Her Own ChairJoni Mitchell: In Her Own Words
Edited by Malka Marom Toronto, Canada: ECW Press, 2014, 256 pp., $29.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Joanna Weiss
Joni Mitchell is not well. In early April, she was found unconscious in her California home and rushed to intensive care—prompting some early retrospectives, outpourings of love, and new attempts to define her career. There are plenty of Americans, after all, who missed her glory days, and imagine her a relic of folk history. To Mitchells’ biggest fans, this is untenable. “Joni Mitchell,” griped one headline, on the music website Cuepoint, “is not a 60s folk singer.”
Enter the new oral history Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, in which Mitchell, now 71, attempts to define herself. This book is not memoir or an autobiography; it’s a transcription of three long interviews about Mitchell’s life and art, conducted by the Canadian singer and novelist Malka Marom. (It also serves as a collector’s item for Mitchell devotees, filled with Mitchell’s artwork and her lyrics laid out lovingly, like poems.)As a guide, Marom is probing but uncritical, a stand-in for fans who view Mitchell’s songs as the soundtrack to their lives. Marom felt this way from the beginning. In 1966, she was part of a folk duo called Malka and Joso—a local celebrity, reeling from a personal crisis—when she wandered into a Toronto coffeehouse and spied a young Mitchell performing “I Had a King” and “Both Sides Now.” Marom realized she had stumbled onto something great.
They spoke briefly that night, then lost touch. Mitchell became a star. Years later, Marom contacted her to request an interview for Canadian radio. Thus launched a friendship and this trio of sprawling conversations, which trace the arc of Mitchell’s career. The first came as Mitchell was recording Court and Spark (1974), her biggest commercial and critical hit. When she gave the second, she was about to release Mingus (1979), an album that represented her sense of experimentation and confirmed that her place in American music was firmly outside the mainstream.
The third interview hits Mitchell at a melancholy point, in 2012: she hasn’t performed in years, lives largely in isolation, and struggles with a debilitating skin condition that some doctors believe is in her head. She’s contemplated her career, endured the critics’ barbs, grappled with the cost of remaining undefined.
“America loves beginners,” she tells Marom. “In the honeymoon, when I was a new artist, they always say nice things but after that, the longer I’m at it, the higher I raise the bar…You’re too different, therefore you’re dangerous, kill it.” This is an overstatement, from someone who is widely admired and still graces magazine covers (including the February 2015 issue of New York magazine); she’s not a hit machine, but she’s an icon. But Mitchell has always been a prickly figure, as an artist and a would-be role model. She says provocative things about gender and race. She criticizes other musicians. (Her take on Lady Gaga is dismissive: “I don’t know. It’s pageantry.”)
And though she has been seen as a female pioneer, she has always disavowed feminism. She tells Marom that to her, the movement’s calls for group action always felt like “emulating men.” But she has also chafed, in a personal way, at the constancy of female competition. In the 1973 interview, she talks about a street musician who told her that I didn’t pay any dues and his girlfriend was better than me and she was going to dethrone me. I said, “Well, that’s ridiculous. There’s another throne waiting for her. Why do you have to kick me out of that chair? Get yourself your own chair.”
It’s hard not to love that attitude, regardless of how you feel about her music. And for many Americans, Mitchell’s temperament and image precedes her work. Here’s where I make a confession: I’m not a fan like Marom is, following her career, hanging on every word and tune. I’d known Mitchell mostly as…a sixties folk singer. So I found it useful, while reading this book, to have YouTube at my side, to match lyrics with music and learn, in a sense, what the fuss was all about. To a fresh ear, Mitchell’s work is deep and ambitious and jarring, especially compared to what female pop singers are doing today. My daughter is ten and demands the Top 40 whenever we drive in the car. And while there’s nothing to make you feel old like complaining about your kids’ music, here goes: I’m constantly struck by how meaningless most of it is. The worst are the factory-produced songs sung by former Disney Channel stars, soulless sub-clichés about some impersonal form of love. Even Taylor Swift, who pours authentic feelings into songs she wrote herself, is turned almost completely inward; her songs capture youthful drama and dreams, but they don’t often dig much deeper. Mitchell has been famously dismissive of the idea that Swift would play her in a biopic. “All you’ve got,” she told the Sunday Times of London last fall, “is a girl with high cheekbones.”
