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Singing Her Palette: Reflections on Joni Mitchell's Visual and Musical Art Print-ready version

by Peter Brookesmith
Perfect Vision
November 1999

"I think of myself as a painter who writes music....Basically, the reason I'm so unruly in this business is because I think like a painter, not like a musician."

In the 1960s it became apparent that people who a century before would have grown their hair long, languished in garrets or salons, and published slim, but intense volumes of verse were still remorselessly growing their hair long, but now languishing in dingy clubs and bars, and setting their poems to music. The poetic energy of the post-war generation scorned the printed page and went right back to the primitive roots of verse - roots that now floated in air, inseparable from the music.

A handful of those new troubadours were touched with genius. Few would dispute Joni Mitchell's own dry-eyed assessment that she, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen were the true poets of that generation, though they might want to add more names to the list. Mitchell's first album, Songs to A Seagull, came out in 1968, when she was 25, and was dedicated to her high school English teacher, "Mr. Kratzman, who taught me to love words." When she was 12, Kratzman had seen her paintings and told her: "If you can paint with a brush, you can paint with words." And loyal to her youthful history, she has kept on producing pictures and insists that she's a painter first and a songwriter second.

To those aware of Mitchell's extraordinary contribution to what's loosely called rock music; her priorities may come as something of a surprise. She is not, she says, "ambitious for my painting." Besides, Mitchell has never been acclaimed outside the hard core of her most devoted fans as a great painter, and has mounted only a handful of one-person shows, in the mid-Eighties (although a retrospective is scheduled for next year in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, her home town). She easily admits it's to her considerable relief that she doesn't belong in "the art world," which she has referred to as "crass" and suffering from "all the shallow dictates of commercial consideration."

Yet as one listens to her lyrics (which she unabashedly describes as "poetry"), one can hear the painter's eye at work. Many of her most telling lines seem to have been conceived as pictures - working not just as (often brilliant) metaphors to decorate the point she's making, but as illuminations and revelations of her subject, without which her stories would not be fully told. Consider for instance, this from "Marcie", one of the most striking songs on Song to A Seagull:

And summer goes
Falls to the sidewalk like
String and brown paper

The tangle and litter, and even a melancholy sense of summer turned to debris on autumn streets, are all there in that unexpected simile. But there's more than that. Marcie is being quietly torn apart by having no mail from her departed lover; what once seemed like a fruitful gift is now empty, discarded wrapping. That drab brown paper embodies all Marcie's sense of her own waste and rejection.

In "A Strange Boy" from the 1976 album Hejira, Mitchell supercharges her language in much the same way:

See how that feeling comes and goes
Like the pull of moon on tides
Now I am surf rising
Now parched ribs of sand at his side

It's hard to hear those lines without both seeing the surging surf and the parched sand, and feeling the power in one and the impotent hunger in the other. And both join in the moon, which shines behind the slight lunacy both the strange boy's "crazy wisdom holding onto something wild", and of the couple's intoxicating with "love, the strongest poison and medicine of all." One could pick many of Mitchell's songs apart like this: To see how image links to image, each modifying and developing the impact of the other. In parallel, her idiosyncratic musical phrases (often modal, frequently stretching across odd numbers of bars, and supported by complex chords based on any number of intuitively selected open guitar tunings) are not so much stable melodies as constant variations, from verse to verse, on themes that we can't always be sure she was formally stated. Mitchell has said her melodic unpredictability derives from the days when she sang the freewheeling descant part in her local church choir. "That affected my music because I like the descant part, which has a lot more range and mobility than the melody. It leaps in four and five note intervals all over the place. Maybe that's why people have difficulty with my music. I need surprises."

Her lyrics can surprise no less. Even when she seems only to be adding a dash of color to an idea within a song, a Mitchell conceit will conjure far more than a witty comparison, instead transforming a song that otherwise might have been fairly ordinary, at least by the standards Mitchell sets. "In France They Kiss On Main Street" (From The Hissing of Summer Lawns") offers a good example. The song celebrates the rock generation's legendary spontaneity in contrast to the previous generation's no less mythical lack of adventurousness:

I told him "They don't take chances
They seem so removed from romance"
"They've been broken in churches and schools
And molded into middle class circumstance"
And we were rolling, rolling, rock 'n' rolling

Much of that is stale thinking, but suddenly the whole song lights up with this:

We were walking down Main Street
Kisses like bright flags hung on holidays

This crystallizes the adolescents' sense of their difference from their supposedly drab forbearers; at the same time it exposes their self-indulgence and puts them firmly in their place.

In other, more pointed - even barbed - cases, Mitchell yokes metaphorical snapshots together so that each facet of the compound image reflects on the other, enlarging the meaning of both. Thus we see exposed the non-heroine of "Shades of Scarlet Conquering", from the same album:

With her impossibly gentle hands
And her blood-red finger nails

Or the somewhat sinister Lothario of "Ladies' Man" (from Wild Things Run Fast):

You could charm the diamonds
Off a rattlesnake

From that, apart from the joke, we might infer that even the most captivating lounge lizard will meet his poison-fanged Nemesis some day.

