She is too often irritatingly referred to as a sort of “female Bob Dylan”, which still makes my hackles rise and keeps my gag reflex in good working order. Nothing against Bob, of course. But, the two artists are not to be compared, least of all while using the tag of “female” as a modifier, and ultimately as a way to reduce her significance on the basis of gender. I will say no more about it (maybe).
Hailing from the Canadian prairies, Mitchell took her art to the folk scenes of Calgary, Toronto, Detroit, New York, and eventually to La-La land and the Laurel Canyon scene starting in the 1960s and on through the 1970s. She started off with a girl-with-guitar hippie-chick image, where she has often stayed in the minds of the uninitiated. But, Mitchell’s work is expansive and fearless well beyond labels or eras, even from her earliest period. Lately, she’s made the headlines because of her ill-health, and also due to her rather cantankerous attitudes having to do with the music industry as well as toward her contemporaries.
But, it is her art that remains to be her strongest and most vital voice, sometimes with that cantankerous outlook built in, sometimes not. And as such, I hereby present ten tracks of Joni, ten musical beacons in a galaxy of bright points that measure her unique and far-reaching artistic journey. Some are hits, while others are simply examples of her fearlessness in an industry in which she thrived, and against which struggled in equal measure.
When casual music fans think of Joni Mitchell, perhaps the sound and feel that this song employs and the era out of which it comes is what immediately comes to mind. Being on folk scenes in various cities by the mid-sixties, the message here reflects the true impulses of its author. But, it also reflects the need for Mitchell to write her own material in an ever-growing crowd of folk-singing hopefuls and entitled big fish in small folk-scene ponds. This one was an early composition two years before the release of her first album Song To A Seagull in 1968.
Even if “Urge For Going” reflects a certain adherence to the folk-boom mainstream, it also demonstrates Mitchell’s capacity for ecstatic imagery, and for emotional complexities that outstrip the average songwriter even today. This one changed the narrative by inserting a woman’s point of view into the folk music trope that would have her be the rock to a rambling man who leaves when he wishes. As we see here, women too long to ramble and to affect changes in their lives by starting again somewhere else just as men do, although with more judgement on them when they do. The song was offered to Judy Collins, who turned it down (although Collins would have a hit with Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”). Tom Rush recorded it, though. So did Crosby, Stills & Nash when Joni befriended them, later to provide another hit for them in “Woodstock”, a song that would also capture the atmosphere and social climate of the times.
Speaking of travels, wanderlust, and changing the narrative, this song off of 1971’s Blue finds Mitchell abroad and having adventures on the island of Crete, during a self-imposed sabbatical. It also showed that the whole “girl with guitar” vibe that had been a part of her earlier work had expanded to include new instruments like the Appalachian dulcimer which is the texture that serves as a foil to Mitchell’s vocal on this tune. It presents a new feel in general that is harder to define in musical terms, too. Famously, the album off of which this song comes was recognized as one of those “confessional” singer-songwriter albums everyone was talking about by the early seventies, a whole movement that Mitchell was purported to embody. Yet, this one confesses to nothing, rather painting a picture not of a person in mourning for a lost relationship, but rather one of a woman enjoying one with no strings.
Around this time, Joni won Rolling Stone‘s ridiculous and mean-spirited “Old Lady Of The Year” award, because she was known at the time for her high profile relationships with some of her male counterparts. This song casts all of that into the sea as Mitchell owns her own identity and reclaims her sexuality from stupid magazine articles all at once. “Carey” is a song of independence, of living in the moment, and of being free of labels and associations that the press and the music industry seemed to demand of its writer, even if those aforementioned male counterparts seemed to escape them without question.Overall, “Carey” is sexy, sunny, and full of fun on an album that is wrongly thought of as being one on which Mitchell exclusively lays her soul bare over a break up. She does in places, for certain. But as this song demonstrates, there’s more than one way to get over a break-up. A bottle of wine down at the Mermaid Café with a special friend is sometimes just the ticket.
