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What once was lost — Joni Mitchell’s amazing grace Print-ready version

by Philip Martin
Arkansas Online
August 7, 2022

Everything dies, mister, that's a fact.
But maybe everything that dies, someday comes back.
- Bruce Springsteen, "Atlantic City"

Is there a word to describe the joy of finding something you thought was lost?

Maybe the Germans have one; the best I can come up with is anti-desiderium. "Desiderium," despite what the spellchecker tells us, is an actual word in English that means, as per Merriam-Webster, "an ardent desire or longing; especially a feeling of loss or grief for something lost."

A perfect antonym for the word would be close to the feeling I experienced when YouTube clips of 78-year-old Joni Mitchell performing at the Newport Folk Festival hit the internet recently.

It was the first time she has sung on stage in 15 years.

Mitchell announced her retirement from touring and recording in 2004; she said then she intended to devote more time to painting, which she was also very good at. And then, on March 31, 2015, she was found unconscious in her home, the victim of an apparent aneurysm.

While Mitchell's natural tendency to privacy and the limits of medical science conspired to obscure a complete picture of what happened and how severely she may have been damaged, there were reports (since confirmed by Mitchell) that she was so damaged she had to relearn how to walk and talk. Playing music and singing again seemed to be out of the question.

About the best we could hope for was a kind of ceremonial Joni, regal in a wheelchair at events held in her honor. Maybe she could speak a few words, maybe bestow a benediction with a soft wave of her hand.

I had heard rumors of jam sessions with famous people at her house, people who wanted to be able to say they played with Joni, I thought, not unkindly, exactly, but not happily either. It seemed cruel to make her - once so fierce and prickling with intelligence - into a kind of mascot, a benevolent den mother. (Were I asked, I'd show up for a guitar pull at Joni's place, just to bank the memory, just to bask in the presence of genius. But I would probably have had mixed feelings about it.)

The absence of Joni Mitchell provoked a cultural desiderium. It wasn't that she completely disappeared. Recording artists never do - we have their back catalogs, and record companies always have a way of packaging and re-packaging careers, sometimes to mildly interesting effect. Following two exhaustive boxed sets released in 2020 and 2021, "Joni Mitchell Archives: Vol. 3: The Asylum Albums (1972-1975)" will be released on Sept. 23.

But knowing Mitchell would sing no more forever, that she was, in effect, the victim of a kind of locked-in syndrome, was heartbreaking.

What's sadder than an aging rock star playing the old hots? An aging rock star who can't play them.

But then, two weeks ago, there they were: Videos of Mitchell and the "Joni Jam" at this year's Newport Festival, engineered by Brandi Carlile, who should probably be presented with a Nobel Prize for arranging this wonderful surprise for the world.

Mitchell played a full set for the crowd at the Rhode Island festival, where she last performed 53 years ago. She sang "Carey," "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Both Sides Now" in a lower register than she applied all those years ago. (Elvis Presley's voice also deepened as he got older; it slid from a keen, ringing tenor to a butter-soft baritone.) She stood up and played a guitar solo on a version of her song "Just Like This Train."

I'll not critique her performance; that seems beside the point. You can watch it for yourself.

What matters is that she made it back, that the genius put in the hard work of rehabilitating herself. She didn't die before she got old. While only she and her medical team can know exactly how difficult and unusual her recovery has been, we can know it would not have happened had she not willed it.

A love for real. Not fade away.

OLD ROCK STARS

It's easy to be cynical about old rock stars.

The Rolling Stones have been a nostalgia act for 40 years now; on their best nights they're a highly efficient machine, but their last interesting record was probably 1983's "Undercover," which dean of rock critics Robert Christgau called a "murky, overblown, incoherent piece of shit" when it came out. (I might have agreed at the time; but now think "Undercover of the Night" is the band's last great single.)

I guess Bob Dylan is still touring because he wants to, and don't doubt that there are moments when everything clicks and the band feels good and greasy and maybe there's something more than dust and irony in his voice. But this shtick where he comes out from behind his piano and just stands there so the crowd can worship/acknowledge/see him feels like cheap carny performance art to me. I'm not saying he should retire, I'm just saying that if you buy a ticket you shouldn't be surprised at the shenanigans.

And poor Brian Wilson. His shows feel sad despite the fact his gift for melody is intact. He presents as damaged and exploited. Maybe it's a form of self-exploitation. But he's a hurt man, and it feels wrong to watch him perform ... in the same way it felt wrong to watch the late outsider artist Daniel Johnston, whose wonderful facility with pop music was always informed by his psychiatric problems. (Most decent people probably felt at least a little guilt consuming Johnston's art; it was so clearly a product of his pathology.)

Then there's Paul McCartney, Great Granddaddy Rock 'n' Roll, the consummate showman who has remade himself into the Tom Hanks of rock. In some quarters, McCartney is probably underrated - his pure musical facility rivals that of Prince and Stevie Wonder - but it's his taste for "granny music," his business acumen and his enduring cuteness that give some people pause.

Still, it's hard to get old in rock 'n' roll, especially if you spent a lot of your youth whining about the gerontocracy. To vastly oversimplify, Dylan, in his youth, provided a model for pop singers wanting to grow up and take on adult concerns, and singer-songwriters like Mitchell and Paul Simon were - in their 40s and 50s - the best examples of pop/rock singers growing old more or less gracefully. They wrote lyrics worth hearing, and raised the stakes in the songwriting game.

