It’s the unknown that has always drawn me to women. To paraphrase Churchill’s most oft-quoted adage, they are a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. They are as complicated as the inner workings of an iPhone. They are both nurturers and truth-seekers. At one moment, they can be as distant as a remote tropical island. In an instant, they open up their enveloping arms to strangers and friends alike. They are maternal, intuitive, and emotional – and by far the tougher of the two sexes.
Not surprisingly, it’s the labyrinthine essence of women that lies at the heart of my four-decade-plus-long fixation of Joni Mitchell. While I have been a longtime devotee of both Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, it is Joni’s music that lingers these days. Recently, her music has become my daily coping mechanism. As a matter of fact, since January 20, 2017, I have listened to virtually nothing but Joni Mitchell’s gallery of tunes as a counter to the misogyny, greed, and deceitfulness of President Donald J. Trump. Because I have seen my own gender spiral into a cultural splashdown both unprecedented and warranted, I have methodically reexamined the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native’s music as if it could be somehow both redemptive and life-changing.
For the uninformed, Joni Mitchell has been able to nail the most elusive of all great pop music quests, eight spectacular albums in a row, something matched by only a handful by such goliaths as the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Springsteen, the Stones, Van Morrison, and Dylan. Beginning in 1969, Joni released Clouds; Ladies of the Canyon; Blue; For the Roses; Court and Spark; Miles of Aisles; The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and Hejira during an astonishing seven-year period. Ultimately, these musical gemstones are as good as anything generated by any soloist in the past 60 years.
Of course, Mitchell authored the anthem of her generation, “Woodstock.” (“We are stardust, we are golden. We are billion-year-old carbon. And we gotta get ourselves back to the garden.”) With “Big Yellow Taxi,” she composed the most revered ecological anthem in the last half-century. (“Don’t it always seem to go. That you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. They paved paradise – and put up a parking lot.”) Joni’s hallowed “Circle Game,” has been played at countless christenings, weddings, and funerals. (“Yesterday a child came out to wonder. Caught a dragonfly inside a jar. Fearful when the sky was full of thunder. And tearful at the falling of a star. And the seasons they go round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down. We’re captive on the carousel of time. We can’t return we can only look behind – from where we came. And go round and round and round in the circle game.”) Finally, the songwriter’s most venerated song, “Both Sides Now,” is considered one of the ten most important ballads produced in the modern era. (“I’ve looked at life from both sides now. From win and lose and still somehow. It’s life’s illusions I recall. I really don’t know life…at all.”)
All in all, Joni Mitchell is a Nobel Prize for Literature waiting to happen.
In addition, Graham Nash wrote one of his most popular singles paying homage to Joni’s enduring domesticity in CSNY’s “Our House.” (“Life used to be so hard. Now everything is easy ’cause of you.”) And, of course, that’s Mitchell’s voice backing Carole King throughout Tapestry and James Taylor through much of Sweet Baby James. From Prince to Taylor Swift, from Bonnie Raitt to Lana Del Ray, from Stevie Nicks to Ed Sheeran, a cavalcade of rock stars has listed Joni Mitchell as their dominant influence over the years. To her fans, she has proven to be an enduring nectar they have sipped from during an epoch so hyperkinetic that it has become unfathomable to most. “You were our Prozac before there was any!” two fans screeched to her after a concert in the late 1990s.
Characteristically, Joni took it as a supreme compliment.
Thus, on a gloomy January afternoon one year ago – the day that Donald Trump was sworn into office – I reflexively began to listen to her undisputed masterpiece, Blue. Named by the Smithsonian Institute as one of the most 100 influential musical albums of the twentieth century, it’s bloodletting, siren-songs to love and loss remain unmatched. For me, Blue matched the heart-rumblings of a dark time and proved to be a welcomed elixir to the moment. As the winter morphed into the promise of spring, I breezed through the rest of Mitchell’s music as if it were the only oxygen I could breathe to keep me alive.
By the summertime, I discerned that I had listened to nothing but Joni Mitchell music since “The Donald” had taken over the White House. In the meantime, from last winter’s Women’s March on Washington to the astonishing results in local elections around the nation 10 months later, scores of prescient observers have predicted that such memorable bookends are harbingers to what will occur in this calendar year. If so, then, Joni Mitchell has already provided the era’s decidedly feminine alternative.
While I continued listening to Joni, a patchwork of her phrases began to bore into me like a corkscrew to the heart. First of all, I noticed that on virtually every recording, Mitchell’s voice was as clear as a bell and yet as capricious as New England coastal weather. Critic David Mitchell – no relation – wrote recently, “Joni’s voice warbles with vibrato but is stringent and harsh, too; it’s acrobatic yet grounded; vulnerable yet indestructible; mannered and octave-straddling, yet also as natural as breathing or speaking.”
And then there were her musical accompaniments. Indeed, although Mitchell has dabbled in every vocal genre possible and has been supported by everyone from Neil Young to Charlie Mingus, from Yo-Yo Ma to Willie Nelson; her ordinarily sparse orchestrations, while undoubtedly brilliant, are mere props to her illuminating vocals. On some of her greatest recordings, it is Joni playing on a simple dulcimer, a delicate, fretted string instrument of the zither family, made famous by Appalachian folksingers, typically with four pronounced strings. Mitchell’s understated acoustic guitar and piano work has enabled her vocals to blossom and allows her words to remain center stage. In addition, she has also dabbled in the Byzantine world of jazz, where her vocals have been accompanied by such greats as Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, Pat Metheny, and Jaco Pastorius.
Finally, a seedbed of fidelity frames Joni’s ingenious lyrics. In each tuneful text, Mitchell has managed to push and pull at the pieces of love and youth, age, experience, and circumstance. They are the etchings of autobiography in which she never confesses but instead reveals something about herself in every one of her songs. It’s similar to removing the skin of an onion whose core is very much intact.
From Joni’s ode to love, loss, and motherhood in the poignant, “Little Green,” to her melancholic, universal sadness in “River,” to her paen to the exhilarating pain of intimacy in “A Case of You,” she has made me feel things I had forgotten about myself. Like her kaleidoscopic paintings, Mitchell’s music projects texture, tone, color, emotion, and intimacy. Every product of hers is a work of art – and her musical pallet – from folk to gospel, from jazz to rock, from country to the blues – invariably rings true. There’s nothing false about Joni Mitchell. She is both for real – and for keeps.
Given the fake news, the lies, the indiscretions, and the tumbledown communion that has come to swirl around us like a societal Dust Bowl, I will continue to listen to the vivid hues and the unfettered truthfulness that oozes out of each Joni Mitchell song until the sky above me is a cloudless blue once again.
Until then, I will be a prisoner of the white lines of the freeway.