Far from the earnest folk scenes of the sixties, and from the idea that pop music made for radio cannot also be interesting, “Free Man In Paris” as featured on 1974’s Court And Spark covers the bases. Mitchell had always made music for people to hear in the mainstream. By this time, her “Big Yellow Taxi” was practically a modern standard. But, this one tackles a subject that would remain close to her heart through out her career; the music industry and the lives of those surrounded by sycophants and opportunists. Interestingly, she sheds that despised “confessional” tag in this song, and wears the skin of another character completely, or perhaps simply makes that character into a doppleganger that mirrors her own struggles.
The central figure here is a mover and a shaker, based on young music mogul David Geffen who was known to be a champion of up-and-coming singer-songwriters, and a friend to Mitchell at the time. Here in this song, he’s just a human being with the need to get away from his responsibilities as being the make-or-break component in the careers of others, weighted by obligation and expectations that most mere mortals don’t have to worry about. Even the record company executives are the victims of music industry skulduggery. Of course, somewhat ironically maybe, it was a top-forty hit, garnering artist and label boss some serious benefits. Musically speaking, even if Mitchell still had success with radio on this one characterized by electric instruments and slick production, it shows that her interest in more intricate and layered arrangements that stand apart from her past work and the work of others was becoming more and more of an emphasis. That certainly would continue in earnest on ensuing releases. In the meantime, this song would become one of her most recognized songs and Court And Spark would become the gold standard by which her work would be compared. Star-maker machinery is the most unpredictable of engines.
With the top forty hits of the year previous, Joni went further into the interior of what drove her as an artist by 1975’s The Hissing Of Summer Lawns. Her more overt flirtations with jazz aside on the rest of the album, this tune is perhaps the most divergent from her folky past to date, complete with lyrical Rousseau jungle scenes, squelchy Moog synths, and Burundi drumming samples. It also explores the nature of musical expression, and even deeper, the roots of human impulses that inform it. “The Jungle Line “is a single and primitive thread to be found in scenes of cannibals who “shuck and jive” to the social scenes of Los Angeles by the mid-seventies when this song was written, with those “drooling for the taste of something smuggled in”. In this song, no distinction is made between the two because in the end there is no distinction. The boa constrictor being strung along by African tribesman against a Laurel Canyon backdrop as depicted on the album cover was expressed overtly on this tune.
This song finds a Joni Mitchell who has escaped the bounds of her reputation around writing about herself, and into the realm of the keen social observer with the best seat in the house. This is a role she would play in many of her songs for the rest of the decade. That aside, there was nothing that sounded like this in her canon before or since, with the distorted and abrasive drums pounding a terrifying beat as Mitchell croons above the din. This is a totally simpatico arrangement when matched to the song’s subject matter, and as far away from top forty single “Help Me” or really any other song on the radio by that time as it’s possible to be. As much as she wanted to be heard by the mainstream, this is the result of an artist brave enough to let the art itself lead the way and proceeding without concessions to anyone.
The travel bug that Mitchell demonstrated from the beginning was outwardly expressed in a unique way by 1976’s Hejira. While on a solitary trip across the country, and seeing airplanes criss-crossing the sky as she made her journey through the desert, lost aviator Amelia Earhart came to mind as a kindred spirit. Earhart was an innovator in her field, driven to succeed during a time when her gender was a liability to the industry she was in. In addressing Earhart directly, the song empties out with a bout of self-reflection about her own life and her own pursuits as a woman driven by her art. There are definite parallels between the two innovators, and perhaps Joni wrote this to avoid Amelia’s fate of being “swallowed by the sky”, in whatever form that would take for her.
This has always been one of the most desolately beautiful songs in Mitchell’s catalog, full of longing, regret, and loneliness that can perhaps only be experienced by one in her position, and yet still shimmers with universality all the same. Her trademark open tuned guitar and bassist Jaco Pastorius’ liquid basslines create the sound of being immersed in sun-warmed waters. But, the words reveal an emotional starkness that provides the perfect balance. This tune, and many others on Hejira, felt like a singular statement between one era and another as Mitchell was taking personal stock, and just before she went headlong down a new musical avenue entirely.
