Friday, August 19, 2005

The Queen of Songwriting
Why Joni Mitchell is an all-time -great

There is hypocrisy in this world. There is abject, two-faced, perverse chauvinism. That is really the only way to explain the way Joni Mitchell has been treated by most of the popular press in the last 2 decades. The effect has been all-encompassing. Music channels on TV and radio hardly play her songs. Young music enthusiasts are completely unfamiliar with her work; most of the older ones seem to remember her vaguely.

Her influence, however, is heard all around the world wherever a singer-songwriter steps up to unload the soul. Particularly true if the singer-songwriter is female; no-one inspired women to take to the guitar and sing about personal feelings as she did. Indeed, Joni Mitchell is the quintessential musician's musician - revered amongst the finest musicians, yet infuriatingly obscure in the mainstream. Infuriating, not because she could care less but because songstresses of far less talent have the fame, fortune and significance as if quality isn't an issue. Calling Jewel "the new Joni Mitchell" is like calling Oasis the new Beatles. Alanis Morissette's and Sheryl Crow's affected styles are the rage, but even they've themselves admitted that Joni Mitchell's on "a different planet". She's one of the very few artists (and the only woman) whom Bob Dylan considers his songwriting equal; Madonna adores her music and Prince says she's his favourite songwriter. That's a pretty staggering spectrum, as popular music goes. And when you consider that jazz great Charlie Mingus specifically asked for her to collaborate with just before his death, when you learn that she's often on the list of "100 best guitarists ever", it surely registers - we're talking about a veritable legend here. Add to this her painting talent (she's done the cover of most of her albums and even won a Grammy for art direction and design in 1995), the way she has with words (as demonstrated by her often remarkable song lyrics) and it becomes difficult not to brand her a "renaissance woman".

Her beginnings were depressing. Born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943 in a grim, cold, colourless remote Canadian town, she was a frail child troubled greatly by a series of ailments including Polio. After an excruciatingly painful recovery, she discovered her interests really lay in music, painting and art. A dissatisfying year at the local Art college was followed by an attempt in Toronto to become a folk singer. Unfortunately, she got pregnant - the result of a crush with a fellow painter. Her subsequent marriage to older folk singer Chuck Mitchell disintegrated soon. Desperate and broke, and not having the nerve to face her parents, she had no choice but to put up her baby girl for adoption. The pain of this event would never leave her.

Adopting Joni Mitchell as her stage name, she moved to New York - the hub of the folk scene. David Crosby of The Byrds noticed her considerable talents and helped her get her first break. Her self-titled debut album and the next one Clouds (1969) showcased her songwriting abilities. Then cult British group Fairport Convention covered her song "Chelsea Morning" (a certain Hilary and Bill Clinton would later name their only child after this song). And popular singer Judy Collins covered her "Both Sides Now" which became a big hit and even won her a Grammy. An illustrious career had just begun.

Tiring of city life, Mitchell moved to a small town near Los Angeles, California. This is where the first of her series of pathbreaking albums evolved. Ladies of The Canyon (1970) enhanced her reputation. There were thoughtful songs on it like a lovely depiction of morning settling on a town, the performance of an excellent roadside clarinet player being ignored because he wasn't famous, the soon-to-be- legendary "Woodstock", the first-ever pro-environment hit song "Big Yellow Taxi" - and lots of personal ruminations. "The Circle Game"- a song of hopeful longing was soon closing eighth-grade graduation ceremonies around America. She seemed as adept with the piano as with the guitar, her writing was artful, the album excellent.

But the next one- Blue (1971) was even better. Even today, this album is considered one of popular music's greatest. She just created magic on it. For starters, it was very sparse - just her clear, soaring voice pitted against either guitar or piano - symmetrically arranged in the album. Most were relationship songs, yet without the sentimentality or self-pity usually associated with such music. These were clear-eyed, mature musings, with exquisite musicianship, immaculately arranged and superbly performed - with Stephen Stills and James Taylor pitching in with guitar on separate songs. Joni Mitchell sung magnificently on it, often employing a peculiar but charming soprano to transform potentially maudlin moments into something touching and poignant. Lyrically, she was economical yet evocative, intimately personal yet universally meaningful. The mood changed gloriously, yet subtly. There was bittersweet longing, plain happiness, a tender, sad song about the child she'd given up for adoption, playful mischievousness, nagging regret, a lovely dose of homesickness and a moody title track that stunningly captured the disillusionment of its times ("Acid, booze and ass/ Needles, guns and grass/Lots of laughs, lots of laughs/Well, everybody's saying that hell's the hippest way to go/Well, I don't think so/But I'm going to take a look around it though".) Though this was a uniformly brilliant album, you'd have to pick out two tracks. "River" started off with the Jingle Bells theme and developed to a sad reflection filled with longing, as many are wont to do during Christmas time. "A Case Of You" was about a cherished relationship gone wrong, with a guitar refrain that's just too beautiful for words. Without even paying too much attention to what's being sung about, the songs in Blue can move one greatly. There is just so much feeling in the tracks; the ocean of true feeling is probably universally accessible, whatever the origin of its streams may be.

