"Only of the late Twentieth Century? "
Certain artists leave a mark on their time but very few survive it.
The overwhelming majority of them accompany the era that gave them artistic birth into its dilution and its final deletion, when it is replaced by the new.
However, the works of a minority both mark their time and transcend it.
The musical and literary works of Joni Mitchell, a unique oeuvre, belong to this minority, and thus escapes the dismal fate to which the passage of time seems to doom it.
Apart from the quality of music, about which everything has already been said, the reason for this may well be the "introspective" aspects (and not the "confessional" ones, a label against which Mitchell has always rebelled, stressing that since she never did anything that she should be forgiven, therefore she never had anything to confess!) underlying the majority of the writings of this 'subterranean explorer of the soul'. Writings that always reached way beyond the level of mere outpourings of some "Little Sister of the Broken Hearted" (a category into which it seemed so easy to store Joni Mitchell, and a lazy convenience in which a majority of critics indulged, condemning the progress of her career's early stages). Above all, her transcendence lies in the fact that her writings expressed the uniqueness of an exceptional character, a very personal point of view and a quite clairvoyant perception of the realities of the human soul.
Her work has lost nothing of its relevance, as it is timeless and universal in its concerns: questions related to youth that fades, to life that slips away, to love that tarnishes, with waivers depriving the first of its strength, with disillusionment that abuses the second by emptying it of its meaning, with compromises which corrupt the last, leaving the heart bruised with the bitter taste of disappointment and failure; concerns which are universal because they are everybody's - yours, mine, they were those of our parents and will be those of our children's children's children.
This work never was confined to a simple testimony, more or less opportunistic and clinging in phase with its epoch. It never bothered to consider solely the present moment, at least in its totality; a very tiny percentage of texts – such as Ethiopia (from Dog Eat Dog, 1983), or The Fiddle and the Drum (from Clouds, 1969) - representing the exception to this rule.
It is therefore impossible to relate the work of Joni Mitchell to the genre known as "Protest Song", with its fierce and somewhat naive criticism of the social or political system in force, a relationship that marked the heyday, and was the cash-provider for many of her contemporaries – as the artist of the 60s (from Bob Dylan to Joan Baez, who were its emblematic figures and since then, represent, rightly or wrongly, its caricature). Such identification with the era had an effect that was to date the posture of the entire movement, making its voice virtually inaudible to the generations that followed, as its contents appeared so quickly obsolete.
Don Juan's Reckless Daughter resolutely escaped these traps, not by editorial policy or posture, but by pure nature and authenticity of character – those topics did not seem to interest her. Very simply, her atavism pushed her to relentlessly hunt down and dissect in the manner of an anthropologist, the failings and cowardice, as well as the flamboyant flares inherent to the human condition.
In terms of pure form (and even without reference to the depth, sophistication and intelligence conveyed in the majority of her work), Joni Mitchell's texts and their discovery provide an absolute pleasure and engender a sense of wonder that never wavers. The language is beautiful, and it is no coincidence that some of these poems were included in college and university studies in the United States during the 70s. In contrast, in the age of Lady Gaga and "Cell phone zombies babbling through the shopping malls" (Bad Dreams / Shine album, 2007), when Pop music has become like a "Junk food for juveniles" (Taming the Tiger - 1992), such a thing no longer seems probable.
I shall not attempt to make a listing of the texts most representative of this excellence, for every album by Joni Mitchell from the first Song for a Seagull `(1968), to the last release Shine (2007), is rich with its own share of nuggets. Of course, the poetic prose running the totality of Hejira (1977), a poetry woven throughout the nine stunning pieces constituting the album, is arguably most entitled to symbolize the best of this excellence. However, as far as depth and the mastery of the language are concerned, texts as distant from each other, both chronologically and thematically as - Come in From the Cold, The Beat of Black Wings, The Sire of Sorrow (Job's Sad Song), Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, The Jungle Line, People's Parties Dog Eat Dog, Shine, Judgement From The Moon & Stars, Passion Play (When All The Slaves Are Free), Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, Otis & Marlena, The Boho Dance or Chinese Cafe - are in no way inferior to the peaks scaled in the composition of "Hejira."
Despite the passage of time, the literary merit of Joni Mitchell's work remains unique, timeless and strong. In addition, the work gains at least two extra dimensions through its musical side.
In the first place, as an outsider whose guitar playing is characterized by the technique of "Open Tuning", a non-traditional way of tuning one's guitar, she gives the instrument a tonality so original that it could not be mistaken for any other. A "Joni Mitchell sound" was thus imposed, incisive and wide in terms of both melody and sharpness, an always attractive though eminently disconcerting tone -Silky Veils of Ardour in Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977) stands out as a perfect example among other amazing guitar renditions such as The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey (from Mingus, 1989) and If (from Shine, 2007).
It is this famous "Open Tuning" that caused the row with Furry Lewis, the old Bluesman in Memphis who was in his nineties when Mitchell finally met him. Lewis ordered her to leave because she had dared to raise their common point, namely that famous "Open Tuning" feature... The old Bluesman obviously did not like to be reminded of this, although his reasons remain less than obvious – quite obscure to say the least! Nevertheless, the interview was ended abruptly, with Lewis' resounding, "I don't like you" directed at the blonde musician (Furry Sings The Blues / Hejira - 1976).
The second dimension given to her work by her music arises from her pioneering attitude: the innovative musical requirements that she was experimenting with by the mid 70s cleared the path for Jazz-Fusion and for a later, unlimited use by others of the musical genre called "World" (mostly a blend between African and Latin rhythms). Fellow composers and musicians successfully followed her in the 80s – artists such as Paul Simon (Graceland), Peter Gabriel (with his post-Genesis albums), and Sting (mainly with his solo outputs after The Police).
Although originating from the basic Folk-Song scene (regimented by the likes of Judy Collins, Buffy Sainte Marie and partly, Joan Baez), Mitchell, through excelling in fields where no one was expecting her to blossom, escaped the labels with which these artists were being stamped and thus thwarted similar classification. The true reason of this being, may be, that she never really belonged to that scene, as she repeated she never did whenever she was put into that category by some critics.
