November 7, 1943– Joni Mitchell:
Everything comes and goes
Marked by lovers and styles of clothes
Things that you held high
And told yourself were true
Lost or changing as the days come down to you
Down to you, constant stranger
You’re a kind person
You’re a cold person too
It’s down to you
It all comes down to you
I am going to be spending this autumn day listening to the music of Roberta Joan Anderson of Canada. Joni Mitchell’s haunting, humorous, hectoring songs have been a major force in my musical listening life for nearly 50 years. In 1970, I heard her for the first time. Mitchell was singing her own composition The Circle Game from her gorgeous album Ladies Of The Canyon:
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
My sources tell me that Mitchell is “making excellent progress” after suffering a brain aneurysm in spring 2015. The news that April day sent me in to a spiral of melancholy. I just wasn’t ready to let Mitchell go. But now I understand that she is at home and walking, talking, painting and doing physical therapy each day. World Of Wonder’s own James St. James reported that Mitchell showed up for Sir Elton John’s birthday party in March, and Wow Report writer Trey Speegle told us that she showed up at Clive Davis’ Grammy party the month before.
Musician David Crosby was the first friend to report that Mitchell had suffered the aneurysm. He said:
“She’s going to have to struggle back from it the way you struggle back from a traumatic brain injury. She’s a tough girl, and very smart. So, how much she’s going to come back and when, I don’t know and I’m not going to guess.”
When I was in cancer treatment, a new and generous friend made a gift of Mitchell’s newly released, fascinatingly curated 4 CD box-set Love Has Many Faces (2014). Sitting up in bed, not feeling well at all, each listening was a fresh experience and a feeling of comfort, like meeting with an old friend. While making my way through the four discs, songs that I had heard many times but hadn’t really responded to, suddenly brought on a surprising significance. Mitchell’s folk music beginnings and her use of traditional instruments, plus her clear, high singing voice, had once made me think of her songs as pure or naïve. But all alone, listening closely, I heard them as more cynical, offering an unflinching examination of the difficulties of relationships while retaining a sort of sincerity and even a bit of optimism.
Mitchell’s roots might have been in Folk-Rock but she evolved into Jazz and Pop too, ever inventive and inclusive. I saw her live only once, at Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in support of the now classic Court And Spark album in 1974. The tickets were a thoughtful gift from a new friend, Eric Douglas, son of Kirk Douglas (Eric died of a drug overdose in 2004). Our perfect seats, fifth row center, gave me a clear view of Mitchell, alone on stage but for a baby grand piano and her guitar, using her non-standard, guitar tuning. She has written songs in some 50 different “tunings”, which she has referred to as “Joni’s weird chords”.
Mitchell’s music has been ever-present in my life for more than four decades. Like the greatest art, her music evolved and changed, just as I have evolved and changed. She is not a stereotypical Gay Icon, but Mitchell gives gay people, and all outsiders, the emotional sincerity of her songs, with scintillating storytelling and fragile poetry. She is deserving of all the tributes offered to her as a truly great songwriter and singer.
Naming a favorite album is too tough. I am big on Mitchell’s Grammy winning Both Sides Now (2000), a lush recording that traces the history of a love relationship using torchy jazz standards, plus a pair of Mitchell’s own songs, all recorded live with a full symphony orchestra. But, today I got stuck on Taming The Tiger (1998), with its lyrical magic and instrumental beauty in her inimitable style. From this album my favorite track is a cover actually, from 1942, My Best To You, where Mitchell wishes upon my life, better gifts. She suggests that each new day is a kiss. I love her for that.
Always totally digging her vocals, I especially have come to appreciate her more limited range and huskier vocals from the past decade which might be attributed to her smoking. She once described herself as:
“One of the world’s last great smokers.”
Mitchell likes to paint as much as she likes to write music. The album covers and CD’s inserts are a tiny gallery of her work. On one self-portrait appear the words: Idle, Ideal, Idyll, and Idol. She describes herself as a “painter derailed by circumstance”.
Mitchell lives in Los Angeles and in Sechelt, British Columbia. She has always been rather a hermit. Before the aneurysm, she was already living with a pathological dread of the dark and suffered from insomnia. She receives treatment for a condition called Morgellons Syndrome. Mitchell:
“I have this weird, incurable disease that seems like it’s from outer space. I have a tremendous will to live: I’ve been through another pandemic; I’m a polio survivor, so I know how conservative the medical body can be.”
Morgellons is often misdiagnosed as “delusion of parasites”. Sufferers of the disease are usually directed toward psychiatric treatment. The symptoms include crawling, biting and stinging sensations under the skin. Mitchell claims that she took a hiatus from music to work toward giving people diagnosed with Morgellons more credibility.
Unusual for any artist, but especially for a woman, Mitchell has served as the sole record producer credited on almost all of her albums, including all her work in the 1970s. She has been responsible for her own album design and artwork throughout her career.
Mitchell has produced 19 studio albums, two live concert albums, and six compilations. I own them all. That’s right, I have a complete Joni Mitchell collection.
She has collaborated with a crazy list of artists, including: Willie Nelson, Billy Idol, Wendy and Lisa, Tom Petty, Don Henley and Peter Gabriel. Her songs have been covered by a diverse group of artists, including: Courtney Love, Judy Collins, Counting Crowes, George Michael, Annie Lennox, Dianne Reeves, James Taylor, Aimee Mann, Björk, Caetano Veloso, Emmylou Harris, Sufjan Stevens, Cassandra Wilson and Sarah McLachlan. Just take her famous composition Woodstock (1969); it has been recorded by 50 artists including Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Nazareth, and Eva Cassidy. A Case Of You (1971) is covered by Tori Amos, Jane Monheit, Diana Krall, James Blake and that late, great little Purple Paisley man.
Mitchell has received Eight Grammy Awards during her career, the first in 1969 and the most recent in 2008. She received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002.
In her memoir, Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words (2014), she was very open about her sadness and personal problems, plus the strings of failed love affairs yet ends the chapter by stating:
“I would not change anything. I would do it all over again”
Mitchell turns an astonishing 74 years old today. I nominate Mitchell as a Gay Icon of the highest order.
What is your favorite Joni Mitchell song? Not easy, but my choice is A Case Of You, at least at this moment.