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Celebrating Joni at 80 Print-ready version

Joni Mitchell’s astonishing artistry — and her refusal to compromise — made me a fan for life. As she approaches her 80th birthday, there is so much to celebrate.

by Matthew Gilbert
Boston Globe
October 23, 2023

From left: Canadian folk singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, strumming her guitar outside The Revolution club in London, 1968; Mitchell performing in “Joni Jam,” a concert honoring her at Gorge Amphitheatre on June 10, 2023 in George, Wash.; Mitchell at a soundcheck prior to her performance in a concert in Berlin on July 21, 1990.PHOTOS CENTRAL PRESS/GETTY IMAGES, GARY MILLER/ GETTY IMAGES, MICHAEL PUTLAND/GETTY. ILLUSTRATION ADOBE/GLOBE STAFF

If I'd written this piece about Joni Mitchell a few years back, it would have been quite a different affair. I would have made a big, passionate case for the singer-songwriter who turns 80 on Nov. 7 and who has been my North Star since the 1970s. I'd have complained that she never received the acclaim she deserves, that she was never mentioned in the same breath as the boys - Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Townshend - despite being as gifted and majestic as all of them, if not more so.

As evidence, I'd have served up a list of her most dazzling works, which would have been long and gushy, and opinionated, beginning with "Court and Spark" and reaching to "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" and the live "Shadows and Light." I'd have separated out the many Jonis, starting with the early, trill-filled, and somewhat gothic Joni and then the Joni who was so emotionally naked on "Blue" in 1971, perhaps the most celebrated Joni, the Joni of radical honesty and wisdom beyond her years. There are mid-career and later Jonis, including the one who introduced jazz flourishes on "For the Roses" and "Court and Spark," and the one whose increasingly long lines of lyrics, so revealing, cinematic, and formally tight, fused with her colorful tunings and crisp guitar work on the masterful "Hejira." There is the post-autobiographical Joni, too, whose social criticism, from "Dog Eat Dog" in 1985 on, was as unsparing as her early romantic candor.

In that piece, I'd also have gotten into the industry sexism and manipulation Mitchell faced down every step of the way, starting in her mid-1960s club years. She fought for full control over her releases despite the male execs trying to commodify and dismiss her, and she resisted the pressure for more radio hits before and after her most popular single, "Help Me," a deceptively simple song of seduction and fear, love, and flight. "An angry man is just an angry man," she sang knowingly in a 1998 song about the business, "But an angry woman/ Bitch!" And all along, Mitchell refused to fit herself into neat, easily marketed categories, blending folk and rock with jazz and world music long before her contemporaries - "The Jungle Line" and "Dreamland" still astonish in their exploratory power - and losing her less musically flexible fans in the process. Her "For the Roses" takes down the creativity-crushing music business as stingingly as any song on the topic.

But, of course, everything regarding Mitchell has changed since 2015, the year she suffered an aneurysm that left her learning to walk and talk again. That was the beginning of what has become a years-long group affirmation of Mitchell's brilliance, a sustained release of long-withheld cultural acknowledgment that Joni Mitchell is indeed one of the most important voices of the past century of singer-songwriting. It has been a collective embrace of songs - "Both Sides, Now," "River," "A Case of You," "The Circle Game," "Big Yellow Taxi," "Woodstock" - that have become classics, and of lesser-known songs - "Coyote," "Amelia," "Down to You," "The Same Situation," "Moon at the Window," "The Magdalene Laundries" - that deserve to be. From the startling portraiture that is "A Strange Boy" to the vocally stunning "The Silky Veils of Ardor," there are so many gems still waiting to be discovered by the more recent influx of fans.

