I was browsing around the new books at the library yesterday, and came across one called “Will You Take Me As I Am -- Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period” by Michelle Mercer, a writer and contributer to NPR. I wasn’t going to even pick it up.
I read it in one afternoon.
We’re always talking about perfume and how it can bring back flashes of memory. Music can, too, no big secret. This music, Mitchell’s seventies work, was the soundtrack of my time as a young woman. I woke up last night with “The Last Time I Saw Richard” playing in my mind. “All romantics meet the same fate someday,” sings twenty-seven year-old Mitchell, “cynical, and drunk, and boring someone in some dark cafe.” (My guess is that she’d like to take back those words now; who wouldn’t? )
The book is fascinating, because it explores her life, but also her music, how she learned it, why she was different. Casual guitarists would find that her songs never sounded anything like they did when she played them. This was because she tuned her guitars differently, custom tunings for nearly every song. It was a work-around. She’d had polio as a child, and nerve damage in her hands made standard tunings difficult.
Here’s what so many remember about Joni Mitchell, though: her active love life. The tumult of rapid serial monogamy gave her most of her the material for her music, and she sought that inspiration openly. She admitted that then and admits it now. How many male stars, though, have to face a life-list of lovers splashed across a page in “Rolling Stone,” as she did on her rise? Or music-industry trade ads explaining a delayed album with the phrase “Joni Takes Forever?”
Mitchell, along with her immense gift, enjoyed the privileges only beauty grants. She was skewered for that. She’s still paying for it.
Until I read this book, I hadn’t realized how influential she was to me. I wanted to be like her, badly enough so that in one year I accelerated my own trajectory from listening to “Ladies of the Canyon” in a motel in Georgia to a hillside house in Laurel Canyon. I wasn’t her, but I could go to the places she wrote about; California, Greece, Paris. I didn’t have her talent. But I bought and wore out every record she made, and lived alongside her complex voice and music for years. It enriched my life, vastly.
Now, Mitchell has a bad reputation of a different kind. She’s bitter, it’s said, and cynical and overbearingly queen-like, a difficult interview and, the ultimate modern sin, is an unrepentant chain-smoker. The smoking has wrecked her voice, that’s true, but the Mitchell I hear in this book is someone who deserved a place alongside Bob Dylan as a songwriter (and knows it) but instead was laughed at for being pretentious enough to think she could actually play jazz (well, everyone said, she was sleeping with a jazz guy!) or work with the likes of Charles Mingus. Most interviewers, she says, really want to know which of that long list of lovers inspired this or that song. And everybody wanted Mitchell to remain the hippie-chick warbling waif, but she wanted more, and she moved on.
Ultimately, we all do, and then, once in a while, a reminder comes along, turns your gaze to the past, suddenly has you digging through it, visiting somebody you used to know -- you.
Awhile back, I bought some vintage perfumes. One of them was “Intimate,” which I wore when I was seventeen. I put some on today to write this and immediately thought of...a sweater? Yes; a lavender, rib-knit, cowl-necked sweater I often wore at night, when I would sit in my bedroom listening to “Ladies of the Canyon.” I think I still have it, packed away in a trunk somewhere. I have most of Mitchell’s records from those years, too (bought on CD when everybody was replacing their records) and I found them. I played a couple while finishing a painting I’ve been putting off for months. God, they’re great. Those complex lyrics; the soaring, polyrythmic music. A favorite song is “Amelia,” from “Hejira,” which the book call Mitchell’s masterpiece, and I’d have to agree with that. “It scrambles time and seasons if it gets through to you,” she sings. “Then your life becomes a travelogue...”
...with a pretty good score. Thanks, Michelle, and, especially, Joni.
The book “Will You Take Me as I Am -- Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period” is new, ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-5929-0.
Most, if not many, of Joni Mitchell’s recordings are available for download on ITunes and other music sites.
I wish I knew who took the photo of Joni Mitchell here. If I did, I’d credit it.
“Intimate,” by Revlon, seems perfect here. It’s a chypre, with a sweet and powdery top note and a complex base. It’s discontinued, but available as a vintage here and there.