The great balancing act of music biographers has to be that point where they decisively fall off the high wire and tumble into the depths of sycophantic propagandizing, or stay on that shaky walk between the two towers of birth and present day life (or death). The hardest job for a music biographer tackling the still living giants of post-WWII popular music probably comes with the realization that their subjects are still breathing, still roaming the earth, still making sense of their own legacies and perhaps scrambling to create a final statement beyond what the biographer has in mind. The legends are dying, slipping away one after the other, and we must capture them, as David Yaffe has captured Joni Mitchell here, while we still can.
Mitchell hasn’t released an album since 2007’s Shine, which was marketed through a record label co-founded by Starbucks. She has been physically debilitated and unable to perform live, but her music has been everywhere. In 2017, “Free Man In Paris” was played in full during the finalé of HBO’s Girls. The recent losses of music legends Prince and Leonard Cohen brought up their connections with Mitchell. The former was a lover of her music, the latter a lover in deeper ways. Who was she? Who is she? What has she meant to the world?
Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, David Yaffe has crafted a beautiful, heartbreaking, fierce and uncompromising look at one of the greatest artists of the past 50 years. From her 1968 debut album Song to a Seagull where she assumed the folk persona of a wispy soprano with silky blonde hair singing a song cycle of blossoming, transforming, and travel, to her most Shien, Mitchell has moved fearlessly through a world and music business that has never been kind to women unashamed of their minds and determined to chart their own ways.
From his first meeting with Mitchell in 2007, as she publicized her most recent album, Yaffe became a fan of the woman and her approach to work and life:
“She loved to be provocative. She loved to be what she called a ‘pot stirrer.’ She was trouble-and she was really good at it.”
Yaffe seems to know he was entering a difficult journey here, and his bravery at the start of it is admirable. In describing a “years later” interview session with Mitchell, Yaffe writes: “After twelve hours ofJoni, up all night, my sense of reality had been permanently altered.” It’s a difficult preface, because the reader familiar with what happened to Mitchell in 2015 (a debilitating and life-threatening brain aneurysm) understands what happens next. The condition hit Mitchell a couple months after this meeting with Yaffe. In a sense, he seems to be suggesting that this journey to chronicle Mitchell’s life and times was a race to finish before the inevitable, before she slips away and a darker storyline takes hold. It’s this mix of measured admiration for and curiosity about his subject that makes Yaffe’s work an important take on the standard music biography.
Mitchell was born in 1943 as Roberta Joan Anderson. She was confined to a “polio colony” outside Saskatoon Canada ten years later during a wave of the potentially permanently debilitating condition that also hit fellow Canadian Neil Young. She learned to walk again, to rage against the expectations of her doctors. Yaffe paints a picture of Mitchell as this fun-loving girl growing up in a “mad men” era late-’50s North America, dancing to Chuck Berry and Little Richard:
“She called herself a ‘good-time Charlie’ and her school friends still confirm it. The laughter at the end of ‘Big Yellow Taxi” was as familiar to them as a telephone call from an old friend.”
For all her claims against those she has labeled plagiarists (particularly Bob Dylan), it’s interesting to note early on how Yaffe characterizes Mitchell’s early approaches towards musicianship. “Copying was a big part of how Joni taught herself,” he writes. “Her relationship to music would also be personality-based.” It’s easy here to run through her list of lovers: Graham Nash, Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and more. Much of her music, from “A Case of You”, “Coyote”, and others, reference these men, and the reader can easily draw conclusions. Yaffe manages to elude those hasty generalizations (that Mitchell spent her formative performance artist years kissing and telling) by emphasizing that Mitchell was an artist, first and foremost: “As a girl, Joan Anderson picked apart paintings, poems, literature, and songs the same way some kids took apart toasters.”
By the time she entered art school in 1964, Mitchell seemed to understand she was not long for that tradition. As Yaffe notes, “…doing time in art school was a rock and roll tradition, particularly in GreatBritain… Joni, Keith Richards… John Lennon, Pete Townshend, and Jeff Beck…” Mitchell would note “I sing my sorrow and paint my joy”, but the pull of music was strong. Yaffe writes about how legendary folkie Dave Van Ronk seemed to be the one who helped usher Mitchell into the world of folk music. They performed together on Oscar Brand’s “Let’s Sing Out”. Mitchell notes very clearly (perhaps equal parts for posterity and the reader) “‘that’s when I was a folksinger. I was a folksinger as Joan Anderson. As soon as I became Joni Mitchell, I was no longer a folk singer. Once I started to write my music, that’s not folk music.”
