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 ingénue 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


There There Provocative but Overhyped

There There  (2018)
By Tommy Orange
Alfred A. Knopf, 290 pages.

Gertrude Stein (1876-1946) infamously remarked of Oakland that there was “no there there.” She was wrong, of course, but there’s no escaping the fact that Oakland is the unwanted stepchild of the Bay Area. We jet off to San Francisco, find our way to San Jose, match wits with scholars in Palo Alto and Berkeley, commune with nature in the Marin headlands, and check out the high tech in Cupertino and Mountain View. But who ever says they can’t wait to vacation in Oakland? Oakland has come a long way since it was the repository of all the Bay Area’s social problems, but it’s still a place with more grit than glamour.

Excuse the travelogue, but Oakland is the mise en scène in Tommy Orange’s debut novel for a reason. It’s where a large population of urban Indians reside.  Orange is enrolled in the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, as are several of his fictional characters. He has been called the voice of urban Indian rage, and there is validity in that handle. Several characters in There There are veterans from the 1969-71 Indian occupation of Alcatraz and we sometimes get the sense that they simply shifted their anger across the Bay to Oakland when the protest ended.

You didn’t know there were urban Indians? A lot of Anglos don’t, and that’s just one of many complaints logged by Orange. His prologue to the novel is more sociology and history than fiction, often teased out in the spirit of inner-city hip-hop. You will find numerous references there (and throughout the book) to everything from the cultural collision between Columbus and the Taino people to Great Plains massacres and the demeaning nature of John Wayne Westerns. As you might anticipate, Orange is none too happy about how much the negative social data of urban Indians compares with that of reservation Natives. (Native Americans are near or at the bottom of virtually all of the depressing social indicators.)

The novel is constructed around an upcoming powwow to be held at the Oakland Coliseum. He focuses on a dozen major characters, each of whom has his or her reasons for attending, but don’t think of this book as any sort of cultural renaissance dressed in feathers. Dene Oxendene has a grant to document the experience of urban Indians, but when he asks the question, “What does being an Indian mean to you?” he often gets inconsequential replies or blank stares. Edwin Black, a college grad going to seed via junk food, obesity, constipation, and overall inertia declares that he is “as Native as Obama is black,” a reference to his biracial parents and his confused sense of connection. Fourteen-year-old Orvil doesn’t really know why he raided his aunt’s closet for a too-small-for-him costume, or why he feels compelled to dance. He starts to get it, but a fog remains.

Orange’s characters carry scars from ancient and recent hurts. Tony Loneman was born with the “drome” (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome), Thomas Frank is an active alcoholic, and Jacquie Red Feather is a tattooed and scarred former booze hound who the despair sans the bottle. You’ll pretty much find the full panoply of hard living in this novel.

At this juncture I should tell you that There There has been praised to the skies. The book jacket bears testimonials from numerous literary heavyweights, including Margaret Atwood and Louise Erdrich. (Sherman Alexie’s shout out was removed by the press when Alexie ran afoul of the #MeToo movement.) I am often leery when writers praise other writers and my caution is justified. There There will probably win some prizes, but in my estimation they will be for what evaluators wanted the book to be rather than what it is.

There There is a good book, but it is not a great one. It is also quite clunky in many respects. The story is told Canterbury Tales style, by which I mean each chapter is in the voice and from the perspective of the character. The problem is that Orange has a dozen major actors and each interacts with numerous secondary figures. His characters are well drawn, but it’s simply too many for the length of the book or for Orange's device of toggling between them several times each. For example, unless you read the novel in a single sitting, you will have to page back to keep Jacquie Red Feather’s details from eliding with those of her half sister, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield. It must also be said that the denouement feels contrived and that the ending is ham-handed.

Tommy Orange has promise and he might well be the next important voice in Native American literature. I admired the subtle way in which he made us realize that urban Indians are often more disadvantaged than those on the reservation. Both the anonymity of the city and its various distractions render community, hence identity, even harder to forge. I wish he had been consistently deft throughout. There There often reads as if it a thesis-driven book—his blistering prologue—to which a novel in need of tightening has been appended. I recommend that you give There There a try, but don’t feel guilty if you don’t think it lives up to the PR blitz. It doesn’t.

Rob Weir



Brewers to the Series: Hunch or Dumbest Prediction Ever?

Yep. My prediction. I await your scorn!

In the National League there were nine teams that finished above .500 and the playoff bound top five were so evenly stacked that only the Atlanta Braves won their division without playing a tie-breaker. Any one of them could go on to the World Series and, if the AL winner is indeed artificially powerful, the NL survivor could win the whole enchilada.