For The Roses (1972) was a strong follow-up to a classic album like Blue. Though Mitchell was more lyrically introspective, the arrangements were more fleshed out. And not all the songs were intimately personal. "Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire" was a chilling description of an addict looking for a drug dealer at night. "Judgement of The Moon And Stars (Ludwig's Tune)" - the result of her interest in Beethoven, was the deaf composer's muse talking to him inside his head. There were evocative analogy songs like "Banquet", "Electricity" and the delightfully catchy" "You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio"(the last was a conscious attempt to create a hit song and it was). The personal songs still had great bite. Like the title track, which while touching on her estranged relationship with James Taylor, was also about the effect success in the music business had on him. She sang, "In some office sits a poet/And he trembles as he sings/ And he asks some guy/ To circulate his soul around/On your mark red ribbon runner…" - a marvelous summation of serious artist's situation in the commercial world. Maybe her own, too?

In 1974, Joni Mitchell stepped out of the "folk singer" shadow with Court And Spark - the most different sounding album she'd done till date. Though lacking the depth of Blue, it compensated amply with immaculate, imaginative musicianship in a variety of styles. She used the rock idiom for the first time without ever losing control over it. Robbie Robertson played electric guitar on the delightful "Raised On Robbery" and Jose Feliciano on "Free Man In Paris". It's a pity her musical tastes didn't extend to rock because here was evidence of the heights she could've scaled in it. There was also a distinct pictorial quality to some of the songs, reflecting her interest in painting. On "Car On A Hill", she made famed woodwindist Tom Scott play the horn like passing cars and on "Trouble Child" she asked pianist Joe Sample to sound more like a wave to accentuate the lines "It's really hard to talk sense to you/Trouble child/breaking like the waves at Malibu." These are really things classical musicians do. But the overall looseness in the album indicated that she was headed Jazzwards. She even closed the album with a jazz standard - the first cover she'd ever done. Court And Spark is still considered one of the great albums of all time. Many even rate it higher than Blue, which is really as good as it gets.

But there was trouble in store for Joni Mitchell. As she began her jazz experiments, she began to lose the standing she'd achieved with her last 4 albums. The press began mocking her efforts and when she responded by being even more uppity, they indulged in childish personal attacks. Like the chart Rolling Stone magazine drew of her former lovers - it hurt her a lot. This was clear sexual discrimination because no-one ever drew "lover charts" of male stars like Mick Jagger, for example. Nor did the press boycott Bob Dylan for being uppity with them - ostensibly because arrogant behaviour was considered the domain of male superstars. Mitchell's way of dealing with all this was to withdraw. It only strengthened her resolve to do her own thing. Her album The Hissing Of The Summer Lawns (1975) was rated "Worst album of the year" by Rolling Stone magazine. Ironically, they had to reassess it soon because others in the music world praised it. Hejira (1976) and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977) further alienated her following. Amidst jazz-lovers however, her stock soared. Jazz legend Charlie Mingus collaborated with her on Mingus (1979), which was interesting like all her other "jazz albums", but a terrible "career move". She was deemed by the mainstream music world to have "crossed -over".

Things didn't improve much professionally in the eighties. On the personal front, she got married to bassist Allen Klein and began collaborating with him. Dog Eat Dog (1985) was her most political album. Apparently, Mitchell felt she was betrayed for money by everybody around her - the Govt. of California, her bank, business manager, personal manager, housekeeper…. it made her more interested in worldly things than ever before. Likewise, despite being rock-oriented, this album was full of protest songs about greed, TV evangelism and the like. Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm (1988) with its New Age easy listening feel was probably her weakest album, despite guests like Tom Petty, Peter Gabriel and Willie Nelson.

The nineties would be her least prolific period, but the most substantial. Night Ride Home (1991) was a glorious return to form. She went back to her folk roots, to the acoustic intimacy that was once her hallmark, to the exquisite songwriting the world missed from her. There were personal songs like the sprawling beauty "Come In From The Cold” - clearly a reference to her comeback in the music business. There were sad stories like the one about child - abuse "Cherokee Louise " and enigmatic pieces like "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" - where she set a W.B. Yeats poem to music. The title track was simple and lovely - about an all-night drive with her husband. She played to her strengths in this album and it worked. There were murmurs of approval all around. They would soon become roars.

