If you were ever in doubt about the sexism ingrained in music criticism, just look at the amount of words dedicated to different songwriters of the 1960s generation.
Unpicking the work of Bob Dylan is practically an industry in itself, with whole university courses dedicated to it and untold old bores explaining how he exists in the canon of great poets. John Lennon, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen: chuck them into the GoodReads search engine and you’ll find tens of thousands of pages of published work. Joni Mitchell, however, while obviously not exactly written out of history, barely warrants a murmur in comparison. Leonard Cohen, for example, has had five times as many books written about him.
There’s no reason for this. Her lyrics meet every criterion for being treated as real literature, with periods where every song felt like a perfectly drawn short story, while her composition puts her truly in the avant-garde, combining endlessly analysable complexity (“Joni’s weird chords,” as she modestly put it) with pithy directness of expression. She produced every one of her own records, and in her 1970s glory days explored the studio-as-instrument just as thoroughly as, say, Brian Wilson. And it’s not like she was short of stories herself. Joni has had every bit the colourful life of anyone else in music, and flown closer to the sun than most. She drank and drugged her most notorious contemporaries under the table, her romantic life could warrant epic poems in its own right, her persona was as wild and pagan as any in rock yet as effortlessly urbane as a David Bowie or Lou Reed, and she went musically and intellectually toe-to-toe with that elemental force of 20th century culture, Charles Mingus.
Even at the beginning, she wasn’t just a “singer-songwriter” but a musician with a total vision. The sound of her records has almost always been exquisite: it’s no wonder that she found favour with the Balearic set (try ‘Dreamland’ on Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, or ‘Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow’ from The Hissing of Summer Lawns), and inspired Fluke’s zone-out classic called, uh, ‘Joni’. And the fact that ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ was sampled by Jam & Lewis for Janet Jackson and Q-Tip should tell you all you need about how much she grooved even back in her early, acoustic incarnation. Through her glory years of the 1970s she wove an incredible path through everything that was best in psychedelia, folk, the glorious grown-up pop of Carole King, jazz at its most urbane, global influences and more – each time abstracting from the idioms to make something 100% Joni out of them.
She was very, very far from faultless. Creatively she had an almost entirely ropey 1980s, for example – meandering songs slathered with untold Yamaha presets that threatened to piss away her legacy. She was and remains a classic environmentalist with a love of luxury. And, oh god, alright, yes, the elephant in the room: she blacked up (in male drag) on the cover for Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. Even given her 1970s cocaine intake and her constant desolate urges to step outside herself, it was some new level of stupid and it remains the worst and most glaring reminder of the fine line of sanity she has consistently walked and repeatedly crossed.
However, even that and her “I have been a black man” quote cannot diminish the scale of her achievements, and if those achievements are enough for Charlie Fucking Mingus to give her a pass, then who are we to argue? Joni has seen closer into the human spirit than 99.9% of people, and if anyone can be forgiven a little madness, it’s her.
For the opening strum more than anything. That groove. “Joni’s weird chords”. She writes it off now as “the work of an ingénue,” but amazingly for something so of-its-time (written before her first record deal in 1968), it still sounds modern now. Then there are the words. “The sun poured in like butterscotch and stuck to all my senses”? You don’t need to be a poetry-book-flashing Leonard Cohen bore to get that as an instant hit of sensual brilliance, do you?
This is the vividness of being young and footloose – a girl from a town so small she used to wave at the one train that came through each day, now flexing her talents in New York City. But then you dig deeper: playing in coffee houses at the time she would explain that “the rainbow on my wall” in the song was a reference to a mobile she had built from glass salvaged from a demolished home from unwed mothers – never revealing, until the story was forced out in 1993, that only a couple of years before writing this she had given up her own baby daughter for adoption. Loss and lust for experience were battling in her songs right from the very start.
‘Free Man in Paris’
(Court & Spark, 1974)
This is where Joni really cuts loose from the singer-songwiter straitjacket, and from here on in she’s one of the band, kicking out the jams like a badass. Lyrically we’re dipping into recurring themes: through a depiction of her record mogul friend David Geffen yearning to escape responsibility, we dip into freedom of travel and bohemianism versus a desire to be rooted and civilised, and the fleeting pleasure of sensation-seeking.
Constant searching, constant saying goodbye, constant nostalgia. It’s there, too, in ‘Carey’ and ‘California’ from 1971’s Blue, a brilliant travelogue of Joni’s hippie adventures in Greece and Spain (the latter song has maybe the first Balearic lyric: “So I bought me a ticket / I caught a plane to Spain / Went to a party down a red dirt road / There were lots of pretty people there / Reading Rolling Stone, reading Vogue”).
‘In France they Kiss on Main Street’
(The Hissing of Summer Lawns, 1975)
All the aforementioned lyrical preoccupations are here, plus a stingingly ambivalent yearning for youth’s irresponsibility that only gets deeper and more intensely felt as Joni’s career goes on. Innocence and experience collide explosively on lines like “Downtown / The dance halls and cafes / Feel so wild you could break somebody’s heart / Just doing the latest dance craze”, and the music, as on the whole of her career pinnacle Hissing, echoes it with the most perfect collision of sophistication and immediacy of anyone of her generation.
(Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, 1977)
It all went weird after Hissing, with loads of jazz fusion and heavy metaphor. Her genius was still intact but all the experiments went into dismantling what it meant to be Joni. She couldn’t do it though, because for all that this percussion jam is a million miles from her early 1970s sounds. It’s still a song of late night conversations over rum, gambling on terraces, a yearning for belonging among weird and wild characters, all seen with a wry observer’s eye noting the illusory nature of bohemian life and a natural storyteller’s sense of pace. It’s still her.
‘Come in from the Cold’
(Night Ride Home, 1991)
Joni’s 1980s were, as has been mentioned, mostly crap: horrible digital production, songs that went nowhere, and a distancing from the exquisite observational detail that made her best work. Thankfully she turned a corner once again, and her 1990s albums – especially 1994’s Grammy-winning Turbulent Indigo – have got loads to recommend them.
This song is a curio, though, an indicator of what might have been had she kept up her ‘80s production style but gone pop in the way that Fleetwood Mac so brilliantly did on Tango in the Night. It’s a beautiful AOR radio song that rolls together every regret about the hippie generation, every regret about her personal life, every spiritual yearning that she was too intellectually fierce to indulge, into one extended metaphor about that motif of coming home, which gave her work a scintilla of hope among the bleakness right throughout her career.
‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’
“Richard got married to a figure skater / And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator / And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on / And all the house lights left up bright.” Oh man. In lesser hands that would be an old-school boho sneer at the “normals”, but in Joni’s it is sad, strange, bleakly gorgeous reality. Nobody, but nobody does these devastating character sketches in so few strokes like her, and in the context of the whole song’s mini-movie about meeting an old lover, the same lines hit even harder than they do alone.
This song is stunning in piano ballad form as it closes out Blue in 1971: another classic sketch of artistic and mundane life colliding, a portrait of youth ending for a writer entering her thirties, and a chronicle of regrets foretold for both parties in the story. But on 2002’s Travelogue – with a full orchestra, Joni in cracked but magnificent grande dame torch singer form, and 30 years more experience and pain to add weight to it – it’s just crushing. The whole double album is a crowning glory for one of the most mind-boggling careers in modern music. Taking a wider overview (even rehabilitating some of those sketchy 1980s songs), and presenting Joni’s work as the totality that it always was, the same deep themes are held up to the light in different ways and made to give up their saddest and most beautiful secrets.