Joni Mitchell’s Deepest Cuts
Everything Comes and Goes, but Joni Mitchell is Forever
I am not used to being in consensus with the world, especially when it comes to music. But something remarkable happened recently. Joni Mitchell—finally—received a Kennedy Center honor in December. Coda, this year’s Best Picture winner at the Oscars, features “Both Sides, Now,” and then this week, there she was, the MusiCares Person of the Year—where she sang in public for the first time since 2013—and then she appeared at the Grammys twice, once introducing Brandi Carlile, and once as a winner for a boxed set of her juvenilia. People, if you don’t know this yet, I have been waiting for this moment ever since I fell in love with Joni Mitchell, the artist, at 15, and even more when I was given the considerable task of writing something worthy of Joni Mitchell, the person, and telling the story of how one connects to the other. “I’m much jiver than my work, and I’d rather people think my work is me,” she once said. Artist and art, they are discrete entities, but when the art is so personal—for her, for us—the mortal person is all over the immortal art. “I’m selfish and I’m sad,” she told us, and she wasn’t kidding, nor was she when she sang, “The best of my mind /All goes down on the strings and the page.” Did you see Joe Biden praising Blue at the White House in the presence of the woman who wrote and sang those lines? We now have a First Lady who follows the Joni Mitchell tablature page on Twitter. Sometimes I don’t recognize my own country, but not at that moment.
Between the ages of 34 and 44, Joni Mitchell commandeered my thoughts and feelings. I was so consumed with the task of getting her right, that a weird review of my book about her in the New York Times Book Review by a novelist whose work I like, thought I wrote an entire book trying to win her back after disappointing her. (I must thank George Saunders for telling me that getting my book reviewed there is like having your car looked at by a wacky mechanic.) You try writing a book about one of our greatest and most complicated artists and see how invested you become. I cannot pretend to be calculated or cynical. “I don’t like being too looked up at or too looked down on,” she told me. “I prefer meeting in the middle to being worshiped or spat out.” I wanted to meet her right there and stay there until the book was done. How naïve. The book came out nearly five years ago, and I will never really be done.
While the tributes are pouring in, here is one from Leonard Cohen, one that I read aloud to Joni in her kitchen:
Master Poet. Master Painter. Most Subtle Technician of the Deep.
You are indeed Queen Undisputed of Mind Beauty.
Star-breasted, Disguised as a Ravishing Piece,
You Changed the Way Women Sing, and the Way Men Listen.
What an Astonishing Victory over the Unforgiving Years!
His poem was recent, but it referred back to a period when they were lovers way back in 67-68, when nobody owned anybody, and they were not sharing a very, very, very fine house. She responded to the poem with a story:
We went out to dinner once, and he was so quiet, and I tried to keep the conversation going, and he was distant and cold, and I said, “Leonard, do you like me?” because he was so frosty. And he said, “Well what does one have to say to an old lover?” I said, “Oh, my God.” And I said, surely there’s some topic,” and he said, “Well, you like ideas.” And I said, “Well, you can’t open your mouth without an idea falling out.” What does that mean? I like ideas?
What does one not have to say to an old lover? It can be uncomfortable, but that’s why we’re here.
And while we are here, I thought that I would take you to some Joni places you might not be hearing on official channels. Celebrate Joni, and celebrate her with the songs you know, “Both Sides Now,” “River,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” “The Circle Game,” the whole Blue album. These songs will nourish you, but there is so much more. When I began this book, I thought of myself as a critic. When I was done, I was a writer. Ranking the music was the least of it. Capturing the human story, in person, on the strings, the keys, the canvas, in search of love and music. These were songs that palpably could have only come from Joni, with all we know and way more than we will ever know. Anecdote is not analogue to musical experience.
And if you have Spotify, this is a moment to point out that you’ll need a different platform.
Get the 2021 remaster of Song to a Seagull, Joni’s 1968 debut. It is a remarkable fact that Joni had so many great songs, she held back hits. “Both Sides, Now,” “Chelsea Morning” and “The Circle Game” had already been written, and none of them are here. No crowd pleasing. This was pure art, right out of the chute. I could have recommended “Marcie,” with its sublime synaesthesia—if you want to know how Joni’s color acute mind works, this your guide—but this song really killed me at various moments of thinking and feeling Joni, especially in bed, where I could really hear her breathing, a voice in her natural alto. David Crosby thought this song was about him, but what matters is her.
City satins left at home, I will not need them
I believe him when he tells of loving me
Something truthful in the sea your lies will find you
"Leave behind your streets", he said, "And come to me"
This album is filled with men who make promises. Dreamers, drifters, grifters. One of them is a man named Leonard who swept her off her feet with poetry—poetry, she doesn’t even like poetry, even though her great lyrics are poetry—and one is a man named David (Crosby, I was born in 1973), who is the producer of this record, her boyfriend for a moment, until things got tense when he was producing this record.
