Joni Mitchell broke my heart.
In December of 1977, she released the double LP Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. So began the measured, perilous journey toward alienating many of us comprising her loyal fan base.
Where Muslims hold up Washington?
Anima rising/Queen of queens/Wash my guilt of Eden/Wash and balance me/Anima rising/Uprising in me tonight/She’s a vengeful little goddess/With an ancient crown to fight
In June 1979 Joni followed it up with the LP Mingus. By then, she had all but abandoned romanticists like me. In an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine’s Cameron Crowe, Joni lamented:
“You have two options. You can stay the same and protect the formula that gave you your initial success. They’re going to crucify you for staying the same. If you change, they’re going to crucify you for changing. But staying the same is boring. And change is interesting. So of the two options, I’d rather be crucified for changing.”
I would have asked her to contemplate a third option: Don’t look at it as black and white. Continue to grow as an artist and performer, take risks because that is very cool, but don’t completely transform your signature style or lyrical core to leave so many of us in the dust. I would have more easily gone along for the ride if, on these albums, she had sprinkled in some hummable tunes and accessible lyrics. Instead, we were inundated with relatively atonal and dissonant jazz explorations.
Truth goes up in vapors/The steeples lean/Winds of change patriarchs/Snug in your Bible belt dreams/God goes up the chimney/Like childhood Santa Claus/The good slaves love the good book/A rebel loves a cause
Meanwhile, others appreciated Joni’s courage in Mingus, for example, The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, who called it a “brave experiment” that had failed.
Joni Mitchell had me pondering.
Like millions of Joni’s fans, as a teenager I obsessively listened to Blue, Court and Spark, For the Roses, Ladies of the Canyon and even Miles of Aisles until the vinyl was scratched, smudged, and fingerprinted with endless joy. I began to realize there would likely be no more “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Help Me” or “Rainy Night House,” where you had verses and choruses, where you could sing along, where your heart was impaled with emotion, where you could embrace the pop song. As the `70s waned, Joni was shunning the star maker machinery, and though she truly did (does) appreciate her fan base, she had steeled herself for the hammer and nails.
Don’t interrupt the sorrow/Darn right/He says, “We walked on the moon/You be polite.”Don’t let up the sorrow/Death and birth and death and birth
Joni Mitchell forced me to see it from both sides now.
Now don’t get me wrong . . . I love Jazz. Jaco. Pat Metheny. Larry Carlton. John Guerin. Tom Scott. Herbie Hancock. Wayne Shorter. Of course, Joni embraced the genre for many sound reasons. I was at the Hollywood Bowl for her Miles of Aisles tour. From that LP, listen to “Jericho.” Tom Scott’s work here, along with Robben Ford and Joni’s gorgeous guitar work, and Larry Nash’s tasteful keyboard playing all collaborate to support the song’s pop nature and emotional connection with the listener. On The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), you still hear a similar example with “Edith and the Kingpin.” Joni does what she does best: she tells a story, you can sing with her, the emotional essence rings so true, and then she knocks you over with a musical motif, in this case played deftly by Larry Carlton on electric guitar. On “Refuge of the Roads,” the closing (and my favorite) track from Hejira (1976) we get a heavy dose of Jaco’s amazing bass guitar work, but we still get a killer melody and an awesome message that strikes a chord. These songs easily demonstrate that middle ground; that third option I alluded to earlier: that Joni could have been nailed to the cross while carrying along her pop-oriented fans.
He says, “Bring that bottle kindly/And I’ll pad your purse- I’ve got a head full of quandary/And a mighty, mighty, thirst.”
Thankfully, approximately eight years after Court and Spark, Joni released Wild Things Run Fast (1982). In my opinion, this somewhat underrated album was her first to “harken back” to her early 70’s Pop sensibilities without losing her love affair with Jazz, even during the early age of MTV, big hair, and omnipresent, cantankerous drum machines. As if to underscore this, she invited her early-70s boyfriend James Taylor in to add backing vocals for a track, my favorite one on the album. “Man to Man” is poetry, is hummable, featured a beautiful Oberheim synth part by Russ Ferrante, and still remained very accessible to the Pop ear.
In her wonderful book, Girls Like Us (Atria Books, 2008), Sheila Weller delves deep into the lives of Joni, Carole King and Carly Simon. As for her thoughts on this phase of Joni’s career:
“Joni was two years away from forty. After a string of conflict-filled romances, a hospitalization for a serious infection, and a loss of her fans, maybe it was time to choose the easy and nurturing way for a change . . . The idea of living the hard and soulful life . . . maybe you could live it for just so long.”
And though by 1983 I had little choice but to ride along the `80s wave of synth pop and the newer wave, edgier versions of singer-songwriters like The Police, Peter Gabriel, Squeeze, Joe Jackson, The Pretenders, The Smiths, Rickie Lee Jones, Ultravox, Roxy Music and others, I still kept my rear view mirror on Joni, James, Carole, Jackson and Carly as they reinvented themselves for their aging fan bases.
Lest we forget, to this day multi-instrumentalist Tom Scott recently commented how completely in awe he was while working with Joni. She never learned to read or write music (in terms of notes, sight-reading, naming the complex chords). Yet, she wrote masterfully; wrote, he paraphrases, at a level most songwriters never attain.
“I’m a painter first, and a musician second . . .”
-September 8, 1998
“I have always thought of myself as a painter derailed by circumstances.”
Joni Mitchell, the painter, I apologize. Who was I to dare judge, to try to keep you in some sort of referential box?
Face it, I was blatantly selfish and overly sentimental. I wanted Joni to stay Joni. Was that fair? Not at all. I remember having a conversation with a friend on her balcony in Topanga Canyon circa 1979. She was staunchly advocating for Joni to continue this transformation. She was praising Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus. I was grousing and whining. I am quite certain she found my romantic notions to return to Blue tedious; a misguided and maudlin preoccupation for someone as avant garde as Ms. Joni Mitchell. This friend of mine knows I am speaking about her. After all these years, I owe you this: you told me so!
Now, Joni Mitchell fights the battle of her life. Worse than her polio from younger days. We will not hear her sing again. She lives forever on vinyl, eight-track tapes, cassettes, CDs, your computer desktop, and iPod playlists.
Something’s lost but something’s gained/In living in every day
So, hey, don’t interrupt the sorrow.
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