The first hint of this rebellion to standards and formatting was to claim, (against all odds, one might be tempted to add) that she was first and foremost a painter when everyone saw her as just being a musician. She purposely muddied the waters. And where some had filed her a bit too quickly in the Folk-Song drawer of "introspective" expression (indeed her first albums so wonderfully dusted and oxygenated the genre, from Song to a Seagull in 1968 to Blue. 1971), she printed on the music of For the Roses (1972), a "Rock" turning point that would culminate in 1973 with the release of Court and Spark.
Thus, the profession of faith contained in Cactus Tree (the song that closes her first album, Song to a Seagull in 1968, where a blunt Joni Mitchell asserts with poise that, in terms of love, her numerous and simultaneous lovers are losing their time waiting for someone that is "So busy being free"), relates equally to her art, underscoring the absolute coherence between the life style of the private character, and the philosophy of the artist - both free to experiment in whatever fields, love or art.
It is unquestionably freedom that drives Joni Mitchell to change gear as soon as the wedding with Rock n' Roll is consumed. When she was anointed in 1974 as "Queen of Rock n' Roll" by the profession, after releasing Court & Spark (and after its million sales in the U.S. alone) the Canadian was already elsewhere. The genre was deserted by the artist, drawn once more by the freedom that the musical structures of Jazz provided, a fascination that had been prefigured by subtle touches in her previous "Folk" work - some segments in the compositions of that period figure as yesteryear pebbles left as clues by a facetious "Little Poucet" musician (one thinks especially of the use of the clarinet in For Free in Ladies of The Canyon - 1970).
In retrospect, it is also as interesting as it is moving, to note that this is Joni Mitchell's terrible lucid insight into the values exported by North-American society (where money and sex are the ultimate benchmarks; where "what-you-look-like-is-the-only-thing-that-matters" and where the dictatorship of Eternal Youth extended at any cost rules). It made her interested in Jazz, and made her move towards that discipline – the only one apart from painting, where she confessed (and at a time when she was still only in her thirties), she could someday "age gracefully with dignity" - unlike the world of Rock music which would only tolerate the perpetuation of physical youth artificially maintained at the cost of blades and silicon (what the ruthless Otis & Marlena cruelly depicts in Don Juan's Reckless Daughter - 1977).
This insight, combined with genuine curiosity and an artistic temperament, drove Mitchell to explore the wilderness of ethnic sound, where the figure of the Black Jazz Musician (a kind of romantic and mystic guru who holds the keys of initiation to Dixieland) and the expressionism of the sensuality of Black music, seemed to fascinate the blonde Canadian. The artistic and sexual freedom exerted by Mitchell, combined with her wonderfully fierce lucidity led to major artistic encounters - some virtual and based purely on a community of thought and goals (for instance with the music of Miles Davis, who always appears at the top of Mitchell's pantheon) or occurring for real (as with the bassist Charlie Mingus, with whom, at his own request, Mitchell would work, or with Herbie Hancock, a prominent pillar of the Jazz scene). This cocktail of lucidity and independence of mind and body would also help encounters where music and love definitely merge (one thinks especially of Don Alias, superb drummer and a black man, who accompanied the musician in the studio, on stage and also in her life).
It is no wonder, then, why Joni Mitchell (with this delicious spirit of provocation that characterizes most of her artistic acts) would turn up with a black face on the cover of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter... - a move inspired by the meeting on the eve of Halloween, on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, with a "black smooth-operator" walking by her in a "diddybop kind of step" and a few whistles of admiration and remarks such as "Hey! Lookin 'good, sistah, lookin' good!" A sunny episode that would make Joni Mitchell rush to put on men's clothes and black makeup, and appear at the Halloween party in the guise and outfits of the Californian black sweet-talker, an evening during which none of her relatives recognized her, and which made her laugh a lot! (The musician adopted this character again years later - but in a much darker mood -, by appearing disguised in the video of The Beat of Black Wings, evoking thus Killer Kyle, a Vietnam veteran destroyed by the war and whom she met at a concert in Fort Bragg (North Carolina), a man who had inspired this beautiful and desperate song, which appeared on the album Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm in 1988).
At this point in her career, Joni Mitchell, who had had it with the Rock scene, bifurcated to the sidewalks of Jazz, negotiating a bend towards narrative poetry, tinged with a social criticism and no introspective hues anymore - a move which some of her public, encouraged by the critics, would not forgive. The critics that matter are the American Music Press because their influence dominates radio airings, which themselves determine the charts and resulting sales, and ultimately the making and breaking of careers.
In the beginning, the critics were reassured by the early "Nice Sister of the Heart Bleeders", but were then ruffled by the rocker and the man-eater, and were definitely taken aback in 1975 with the release of "The Hissing of Summer Lawns", an album with a content that is as magical and enigmatic as it is poetic and cruel. The artist abandoned the "I" and the exploration of the soul and romantic relationships to focus on a series of snapshots, often fiercely critical of the American suburban houses adorned with squares of lawn where sprinklers hiss throughout summer, a society emblematic with its housewives languishing in front of their television sets "with no colours and no contrast," abandoned every morning by their commuting husbands who go to their Downtown offices in cars purchased on credit and blocked in the traffic on congested asphalt highways, or sleeping aboard air-conditioned suburban trains (a premonition for the Madmen from the TV series of the 2010s, outlined by Mitchell with an insight about a forty years ahead of its time...).
The Hissing of Summer Lawns is a beauty, a musical manifesto which, concentrating all the experimentation and the liberty to act and to think, establishes the Canadian's "trademark". Rock and sexual freedom with In France They Kiss on Main Street; unashamed buoyant Jazz with Harry's House-Centerpiece; disconcerting World music with the Burundi drummers in "The Jungle Line"; sumptuous symphonic textures with Shades of Scarlett Conquering; deep Gospel with Shadows & Light; - the alchemy that binds these ingredients together being the lady's exponential talent, which explodes on every word and every note of music. Automatically watered lawns flooded by the rays of a dazzling summer sun, as bright as Mitchell's vision. In retrospect, the virulent rejection of this album by critics and "fans" of the first incarnation of Mitchell causes nothing but embarrassment and misunderstanding today.
