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Review: A captivating look at Joni Mitchell from both sides now Print-ready version

by James Sullivan
San Francisco Chronicle
June 14, 2024

Before Brandi Carlile began her tribute to Joni Mitchell's classic album "Blue" at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2019, she made a declaration.

"We didn't live in the time of Shakespeare, Rembrandt or Beethoven," she told the audience. "But we live in the time of Joni Mitchell."

Such extravagant praise made the task of writing about Mitchell's life and career a daunting prospect for the critic Ann Powers, she writes. Her expansive new book, "Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell," wrestles with the art of biography nearly as much as it wrangles with the singer's complicated legacy. It's less a life story (though it is that) than "the story of an approach, or a series of approaches, toward a subject that in many ways felt unapproachable," Powers explains.

To casual fans, Mitchell, 80, is the songwriter who wrote the definitive anthem of the Woodstock generation (though she didn't actually play the festival herself). She wrote "Big Yellow Taxi," an enduring indictment of overdevelopment ("They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot") and "River," a Christmas-adjacent song that expertly captured the melancholy of the season.

To diehards, however - like Carlile, Prince, Taylor Swift and countless other self-avowed Joni stans - Mitchell is a queen. Powers, an NPR critic formerly with both Times newspapers, Los Angeles and New York (and before that, the SF Weekly), specializes in women in popular music. Still, to her credit, she freely admits her reservations when an editor first asked her to take on Mitchell's lore several years ago: "Her svelte, swanlike cool felt so distant from my own way of being."

Powers engages with the particulars of Mitchell's private life - the child she gave up for adoption, the famous boyfriends (Leonard Cohen, Graham Nash, James Taylor), the health issues (from childhood polio to the 2015 aneurysm that required her to learn to walk again) - mostly in terms of how they affected her body of work. Mitchell was the folk prodigy who somehow defined the "confessional" style of songwriting even when she was writing from the imagined perspectives of other people.

"Oh, Joni, save something for yourself," Kris Kristofferson supposedly told her upon hearing the "Blue" album (1971).

Later, she followed her creative inquiries toward a kind of folk-jazz fusion ("Hejira," 1976) and some questionable digital choices in the 1980s. Powers finds a key to Mitchell's free-ranging artistry in the singer's recollection of a day spent in Manhattan's Washington Square Park with the sculptor Morton Rosengarten, a close friend of Cohen's. The young Mitchell, who would become almost as devoted to painting as music, was having trouble sketching. Rosengarten instructed her to draw him without looking at the paper.

"She did, and subtly, suddenly, everything changed for her," Powers writes. "No longer focusing on her own quivering hand, she felt free of her ego."

Mitchell's artistic prerogative sometimes led her onto shaky ground. By her third album, "Ladies of the Canyon" (1970), Powers suggests, her acerbic observations had coalesced into "flat-out mean girl." Her dalliance in the late '70s with an imaginary muse, a Black hustler she named Art Nouveau, was a pronounced misstep, and Powers questions Mitchell's right to speak for the Indigenous peoples she grew up identifying with in her native Saskatchewan on her 16-minute 1977 epic "Paprika Plains."

"Becoming legendary is a strange process of both expansion and reduction - the knotty totality of a person is smoothed out into one official portrait, and in a way, the legend becomes a former person, at least in the public view," Powers writes. "Traveling" adds up to a heroic effort to divest the legend from the work.

Later in life, some years after the aneurysm and two before her triumphant return at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival, Mitchell told her old friend, the writer-director Cameron Crowe, that she had embraced the mantra of Thumper, the cherubic rabbit from "Bambi": "If you can't say anything nice, say nothing at all."

But Powers, after her years of immersion in Mitchell's music, comes to the conclusion that what Joni Mitchell gave her fans was "the chance to say everything that isn't nice. To be neurotic, mean, confused, rude. While also being wise, sensual, empathetic, honest. Honest above all."

"It's life's illusions I recall," Mitchell sang on "Both Sides Now," one of her most memorable songs. "I really don't know life at all." And who does, if we're really being honest?

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Added to Library on June 17, 2024. (250)

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