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What We Think About When We Think About Joni Mitchell Print-ready version

In her new book, “Traveling,” the music critic Ann Powers offers a highly personal, even confessional, meditation on Mitchell’s life, work and influence.

by Francine Prose
New York Times
June 16, 2024

Joni Mitchell in 1968. The photograph was part of a shoot for Vogue magazine. Credit...Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive, via Getty Images

How many singers have I listened to, on repeat, for years before playing music "on repeat" required a single mouse click? Bob Dylan. Sly Stone. Nina Simone. Aretha Franklin. Joni Mitchell. I play James Brown's music less than I did, but I love Prince's more than ever, especially his cover of Mitchell's "A Case of You." There were times when the melancholy in Mitchell's songs (even the "happy" ones) too closely echoed my own. But I'm over that now. My favorite of her albums, "Blue," and Los Lobos doing "Nothing Can Be Done" and Lana Del Rey's version of "For Free" still surprise and move me, no matter how often I hear them.

Attentive readers will notice that I have begun a review of a book about Joni Mitchell by saying more about myself and Joni Mitchell than about the book. This may be an aftereffect of having read Ann Powers's "Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell," a highly personal, even confessional, 400-plus-page meditation on Mitchell's life and work - and what it has meant to Powers.

Using chronology as a loose organizing principle, "Traveling" tracks Mitchell's continuing evolution and experimentations as a musician, her persistence, her romances, the times in which she lived and dozens of other subjects that occur to Powers - a music critic whose books include "Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music" (2017). Seemingly unfiltered, the new book mixes accounts of the stages of Mitchell's career and close readings of her lyrics with digressions about the author's experiences, memories and opinions. She reports on (and revises) her ideas about feminism, gender, success, jazz, the music business, books, films, politics and many other subjects as she follows one Joni-Mitchell-adjacent association with another.

In an introduction, Powers makes it clear that she is not a biographer but rather "a kind of mapmaker ... setting down lines meant to guide others along the trajectories of artists who are always one step ahead of me." To her credit, she's warning readers not to expect that path to be narrow: "I had to embrace a new way of writing that made room for gaps, inconsistencies and contradictions."

Powers then explains her decision not to interview Mitchell - a hesitance born of fear that Mitchell's seductive personality might compromise Powers's objectivity. "Her supercharged appeal is a problem if clarity is your goal." Near the end of the book, we learn that the author did meet Mitchell once, in 2004. On a panel about the singer's work, Powers - who had recently adopted a child - wept when the discussion turned to "Little Green," a song about the daughter Mitchell gave up for adoption. Mitchell was in the audience, and Powers remembers her yelling, "You can do it!" Powers recalls the humiliation that accompanied these words of encouragement but later learns that Mitchell more likely shouted, "Go on, go on!" - less heartening than impatient.

In lieu of speaking to her subject, Powers has become "a kind of Joni expert." Admirably, she appears to have read everything written about Mitchell, analyzed every song line, noted every chord change, watched the YouTube clips, the videos, the concert and tribute footage. She's interviewed anyone willing to talk about the famously private musician. Some informants (James Taylor, Judy Collins) mostly repeat their favorite Joni stories. The artist John Kelly, who performs Mitchell's songs in drag and in their original register, describes each as being about "some aspect of a character."

Miles Grier, a professor at Queens College, almost - but not entirely - helps Powers come to terms with Mitchell's bizarre decision, in 1976, to assume a Black male alter ego, "whom she'd alternately name Claude and Art Nouveau." Not only did Mitchell appear in blackface on the cover of her album "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," but she took road trips and attended parties in full-on 1970s pimp disguise: "I went into a sleazy menswear [shop] and bought a sleazy hat and a sleazy suit and that night I went to a Halloween party and nobody knew it was me, nobody."

I don't envy the writer trying to understand how Joni Mitchell could have been so brilliant about music and so clueless about race. But Powers's efforts to navigate this bump in the road highlight the problems with the indirect and ruminative route she takes throughout the book. She considers Mitchell's costuming to be the act of "a woman who would not be pinned down by essentials." She admits to being "a white person aware of my own transgressions - never something so obscene as applying brown greasepaint to my cheeks, but my use of slang, my dance moves while drunk at a party, my mindless rapping along with a song on the radio that contains the N-word - I can't deny such everyday breaches, despite my desire to transcend them." She criticizes Mitchell's insensitivity, but leaves us with unresolved dilemmas. "It's a crucial question for a writer - can you go to ugly places with your subject? How do you commune with the ugliness in them?"

Certain passages mystified me - for example, the suggestion that claiming the right to be publicly sad (as Mitchell does on "Blue" and elsewhere) is a feminist power move. There were other moments when my inner Joni-Mitchell-fan-girl was at war with my inner grammarian. ("Can you tell that I'm a little bit angry at Joni for trying to genius her way beyond gender?") And still others when I wished that Powers had resisted the lure of the poetic simile. ("It's striking how many people played a role in the discovery of Joni Mitchell, as if she were a shoreline hidden and then reappearing in the mist, or an arrowhead picked up, admired, then left for the next beachcomber to run across.")

In any case, I can readily imagine the audience for this "story of an approach, or a series of approaches, toward a subject that in many ways felt unapproachable." "Traveling" will be catnip for readers who would enjoy spending a weekend with a chatty music-critic friend, with everyone talking excitedly, even obsessively, about Joni Mitchell.

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Added to Library on June 17, 2024. (550)

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