But things do not stop there. Critics, with rare exceptions, already disconcerted by the output of The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, would also disapprove of its successor, the album Hejira, a "Road Movie of the Heart", which they did not know how to handle (perhaps the disappearance of the 'so engaging melodies' of the early albums' was responsible for this lack of enthusiasm... The seemingly austere and at first glance icy and monotonous Hejira, released in 1976, is yet undoubtedly THE absolute masterpiece of Joni Mitchell, a work of a richness and density never reached by anyone else, that envelops the listener after only a few plays, giving birth then to pure hypnosis). Then the same critics would turn up their noses (and incidentally close their ears) at Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (published in 1977, one of the other true masterpieces of the Canadian artist), and would finally leave for dead the album Mingus in 1979, a collaboration between the jazz bassist and the blonde musician.
The influential critic Michael Watts (whose opinion counted so much in those times) crucified the album, reaching thus the climax of ridicule; the Melody Maker edition of June 16, 1979 carried his unfortunate words: "This album really sees Joni Mitchell leaving her mass popularity, in search of a more personal style, and finding only idiosyncrasy".
Note the use of a last "clever" word that definitively lacks any sense in the context of the sentence; an example of what has often happened when the critics, dealing with the work of Joni Mitchell, and probably impressed by the level of the lady's writings, attempted to play "equals" by using sophisticated words or concepts themselves. Here, as often elsewhere, the point is completely missed, and fortunately for Joni Mitchell and unfortunately for Mr. Watts' review, posterity will remember it only through the inappropriate use of "idiosyncrasy" and the first phonetic part of the word that sums up what it really sounds like.
As far as I am concerned, I will not try to chronicle here one by one the albums of Joni Mitchell, because all the pages of the Web would not suffice and many of them have already been noted with skill and accuracy (yes it does happen, please refer to www.jonimitchell.com site, which contains many interesting reviews – including the ones that are not necessarily always positive about the work of the musician -including Watts' Mingus, incidentally).
However, and this is a very personal opinion, the albums The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter and Mingus are (IMO), the four pillars of Mitchell's work ; pillars, and not summits, because the artist with different and sometimes less homogeneous albums, demonstrated that her genius had been and continued to be with her all the way through.
Her production of the 80s (a decade that the artist foresaw as "ugly", "hideous" and catastrophic, and God knows that it turned out to be so, with the exception of the oasis that her marriage with bassist, composer and arranger Larry Klein represented then), is considered by many as being too eclectic, and yielding to fads and facile trends – but I do not subscribe to that opinion.
Indeed, the three albums belonging to that period are very interesting, and beautifully consistent. Simply, each represents a break with its predecessor and not an evolutionary change (which was characteristic of her previous work at each new album's release starting with For The Roses, and including all further collaborations with Tom Scott's LA Express band, her encounter with John Guerin, and then her opening to the musical idioms employed by Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius, finally leading to the Mingus apotheosis).
For this reason, the whole series of albums from the 80s is therefore more difficult to decipher than the wonderful previous quadrilogy that was inaugurated by Hissing and closed with Mingus (purposely, I neither include in this cycle the seductive and silky Court & Spark, that heralded the completion of metamorphosis to come, but because of its silky perfection did not to reach the radical adventurous creativity displayed by following albums, nor the sublime Shadows & Light of 1980, since this album was recorded live at the Santa Barbara County Ball and therefore does not show any original compositions - even if it represents the quintessence of the art of Joni Mitchell on stage, with the complicity of fabulous "Jazz-Rock Fusion" magicians that are Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker and Jaco Pastorius).
If Wild Things Run Fast (a "Back to Basics" 1982 album coloured with a touch of jazzy Rock and no longer an excursion into the fields of experimental Jazz-Rock, as Court & Spark had already led the way) is generally less elaborate than Court & Spark itself, the piece still contains its moments of grace with songs like Chinese Cafe, Moon at the Window, Bee Cool and Love.
Released in 1985, the album Dog Eat Dog is maily considered by many as suffering in the mainstream due to Thomas Dolby's sometimes invasive over production (even though poor Dolby becomes some sort of a scapegoat here, given that Joni Mitchell, Larry Klein and Mike Shipley are credited as well for its production), and the "big sound" of the Eighties. However, it also offers some lyrics and music worth listening to including "Ethiopia", "Dog Eat Dog," "Good Friends," "The Three Great Stimulants" and "Tax Free", the latter being co-written by Larry Klein.
For example, the depth, intelligence, sincerity, subtlety of analysis, the courage of the comment and the musical sophistication of the title track from the album are noteworthy - especially when expressed by a lone Mitchell on keyboards at a concert following the release of the album. This magnificent piece, stripped of all unnecessary arrangements, forces you to gauge its innate quality. Unfairly maligned on its recording release, time and distance increasingly rehabilitate it - if only because of the prophetic denunciations of the excesses of the Ronald Reagan era (which, because of America's cultural influence, infected the entire planet, and were magnified under the catastrophic presidencies of George W. Bush); denunciations performed by an artist who had more or less remained mute when it was fashionable to howl along with wolves (the famous "Protest-Song" period of the 60s), but instead found it necessary to call things by their name twenty years later, in a decade when, in her own words, "nobody else did".
And finally, with Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm (1988), Mitchell summarized with panache - like thumbing her nose at her detractors - a decade that still avowedly leaves her followers somewhat disoriented (the electronic and somewhat confusing experiments of the Dolby period - such as Empty-Try Another or, later after Dolby, with The Reoccurring Dream, are largely responsible for this mixed perception). But Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm is a mastered, lush, ambitious and sometimes very dense delivery, containing brilliant tracks such as My Secret Place, (one of the most intoxicating track written by Mitchell ever), The Tea Leaf Prophecy, Lakota, Snake and Ladders and The Beat Of Black Wings. Thus, the 80s come to an end with this extremely sophisticated album - a very controlled disc, quite rich in its multi-layered sounds and occasionally very dense.
[Incidentally, The Beat of Black Wings is also interesting in more than one way, because it underlines once again the extraordinary duality of the woman and of the artist. Joni Mitchell uses the symbol of the The Black Wings to conceptualize death. However, to symbolize life, the urgency of life through the gross impulse of sexuality (a stigma there of the thirst for a male mate), the author uses exactly the same symbol, (if one considers the content of Black Crow (Hejira, 1977), where the hunter here is the female crow which she identifies with, scanning the ground from the icy heights where she is lost and beating her black wings to better pounce on her prey - the complementary male.
