Prior to stumbling across a recent Rolling Stone article publicizing her new anthology, the only thing I knew about Joni Mitchell was she sang about clouds back in the day. Admittedly, despite (slightly) older friends balking that I, an aspiring novelist writing about a young woman making her way through the music scene of the late 1960s, I stubbornly avoided seeking out information about this legendary female phenom. I accept their mocking. Because after delving into this dynamic artist’s life, I realize I really don’t know life at all.
After reading the article, I bought Reckless Daughter by David Yaffe the book it often references. And I discovered a magnificent artist I had criminally dismissed as a folky wallflower. I couldn’t wait to share my new enthusiasm in this post, however thin it is. So I hope you’ll join me in celebrating this simply awesome lady by adding your own “Joni experience.”
Joni Mitchell is a powerhouse of raw talent, ingenuity and complexity. While fellow musicians coming up in the industry beside her (mostly men) sang about relationships using simple language like sugar sugar and honey honey, Mitchell was putting deeply personal poetry to music that holds infinite resonance, like a tattoo.
We’re only particles of change I know I knowHejira by Joni Mitchell
Orbiting around the sun
But how can I have that point of view
When I’m always bound and tied to someone
Mitchell sang to her own tune–literally. She crafted her own tunings to honor the melodies she carried in her head instead of trying to fit in a pre-made box. The harmonics she created in You Turn Me On I’m a Radio take me back to sitting in a field eating the fresh Michigan blueberries I’d just picked with my little brother. Or riding my bike alongside a Florida waterway. I’m captive to the breezy, expectant feeling her chords create.
Does anyone else find it ironic that guys with guitars still spend time fiddling with their capos to replicate her sound?
Joni’s Provocative Lyrics
And long before Taylor Swift used her music to send scathing messages to former lovers, Mitchell had already made it an art form. Although she married Chuck Mitchell and Leonard Cohen held her heart, she enjoyed liaisons with an enviable list of music legends during a time when virginity was nearly the only virtue about which a woman could boast. David Crosby, José Feliciano and James Taylor could not resist her magnetic sexuality. Yet all admit it was her musicianship that piqued their interest long before they looked into her blue eyes.
Her song A Case of You, inspired by her love for Cohen, is about stubborn longing that anyone who has loved deeply can relate to:
Oh you’re in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet
Oh I could drink a case of you darling
Still I’d be on my feet
oh I would still be on my feet
Or the intensely personal Coyote, inspired by a short affair with Sam Shepard:
Coyote’s in the coffee shop
He’s staring a hole in his scrambled eggs
He picks up my scent on his fingers
While he’s watching the waitresses’ legs
Finally, for anyone who, like me, assumed that it was Mitchell singing on the chart-topping recording of Both Sides Now, it wasn’t. Joni wrote the song, but Judy Collins recorded it first. Personally, I like Joni’s interpretation better.
A bit about the novel mentioned above…