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Woman of heart and mind Print-ready version

Joni Mitchell chronicle blends biography, critical analysis and personal reflection

by Morley Walker
Winnipeg Free Press
June 15, 2024

Rick Madonik / The Canadian Press files. In this 1998 photo, Joni Mitchell performs at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens as part of a bill that included Bob Dylan.

Since her lauded performance at the Newport Folk Festival in the U.S. in 2022, Joni Mitchell has been enjoying a moment.

A new generation of musicians, led by country star Brandi Carlile and alt-folk favourite Alison Russell, have acknowledged the influence the great Canadian singer-songwriter has had on their own work.

Give American pop music critic Ann Powers credit for good timing, if nothing else.

Her new book, a sophisticated mix of biography, critical analysis and personal reflection, should bask in some of the reflected glory bouncing off the now 80-year-old musical legend.

But whether Powers has added anything new or essential to the conversation surrounding Mitchell is less certain.

In the wake of David Yaffe's exhaustive 2017 biography, Reckless Daughter, which earned Mitchell's co-operation at the time, Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell feels like an afterthought.

An impressively written afterthought, granted, but an afterthought all the same.

Powers, 60, currently a senior music writer with U.S. National Public Radio, has several books to her credit, including an almost 25-year-old memoir, Weird Like Us, about her so-called "bohemian" youth.

She admits off the hop that Mitchell was never a huge enthusiasm for her. "I preferred underdogs," she writes. "Her svelte, swanlike cool felt so distant from my own way of being."

Powers took on the Mitchell challenge almost a decade ago, prior to the publication of Yaffe's bio, after one of her editors told her: "I just really want to read you on Joni."

She neither sought Mitchell's blessing for this project nor did she try to interview her.

"I'm not a biographer," she insists. "Something in me instinctively opposes the idea that one person can sort through all the facts of another's life and come up with anything close to that stranger's true story."

Powers, however, did hit the road to visit the key locations of Mitchell's life, including Saskatoon, where Roberta Joan Anderson was raised in the years following the Second World War.

Powers' somewhat flat title (with its American single-L spelling) refers not only to her physical and metaphorical journey, but also pays homage to All I Want, the opening song of Mitchell's 1970 album Blue: "I am on a lonely road and I am travelling, travelling, travelling..."

She interviewed many of Mitchell's friends, fellow musicians and even her ex-husband, Larry Klein. She also read dozens of books about Mitchell, including numerous scholarly works.

And of course, as a music critic above all, she immersed herself in the 20 or so albums on which Mitchell's reputation as a groundbreaking composer, singer and lyricist rests.

The book's most satisfying sections deconstruct the sexism Mitchell faced while both chasing and competing with her male cohort (David Crosby, Graham Nash, James Taylor, etc.) in Los Angeles' Laurel Canyon in the early 1970s.

Powers is also very good on Mitchell's long foray into jazz fusion. But her chapter taking Mitchell to task for cultural appropriation - Mitchell dressed up as a Black man for a couple years in the mid-'70s - is comical in its modern wokeness.

In 2022, Mitchell performed at the Newport Folk festival to much acclaim.

The book sometimes feels as though it is as much about the author as its subject. Writing about Mitchell's seeking psychotherapy, Powers talks about her own adventures on the couch. Writing about Mitchell giving up her infant daughter for adoption, Powers goes on about her and her husband's adoption of a daughter.

Readers can judge if this is proof of the universality of human experience, or authorial self-indulgence.

Perhaps it's not too late for Mitchell to write a song about it.

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Added to Library on June 17, 2024. (161)

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