In my mid-teens, I realized that Joni Mitchell was unique, and that she presented—musically and poetically—an alternative to Dylan’s extravagance and his mock-preacher’s hectoring style. I adored her. But by the early ’80s I’d recast myself as an Indian classical musician. I lost touch with her world, and shut out what I had no language to describe: the extinction of that world’s eccentricity—its life—by the free market.
I began to listen to Western popular music again at the end of the ’90s. By now I’d become a performer in Indian classical music but had also realized that the ubiquity of the free market after the fall of the Berlin Wall did not constitute the end of the world: that some kind of creative life could continue within and despite it. It was Mitchell who confirmed this where popular music was concerned. Others who had survived Thatcher, Reagan, disco, the synthesizer, digitization, sequencing—Dylan and Neil Young—were aging with a kind of historical grandeur, a somber playfulness. James Taylor, clean after decades, balding but singing better than he had ever before, simply looked very well. But Mitchell emerged as a contemporary, no longer an alternative to Dylan, but to our idea of what might be possible in the arena of popular music in the new millennium: remaining herself, but not classically so; offering (as she had from the start) revisions of her work.
I rediscovered her on long-haul flights on Emirates, from Calcutta to London via Dubai. British Airways, in what seemed like a punitive measure taken against Calcutta for withdrawing from the market during decades of Left rule, terminated their direct flights to Heathrow in 2006. The airline’s withdrawal made the city feel more isolated. The compensation, for the traveler by air, was to be reconnected to the world by Emirates. The in-flight music had been put together by someone who was not only inclusive, but had imagination. Why else would Joni Mitchell’s Blue be available on Essential Albums, and what other reasons but imagination and obstinacy could explain why there was a Mitchell selection under Playlists? David Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, a biography that was published in 2017, underestimates, in its loyalty to its subject, the semi-obscurity that Mitchell was in until a few years ago. Yet it’s this semi-obscurity that made the work unique as it began to reappear—it gave each one of us a chance to reclaim her, and, through her, to not so much access a part of our memory as to come to terms with the importance to ourselves, in this brutal epoch, of the angularity of certain kinds of aesthetic practice. We can’t just be wide-eyed about Joni, as we can about Miles Davis; we have to listen to her. Mitchell’s myth is secondary to the music, or is best expressed in the music itself. It’s always partly tragicomic, the myth of a ditherer (odd word to use of a woman)—as with the song “Woodstock,” whose impact today is inextricable from our knowledge of the fact that she decided (a decision forever regretted) to miss Woodstock in favor of appearing on the Dick Cavett Show.
Listen to her is what I did on those flights; as I left home and departed earth temporarily, I found that the songs both transfixed and educated me. I say the person responsible for the in-flight music must have had imagination because the playlist not only featured songs that were deceptively easy to listen to, like “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Clouds,” but those that, early on, contained, in their music and words, a deep strangeness, like “The Gallery,” or, as with “Sex Kills” from much later, came from a corrosive clarity of vision. It was the 2000 version of “Clouds” that had been included, with strings and bursts of Wayne Shorter’s saxophone, the richness of the musical atmosphere offset by the trance-like stasis of the open tunings on which the original chords had been based, and by her slightly damaged but tune-soaked voice, finally rid of the ethereal, high transparency that had caused her for years to be mistaken for a “folk singer.” I felt, in the timelessness of those flights, that I was being addressed by a person from different points in her life with not only immediacy and passion, but a wisdom that had been there from the start. Even when singing, as a young woman, “I really don’t know life at all,” Mitchell had known life: this became evident in mid-air, in a state of severance. I listened to her without nostalgia. She was a contemporary, a fellow-traveler on that journey. I did not listen to her as I would, say, “Rainy Days and Mondays” by the Carpenters, which sounded like certain times of day in my childhood, and what it meant to be a 12-year-old to whom life and love were going to happen: an indescribable article of faith, now lost, except when regained briefly while listening to the popular music of the early ’70s.
Mitchell, by contrast, knew exactly where I was. I did not become a child in her company. And why shouldn’t this have happened on a plane? It was the most apt place for the re-acquaintanceship. Yaffe’s biography describes how “Clouds,” which first established her remarkable songwriting abilities, originated from a convergence of earthly dislocation and textual epiphany: “I was reading Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King on a plane and early in the book Henderson the Rain King is also up in a plane. He’s on his way to Africa and he looks down and sees these clouds. I put down the book, looked out the window and saw clouds too, and I immediately started writing the song. I had no idea that the song would become as popular as it did.” These are Mitchell’s words to Yaffe, who goes on to say: “She’d been instructed to read the book by her soon-to-be-ex-husband. In it, Bellow writes about the mystery and majesty of traveling by plane: “We are the first generation to see clouds from both sides. What a privilege! First people dreamed upward. Now they dream both upward and downward.”
Around 2014, I began to talk to friends about Joni and was disappointed—surprised—by how little they knew. These were people who listened to music. I had a conversation about her with a highly accomplished ex-student in New York, a writer who had musical training, who thought I was talking about Janis Joplin. This was related to a problem: the plethora of Js among women musicians of the time, which led to their conflation into a genre. Janis Joplin, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell: the last three especially were seen as interchangeable. Even if I put down my ex-student’s confusion to uncharacteristic generational ignorance, I found that, on mentioning Joni to a contemporary I had to work hard to distinguish her from Joan Baez. My friend had dismissed—not in the sense of “rejected,” but “taxonomized”—Joni as being part of a miscellany of singers with long, straight hair, high, clear voices, and a sincerity that shone brightly in the mass protests of the late ’60s. Visually, in her early acoustic performances with guitar, and even in her singing, she appropriated the folk singer’s persona to the point of parody, while the songwriting was absolutely unexpected. To prove this to my friend, I played her “Rainy Night House” and “Chinese Café / Unchained Melody.” It became clear in twenty seconds that Mitchell was not Joan Baez.
This is what I meant when I said listening to Mitchell is an education: because it’s never passive, and often entails a rethinking of what we already know about her and her contemporaries. There is no pre-existing notion of Mitchell’s music that will actually hold up to the experience of hearing one of her songs; the song never confirms our idea of her the way a Dylan or Crosby, Stills, and Nash song tend to confirm our idea of Dylan or Crosby, Stills, and Nash. I began to piece together her biography myself, through the virtual medieval library that is YouTube, where even the equivalent of scraps of paper bear miraculous testimony. My father had brought back many of her records for me from his trips to the UK in the ’70s, and some were available in India. So I already had The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, Miles of Aisles, Court and Spark, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, and Mingus from decades ago. I didn’t get to know her better by watching YouTube; after my viewings, I felt that Joni would always be on the verge of being discovered—however well-known she would or had already become, and despite her great renown, she must also always be semi-obscure. The space she’d created for herself embodied the contradictory stance that Osip Mandelstam took in his memoir, The Noise of Time: “My desire is not to speak about myself but to track down the age, the noise and the germination of time . . . my memory is not loving but inimical, and it labors not to reproduce but to distance the past.” By “the age,” Mandelstam doesn’t mean the conventional understanding of that term; by “inimical” he doesn’t mean “hostile.” These words have a charge that is palpable within our reading of Mandelstam’s memoir. Similarly, Mitchell appears deeply personal—of Blue, her breakthrough fourth album, Kris Kristofferson said to her, “Oh, Joni. Save something for yourself”—but the personal, here, involves an experimentation with both self and artistic direction that makes her more, not less, difficult to pin down.
Four videos stand out for me. The first (as the clapboard reveals) is from October 24, 1966, a couple of weeks before she turned 23. Joni is performing on the Canadian folk music show Let’s Sing Out!, presented by the folk singer Oscar Brand. Her name hovers in this show—she appeared on various episodes—between the Joan Anderson she was at birth and the Joni Mitchell she became after marrying the singer Chuck Mitchell in 1965. She’d had a daughter before meeting him whom she was forced to almost immediately give up for adoption. According to Lorrie Wood, a high school friend of Mitchell’s who saw her at the time, “she was destitute and wasn’t trained for anything. She had nothing but the music and she had no idea where that was going.” Wood, who’d given up a child for adoption herself, advised Mitchell that doing anything else in the situation she was in would be “selfish.”
Mitchell’s provincial origins in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, are referred to by Brand with avuncular jollity. That day she joins three other musicians, including Brand, in singing the opening theme song, beginning with the words, “Sing along in chorus!” She looks cheerful and cooperative. I’m unsure whether Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, whatever their compulsions, would have participated in such an arrangement. They almost certainly would not have. Mitchell’s project is different: it’s anti-romantic. She doesn’t mind merging in, briefly suppressing her singularity, and agreeing to a momentary compromise. This is clear as she sings obediently with Brand, Jimmy Driftwood, and Bob Jason. A gestural rebellion doesn’t interest her at the time: she’s not overtly rejecting the “system.” But it’s when she starts to sing “Urge for Going” that the uncompromising nature of her rebellion and the almost alienating sophistication of the music become suddenly obvious. This is the exceptionalism of a person who doesn’t take the trouble to appear different. It expresses itself first in the tremulous folk singer’s voice, which soon establishes itself in firmer control of the complex melody than any of her contemporaries could have managed. The melody is beautiful, but, like many of Mitchell’s tunes (well before she began to explore jazz), is actually not easy to sing along with without musical ability. It’s a tune that’s deceptively slow, with unexpected, almost awkward, transitions; bird-like, it quickly seems, in its delineation, to depart the pentatonic on which so much folk music and blues—so much of what was heard on Let’s Sing Out!—is based; it soars, circles, and returns. The harmonic setting brings the sweet, unresolved added ninth chords to the song that Canadians tended to bring to popular music, with the strange midway quality of being between two chords, different from the loose-sounding sevenths of the blues and the cool major sevenths of jazz.
The song is “about” something very basic to humans—more basic than love (the theme of most pop songs), as D. H. Lawrence might have said. It’s about the “urge for going,” to get up and leave, or the desire to do so; and it is about the tendency not to follow through: “I get the urge for going, but I never seem to go.” Both the desire and the subsequent inaction are fundamental to us. Some of our most vivid and detailed experiences occur in anticipation and desire, and not in the execution or the event. If Mitchell, as summer ended and the cold started, had followed through on her “urge for going,” she would have been a different kind of artist; she would not have written “Woodstock,” the greatest song written about any cultural moment, not least because she, to her own retrospective exasperation, chose to miss it (“I never seem to go”). Mitchell is an artist of procrastination. The trance-like stasis and constant air of possibility of the open tunings, the added ninth and sustained fourths, match this perfectly.
Stasis fascinates and defines Mitchell. Hers is not the entrepreneurial spirit that propels the romantic and the businessman alike. She is qualified about the artificiality of adventure. As late as 1988, writing, in a song called “The Tea Leaf Prophecy,” of a woman during World War II who is courted and then married by a returning soldier (this is her parents’ story), she is interested in what holds the woman back. At first, Molly McGee is single but restive, because all the men are away, fighting:
She plants her garden in the spring
She does the winter shoveling
Tokyo Rose on the radio
She says she’s leavin’ but she don’t go
Then Molly succumbs to “a young flight sergeant” who’s “just passin’ through”; “private passions and secret storms” ensue; they marry, but Molly’s restiveness and her inexplicable unwillingness to act on it remain:
She plants her garden in the spring
They do the winter shoveling
They sit up late and watch the Johnny Carson show
She says “I’m leavin’ here” but she don’t go
There is deep self-analysis and self-portraiture here in this account of the mother: it hints at Mitchell’s difficulty as a person, a difficulty related to her perverse rebellion against identifiable forms of rebellion. It’s in this way that she’s created her own unclassifiable position and oeuvre. It’s not that she wants to fail. She wants to succeed, but is immediately exhausted by the idea. She joins in, but is actually ill-fitting. She can’t be a bohemian or a folk singer, and she couldn’t have been, later, a hipster; she has a hunger artist–like inability to be appropriated by whatever it is that the bohemian or folk singer define themselves against. In this way, she escaped being—unlike Dylan—the soundtrack to the lives of the vagabond millionaires, who adopted bohemian tics and settled down in, and bought out, bohemian neighborhoods. The complexity of her position, achieved with humor and obduracy, and without tortured self-advertisement, is broached again, after “Urge for Going,” in The Hissing of Summer Lawns, a 1975 album that announced the decisive end of Mitchell’s folk-singer period. In the delicate and shrewd “The Boho Dance,” she sings:
Jesus was a beggar, he was rich in grace
And Solomon kept his head in all his glory
It’s just that some steps outside the Boho dance
Have a fascination for me
“The boho dance” is Tom Wolfe’s phrase; he uses it in his book The Painted Word to describe the impecunious artistic set that lives in “noble poverty” (Mitchell’s words in the song) in order to aggrandize themselves and their vocation. Mitchell wants to be part of this world (“Down in the cellar in the Boho zone / I went looking for some sweet inspiration”) but also curiously protects her own fraudulence: “But even in the scuffle / The cleaner’s press was on my jeans.” It’s as if she knows that the inhabitants of the boho zone will later on—by the ’80s, when her career as a songwriter would seem precarious—become capitalists and bankers; so she must employ disguise, and be an interloper. This is a woman who plays on various sides, becoming “part” of them temporarily, in order to keep her profound individuality—the bright, neatly dressed singer who sang along with Oscar Brand and company. She wants to participate; she wants to be her friend Sharon, with her children, husband, and farm; I don’t think Mitchell, unlike other artists, ever asked to be singular. Her achievement consists in her coming-to-terms-with—without either disavowal or overt emphasis—her unasked-for singularity. The disclosure of singularity is what takes Oscar Brand and Jimmy Driftwood by surprise when she begins “Urge for Going.” Brand blinks, and then smiles and seems to resign himself, after a few seconds, to a kind of superannuation; Driftwood is open-mouthed and swallows. Joni looks innocuous; but the music is alarming in a way that guitar-smashing is not. She’s not like a new piece of technology, a new model of a car no one had seen before at the time, and which is a curiosity today; like art, the music is both historical and refuses to adhere to a paradigm of progress. That’s why I watch the video open-mouthed, as Driftwood did.
The second video which forms, for me, a part of the unfolding of her biography is footage of a live performance in a studio of “Chinese Café / Unchained Melody.” The song belongs to the album Wild Things Run Fast, from 1982; the video must be from then. It’s a composition that has volume, in that it has an outer and an inner space, and a constant movement between the two that makes no assumptions about the “inner” containing the core, the “outer” comprising the husk. The “outer,” whose tonic is D major, is her own song, “Chinese Café,” about listening, recounting (to Carol, a friend, an incarnation of “Sharon” from the great “Song for Sharon”), longing:
Caught in the middle
Carol, we’re middle class
We’re middle aged
We were wild in the old days
Birth of rock ’n’ roll days
Now your kids are coming up straight
And my child’s a stranger
I bore her
But, I could not raise her
Nothing lasts for long
Nothing lasts for long
Nothing lasts for long
Down at the Chinese Cafe
We’d be dreaming on our dimes
We’d be playing
“Oh my love, my darling”
One more time
By the time she’s moved to “Down at the Chinese Café,” she’s approaching the inner room, the story within the story, where the song she and Carol listened to repeatedly, Alex North and Hy Zaret’s “Unchained Melody,” is sung briefly from a new tonic and starting-point, C major: “Oh my love, my darling.” At the end of the composition, she will enter that space completely, and sing “Unchained Melody” in full: the listener is now the singer; the lover who became a mother at the age of 22 and then gave her daughter up for adoption speaks as her unseen daughter’s lover (in the sense of one who loves): “Oh my love, my darling/ I’ve hungered for your touch.” Songwriting, for Mitchell, is about this dissolution of self and vantage point.
In 1982, when I was 20 years old, I’d lost interest in “the popular song.” I had discovered Indian classical music. I was practicing singing in whatever spare time I had (and I had plenty). I believed both rock and roll and the singer-songwriter era were historical facts. This belief, justified or not, was essential to me in that period of transition. Anyway, this was a young tradition, barely older than I was, whose stars were young people performing for young people. Surely they weren’t meant to age or evolve? Rock, notwithstanding marketable glam-rock in the ’70s and early ’80s (Kiss and Culture Club), seemed inherently a late Romantic, tragic art form. “My my, hey hey / Rock and roll is here to stay,” Neil Young had declared in 1979, and then, at the next moment, qualified the declaration: “It’s better to burn out / Than it is to rust.” I took this as a coda to the closing of that decade’s pop music; the greatly gifted ones had exited before the market became supreme. I went to London to study English literature in 1983, and the passing of the singer-songwriter period was confirmed to me as I heard notes of Lionel Richie’s “Hello” and Duran Duran from neighboring flats.
Watching the video of “Chinese Café / Unchained Melody” is to not only regret missing the ’80s; it’s to revise my understanding of that history. I missed the ’80s because I was spending all my time on Indian classical music; but the ’80s missed the ’80s because it was fixated on a handful of ideas and a narrow version of cultural change. The strange freshness and obscurity of Mitchell’s video from an over-familiar decade is a reminder of this. The song happened then. But the browsers of YouTube are barely becoming aware of the video now. Yaffe casts Mitchell as a survivor—of the polio that afflicted her (as it did Neil Young) when she was in school, giving her that physical awkwardness and forcing her to explore open tunings on her guitar; of an early, abortive motherhood and a bad, brief marriage to Chuck Mitchell. But, being a devoted fan, he overplays the consensus about the quality of her work, and doesn’t quite explore what it means for an artist to work and innovate within a superannuated form and a space of redundancy. This is what Mitchell is doing in 1982: proclaiming both her self and her invisibility, extending a musical tradition to which she once brought a singular perspective, and which no longer has a clear proof of existence. This is what some novelists, essayists, and artists are doing today: grappling with giving meaning to questions of form within a space of redundancy, performing tasks within ideas (like “literature”) that have died. Joni is extraordinary in this video because she’s possibly the first artist of this age to show us how this might be possible: a posthumous creativity, imparting meaning to a tradition one has outlived, reinventing its terms without hubris or haste, waiting for decades to be heard. In this video, her period of waiting and work has begun.
The third and fourth videos are from 1994. Twelve years have passed; her marriage to the bassist Larry Klein, with whom she wrote “Chinese Café,” and whom she glanced at occasionally with amused affection in that video, ends that year. Her new album, Turbulent Indigo, is seen as an emphatic return to form. In both the videos I have in mind, she is, after years, on an album tour. She is now about to become a songwriter’s songwriter, with fans like Prince and Morrissey, though a wider consciousness will come after another decade. The music industry is in the beginning of its death throes, suffocating signs of talent and individuality—as Herod went on rampage against first-borns—before proceeding to destroy itself. In the first of the 1994 videos, she steps out of the shadows almost literally, from an adjoining room, to perform the amazing “Sex Kills” before a small audience in a bar in Toronto. Nothing is different; everything is. She is back to being a folk singer—there is no band; just an acoustic guitar. The bar looks like an arts district version of a Chinese café. Can a person of her eminence really be performing in such a small setting? Is this 1969? No, the song—its lyrics (“Sex sells everything / and sex kills”) and unique style—confirms we’re near the end of the millennium. So do Joni’s prefatory remarks. The idea of the song came to her after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, she tells the family-like gathering, clarifying that she only spends part of her time there, and the rest in her native Canada. She was in her car; the atmosphere was uneasy; the “long white car” before her had a personalized license plate such as are common, she points out, in LA: it said JUST ICE. The riots had raised the question of what justice might be in America; and the number plate had casually severed the word into two weird Aristophanic halves. Mitchell, whose strong conceptual instincts are sharpest in weird (harmonic) contexts, began to wonder what justice was: “everybody wants it, but nobody knows what it is.” She even read Plato’s Republic, but found that the “Socratic society” it proposed would be “unjust to the likes of me, because it was a society of specialists. You had to be either a painter or a poet or a musician, but you couldn’t tackle all three. So I would already be pinched in this society.” Then she waves her arms mildly and admits, “I don’t know to this day what a just society or justice is, but this is kind of what went down”; then begins what is her best rendition and version of the song from the new album.
“So I would already be pinched in this society” is the voice of the Saskatoon provincial and mediocre school student—at once complaining and pure—who is also the principal artist of the contemporary era to bring together a theory and practice of resistance. It’s the resistance of one who’s unfit to do that one thing we should be identified with: painting, or poetry, or teaching. The polio made her unfit early on; in this, she—indeed, her beauty—is reminiscent of other exceptional women whose creativity and independence are closely allied to a malady in physical or mental health. I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf and her debilitating depression; and of the most innovative singer of our age, the Indian classical singer, Kishori Amonkar, whose career was interrupted early on by an illness that seemed to have damaged her voice. Amonkar used this period to think deeply of her style and to study other performers. Mitchell, too, in 1994, in the anecdote in which she describes the donée for “Sex Kills,” and in her semi-apologetic entrance from the shadows in that bar, exemplifies the art and politics that emerge from waiting, watching, and thinking.
The fourth video is recorded in what Americans call “England,” as part of the promotion for Turbulent Indigo. She sings “Sunny Sunday” and “Sex Kills” on BBC’s Late Show, and then, with a statuesque detachment and sphinx-like intelligence, takes questions from a nervous interviewer who wants to be feisty. I get the sense that seeing Mitchell in her beret, singing and then speaking, is a bit like seeing a ghost, as it was long ago for Jimmy Driftwood on Let’s Sing Out! “What! Are you here?” is the interviewer’s unspoken reaction.
Mitchell says at least three things of interest. First, she explains why she’s not a feminist: because she writes for everyone, not just for her sex. Besides, women feel “foreign” to her, and only lately has she begun to enjoy their company. In fact, her experience of being a woman is relatively recent in terms of her possession of earthly existence—a Sikh fortune teller once informed her (relating this on the BBC delights her) that this is her first incarnation as a woman. This, from an artist who is periodically condescended to by being named the best “female” singer-songwriter of her generation, too often confused with or merged into Janis Joplin or Joan Baez. The second set of observations concerns Los Angeles, whose traffic norms—she quotes from “Sex Kills”: “you can feel it in the traffic / everyone hates everyone”—underline the fact that we’re now far removed from the California she wrote about as a recurring point of return in the eponymous song from 1970: “I’m your biggest fan / California, I’m comin’ home.” Yet there she is in 1994, evidently capable of existing indefinitely. The interviewer comments on this: “As a woman artist entering—um, I suppose you have a thirty-year-career behind you—in a way you’re entering uncharted waters—there aren’t that many people who’ve done that before you—does that make you . . .” Mitchell interrupts and annotates the interviewer’s remark, leading to the third, and most striking, set of observations: “Lena Horne—you know—there are a few women . . . Jazz singers mostly. Pop singers, no. Pop is young,” she says drily, this archivist of pop, who, in “Chinese Café / Unchained Melody,” had sung of being “wild in those days” of her youth, “birth of rock and roll days.” “So we will see,” she says with the measured detachment she maintains throughout, “if the pop quote-unquote world will allow me to survive.” Here is the task that Mitchell was assigned from the start, and which she was never particularly eager to take on, as her facial expression in this video reveals: to survive not only polio and bad relationships, but to survive, uniquely, as an artist. Who assigned her this task is not clear. Its heroic character is hinted at by the interviewer’s turn of phrase: “uncharted waters.” “Is it a challenge that you feel excited by?” asks the interviewer, of this longstanding but also impending matter of “survival.” “Is it . . . No, I don’t care,” says Mitchell. The interviewer laughs: as if complete disavowal were a form of eccentricity. The deep indifference is reminiscent of Walter Benjamin and Kafka: Benjamin chose to remove himself from his life, Kafka from his work; Mitchell practices an equally viable form of indifference by surviving (“I get the urge for going, but never seem to go”; “She says she’s leavin’ but she don’t go”). She’s on a record tour, but she’s not entirely convinced why she’s in the BBC studio. “You know, if I don’t sell enough records, which is possible, that I won’t, basically because of this prejudice against middle-aged women . . . and also, like, for the last fifteen to twenty years, depending on what country you’re talking about, I’ve been out of favor, which is just typical of pop—no matter what I do, no matter how good my work is, you know, it’s not good enough . . .“ Her voice fades momentarily, then resumes, “So there’s a possibility that I will not sell enough records”—she jerks her head explanatorily to her left—“to . . . to have a contract”: that quasi-democratic, quasi-Mephistophelean item, so one-sided and meaningless from the nineties onwards! She narrows her eyes, smiles, and declares her desire for extinction—not into death, but into another genre: “In which case I’ll paint. I always wanted out of this business.” The interviewer laughs loudly, not just entertained, but briefly liberated, realizing she’s seeing before her the marks of an idiosyncrasy that has ennobled an oeuvre. Not “I will sing!” but “In which case I’ll paint” is Mitchell’s contradictory credo; her contribution not only to music but to understanding how one might continue to be a creative artist.
Through a series of moments—the Emirates flights from Calcutta to London via Dubai; the four videos on YouTube; my periodic revisiting of her work in recordings and performances—I had already constructed a kind of biography before Yaffe’s appeared, and had begun to try to make sense of why her endeavor, her unflinching investment in a certain kind of complexity and sophistication, resonated with those who are much younger than her. As an exemplar—I use the word to mean not the way she’s lived her life or written her songs, but the way she’s lived life in her songs and her singing—she has, I think, no peer. One wouldn’t turn to her, or read her biography, for self-help, to discover, for instance, how a successful person was both “human” and “made it.” These questions are as irrelevant to her as is the project of listening to her in order to relive one’s past. The videos reconfirm that every meeting with her is a first meeting; we are discovering her as a contemporary. Yaffe’s biography is useful and diverting with information about her relationships—with Chuck Mitchell, Sam Shepard, Graham Nash, Larry Klein, and her largely absent daughter; about what others felt about her and what she felt about others, her Scorpio’s intolerance of fakery increasing with age. But from the songs and performances you can construct the life yourself; not because of the revelations contained within them, but because the episodes they comprise in the making of both a life and an art. Her life can’t really be written about because the well-known songs, characters, and events don’t add up to a pre-made entity called “Joni Mitchell.” Her oeuvre, after all, was inaugurated by disavowal: “I really don’t know life at all.”
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