Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Ed Ward (captward) Tue 10 Apr 12 11:11
The Well is happy to welcom Michelle Mercer, whose book Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period, is a rare work of actual criticism about an artist whose work can stand the scrutiny. Newly out in paperback after a short time out of print, it's bound to get people talking about things they already thought they knew.
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 11 Apr 12 08:21
Michelle Mercer writes: I'm a writer of books: Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter (Penguin) and Will You Take Me As I Am (Simon & Schuster). My writing has appeared in New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Village Voice and numerous magazines. I'm also a public radio person, with essays and reported pieces about music going out on All Things Considered's airspace. Here in Colorado, where I live with my family, I report on a broader range of issues: one of my recent pieces investigated natural and manmade causes of some local earthquakes, e.g.. I'll spend this summer (2012) in Norway researching music on an artist's residency. Other fellowships and residencies have come from the Sacatar Foundation in Brazil, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Anderson Center for the Arts. My interest in Joni Mitchell goes back to 1988, my sophomore year of high school, when an astute boyfriend shared her Mingus recording as my entree to jazz. Joni is by far the most fascinating person I've ever talked with, because she's never compromised a thing when it comes to her art. And a big loaded statement like that is probably not a bad place to start this discussion. Thanks so much for having me here.
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 11 Apr 12 08:22
Leading the discussion will be the Well's <john-p-mcalpin>, who describes himself thusly: John P. McAlpin is a writer and newspaper editor who lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and their daughter. The first LP he bought was the Beatles' "Help!" and hasn't stopped since exploring music and the arts of performing and recording. He enjoys discussing both as a member of The Well and the Philadelphia Area Audio Group. And he is forever grateful to the woman who gave him and a friend those "miracle tickets" so many years ago.
John P. McAlpin (john-p-mcalpin) Wed 11 Apr 12 20:25
Hello, Michelle, and welcome. I'd like to start by asking how you came to the book and to it's focus, Joni Mitchell and her deeply autobiographical approach to songwriting. There's a bit of you in the book, from the introduction's description of litmus test for potential boyfriends -- his reaction to what else, Mitchell's music -- to a pointed but ultimately defining Colorado camping scene involving Dan Fogelberg songs. Did your relationship to her music change over the course of writing this book? You spoke to Mitchell for the book. How did that come about? As you say above, she never compromised for her art. Can she be objective about it now given the places in her life where this music started?
John P. McAlpin (john-p-mcalpin) Wed 11 Apr 12 20:34
Many Mitchell's listeners know, or at least think they know, the stories behind the songs. What changes in us when we find out the specifics behind a song's origin? Two songs and their stories stand out for me having read the book: "Court and Spark" and "A Case of You." Listening to both after reading about them, I do come at them differently; my experience now of "A Case of You" is the most changed. Is there something about music that assumes, or at least attempts, an intimate connection between artist and listener where too much detail ruins the experience?
John P. McAlpin (john-p-mcalpin) Wed 11 Apr 12 20:41
The bold-face names associated with Mitchell's songs are well known, Nash, Taylor, Cohen. Decades of attention have gone to her relationships with those men. But what about Mitchell and her relationships to the places in her life? What did that cottage in British Columbia and those caves in Crete bring to her music and the songs she wrote at the time?
John P. McAlpin (john-p-mcalpin) Wed 11 Apr 12 20:52
You covered in the book a few albums I knew by title -- and have since picked up -- but I never felt left out at all. So one last thing to throw out as we get started, did you have an ideal reader in mind when you were writing? Did you write for a reader who had loved and lived with these albums? Can someone only slightly familiar with Mitchell's music read the book?
Michelle Mercer (milkmaids) Thu 12 Apr 12 08:16
Hello, John, and thanks for all your thoughtful questions. One question at a time. Joni was often considered a confessional songwriter just by virtue of being a woman who sang alone to her own accompaniment. She hates being ID'd as a confessional songwriter, and I understand her frustration with the term: makes it seem as if songs just pour out of her as unfiltered experience, without the transformation of invention and careful expression, without art. What Joni's aiming for in much of her work is insight, I think. She wants to find and express human truths. During what I call her "Blue Period," or on her early to mid-70s albums, those insights, those human truths often came from looking closely at her own experience, then seriously transforming that experience into the stuff of poetry, lyrics. And whether she likes it or not, she does not create in a vacuum; she's definitely working in a literary and musical tradition. So to me it seemed necessary to trace the history of confessional & autobiographical literature from St. Augustine all the way up to the 70s songwriters, and see how Joni's autobiographical songwriting fit in. I first spoke to Joni back in 2004 for my biography of the jazz musician Wayne Shorter. Wayne is one of her favorite subjects. And as anyone who's spoken to Joni knows, she's a marathon conversationalist, chain-smoking her way through hours of rigorous, amusing, wide-ranging discussion. So when I started the book about her autobiographical period, in 2007, I already had plenty of material. I developed the structure of the book--each chapter as a kind of cultural essay on a different theme--before I spoke to her again. In 2008 we met up for a few nights on British Columbia's Sunshine Coast, where she summers. (It would be totally pretentious to use summer as a verb in the Sunshine Coast world, by the way. And that's what Joni likes about it. Unlike L.A., where she lives otherwise, on the Sunshine Coast locals are unimpressed by having a famous person in their midst, or are at least discreet enough to let her buy tomatoes in peace.) After that it was a series of long phone conversations. I'd say Joni's not objective about her art. During the second half of the 70s, when Joni's work turned more experimental, some critics and fans deserted her. Unfortunately, that experience of losing part of her audience at a time she felt she was doing her most creative work, well, there's still some residual bitterness from it. I think it taints her view of her "Blue Period," the work the preceded her experimental turn. She has a bit of disdain for her more accessible and popular music--or more accurately, for the people who prefer it.