When people talk about Bruce Springsteen's development as an artist, they usually talk about his rock 'n' roll heroes - like Mitch Ryder and Gary "U.S." Bonds and Van Morrison - and sometimes light on the earlier perception of him as a "New Dylan" (a death sentence that, in Springsteen's case, was probably deserved - his early lyrics were pretty derivative of Dylan's evocative crypticism) - but rarely touch on the obvious influence Mitchell's and Simon's lyrics had on his writing.

Springsteen became a much more disciplined and coherent wordsmith with "The River," when he began to sound less like some urban jive patter princeling and more like a minimalist short story writer.

(See me after class for my crackpot theory about how Springsteen was one of the godfathers of the "Dirty" realism literary movement of the early '80s, which Granta magazine editor Bill Buford described as "fiction of a new generation of American authors ... [who] write about the belly-side of contemporary life - a deserted husband, an unwanted mother, a car thief, a pickpocket, a drug addict - but they write about it with a disturbing detachment, at times verging on comedy. Understated, ironic, sometimes savage, but insistently compassionate, these stories constitute a new voice in fiction.")

My point is not that you can get too old to play rock 'n' roll - you don't age out of the genre any more than old blues or jazz players do - but that individuals get older and face certain challenges because of that. And sometimes this makes it difficult for those of us in the audience to watch the older forms of the artists we admired in our youth. Not because they got old, but because they got ridiculous.

I have seen Lucinda Williams perform post-stroke. There's nothing but tenderness and steel in her voice anymore, nothing but the world and all its joy and sorrow. It's got nothing to do with how old you are - it's whether or not you're tired of it.

NEVER RIDICULOUS

Joni Mitchell has presented as a lot of things, but never as ridiculous.

Always sensitive to the hyperbolic blare of entertainment journalism, the sort of blather that announces the next hot TikTokker as a "recording artist" and argues for the importance of ruined-looking boys who pose in magazines, she would probably not claim to declare herself a "poet."

Even in her hippie days she was not a spewer, one of those silly free girls wearing pain as an ornament or a bluffing black-glaring poseur in mascara. Joni Mitchell worked at forging language and matching it to complex snaky melodies like no other pop songwriter of the rock 'n' roll era save perhaps the aformentioned Simon or top-rank Elvis Costello.

She understood song as more than a poem set to music, that the words were integrated into the music, that they were sounds first, that the human voice is an elastic instrument, a conduit of emotive flow as much as a conveyor of data and sense. By the '70s she'd smoked her bel canto into a offhand, conversational, sexy, contralto perfect for delivering her confessions.

It isn't poetry, but something both more and less, a different kind of art form, as different from the kind of art songs of Cole Porter or Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht as they were from the juney-moony vernacular of greasy kids' stuff. She understood that it was ultimately the sound of the song that mattered, but it was her command of the language that attracted a certain kind of Joniphile. (Not that her willowy looks hurt her cause.)

Mitchell can be credited as one of the inventors of the confessional singer-songwriter mode; she took Dylan's imagistic playfulness, focused it to laser acuity and turned it on herself with an unflinching, sometimes cringe-inducing honesty. She was not afraid to reveal herself as shrill and unkind as well as vulnerable. She was not afraid to be a royal b****.

MITCHELL'S MUSICALITY

Her musicality exceeded her way with words. Before her aneurysm, she was an extraordinary musician with a freakish ear for arrangement. It's said her unique guitar tunings evolved from her physical inability to barre an F chord, that she reordered the fretboard to compensate for this supposed weakness and found rich veins to exploit.

If you listen to her albums in rough chronological order, you begin to hear a genius she probably didn't know she owned while she was growing up smart and arty back in Fort Macleod, Alberta. She gained confidence and competence, moving from the straightforward folk of early stuff through the exhilarating whitewater precipitousness of jazzy midcareer albums to the command of a grand master on her later works.

Starting with the still underrated (and, at the time, violently misunderstood) "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" in 1973, and continuing through "Hejira" (1976), "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter "(1977) and "Mingus" (1979), Mitchell charged through the traditional boundaries of commercial pop. She was a gateway drug to jazz and funk. Not everyone followed her through the swinging, swooping loopiness of this musical walkabout, but those who could recognize she was far more than a lank-haired girl with a guitar.

This brace of albums is evidence that Joni Mitchell was a bigger influence on Prince than Jimi Hendrix or Michael Jackson.

The antithesis of desiderium? What once was lost now is found: amazing grace.

We grew up with these stars, and it is difficult to imagine them growing old while still retaining a place in the culture. How old is Elvis? Ageless, of course; you are still likely to encounter him as a black-haired and droopy-eyed post-adolescent as often as a fat man in a jumpsuit. We throw these images off into space and they bounce off satellites and come back - somewhere out there she is still the willowy blonde with the guitar and the overbite, cigarette sizzling between her thin fingers.

We are star dust, we are golden - but a few of us are also something more durable, something indestructible echoing out in the vastness, refracting off the vaults of heaven.

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Added to Library on August 7, 2022. (348)

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