The Atlanta Braves arrived at least a year earlier than most analysts thought they would, an achievement assisted by the Phillies' September swoon and the Washington Nationals' annual looks-great-on-paper-stinks-on-the-field season.


·       The ageless Freddie Freeman had another great season and Ronald Acuna was every bit as good as predicted. Inciarte, Albies, Camargo, and Swanson weren't bad either. 
·       Veteran leadership from Nick Markakis and Kirk Suzuki.
·       The Braves beat the teams they needed to beat and finished strong.


·       The pitching has been okay, but not spectacular. Foltnewicz was 13-10 with a 2.85 ERA—good numbers, but not exactly ace statistics. Gausman did well after coming over from the Orioles, but is he the 5-2 in Atlanta Gausman or the perpetual loser from Baltimore?
·        They got nothing from Bautista and dumped him to the Phillies. And then they got less than nothing from Lucas Duda.
·       How will young players react under pressure? The Braves weren't on many radar screens this year.

The Chicago Cubs under performed for much of the year, cranked it up in late summer, but ended up as a Wild Card entry. Most analysts assume they are the class of the NL, but sometimes they look like they're just going through the motions.


·       On paper, Murphy, Zobrist, Rizzo, Baez, Contreas, and Russell are as good a lineup as you'll find in the NL.
·       And… there is Kris Bryant, a stud when healthy.
·       Morrow was lights out as a closer.
·       Justin Heyward finally had a decent season.
·       Jon Lester had a superb season (18-6 3.32 ERA)

·       Schwarber and Happ each had their moments, but the first was all or nothing, the second hit just .233, and neither was consistent.
·       Bryant missed about a third of the season, so one wonders about his health.
·       Call me nuts, but I think Joe Maddon is overrated as a tactician.
·       Has Jon Lester finally grown up, or will he again implode when most needed? He will be needed, as after him is Kyle Hendricks and question marks. Quintana was merely okay, Montgomery wasn't inspiring, and Yu Darvish was a disaster.

Who picked the Colorado Rockies to make it out of the NL West? Like the Braves, a big question is how well this team will perform on the big stage. They tied the Dodgers, but ended up as a Wild Card team.


·       If you don't know 3B Nolan Arenado's name, get used to it, as he will be in the NL MVP mix.
·       Charlie Blackmon has the worst beard in sports, but he's a helluva player. Ditto Ian Desmond. Toss in another solid year from Carlos Gonzalez and Gerardo Parra, plus breakout performances from DJ LeMahieu and Trevor Story and this is a lineup capable of great things.
·       David Dahl has been raking lately.
·       Kyle Freeland will get some Cy Young love, as should anyone who pitches in Denver and puts up numbers like 17-7 and 2.85! Young German Marquez also surprised.
·       Wade Davis. If the Rocks are up, Davis will close the deal. 


·       Pitching is usually paramount in the postseason and the Rockies starters simply aren't very deep.
·       The track record isn't good for teams hoping to bash their way to World Series glory, but that's probably the only way the Rockies can get there. Even then, some pitcher (Jon Gray? Tyler Anderson?) has to punch above his weight to take the Rockies deep into the postseason.

Do you know anyone east of San Bernardino who likes the Los Angeles Dodgers? They were expected to win the division going away, but are only here at all because the Diamondbacks forgot to play the entire second half of the season.


·       Experience counts for something and this team has been in the postseason
·       Rich Hill really picked up a decimated staff.
·       Manny. Manny. Manny. If the Dodgers hadn't traded for Machado, they'd not be herel.
·       Puig played up to his potential for a change, and who thought Matt Kemp had such a year in him? Bellinger didn't duplicate his rookie season, but he had a very respectable year. Max Muncy? Who was he before he hit 33 dingers? Grandal didn't hit for average, but you'll take 24 homers and 68 RBIs from a catcher.


·       For most of the year, this was the UCLA Medical Center Dodgers. Who's healthy and who isn't?  
·       If Clayton Kershaw is pitching wounded, the Dodgers aren't going anywhere.
·       Puig played to his potential, but one always wonders if he'll play to his IQ. His is the most volatile personality since Jimmie Piersall.
·       The Dodgers love Joc Pederson. I don't.
·       Try putting together a lineup card when your best hitters are two first basemen, two center fielders, two shortstops, a shortstop who should be at third, and three second basemen who hit near or under the Mendoza Line. Guys playing out of position does not add up to good defense.
·       Dave Roberts as manager? I'm not impressed.

