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Life lessons: How Joni Mitchell taught us to look at life from both sides, now Print-ready version

Fifty years later, the singer-songwriter saved my life for the second time

by Amy Rogers
Salon.com
February 6, 2024

Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell performs on stage during the 66th Annual Grammy Awards at the Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles on February 4, 2024 (VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)

When the revolving stage turned to reveal Joni Mitchell seated and singing from a brocade throne chair Sunday night, cheers erupted at the Grammy awards. Just a few notes into her slowed-down version of "Both Sides, Now," I noticed the tears that had started spilling down my face.

Her voice toughened by time but still rich with all the vibrance and nuance that are hers alone, Joni was cloaked in black and festooned with jewelry. She softly tapped her silver-tipped cane in time with the piano, string and vocal accompaniment on the candlelit stage.

Not only was my reaction not unique, it was almost universal. Fans and even fellow Grammy artists cried; that's how much Joni Mitchell means to the droves of us who grew up with her supreme artistry as the virtual and sometimes literal soundtrack to our lives.

At 14 as my family was fracturing, I was learning to play guitar. I hid in my room and strummed the cheap instrument my mother had managed to purchase despite our dire finances. With three chords - C, D and G - I mastered "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore," and other simple songs that form the backbone of American folk music. While most of them were about men and their accomplishments, the ability to make something resembling music soothed me and gave me an escape from the family drama. Even better, I could close the door and forget how badly I longed to be pretty, smart and popular.

At the same time, FM radio disk jockeys supplied outcast kids like me with everything we needed to immerse ourselves in the world of "alternative" music. In a musical landscape saturated with three-minute pop hits on AM radio, I tuned the analog dial on my clock-radio to WNEW-FM, the local New York City station that played entire albums without interruption.

And there she was. With her straw-colored hair and wide smile, Joni Mitchell didn't just sing to us, she was singing about us. She was revealing what lay inside us, the yearning and churning, the dreaming and disappointment that every woman feels at some point in her life.

While Karen Carpenter was warbling about being close to you, Joni Mitchell was world-building, giving us telescopic views into places where we could be unfettered and alive, with nobody calling us up for favors.

Joni got me. Joni got all of us. She gifted my friends and me with a language to translate the highs and lows of love, the sort of love that hits the same whether you're a maiden, mother or crone. It was nothing short of magical.

I learned "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio," with its sweet double-entendre. I expressed ecological awareness with "Big Yellow Taxi," the catchy tune wrapped in Joni's lilting voice with its demand to quit paving paradise. If I tuned my guitar just right, and happened to be next to the radio when the DJ played one of the songs I knew, every now and then I could actually play along with Joni.

Not long after, my family moved to Florida, and we had to leave behind the stuffed animals and dolls I'd outgrown. The guitar was just about the only thing left that mattered. As it turned out, I needed it more than ever. Here in the Sunshine State, the girls were tan, played tennis and drove convertibles. I had none of those things and never would. So Joni and I would retreat into my room to make music together.

By now, Joni Mitchell was moving into more complicated musical explorations. She collaborated with jazz greats and composed soaring and surprising works. Fans were divided. Those of us without a musical vocabulary to discuss or understand what she was doing sometimes lost our way. These weren't songs you could follow along with on your guitar, and radio stations played fewer and fewer of them.

Eventually, like most of the young women who idolized Joni, I more or less found my way in the world. I found jobs. I found love. I found nicer guitars I could afford and I found deep satisfaction in playing with a little more confidence and a lot more joy. When my sister celebrated a milestone birthday, a friend and I performed Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" at her party. I sat in occasionally at song circles with folk musician friends.

But one day about 10 years ago, a guitarist friend was showing me an easy riff and I couldn't copy her motions. She slowed it down for me. I kept trying but my fingers felt wooden. I couldn't muster the pressure to hold the strings in place and I couldn't move from one fret to another fast enough. Embarrassed, I set the guitar back on its stand.

By then, I'd gotten divorced, laid off and was watching myself becoming less relevant in a world that values youth over mostly anything else. The musicians who had defined the era in which I'd grown up were occasionally making appearances on TV or embarking on nostalgia tours. Some of my favorites, such as Mama Cass Elliot and Janis Joplin, had died. It was sobering to watch the survivors of those times revisiting - or perhaps, attempting to recreate - those glory days.

Joni had become a recluse, it seemed. I wanted to believe she was luxuriating in splendor even as I understood that almost never happens to women who pursue a creative life, solo.

In 2015 came the news about her aneurysm. I followed the updates on social media and clicked "love" on the posts stating she was recovering, even as I knew that was likely just PR.

The trouble with my hands turned out to be rheumatoid arthritis, a condition in which your overactive immune system misfires and attacks your joints or organs. The rheumatologist took x-rays and ultrasounds to confirm his diagnosis. With photos of crippled, witch-like hands, he warned me what would happen. I was stunned and sickened when he told me it was irreversible. All I could hope to do was slow the progression. After 40 years, my guitar-playing days were over.

I sold my big steel-string guitar to a friend's daughter. My sunburst mandolin that had been my 50th birthday gift went to a co-worker. I kept my small, nylon string guitar as an act of fruitless faith and defiance but I stowed it out of sight.

But recently, I found a cheap ukulele at a neighbor's yard sale and for $30 I brought it home. As tiny as a toy, I picked at it gingerly. C, D and G; it made plinky little sounds, but you wouldn't call it music. I put it on the bookshelf where it's part of a pleasing arrangement of knickknacks - not a reminder of just one more treasured part of life that I've lost.

Then in 2022, Joni Mitchell made a surprise appearance the Newport Folk Festival. The musicians who surrounded her on stage couldn't hide their emotions when she began to sing and play, as commandingly as ever. The album that resulted, "Joni Mitchell at Newport," won a Grammy Sunday night for best folk album.

In an interview with music journalist Anthony Mason following her Newport performance, she discussed how hard it had been to relearn everything following her health crisis. "It's amazing what an aneurysm knocks out - how to get out of a chair! You don't know how to get out of a bed . . . You have to relearn everything."

Relearn everything. What does that mean to those of us without the talent of a Joni Mitchell, or even a lesser performer who relies on diligence to reach proficiency? What of the person with little musical talent who nonetheless swears to show up every day in her own life?

Joni Mitchell was right all those years ago, and she's still right, today.

Learning is easy when a person is young and unaware of what you risk by investing your heart and soul into the life you want to build. Since my own recent losses, I hadn't stopped to consider what relearning could represent: the best of what we studied all those innocent years ago, renewed and reborn through the landscape of the terrain we've traveled.

A few mornings ago, I picked up the ukulele. C, D and G. The lyrics came back, just like that, 50 years later. C, D and G. My hands remember the chords even if my fingers are reluctant. C, D and G. For the first time in years, there's a glint of something sunny and hopeful starting to peek through the clouds. Joni Mitchell was right all those years ago, and she's still right, today. Even when something's lost, something's gained, in living every day.

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Added to Library on February 7, 2024. (559)

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