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Joni Mitchell Perseveres

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When I was growing up in the seventies, my sisters and I played Joni Mitchell albums all the time. By the time I was twelve, I had her masterpiece Blue memorized and was attempting to learn “Carey” on the guitar. In 1983, I traded in my Joni albums for cash, and didn’t listen to her music again until my sister lent me the DVD of Joni Mitchell – Woman of Heart and Mind: A Life Story. I suddenly realized why I loved Joni’s music so much.

This documentary, narrated by Joni herself in several places, is thorough and interesting. It provides revelations for old fans, and displays her brilliance to potential new ones. Through poverty, a child she had to place in a foster home, a bad marriage, fame, and a near nervous breakdown, Joni managed to persevere and write incredible songs. And unlike performers such as Liz Phair and Madonna, Joni never commercialized herself. “The reason I’m so unruly in this business,” She said, “is because I never wanted to be a human jukebox.”

The testimony of friends and colleagues illustrates Joni’s inimitable genius. A self-taught musician, Joni tuned her guitar to match her feelings and wrote songs that combined the influence of Dylan’s narrative with music from the big band era. The poetic intellect and the melodic structure of her songs were on a level that transcended traditional formulas.

After becoming the toast of Laurel Canyon in the sixties, and playing Carnegie hall, Joni released the album Blue in 1971. She was so emotionally drained after she completed the record that she took a long hiatus in Canada before returning to work. This was the turning point in her work, and where she became disillusioned with being the golden child of folk music. After that she experimented with rock (Court and Spark – 1974) and then started working with jazz musicians on the album Hejira.

Her collaboration with jazz legend Charles Mingus created Mingus in 1979. The record-buying public basically ignored it. Joni also got minimal attention for the Grammy she won in 1994 for Turbulent Indigo. Nevertheless, Joni has continued to put out records and to paint—her original ambition as a child.

Also mentioned in this documentary is her relationship with Graham Nash in the sixties, who appears to still maintain a place in his heart for Joni. The significance of this comes into play when Joni explains that she broke up with Nash because her grandmother was an angry, frustrated artist and Joni didn’t want to end up the same way by not pursuing her muse. As the documentary points out, much of Joni’s work is the conflict between “settling down with a man, and a desire for independence.”

This is a fascinating odyssey through the life of one of the most prolific songwriters around, and it treats Joni’s misfortunes with respect, and commands us to value the contribution this amazing artist has given to several genres of music.

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About Jane

  • Note also that in his induction speech at the Hall of Fame, Elvis Costello named Ms. Mitchell as the single artist from whom he had learned the most.

  • Eric Olsen

    Thereby explaining many of his odd twists and turns. He can obviously do what he wants, but Elvis is best as a rocker, should be rocking, and this really calls into question his self-awareness and ability to gauge his own strengths and weaknesses.

  • Thanks for this, Jane. I want to be Joni Mitchell when I grow up. Off to guitar practice…

  • cjones

    I LOOOOVVVVEEE Joni Mitchell. I can listen to the song Hejira over and over again.

  • jane ripley

    Wow, what a response. :-)Thanks for the comments everyone.

    This DVD definitely revitalized my interest in Joni.

    I also heard that she influenced Prince quite a bit. Elvis Costello could do worse if he was influenced by Karen Carpenter. ;p

  • Oh, Eric. Learning from Joni Mitchell doesn’t just mean writing flowery ballads. Hell, that’s not even the biggest part of her own career. [Then there’s the nonsense that Elvis should be following some simplistic idea of “rocking.” But that’s another debate.]

    A lot of the artistic influence of Joni Mitchell comes as lessons in musical color. Led Zeppelin, for example, claimed her as an influence. The intricate colorations they picked up from her were a lot of what separated Zeppelin from a zillion other electric blues bands.

  • Eric Olsen

    I have no problem with recognizing her talent, but I find her mostly unlistenable: the early flutey vocals, the pretention, the lack of rhythmic consistency until the mid period, the vicious smoking addiction that utterly changed her voice (in some ways for the better, I find her latest work among her most listenable, she has been humbled by her disappearing voice).

    I have no problem understanding why people like and admire her, she’s just of those who I don’t like as much as most people do – never have.

  • Yes, Prince also cites Joni Mitchell as a big influence. He was pushing that point at the time of Around the World in a Day. Her influence is real obvious in “Condition of the Heart” for example. I seem to remember him once bragging on “The Jungle Line.”

    Also, note that he directly dropped a line of “Help Me” into the middle of “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” to great effect.

  • ClubhouseCancer

    Joni is a self-centered, often frustrating, often pretentious artist. It is true, as Eric says, that she had pitch problems (“flutey” is a great word for the voice) until at least the mid-70’s.

    She is also always searching, always prodding, always pushing. For almost forty years now. And she has written some songs that people will remember forever. She is a genius.
    And, most importantly, she has integrity to spare.

    I think her late things, especially Taming the Tiger from 2001, are great, but her standards album from last year (Both Sides Now) left me a little flat. Those mushy arrangements are just plain boring, even if her singing is interesting (and better, yes, than when she was young).

    As for EC, I love it when he pulls down the old electric too, but jeez, you don’t like “Almost Blue” or “Baby Plays Around” or “All This Useless Beauty” or Painted from Memory?
    EC’s non-rock work is fascinating to me, and some of his best stuff. But I’m predisposed.

  • Eric Olsen

    CC, very fine, balanced thoughts. Thanks.

  • Mike Steel

    The documentary was good, but frustrating. Half of it was spent on the early years of her career, and then they had to cram all of the next fascinating thirty years into the second half, and much was skimmed over or ignored. Also, incredibly no mention of THe Hissing Of Summer Lawns. How can that even be?

  • Mike Steel

    The documentary was good, but frustrating. Half of it was spent on the early years of her career, and then they had to cram all of the next fascinating thirty years into the second half, and much was skimmed over or ignored. Also, incredibly no mention of The Hissing Of Summer Lawns. How can that even be?

  • Jane Ripley

    I’ll admit i know more about the early years, however, one of my friends also pointed out no mention of that album. Sounds like it’s essential listening for die-hard fans.

  • Ron Kelsing

    RE: The Hissing of Summer Lawns: Essential listening not only for diehards, but essential listening, period. A true breakthrough album – great to listen to and years ahead of its time. How very Joni.

  • Michael Porter

    Pardon me for theorising, but as a some-time filmmaker my guess is that “Hissing of Summer Lawns” wasn’t dwelt on much because they had no clips of John Guerin for the show, like they did of the beaus central to other albums.
    Documentary scripts are shaped by what footage is available, even on PBS. (This is more obvious on shows like A&E’s Biography.)

  • Eric Olsen

    Theorize away Michael, good point and thanks.