The effect of such phrases depends on our being able to see what Mitchell is singing about. She told interviewer Jody Denberg of the Austin Chronicle in 1998: "I don't have any of the musician's languages....I don't know what key I'm playing in. My harmony is selected by my own interest in the same way that I would select to put that color next to that color. I think of myself as a painter who writes music....Basically, the reason I'm so unruly in this business is because I think like a painter, not like musician."

Her pictorial style has, no less than her music, changed and developed over the years (a selection of her paintings can be seen on her official website, Whatever the youthful idiom, admired by Mr. Kratzman may have been, the adult Mitchell's sense of color has always been witty and provocative. Paintings from the late Sixties glow with juxtapositions that are redolent of Paul Klee's color experiments, if with none of his dark humor or introspection. Her 1969 painting of a rose, for example, tests the viewer's tolerance of proximitous shades of red. The rose itself is a cluster of internal tonal clashes (and is startlingly beautiful).

Perhaps Mitchell's fascination with tone and shade contributed to an increasing abstraction in her paintings. One picture from 1973, "Survival BC", is constructed of solid, single magic-marker lines, which by themselves are so striking that their portrayal of a person, a dog, and a stand of trees is almost incidental. Another painting from 1973, "Banquet", is composed of blobs of color; primitive outlines of people under an orange sun might have been added afterward.

In the mid-Eighties Mitchell went in for a spell of abstract expressionism, which she once defined with a grin as "invented by New York drunks who came rolling home and beat on their canvas." Her engagement with the style was somewhat tongue in cheek, to judge from the item she pretty much literally threw together during an interview for the BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test in 1985. "Is it a mess or a masterpiece?", she chuckled, adding in a deep, mock-pompous tone. "Only the Great Art Experts know for sure". She was suitably amused when one of those experts favorably compared her parody to a de Kooning when the picture was hung at the Jack Corcoran Gallery in Los Angeles that same year.

But the desire to relate paint and the things of the world was never far away. For her 1985 album Dog Eat Dog she spent months, sometimes up to 13 hours a day, working on a cover painting that was eventually rejected in favor of a photograph. The reason: "It was suggested to me that I hadn't put my kisser on the cover for a long time," she explained to the BBC's Richard Skinner. The Dog Eat Dog canvas is huge, perhaps 5 by 14 feet, and almost entirely covered in cartoon-like dogs of various dimensions and with various styles of teeth, an din an extraordinary range of hues, few of them naturalistic. The canine forms seem to emerge from the welter of color so that the effect of abstraction dissolves as one approaches the picture and discerns the details.. Her style had shifted radically by the mid-Nineties however, when Mitchell was painting cool landscapes, still lifes, more self-portraits, and mildly satirical near-copies of classical works of art. One such is a lateral inversion with altered background of "Flaming June", by the celebrated Victorian painter Frederick Lord Leighton, a contemporary of the Pre-Raphaelites. No one, incidentally, should underestimate Mitchell's ease with "high" culture. On her second album, Clouds, in "That Song About the Midway", she actually improved on a line of Shakespeare, turning Romeo's encomium of Juliet

It seems she hangs upon a cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear

into something more specific - and all the more telling if you happened to be aware of the original:

I met you on a midway at a fair last year
And you stood out like a ruby in a black man's ear

And for the cover of her 1994 album Turbulent Indigo she ironically cast herself as Vincent van Gogh, reworking his celebrated 1889 self-portrait, complete with hat and bandaged ear. She had plotted a sly dig at her critics in the shape of little tin ears tucked into the album sleeve, but that proved too expensive.

In 1994 Mitchell explained the connection between her two artistic passions in a VH-1 interview: "On my first album [cover}, my drawing's very ornate and girlish and fanciful and fantasy-oriented...I was right on the brink of being a realist...but I couldn't make the step." Mitchell felt trapped in the ornateness of her style until a sculptor friends suggested she draw him - without looking at the paper. "It created a very bold and loose kind of line. Shortly after that the adjectives began to fall away from my writing, the curlicues began to fall away, the grace notes began to fall away from my (guitar) picking. The aesthetic shift took place across the board, but it started first with the eye and then the ears followed." It's certainly no surprise, therefore, that until 1985, when her albums became more political and less personal (and her lyrics correspondingly less subtle and demanding) that her songs are such integrated fusions of the visual, the verbal, and the musical.

Given all that, Mitchell's latest video release Painting With Words and Music does come as something as a surprise. Directed by Joan Tosconi, it documents a concert taped at the Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California, in 1998, with a band consisting of Greg Leisz (pedal steel & guitar), Mark Isham (trumpet), Mitchell's ex-husband Larry Klein (bass), and Brian Blade (drums). Mitchell designed the stage set - based for some reason on an Indian prayer wheel with luridly toned sofas for the relatively small audience - and she mixed the music tracks; she's credited too as "editorial director". One has no complaints about the performance, although Blade's technically immaculate, tuneful, and exuberantly expressive but always supremely tactful drumming is sometimes sadly muted in the mix.

