Title: Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell
Author: David Yaffe
Finished: November 5, 2018
Joni Mitchell. Oh WOW. She’s been one of my favorite singer songwriters for so long. Her string of albums “Blue”, “For The Roses”, and “Court and Spark” are amazing. If you haven’t listened to Jon much – or at all – I urge you to play these three albums, sit back and be moved.
Her love songs spring from her loneliness. “Rolling Stone raved, ‘Love’s tension is Joni Mitchell’s medium…’”[p 163]
“Trevor Horn … once told BBC’s Radio 4 that ‘People’s Parties’ was the song he’d most like to pass down to his children. He said he’d considered ‘citing Bob Dylan as an example of lyrical excellence and Debussy as a master of melody, but then realized Joni Mitchell did both at once. Court and Spark,’ Horn declared, ‘will stand up in two hundred years’ time…” [p 180]
Naturally, when I heard about this biography I put it at the top of my reading queue. Sometimes it’s not good to learn too much about your heros. This unflinching telling of her life shows what a hard person she is. Before you complain that I’m judging a woman by harsher standards than men, know that she throws shade on everyone in her life. Everyone she worked with or had relationships with came up wanting. To her credit, she was able to work with people after breakups but she disparages almost everyone. Graham Nash is the least scathed.
As we read about her life we understand where this toughness came from. “Joni sized up her parents and found them wanting.” [p 6]. She had nightmares as a child about her father driving recklessly; then she discovered it was actually a real event. “For Joni, it was a powerful affirmation of her childhood suspicion that she was being raised by adults who were not up to the task.” [p 7] This was later burned in when she had polio and was left on her own in the hospital. Even though it was common for parents not to visit children in the polio wards it scarred her. Thankfully, she recovered to a large extent so it’s little wonder she became self-sufficient.
“It is not hard to imagine why Joni, in her professional career, would time and time again defer to her own instincts. Her fortitude and endurance proved more reliable than her best advisers. Others would underestimate her, but she would not underestimate herself.” [p 21]
The biography excellently ties together Joni’s life and how her circumstances through the years affected her music. Because polio weakened her hands she couldn’t play guitar chords the standard way.
“Her left had, weakened by polio, is just a single finger running up and down her guitar’s neck. Joni leaves all the work to her right hand, which builds polychords with her open tunings.” [p 172]
There is a picture on the internet of Eric Clapton sitting down in front of Joni watching in amazement at how she gets her rich sounds.
Joni followed her muse which took her away from the popular music space for years. She collaborated with the jazz bassist Charles Mingus in his final year. She steered the focus of the album from Mingus music to her interpretation. She needed musicians who were supportive and it was sometimes difficult to find jazz players who would be content to backing her up.
“Charles Mingus had famously called her a ‘nervy broad,’ and it was perhaps in how she led her bands that Joni showed her steeliness most. ‘Because of my wordiness, I am first responsible to my words,’ she explained later on. ‘So when I play with a band, I have to be the leader. Well, the words have to be the leader. And if there’s any room for anyone to get in, well good luck.” [p 282]
I followed Joni through “Hissing of Summer Lawns” (1975) and “Hejira” (1976). But her muse was taking her somewhere I didn’t follow. It’s an artist’s job to follow her inspiration, not the market.
And of course along the way we are treated to the gossipy side of her life – who her lovers were – Leonard Cohen, James Taylor and Jackson Browne among them – and her mostly one sided feud with Joan Baez. Plus it’s fun to read about all the influences she had on others. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin adored Joni’s work and their “Going to California” is a love song to her.
“Jimmy Page would tell a reporter, ‘That’s the music that I play at home all the time, Joni Mitchell. Court and spark I love because I’d always hope that she’d work with a ban But the main thing with Joni is that she’s able to look at something that’s happened to her, draw back and crystallize the whole situation, then write about it. She brings tears to my eyes, what more can I say? It’s bloody eerie.’” [p 187]
And, “[Jackson] Browne never denied that he wrote ‘Fountain of Sorrow’ for Joni.” [p 344]
At times David Yaffe gets a bit too cute in his storytelling. As when he links her childhood “chasing white lace. More recently, she has been chasing white powder.” [p 235]
As I read this I’d get critical of her; but then I listen to her songs. It’s all about the songs. As Trevor Horn said, Joni Mitchell is one of – if not the – greatest songwriter of my generation.
Seriously, if you aren’t familiar with her work or don’t want to invest in the time to read this biography, sit down and listen to “Blue”, “For The Roses”, and “Court and Spark”. And don’t be surprised if – like Jimmy Page – you shed a few tears. Still too much effort? Listen to “Blue”. Now.