For the past few weeks, Canadians have witnessed a tidal wave of Joni Mitchell tributes. Toronto’s Luminato Festival marked her 70th birthday—prematurely, as it’s actually in November—with two concerts of artists performing her songs. Those concerts proved elegantly reverential, with careful attention to the full breadth of her oeuvre, yet radio, television and online have, predictably, focused on the chestnuts: “The Circle Game,” “Woodstock,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Both Sides Now” and the like. And, of course, anything from Blue—that startlingly confessional album of which one is now forbidden to speak in anything less than effusive tones.
A few months ago, Zadie Smith half-did the opposite, writing a piece on Blue for the New Yorker in which she copped to to resisting the album for years. What was her block? Blue’s trilling soprano, its hippie folkiness, its uncomfortable delving into personal foibles and relationship drama, its whininess. To sum up, its ostensible aesthetic: in Smith’s own words, “white-girl music.”
Still, like a popular literary reference she was troubled by not knowing, Smith strove to learn it, coming to love “those exquisite songs” and ultimately feeling “in the debt of beauty.” She had found not just any Joni, but everyone’s Joni. Evidently it felt good; Smith was finally in on things. “I can't even claim to be writing about that superior type of muso epiphany which would at least have the good taste to settle upon one of the ‘minor’ albums,” she admits. “No, I'm thinking of the album pretty much every fool owns, no matter how far from music his life has taken him.”
Smith’s path is not my own. I’m no longer into Blue, for I know too much about Joni Mitchell to want to dwell on it. It’s genius, but I can’t listen to it anymore, in the same way, perhaps, that Shakespeareans implicitly revere, but outwardly loathe, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet for their ubiquity. (While we’re at it, “Big Yellow Taxi” makes me ill—unless it’s sampled in a Janet Jackson song.)
Give me Joni’s problem plays. Give me her romances. Give me the “minor” albums.
Is this preference merely snobbish attachment to “muso-epiphany?” I don’t think so. To focus myopically on Blue and the jewel-like folk standards that preceded it is, in my opinion, unjust. It is to ignore a significant period of one of the greatest composers of the last century—and to divest her of power.
Joni Mitchell released Blue when she was 27. She grew up very quickly; by now it is common knowledge that she had a child out of wedlock and gave it up for adoption when she was 21. (This is the subject of Blue’s “Little Green.”) But her image in the public eye at the time of Blue’s release was still that of a girl. (And an Aryan-looking one at that: the perfect poster child for “white-girl music.”) In interviews with Mitchell about Blue, it is apparent that the record was a turning point. She has repeatedly said that she was growing uncomfortable with the public’s idealized image of her, and that the hardcore honesty of Blue was an attempt to reveal herself, warts-and-all. Interestingly, at a June 16th TimesTalk for Luminato in Toronto, Mitchell answered critic Jon Pareles’s repeated questions about her having “found a voice you liked on Blue” with “not necessarily.” She then obliquely confessed to having “put a stop” to a film about her, presumably the adaptation of Sheila Weller’s Carole King, Carly Simon and Mitchell tripartite biography Girls Like Us (note the title), for which Taylor Swift—millennial girl-pop-star supreme—was rumoured to be taking on the Mitchell role. “There’s more to my story,” said Mitchell, in what might be perceived as a dig at Swift, “than a blonde girl with cheekbones.”
Indeed there is. In distinct and necessary complement to Blue, Mitchell can also claim a string of masterpieces beginning with For the Roses (1972) and arguably ending with Wild Things Run Fast (1982). Here is real aesthetic maturation—a woman who has cast off morbid, diaristic self-reflexivity in favour of a hard, tough look at herself and the world she inhabits, and who has bravely articulated these concerns in an idiosyncratic, elaborate and purposeful musical language.
Like Erykah Badu from the 2000s to now, Mitchell in the 1970s is inwardly and outwardly challenging. She is sexually, emotionally and intellectually aware. To speak of her as a woman is apt; to speak of her as a woman artist is, as it is for anyone, never fruitful. To accentuate her genius properly, however, it is useful to compare her to her peers, and, respecting the men among them, a double standard readily emerges. Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie: all released a succession of brilliant, “difficult” records in the 1970s that the critical establishment and, eventually, the public at large, have come to view as essential—worth the kind of effort Smith put into Blue. By contrast, Mitchell’s 1970s excursions are glibly described as “jazz,” a term that might, specifically, only be used for her 1979 collaboration with Charles Mingus and, nonspecifically, might describe anything she’s ever done.
Criticisms of the 1970s work are disturbingly hypocritical in 2013. When Mitchell began working with the pop-jazz ensemble the L.A. Express for 1974’s hit album Court and Spark, her sound became too smooth for some. “Elevator music” has been a common epithet for this and its successor, The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Music writers, especially in Britain, and some musicians like Prince, Elvis Costello and Questlove, have come to champion Hissing but, especially in light of the media’s handling of such tributes as Luminato’s, it seems frustratingly marginalized. In 2013, decades after its release, it is disappointing that, while an album like Steely Dan’s Aja can be lauded and rescued from its jazz-rock ghetto—and, for that matter, be the template-sound for one of this year’s most talked about albums, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories—The Hissing of Summer Lawns, released two years before Aja, is relegated to audiophilic dustbins.