Mitchell even rejuvenates "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Woodstock" into something worth hearing again. They're two of her best-known songs, but paradoxically they're among her least interesting. "Woodstock" is pure hippy goo set to a mildly pleasant tune, while Mitchell herself calls "Big Yellow Taxi" a "ditty" and seems to play it ritually in concerts as a kind of audience pacifier. Its central premise - "You don't know what you've got till it's gone" - is hardly them most original insight she has ever given the world. Here she remakes both melodies with jazz-inflected improvisations that almost compensate for the banal lyrics. Less-known but vastly more creative numbers such as "Harry's House", "Hejira", "Amelia", and "Black Crow" have all their complex drama consummately exposed. The rendition of "Sharon's Song" - one of Mitchell's finest song-writing achievements - is perfect. But the disappointment is that while the concept of the title starts so promisingly, it is never fully realized, despite MitchellWhen the video opens, we see that the set - and a gallery behind the set - is festooned with Mitchell's paintings. As the singer is introduced by Rosanna Arquette, we see her adding a few touches to one of her pictures and she drops her brush to rush on stage. This is almost the last we see of her first and, as she so often said, primary art. Apart from brief glimpses of three paintings faintly related to the lyrics she happens to be singing, the video is a standard, not very imaginative, presentation of a singer in concert.

Mitchell's subjects for her paintings (portraits of lovers aside) have never particularly matched the imagery of her songs and it would have been more than a trifle factitious to "illustrate" her performances with her paintings. But her own point that the aesthetics of her ear have trailed behind those of her eye would have been a fascinating notion to pursue.

One wonders how comfortable Mitchell is with video. For those of us (like Mitchell) who spent our formative years in a pre-McLuhartistic (?) global vacuum, it can be a tricky medium that requires a distinct shift of consciousness to accommodate. Which is another way of saying that directors and producers of music videos don't seem to care if their productions bear no relation to the song they're supposed to illustrate. This may sometimes (often serendipitously) turn out to be clever, but more often is just dumb. One suspects Mitchell may prefer the straight forward approach recording little more than her performance, because of this. And it may be significant that, as she told Vogue in 1995, the advent of MTV in the early Eighties coincided with a flat period of her career. That was, she said "a particularly unromantic period in music. Videos had just begun and they had a tendency to feature cold women with dark lipstick and stilettos grinding men's hands into the ground. It was an anti-love period, anNor should one underestimate the lack of control an artist has over his or her promotion material - although Painting With Word and Music in today's electronic climate is tantamount to the release of a live album. A look back at some of Mitchell's previous (and infrequent) video releases may help put this one in context.

One of her earliest long form videos, Shadows and Light (1980), was made up of footage from a concert tour interspersed with "illustrations" of the songs. These were almost embarrassingly literal: "Coyote" for instance featured an actual, four legged coyote goofing around somewhat sentimentally with a mouse in the snow; mention of a burning ranch house inspires a few seconds glimpse of just that, while the resonant lines

You picked up a hitcher, a prisoner
Of the white lines of the freeway

bring forth Mitchell acting the part of an over-laden hitchhiker catching a lift in what looks suspiciously like a home-made car.

In 1988, Mitchell's video for "My Secret Place" (a single plucked from Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm) featured herself and Peter Gabriel at a semi-animated dinner table, and then wandering across a bleak landscape along a cloth strip, which metamorphosed into an outline of tall square buildings at the mention of New York City and into a tree when trees crop up in the lyric. Her "secret place" (a phrase that conjures up all sorts of interesting notions) is reduced to a silhouetted black hut and teepee on a shoreline, all in "atmosphere" black-and-white.

Perhaps the most interesting of Mitchell's videos was directed by Jim Blaschfield in 1985 for the single "Good Friends" from Dog Eat Dog. The colors are deep and rich (as in Terry Gilliam's animations for Month Python's Flying Circus, to which the video owes a lot), and the images do quietly weird things, like sliding out of holes in suitcases or being discovered by hands opening stage curtains. The prestidigitating hands also present live crabs to Mitchell's unconscious back and catch and release circles of fire, paper sunbursts, and even a knife and fork. This quirkiness offsets a relentlessly decaying urban background and creates an absorbing parallel to the song's key line "There is chaos to the order - random things you can't prevent." But that was nearly 15 years ago. With an artist of Mitchell's stature, it's perhaps churlish to grump that she hasn't yet grasped the full implications of the media at her disposal. One always wants more from one's heroes and heroines than they can supply. But one can reasonably ask that those around her at least strive to be as creative as their subject. The real, and definitive, Joni Mitchell video is still waiting to be made.

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Added to Library on November 8, 2002. (4863)


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