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It's time to pay that debt to Joni Mitchell Print-ready version

by Karla Peterson
San Diego Union Tribune
September 22, 1994


Leave it to Chrissie Hynde to cut through the flab of a rock 'n' roll think piece to get straight to a hard kernel of truth.

The happy occasion pops up in the new issue of Rolling Stone, when Hynde interrupts yet another story on women in rock with a question so obvious, it deserves its own billboard.

"And what about Joni?" the leader of the Pretenders pipes up. "Why is everybody forgetting about Joni?"

She has been forging an uncompromising trail through heavy underbrush for more than 25 years now, but when the time comes to talk about the pioneers who made the current women-in-rock revolution possible, everybody is always forgetting about Joni Mitchell.

Compared to Joan Jett's back-alley snarl, Patti Smith's punk rage and Hynde's offhand cool, Mitchell's literate song craft seems old-fashioned and demure, making her as unlikely an anarchist as June Cleaver. What could this patrician folkie possibly tell Liz Phair, Tori Amos or Me'Shell NdegeOcello that these gutsy rockers haven't known since birth?

Whether you look at the awe-inspiring sweep of her career or the indelible mark left by her lyrics, the answer is a rousing "plenty."

Since releasing her self-titled debut album in 1968, Mitchell has rebelled with quiet style, writing and producing her own music in her own willful way—reviews, record sales and radio airplay be damned.

When audiences fell in love with her dewy-eyed Lady of the Canyon persona, Mitchell made the unflinchingly personal "Blue," revealing that the groovy folk mama could be just as grasping and needy as the next neurotic. She followed the radio-friendly "Court and Spark" with the acid-washed "The Hissing of Summer Lawns," indulged her muse on the overwrought and underrated "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" and alienated whatever fans were left with the jazz-flavored "Mingus."

Other female musicians have rocked harder, louder and more flamboyantly, but for more than two decades, Mitchell has been turning her emphatically female visions into popular music, and anyone who doesn't see the subversiveness in that isn't looking hard enough.

Not looking, and certainly not listening, because beneath their inviting folk-pop-jazz facades, Joni Mitchell's songs have a dark, potent vibe that reverberates down the spines of our new rock heroines.

The sexually liberated, emotionally conflicted narrator of Mitchell's "Cactus Tree" turns up 25 years later in Liz Phair's blunt confessionals. The cryptic vagabond who hitches through "Hejira" hovers over Tori Amos' restless epics. The tormented housewife from "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" haunts Kristin Hersh's stark "Hips and Makers," while the robust sensuality of "Coyote" and "Blue Motel Room" is vibrantly alive in NdegeOcello's "Plantation Lullabies."

In the '70s and '80s, Mitchell showed men and women how to survive the battle of the sexes with dignity and a minimum of bloodshed. In 1991's "Night Ride Home," she played her most revolutionary role yet—a middle-aged woman who could still appreciate the charms of a middle-aged man.

Since I was seventeen/I've had no one over me
, Mitchell sings in "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow." She is 50 now, but when we look at her, we are still looking up, where Joni Mitchell stands alone; her legacy stretching down for miles and nothing above her but the sun.

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Added to Library on January 9, 2000. (2290)


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