This example gives the full measure of the complexity of the character of Joni Mitchell, which seems to indicate that Shadow and Light, Yin and Yang, Good and Evil, Fascination and Repulsion are never anything but the polarities of the same vibration (something she had already mentioned so beautifully in Shadows & Light (The Hissing of Summer Lawns, 1977), or synthesized in the unsurpassable Down To You (Court & Spark - 1974) when she wrote: "Constant Stranger, You're a Brute, You're an angel, You Can Crawl, You can fly too, It's Down to You, It All Comes Down To You." Undoubtedly, these black wings belong to both Desire and Death, confirming that during all of our lives ("Between the forceps and the stone," Hejira - 1977), we do nothing but struggle between Eros and Thanet, with the desperation of knowing from the very beginning of the game whom the ultimate winner will be].
It was during the next two decades, with the issue of Both Sides Now, and finally with the release, to date, of her last album of original material (Shine 2007) that Joni Mitchell chose to close the circle (a circle game, so to speak, that we hope is not over yet, as two albums are still theoretically owed to her label). The 90s and the 2000s saw her regain her public's attention and the respect of critics (needless to say, she did not give a fig for the latter!) as well as rediscovering her roots as a "Storyteller of the Soul", whilst indulging in parallel with increasingly sharp social observations, and persevering with invention and excellence in her music.
Joni Mitchell opened the decade of the 90s with one of her most beautiful and wonderful albums, Night Ride Home. This was the album of a blossomed maturity and the culmination of a fruitful collaboration with her husband, the musician Larry Klein. Joni Mitchell had never been so peacefully beautiful, her music as full and her words as assumed, fair, efficient and moving.
"I am not old, I'm told, but I am not young, and nothing can be done" (Nothing Can Be Done / Night Ride Home, 1991) tells us of a woman who, two decades earlier, was already solemnly concerned with "ageing gracefully and with dignity." Coming to this crossroads of age, it is once again, with a talent like no other, that Joni Mitchell reflects on her life in a series of ten pieces each more beautiful than the other.
I shall point out with this list, what specifically may be the synthesis of everything that Joni Mitchell has written: Come In From The Cold expresses all the motivations, cracks, enthusiasms and doubts of the artist as well as of the woman, establishing once and for all why she did what she did, and why she is who she is, and destroying all the clichés bestowed on her, good or bad, confirming the simple human being, clairvoyant, wonderful and poignant, and the artist as she is – great, unclassifiable and fragile.
Night Ride Home was followed by Turbulent Indigo (1994), a more cerebral, dark and disillusioned album but also quite interesting and brilliant (and this time welcomed by the profession with two Grammy Awards), with tracks like Sex Kills, The Magdalene Laundries and The Sire Of Sorrow/Job's Sad Song, three examples reaching the heights of her most accomplished work, and then by Taming the Tiger (1998), where Mitchell seems to want to bow out smoothly, but still by the front door, with more discreet pieces but still exceptionally creative and moving (Taming the Tiger, Stay in touch, Face Lift or the melancholic Man From Mars).
In 2000, Joni Mitchell offered a magnificent tribute to the repertoire of jazz standards, recording a new album that she named after of one of her finest compositions, Both Sides Now, a title re-interpreted for the occasion with the help of a symphony orchestra (the piece appeared originally in the album Clouds in 1969).
Again, the intelligence of the purpose challenges the mind, as its depth moves the heart: the selection of songs evokes the chronology of a passion, with the foundations of first love (You're My Thrill) up to the ruins of the break (Stormy Weather) and the renewal of life that finally - hopefully - wins, and the desire to love again, a love that will flower again one day if all goes well (I Wish I Were in Love Again). Across the tracks from the album, Joni Mitchell looks back on her own life, giving the two tracks she selected out of her own repertoire the most poignant and most beautiful treatment that we have ever heard (The Last Time I Saw Richard and Both Sides Now).
Between 2000 and 2007, Joni Mitchell seemed to disappear from public view for good, to the despair of those who followed her for so many years.
With the exception of Travelogue, through which Joni Mitchell revisited her repertoire like in some sort of "Hejirian" musical journey, colored by a definite jazz coloration, updated with her voice of today and accompanied by a symphonic orchestra (as it happened with Both Sides Now), only a few compilations were edited, as well as a series of Greatest Hits mischievously entitled Hits and Misses. Among these compilations, Songs From A Prairie Girl proves to be indispensable, if only because this compilation shows new pictures of the photo session on the frozen lake which gave birth to Hejira's masterpiece artwork, showing Mitchell iceskating on some wintery lake or river, and also because it offers a superb remastered version of Paprika Plains, where Joni Mitchell has deleted the phrase Gotta get some air, which originally figured in the released version of the track in Don Juan's Reckless Daughter.
But like the "scorpion" woman she claims to be (her astrological sign), stimulated by adversity, and like any good phoenix rising from its ashes, Joni Mitchell moved back to full light with Shine, a flaming twilight of the image of the Indian summers that ignite the territories where the musician was born.
If Joni Mitchell did not mince words in Dog Eat Dog, with Shine anger and despair appear to be the major feelings that present times inspired in the Lady of Saskatchewan… and rightfully so. Terrorism spread by religion, "Holy War, Genocide, Suicide, Hate and Cruelty ... How can this be holy? If I had a heart, I'd cry" (If I Had A Heart I'd Cry / Shine album, 2007)… Bombs, wars, pollution, extinction of animal species, desecration of life, the rule of Big Money that has become God, overpopulation, destruction of the planet, killing spree of men, programmed self-destruction of Mankind !... In this regard, I have often wondered whether Joni Mitchell did not point with the line "We've set our lovely sky on fire" (If I Had A Heart I'd Cry / Shine, 2007) to the madness of men at work in the Gakona area of Alaska, close to the land of Canada so dear to her heart…* * * * *
No matter what specific monstrosity some of the Shine tracks are all about; the album unquestionably does point to human folly through the majority of its compositions. So, is Shine definitely bitter and hopeless? This would be strange to the author, who (although totally pessimistic about the future of our societies and the one that we reserve for the planet because of our selfishness, greed and blindness), intends still to shine a little light in this dark ocean of lucidity.