If you were looking for a Cinderella team, the Milwaukee Brewers are for you.


·       Brilliant maneuvers to acquire Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich! Yelich will probably be the NL MVP.
·       Maybe you've never heard of Jesus Aguilar. Does 34/105/.273 get your attention?
·       Ryan Braun had another Ryan Braun year, despite time on the DL .
·       Travis Shaw's average was down, but he still hit 31 homers.
·       Who foresaw Chacin going 15-8?
·       Soria's return from the disabled list can only help a shaky bullpen.
·       They beat the Cubs, so they don't have to play a winner-takes-all Wild Card game.


·       There's no way around the fact that the Brewers pitching isn't impressive. Was Chacin's season an outlier? It had better not be, because after him there is Wade Miley (ugh!), guys who had off years (Guerra, Perlata, Anderson), and a bullpen that contains such non-memorables as Boone Logan, Matt Albers, and Zach Davis.
·       The Brewers got far less from Moustakas than they hoped. Everybody gets far less from (the very overrated) Curtis Granderson than they hoped.  

I'm going to go out on a limb on this, so here goes.

Wild Card:  Rockies over the Cubs. The Cubs strike me as a less-than-meets-the-eye team. And, yes, this makes me the only person east of Denver to pick the Rockies.

Round One:  Dodgers over the Braves 3 games to 1.  Atlanta arrived early. Maybe next year.
                      Brewers over the Rockies 3-2. If I'm right about the Rocks knocking off the Cubs, this will be the most exciting of all the first round contests,

NL Champs: The Milwaukee Brewers. Yep, total hunch, and probably a dumb one given that pitching generally prevails in the offseason. Yet baseball often gives us Cinderella teams that should (but don't) remind us that clipboard analysts are just four-flushers.

World Series Champs: I'd like to say the Brewers, but midnight will strike on Cinderella and the Houston Astros will win in five or six games. 

Win the dust settles.

American League Playoffs: Great Teams or Artificially Enhanced

Twice is Nice for Houston?

Logic and data dictate that the Boston Red Sox will go to the World Series. Hold the confetti; it might not be as easy as it seems. Three AL teams won 100 or more games: the Red Sox, the Astros, and the Yankees. Oakland was close (97 wins) and the Indians won a healthy 91 games. Does this mean that the AL is powerhouse of talent?

Maybe. It could also mean that several very good teams look like the Legion of Superheroes because their adversaries were the sports equivalent of skim milk. Three teams (Orioles, Royals, White Sox) lost more than 100 games and the Tigers and Rangers came close to that ignominious low bar. In fact, take away the five playoff teams, and only Tampa Bay and Seattle won more than half of their games. From where I sit, none of them is the 1961 Yankees or the 1971 Orioles. Let’s take an alphabetical look at the contenders.

By any measure, the Boston Red Sox had a phenomenal year. That said, there are reasons for concern.


·       If Mookie Betts isn’t the MVP, voters should be hanged. And if J. P. Martinez isn’t the runner up, cut the voters down and have them drawn and quartered. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Mike Trout worshippers.)
·       Bogaerts had the quietest incredible year in memory. Benintendi reminds me of a young Freddie Lynn.
·       Joey Cora has a happy clubhouse, which is as rare in Boston.
·       On paper, the Red Sox have a dominant pitching staff.


·       And on the field, none of those pitchers has ever won a single playoff game.
·       Chris Sale must be a concern. For the second straight year he wore out late in the season. If he’s not healthy, the Green Monster will weep.
·       If the Sox get the Yanks, David Price will have to shed the Bronx monkey, which he never seems to do.
·       Porcello and Rodriguez wave similar caution flags. Each blows brilliant or chunks. Porcello is a soft 17-7 with an ERA north of 4.
·       Kimbrel has had a few rough patches, but getting to him will be the biggest challenge. Can you trust Workman, Barnes, Evoladi, and Velazquez? It's clear that Joe Kelly can’t be.
·       Aside from Jackie Bradley, who can’t hit, the Red Sox defense is often leaky, especially Devers at third.

The Cleveland Indians are the dark horse pick this year—mainly because they get the Astros in the first round.


·       Pencil in Jose Ramirez for # 3 in MVP balloting. Brantley, Lindor, and Gomes aren’t Mantle, Maris, and Berra, but they have the knack for coming up big when it matters.
·       Terry Francona is the best manager in the AL, bar none.
·       It begins and ends with pitching for the Indians. Kluber is a marvel and Carrasco is solid, though why he was wasted in a meaningless final game baffles me. Bauer is a solid # 3.


