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Joni Mitchell Rises Again Print-ready version

by David Yaffe
August 1, 2023

Mitchell onstage in June at the Gorge Amphitheatre in George, Washington. Credit: Gary Miller/Getty Images.

With gratitude and laughter, the great singer-songwriter has returned to the stage. David Yaffe, author of the definitive Mitchell bio Reckless Daughter, reflects on the icon he interviewed, the joyful artist who has re-emerged, and the space between.

"Joni hates everybody." David Crosby told me this as he was praising her to the heavens. The word love was hardly enough, especially the way he used it at the time. When he'd gotten older and wiser and was grateful for life, he regretted how callously he loved as a young man. But he never regretted anything about Joni Mitchell, starting the night in 1967 when he first heard her, at the Gaslight South in Miami's Coconut Grove.

Croz had great ears. He arranged the harmonies for the Byrds, for CSN, for CSNY. And what he heard was beyond anything he'd experienced. Was it the glorious overtones resonating from the alternate tunings? The melodies emanating from Late Romanticism and the Great American Songbook? Was it the lyrics that were as good as Dylan's but delivered in a way that sounded better? Was it her beauty? Was it all of the above? Croz was knocked on his ass. He was attracted to her, but he also knew that he could never be that good.

It was that astounding melange of gifts that eventually led to "Joni hates everybody." Anyone can have high standards, but this was something else: This was judgment administered by someone who created music that didn't sound like anyone else's. Dylan invented her job, but she invented everything about the way she did it. And the more I got to know her, starting in 2007, when she was 63 and I was 34, the more I learned that she was impervious to liking anything she didn't already like. She played classical radio at home, and she told me that she could no longer tolerate what was on Top 40 radio. To her, music without the muse was "ick."

I am never far from her body of work, and yet it still has the power to shock me. I can still fall in love with a song outside of the canon. I'm listening to "Dog Eat Dog," the title track of her least-loved album, and it is brimming with so much bite and inspiration that it feels like being on the other end of her conversational cycles of complaint.

When I first started talking to her, I made her a playlist and printed out poetry, in the naïve hope that she could like any of it. I included a recording of Wallace Stevens reading "The Idea of Order at Key West" because it was about a singer who "sang beyond the genius of the sea." That's you, I told her. She looked at the poem, turned it into a perfect origami paper airplane, and flew it in my direction. Every time I tried to read her poetry, she would stop me. She couldn't take it. No matter who it was, it was all "ick." I played her Sonny Rollins, who, she said, "played his heart out" at Charles Mingus' wake. Responding to Rollins' recording of "Skylark," from Next Album, she said, "I like it, but I don't love it." I realized that she was not listening as a civilian. She was finding room to come in.

I played her bootlegs of herself. On a demo for "In France They Kiss on Main Street," she noticed the symmetry of her double-tracked guitar. On a live "Amelia," from 1983, she noted how perfectly synced her vocal was to her guitar, and how Mike Landau was better than Pat Metheny. When I asked her what she thought of Franz Schubert, she told me how she was of the Art Song tradition as well, but added that Schubert did not write his own lyrics.

There was this small group standing against the tide - Joni and her work, Nietzsche and not much else. I watched an art student tell Joni that she wanted to be a singer-songwriter too. "Are you good?" Joni asked. "Yeah, I'm good," the young woman said. "Well, you'd better do it now, because they'll replace you with a 14-year-old." She tried listening to the radio and just heard girls with these catches in their voices. She called it "fake coming." The earth was doomed, and art was becoming artifice.

At a hotel in Calgary, she was entertaining the choreographer Jean Grand-Maître and one of his dancers, while my mix CD played in the background. I included Billie Holiday and the Count Basie Orchestra's recording of "I Can't Get Started," which is really a message for someone who hates everything. Even if you hated everything, including the lyrics of Ira Gershwin, which she did - "Ira Gershwin, shame on him. I mean, some of the writing...," she once told Elvis Costello - was I on the right side of the muse when I offered this?

