November 7, 1943– Joni Mitchell:
Everything comes & goes
Marked by lovers & styles of clothes
Things that you held high
& 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 with the music of Roberta Joan Anderson of Canada. Mitchell’s haunting, humorous, hectoring songs have been a major force in my musical listening life for more than 45 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:
& the seasons they go round & round
& the painted ponies go up & down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
My sources tell me that Mitchell is “making excellent progress” after suffering an aneurysm this spring. The news that day in April sent me in to a spiral of melancholy. I just wasn’t ready for Mitchell to go. But now I understand that she is at home & walking, talking, painting & doing physical therapy each day.
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, & very smart. So, how much she’s going to come back & when, I don’t know and I’m not going to guess.”
When I was in cancer treatment, a new & generous friend made a gift of Mitchell’s newly released, fascinatingly curated 4 CD box-set Love Has Many Faces. Sitting up in bed, not feeling well at all, each listening was a fresh experience & a feeling of comfort, like meeting with an old friend. While making my way through the 4 discs, songs that I had heard many times, but haven’t really responded to, suddenly brought on a surprising significance. With Mitchell’s folk music beginnings & 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 & even optimism.
Mitchell’s roots might have been in Folk-Rock but she evolved into Jazz & Pop, ever inventive & inclusive. I saw her live only once, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in support of the now classic Court And Spark in 1974. The tickets were a thoughtful gift from an acquaintance, Eric Douglas, son of Kirk (Eric died of a drug overdose in 2004). Our perfect seats, 5th row center, gave me a clear view of Mitchell, alone on stage but for a baby grand piano & 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 4 decades. Like the greatest art, her music evolved & changed, just as I evolved & changed. She is not a stereotypical Gay Icon, but Mitchell gives gay people, & all outsiders, the emotional sincerity of her songs, with scintillating storytelling & fragile poetry. She is deserving of all the tributes offered to her as a truly great songwriter & singer.
Naming a favorite album is too tough. I am big on Mitchell’s Grammy winninf 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 orchestra. But, today I got stuck on Taming The Tiger (1998), with its lyrical magic & instrumental beauty in her inimitable style. From this album is a favorite of The Husband & mine, a cover actually, from 1942, My Best To You, where Mitchell wished upon my life, better gifts. She suggests that each new day is a kiss. I love her for that.
Always living her vocals, I especially have come to appreciate her more limited range & huskier vocals 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 cover & the CD’s insert have a tiny gallery of her work. On a self-portrait appear the words: Idle, Ideal, Idyll, & Idol. She describes herself as a “painter derailed by circumstance”.
Mitchell lives in LA & Sechelt, British Columbia. She is rather a hermit. Before the aneurysm, she was already living with a pathological dread of the dark & suffered for 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 & stinging sensations under the skin. Mitchell claims that she took a hiatus 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 designed her own album artwork throughout her career.
Mitchell has produced 19 studio albums, 2 live concert albums, & 6 compilations. I own then 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 & Lisa, Tom Petty, Don Henley & Peter Gabriel. Her songs have been covered by a diverse group of artists like: Courtney Love, Judy Collins, Counting Crowes, Q-Tip, George Michael, Annie Lennox, Dianne Reeves, James Taylor, Aimee Mann, Björk, Caetano Veloso, Emmylou Harris, Sufjan Stevens, Cassandra Wilson & Sarah McLachlan. Just take her famous composition Woodstock (1969) which has been recorded by 50 artists including Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Nazareth, & Eva Cassidy. A Case Of You (1971) is covered by Tori Amos, Jane Monheit, Diana Krall, James Blake & that little purple paisley man Prince.
Mitchell has received 8 Grammy Awards during her career, the first in 1969 & the most recent in 2008. She received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002.
In her recent memoir, Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words (2014), she was very open about her sadness & personal problems, & 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 72 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.