A great music biography will always reveal secrets and connections. Mitchell’s first classic, “Both Sides Now”, was influenced by a scene in Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King and here the prickliness starts invading the narrative. Apparently she didn’t like what Judy Collins did in her version of the song. For Mitchell, “‘Judy Collins sounds like the damsel in the green room…” In 1969, Collins introduces Mitchell to the Newport Folk Festival audience. The names swirl around and intersect with each other. Collins had covered Leonard Cohen’s songs and introduced him to the bigger world. Cohen was in a relationship with Mitchell, and as Yaffe sees it, for Cohen “…even casual sex was never casual, but a pathway to souls, words, and inspiration.” Their relationship is brief. Mitchell asks for and receives a reading list fromCohen, and she sees that he’s taken lines from these poets.
“It was a tension that spoke to a schism in their songwriting styles. ‘Leonard got mad at me…I put a line…that he said…in one of my songs…To me, that’s not plagiarism. You either steal from life or you steal from books. Life is fair game, but books are not.”
The narrative picks up once Mitchell is signed for her first album, 1968’s Song to a Seagull. It’s an anachronistic folk throwback, the type of acoustic reflective music that wasn’t marketable in those days, but Mitchell is ushered around by David Crosby, who she sees as a sort of YosemiteSam cartoon character. The legendary Crosby, Stills, and Nash forms in Mitchell’s living room. Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” would prove a comforting answer to Neil Young’s doomed “Sugar Mountain”. The seasons go round and round but you can always find a place to do your own thing as those years pass.
The easiest way to immediately contextualize and understand Mitchell is probably by comparing Crosby Stills and Nash’s version of “Woodstock” with Mitchell’s original. The former was an immediate staple in FM rock radio rotation, simple chords telling a story about a journey towards self-actualization. “We are stardust/ We are golden/ And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” For the men, it was a celebration, a statement of purpose. They had been there at the August 1969 event, performed for the masses, and come home. Mitchell was unable to attend. She wrote the song, and the mood of her recording is radically different:
“…Joni wasn’t kidding when she compared the event to a funeral. Her version of the song is a modal dirge… a minor chord, a suspended chord, and moving down to a ninth chord… Joni lets out a wordless, tribal moan… It is an omen that something very, very bad will happen when the mud dries and the hippies go home.”
This is what works best about Yaffe’s narrative. He understands Mitchell’s origin story as a flighty teen growing up in the late ’50s, as an unwed mother in 1965 who gave up her daughter for adoption and was able to reunite with her and meet the grandchildren, 32 years later. In 2015, Mitchell describes the recording sessions for 1971’s Blue as follows:
“People became transparent to me. People thought I had the evil eye. That’s why we locked off the Blue sessions. Nobody could come in. If anybody came in, I’d burst in tears.”
The remarkable staying power of Blue and especially the song “River” has always spoken to Mitchell’s ability to break down the barriers of commercial categorization. Yaffe understands the album as a turning point where Mitchell had done the folk songs, made the prototypical confessional album (which would apparently be a major influence on Bob Dylan three years later in Blood on the Tracks) and was moving towards the difficult intricacies of art songs and jazz. “There was only one question,” Yaffe writes,”and it was a question, posed on ‘California” for all of us: ‘Will you take me as I am?'”
For Mitchell, it seemed to be less about connecting in order to get somewhere than it was simply following the muse. For the Rose” (1972) was followed by Court and Spark (1974). Psychoanalysis and doomed relationships with Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, and many others in the California scene were all filtered through the work. Closeted A and R record exec David Geffen feared “Free Man in Paris”, Mitchell’s tribute to him, would expose his secret. For Yaffe, Mitchell seemed the perfect representative of the ’70s scene, reporting to us peons all the highs and lows:
“Joni is our emissary into the world of glitterati. She sees vanity, success and failure, outer beauty and inner emptiness… She has one foot planted in the 1970s, and another in a timeless realm. Here we find every subtle and glaring aspect of love…”
The scenes continue. Players enter in and out of Mitchell’s life. She latches onto Bob Dylan’s Fall 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue Tour, refusing to allow herself to be filmed for the subsequent four-hour movie Renaldo and Clara. There’s a relationship with playwright Sam Shephard, but the most interesting part of this section comes with Mitchell’s observations about Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. She preferred the original New York sessions recordings. “It was more honest,” she notes. With the Minnesota sessions that became the released album, Mitchell felt he’d removed the vulnerability. “The Minnesota sessions were not touching at all. He asserted himself again as a man.”
