Thinking about Joni Mitchell...

A number of articles and books grabbed my attention this past week as we tried to settle back into an après rainure Montréal (an after Montreal groove.) The first, Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, is a fascinating collection of interviews spanning nearly 45 years - from the early days as folk singer ingenue to later day jazz prophet and creative composer - and I devoured it. Not just because I came of age with Ms. Mitchell's music (which I did), but also because Joni Mitchell is an artist whose arc of creativity is staggering. She is a visual artist and poet as well as a composer and performer of "contemporary American music." 
Someone once said that the music we listen to as adults is rooted in the sounds we celebrated in our adolescence. And while that aphorism tends to be true for many of us most of the time, it is not iron clad - and Joni Mitchell gives shape and form as a living exception to the rule. I still love to play "garage band/head banger" songs like "Psychotic Reaction" or "Pushin' Too Hard" - and will often slip into a default Beatles/Stones state of mind - but I also continue to find artistic satisfaction and spiritual succor in music that didn't exist when I was in high school. Further, over the past 10 years, I have found myself drawn into jazz both aesthetically and intellectually. Reading about Ms. Mitchell's evolution as an artist has given me some clues about my own eclectic inspirations as well as insights into the way she has chased her muse over nearly 50 years.

The interviewer, Malka Marom, gives Ms. Mitchell lots of time and space to explore her creativity. And she never pushes herself into the center of the conversation. Like all good journalists, Ms. Marom knows that the interview is NOT about her - it is about Joni Mitchell - something that is often obscured by the likes of Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air" who can't seem to get out of the way of her guests.  Further, Ms. Marom asks opened ended questions that let us see the wild and wonderful, quirky and sometimes disturbing humanity of Joni Mitchell up close and personal. Take the question about the influence of Nietzsche on the artist's work:
There's a lot of Nietzsche in my songs. I think that what I have in common with him is you can keep your religions as long as you know that it's allegory. Let's not believe in Santa Claus into adulthood. But the main thing I took from Nietzsche is support... he's describing how Germany decayed. And I take that thought, and I show how is America is decaying.

"I picked up the morning paper off the floor
It was full of other people's little wars
Wouldn't they like their peace?
Don't we get bored
And we call for the three great stimulants
Of the exhausted ones
Artifice, brutality and innocence?"

... Since innocence is lost, it's innocence defiled. It become a new obsession. People want to fuck children because they're innocent and they want to make them dirty. They want that innocence but they want to fuck it because they're not innocent. So, in decadence, there's an increase of pedophilia... Machiavelli knew that "people don't know what to do with peace... so it always degenerates into fornication and fashion!" Isn't that a great quote? So what is the point of peace if people are just gonna change their clothes and fuck a lot?

...The decadent ones, the ones that are going down, call for artifice, brutality and innocence.

"And deep in the night
Our appetites find us
Amuse us and blind us...
While madmen sit up building bombs
And building locks and bars
They're gonna slam free choice behind us."

What this book-length, multi-generational interview does is give us a portrait of the artist as a young woman who ripens and evolves over time. Even before reading it I was drawn back to Ms. Mitchell's music and over the next few months want to go deeper. Perhaps it was our reworking of "Woodstock" last month that was the catalyst? 

In our take on this gentle anthem it became a song of lament rather than the naive celebration of peace, love and music that CSNY championed in the days following the concert. Ours was even more anguished than Joni Mitchell's own folk blues recording on "Ladies of the Canyon." For like Ms. Mitchell says 45 years later, we are a culture in descent and decay. And in times such as these, the decadent ones call for artifice, brutality and innocence.  
I am thinking of working on a Lenten liturgy - maybe Good Friday - driven and shaped by the music of Joni Mitchell (and perhaps also Leonard Cohen.) It you are curious about this multi-faceted artist, if you are interested in the process of creativity, you will find this interview satisfying and challenging.


Peter said…
I remember seeing this thin young woman with an oddly-tuned acoustic guitar on a CBC tv show in the 1960s, singing "Night in the City". It was haunting, almost frightening, given her rich-as-Croesus voice and precise playing. It quietly rocked.

Many of my passages in life have had her name on them. "Amelia" through my separation and divorce, "Raised on Robbery" through the last year or so of my first marriage, "Woodstock" as I left home and began the wayward journey where the mercies of the currents have led me here to this now.

My (present) wife and I lived in Saskatoon for 4 years, where Joni grew up. The wife of one of my work colleagues remembers her as a teen, and had little good to say about her (that's her privilege, I'd say). I also remember the bridges across the South Saskatchewan River, where Joni as a teen hung out with other disaffected kids. You can see the stuff used by the homeless beneath the bridges to this day. I can see a bunch of kids at, say, 3 AM,daring the night and the city to do something different, beneath those bridges.

Good posting, James.
RJ said…
Thanks, my man... she continues to resonate with something deep in my soul. I, too, have journeyed with her - from "Marcie" through "You Turn Me On" and more - and will be exploring her work after the mid 70s more intentionally over the next few months. Love you you...

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