I understood what “Living With Beethoven” meant. A single word or phrase would set her off, and I never knew whether I would be banished forever. I had to pull more than a few rabbits out of my hat just to stay in the game. “I’m surrounded by leeches,” she told me in the midst of a bad day and a bad mood. “What kind of leech are you?” When I ran this by Leonard Cohen, he suggested, “A Jewish leech?” Mary Gaitskill said, “A friendly leech?” I said, “I don’t think I’m a leech.” “What makes you not a leech?” “Because I am going to immortalize you.”

It’s early 2007. Joni was putting her finishing touches on Shine, her final album. I was in LA, at a café in Brentwood that let Joni smoke at an outdoor table. I was so nervous, I crushed a wine glass while I was standing at the bar. I saw at least three blondes of a certain age before the real one emerged, half an hour late on schedule. She was wearing the beret from the Hejira cover. There were too many rings and bracelets to even count. She outstretched her hand. “I’m Joni,” she said. “I know,” I replied. 12 hours later, when she drove me to my hotel, I would know more.

I cringe when I hear my voice on those early interviews. I laughed too much and interjected too eagerly. I was in awe. How could I not be? Once she decided to test me and, in a hotel room in Calgary, she told me that “Talk to Me”—a song that hit my sweet spot at 15—was about Dylan. I was writing a book about Dylan at the time. So how could I hide my excitement? Later, she said she made it up—she just wanted to see what a starfucker I was. I failed her test in flying colors. At one point, she told me the only saxophone players she loved were Johnny Hodges, Charlie Parker, and Wayne Shorter, who had played on several of her albums. She thought Coltrane was overrated and that Wayne was underrated. What about Sonny Rollins? She said he played his heart out at Mingus’s wake, but that’s all she knew. I gave her my ipod—this was her first time seeing one. I put on “Skylark” from 1972. Joni closed her eyes and took it in. After it was over, she said, “I like it, but I don’t love it.” “Why don’t you love it?” “He should have used more space. He should have played with Miles.” Of course Sonny played with Miles! I only realized later that she was listening for a place to come in. She was not listening as a civilian. Joni Mitchell is not like the rest of us. The first time she yelled at me on the phone, it was so artful, I was wishing for better sound. “Holy shit,” I thought, “I am getting bitched out by Joni Mitchell!”

Earlier this year, I spent about 13 hours in her kitchen. It was touch and go a couple of times, but I never lost my cool. Compared to those 2007 interviews, the 2015 exchanges sounded as mellow as NPR. When she brought up her “Talk to Me” test, I told her that I was still acting like a fan. Now, even though I admired her music and was more fascinated by her life than ever, I now longer thought of her as a fan, but as a human being. This was exactly what she wanted, but she made it hard to get there. You never knew when you would say the wrong thing, or use the wrong phrase. I used the term “turn on the charm,” and she said that she did not turn on the charm. If she was charming, she was delighted. If she was sad, she was sad. Joan Baez, Judy Collins—those phonies turned on the charm. Peter Gabriel once told Joni, “Your lightness is a puppet for your darkness.” She insisted that her lightness was her lightness, and her darkness was her darkness. Whatever she gave you was real. No fake coming.

And so, as she said in song, she talked too loose, too open and free. She loved Edith Piaf’s recording of “Je Ne Regrette Rien,” but she did regret, every time she disclosed too much in public, even when one of her closest friends published transcripts of their interviews, she called her up and said that she left her feeling like a rape victim. She said the same thing on one of middle of the night voicemail messages she left with me, words every man longs to hear. She still had some fight in her. “Jaffe”—that’s what she called me—“you stole my life. Give it back! Biographers are paparazzi of the fucking mind. At least give me 1975 back!” But it was easy to get her laughing again, to be delighted again. She loved to talk, maybe loved it too much. At one point in our marathon, she told me how unimpressed she was that I had perfect pitch. It was an argument she would have with musicians who would tell her that they had it. She didn’t know if she had it or not since she didn’t know the notes. What she had was more important—perfect intonation. And then, to make the point, she picked up the guitar that she was asked to hold for the Yves St. Laurent shoot that had posted only recently. She thought that when she held that guitar, she looked as if “someone had nuked my reservation,” and that, she said, was because she hadn’t played in eight years. So, in mid conversation, she cut her nails and, with her calluses long gone, she began to strum. It became clear after a little while that she was playing “Ladies Man” from her underappreciated 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast. “Why did you pick that one?” “It was just the tuning I found.” My jaw dropped. I wasn’t going to be sucked back into fan mode, but I also couldn’t lose the power of this moment. She didn’t sing. She was just vamping those changes. When it was over and she made her point that was louder than words, I told her that I had an imperfect life, but that moments like these took the edge off. And I got a hearty laugh. “Do I still have it?” she asked.

“I’m much jiver in person and I would rather people think the music is me,” she once said. She also sang that she was given some wisdom and a lot of jive, which I think means that she’s human. “Songs are like tattoos.” They pierced me at 15. She could heal while hurting; she could be the cure and the affliction. She could be the wound that never heals. The music remains. This is how you learn to live. The all too human Joni called it a method in survival. And sometimes, all we can do is endure. A couple of months after our encounter, Joni suffered an aneurysm, and her prospects, alas, are not great. Nothing lasts for long. All romantics meet the same fate. Albums are like novels or poems except that you can listen to them in the dark. You can always flip the record, put in another CD, reset the ipod. Close your eyes. Joni Mitchell will be there waiting for you.

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Added to Library on December 9, 2015. (8685)


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