Thinking about Joni Mitchell redux...

As I continue to reflect on the depth and breadth of this artist's work since the middle 1960's, two additional truths about Joni Mitchell have emerged: first, she has been able to create truly adult popular music for nearly 50 years that cuts across lines of race, class and gender, and, second she found ways to express beauty and truth in her music in spite of emotional wounds and cultural disintegration. She was not immune to these toxins, but reached beyond their limitations for something more profound than even her pain. In my world, this sounds like the marriage of grace and commitment.

First, her genre-bending 50 years of creativity. She notes, for example, that when "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" was released in 1975, many in her established white audience turned away from her music. The complaint was that it was too jazzy, too experimental, too challenging. At the same time, Ms. Mitchell reminds us that it was precisely this recording that got under the skin of a young African American artist we later came to know as Prince. It seems that he attended a concert in Minneapolis during the tour for this album and later disclosed "that he learned a lot about color and sound from Joni Mitchell." To my ear, "Summer Lawns" was not too jazzy but another step in her creativity, the natural born child of "For the Roses." 
To be sure, it didn't sound anything like her first recording, one of my favorites, that captured the beauty and angst of the folk music craze of the 60's. In her book length interview with Malka Marom, Ms. Mitchell references this clip from a 1966 folk music show in Canada. She's playing an early version of a song Tom Rush popularized, "Urge for Going." In the interview, Joni Mitchell asks us to watch the eyes of the folkies sitting around her on this broadcast: they were cool when she was playing the young, innocent ingenue, but when she gets into her unique guitar tuning and the poetry of this song, they clearly don't grasp the groove at all!
For musical fans frozen in time, "Summer Lawns" was too great a leap. But for those paying attention to "Court and Spark," "Miles of Aisles" and "For the Roses," this recording represents an artist come of age. It is sophisticated and mature. Further it wrestles with issues ranging from what happens when artists sacrifice their integrity for a quick blast of commercial success to the commodification of women who are groomed only to find value and worth as pretty trinkets attached to hard-working husbands. These lyrics are a far cry from the number one hit of 1975 by the Captain and Tenille ("Love Will Keep Us Together."

He bought her a diamond for her throat
He put her in a ranch house on a hill
She could see the valley barbecues
From her window sill
See the blue pools in the squinting sun
Hear the hissing of summer lawns

He put up a barbed wire fence
To keep out the unknown
And on every metal thorn
Just a little blood of his own
She patrols that fence of his
To a latin drum
And the hissing of summer lawns
Wonder makes it easy
With a joyful mask
Tube's gone, darkness, darkness, darkness
No color no contrast

Every subsequent recording - from "Hejira" and "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" to "Both Sides Now" and her last album "Shine" - challenges us to grow up emotionally, artistically, spiritually and politically. Just dig the depth on "Taming the Tiger" from her 1998 "Turbulent Indigo" recording.
Second, her commitment to create beauty and truth beyond the pain of personal reality and social disintegration. When asked if she listens to any contemporary music in the Marom interview, Mitchell pauses and replies: "Duke Ellington." And after a brief exchange about Lady Gaga (whom I like) and hip hop, Ms. Mitchell says: "If I see one more crotch grab... it has become a cliche. I like hip hop. It's the Charleston. I like the groove. I always loved black dance, but what has happened in hip hop is it's aggressive. If you go back to Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges, it's bordello music, so seductive, but it's like, "oooh, they're playing to the ladies." Well, they are not playing to them anymore, It's more like men dancing for men, showing off their physical prowess. It's not great art anymore, because it's not yin-yang. It's too yang or too yin."  She concludes like this:

I don't like the spirit (of this music.) It is decadent. It's tragic really. That should be the rotten underbelly of a culture... (but) the sediment has now risen to the top. That's the way I look at it. It's not a graceful culture. I guess I have an appetite for grace, which is not in vogue. 

The way I hear what Joni Mitchell does on her later recordings is a clear alternative - maybe even an antidote - to the decadence and cultural sediment rising to the surface. I also hear her remaining true to her art even as she works through physical, emotional and professional anguish. On "Both Sides Now" (2000) and "Shine" (2007) she creates bold acts of cultural defiance saturated in beauty. The first is recorded with the London Symphony and features her take on jazz standards while the second is a song cycle connected to ballet. Listen to the depth of her voice as she covers her own early 60's song "Both Sides Now." It is hard to believe that she wrote this in her mid 20's...

Other artists began to take notice of Ms. Mitchell's artistic defiance, too: I think of Herbie Hancock's "River: the Joni Letters" in 2007 and the recent "Songs of Shadow, Songs of Light" released in 2014 by Laurie Antonioli. And while she has had to curtail most performances over the last five years, she will be returning to the stage with Hancock and Wayne Shorter later this fall at a special fundraiser to kick start a documentary on the music or Wayne Shorter. Here's the way she expresses it on her final recording:

Oh let your little light shine
Let your little light shine
Shine on Wall Street and Vegas
Place your bets
Shine on the fishermen
With nothing in their nets
Shine on rising oceans and evaporating seas
Shine on our Frankenstein technologies
Shine on science
With its tunnel vision
Shine on fertile farmland
Buried under subdivisions

Let your little light shine
Let your little light shine
Shine on the dazzling darkness
That restores us in deep sleep
Shine on what we throw away
And what we keep

Towards the close of her recent book/interview, Ms. Mitchell is asked: "I have heard from survivors that the greatest motivating force in their life was the feeling that you must do something with this life that was saved. Do you think that surviving polio... spurred you on to venture on this path of doing something with the life that you...?" She replies:

Absolutely. There's something weird and unique and given to me to be in pain to an abnormal degree, to take it personally... it really hurts me personally, more than the loss of a lover, to see a species die. That's my cross to bear... I take it personally... I take it physically in my body every time a tanker spills... I see the Frankenstein of it all...but in some cases, I think that destiny has to be run out of you by hardship.

They say that the Buddha appears when the student is ready. I am realizing that the more I prepare for my jazz sabbatical, the more I am ready for the muse that has inspired Joni Mitchell to spend some time with me, too. For the time being, I am going to keep Ms. Mitchell company in my prayers and practice.


Peter said…
Malka Marom was part of the '60s Canadian folk duo Malka and Yoso, who were contemporaries of Joni Mitchell and many others, playing the coffeehouse circuits, touring.

I believe that Yoso died some time ago, while Malka has clearly gone on to many other things. Her friendship of decades with Joni has borne considerable fruit in the interview series that you have been reading.

If you google Malka Marom, you'll find some of the interviews themselves, some interviews of Malka herself, and references to her new novel--yet another turn in a rich life.
Peter said…
Oops, that should read Malka and Joso.

They split up either in the late 1960s or early 1970s.
RJ said…
I have become intrigued by her work, Peter, but don't know it or her novel. More to explore, yes?

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