Joni Mitchell

As pure an artist as can be found in the entertainment industry, her confessional lyrics and lilting, soaring soprano have inspired countless musicians.

Topics: Taking Woodstock,

Joni Mitchell

A somber mood prevailed over Britain’s Isle of Wight festival in 1970. The
four-day concert, subject of the 1997 documentary “Message to Love,”
showcased the Who, Jimi Hendrix (in his last performance) and the Doors, but
the dominant themes seemed to be exploitation and narcissism. Kris
took note of the surly, 600,000-strong crowd — “I think
they’re gonna shoot us” — and hightailed it offstage shortly before reaching
the end of “Me and Bobby McGee.” The festival became a dark antithesis to
the hippie Utopia projected by Woodstock.

Stepping into this miasma of greed and paranoia, Joni Mitchell performed her
song “Woodstock” in a lilting, melancholy soprano that seemed to float
somewhere above her piano, as beautifully incongruous as a seagull hovering
over a landfill. But after the song, a whacked-out man named Yogi Joe
grabbed the microphone and began shouting. After he “was thrown off the stage by her security, much to her
dismay,” documentary director Murray Lerner recalls on the recently released
DVD, “the crowd began to boo and become unruly.” Yogi Joe spouted off
backstage about being the “head of the official committee to paint the fence
invisible,” but Mitchell had the unenviable task of quieting the belligerent
throng. As she later told British music magazine Q:

It was a hostile audience to begin with. A handful of French
rabble-rousers had stirred the people up to feel that we, the performers,
had sold out because we arrived in fancy cars … backstage there was all
this international capital — bowls of money, open coffers … So, with my
chin quivering, fighting back tears and the impulse to run, I said, “I was
at a Hopi snake dance a couple of weeks ago and there were tourists who
acted like Indians and Indians who acted like tourists — you’re just a
bunch of tourists. Some of us have our lives involved in this music. Show
some respect.” And the beast lay down. The beast lay down.

The crowd noise turned into applause. Mitchell ended her set smiling,
triumphantly belting out the last chorus of “Big Yellow Taxi,” which
contains notes separated by nearly three octaves: “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.” Lerner remembers Mitchell as “masterful
… receiving a standing ovation and thunderous applause from the same
crowd” that had been heckling her a few minutes earlier. The prescience of
Mitchell’s songs and her nervy performance created a stirring, fleeting
moment of true artistic transcendence. Only a year earlier, she had fled the
indifference of a crowd less than half the size, in Atlantic City, N.J.
Mitchell’s music seemed to save the day, but the same tension — between her
personal art and its public performance — would always remain.

Throughout her career, Mitchell has bemoaned celebrity even as she enjoyed
its fruits, never overlooking the irony of the situation. As pure an artist
as one is likely to find in commercial music, she has continually withdrawn
into her poetry, painting and relationships — her life — only to
return again with new sounds, new songs, new virtuoso performances. “You felt her
life was inspired,” singer Natalie Merchant has said of Mitchell. “She made
you want to live an inspired and exotic life.”

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -

Mitchell was born Roberta Joan Anderson in Alberta, Canada, on Nov.
7, 1943. Her father was a grocer; her mother was a schoolteacher who “raised
me on Shakespeare as other parents quoted from the Bible,” Mitchell once
recalled. A few years after her birth, the family moved to Saskatoon,
Saskatchewan, where she attended public schools. As a 9-year-old
suffering from polio, she sang to fellow hospital patients. Mitchell
had three bouts with death, but the ravages of the disease would one day
play a crucial role in her musical artistry.

In 1976 she recalled her luck in having “one radical teacher” who “drew out
my poetry.” After writing an epic poem, Mitchell got it back covered in red circles, with “clichi” written next to phrases such as “White as newly fallen snow” and “High upon a silver shadowed hill.” Legions of Mitchell fans can thank the teacher for this bit of dead-on advice: “Write about what you know, it’s more interesting.”

She took piano lessons for a few years, taught herself ukulele and then
settled on guitar with the help of a Pete Seeger instruction book. A painter
from an early age, she enrolled in art school, but left at the end of her
first year, in 1964, heading to Toronto to try her luck as a folk singer.
Mitchell wrote her first song, “Day After Day,” on her three-day train trip
east to see a performance by Buffy Sainte-Marie.