I've been around the world in a plane
Settled revolutions in Spain
The North Pole I have charted
But can't get started with you
And at the golf course I'm under par
Metro-Goldwyn wants me to star
I've got a house and a show place
But can't get no place with you
You're so supreme, the lyrics I write of you
Dream, dream, day and night of you
Scheme just for the sight of you
But what good will it do?

Suddenly, she said, "Stop!" She wanted everyone to quiet down so she could hear the sound of Basie's brass. She closed her eyes and really listened, just like I had been dreaming of. Time passed. "That is the sound I want," she said.

I wrote a book about her in the face of all that. When she was younger, it was easier for her to like things. Everyone is young, everything sounds good and your whole generation is creating something new. (There was a time when she was so excited about Dino Valenti's "Get Together" that she would cover it in her sets.) But as the years went on, she started to see through it all, and the list of things she liked became shorter. She loved Miles but not Coltrane - though she had to concede that every note from everyone on Kind of Blue is perfect. Everything on her Starbucks mix was stuff she liked, but there didn't seem to be much else, at least when I was talking to her.

I asked her if she liked Lou Reed, or the Velvet Underground. "He's very hallowed, but I have no idea why," she said. "Why would I like that? I like Lambert, Hendricks & Ross." Duke Ellington was the name that kept coming up, always with reverence, and the saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter was her favorite collaborator. (Recalling how she planned to tour with Shorter and got Michael Brecker on tenor instead, she said, "I wanted genius and settled for talent.")

Among the younger musicians, she loved the drummer Brian Blade and the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire - both close friends, people she would call when she needed an ear - but she wondered if it was only a matter of time until they got older and became more like her. She played with Shorter and Jaco Pastorius and Herbie Hancock. If you weren't hitting her the way they did, why should she bother? Doesn't she have better things to do?

Joni had a life-threatening brain aneurysm in March of 2015. When the news hit, I woke up to everyone I knew sending me messages. One of those people, with a link from USA Today, was Leonard Cohen, who wrote, "Joni - so much suffering!" My final conversation with her had taken place around two weeks earlier, but I was in contact with people who were close to her and I heard updates on her health. First she was identifying photos, then speaking, then going out to Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood to see Chick Corea, then Roy Hargrove - her impeccable standards were still there - and she ended up outliving both of them. She was chatting in her inimitable way. Her friend, the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, told her he had done an MRI of Sting's brain. Joni, who wanted the Police to back her on her 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast, said, "Why would anyone want to see his brain?" Joni was back in true form.

The Joni I interviewed said things like, "I prefer the company of men." There were some female friends in the top tier, but the ones I knew who really got her were men. This was the Joni who learned to play guitar because the bowling team she was on needed someone to accompany their dirty limericks, which were recited at actual wiener roasts. (You can't make this stuff up!) But when I heard about the people sleeping on the floor at the hospital while Joni lay unconscious, it was mostly her female friends who were there for her, and I wasn't even aware of some of them.

I don't know if this caused a shift in Joni. Brain trauma will inevitably do that to you. I was at Massey Hall in 2013, at a concert celebrating her 70th birthday, and while it was an unbelievable event, she was clearly struggling to sing a couple of numbers. I thought I had witnessed her swan song. But Joni is the master of the unlikely. She confounded the doctors at the polio colony. She made miracles happen over and over again. That is among the many reasons why we love her.

As Joni was recovering, she would host these get togethers at her home in Bel Air, where the likes of Sir Paul McCartney and Harry Styles would join her for fun, informal jams organized by the singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile - stepping stones, no doubt, to her surprise return to the stage at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival, now available as a live recording. One of the jam-session songs was a novelty tune from her high school days: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's "Love Potion No. 9." It's not "A Case of You," but it's a party.