The cool magic of Court and Spark and The Hissing of Summer Lawns transcends cheese. (Not anywhere in Mitchell’s 1970s catalogue can one find anything as weirdly kitschy as Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies Man.) Hissing came out a year before Bowie’s Young Americans, and the two are companion pieces. But while his is a skinny-British-white-guy take on black-music idioms, full of exotic gaze, hers is a bold embrace of world music, a combination of deep, abstract, low-end rhythms and high-end sparkle with an uncannily supernal lyrical viewpoint. As a Grammy-nominated album about the pleasures, deceptions and terrors of the Western bourgeoisie, The Hissing of Summer Lawns is rather peerless. It is truly one of the great albums of the 1970s.
Another criticism leveled against Mitchell in this period is pretension. She betrayed the folk ethos; she embraced L.A. jazz and haughty intellectualism at the cost of her loyal fan base and earthy, Blue-era accessibility. Can we really deny her this, when we permit something similar for Dylan, and when so many other male musicians of the era were, to our still-excited eyes, conducting pompous exercises in abstruse shape-shifting? Cohen rode a white horse onstage at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 1970; Dylan wore a mask and whiteface during the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975; and Bowie, well… Bowie did everything. Where are similar tales of Mitchell’s histrionics, her mythic exploits?
They exist. Forget her illegitimate child. There is, for instance, Mitchell’s daring handling of her men and their personae in the 1970s. “Coyote” from Hejira is a frank, cutting portrayal of lover Sam Shepard. When Mitchell was dating the black jazz percussionist Don Alias, they went on a pilgrimage at her insistence (a “kind of honeymoon”) to visit Georgia O’Keefe, an idol. Mitchell painted many of the men she slept with. Her portrait of Alias, which she hung centre stage in their home, featured his ample hard-on. Like Bowie’s Thin White Duke, Mitchell had her own alter ego—Art Nouveau, a black man, possible antidote to the Duke’s “emotionless Aryan superman,” and certain antidote to her own pre-Blue blonde hippie sylph. She played Art, convincingly, at parties, in blackface. (Mitchell as Nouveau appears on the cover of 1977’s double album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.)
And Mitchell, like Cohen and Dylan, did both drugs and religion with Camusian intrepidity. When she was with Rolling Thunder, she requested to be paid in cocaine. On the tour, a Buddhist monk visited and asked if she believed in God. Her hilarious answer: “Yes, here is my god and here is my prayer”—as she Hoovered a hit in front of him. (Mitchell credits this monk, Chögyam Trungpa, with later convincing her to stop using cocaine, sketching him in a verse on her Hejira song, “Refuge of the Roads.”)
But this, to use Mitchell-ese, is mere People-magazine speculation. What testifies is the music. With the exception of the misunderstood Mingus, the reviews, even during the period, were to a large extent positive. In BAM magazine, Blair Jackson’s review of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter said it was clear Mitchell’s “singer-songwriter” reputation had become “shamefully inadequate”: “we must add ‘composer’ and ‘musician.’” (Incidentally, “composer” cannot accurately be used to describe either Cohen or Dylan.) It is a big job to elucidate the nuances of Mitchell’s arrangements, influenced by everyone from Claude Debussy to Miles Davis. A 2008 book, The Music of Joni Mitchell by Lloyd Whitesell, was solely devoted to this topic.
And while that book was academic, and some of the positive reviews of the 1970s work music-snobbish, there are accessible moments throughout, in both form and content. As Pareles mentioned during his interview with Mitchell, her early songs are significant for their symmetry; with Blue, they begin a fascinating angularity. This is less a contrivance and more a search, with strongly literary-modernist overtones, for a way to portray the rhythms of speech and consciousness in popular song. Consider The Hissing of Summer Lawns’s “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow,” with its strumming, rhythmic chug, and its lyrics, combining a relationship’s blunt, dialogic assertions (“I’m leaving on the 1:15 / You’re darn right”) with a Jungian exploration of the war of the sexes (“Anima rising / Queen of Queens”). Morrissey, champion of this record and of Mitchell’s 1970s output as a whole, told her in a 1997 interview that, when he first purchased Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, the power of its poetry, evinced in the gatefold’s fulsome liner notes, was so overwhelming he “had to close the record and leave it for another day. It was a monster.” As a companion to Blue’s daunting personal honesty, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and its predecessor, Hejira, challenge differently. Aware of the metaphoric dimensions of any quest for independence, they become authentic depictions of the proverbial examined life: its disasters, its glories.
Is Mitchell herself to blame for the failure of her 1970s work to resonate with a broader audience? She can come off as curmudgeonly and egocentric in interviews. She extols post-1970s aspects of her catalogue that are truly awful, such as the embarrassingly didactic “Sex Kills,” from 1994’s Turbulent Indigo. She identifies as a painter. She has become a recluse and, as a chain smoker, childhood Polio survivor and current sufferer from a mysterious disease called Morgellons, cannot (in her estimation) tour, or even sing (although she broke this vow, magically, at Luminato, doing renditions of the 1970s songs “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow” and “Furry Sings the Blues”). But it is not Mitchell’s obligation to, Cohen-like, croak her way through her standards as a lucrative reminder of her relevance. Indeed, one of Mitchell’s dominant characteristics is rejection of obligation. And this is how her catalogue, and that of any master artist, must be explored—not as a selective hierarchy, but as a rich spectrum.