Pablo Picasso and Miles Davis – arguably the greatest expressionists of the 20th century, had often themed their work on colours (eg. Picasso's Blue Period and Davis' albums like Kind of Blue and Aura) exploring the emotions those colours brought out in their audience. Admirers of both, Mitchell had herself done this in Blue. With Turbulent Indigo (1994), she mined the same territory. The angry title track castigated people's inability to understand the pain true talents like Van Gogh go through to create. Songs with lyrical imagery coupled with lovely, but often tension-fraught melodies were luminous in Mitchell's brilliance. Though compulsive smoking had weakened her voice, she made up with dexterous guitaring. The songs were instrumentally sparse, recalling Blue. The sadness in the album came from the breakdown of her marriage yet again (she would say later that it was her tendency to constantly confront her relationships that caused the strife - interestingly, it is this very quality that fuelled her finest songs). Yet, there was a lightness-of-touch. On "Last Chance Lost", for example, she conveyed her pain explicitly, but it was a lilting track with her crooning like a jazz singer. An excellent example of how the same heartache leads to two totally different expressions at the ages of 28 and 51. Universally praised, Turbulent Indigo sent Joni Mitchell's reputation soaring again. It won her 2 Grammys and propelled her into receiving the Billboard Century award in 1996.

Two more significant things happened to her in the late nineties. One, she began performing again after 13 years. She'd stopped because her song catalogue had an amazingly diverse 51 guitar tunings. This was great for songwriting but terribly cumbersome for performance. A chance encounter with the Roland VG-8 synthesizer which could store the tunings, changed her mind. She even went on an extended tour last year, when Bob Dylan asked her to join him. Two, she reunited with the daughter she'd given up for adoption. Suddenly, she became a mother and a grandmother at one shot. Personally, it almost seemed like she'd turned full circle.

The recent release of her first-ever compilation is an excellent pointer to her attitude as an artist. The 2 albums are entitled Hits and Misses. The latter has her less accessible, more eclectic work. Hits, as she beautifully put it, has her "most gregarious children".

"Songs are like tattoos", Joni Mitchell had sung in "Blue". Hers certainly are. They have the lasting power that distinguishes the classic from the popular. After years of putting substance before style and soul before fluff, she is probably Canada's greatest gift
to the world. A world that has yet to fully catch on.

June 1999

Joni Mitchell's best albums
Blue (1971)
Court And Spark (1974)
Turbulent Indigo (1994)
Ladies Of The Canyon (1970)
Night Ride Home (1991)


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7:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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10:12 AM  
Anonymous Dave said...

I love Joni, she is one of my favourite female performers ever.
No slouch on the guitar either!

10:07 PM  
Blogger Cat said...

You have missed something important about Joni Mitchell and the album "Blue". The instrument used on "A Case of You" and several others is a dulcimer, not a guitar.
Otherwise, you are spot on!

7:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You started off reasonably well but then dropped the ball, bigtime. Joni's first two albums were both excellent, containing some of the best songs she ever did. "Sisotowbell Lane," for example, is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. Ladies of the Canyon, her third effort, was also excellent, including such superior tunes as "Morning Morgantown" and the title track. Blue, in my opinion, was good but no better than her first three records, and you didn't even mention the best songs on For the Roses, a great album, which included "Woman of Heart and Mind," "Lesson in Survival," "Electricity," and "Let the Wind Carry Me." But where you really went wrong, I strongly believe, was to laud Court and Spark. It represented Joni's big push to gain widespread recognition and she succeeded at that, no question. But in the bargain, she lost her most ardent early fans, who were extremely disappointed in the blatantly commercial aspects of the record and the way it catered to a bunch of shallow morons who had never understood her appeal before that. For whatever reason, she didn't seem to care. Had those early admirers been around to give her a hearty thumbs up or a disappointed thumbs down regarding her future efforts, the lack of direction apparent in them might not have been so evident. On certain records, not only is her singing much less inspired but you can barely hear her playing. Her egotistical collaborators simply drown her out. Joni is not among the very best jazz singers America has produced, while in contrast, nobody was better than she was at the sort of music she wrote and performed on her first five records. Sure, she's done some good stuff since '72, but has never been able to equal the undeniable quality of those very inspiring albums. It is my opinion that Court and Spark, which ushered in her mainstream success and which I therefore refer to as her sellout album, at the same time heralded her musical decline. In more recent years, if she's done something nearly as good as the work that preceded it, people like myself have not been listening closely enough and have never heard it.

7:05 PM  
Blogger thefunkygoat said...

Hi, anyone reading this page might well like to visit my blog 'sounds from the funky goat' (dot blogspot dot com). I'm part way through a review of Joni's first decade of music making, album by album. I write a regular column for Drummer magazine. But I feature a different 'classic' album/artist (and drummer, naturally) every month, and it has to feature drums prominently. Joni is the best female singer-songwriter history has thus far produced, in my view, and amongst the greatest regardless of gender, so I've decided to do an in depth review of each album over at my blog. As I type this I'm midway through writing up 'For The Roses'. Please do visit my blog, have a read, and let me know what you all think.

12:52 PM  

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