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Joni Mitchell’s Legacy Is Just Beginning Print-ready version

Mitchell has been on this planet for 80 years, but the culture at large has only started to truly appreciate her the way she deserves in the last five

by Angie Martoccio
Rolling Stone
November 12, 2023

Contact sheet of portraits of the singer Joni Mitchell, 1968. JACK ROBINSON/HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

IF YOU WANT a refresher course on the incredible, unique power of Joni Mitchell's music, take a trip back to Gordon Lightfoot's living room. It's 1975, and Mitchell is traveling with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue tour, wearing a black beret and strumming an acoustic guitar on a new song she's just written. Lightfoot and Roger McGuinn are hovering behind, while Dylan accompanies her on guitar. Unlike that time she played him Court and Spark, Bob isn't falling asleep. Instead, he and the other dudes are completely transfixed, hearing this brand-new stunner about romantic freedom and loneliness on the road. They've all lived it, but none of them can sum it up the way she does. She calls this one "Coyote."

That clip, which resurfaced in Martin Scorsese's 2019 Rolling Thunder Revue doc, currently has 3.5 million views. "Holy Jesus, what did I just stumble upon?" one comment reads. "This is hypnotizing, I had never heard of this song prior to 20 minutes ago," another says. One subscriber is incredibly honest: "When I was younger I never got the appeal of Joni Mitchell, now I'm kicking myself for not realizing sooner in my life how great she is."

This kind of discourse is expected today, but it wasn't always the case. Mitchell has been on this earth for 80 years, but we've only started to truly appreciate her the way she deserves in the last five. In that timeframe, she's received countless awards, from the Kennedy Center Honors to the MusiCares Person of the Year award to the Library of Congress' Gershwin Prize for Popular Song - belated accolades from a world rushing to make up for lost time. At first, Mitchell (still recovering from a 2015 brain aneurysm) stayed largely off the radar while all this happened. Following a tentative return to the public eye in 2019, she performed her first full set in over 20 years at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival; a year later, she tore it up at the Gorge Amphitheater for more than 25,000 fans. She's also been revisiting her catalog with an archive series, looking back on her stunning body of work while giving her newfound Gen Z and millennial following new releases to discover.

That following, by the way, is massive. To name just a few examples: Olivia Rodrigo recently became a Joni fan while vacationing in Hawaii; Clairo named her dog after Joni; Harry Styles embarked on a mythical dulcimer quest after hearing the instrument on Blue; and to teens on Tiktok, she's officially on a Stevie Nicks level of coolness.

All of this is to say: Welcome to the Jonissance.

Lifelong Joni fans might roll their eyes at how ridiculously overdue all of this recognition is - I certainly did. There was never a moment where I was formally introduced to Mitchell's music. It was just always around me, whether through CDs in the car or my mother's humming while she cooked tomato sauce on the stove. But in many circles, it wasn't considered cool to like Mitchell in the early-to-mid aughts. I even remember my friends teasing me for liking Blue in school. "What is this old music, and why is her voice like that?" Skip to 2023, and the kids are all demanding to know how to get that voice.

Even since her resurgence, Mitchell doesn't give a lot of interviews, except to legends like Elton John, Clive Davis, and Cameron Crowe (who is currently working on a film about her). It was actually Crowe who managed to secure Mitchell's definitive interview with Rolling Stone, when he was a 22-year-old journalist living in San Diego. That 1979 cover story features Mitchell's thoughts on everything from her then-recent collaboration with jazz icon Charles Mingus ("He called me hillbilly; it was charming") to her thoughts on punk. ("It's nothing new," she said nonchalantly. "I was a punk in the Fifties.")

In one of her most famous quotes, Mitchell takes a long drag on a cigarette and expresses her indifference to being liked. "You have two options," she says. "You can stay the same and protect the formula that gave you your initial success. They're going to crucify you for staying the same. If you change, they're going to crucify you for changing. But staying the same is boring. And change is interesting. So of the two options, I'd rather be crucified for changing."

That interview - recorded at her manager Elliot Roberts' office, a hair salon, and the poolside of her Bel Air home - marked the first time Mitchell had spoken to Rolling Stone in seven years. The break happened because of an infamous love chart. Published in the Feb. 3, 1972, issue of the magazine, "Hollywood's Hot 100" was a tasteless map of the romantic relationships of Los Angeles musicians. Mitchell is prominently featured, with a lipstick kiss festooned with arrows leading to names of exes like Graham Nash and James Taylor. You can see the chart below; prepare to be creeped out.

Whenever this chart is mentioned in articles or books on Mitchell, it's reported that we titled her the "Queen of El-Lay." That's not accurate, although Rolling Stone had plenty of other fuck-ups writing about Mitchell in the early days. Just look a year earlier in our Feb. 4, 1971, issue, and you'll see that we sleazily dubbed her the "Old Lady of the Year." Or skip ahead to Feb. 12, 1976, where we called The Hissing of Summer Lawns the worst album title of the year. Is it any wonder if she didn't want to talk to a publication that treated her with such blatantly sexist contempt?

Two decades later, Mitchell spoke about her treatment in a 1996 interview with Details, right after Turbulent Indigo won her a Grammy for Best Pop Album. "I've been blacklisted for a long time," she said. "Over a personal incident involving an asshole with some power at Rolling Stone. I was told that the magazine had a policy not to ever say anything nice about me."

That policy may or may not have ever existed, but it's long out the door by now. And these days we're all reconsidering the environment that left Mitchell, and so many others, feeling excluded. One thing's for sure: There's never been a better time to celebrate Mitchell and her genius. Here's to 80 more years.

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Added to Library on November 13, 2023. (1224)

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