Monday, October 08, 2012
Joni Mitchell memories
I had occasion to listen to a private collection of some live tracks of Joni Mitchell recently and her voice was just soaring, rippling, traversing octaves, hitting that little yodel-y break. From deep in a spiral of memories I fell into the same thrall as when her music was a frequent visitor in the air around me, as sweet as it gets, like seeing a sun rise just for you, pouring through backlit clouds in billowing hues.
I remember when I met her in New York (in Chelsea) and her first album, with that breathy folksy sound. And later exploring her lower register in the second album. After a couple of tours, and she'd moved to L.A. by then, to Laurel Canyon, she held her sides and told me she felt the muscles around her ribs bulking and remarked that she now understood why opera singers are so barrel chested.
When I reviewed her first album, Song to a Seagull, for The New York Times (published December 29, 1968) I wrote "Joni Mitchell's songs are the product of her fascination with changes of heart, changes of mind, changes of season and changes of self. [...] The songs about herself are songs for today's independent young woman [...] I Had A King is a sad, backward glance at the artist's broken marriage, without bitterness or self reproach. Cactus Tree speaks of todays young divorcee on the rebound 'so busy being free' ..."
What actually intrigued me, which I didn't put in writing, because I didn't know how to admit it, was how she handled a litany of relationships in her songs, with such class and unapologetic confessional. Not to mention gorgeous melodies, exquisite lyrics. Nobody ever painted womanhood in such lithe watercolor strokes.
Her loves were also the fodder for reprehensibly gauche notice: Warner Brothers came out with a print ad for the first album with the headline of "Joni Mitchell is no Virgin." Mitchell's manager hit the roof and they pulled it immediately. I'm not sure where I actually saw it, perhaps in the trades? Rolling Stone, with a chart identifying her lovers, from rumor and from inference, named her "Old Lady of the Year." Crude, rude and lewd. A woman articulating the nuances of relationships in explicit detail? And no remorse? I guess no groundbreaking work goes unpunished, even works executed with such poetic skill, dignity and insight.
I know for a fact that upset her very much. But it didn't faze her, not one bit. Because in addition to her stunning understated beauty, her extraordinary talents and taste, she's got courage and lots of it. Personally and musically. She composes in modes few musicians can name, plies vocal lines with unexpected shifts and intervals and has forged a career that is unique.
People analyze her songs all the time to figure out who they are about. I happen to know exactly who "stood out like a ruby in a black man's ear" in That Song About the Midway, one of my favorites. And he certainly does. Even now.
She once told me the smartest thing anyone ever said about songwriting. People ask her all the time if a certain song is about such and so a person. She said if you never tell who the song is about everybody thinks it's them.
And I do. Joni Mitchell writes my life, the part of my life that connects with nature and romantic misadventure and womanhood and language and wondering under the night sky. And yours. What a gift.
Mainer, New Yawka, Beijinger, Californian, points between. News, views and ballyhoos that piqued my interest and caused me to sigh, cry, chuckle, groan or throw something.
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