A dream that you love someone
A dream that the wars are done
A dream that you tell no one but the grey sea
They'll say that you're crazy
And a dream of a baby
Like a promise to be free
Children laughing out to sea
All his sea dreams come to me
All his sea dreams come to me
This is a song to haunt your dreams, to haunt you while you’re awake, and, especially, to find you when you’re in the middle of waking and sleeping. There’s anticipation for something—a dream realized, a dream lost in the mist. I saw Esperanza Splading perform this one like she was in a trance. People who love Joni Mitchell often have problems (I know I do), and this song does not pretend to solve them, but it is a place to dwell and find succor.
Let’s go to 1975, to Prince’s favorite Joni Mitchell album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Some people—let’s call them “music critics”—didn’t know how to take Joni’s transition from first person to third, to her new perch as social critic. But buried in the album is first person revelation. The poet of “Dawntreader” has lived some more. There is less to anticipate and more to dread, even though this album was made by an ingenue at the quarter life crisis of 30.
Out on some borderline
Some mark of in between
I lay down golden, in time
And woke up vanishing
Beauty is Joni Mitchell’s business. Beauty in paint, in words, in chords, in melodies, in the flesh. She looked in the mirror and could see all the way to here and beyond. If you hold sand too tight, she once wrote in a breakup telegram, it will run through your fingers. It’s running through her fingers here:
Behind our eyes
Calendars of our lives
Circled with compromise
Sweet bird of time and change
You must be laughing
Aging is something we all do, but Joni pays attention to everything. She is looking at you and, when she could smoke, she could exhale and look right through you. Sometimes it felt like a curse. Her jive detector was always working overtime. We inevitably disappoint ourselves, no matter now great the art. Life can be underwhelming that way.
I bought Night Ride Home the minute it came out in 1991, when I was 18 and had a girlfriend who had introduced me to her. We listened together, tried to reconcile the younger voice with Joni in a similar time in life that I’m in now, that sturm und drang of the late 40s. I already had fallen for the Dylan of Oh, Mercy, and, even at that young age, considered myself a connoisseur of late style. My girlfriend, a singer studying voice in a competitive music program, didn’t know how to take something that sounded ravaged—smoking was a no-no for voice students—but I was hearing the kind of storytelling that can only come from a human voice who has lived it for a while. “Two Grey Rooms” is a song about someone stalking a lover from a decades ago romance. This was based on an actual story of a German aristocrat in the Fassbinder circle who described an experience that unfolded in song. This makes “Every Breath You Take” sound like child’s play:
No one knows I'm here
One day I just disappeared
And I took these two grey rooms up here
With a view
When you walk by
Below my window
Love, the real kind, can fuck you up. Who better to receive this than an 18-year-old, when there was so much more torment ahead? How apropos to hear it now at 49, aware that I’m only going in one direction. My heart, said Joni, is a smoking gun. 30 years ago, I heard this prophecy, and now I have spent time with this person, but the place where this really comes from is only for her. We can appreciate it, but only she can have it.
Watching Joni take the stage recently made me think of the last time she performed, at Toronto’s Massey Hall in 2013. I was there, as was Herbie Hancock and the wonderful drummer Brian Blade. The song was “Furry Sings the Blues.” The song, from Hejira (1976) chronicles her run-in with Furry Lewis. Joni was 32, in her full powers, but Furry, like this run down district of Memphis, was haggard, run down, his best days way behind him. What hubris, this young woman, as if she would never age. She once told me, “I usually think about what’s happening,” and this goes along with “Sweet Bird.” She’s fully aware, but she’s also fully focused.
Ghosts of the darktown society
Come right out of the bricks at me
Like it's a Saturday night, they're in their finery
Dancing it up and making deals
Furry sings the blues
Why should I expect that old guy to give it to me true
Fallen to hard luck
And time and other thieves
While our limo is shining on his shanty street
Old Furry sings the blues
Joni struggled to sing that night—she had about half an octave, when at one time she had more than three. And yet when she had it all, I still like to hear “Dawntreader” in her natural alto, like she’s speaking right to me. Now, to celebrate her 70th birthday, when she took on the voice of Furry, it was her voice, too. She had become her creation. She knew it. She was playing up all the drama. Blade was cracking up at her improv. “I can play standard tunin’, she said. “I don’t just play tunins’.” I got the idea about that exchange. She wanted to talk to him about her open tunings, and that’s where it went. Joni will be forever alive to me as long as I am alive to myself. She will be the ingenue with the guitar and everyone after. She’s talking about recording an album of jazz standards. The songs will be old, but she will be just getting started.
And I will still be trying to win her back.
My heart is a smoking gun. Sweet bird of time and change you must be laughing. There’s comfort in melancholy when there’s no need to explain. All romantics meet the same fate.