Thus, Joni Mitchell closes her last album of original material published to date by reinterpreting If, the poem by Rudyard Kipling, to which she gives some of her finest music. Where Charlie Mingus compositions had offered her Joni I-VI so that she could give them a title, some words and finally sing them, thus leading to the magical tracks of Mingus. Whereby, she tackles the reverse process by putting to music the words of another.
And what words! If so perfectly expresses what Joni Mitchell herself seems to think. The language is so beautiful that it is difficult at first listening, if you're not a connoisseur of Kipling's work (which was so in my case), not to imagine that this text did not pour directly out of the pen of the Canadian musician. Yet this is the case. Only at the end does she add to the original text with these concluding words, "I Know You'll Be All Right, 'Cause you've got the fight, You've Got The Insight."
No one could compose a fairer conclusion to a text upon the work of Joni Mitchell than that given by Joni Mitchell herself, in these words. They fully define her, in the grandeur of her fights, in her uncompromising philosophy of life, in her unrivalled insight of the human soul.
Meeting with Joni Mitchell
I first encountered the music of Joni Mitchell in 1976, while I was taking classes at the Art School Met de Penninghen in Paris. It was this encounter that made me become a painter. In effect, it was the pictorial research that I undertook between 1979 and 1989, inspired by some lyrics and music of Joni Mitchell that I had selected, that led me to painting.
A student at the art school named Agnès d'Andon, with whom I had become friends, and whose sophisticated and smart tastes made me trust her judgement, had introduced me to Court & Spark.
The lightning strike was immediate.
Fate decided that this thunderbolt would be inextricably linked to another one, of a less happy nature. Not being a fan of the exhibitionism that is so fashionable nowadays on the Internet, I will not go into further detail. I am only mentioning this very personal episode because, in respect of the work that was produced, it should be made clear that, beyond the artistic qualities of Joni Mitchell's work, it is the rapport between the range of themes that she favoured then (mainly love, its failures and the resulting hopelessness) with my own experience that engaged me into making these images inspired by her work.
In the context of this story, of a love that had turned my life into hell between 1976 and 1979, (three years: an eternity when one is only twenty years old and the time it took for this story to hatch, then to burn and finally to die for good, after I left Penninghen at the end of 1979), this "instrospective" aspect of Joni Mitchell's work brought me comfort and literally saved my life
When asked about her early albums, Joni Mitchell has often said that it seemed that the more she bled in her writings and storytelling, the more her audience could identify with her, and would be pleased that she bled still more – in this case the infamous sacrificial transfer. In my case, if the latter ever existed, it can be said that it will have had at least the merits of being the trigger for a process leading to this series of illustrations, engravings and paintings.
If I thought for a moment that I did what I did only because of a compelling kind of catharsis, then the release of the album Night Ride Home in 1991 made me change my point of view. One of the poems it contains made me think that if "things never happen by chance", like so many of us often feel, my history with Joni Mitchell was no exception to this rule.
Two Grey Rooms, inspired by the experiences of a man who was part of the filmmaker Fassbinder' scene, is one of the finest compositions by Joni Mitchell, with regard to both its music and meaning. Two Grey Rooms which closes the album Night Ride Home, is about a love story between two men, where the spurned lover, twenty years after their separation, rents "two grey rooms" with windows overlooking the route taken by his former lover when he goes to work, just to watch him "walk by", from afar.
To me, it would have taken a certain amount of blindness, deafness and amnesia not to be struck by the resemblance between certain issues raised in the story of Two Grey Rooms and part of my own story with this art school student, when, during the moments of rupture in our three year liaison, loss and pain pushed me to go and wait for him, late every Sunday night when he returned to Paris from the country at the end of the weekend; me hiding under a porch and pondering the floor of the building where he lived from the sidewalk in front, scrutinizing his windows just in the hope of seeing him "walk by".
Of course, this similarity between the writings and music of Joni Mitchell and my own feelings, which proved to be extraordinarily accurate, is not unique, since the majority of her audience could claim the same kind of experience, with all the possible variables attributable to each personal history. But in my case (and this is truly the only reason why I have recounted the very intimate story above), it is because the mark has been so striking that the outlet of art became the only possible therapy, and explains why and how I came to be working on pictorially reflecting the writings and music of Joni Mitchell.
Therefore, in this respect, having discovered her music only in 1976, I jumped on a train that had already left the station, since at that time her ninth album, Hejira, had just been released.
Mesmerized by Court & Spark, I remember going to the local music store and buying all the albums prior to that disc, the three that followed, as well as Hejira that had just landed in the trays. I listened to all of them in loops; in disorder; and in order for months and months, which quickly turned into years. I found that I listened to her music more and more, and the more I listened to it, the more I was fascinated and the more I could see of myself in her so-called "confessional" works (which merit to be qualified more rightly as "introspective" works). I was equally charmed and bewitched by the works more distant from my personal concerns, such as for example, those developed in The Hissing of Summer Lawns.
Experiencing the work of Joni Mitchell for the first time "in bulk", probably spared me the disappointment of her fans of the first hour, who did not accept that the flayed bleeding waif from Blue (1971) had turned her back on them by focussing more on the suburban housewives' emotional sorrow than on their own (sorry for the shortcut that is a bit of a cliché, as, I suppose, all shortcuts are).
So I fell in love with Joni Mitchell's work without bias or prejudices, I absorbed her artistic, literary and musical achievements all at the same time, simultaneously immersing myself in her music through all of her released albums. Therefore, I did not have to separate the Joni from "before" in opposition to the Joni of 1977, who had moved away from the Folk Song fields towards the direction of the territories of Rock and Jazz.
So, when I decided to embark on a series of illustrations inspired by her lyrics and music, I dug randomly into her repertoire without worrying about the period of gestation of the works. My choice was motivated solely by the text at stake (or rather, should I say, what I understood of it at the time…) and the music. It was never due to the relationship of the work to a particular period of the musician's development, since I loved them all indiscriminately (although, of course, with age, my choices today are much more affirmed and selective).
I created a collection of eleven images that I assembled in a cardboard box. The box was very heavy because each painting, mainly in oil, was made directly on (or sometimes its support glued to) very thick cardboard. This was topped with a cover, on the back of which, was a visual opposite a French translation of the original English text.