Joni Mitchell had always loved jazz, and had incorporated into her work for many years by the end of the seventies. Eventually, the jazz community gathered around her music too in a sort of act of artistic symbiosis. That could have had something to do with her “weird chords” which through her employment of open tunings she customized for her own use, often to the chagrin of sessioners (particularly bass players who rely on a single and definitive root note). This approach and their results intrigued jazz composers and instrumentalists like long-time collaborator Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and especially Charles Mingus, the main collaborator and instigator of what would become Mitchell’s 1979 record named, appropriately, Mingus.
This song namechecks Mingus in almost the same breath as it namechecks God, with both figures who are full of contradiction. As such this song really isn’t about God so much as it’s about people, and how difficult it is to really know someone in their complexity. In light of that the risk of being recognized for what one truly is rare. It would certainly hook into a very common theme that would come out in interviews with Joni; the trap of being misunderstood as an artist in what is essentially and primarily a commercial industry. That never sat well with her, inspired as she is by someone like Mingus who sits outside of mainstream jazz even today after his death, and certainly another one of her heroes Vincent Van Gogh who never made a dime, yet was full of ecstatic visions that force people to look more closely at the world around them beyond the obvious. Commercially viable albums (or not!) aside, this is the artist’s calling. Of course, the pressure between those forces of art and commerce would play out through out her career as a constant, like a god with many facets and possibly even more volatile.
Nineteen-Eighty-Five was practically the year of African famine, thanks to Bob Geldof and the ensuing charity singles and concert events that blossomed from his initial efforts that year. Even Mitchell herself participated in Canada’s answer to that strategy in the all-star “Tears Are Not Enough” single. On this tune, Mitchell goes one further, taking the issues away from boutique singles and PR plays (how cynical am I?) and putting them into a wider context. On her album Dog Eat Dog, the political commentator and disgusted world citizen stands where the confessional waif with the acoustic guitar once stood. Musically too, even if the song embraces the technology of the times, it’s applied using the same painterly techniques that Mitchell had been known for in the seventies when then-reigning pop auteur Prince was becoming a fan of hers.
In this song, the whole world is suffering from a famine generated by human greed, short-sightedness, and impossible arrogance. In that context, “Ethiopia” is not a real place where Western sociopolitical rhetoric is concerned, but rather a convenient distancing vehicle to make everyone think of it as an extraordinary circumstance in an otherwise stable and just world. The 1980s was when political issues concerning globalization and economic exploitation of the poor on an unprecedented scale was really ramping up, and when recording artists were commenting on it less and less in the mainstream. Here, Mitchell does what the powers that be hope for us all not to do; examine the root causes of human misery as they pertain to the concept of progress. To quote the New Testament on that score, she was a voice of one crying in the wilderness by 1985. But, the problem of suffering wouldn’t be one she’d leave behind.
This song that draws from the Old Testament this time and as taken from 1994’s Turbulent Indigo concerns itself with long-suffering Job. As a child, Joni Mitchell was stricken with polio, the lasting effects of which would continue through out her life. With that background in mind, it’s easy to see why Job would be a go-to figure to include in a song about chronic physical suffering. Beyond that, this song is also about coming to terms the problem of evil in our world, and about the sanctimony of those who think they have it figured out when it comes to the lives of others, if not their own. It’s about our lives on earth, where anything can happen sometimes with little reason or design.
Here, Job’s struggle becomes the struggle of anyone who’s misunderstood in the light of suffering, and who is judged externally by the unimaginative. It’s also about having the right perspective on one’s own identity, never taking on the burdens and labels as assigned by others. Maybe this could only have been written by a fifty-one year old Joni Mitchell, having come through the storms of all of that in coming up in an artistic landscape that was fraught with danger, because of her health, but also because of her struggles with establishing her own path in a tough and often very judgemental and narrow-minded industry. It is belief in her own visions for herself that has sustained her, and with the suggestion that we too cling to a strong belief in our own positive inner voices, rather than to the choruses of judgement that sometimes try to drown them out. For Mitchell’s part, Turbulent Indigo was a big success, attracting Grammies and accolades from her peers that contrast the jeers and contempt in the chorus of voices around Job in this song.