The intermingling of people and scenes almost gets overwhelming, and the reader wonders how any person could have navigated it. By the mid-70s, as she inched closer to jazz, Mitchell was “…navigating new territory as a woman: as bandleader.” It’s a dark time. Great songs like the title track of 1976’s”Hejira” and “Coyote” mix with “Song for Sharon”, apparently about the suicide of Jackson Browne’s wife, clearly pinning the blame on Browne. Drugs and depression don’t stop the creativity, and Mitchell joins The Band for The Last Waltz Thanksgiving 1976:
“When Neil [Young] and Robbie [Robertson] asked me to sing on ‘The Last Waltz,’ they were so high, and they were so out of tune… He [Neil] was just unaware. CSN was always out of tune. They were never aware of how out of tune they were, partially because of drugs, I guess.”
By the end of Chapter 23, as we enter the era of Mitchell’s1977 album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (featuring the notorious cover collage photos of her as a black pimp, Native American, and whirling dervish), we get the key line of this book, perhaps Yaffe’s theme: You think you can keep up with me? I dare you. It’s one of those purposefully italicized lines that compels the reader to know more, to follow the rest of the story. She collaborates with Charles Mingus for a 1979 album of mainly his melodies and her words that remains divisive nearly 40 years later.
Yaffe cites Louis Menand’s “The Iron Law of Stardom” concept, where stardom could not extend beyond a period of three years. By the time she was 37, Mitchell had been part of the Laurel Canyon scene (1968-1971), the goddess of Court and Spark and Hejira (1973-1976), and she was still moving through the ’80s, a particularly difficult time for her. Yaffe has understandable fondness for the 1982 song “Chinese Café”. Mitchell would almost die from a car crash in 1985, and the subsequent music would prove appropriately angry and challenging. Was she out of time or were the times still trying to catch up with her? The song “Ethiopia”, from 1985’s Dog Eat Dog earned a shout out from an equally outspoken female artist:
“Nina Simone once saw Joni at the Beverly Center shopping mall. They had never met before, but Joni had respect for her and her work…There she was, the great and notoriously hard to please Nina Simone, past her prime, but still, Simone lifted her arms like a Y, approached Joni, and said ‘Joni Mitchell! Joni Mitchell! ‘Ethiopia’!” Then she was gone.”
In 1990, Mitchell performs at Roger Waters’ The Wall in Berlin, and that old competitive anger that was probably always bubbling under the surface came to a boil. It was a star-studded affair that comes off very well on record and DVD. Sinead O’Connor, Van Morrison, members of The Band, Cyndi Lauper and Bryan Adams were among the performers. For Mitchell, though, the personality clashes were sour: “The childish competitiveness, the lack of professionalism — I don’t have a peer group. All of them, these spoiled children.”
Mitchell claims she “…quit everything in ’97 when my daughter came back”, and the reader comes to understand why. “I mothered the world and looked at the world in which my child was roaming from the point of view of a sociologist. And everything I worried about then has come true.” The first decade of the 21st century featured a pair of beautiful fully orchestrated re-contextualizations of Mitchell’s work. (2000’s Both Sides Now and 2002’s Travelogue.) Her voice was lower, weathered, and weaker from many decades of chain smoking. Yaffe offers a touching note from Larry Klein (Mitchell’s ex-husband who remained a professional colleague) about sessions for Both Sides Now that speak deeply to the passing of time:
“When the London Symphony Orchestra members broke decorum and cried, perhaps they were lamenting the multi-octave voice gone…Maybe they were crying because for the first time, they were hearing what the song was really about…”
Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter is a lush, complex, carefully researched examination of one of music’s most interesting living legends. It includes extensive interviews with everybody from Mitchell herself, to Leonard Cohen, David Crosby, Dick Cavett, Joan Baez, and many more. Yaffe balances his perspective very carefully between being a fan of his subject’s creative process and frustration over her inconsistencies, her elaborations, and her ability to spin a tale without full allegiance to truth. This is a full portrait of an artist who carved a place for herself in the music industry and managed to walk away from it with more than her dignity fully intact. There may be more to follow, such as books that salaciously and unabashedly cover just her love affairs, but RecklessDaughter will most likely prove to be the best, most comprehensive look at all sides of this powerful and still meaningful, still influential musical and artistic presence.