The outpouring of love and esteem has been a twist on and a validation of Mitchell's own much-quoted lyric, "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone" - in this case till she's almost gone. On "Turbulent Indigo" in 1994, Mitchell had framed herself as Vincent van Gogh, the artist unappreciated until after his death - but here it was at her doorstep, a sunny spotlight shining brightly on her, as if the world had finally caught up with her and her innovations. As she has continued to heal, the momentum of support, and the recognition that, without Mitchell's pioneering there'd be no Taylor Swift, among others, have been unstoppable and sweet, leading to a series of awards and tribute concerts including a Kennedy Center Honor and the Library of Congress's Gershwin Prize.

One of the surprises since 2015 has been Mitchell's willingness to accept all of this belated reverence. She'd always been guarded about "getting a taste for worship," and she never withheld her contempt for those artists who sell out and submit to the "star-maker machinery behind the popular song." In 1998, she wrote "accolades and honors/ One false move and you're a goner" in "Taming the Tiger," a song written in disdain and bitterness by "a runaway from the record biz."

But something has shifted, it seems, in her readiness to be venerated, and, approaching 80, she has been completely there for it. With the encouragement of her Biggest Fan and younger ally, singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, Mitchell is now more public than she has been since the 1970s, singing along with her own songs in various concerts led by Carlile. Early on, a perfectionist, she wouldn't have performed in unideal circumstances or with an inexact voice; Bostonians may remember her shortened concert on the Common in 1983 when the lighting, staging, and milling audience weren't to her liking. But these days, she is getting swept up in the spirit, even allowing the release of her rough old demos, studio doodlings, and live performances in an eye-opening archival series whose third box set, "Joni Mitchell Archives - Vol. 3: The Asylum Years (1972-1975)," just came out.

I was at that abbreviated 1983 Boston show, and in my loyalty to her I forgave. For me, she has loomed large since my teens as a liberating figure and, when it comes to understanding art, a teacher of sorts. It's remarkable just how formative pop culture and artists can be, how they can be so essential in the development of our identities. I certainly found plenty of models and obsessions on TV shows, in movies, and in books, but none spoke so directly to me and swept me away as thoroughly as Mitchell and her albums.

In her lyrics, I found the kind of intense scrutiny and yet non-judgmental understanding that validated my own point of view. For some people in my life, I seemed too sensitive as a kid, too watchful, too interior. But in Joni's songs, I heard an endorsement of my sentience, an assurance that there was nothing pathological about paying close attention, that indeed it is a strength. Joni made sensitivity into a superpower, with lyrics whose observations about love and life were profound, truthful, and not always rosy. I saw courage in her desire and drive to name what many preferred not to see.

That connection to her led to a broader understanding of what art can do, and of what art is. I valued the words and phrases she wrote as a "chicken scratching for my immortality," which she calls herself in the song "Hejira" - but then I also saw how the music served everything she was getting across lyrically, in the way the words of a poem are supported by meter and rhyme, or the absence of them. The intimacy between the instrumentation, the melodies, and her lyrics is stunning as her albums became more sophisticated in the mid-1970s, so that her words of inquiry were backed by her "chords of inquiry," as she has called them. The form and the content of her songs were as fused as they could be.

I learned about the charge of expressive singing from the 1970s Mitchell, too, marveling at how she invested her words - every single one of them - with specific feelings as she sang them, so that there was no distance between her and the lyrics. She tells the story of a tryst in "Coyote" as an actress might, just as her pleas for conversation on "Talk to Me" sound like a person filling up an uncomfortable silence. Her breathy refusal to love on the faceted gem that is "Court and Spark" is carefully tinged with regret, while on "Help Me," she giddily endows each iteration of its oft-repeated line "Didn't it feel good?" with a different meaning. Her committed delivery and thought-out phrasing brought her songs home.

I'm far from alone in my passion for Joni Mitchell; that has been made loud and clear of late. She has been a force in many people's lives, as a guiding light, as a superior artist, as an example of persistence and professional integrity. Finally, her place in the canon is assured. As a kid, though, my relationship to her felt like a one-on-one connection, a deep private dialogue, a mentorship and a long-term friendship, and to be sure, part of her does pour out of me in these lines from time to time.

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Added to Library on October 29, 2023. (1114)

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