The collection, which I simply entitled Songs by Joni Mitchell, included a version of:
- Hary's House-Centerpiece
- Same Situation
- People's Parties
- Shades of Scarlett Conquering
- Edith And The Kingpin
- Don Juan's Reckless Daughter
- Song for Sharon
- Down to You
Years passed . . . until in 1983, Joni Mitchell gave two concerts in Paris as part of the world tour she undertook for the release of her album Wild Things Run Fast. The first concert was staged at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees on April 30th and the second one at the Casino de Paris on May 1st. It was the second series of concerts, and the last to date, that Joni Mitchell gave in France. Her first appearance on a French stage had taken place a decade earlier at Salle Pleyel, with Jackson Brown as a guest during the first part (at the time, I had not yet heard of Joni Mitchell). The concerts of 1983 were therefore events and I wanted to attend both. For the one taking place at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysees, needless to say that I broke my piggy bank as I bought the best seat in the centre of the first row for my friends and I.
...I had finally managed to learn where Joni Mitchell would be staying by asking my British friend, Robert Key, (with whom I developed a friendship that only ended with his untimely death in 2009), to make enquiries. Robert worked in the music industry and held a key position at Rocket Records in London, a record company that Elton John had created along with his lyricist Bernie Taupin and his manager John Reid (the latter figures in the illustration that I did, inspired by Edith & the Kingpin from The Hissing of Summer Lawns album).
In 1974, at the request of Elton John (whom I idolized), I had made a series of small paintings for the musician's world tour. At my request, Robert had been in contact with Anne Philonenko at CBS France, who was responsible at the time for the Joni Mitchell catalogue. Anne, with whom I developed links of friendship later on, was a young blonde woman, lively and friendly. She agreed to let me know, thanks to the 'sesame' provided by Rocket Records and Robert Key's support, where Joni Mitchell was staying, i.e. the Warwick Hotel in the Rue de Berri, in the 8th arrondissement of Paris.
A day before the arrival of the musician, I stopped by the hotel reception and left my collection of illustrations, with a little note and my address.
The concert finally took place (the quality of which I cannot be objective about since too many things made it exceptionally dazzling to my eyes and my ears). At the end of it, it happened that a boy, dodging the surveillance cordon (and being especially nimble compared to the security thugs who seemed totally devoid of any reaction when they were supposed to protect the star from the ardour of her fans), had jumped onto the stage carrying a bouquet of red roses that he gave to Joni Mitchell who was leaving the front of the stage with her band in order to join the backstage area.
This meant that only a few meters separated her from me in the first row from the stage. Despite the hubbub in the theatre and the background of 'airport' music that accompanied the exit of the spectators, I could distinctly perceive the exchange between the young man and Joni Mitchell. Having seized the bouquet of roses, I think I heard her ask the boy, "Are you Jacques?" Unable to understand why she had asked the question, the boy of course answered in the negative.
I am not sure to this day that this episode really happened exactly in that way, but no matter whether it did or not, I took what I thought I had heard as a sign. This gesture of Joni Mitchell seemed to me to be an encouragement to try to meet her "for real", when, due to shyness, I was totally paralyzed by fear at that moment. And afraid above all, because of the certainty that a meeting would have no meaning, since it could only happen on a completely artificial and superficial "fan"-to-"star" level, that would exclude a discussion of her music and texts in relation to the illustrations that were born from them. The butterfly was attracted to the real light, not by the sequined lampshade used for filter.
But strengthened by this incident, my friends were able to convince me, so we went - me shaking like a leaf and them dying with laughter - to wait for Joni Mitchell's arrival in the lobby of the Warwick Hotel, situated close to the Theatre des Champs-Elysées. Not knowing if the artist would return to the hotel right after the concert, or if she would go somewhere for dinner instead, we decided to go immediately to the spot, thereby being sure of seeing her go into the hotel if she returned immediately. A course of action that gave the possibility for the young babbling and liquefied man that was me to meet her. It was lucky that we did, for very soon after our arrival and installation on the Warwick sofas, Joni Mitchell, accompanied by her husband, band and management, appeared in the lobby and walked towards the reception to collect their keys.
Virtually pushed in the back by my friends, I managed to crash in front of Joni Mitchell, and before her management could intervene, uttered a few words stating that I was the author of the things that had been handed to her upon her arrival the day before.
Joni Mitchell was impressive with her simplicity, spontaneity, kindness and warmth. Especially since she had just given all of herself for several hours on stage. Yet, despite her fatigue, and the fact that she had not even had time to grab a bite, she invited me to follow her into her apartments in order to have look together and to comment on this book of drawings and illustrations by a small unknown French guy, insignificant and without notoriety, which had been brought to her attention only the previous day.
It is well known that some stars, notoriously resplendent in their art, are equally disappointing and uninteresting when the curtain falls and the artistic representation gives way to the human person.
Do I need to say that Joni Mitchell does not belong to this category, and that the woman "of heart and mind", her lyrics and her music, allowed me to glimpse what was there fully? Inasmuch as that which I could see and perceive during the four hours we spent together, from midnight until I left at four o'clock in the morning (her husband, Larry Klein, who had stayed with us, fell deeply asleep after a while in one of the armchairs in the lounge of the suite that he and his wife occupied).
I spent most of my time hanging on to Joni Mitchell's every word, listening to her telling me about the context that gave birth to each of these texts, while at the same time looking at the images they had inspired. At this point, we had few opportunities to laugh at them.
Thus, I had made an illustration inspired by The Boho Dance (The Hissing of Summer Lawns, 1975). In that song, Joni Mitchell wrote this line: "Like a priest with a pornographic watch, looking and longing on the sly". I had understood that Joni Mitchell alluded to a priest wearing a watch on his wrist designed like those glasses one can find in Chinese restaurants, where a naked woman or a bare man appear at the bottom when the liquid filling it has disappeared. A "porn watch" then! I liked this idea of a clergyman, promised to chastity, looking furtively, with all the lust required, at the silhouette of a naked and helpless being hidden under the hands of his watch; a gadget symbolic of the hypocrisy of religion where sex is concerned. This interpretation seemed logical in the context of writings by Joni Mitchell that had never been particularly lenient, and even less indulgent, towards religions, the absurdity of their doctrines and their ridiculous and hypocritical taboos about sexual matters. Still, my English had betrayed me (this would not be the only time that it would happen), which caused Joni Mitchell much laughter. She explained that the priest here was just supposed to look at his prey with the lust of a salacious look in his eyes, - the famous "pornographic watch" - adding with a giggle, that she actually found my interpretation, "unexpected" as it was, "... very interesting" and concluding with a burst of laughter!
