David Yaffe has done us a great service and writing this moving biography of one of the great artists and song-writers and musicians of the late 20th into the 21rst century— Joni Mitchell. Here is the official summary of this study—
“Joni Mitchell may be the most influential female recording artist and composer of the late twentieth century. In Reckless Daughter, the music critic David Yaffe tells the remarkable, heart-wrenching story of how the blond girl with the guitar became a superstar of folk music in the 1960s, a key figure in the Laurel Canyon music scene of the 1970s, and the songwriter who spoke resonantly to, and for, audiences across the country.
A Canadian prairie girl, a free-spirited artist, Mitchell never wanted to be a pop star. She was nothing more than “a painter derailed by circumstances,” she would explain. And yet, she went on to become a talented self-taught musician and a brilliant bandleader, releasing album after album, each distinctly experimental, challenging, and revealing. Her lyrics captivated listeners with their perceptive language and naked emotion, born out of Mitchell’s life, loves, complaints, and prophecies. As an artist whose work deftly balances narrative and musical complexity, she has been admired by such legendary lyricists as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and beloved by such groundbreaking jazz musicians as Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock. Her hits―from “Big Yellow Taxi” to “Both Sides, Now” to “A Case of You”―endure as timeless favorites, and her influence on the generations of singer-songwriters who would follow her, from her devoted fan Prince to Björk, is undeniable.
In this intimate biography, drawing on dozens of unprecedented in-person interviews with Mitchell, her childhood friends, and a cast of famous characters, Yaffe reveals the backstory behind the famous songs―from Mitchell’s youth in Canada, her bout with polio at age nine, and her early marriage and the child she gave up for adoption, through the love affairs that inspired masterpieces, and up to the present―and shows us why Mitchell has so enthralled her listeners, her lovers, and her friends. Reckless Daughter is the story of an artist and an era that have left an indelible mark on American music.”
I must first admit that not many biographies of folk and rock stars are very good. The Springsteen one is pretty darn good, but this is clearly the best of the one’s I’ve read. At points Yaffe’s writing is lyrical, literally, as he integrates lines from Joni’s songs into the description of her life. And sometimes it’s hard to tell whether art is imitating life, or vice versa in her songs which are, semi-autobiographical in places. I’ve been a Joni fan from the outset going back to her folkie days and that first magical album of 1967-68 produced by David Crosby, who didn’t entirely know what he was doing, but the results were good enough to make clear this person could write songs that captured life, and lightning in a bottle. Sadly, too many of these rock biopics are about sexual promiscuity and drugs, and Joni was not immune to those allures, and it lead to some sad and bad places in her life. Indeed, her life itself is a cautionary tale of some triumphs over some tragedies ranging from childhood polio, to a bad first marriage, to having to give up her child when she was penniless, and so much more. And yet all of that and the suffering it caused become fertile soil for Joni’s amazing song writing. As David Crosby once said of that whole rock and roll era– she was the best of us, as an artist.Joni couldn’t stand artifice, or as she called it, jive, and her jive detector was pretty good when it came to other pretentious musicians and their often drug fueled ego trips. But alas, Joni herself sometimes behaved in the very same ways she critiqued in others. David Yaffe correctly points out that one of the reasons her songs have affected and moved so many people is because they are so honest about our human condition and foibles, painfully so. He relates the story of how late in her recording career she did a retrospective of some of her best songs with the London Symphony Orchestra and she sang ‘Both Sides Now’ with such pathos and world-weariness as one who had learned the hard way about life, that the orchestra and conductor themselves broke down and wept at the end of that recording. Well, Joni has often had that effect on people. Her music in some ways is like heartbreaking country songs, except with better and more poetic story telling.
As a musician myself, I learned much about her process of composing and recording, and in some ways the most fascinating part of the book for someone like me, is to see jazz greats like Shorter and Hancock and Brian Blades and others claim Joni as essentially a jazz musician, prone to interesting improvisations. I agree with this analysis, especially from the Court and Spark album on. She was absolutely not a one trick pony— she could do folk, folk rock, country, traditional jazz, jazz rock, and even American songbook and orchestral numbers equally well. She was an inventor of alternate tunings, and interestingly, her chording and guitar playing was in part an adaptation to the debilitating effects polio had had on her left hand and arm. She had an amazing range, which dimensioned in time (due to her 4 pack a day cigarette smoking habit), from high soprano all the way down to deep and later husky alto. And she was a remarkable painter as well in the style of Van Gough and other Impressionists. Frankly, there was no one as gifted as her in her whole rock age. And rather than wallowing in her tragedies and broken relationships, she turned all that into immortal songs. Sadly, like so many musicians, what she said at 23, was just as true at 63– “I’ve looked at loves illusions from both sides now… I really don’t know love… at all.”
Like so many of my generation, Joni mistook deep feelings and physical intimacy as the essence of love. But what if the essence of love is not ‘feelings’ per se, what if, indeed as she says it is mostly about ‘touching souls’, mostly about getting beyond self-fulfillment or self-indulgences to a point of self-sacrifice for the other, loving the other not for what one can get out of it, but for what one can give? You cannot totally love another person that you don’t totally trust and have not totally given one’s self to– for better or for worse, in sickness or in health, unconditionally. Conditional love has a limited warranty, and it leads to broken hearts, broken lives, broken marriages. Indeed, in the end I would say, without the love of God which is deeper and more profound than the vicissitudes of mere human feelings, without that agape love at the heart of the relationship binding the two together, it’s no wonder as Joni says– ‘nothing seems to last, nothing seems to last’.
I commend this well-written and well-research biography to everyone who has loved Joni’s music, but not envied the ups and downs of her life. Thanks be to God for the great artistic gifts he gave this ‘woman of heart and mind’, who used those gifts so well, so many times.