Greg Dennis: Joni Mitchell, a life in song

Get ready to say goodbye to Joni Mitchell.
The esteemed singer-songwriter was recently hospitalized after being found unconscious at her Southern California home. She is a survivor of childhood polio, 60 years of smoking, 50 years of fame (she called it “a glamorous misunderstanding”) and Morgellon’s syndrome.
Mitchell may not be long for this world. But she will leave behind a legacy of song that will outlast the century.
For those of us who came of age with Joni’s music — and many younger people who discovered it in their own maturing — she will always be the queen of songwriters. The ethereal woman of high Canadian plains cheekbones, azure blue eyes, and long hair the color of cornsilk. A voice for the ages, rising from the depths of her chest to climb to the stars.
I stumbled across her music as a teenaged summer-camp counselor in the Adirondacks, in 1968. Someone had a copy in his record bin of her first LP, “Song to a Seagull.”
That concept LP (city on side 1, seaside on side 2) began and ended with brave declarations of a woman’s freedom — the kind of claims that were not yet commonplace. In the first song she “had a king in a tenement castle” who “swept with the broom of contempt.” And she left him.
By album’s end, she was pursued by men who shouted her name from treetops and off to starboard. But she was owned by none of them, “a cactus tree, being free.”
That album also brought to the world a new style of guitar playing. Every song was in an alternate tuning, and her technique established her as a master of the instrument.
At that point in time, if you were drawn to Joni’s music, each new album opened another chapter in your life.
Several of the songs on her second album, “Clouds,” (1969) had already been covered by others, most notably Tom Rush and Judy Collins. But Joni’s originals were truer to the heart. She knew life from both sides now.
“Ladies of the Canyon,” the third LP, found her playing piano. She’d been living with Graham Nash in Laurel Canyon, in Nash’s “Our House” with two cats in the yard. And just one piano, which the two songwriters would compete to monopolize when they were in the grip of the muse.
I bought that LP at Bramer’s, the general store in the place where I grew up, the kind of place Guy Clark called “a nowhere town with a nowhere name.”
But with that album on the turntable, it wasn’t a nowhere town anymore.
It was a place where “Morning Morgantown” greeted the spring. Where the lilacs freshened, and every afternoon mail delivery brought the hope of a letter from a certain young lady.
That lovely woman and I quoted lines from Joni songs in our letters to each other. It was easier and more poetic that way. “Picked up a pencil and wrote ‘I love you’ in my finest hand. Wanted to send it, but I don’t know where I stand.”
“Ladies of the Canyon” also held the haunting “Woodstock.” Joni had missed the festival, afraid she wouldn’t be able to get back to New York in time for a coveted slot on the “Dick Cavett Show.”
But she nailed it anyway. “We are stardust, we are carbon. We are caught up in the devil’s bargain. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
Somewhere in there, I saw her play solo. An angel on the stage, vulnerable but in full command. She performed “Night in the City” twice — announcing after intermission that she had received a plea for the song, from two fans who had arrived late to the venue and had missed it in the first half of the show.
Now that was cool.
My peers and I shed many a tear in the company of Joni’s fourth album, “Blue.” We wanted our love to “bring out the best in me and in you, too.” We wanted to drink a case of each other and still be on our feet.
And if we couldn’t, well, when there were so many sinking, we had to keep thinking we could make it through those waves.
Her musical style changed two albums later, pretty much for good. On “Court and Spark” she was backed by Tom Scott and the L.A. Express, and suddenly she was almost a rock singer.
I haven’t been able to find any mention online of her having played a concert in Vermont, though she must have. I was lucky enough to see her nearby, though, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in August of 1974.
That Saratoga show was three days after the concerts that were captured on the live “Miles of Aisles” album. Joni was backed by the full power of Scott’s band. Her voice was the equal of the band, too.
If I could go back in time to again attend just one concert I’ve seen, it would probably be that one.
The next album, “Hissing of Summer Lawns” found Joni in boho mood, singing over African drums well before Paul Simon ever thought of it. And, it must be said, the album also found her on the way to losing her mass audience.
It wasn’t the equivalent of Dylan going Christian, but it had the same buzz kill about it.
There’s some great stuff on her later albums. But for longtime Mitchell fans, those first few LPs will always represent the peak of her power.
I saw her play live once more, at The Pond in Anaheim. Sandwiched in between sets by Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, she seemed lost in that cavernous venue.
Now Joni is living through what she’s called “a survival blur” of health issues. Slowed by Morgellon’s and post-polio syndrome, she’s probably not going to bring her smoke-coarsened voice to any more stages.
But for anyone who has fallen in or out of love to her music — or just found herself pierced to the heart by one of her songs — Joni will always be there.
Riding in a big yellow taxi on a Chelsea morning. Being free.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email him your Joni Mitchell memories at [email protected]

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