·       In my view, the Indians simply aren’t good enough to beat Houston. If Francona pilots them into the World Series somehow, don’t wait for retirement; put him in Cooperstown now.
·       Encarnacion and Kipnis had lousy years and struck out a lot. 
·       Andrew Miller was a hero last year, but this year he’s been injured and a shadow of his former self. Cody Allen hasn’t been very good either.

The Houston Astros are the defending Series champions and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they repeat.


·       Red Sox pitching gets more attention, but Verlander, Cole, Mofton, Keuchel, and McCullers make up the league’s best staff. Unlike the Red Sox, these guys do have postseason victories under their caps.
·       Alex Bregman isn’t a household name, but he had an amazing year and don’t think “who?” when he inflicts playoff damage.
·       Jose Altuve gives hope to short guys everywhere. He’s the ‘Stros Mookie Betts.
·       Springer, Gurriel, and Reddick are clutch players.


·       I’m not fond of Osuna or Rondon in the bullpen. It’s best to hope you don’t have to use either of them.
·       Gattis can’t get it together and this once-touted catching prospect looks like a bust. Too bad, as Brian McCann looks like he’s toast.

The New York Yankees won 100 games and had to settle for the Wild Card.


·       Ten players had more than ten homeruns, and the Yankees set a new MLB record for dingers in a season. So maybe Judge, Stanton, and Gregorius are the new Mantle, Maris, and Berra!
·       Torres has lived up to the rookie hype only to be surpassed by Andujar, who should be the Rookie of the Year. (Ohtani will win it even though he missed a big chunk of the season; he’s the darling of the SABR crowd.)
·       J. A. Happ stabilized the Yankees’ rotation and has been magnificent in Pinstripes.
·       McCutchen supplanted Gardner at the top of the order and has been very good.
·       Luke Voit might be a flash in the pan, but for now you’d better put on sunglasses.
·       On paper, the Yankees pen (Chapman, Betances, Green, Britton, Holder, Robertson) is so good they could each throw an inning and a third and win the game.


·       They have to win the Wild Card game to move on to a show down with Boston. One game? Victory is surely not a given.
·       Severino is an emerging ace, but every now and again, he throws a real stinker. Tanaka is the opposite: so-so during the season and a warrior in the playoffs. Will the law of averages catch up with Tanaka?
·       Let’s not sugarcoat: Gary Sanchez sucked this year, both at and behind the plate. He shouldn’t even be on the playoff roster.
·       Defensive woes seem to be contagious. The Yankees collectively qualify for the Dick Stuart Stinking Glove Award.
·       Health has been an issue again this year—can someone explain to me why the entire conditioning staff hasn’t been canned?—and I suspect half of the team (Hicks, Judge, Gregorius, Chapman, Stanton, Torres) is playing at considerably less than 100%.
·       Gardner has fallen off he cliff. Great guy, but he seems older than Sabathia.
·       The Yankees score in big batches and then not at all. I’d give up a bunch of those homers for a higher on base percentage.
·       Aaron Boone? Thus far not one of MLB’s brighter lights, the team’s record notwithstanding.
The Oakland A’s weren’t supposed to be here, yet they are.


·       Just go with it when you overachieve.
·       Is there anyone who doesn’t know that Khris Davis is a homerun threat?
·       Chapman, Piscotty, Lowrie, and Olson had wonderful seasons. Were those seasons outliers? Like I said, go with it.
·       Bob Melvin must be given serious consideration for Manager of the Year.
·       Trienen emerged as the closer and is a big reason Oakland made it this far.


·       Things would look rosier if their best pitcher, Sean (no-hitter) Manaea wasn’t the latest Tommy John surgery victim.
·       Are Fiers, Petit, and Cahill enough for the post season? Probably not.
·       If the A’s have to use Rodney or Familia, run up the white flag.
·       Other than Davis, there’s no one in this lineup who scares anyone. If you don’t make dumb mistakes, you can beat the A’s.


1. Wild Card: A’s over Yankees. I just don’t like teams that rely on homeruns all the time. In a five-game series, go with the Yankees; in on, too many strikeouts and poor defense hands the game to Oakland.

2. Round One: Red Sox over Oakland 3 games to 1.
                         Astros over Indians 3-0.
Conditon: If the Yankees defeat Oakland, I pick them to beat Boston 3-2. I don’t think Sale is healthy and Price is never right versus the Yankees.

3.  AL Champ: Astros. An abundance of good pitching, great fundamentals, and a reliably solid and consistent roster prevail.