The album to start with
By the time Joni Mitchell released Blue in 1971, she had survived polio, a divorce, put her baby up for adoption, fended off another marriage proposal (from Graham Nash), and watched as one of her songs, Both Sides Now, became a massive hit for someone else. She had, in short, seen a lot in her 27 years.
Mitchell has told of the power of her fourth record better than anyone else ever could hope to. “The Blue album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals,” she told Rolling Stone in 1979. “At that period in my life, I had no personal defences. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defences there either.”
There is not one single track on this album that is not magnificent. And it was an audacious record in many ways. The emotional life of a young woman had never been put to tape so nakedly and so unapologetically – from the wretchedness of giving up a child (Little Green), the mocking of men who laugh at the follies of young women who want “roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you all those pretty lies” and end up a wife with a coffee percolator (The Last Time I Saw Richard), and trying to find emancipation in love affairs (“I love you when I forget about me”, on All I Want).
The music is as bold as its subject matter. Her hands damaged with polio, she made up her own guitar tunings. Her soprano, borrowing often from jazz phrasing, is thrillingly alive; there is no resolution with a neat pop harmony. Listen, and you have your own secret desires articulated.
The characters within the songs are vivid and complex. Take A Case of You, a love song written in the past tense, a dialogue with her former lover Leonard Cohen. It opens with the line stolen from Cohen, who was quoting Julius Caesar at her. He was mad she had used their private conversation in song. “Life is fair game” for lyrics, she said. She drinks up a lover in full, and emerges from the relationship clear-headed, still standing.
The weight of the public consumption of her inner life, and those of the other singer-songwriters from the Laurel Canyon scene, would be hard for her to bear at times. But in spearheading music that looked towards the emotional life of its makers, she created an enduring bond with her listeners.
The three albums to listen to next
For the Roses (1972)
After the exposure of those cellophane years, Mitchell sought retreat. She went back home to Canada, and bought a tiny stone house “like a monastery” on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast where she could hide from it all. There was no electricity; by night she lived by candlelight. By day, she bathed under the old trees, in the waterfalls, on the pebble beaches. She wrote an album about salvation, about finding oneself again in the silence after the applause has finished.
Judgement of the Moon and Stars is her grand tribute to Beethoven, about whom she read a book in her isolation. She felt kinship with him – rejected by the court, too wild for the refined world in which he was forced to play. Mitchell was fully aware of her own genius – the critics would never compare her to the great masters, so she did it herself.
Her voice on this album rings with clarity. Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire is a devastating account of her relationship with James Taylor, her torment at watching him succumb to the “shadow of lady release”, or heroin. There are no holds barred – the sink is splattered with blood, the protagonist “bashes in veins for peace”. We so often look to the Velvet Underground’s Heroin or Neil Young’s The Needle and the Damage Done as cultural documents of the desolation and helplessness of opiate addiction, but Mitchell’s despair is incomparable in its precision.
You Turn Me on, I’m a Radio was Mitchell’s cheeky response when her new record label boss, David Geffen, asked her to write a hit (which it was). But the rest of the album is harder, more exhausting than Blue. Perhaps that is something to do with the glorious, golden timbre of her voice. A Woman of Heart and Mind vibrates with these chestier, lower tones she adopts. She is confrontational on this song, her equivalent perhaps of Virginia Wolf’s A Room of One’s Own in its manifesto-like defiance to protect her own freedom.
The song Lesson in Survival could well have been the title of the album – one that deals with the capacity of the natural world to heal and rebuild, the benefits of solitude, stillness and isolation on the psyche. Never has this been more prescient than now.
Court and Spark (1974)
After the releases of For the Roses, Geffen – who by this point had acquired a Hollywood mansion – lured her back to stay with him (and Cher, who he was living with at the time). She had gone in search of meaning and came back to the glitz and pomp and bright lights of the Los Angeles party scene. This would become her muse: a human circus of hot messes. And while she writes as one of them, she is still a Canadian prairie girl at heart. This tension is the core of this record, and it is also, as Brian Eno has pointed out, a pop album that deals not with the complexities of adolescence but adulthood.
There are familiar themes though: sexual liberation, such as on Help Me, a gorgeous, lilting, jazz ballad said to be about her dalliance with Warren Beatty (Prince would quote it years later on the lusty groove of The Ballad of Dorothy Parker). Free Man in Paris, inspired by a trip she took with Geffen, is a song, in Mitchell’s words, about the unequivocal joy of feeling “unfettered and alive”. Geffen at the time was 20 years away from publicly coming out, and he begged her not to put it on the album for fear of the protagonist looking for “that very good friend of mine” would out him. But the song stayed, and it lives on as a testament to the lightness of being that comes with expressing one’s sexual self.