“Both Sides Now” is one of Mitchell’s best-known songs, originally appearing on 1968’s Song To A Seagull, and recorded by many since. But, it pre-dates the recording of that album, written by Joni as a 21-year old ingénue trying making a name for herself in Yorkville coffeehouses, and around the time she gave up her daughter for adoption due to her financial uncertainty. The lines belie the tender age and limited experience of that person who wrote it, full as it is of the sentiments of a life lived fully and containing the regrets of that same life’s emotional recklessness. Mitchell herself has said that she had to grow into this song for it to be meaningful, re-recording it for 2000’s Both Sides Now album in a new voice and from a new perspective, too.
This new version certainly offers gravitas which the original cannot match. But, to me each version reveals one half of the same circle. That she was able to deliver the song so effectively and poignantly in two separate phases of her career, and at opposite ends, speaks to the robustness of the material itself. And I think it also demonstrates that experience and age as they inform perspective isn’t something to be judged in a linear way. “Both Sides Now” was always trying to tell us that we can never see the whole picture of our lives no matter how old we are, with even our memories, our life’s illusions, being unreliable narrators. The precocious ingénue and the accomplished maven both have their parts to play here. Each voice brings unique meaning to the material, like a sequel song to itself, coming from the same singer who has been two very different people while singing them.
Joni Mitchell went into semi-retirement in 2002, although compilation albums in a series of three were released thereafter. But, in 2007, she returned with a new album of brand new material – Shine. It was welcomed warmly, with a top twenty showing on the Billboard 200, reaching #14, her best showing since Hejira. It was also viewed as a return to form artistically, too, with a renewed sense of vigour that recalled her best work.
“Shine” the title track is a call to arms to look at the world in all of its beauty and its ugliness in equal measure and without flinching. It is a call for listeners and fellow artists to face reality instead of retreating into ideology, fantasy, nostalgia, denial. It is a lullaby in tone, but speaks with a prickly and prophetical voice. It reveals staunchly held opinions of someone who’s seen a lot. But it evokes grand and complex questions about existence, accountability, and the future, and places them in our court. In this song, Joni who has shined all along as an artist shedding light on these questions, invites us to take up her mantle and do the same, if not with our own art, then certainly in our thinking. If this is to be her last album, which is likely, she couldn’t have ended her songwriting career any better than this.
Joni Mitchell really is in a class by herself, and always will be.
The sheer breadth of her material, and the depth to be found at any point during her long career is to be compared to no one. Even considering the weight of her company coming out of the fertile period of post-war pop and folk music, Mitchell is an artistic titan. Choosing just ten of her songs was tough, and I know I’ve missed a lot by such a limiting it to ten.
As I write this, she is in hospital, having recently been found unconscious in her home in Los Angeles. “Under observation in the hospital and is resting comfortably” has been the last news we’ve heard. There have been ruminations on the possibility of life without Joni. As they say, her like will never come again. But, as mentioned in “Shine”, the responsibility to examine our world, the nature of love, and our responsibilities to live together on this “garden planet”, this “oasis in space”, was never just the job of artists of Joni Mitchell’s stature.
It’s everyone’s job.
Among her many accomplishments, perhaps her work in pointing this out to us is among her greatest.
Learn more about Joni Mitchell at jonimitchell.com.
As I write this, Joni is alert and recovering from an illness. For well-wishing and tributes to the woman herself as posted by fans on Twitter and Facebook, my suggestion is to hit up WeLoveYouJoni.com. If you want to contribute, just use the #WeLoveYouJoni hashtag in your social media feeds.