For the record, I did experience similar types of confusion again with my future translations into French of other Joni Mitchell's texts. This was often due to my imperfect knowledge of the English language at the time, or ignorance of facts specific to the Anglo-Saxon culture with which I was not that familiar.
An example of this occurred towards the end of this cycle of works, inspired by the writings of Joni Mitchell in 1989. I produced a painting after The Tea Leaf Prophecy (a track appearing on Chalk Mark In The Rainstorm / 1988). Set in the Second World War, it was the story of a woman, Molly McGee, (the embodiment of the musician's mother, Myrtle) and her meeting with a soldier on leave, who was back visiting his town – the soldier in question being the musician's own father, Bill Anderson. The soldier returned to the front and one year later a daughter was born - Joni. All this was predicted by a gypsy who told Molly McGee what she had read in the tea leaves about her future, fifteen days before she met Bill in the tearoom of some Grand Hotel in Regina, Saskatchewan.
Joni Mitchell, referring to what constituted McGee's life of "routine" during wartime, mentioned: "Tokyo Rose on the radio." But where the author cited "Tokyo Rose", (a Japanese propaganda programme broadcast in English and intended to undermine the morale of Allies, and a show quite famous at that time), I understood - without paying attention to the "R" capital employed for "Rose"- that she described an element of decoration in Molly McGee's home. This detail enabled me to evoke symbolically, a time of war when the evil powers of the Axis - Nazi Germany and Japan-, raged. Hence, I imagined that she was talking about a vase containing a rose of the "Tokyo" variety, placed on the radio that gave out news of the conflict.
Therefore, in my painting, I fancied a vase showing the Japanese flag, which made sense in relation to other elements of the text, such as the "Nazi dread", symbolised in my painting by booted soldiers marching in goose step and making the Nazi salute. I apologize to Joni Mitchell, this rose (with a small "r") placed in its Japanese vase was no more relevant in The Tea Leaf Prophecy than the priest wearing a "pornographic watch" on his wrist was in The Boho Dance! These are thus the vague misunderstandings arising from an incomplete knowledge of English; the communication flaws between people since the Babel incident...
Before leaving at dawn, I offered Joni Mitchell a painting that I had made for her. It was, if my memory serves me correctly, an oil on carton, about two feet by three feet and a half, on which I represented an episode quoted by her in an interview, which had had a great impact on me because I found it so very symbolic of her commitment to painting and also very representative of that special magic that characterizes her narrative talent and makes it so unique. The work was ready to be delivered, in case I succeeded in meeting her, and if the opposite had been the case, I would have deposited it at the hotel reception before she left France.
This painting showed her in silhouette standing on some kind of street or road, her face not visible as her shoulders reach the limit of the frame. Before her, a black man is crouching in the process of painting a yellow line on ground and offering her some of the paint that he used for his signage.
I created this painting from an anecdote related by Joni Mitchell in an interview with "Rolling Stone" magazine (edition of November 25, 1982). While she was in Jamaica, visiting her friend the director Perry Henzel, she went through a sudden and uncontrollable urge to paint. Henzel had offered her one of his walls so that she could execute a mural, providing her with paint in all colours except yellow. Joni Mitchell had then jumped into a car to get to the nearest town (some seventy kilometres away) to acquire yellow, but had realized after she had started, that everything was closed (It was a bank holiday around Mardi Gras). She then came upon a road worker who was kind enough to let her have some of his yellow paint, which she had been forced to store in an old chipped coconut, encased in an old champagne cardboard bucket that she had found in the car. Arriving back at Henzel's home, virtually all the paint had been spilt and had sunk to the bottom of the champagne bucket, which in turn had been dislocated, spreading the entire contents around the back seat of the car. However, with the two spoons of yellow paint that remained at the bottom of the coconut, Joni Mitchell had been able to finish her fresco. I had found that story funny, poetic, meaningful and engaging. It epitomised all the feelings that could have inspired the work of Joni Mitchell when she wrote joyful sunny humorous songs like Raised on Robbery or The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines, for example. It seemed obvious to me to make a painting out of this in order to offer it to her.
which later became better known under the name
of REAL WORLD STUDIOS.
During the summer of 2016,
while staying in England in the Bath region, I returned to Ashcombe House,
a place that I had had such a hard time to locate twenty-nine years before,
as I constantly took the wrong way driving my car in the dark,
lost at night in the woods within a network of dirt paths
and small roads which my maps never
seemed to mention, all around
Between 1983 and 1989, encouraged by this decisive encounter with Joni Mitchell, I produced a whole set of new illustrations, engravings and finally paintings, all inspired by her work. This body of work allowed me to become a painter, and as I explained in the catalogue of my work inspired by Brasilia in 2010, I owe it to Joni Mitchell. I started my work making illustrations (the vast majority of them seem childish and academic to me when I see them again today) and I finished this work making paintings – even though I find the majority of them hardly good enough to be looked at today.
But what's done is done. The fact is, that without this work, none of the paintings that I have done since, on Brasilia or something else, would ever have emerged. This is the value of my debt to Joni Mitchell.
I had the opportunity, joy and honour to be able to show her the second part of this work that was inspired by her lyrics, in a second encounter that occurred early in 1987. This time it was in Bath, England, where Peter Gabriel owned a recording studio called Ashcombe House, located near the city. Joni Mitchell was there with husband, co-producer and bassist Larry Klein, recording (with a bunch of musicians, including the French Manu Katché) what would become her thirteenth studio album, Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm (released in 1988).
Among those that I rejected, there were one or two that I found interesting, even today. But because of their visual violence, and in deference to Joni Mitchell, I decided to disregard them, which is what happened to That Song About The Midway (Clouds, 1969) or Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, 1977). Regarding Midway, I'm not even sure that I understood everything when I translated the text before I did the painting, therefore... No regrets! But this is a painting I still like, because I think it is a strong one - perhaps irrelevant, but strong.
