Just taken delivery of the Rock’s Backpages JONI anthology, Reckless Daughter, published by Constable/Little, Brown on November 3rd. Here’s my intro to the collection…
Our Lady of Sorrows
On the afternoon I interviewed Joni Mitchell, in September 1994, she was in the most infectious of moods: giggly, garrulous, bordering on flirtatious. When we were done talking, she hammed it up for the photographer on the street, just around the corner from her manager Peter Asher’s office on West Hollywood’s Doheny Drive.
I’ve always felt privileged to have met this genius of North American music, this Canadian prairie maid turned folk poetess turned canyon confessor turned jazzbo hybridiser turned… well, never mind the many shapes Mitchell’s shifted over half a century. Let’s just agree she’s peerless and untouchable as a singer-songwriter of intricate lyrics and swoopingly beautiful melodies.
Her words and her “weird chords” you can read about at length in the pieces pulled together in this compendium. Included in Reckless Daughter are some of the most open and thoughtful interviews Mitchell has ever given, as well as some of the finest snapshots of her complex, often spiky personality. Here are reviews of (almost) all her albums – the consensus masterworks, the curate’s eggs – and of live appearances she’s made in tiny clubs and glitzy concert halls. Here are the words of writers who’ve fallen, as I did, under the spell of her piercing honesty, her tingling musical intimacy, her coolly nuanced moods: Americans and Brits alike, men and women who know how uniquely brilliant she is.
Some would say Mitchell has been her own worst enemy – has too often bitten the journalistic hands that stroked her. I choose to think she’s struggled to bear the weight of her talent and intelligence in an arena better disposed to the crass and the facile. True, she might have made life easier by not being quite so savage about the “three-chord-wonder” strummers who identify themselves as her disciples – but then why pretend they aren’t mediocrities when so many queue up to crown them the New Jonis? And when an artist has given us ‘The Arrangement’, ‘River’, ‘Car on a Hill’, ‘The Boho Dance’, ‘Amelia’, ‘Dog Eat Dog’, ‘My Secret Place’, ‘The Magdalene Laundries’, ‘Man from Mars’ and ‘If I Had a Heart’ – to offer a random smattering of marvels that span the length and breadth of her work – who are we to judge her character? Many of Mitchell’s songs are great art. Almost all are emotionally complex, musically gripping. From the earliest virginal days of ‘Chelsea Morning’ to the late, husky despair of Turbulent Indigo‘s ‘Sex Kills’, Joni’s is a voice that belongs to her alone. So we should excuse her occasional impatience with the received idea that she is godmother to those who do nothing more useful than string together stale chords and trite musings and call them songs.
Granted, Mitchell’s own earliest compositions sound somewhat fey today. ‘Urge For Going’ and ‘Both Sides Now’ have a kind of fluting, pellucid innocence about them, while even she acknowledges that the winsome ‘Circle Game’ only has any currency these days as a campfire singalong. The first hint of her defining gravitas came with ‘Woodstock’, a song of starry-eyed hippie faith that, with its shimmery electric piano and curiously yodelled vocals, sounded a simultaneous note of dread. Personally I go a bundle on the grainy maturity of her vocal persona on such ’90s songs as ‘Passion Play’, ‘Come In From The Cold’ and ‘Nothing Can Be Done’, but they’re not to everybody’s tastes.
In these pages you’ll find Paul Williams, acknowledged founder of rock criticism, and Ellen Sander, one of the first women to write about pop. You’ll find Michael Watts and Geoffrey Cannon, subtle British commentators from rock’s first golden age. You’ll find keyboard player Ben Sidran on Joni’s homage to cantankerous jazz maverick Charlie Mingus, as well as considered appreciations – not always raves – of Mitchell’s art by Wesley Strick, Susan Whitall, Sandy Robertson, Joel Selvin and others. You’ll get the fine words of Tom Nolan, Loraine Alterman, Mick Brown, Ben Fong-Torres, Fred Goodman and many more.
Here is most of what you could ever want to know about Joni Mitchell, a towering troubadour and sometimes reckless daughter of America’s folk-rock revolution.