She worked days at Simpsons-Sears department store to pay the rent. Playing
the Toronto coffeehouse scene at night, she met folk singers Tom Rush and
Chuck Mitchell. She married Mitchell in 1965 after a courtship that lasted
36 hours, according to one report. Rush and Mitchell would be the first of
many singers to make standards of Mitchell’s tunes.

The first of these, “The Circle Game,” had become familiar to crowds in
Toronto, and later Detroit, where the Mitchells moved, years before she
recorded it. She wisely set up her own publishing company and named it
after her own private mythology. “Siquomb” stood for “She Is Queen
Undisputedly of Mind Beauty.” Though the company was later renamed Crazy
Crow Music, many of her loyal fans still describe Mitchell with her own
fanciful acronym.

At night, after performing, the Mitchells hosted all-night poker games
attended by Gordon Lightfoot and Sainte-Marie, but their marriage was
crumbling. Joni left Chuck and moved to West 16th Street in New York,
capturing her newfound sense of freedom on “Chelsea Morning”: “The sun
poured in like butterscotch and/Stuck to all my senses/Oh, won’t you
stay/We’ll put on the day/And we’ll talk in present tenses.” Her idols began
covering her songs, including Sainte-Marie (“The Circle Game”) and Judy Collins,
whose “Both Sides Now” became a Top 10 hit.

In 1967, country singer George Hamilton IV cut Mitchell’s “Urge for Going,”
a moody song ostensibly about the loneliness of winter, inspired in 1965 by
the diminishing opportunities for folk singers in the wake of Bob Dylan’s famous
electric conversion. “I get the urge for going/But I never seem to go,”
Mitchell wrote. Hamilton’s version peaked at No. 7 on Billboard’s country
singles chart. (She didn’t put the early tune on an album until “Hits,” in

Mitchell fled New York for California, settling in Laurel Canyon, a favored
retreat of artists and musicians near Los Angeles. She met David Crosby, who
later said, “Right away I felt as if I’d been hit by a hand grenade. Her
voice, those words … she nailed me to the back of the wall with two-inch
spikes.” When Mitchell began recording her first album for Reprise, new
admirer Crosby was chosen to produce it.

As any guitar novice knows, fretted chords are the first enemies of the left
hand, requiring dexterity and a strong index finger to stretch across and
hold both the bass and high strings. Mitchell had found these chords
especially challenging, but her solution to the problem transformed weakness
into strength: “My left hand is somewhat clumsy because of polio. I had to
simplify the shapes of the left hand, but I craved chordal movement that I
couldn’t get out of standard tuning without an extremely articulate left
hand,” she told Joe Smith in “Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular

She learned open blues tunings in C and G, picked up D modal and began
stitching chords together with interesting results. “The tunings were a
godsend … they made the guitar an unstable thing, but also an instrument
of exploration, you could put the feeling into a new tuning, you had to
rediscover the neck, you’d need to search out the chordal movement … It
was very exciting to discover my music. It still is, to this day.”

As Acoustic Guitar magazine noted in 1996, “Her guitar doesn’t really sound
like a guitar … A guitarist haunted by Mitchell’s playing … can’t find much
help in the music store in exploring that sound: what she plays, from the
way she tunes her strings to the way she strokes them with her right hand,
is utterly off the chart of how most of us approach the guitar.” Her
repertoire grew to encompass so many tunings, in fact, that Mitchell has
long relied on an archivist, Joel Bernstein, to maintain the official book
of tunings and chord shapes that individuate her songs; he even has to help her
relearn some of the older tunes now and then.

Mitchell’s first L.P., “Joni Mitchell” (often referred to as “Song to a
Seagull” because of her cover painting), established her personal
songwriting style and (encouraged by Crosby) unique arrangements. Boldly, it
did not include her best-known material, but her follow-up album, “Clouds,”
featured “Chelsea Morning” and “Both Sides Now.”

Mitchell recorded “Clouds” while living with new lover Graham Nash, who
meanwhile was inspired by a day of antiquing with her to write “Our House”
for his new band, Crosby, Stills and Nash. (In another example of Mitchell’s
knack for leaving art in the wake of her sometimes messy personal life,
Crosby wrote the ethereal “Guinnevere” after she left him for Nash, though
it was also said to be partly about his former girlfriend, to whom he was

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -

In 1969, Mitchell was invited to Woodstock, but because her handlers were
afraid she’d miss a scheduled appearance on Dick Cavett’s talk show the following Monday, she did not journey upstate. Yet her absence created a sense of longing that was essential in writing the festival’s anthem.

