Joni Mitchell

Joni Anderson was born in a Canadian Prairie town. She was of Scottish/Irish/Norwegian descent. She was always the artist, mostly painting and she loved going out dancing. She was inspired to write properly by a teacher who recognised her talent and pushed her by marking her work hard. When still a child she suffered with polio, a debilitating and dangerous virus that could leave people paralysed. She spent about 6 months in hospital recovering. Her mother visited once briefly, too scared to catch the disease. She picked up the Ukulele, and later the Guitar, but found that her technique was lacking due to the polio induced weakness of her left hand. Rather than giving up, cos Joni never understood that concept, she retuned the guitar and developed her own overhand technique on open strings. Through force of circumstances, she adapted to the situation, and found her way. Cut her in half and the word independence would run through her like in a stick of Brighton rock.

She moved on to Toronto to play Guitar in clubs. But fell pregnant and the bastard upped and left her cold and penniless. She struggled with poverty and in 1964, single mothers were not accepted and she had to give Little Green up for adoption. She married another musician, Chuck Mitchell, after a whirlwind romance, hoping to be able to bring up the kid. But it did not work out and neither did the marriage. They performed as a duo, but Joni was developing in the folk style and was becoming more popular than Chuck and his more prosaic stuff. When she left she struggled to make ends meet playing clubs, and moving to Greenwich Village, she started to make a name for herself on the folk circuit.

Joni could be vulnerable, virginal and beautiful and her look could transfix the audience. Her style was completely original, but her lyrics could absolutely blow you away. Her word artistry was unmatched, like many she was inspired by Dylan. Her fame was growing and people were not only liking her, but almost worshipping her. She sang about a lot of autobiographical subjects, and touched the soul of people, especially at times of loss. People would come up to after gigs and say you are amazing. One guy, who would become her manager, made that offer and she said, OK, be at Idlewild in the morning, I’m flying to North Dakota in the morning with my guitar and handbag. Come along.

As her fame grew she met Dave Crosby of the Byrd’s and he introduced her to Graham Nash and they fell in love big time. She moved to Laurel Canyon, in Los Angeles, with many of her contemporaries and started recording. Her first two albums were quite sombre and there were technical issues, especially with the first one. But she was on the road to success. She nearly went to Woodstock, but had to watch it on Television. In a way it was cool, because she could not stand the big concerts, they had no meaning to her and the audience often did not listen, which made her really angry. So watching from her hotel in New York, she may have got the bigger picture. She wrote the song Woodstock right there and then and it was the signature to the festival of the Woodstock generation. Nash would say how she would get the muse and write guitar or piano for a couple of hours and she would almost be in a trance, and had no connection with him even in the same room.

But tragically the relationship did not last. Nash wanted a wife to bring up kids, Joni and the world needed her music. They split amicably. But the next period of her life was the most difficult. She did not need the money and was quite embarrassed by it, she hated fame, and she became depressed. She travelled round Europe for a few months and used the experience to write some of songs on her iconic album Blue. In the midst of her extreme fragility she was protected by management, but produced one of the best albums of all time. Deeply personal and revealing she laid herself bare. Many people, women and men, found a resonance in her writing about her experiences, that if it did not heal them, may have inspired them to move on. Her best work at her lowest point.

Deeply depressed she moved to Canada. She built a house herself in the remote woods of British Columbia. The solitude and the physical nature of the project helped pull her round. She said how she read many psychology books and ended up throwing them against the wall in disgust before finishing them. She decided that she was a creative person and her different emotional experiences and moods not only inspired her, but drove her creativity.

She returned to the world and recorded ‘For the Roses’, written in seclusion, she began touching on subjects outside of herself. This would continue with Court and Spark, The Hissing of the Summer Lawns and Hejira. She started using a band and experimented with jazz styles. Some of her writing at this time was the best. My personal favourite is ‘Don’t interrupt the Sorrow’. Drenched in all sorts of religious imagery and quite frankly I don’t know what. We can never know what she was really singing about, and it does not matter. It’s what it makes you think about and what you do about it that matters. It is the condition of life and on-one ever could be Joni Mitchell. Yes we are all individuals! What I get is the line, “Seventeen glasses, Rhine Wine, Milk of the Madonna clandestine.” Once she had worked out her emotional stuff, she used it creatively, and instead of running away in self-destruction or introspection, she dealt with it. Not only did she deal with she, she controlled it and used it, solved the problem and wrote a song. She fuelled it with cheap alcohol and ran at what was on her mind until she achieved her goals. She could only do it alone. It seemed that every single time she faced a problem, in her life; she would face it and defeat it. Life is out there, it takes courage and determination to go out and get it. But you have to fight, you have to fail, you have to learn and you have to win and you can never, ever, ever, ever, ever give up, because surrender is death.

After the break with Nash, she had a number of romantic attachments. By the 1980’s people would mock her for it, I wonder how the 1970’s would mock the 1980’s? It seems clear her life could not mean settling down. An independent, strong willed woman like that was never going to last long in relationships I guess. Many of her lovers were in the industry, and for her it was all about love, sharing of life, experiences, ideas, knowledge, space and fortunately for her she could find a way to recover and move on to someone else if the opportunity arose. But in her writings, there always a sense of loss, but never bitterness. She would often write about her lost love, or women’s issues. She could write about the gorgeous seductress who turns into the bored house wife, but she mused on both the man and woman’s feelings on the issue. She certainly could highlight the plight of women under financial, societal and biological disadvantage, of the time, but she was not a man hater, quite the opposite. She could have been a cheerleader for the feminist movement, but she did not want to be. Her role was to study the emotional experience of herself and then others. Her art helps people put into words the feelings they can’t understand or explain. She does it for us. But, is that not what art is supposed to be about? Especially rock music, it’s all about the emotion. You have to learn how to deal with life otherwise you will always be an escapist.

I don’t believe life is about being happy. That emotion is far too shallow. I believe life is about achieving first freedom to be you and then helping others. By God she has done that and her music has to be with us forever. Like so many other men, I am really attracted to her, but to say it’s about her looks, amazing as they are, is crass beyond redemption. She never really settled down, but there is no-one good enough. Yet she has had many lovers and many friends and I have never heard a bad word said against her.

How can you not love her in her entirety? To love Joni is to love life.

“I could drink a case of you darling, and would still be on my feet, and I would still be on feet.”

Conway-Laird (2017)


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