“An artist seizes the passing moments that many of us forget, worries them through a whirl of sensitivity and sensibility, and elevates them into lasting artistic statements.” — Michelle Mercer
A few weeks ago I shared my obsession with Joni Mitchell after discovering music critic Michelle Mercer’s “Will You Take Me As I Am, Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period,” a brief analysis of the many aesthetic and philosophical approaches that make Joni’s music strike such an original chord with her devoted fans. Part history, part criticism, part biographical portrait, the book is a somewhat rambling and sprawling portrait of Mitchell around the making of Blue and subsequent albums For the Roses, Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and Hejira. The organization of Mercer’s chapters often seems loose, even cobbled together, pulling together asides from her interviews with the singer-songwriter and bouncing back and forth from an array of tangential topics, but the bottom-line is that any bonafide Joni fan will delight in the specificity of Mercer’s praise for Joni’s music, finding a voice for an avid listener’s many unarticulated impressions. The last three chapters explore Joni’s stylistic evolution following Blue, the ways in which this defining work led her in new directions. Here’s a brief summary:
As mentioned in my previous post, Joni was very conflicted about her reputation as a “confessional” songwriter — she wanted her songs to be universal, to embody the experience of the listener, rendering references to specific events and people in her own life irrelevant. At the same time, the deep mining of self, the intense self-exposure that made Blue so aching and intimate, is one of Joni’s signature strengths as an artist. In “Beyond Personal Songwriting,” Mercer explores this defining feature of Mitchell’s sensibility and the forces that led her to move beyond it.
According to Mercer, one factor was that the up-and-coming songwriters of the 1970s, unlike Dylan, Mitchell, and Young in the 1960s, did not have the lyrical sophistication to transform autobiography into complex, universal truths. She writes that “the difference between earlier autobiographical songs and later ones is something like the difference between a piece of writing that evokes a ‘small sob in the spine of the reader,’ which is how Nabokov once described his writing aims, and a journal entry that vents feelings.” Another factor was the fading away of the 1960s counterculture — the previous crop of singer-songwriters implicated society in their exploration of personal struggles, and as this wave of disillusionment fell away, so did the muscle of their confessions.
So Joni responded in a couple of ways: she invented characters, rendering new songs more like dramatic monologues, and she recast her music in the rich sounds of world music. In the mid 1970s Joni recruited the band the L.A. Express for her promotional tour of Court and Spark, lending the album a new feeling of theatricality and artifice, in contrast to the idea of an exposed, vulnerable solo artist alongside her instrument, mining nothing more than her personal experience. The presence of a band also satisfied her new leanings toward more expansive, complex arrangements.
Court and Spark marked a radical departure from Blue — it was Joni’s first foray into full jazz arrangements, in addition to being chock full of characters, from music mogul in “Free Man in Paris” to schizophrenic in “Twisted.” Her new jazz sound was casual, conversational, with a less angst-ridden orientation to romance. Mercer points out that the autobiographical still played a major role, though, such as with the title track, “Court and Spark,” based on Mitchell’s encounter with a crazy fan. Joni claims not to be influenced by the 1950s Beat poets, but according to Mercer, writers like Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg paved the way for this autobiographical approach, in which soul-searching produced the substance of art and writers sought to transcribe their consciousness onto the page as purely and transparently as possible.
“It never has been easy whether you do or do not resign, whether you travel the breadth of extremities or stick to some straighter line” — “Hejira,” Joni Mitchell
In “Breadth of Extremities,” Mercer charts the making of the album Hejira, among other pursuits, as well as Mitchell’s continued exploration of a familiar theme: the contrast between love and freedom, coming to terms with her own uprootedness. This is reflected in the album title, the word “hejira” coming from the arabic Hijra, referring to Muhammed’s migration to Medina. In other words, it’s a running away to find wisdom and enlightenment, versus a cowardly running away, or an attempt to escape. For example, in the song “Amelia” Joni conflates her desire for the open road, the inevitability with which she eventually leaves her lovers, to Amelia Earhart’s skyward journey, repeating “Amelia, it was just a false alarm” to mean, in Mercer’s reading, that just as Earhart “was swallowed by the sky,” Joni “spent [her] whole life in clouds at icy altitude” and it’s a false alarm to think that either will return home, literally or figuratively. Once again, a failed romance served as Joni’s muse — this time, her love affair with jazz drummer John Guerin.
Prior to Hejira, Joni experienced some marked extremes, beginning with a 1975 tour with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, featuring Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, T-Bone Burnett, and Ronee Blakely. This drug and alcohol filled “circus” is contrasted with Joni’s encounter with Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa in Boulder, Colorado. After their meeting in which he advised her to “just quit analyzing,” Mitchell claims to have “‘had no sense of ‘I’ or me, no self-consciousness for three days.'” As Mercer frames it, the writing of the album Hejira represents a sort of detox from the Rolling Thunder tour, Joni’s attempt to write herself back into the state of meditative contentment that Trungpa led her to.
Then Mercer embarks on a brief analysis of Hejira. She writes that Mitchell’s analysis of romantic love on the album reflects a “new distance…from her desires,” with songs like “A Strange Boy” as compared to ones like “All I Want” on Blue, speculating that this newfound distance is a “pervasive if subtle sign of Trungpa’s influence.” The instrumentation on Hejira is much thinner than Mitchell’s foray into lush jazz with Court and Spark, and the songs invoked a sense of wandering by mixing different keys and featuring the “unruly” (Joni’s word) bass lines of jazz musician Jaco Pastorius. The song “Refuge of the Roads” directly references Joni’s encounter with Trungpa — in the first line, “I met a friend of spirit” — and her plunge back into the evaluative, analytical, self-critical melancholy of an artist, leaving Trungpa for “the refuge of the roads.” Mercer writes that Hejira is “no less honest and hyper-expressive” than Blue, but “Mitchell suffered no crisis of self-exposure” because there is an overriding sense of self-acceptance, of making peace with the unresolved nature of love and romance. Mercer argues that this greater self-acceptance in her mid-thirties allowed Joni to focus outward on future albums like Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, outward toward social commentary and musical experimentation.
Mercer’s last chapter, entitled “Stuff Joni Likes or Even Loves,” seeks to dispel the myth of the bitter, disparaging crank that is often perpetuated by media interviews. Instead, Mercer explores Mitchell’s “lust for life” by compiling a simple list of her praise as a refreshing, interesting window into the artist’s mind, gathered from their interviews together and a few outside sources. To close out this rambling entry, here are some of my favorite “likes”:
- “‘[Cigarettes are] a focusing drug. Everybody should just be forced to smoke.'”
- “‘I used to look to Dylan or Neil [Young] for songwriting inspiration but now, there’s no one really cutting it, so you gotta turn to the short story tellers.”
- “‘[Former Black Panthers] are my best audience. The ‘Joni Mitchell, she don’t lie’ school.'”