She was stuck in a hotel room while her peers made history at Max Yasgur’s farm:
“The deprivation of not being able to go provided me with an intense angle
on Woodstock,” she later recalled. “Woodstock, for some reason, impressed me
as being a modern miracle, like a modern-day fishes and loaves story. For a
herd of people that large to cooperate so well, it was pretty remarkable and
there was a tremendous optimism. So I wrote the song ‘Woodstock’ out of
these feelings, and the first three times I performed it in public, I burst
into tears, because it brought back the intensity of the experience and was
so moving.”

Mitchell’s absence from the festivities was more than a necessary irony. It
symbolized the paradox at the root of Mitchell’s art — detachment coupled
with an uncanny ability to connect. “The wonderful thing about being a
successful playwright or an author,” she told MacLean’s magazine in 1974, is
that “you still maintain your anonymity, which is important in order to be
somewhat of a voyeur, to collect your observations for your material. And to
suddenly often be the center of attention …
threatens the writer in me. The performer threatened the writer.”

Mitchell toured with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the supergroup du jour, and soon headlined on
her own. But she still had a hard time reconciling her art to enormous,
sometimes indifferent crowds. After a performance at London’s Royal Albert
Hall in 1970, she announced that she was quitting live appearances. Distance
became a common refrain for the artist who was once described as a “Hans
Christian Andersen Snow Queen.”

Her next album, 1970′s “Ladies of the Canyon,” further showcased her
musicianship. The arrangements — already well beyond most singer-songwriter
material — were becoming more sophisticated and intriguing. Songs like
“Rainy Night House” have inventive chord structures underlying deceptively
simple melody lines. Mitchell included some “hits” — “Woodstock” and the
swooping, soaring “Big Yellow Taxi,” which contains one of the few 22-note melodic spans in popular music.

“Blue,” released in 1971, contains many of the same guitar and piano motifs
as earlier albums, but the songs have more depth, introspection, raw emotion
and nerve than anything Mitchell had done before. The album and title song
were said to be named for then-current beau James Taylor, though she has said
little about the album’s romantic provenance.

Widely considered a masterpiece, “Blue” reached No. 15 on the charts. On
“Carey,” Mitchell’s layered vocals blend perfectly with the masterful
up-tempo, open-tuned strumming of guest guitarist Stephen Stills; Taylor is on
hand for the gleaming “California” (featuring the pedal steel of Sneeky
Pete), “All I Want” and “A Case of You.” “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” a
song about hope in the face of disillusionment that works on another level
(like most Mitchell songs) as a parable for the end of the hopes of the
’60s, closes the album with an elegiac sense of loss:

Richard got married to a figure skater
And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator
And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on
And all the house lights left up bright
I’m gonna blow this damn candle out
I don’t want nobody comin’ over to my table
I got nothing to talk to anybody about
All good dreamers pass this way some day
Hidin’ behind bottles in dark cafes, dark cafes
Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away
Only a phase, these dark cafe days

By 1974 Mitchell stood alongside Stevie Wonder as Rolling Stone’s Artist of
the Year. Critics had applauded “For the Roses” (said to be a possible
farewell to the business at the time of its release) and “Court and Spark,”
her first all-electric L.P. Experiments with jazz followed, foreshadowed
perhaps by Mitchell’s sparkling cover of the 1952 Annie Ross song “Twisted”
(“My analyst told me/That I was right out of my head”). The backlash wasn’t
far behind. Critics were taken aback by Mitchell’s 1975 jazz album, “The
Hissing of Summer Lawns,” even though jazz-inflected chord phrasings had
appeared in songs as early as “The Arrangement” and “Blue.”

Her next album, “Hejira,” returned to familiar form — songs of personal
journeys backed by a mellow, acoustic-jazz sound, with bass accompaniment
from Jaco Pastorius and a little harmonica from Neil Young. The album finds
Mitchell again striking universal themes — restlessness, doomed love and
mortality — with self-deprecating honesty and humor: “There’s a gypsy down
on Bleecker Street/I went in to see her as a kind of joke/And she lit a
candle for my love luck/And 18 bucks went up in smoke.” The atmosphere
is one of withdrawn brooding; Mitchell has admitted to using a lot of
cocaine at the time: “Altered consciousness is completely tempting to a
writer. I did some good writing, I think, on cocaine [but] it kills your
heart — takes all your energy, puts it up in your brain.”

