Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Score

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.


Rappleyea said...

Great post and terrific review! Coming of age in that iconic era was such a gift. Even though it means now being a "woman of a certain age" in our youth obsessed culture, I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Trish said...

Hejira is a gorgeous album. I love Blue of course, but Hejira is just as compelling. JM is amazing. I'd love to read this, thanks for the review.

Olfacta said...

Hi R -- Yeah, me too. Everybody's gotta get old some time; I'm glad I was born when I was.

Olfacta said...

Hi T -- Thanks! I like "Hejira" best because you can hear all those miles in her voice and the music had simply lept forward with them too.

chayaruchama said...

Be still, my heart.

Darlin', there is another book for you :
"Girls Like Us"- by Sheila Weller.

In this, she details the 'dovetailing' of the lives of Carly Simon, Joni, and Carole King.

Of all the women writing at the time- or possibly, ever-
Joni was the one who felt 'like me'; she was the individual I found least likeable, in real life.

Carole King's life felt a lot like my own.

I KNOW you will eat the book up.

You and I must have lived parallel lives.

I live to hear- and see- the 'miles' in one's life.
It is a revelation, and much like a fingerprint-
As it OUGHT to be.
No cookie-cutters, for me.....

Thank you for the marvellous post.

Olfacta said...

Hi C -- thank you!

I have heard of the book you mention. I think it's even mentioned in this book. I'll look for it.

Isn't it interesting, how much perfume lovers have in common? I believe we're kindred spirits too.

Perfumeshrine said...

Your post is amazingly rich in nuance and interlapping memories of music factoids, snippets of your life and dreams of a young woman who grew up...Hope most of your dreams were fulfilled along the way, better than Joni's even.
The book and Joni both couldn't do with a higher recommendation than this!

pavlva said...

Oh thank you so much for this post.
I, too, was a Joni lover -- saw her in concert in the early days and will allows remember it. Ladies of the Canyon and Blue are embedded in my brain. I often blast Blue when driving alone in my car. Ahhhh....those were days...bittersweet for sure, but oh so real. Best time ever to have been young.

Aparatchick said...

All I had to do was see that picture and so many of her songs came rushing into my mind.

Thanks for the tip on the book (which I immediately went to Amazon and bought!).

Olfacta said...

Hi E!

Thanks! Hmmm...I wouldn't say it's been quite, as interesting as Joni's, but it's been a great ride so far...(and it's not over yet)!

Olfacta said...

Hi Pavlva -- Don't think I've heard from you before, welcome! I only saw her once, in L.A., in '74 I think. She was backed by Tom Scott's band who (I found out from the book) had Larry Carlton on lead. It was an amazing show. Hard to believe I was ever quite that young but am glad to have been young then, as you say.

Olfacta said...

Hi A -- Yeah that's a great photo isn't it? I wonder who took it; it looks like a photo session, maybe in the early 80's but I'm not sure. It was on some fan website, uncredited.

I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did.

brian said...

ah, what good writing. What could be a better meditation on Joni Mitchell's work than an essay which swells with its rhythms and nuance. So nice.

Charlotte Vale said...

Haven't read this book yet--or the one Chaya mentioned--but I must, soon. I'm a big fan of Joni's work. Curiously enough, her albums also defined my young adulthood--even though my young adulthood was in the nineties! I really do think that her writing is on the level of Dylan, that like Dylan, it endures, and that a lot of her work speaks to the experience of being a young woman in, let's say, a post-sexually liberated world, on a level that is immediate and smart and emotional and wryly humorous. And Joni is so fiercely independent, still. She will always be an icon to me for going her own way, and being ornery at times.

To my knowledge, there is only one perfume mentioned by name in a Joni Mitchell song: Jungle Gardenia in "Paprika Plains" on Don Juan's Reckless Daughter.

Katie Puckrik said...

I love Joni!! And so I was thrilled to be invited to a Xmas party a few years back in Laurel Canyon that turned out to be the first house Joni ever bought with her record company money! It was the house Graham Nash immortalized in "Our House". Even better, Joni still owned it. Imagine writing out your rent check every month to "Joni Mitchell"!

And I can't believe you mentioned Revlon Intimate. I do believe that could be the first ever scent I chose to wear, even before Coty Muguet des Bois. OK, so it was around the house cuz my mom had some, but I claimed it for myself and felt so "womanly". As a 14-year-old! Ha.