From that perspective, this is why I prefer the second version I gave of Amelia, even if it does not evoke, because of the bluntness of sexual representation, and in its colours and composition, the poetic, melancholic, bashful and very "autumnal" mood of the text by Joni Mitchell. The first version, which was part of the collection shown to Joni Mitchell in 1983 in Paris, is certainly more poetic, softer and more in line with the image that many followers of the musician carry of her. However, for me the second version is more interesting, maybe because it conveys a feeling of magnitude, and is more about tragedy. The commentary is also valid, in some of its aspects, for the two versions I did of Song for Sharon.
After this second interview, I started the third and last series of works inspired by Joni Mitchell's writings, giving birth to things that I never had the opportunity to show her (all works post 1987), which in my view started to become paintings.
On that topic, I think that the difference between an illustration and a painting is not a matter of dimension, as it is commonly believed. An illustration is above all servicing the story or text that originated it and it is hard to evaluate it without referring to that origin, no matter what its artistic merits might be. A painting tells a story of its own, occult or obvious, and does not service anything else but itself.
At the end of the Eighties, I presented the model of this book, Homage to Joni Mitchell, that the musician had seen in Bath, to many publishers in the US and in the UK. None of them were interested into publishing it. I remember one of the verbal comments that one of them made, saying in essence : "Too bad you are not Van Gogh and that she is not Madonna, we would have published that right away". Well, just as the first part of that comment might make sense, I am not that sure that the second one was particularly smart…
Upon entering the large room where Joni Mitchell was waiting, I remember passing Larry Klein in a corridor, whom I briefly saluted. I could read in his eyes a weariness, though lit somehow with an amused glint, something like "Oh My God, there we go again, here is this little one again! They'll discuss painting at length, all night long - we're not out of the woods yet! "
In a flash, I remembered Larry Klein asleep in his chair while I was finishing bombarding Joni Mitchell with questions about the front cover of Hejira showing these photos by Norman Seef, and how the final visual for this sublime artwork had been assembled (at the time photoshop did not exist). At four o'clock in the morning, hanging onto her every word and the interesting answers about the way they had done it all, in their suite at the Warwick Hotel four years ago - and I could understand his fears. He was seeing me landing again, hoping that the tediousness would not happen again! But his fears were to be realised.
Again I spent more or less four hours with Joni Mitchell, talking about painting, showing her the things I had made since our first meeting and admiring her own work when she showed me a whole set of canvases on which she was working. Most of them were abstract researches, cousins of some of the compositions she had created at the time of Mingus (that is what I remember), until the moment she took out an entire family of smeared paint bottles, which I understood to be works of their own. Handicapped by my English as usual, I tried to look smart, pretending to understand something that somehow looked a bit weird to me. Fortunately, after a while, Joni Mitchell took pity on me, realizing that I did not understand what she was talking about. She then explained things more slowly and I finally understood that these bottles were only instruments she used to achieve certain effects in her work.
Discovering my new illustrations and some engravings, Joni Mitchell had exclaimed with a loud, friendly and warm laugh: "Hey, Jacques, some of these are real Kamasutra, aren't they? "... or something like that. In reviewing this work today, I do not know if I would have the courage to show some of them to her again, because of that reason. But again, what's done is done. It was a period in my life as a young man, when young men in general, whatever their sexual orientation is, have their blood boiling and I was no exception to the rule. So I was painting with boiling paint that which was making me boil inside – a reason why I still feel a lot of affection for some of these paintings today, even though I know that their artistic interest is probably very limited. Of course, I selected for this site those that still can bear the shock.
("Three Traces of Oscar")
Vinylics on canvas
214 cm x 200 cm
The last time I saw Joni Mitchell was that night in 1987 at Ashcombe House.
So far (2011), twenty-four years have gone by since that night.
In 2006 I reconnected with her, via her management, when I was preparing a catalogue for my Three Traces of Oscar exhibition, which took place at the Espace Niemeyer, the exhibition space of the French Communist Party headquarters designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. I wanted to include the text of Both Sides Now in this catalogue, along with a text by Oscar Niemeyer from his Memoirs, and inspired by the clouds, in front of the reproduction of a painting I did then, entitled Nuages. That painting showed Oscar Niemeyer and Joni Mitchell together, the first sketching the second, while she was skating on the glass roof of the Espace Niemeyer with the plaza of the building designed by Niemeyer in the background, as on some allegory of a frozen river, holding a paintbrush in her hand. I explained to her management that I had met Joni Mitchell previously, telling them my story, so that when they questioned her about clearance for authorization she could remember me - may be - and decide whether to give me permission to reproduce Both Sides Now in my catalogue, or not.
Both Sides Now does figure in my catalogue.
So for that reason and for all the many times that I wish that I could express it to her (that is, whenever I listen to her music, that is... quite often, to say the least!), here is, in conclusion of my story, the only word that I can think of for her work, and for everything that she meant - and still means - to me.
In June 2015, I attended a symposium in the UK, dedicated to Joni Mitchell, and organized by the Lincoln University in the UK.
On this occasion, I published a half A4 format twenty pages booklet, that included the texts Only of the late twentieth century? and Meeting with Joni Mitchell, as well as reproductions of a selection of my pictorial works inspired by the Joni Mitchell's corpus of poetry and music.
I was able to distribute this booklet to participants in the symposium, being very happy to communicate and share with people there coming from all over the world, everyone being driven by the same passion: the work of Joni Mitchell.
Among them, Jim Robinson and Dennis Curley, two very sympathetic and talented American authors and artists who projected to the symposium participants two sketches inspired by Joni Mitchell, Joni Mitchell Is Scrooge and The Last Time I Saw Richard and Deirdre.
Jim Robinson is a university professor of psychology at St. Catherine University and University of St. Thomas in St. Paul in the USA, as well as a writer, an actor, a theater producer and director ; Dennis Curley meanwhile is a musician and singer, a songwriter, a director and a producer for the theatrical scene as well. Both authors are active in the theatrical in particular via the Table Salt Productions company, based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota in the USA.
I also add the pleasure to meet Gary L. Dick, a very interesting psychotherapist and scholar, as well as a social work professor in the University of Cincinnati, USA.
And Vicky and Jay Higgins, two charming protagonists of this symposium who simply attended and did not present any abstract to the public, with whom I had really great, moving and sincere conversations about Joni Mitchell.