People’s Parties, meanwhile, is such a shrewd dismantling of the myth of celebrity that the lyrics read like a news dispatch from a far-flung country, except she is at a party in the Hollywood hills. “Some are friendly,” she writes of her fellow guests. “Some are cutting, some are watching it from the wings. Some are standing in the centre, giving to get something.”
Of all the things her fans have said to her over the years, it was a young woman who turned to her once backstage at the Grammys and said: “Girl, you make me see pictures in my head” that thrilled her the most. Hejira, in that respect, is a cinema screen in Technicolor.
By March 1976, Mitchell was enveloped by a cocaine addiction, cancelled a tour, and left LA with an ex lover and a potential new lover to drive to Maine, deviating via the deep south. The opening track, Coyote, tremors with the thrill of such a journey, the pulsating of the light and dark of the freeway. We meet the album’s characters: the lovers, the “coyotes” who she picks up dancing in bars, who “picks up my scent on his fingers” the next morning “while he’s watching the waitresses’ legs” in some diner. There is no shame in it. “No regrets, coyote,” is the first line of the album.
Hejira is about fight and flight. She is here, ostensibly, “wrestling with my ego”, trying to let go of the self-absorption that comes with cocaine. Never is this more present than in Song for Sharon, in which she dedicates a verse to the suicide of Phyllis Major, the wife of Mitchell’s former lover Jackson Browne, with whom she had a stormy relationship. The grief was for the sisterhood; she blamed herself for not warning the women who came after her. “It seems we all live so close to that line, and so far from satisfaction,” she sang.
Casual encounters, with their fleeting moments of ecstasy and liberation, offered no less. “There’s no comprehending, just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes and the lips you can get and still feel so alone,” she sings, on Coyote again. It is not self-pitying, but a realist’s account of wanting human touch without attachment, and the inevitable consequences.
Mitchell’s vulnerability is not the gentle, fragile kind that women are expected to display – it is at times annihilating. She demands the freedoms afforded to men to be left alone to do whatever they want, but Refuge of the Roads seems to laugh all this off. Keep moving, keep growing, it says: “We laughed how our perfection, would always be denied.”
One for the heads
Charles Mingus was one of the most lauded bassists and bandleaders in jazz, playing behind Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. He was explosive, at times violent, a “bad boy offstage” but “pure as could be onstage” as Mitchell would describe him. Mingus would chastise players for falsifying emotion – “most people can’t hear that, the phony note,” she told her biographer David Yaffe – but he liked Mitchell for her purity of spirit and lack of guile.
By the time they worked together, Mingus had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and was terminally ill. He died before the project could be completed. “Charles Mingus, a musical mystic, died in Mexico, January 5, 1979 at the age of 56. He was cremated the next day. That same day 56 sperm whales beached themselves on the Mexican coastline and were removed by fire. These are the coincidences that thrill my imagination,” she wrote in the sleevenotes.
While she had never put her voice to someone else’s music before, the album is all the more thrilling because of it – it howls with this collision of euphoria and dissonance. Her voice, in part due to the steady stream of cigarettes she smoked, is deeper than the flighty soprano of her younger years, rich and world-worn. She is facing her own mortality as Mingus grapples with his.
Instinct drives this album much like the rest of Mitchell’s career. An easy path for her could well have been to write album after album of Blues and Court and Sparks, but she would never have found satisfaction. Her endurance has been down to her own strong will – never has she settled into taking the advice of others. That is true resilience, a rare freedom of spirit.
The primer playlist
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Reckless Daughter by David Yaffe
A comprehensive, meticulously researched biography featuring many interviews over the years with Mitchell herself and her collaborators. The book covers her early life to the present day and is full of riches: a favourite anecdote being the time Leonard Cohen brought his septuagenarian Buddhist teacher to visit her and he “jumped in her bed”.
Joni Mitchell Taught Me How to Feel, Radio 4
NPR’s music brilliant critic and Mitchell authority Ann Powers takes on a journey through her life and career, packed with glorious archive interviews and live sessions. The resurrection of another of Mitchell’s masterpieces, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, is welcome.
A lovingly curated archive of press clippings, radio and TV excerpts and almost anything ever written about Mitchell is packed in this archive.