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Joni Mitchell is still ‘the best of all of us’ Print-ready version

by Alysia Abbott
February 8, 2024

Joni Mitchell at the 66th Grammy Awards held at the Arena in Los Angeles, CA, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Joni Mitchell sat on an ornate white, upholstered chair as she began singing "Both Sides Now" at the Grammy Awards Sunday night. She won her 10th Grammy this year for Best Folk Album, but it was her first time performing from the Grammy stage. As the chair slowly turned to face the audience, the crowd lit up in applause. Joni, wearing a black beret, her hair in two long braids, kept time with a silver-tipped cane. It's the cane she's been using to help her walk since surgery for a brain aneurysm in 2015. Many then thought she'd never sing again.

Edith Wharton coined the term "awakeners" to describe the books and thinkers who'd guided her intellectual studies. Though not a writer of books, Joni Mitchell is most certainly one of my "awakeners." I didn't discover her music until I was in my early 20s, at a vital moment in my becoming. A friend turned me onto "Court and Spark," but it was the landmark "Blue" that provided me with language to describe my murky emotional landscape, how I kept breaking up and returning to the same guy, "stay with him if you can/But be prepared to bleed." She also gave me a script for the sort of life I was hungering for as a young woman: to be "traveling, traveling, traveling."

When I first fell in love with Joni, she wasn't yet widely appreciated - not as the great we know her to be. Her entanglements, creative and romantic, often both at once, put her in the company of the most successful and lauded artists of her era: David Crosby, Graham Nash, James Taylor, Leonard Cohen. Many covered her songs, or played back-up on her albums. Crosby called her the "best of all of us." But much of the critical opinion reduced her to being a rock chick. In 1971, Rolling Stone called her "Queen of El-Lay" and published a diagram of her romantic conquests, as though only her attachments to men made her newsworthy.

What's amazing to consider is how she forged her way in what some call the "big swinging dick era", singing unapologetically feminine stories about her desire to "wreck her stockings in a jukebox dive" and hold onto her "white linens and my fancy French cologne." There's almost a stream of conscious urgency to these songs, as though they are pouring out of her. And according to Leonard Cohen they did. He described the "ferocity" of her gift.

Perhaps Joni shaped this uniquely brilliant path of artistry because she was unattached, like the lone silver wolf at the tip of her cane. She married young but after divorcing Chuck Mitchell, she never remarried. And the one child she gave birth to she gave up in 1965, the inspiration for her song "Little Green."

When I first fell in love with Joni, she wasn't yet widely appreciated -- not as the great we know her to be. Joni never won a Pulitzer Prize for literature like Bob Dylan, but her innovative songwriting and musicianship - that open guitar tuning! - elevated the deeply personal into art. Her songs, sung in her warbling voice, lean into vulnerability, which is their strength and what made her work so groundbreaking and resonant.

I believe we form a special bond with the music we listen to at our most vulnerable. It feels somehow as if it was made just for us, that ours is a singular connection with the singer, not just the song. I felt this when I first listened to Joni's records alone in my room, in the depths of the various heartbreaks that punctuated my 20s. I remember feeling wrenched by desire and disappointment then. But when I look back on those years now, I can't help but laugh. Solidly middle aged and married for almost two decades I'm no longer "strung out on another man." Rather, to quote the narrator of "Both Sides Now," "it's love's illusions that I recall."

Though written when Joni was only 25, "Both Sides Now" is a story about emotional maturity, about looking back and taking in all that's lost and gained with age. Like Joni's voice, the meaning of the song has only deepened with time. It was a Grammy-winning hit for Judy Collins in 1969 before Joni released it on her album, "Clouds," that same year. That version, marked by Joni's soprano and her delicate strumming and finger-work, sounds pure but also young.

Her 2000 recording is the version many know from "Love Actually," as it plays in the moment when Emma Thompson's character realizes that she's been betrayed by her husband. This recording, sung more slowly and in the now lower and weathered voice of a 56-year-old, highlights the narrator's sense of disillusionment.

But the version sung by Joni at the 2022 Newport Festival, is another song all together. With the support of Brandi Carlile, who played an enormous role in getting her on stage, Joni doesn't sound bitter anymore. Knowing all that was required to get her back in front of an audience after 22 years of not performing, we can't help but dab our eyes with gratitude like Winona Judd, who shared that Newport stage with her.

Every live song is ultimately a collaboration between performer and audience. In the case of the Grammy performance, it's a moment between Joni and an audience full of artists and the "star- maker machinery" that keeps them going.

We'd spent the night watching personalities parade on and off the stage, posing, performing, putting on a show. But in the utter silence that descended on the room when Joni began to sing, another message emerged: None of this matters. None of it.

Here is this 80-year-old woman, whose career straddles two centuries, singing a song that while almost 60 years old feels more relevant than ever. She's survived sexism, heartbreak, personal loss, and a near career- and life-ending injury. She's outlived many of her celebrated peers. But still she right here, with the whole room in her thrall. Joni sings the song's last line, "I really don't know life at all" and seeing that audience come together in a standing ovation, she laughs.

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Jann Wenner may not have seen fit to interview Joni for his book, "The Masters," telling The New York Times that she is "not a philosopher of rock and roll." But we know he is wrong. We know that Joni Mitchell is a giant of the arts, a giant who somehow, still walks among us.

It's inevitable that we will one day lose Joni Mitchell. But how wonderful that we can celebrate her now, all together, and in her still very potent presence, for her to witness and take in.

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Added to Library on February 8, 2024. (892)


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