Uncompromising Joni Mitchell Biography

Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell (2017)
By David Jaffe
Sarah Crichton Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 376 pages

The only 20th century painter Joni Mitchell admires is Picasso. Asking someone if they like Joni Mitchell is akin to asking if you like Picasso. The only appropriate response is, "Which one?" If you need your Joni Mitchell to be the shy, mini-skirted ingĂ©nue from Saskatchewan, do not read David Jaffe's biography. If she has to be the Court and Spark rock queen, steer clear. If you need to worship Mitchell, don't touch it. 

Jaffe, a humanities professor at Syracuse University and award-winning critic, has written an authorized biography of Mitchell that's true to its title. He references a Mitchell song and the title of a 1977 album, one whose cover art features three Mitchell images—including Mitchell in blackface posing as a male African-American hipster, and that's not even the most controversial thing about her. The song includes this lyric: I come from open prairie/Given some wisdom and a lot of jive/Last night the ghosts of my old ideas/reran on channel five…. She made five folk recordings between 1968-72, one of which, Blue (1971),  is acclaimed as one of the top 50 albums of all-time. Then she swung from folk to rock; 1974's Court and Spark, became her all-time best seller. She pivoted again in 1976, for the jazz-rock fusion Heijira, which critics loved but confused the public, and—against all industry advice—collaborated with dying jazz legend Charles Mingus, Jr. (1922-79) on a 1979 record that sold well in Britain, but nowhere else. Mitchell then tumbled off the charts for more than a decade. Her last top-100 single came in 1984, "Sex Kills" from Turbulent Indigo.

If you wonder what happened, the answer is just about everything. Jaffe's portrait is that of a difficult, angry, and unlikable artist, one who always saw herself as a painter first and a musician second. David Crosby once remarked, "Joni hates everybody," and if Jaffe is to be believed, that's close to being true. By my reading, the only people she never dissed were Graham Nash, Neil Young, and bass player Jaco Pastorius. Jaffe does a masterful job of simultaneously admiring his subject, but showing Mitchell's true colors, which are mostly shades of blue—for aloofness, confidence, coldness, depression, snobbishness, profanity….

Remember Mitchell's line from "Case of You" in which she sang, "On the back of a cartoon coaster/In the blue TV screen light/I drew a map of Canada?" She was born Joan Anderson (1943) left her conservative parents, got pregnant and gave up her daughter for adoption, married too young, and eventually landed in Los Angeles. When one observer dubbed her the "Queen of El-Lay," it wasn't a compliment. Blue is also the color seeking harmony in romance. Mitchell has been married twice, but she's had a veritable who's who of disastrous celebrity hookups; among them:  Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Sam Shepard, David Crosby, Don Alias, Pastorius…. The last was bipolar, Alias battered her, several were married, and it's never a good idea to sleep with Crosby. It's possible, though, that between 1975 and the 1980s, Mitchell's cocaine intake rivaled his.

Mitchell has indeed been a reckless daughter, starting with the fact that she's been a four-pack a day smoker. Officially, her voice "changed" around 1975; in truth, the smokes and drugs hastened the shift from soprano to contralto. It remained a glorious voice, but some of its ornaments got broken. Crosby is ultimately correct in his assessment of Mitchell's misanthropy. There is, for example, the petty jealousy toward people who popularized her music (Judy Collins, Joan Baez) and would-be fans (Prince, Robert Plant). Mitchell called Dylan a "fake," insinuated that Cohen "plagiarized" some of his lines, and dismissed Crosby, Stills and Nash as "always out of tune." Her rap on Dylan stems from his aloofness (shocking, eh?) during the 1975 Rolling Thunder tour, and she flat out misunderstood Cohen's use of homage in making oblique Shakespeare references. She was sometimes right about CSN, but she overlooked their sublime moments. Mostly, Mitchell noticed the motes in the eyes of others and ignored the beam in her own. Her blackface get up, for instance, is inexcusable—even if she was hanging out with black jazz musicians. For a person who claims to care mostly about her painting, there's also an overprotective defense of her own music at the expense of others. Mitchell does not read music but, aside from jazz musicians such as Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, she's been withering in her contempt of the music industry and other folk and rock musicians. (Ironically, many jazz aficionados see her as a poseur.)

This is a gutsy book on Jaffe's part, though he too sometimes falls prey to Mitchell's braggadocio tendencies. He is very knowledgeable about music theory and, on occasion, there is a sense of showing off his chops. Casual readers will be more drawn to his anecdotes about Mitchell songs—check out the connections between "Circle Game" and Young's "Sugar Mountain"—than his discourses on their sonic complexities, but I give Jaffe credit for trying to strike a balance. I'll leave it to you to decide whether his encounters with Mitchell's unpleasant sides are antiseptic where they should have been analytical.

As you no doubt know, Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015 and, reportedly, has not yet regained speech. Mitchell has also claimed to suffer from Morgellons Syndrome, skin lesions allegedly caused by fibers and/or bug bites. Many psychologists and doctors deny the very existence of Morgellons. Given the enigma that is Joni Mitchell, you'll have to make up your mind on that contradiction as well. Is Joni Mitchell a genius, a jerk, a reckless daughter, a folk goddess, a musical savant, or a damaged girl from the prairie? The correct question is, of course, "Which one?"

Rob Weir

No comments: