Robert Plant, who used to be the vocalist for a folk-metal band called Led Zeppelin, recently noted that vocalists are "one-trick ponies." I think what he meant was that they're stuck with one instrument...their own voices. Amy Winehouse might love Tony Bennett and vice versa, but neither could sing like the other.
And sure enough, the match of any particular voice to any particular one of us seems to require a certain alchemy. It's almost a matter of chemistry, as fickle and personal as romantic chemistry. John Lennon ruined his voice with ill-advised scream therapy in 1970 (something you wouldn't think a rock and roller would have any need for), but before that it got to me like few others, and Bob Marley could practically sing the phone book and pull me in.
We're idiosyncratic, too. Hendrix was a guitarist who sang, and it worked, but I never could understand why Stevie Ray Vaughan didn't hire a vocalist for his band like, say, Robin Trower did. It was once a commonplace for blowhard conservatives to rant about how Dylan can't sing, even before he couldn't (believe me on this point—I went to Dartmouth in the '70s), but Neil Young, whose voice is fingernails on a chalkboard to some, is my favorite musician in rock. I don't mind his voice at all.
Creativity and invention
Neil's fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell (the Taylor Swift of the baby boom generation, for you younger people) was one of the greatest artists in the world—of any kind—in the 1970s, with a stretch of eight albums—from Clouds in 1969 to Don Juan's Reckless Daughter in 1977—that represented an almost unparalleled sustained high point of creativity, invention, and mastery in the singer-songwriter genre. But, personally, apart from a memorable drug-fueled late-night encounter with The Hissing of Summer Lawns in a coed's dorm room, I never engaged with her very deeply in the day. The problem for me was, first, that her voice never particularly meshed with me; and then, later on, I felt her artistry was gradually let down by the fact that she was never a particularly happy woman. She was always realistic and always thoughtful and honest, which is suited to young people during the search for individuation and intimacy. It's just that as she got older she sounded increasingly like someone who was never particularly fulfilled as a person. The young confessions, so honest, turned into distanced observations.
I've been trying to catch up with her lately, because there's a new biography out. My first favorite among her albums has always been Wild Things Run Fast, featuring a painting of her, by her (looking strangely vacant), on the cover. Wild Things was on the downslope of her great run, after she had identified jazz as a suitable field for her genius and had tried to turn in that direction, but it was another attempt to make a more rhythmic album connected to the pop music of the moment.
Wild Things was a gateway drug to jazz for me, and I still love the songs—has anyone ever given better advice to someone with a crush than "Be Cool"? Her medley of "Chinese Café" and "Unchained Melody" achingly unchains the melody three quarters of the way through, and her observations in that song have a poignant melancholy worthy of Billie Holiday or Edith Piaf. The album ends with her gorgeous mashup setting of 1 Corinthians 13:1 that never fails to move me—I could say of it what Ron Rosenbaum said of "Amelia," that "it's a certain kind of song, one that seems to activate some sort of hard-wired emotional cell cluster in my brain, I'm (unscientifically) convinced. Songs that do for me what crack does for other people."
Wild Things was never highly popular, despite the blandishments on its behalf by David Geffen and the world tour Joni undertook behind it. Her Taylor Swift moment had passed by then, and her popularity, once fanatical and dependable, had begun its long downward ebb.
Court and Spark, my other longtime favorite among her albums, was the one everyone liked. It was an immediate critical and popular success and has always been her best-selling album. True Joni Mitchell fans will have a different favorite, most often Blue, or Clouds or Ladies of the Canyon, but Court and Spark is her most accessible work. "Help Me" followed by "Free Man in Paris" is among the most soaring one-two punches on records, and her version of the famous and much-recorded "Twisted" became definitive. (I could write a whole post on "Twisted"—it consists of adroit comic lyrics written by Annie Ross in 1952 (in the video, that's Count Basie on the piano and Tony Bennett on the couch), added to an instrumental of the same title composed by the doomed Wardell Gray in 1949. Annie Ross said of it, "the title was [sic] infinite possibilities"—one of which was macabre, in that poor Wardell Gray, a lush saxophone stylist, was discovered in the desert outside of Las Vegas in 1955 with his neck broken—and the murder, probably mob-related, was never solved. In fact it was never accepted as a murder, as if healthy young men just turn up with broken necks sometimes.) Among the infinite possibilities, Ross decided on a hilarious tale of an unrepentant analysand. Joni Mitchell made it hers, and made it immortal. Her instincts were sure—the line about two heads being better than one made a perfect album ending.
The new book is by David Yaffe, a humanities professor at Syracuse. It's reportedly somewhat hagiographic, as celebrity biographies inescapably are. Mitchell used her long list of often very famous lovers as both "muse and nemesis," in the words of Sibbie O'Sullivan, and she could be both grandiose (excusable) and abrasive, crass, and vindictive (less so), and sometimes outright zany (as when she sometimes insisted she had an inner black male self). She is 74 now, unmarried, and divides her time between her 80-acre ranch in Sechelt, British Columbia, and her home in L.A. Like Lennon, she was less than responsible about caring for her primary instrument—her voice—which deteriorated due to her four-pack-a-day cigarette habit. She has suffered health problems since 2015, and the world sends its love.
But artists aren't about the artist; they're about the art. I'm eager to see what light David Yaffee has to shed on that. Joni Mitchell's art has influenced everyone who's heard it. Book's in my queue.
"Open Mike" is the often off-topic editorial page of TOP. It's supposed to appear on Wednesdays, but dang, this stuff doesn't write itself. It's not hard to write, it's just hard to know what to say. Really takes it outta me sometimes.
Original contents copyright 2017 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Ken White: "I enjoyed Joni’s music in the '60s and '70s and felt somewhat embarrassed by that fact. Then one night I found myself in a bar in Nevada City, California listening to solo guitarist perform of 'A Case of You' to a mostly empty room. Somehow that experience allowed me to hear her music with different ears. She is still in regular rotation in my house. Best wishes to Joni, always."
Richard Reusser: "I decided Joni might be worth exploring after my (very late) exposure to 'The Last Waltz' on DVD. Her performance mesmerizes me every time I re-watch. Great post. Music and photography are like wine and chocolate."
Andrew Lamb: "She’s one of the all-time greats. Not sure if I’d want to meet her. She comes across as tricky. She’s also a good example of an artist who ruthlessly mines everything for her art. Everything is copy, especially ex-lovers. Blue is my favourite, by the way."
Ron Braithwaite: "This is amazing timing. I've been listening to the new(ish) Joni Mitchell anthology, The Studio Albums (1968-1979) pretty steadily for the past few days (with occasional interludes of Gil Scott-Heron's new(ish) I'm New Here). Joni has been one of the main players in the soundtrack of my life, first finding her in 1969. Thanks for bring this up and for your insight: 'But artists aren't about the artist; they're about the art. Joni Mitchell's art has influenced everyone who heard it. Don't know about you, but book's in my queue.'"
Mike replies: Alas, not that recent: Gil died in 2011. My favorite was his album with Brian Jackson, Winter in America, thanks to my Dartmouth roommate Bruce Jackman.
Benjamin Marks: "Court and Spark has long been a favorite here. Growing up, we had an uncle in the music business and every year he would select some popular music as gifts for us. My parents could not have been less interested in popular music...at least not after the American Songbook era (Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn singing). But in 1974 my uncle walked through the door with that album and knowing nothing else about the singer, we took to Joni Mitchell like ducks to water. We kind of evolved with her as her work got more complex over the years. Court and Spark was such a favorite that we memorized the songs with the skips and pops in our copy of the album. Years later, I replaced that scratched up album with a CD and oddly the tracks didn't sound quite right without the defects we had introduced. I have a recent boxed set of remasters sitting next to my CD player. Good music just doesn't get old."
JG: "At first, I loved Wild Things Run Fast—both for its music, as well as its sound quality (I have a white-jacket test pressing of the LP made with 'Quiex II' vinyl and it sounds quite a bit better than the standard vinyl pressings)—but over time, I came to hate it. That's because my boss at the time—the late, great HP [Harry Pearson of The Absolute Sound magazine —Ed.]—loved it even more than I did and played it so often while reviewing stereo equipment that I eventually burned-out on it. (I'll bet it has been at least two decades since the last time I listened to it.) Accordingly, my favorite of her albums is Blue and as coincidence would have it, I was actually listening to it as I read your piece. 8^) P.S.: You might also enjoy reading Sheila Weller's book Girls Like Us, which covers the backstories about Carole King, Carly Simon, and Joni Mitchell."
Mike replies: Ahh...so then you could live without that white-jacket test pressing, is what you're saying? Hint, hint? :-)
Chris Y.: "Honestly I keep coming back to her first album Song to a Seagull. Get it in vinyl and drop the needle on that thing. (I've just recently learned thanks to this moment Mitchell is having, that the guitar she is using on it is a 1956 Martin D28. It sounds like a Steinway.) She used ethereal tunings, almost Shakespearean lyrics, and as you noted, a worldly and heartbroken voice that completely redefined what the folksinging art form could be. With that album she raised the bar to the moon. Anyone discovering her now, especially musicians, should go back to that record and decide for themselves whether she was the Taylor Swift of her time, or something much more. This was her coffeehouse time, hypnotizing small audiences of cognoscenti in small smoky rooms, in town after town. Her work since then has ranged from unique to incomparable, but I always go back to the beginning for the deepest draught...."
John McMillin: "From 'Amelia' to 'Refuge of the Roads,' the Hejira album set the gold standard for me. Just thinking about these songs starts my scalp tingling, as if my hair follicles are antennae connecting me with some distant broadcast of truth, emotion and beauty. Jaco never played so lyrically, with this kind of restraint. Soon, in this fertile crescent where folk collides with jazz, Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays would be in her band for a short while, bringing them to my ears for a lifetime of musical wonderment and awe. Joni played and recorded with an all-star band of other top jazz players, and her tunes are still favorites for jazz covers and interpretations. So it's almost impossible for me to imagine my musical universe without Mitchell's projects and collaborations...not to overlook her songs and lyrics, which are as exquisite, witty and profound as the best instrumental work of her collaborators."