I watched the Newport performance with the people of Earth, on YouTube, and it was miraculous how, while her voice remained deeper, it has gotten much clearer, and much more supple. She was forced to quit cigarettes while under medical observation, and told Graham Nash she forgot that she smoked. At some point she remembered, and has been seen sneaking an e-cigarette here and there, but it seems like Joni's oxygen capacity hasn't been this good in 40 years. At Newport, sometimes she needed Carlile to coax her in, and watching this was profoundly moving. I cannot listen to the concert as a Joni Mitchell album, because it is unfair to do so. One was not watching for musical perfection. One was witnessing a resurrection.

I experienced major FOMO about her concert at Gorge Amphitheatre earlier this summer, though there was plenty to take in, again on YouTube. Her singing was more assured than at Newport, and she didn't need Carlile's interventions nearly as much. Sitting on a Victorian throne with a regal cane, when she sang "Amelia," part of it sounded like it could have been performed in the '70s. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would get this Joni again, or this Joni anew.

She will be 80 in November, and we still don't know what's to come. I do know there were songs she was sitting on after Shine, her last studio album, released in 2007, and they could proliferate. I think there could be more concerts ahead, too. Joni laughed a lot during her recent performances - kind of like the laugh at the end of "Big Yellow Taxi," except it was an octave deeper, and had nearly been to the other side. When you defeat death like that, maybe you don't hate quite as much.

Or maybe you do. At the Gorge show, she told a funny story about the time she played the venue with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. She recalled telling Morrison that "Bob's rude" and "there's nothing he likes better than to see me fuck up." Playfully hating on Bob Dylan, that brought back memories.

Joni still has her edge, but there was one song on Shine she considered calling "Gratitude," and with its cast of younger appreciators both onstage and in the crowd, gratitude is the word for Joni Mitchell at Newport. Remember, this was a gig billed as "Brandi Carlile & Friends," so you will inevitably hear a lot of Carlile on it, and in the spirit of renewal, you have to embrace her as well as the idea that this is not the Joni who "hates everybody." In her cleaned-out tenor, this Joni of good cheer sings "The Circle Game," originally written to comfort a grumpy Neil Young, who thought that life only went downhill after 20. Joni knew that couldn't possibly be true. On At Newport, "The Circle Game" is the closer, and a new beginning. Neil Young's life did get better, and Joni's circle is a game in play.

She also performs "The Circle Game" on Miles of Aisles, her live album from 1974, when she was reinventing herself as a bandleader - but remained a folkie, too. "This song doesn't sound good with one lonely voice," she says. "The more voices on it the better, and the more out-of-tune voices on it the better. It was made for out-of-tune singing."

Half a century later at Newport, Joni introduces the song as a "singalong," still welcoming everyone, no judgment. The song written for a 19-year-old has become the anthem of a 78-year-old, but it's always been a heartbreaker. Wherever you are in life, it hits you. The circle is everything you have lost. Joni was thinking of the daughter she gave up, of all the milestones she would miss. But in that moment in Rhode Island, it is a triumph - "better dreams and plenty" for real. The last sound on the album, aside from cheers and "Jo-ni!" chants, is Joni laughing, saying, "So fun."

It's too bad David Crosby isn't around to see Joni Mitchell brighten up a bit. She who hated the internet now has an official Twitter profile with 173,000 followers and counting. She is now in possession of a long-overdue Kennedy Center Honor and a Gershwin Prize. At the latter ceremony in March, and at Newport and the Gorge, she chose to sing "Summertime," even though Ira Gershwin co-wrote the lyrics. When Graham Nash, her onetime "Old Man," spoke to her after the Gershwin event, he asked her if she was writing new songs. "Not yet" was the answer.

Joni Mitchell, six decades into being the only person who can write a Joni Mitchell song, is still in progress. She is now collaborating with Cameron Crowe to make her own biopic her way. Joni Mitchell is a movie in production. We can't return, we can only look.

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Added to Library on August 8, 2023. (543)


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