Subsequent albums met with mixed reviews, some deservedly so, but Mitchell
has never lost the artist’s hunger for originality. Of her 1979 album
“Mingus” (which she has often defended), Mitchell noted, “It hammered the
nail into my coffin which said: Mitchell is dead on pop radio, she’s a
jazzer.” It took her a while to shake her image as a beret-wearing jazz
dilettante, but at least she could count Charles Mingus as an
admirer. The music on “Mingus” was a collaboration, requested by the great
jazz bassist and composer.

By the end of the ’70s, the reluctant superstar was flying on her own private
Lear jet. After again threatening retirement, Mitchell returned in 1982 with
“Wild Things Run Fast,” for friend, former roommate and longtime record
executive David Geffen’s new label. (It was a replay of 1972, when Geffen
brought Mitchell to Asylum Records, which he started with Mitchell’s former
manager, Elliot Roberts.) She married bassist Larry Klein, who played on the
album, the same year. (They divorced in the early ’90s.)

The “comeback” (every artist, it seems, must have one) came a decade later
with her 17th album, “Turbulent Indigo,” in 1994. Released on Reprise, the
album earned her two Grammys and a new outpouring of accolades. The title
cut was a response to the Canadian Council of the Arts, which had invited
her to speak at its annual conference, whose self-described goal was to
“make van Goghs.” With characteristic candor, Mitchell had told the group,
“A lot of great art comes out of mental disturbance. How are you gonna teach
that?” (“You wanna make van Goghs/Raise ‘em like sheep … What do you know
about/Living in turbulent indigo?”)

In 1997 Mitchell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and
reunited with her long-lost daughter, Kilauren Gibb, whom she hadn’t seen
since putting her up for adoption in 1965. In a typically confessional
moment, Mitchell had already memorialized Kilauren in “Little Green,”
written in 1967 but revised on “Blue”:

Child with a child pretending
Weary of lies you are sending home
So you sign all the papers in the family name
You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed
Little Green have a happy ending.

Today Mitchell is revered by the countless female artists whose careers she
enabled — especially the recent proliferation of confessional
singer-songwriters. But whatever their angst level, few can hope to equal
Mitchell’s command of her instruments — guitar, piano, voice — not to
mention her facility with lyrics, melody and arranging. “In many ways she is
as influential as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie,” Bonnie Raitt told VH1
in the network’s 100 Greatest Women of Rock ‘n’ Roll, where Mitchell came in
fourth. Male songwriters and even guitar gods are equally enamored of her
skills. “She brings tears to my eyes, what more can I say?” Jimmy Page has
said. Elton John’s songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, once noted, “On her
level, there is nobody who can touch her.”

These days, the icon of 1960s wanderlust spends her time in Bel Air, Calif.,
New York and a stone farmhouse in the wilderness north of Vancouver, British
Columbia. At 51, Mitchell said her “bleeding years” were behind her. “Now I
have rich people’s problems, and you can’t make songs out of rich people’s
problems … I feel lighter than I ever have right now. I want to write some
songs that are less dramatic … I want to sing with a smile on my face.”

Mitchell’s latest album, “Both Sides Now,” finds her coming at jazz from a
new angle, trading the beret for the chanteuse’s dark lipstick and
cigarette. She takes on standards like “Stormy Weather” with pop
arrangements far more lush than the spare sounds of her early career. If
anyone has earned the right to cover, it’s Mitchell, who has rarely done so
in the past, though countless hundreds of artists have covered her songs.

It must be said that Mitchell’s voice does not soar to the heights she
routinely reached 30 years ago. The original “A Case of You,” from
“Blue,” is an exquisite piece of guitar arrangement topped with the
glissandi of a vocalist at the top of her game; Mitchell lets her voice
linger over the many syllables, creating an elegant languor. The new version
begins noticeably lower — an octave lower, adequately
demonstrating the shift in her range. Mitchell’s voice is occasionally off
the mark, and you miss the old heights and delicate precision. But in its
edgy, clipped delivery — Mitchell sounds like the lifelong smoker she is –
we discover that her lower timbres now have the most resonance.

Mitchell’s new version of “Both Sides Now” (covered more than 50 times) has
a new authenticity. The ambivalence of her lyrics, composed when Mitchell
was in her 20s, now seems laced with apt weariness and hard-earned
wisdom: “I’ve looked at life from both sides now … It’s life’s illusions I
recall/I really don’t know life at all,” she sings, and what comes through
is the sound of a voice deepened, in every way, by time.

Frank Houston is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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