Granted, Mitchell’s life, by the time she was Swift’s age, was filled with far more grit and sadness: she’d been in and out of a bad marriage, placed a child up for adoption, and struggled with poverty as an unwed mother. She had more depth to mine. But Mitchell also aimed higher; she was chronicling society and culture, trying not just to capture emotional moments, but to understand them. There’s another difference, too. Swift—for now, at least—clearly wants to be popular, to be loved. Mitchell professes not to care. In the 1979 interview, she dismisses the notion that her songs should have those whistle-able tunes: “For me to go on creating whistle songs, I would bore myself to death. I’m exploring something else now. I’m trying to find something fresh.” But while her confidence and clarity has thrilled some of her fans, it has pushed many others away. She told Marom that “my accomplishment as a woman is intimidating, both to other women and to men.” It may be, though, that she was most intimidating, not as a woman, but as a musician. Self-taught, she never learned to do what’s technically correct. She devised a way of holding a guitar that got the sounds she wanted, but made Eric Clapton stare. She filled her songs with suspension chords—she calls them “chords of inquiry”—that jazz musicians are taught to use far more sparingly. She was disdainful of session players who resisted her precise instructions: “These people,” she griped to Marom, “they think you’re after something invisible.”
Still, Mitchell reserves her most bitter complaints for producers and record executives—those she describes as “sexual tourists in my business.” It’s hard to tell which parts of her struggle for acceptance stemmed from gender, from being a strong-willed woman in a male-dominated industry, and which came from her fierceness as an artist. At one point, she recounts how Bob Dylan likened her to a man, because “she gets to tell the band what time it is.” “So basically I’m like a man because I lead a band,” she tells Marom. Well, why does that make me like a man? Because I’m not like a man, but I’m a thinking female, and I’m not a feminist. So what am I, then? Real freak, right? I’m a person outside every box there is.
The best musicians admired that iconoclasm: the vision and the results. “You have to be a very good musician to play her tunes,” the drummer John Guerin notes, in one of several extra interviews Marom sprinkles throughout the book. The jazz great Charles Mingus, dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease, asked Mitchell to collaborate on a project. He wrote melodies for her, and she, in turn, wrote songs about him, including “Chair in the Sky,” which Mitchell explains is about “being stuck in this wheelchair in a skyscraper in Manhattan.” If there’s a revelation in this book, that song title sums it up: Mitchell’s lyrics are full of rich and memorable images, but their origins are sometimes endearingly prosaic. “The Hissing of Summer Lawns,” the name of a song and album about the emotional bankruptcy of suburban life, refers to the sound lawn sprinklers make. She came up with “Both Sides Now” when she was sitting on an airplane, reading a Saul Bellow book and looking down at…clouds. And “Big Yellow Taxi”? She wrote it in 1967 in a hotel room in Hawaii, after looking out a window at a vast parking lot. Mitchell says she wants to be cryptic, but not muddy. Yet her images always spin off into something larger. They pour out of her involuntarily, poetically, though she gripes that her lyrics aren’t recognized as poems. Here’s how she explains, in 2012, why she always set her ideas to music: “The song gives me a corset. When you take the corset off, I’m overwhelmed.” It’s an interesting idea, and a gendered one; it’s hard to imagine Dylan using those words. It’s also a sort of a metaphor for Mitchell’s public life. Most of us want to place our artists in corsets, lock them in amber, force them to fit a simple definition. It’s the artist’s job—sometimes a lonely one—to break free of the boundaries, come what may. The real Joni Mitchell is overwhelming, to be sure. That’s part of her difficult charm.
Joanna Weiss is a columnist and editor at the Boston Globe, and the author of the novel Milkshake (2011).