So Hard to Handle

John Lahr

  • Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe
    Farrar, Straus, 420 pp, £20.00, October 2017, ISBN 978 0 374 24813 0

With her high cheekbones and her flaxen hair, Joni Mitchell emerged in the late 1960s as some kind of hippy Venus with an overbite. She was the personification of the New Woman, liberated by the pill and by her talent to take ownership of her body, her art and her destiny. She was thoughtful, feisty, free-wheeling, ‘open to experience and in touch with the miraculous’, as she put it. Her precocious songs chronicled the complexity of her newly claimed agency; they meditated on liberty and longing, love and lust, independence and loneliness. ‘I’m a living storybook,’ she said of her autobiographical catalogue. In her thrilling falsetto Mitchell told of ‘love’s illusion’ before we knew quite what either love or disillusion was. Her songs calmed the mind of a turbulent, panic-struck society. ‘Before Prozac, there was you,’ two teenage fans once told her.

The effect of Mitchell’s spell was as immediate on her musical peers as on the public. ‘Fantastic girl with heaven words,’ Jimi Hendrix noted in his diary after their first, brief meeting. ‘She just knocked me on my ass,’ David Crosby said after hearing her sing ‘Both Sides, Now’. ‘It was the highest quality of songwriting. I liked her better than Dylan.’ Crosby briefly became Mitchell’s inamorato and produced her first album. Leonard Cohen, another influential early lover, helped too. ‘There was a certain ferocity associated with her gift. She was like a storm,’ Cohen said. ‘She was fully formed: uneducated, uninformed, uninstructed, unneeding of any kind of influences.’ Cohen encouraged Mitchell’s darkness, gave her reading lists, and would later write in a poem to her: ‘You changed the way women sing and the way men listen.’ At the time, he also dubbed her ‘Queen Undisputedly of Mind Beauty’. Sam Shepard, who hooked up with Mitchell when they were both on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975, was intimidated by her intelligence, according to Mitchell. Shepard, himself a drummer, tipped his cowboy hat to her. ‘Her word manoeuvrings tend to verge on the uncanny. “I got a head full of quandary and a mighty, mighty, mighty thirst,”’ he said, quoting ‘Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow’. ‘She seems to have merged into a unique jazz structure with lyrics and rhythmic construction and even managed to bite the masses in the ear with it.’

Mitchell, who was self-taught – a baritone ukulele first, then the guitar from a Pete Seeger instruction record – invented everything about her music, including how to tune the guitar. ‘From the beginning of the process of writing, she’s building a canvas as well as she is putting on the paint,’ James Taylor, another conquest, explained. ‘It’s never straight on.’ Mitchell’s lyrical indirection, the habit of thinking against conventional tropes, is an extension of what she calls her ‘perverse need for originality’, a manifestation of a rebellious temperament forged in the provincial prairie vastness of Saskatoon, Canada, where, as Roberta Joan Anderson, she grew up the only child of Myrtle, a former teacher, and William, a military man turned grocery store executive. ‘People that shouldn’t have been married, really,’ Mitchell said, and from whom ‘I never had any support.’

‘I respect faith, but doubt gets you an education,’ the playwright and conman Wilson Mizner once said. This was certainly true of Mitchell who, from an early age, doubted the authority of her parents. ‘Their judgment was so sucky all the time.’ As a toddler she had a recurring nightmare of her father losing control of the car. ‘These people are not thinking and I’m small and in their care. Help!’ She continued: ‘So I had to be my own person very young.’ At the age of seven, she disabused herself of religion ‘because Genesis raised a lot of questions for me’. At the age of ten, in 1953, Mitchell was diagnosed with polio and hospitalised for months hundreds of miles from home. (Her mother visited her once, her father never came.) She refused the doctors’ grim medical prognosis. ‘I came back a dancer,’ she said, adding, ‘I celebrated my legs.’ (‘I want to wreck my stockings in some jukebox dive,’ she sang in ‘All I Want’.) From that moment, Mitchell formed the habit of watching herself go by, a strategy which would ultimately feed her songwriting process. (‘It’s like going into a trance,’ she said. ‘I sit down with a melody and reminisce. I find it easier to think about my feelings in retrospect.’)

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