Michelle Mercer (milkmaids) Thu 12 Apr 12 08:55
"Is there something about music that assumes, or at least attempts, an intimate connection between artist and listener where too much detail ruins the experience?" Such a complicated question. I'm happy you've asked, John. In answer to this question, Joni would say "Yes!" and probably hit her fist on the table for emphasis. She hates any discussion of a song's origins for the very reason you suggest: she believes such details somehow block a listener's ability to identify closely with the song on his own terms. I agree that biographical info may affect the way we hear a song. But in the case of Joni's music, knowing something about how a song came to her actually enhances my appreciation for it, cause I have more perspective on how beautifully she transforms personal experience into work with universal meaning. You mention the song "Court and Spark," and I think it's a great one to look into. Someone reputable told me the story of its origin: Joni actually met a madman in a Berkeley park and briefly entertained his rather crazy ideas about her songwriting, then went home to L.A. Once I knew the story, the next time I listened to the song of course I decoded the lyrics, was primed to hear references to this originating event. And they're definitely there. But when I listened yet again, I was moved by the poetry she found in her experience. In Joni's hands, the real-life encounter behind "Court and Spark" became a more universal story of failed seduction, a song with the haunting sound of a road not taken. Again, knowing the experience behind the song makes me appreciate just how powerfully she spun that experience into the stuff of a great art.
Michelle Mercer (milkmaids) Thu 12 Apr 12 09:52
I sure wish I had more interest in celebrity journalism, John. It makes for popular books. But to me celebrity journalism seems fueled by a paradoxical drive to both elevate the ordinary lives of the famous and bring the famous down to our own level. I just don't get it. That's another conversation. Anyway, Joni's love life is only interesting to me in terms of how her lovers may have influenced her songwriting. Leonard Cohen helped Joni develop an appreciation for poetry, for example. So I explored that aspect of their relationship. There were some under-examined themes in Joni's work, stuff that came up repeatedly but had rarely been discussed. I decided to have a go at them. Along with the previously mentioned area of autobiographical songwriting, there was the play of Buddhism in the album Hejira, and as you mention, the impact of landscape on music. Certain songs on the Blue album are aural postcards from Matala, Greece, where she wrote or at least conceived them. For example: the sound of "All I Want" is all earthy, like a Mediterranean landscape. On the song she accompanies herself with the dulcimer she played in nightly jam sessions in the Matala caves. "All I Want" discusses traveling, metaphorically, of course, but she was also traveling in Europe when she wrote it. She even later called one of her dulcimer tunings her "Matala tuning," cause she discovered it there. So there's that level on which landscape is reflected in her music. But i think it goes even deeper than that. Joni grew up on the Saskatchewan prairie, where the landscape is all-encompassing. Flatlanders' early perceptions of landscape are not set apart from themselves. People who grow up on the plains sort of merge with their surroundings, I think, feeling and seeing them in one experience. So in Joni's music--on the composition "Paprika Plains," for example--she can at the same time dramatize an approaching storm and the effect it has on people. I should mention this analysis comes from my own experience growing up on the plains. Joni was amenable to it. As for British Columbia, which you also asked about, it might be best to simply drop in an excerpt from Joni's liner notes for 2007 album Shine. "One Week Last Summer" is an instrumental piece, and here's what she writes about it: I stepped outside of my little house and stood barefoot on a rock. The Pacific ocean rolled towards me. Across the bay, a family of seals sprawled on the kelp uncovered by the low tide. A blue heron honked overhead. All around the house the wild roses were blooming. The air smelled sweet and salty and loud with crows and bees. My house was clean. I had food in the fridge for a week. I sat outside til the sun went down. That night the piano beckoned for the first time in ten years. My fingers found these patterns which express what words could not. This song poured out while a brown bear rummaged through my garbage cans. The song has seven verses constructed for the days of that happy week. On Thursday the bear arrives.
David Julian Gray (djg) Thu 12 Apr 12 11:26
Hello - first I'd like to Ed, John and Michelle for making this happen - it's great to see Ms. Mitchell get this kind of critical attention - I just got the book and need more time to absorb that and some of the thoughtful discussion we see above already - I just thought I'd post a thought I had during a lonely run in the mid 1970's - I think around when "Hissing of Summer Lawns" came out - My reaction to Ms. Mitchell's albums had been the same since "Clouds" - which I loved unequivocally before it came out (was seeing her in clubs) - on first listen I would think dismissively "Oh, poor Joni, why should I care" - and later that day, or the next day I would invariably think "This is the greatest thing I've ever heard - pure truth and beauty" - she does have a way at getting at universals - even one's so deep we don't always know we share them, and always with the most beautiful music ... and the music is of a piece with the word... nice to know her achievement was her ambition (which, along with her ago, appears boundless)... Great talent is wasted without great ambition ...
Susan Sarandon, tractors, etc. (rocket) Thu 12 Apr 12 12:28
>She hates any discussion of a song's origins for the very reason you suggest: she believes such details somehow block a listener's ability to identify closely with the song on his own terms. This strikes me as a very Kubrick-like approach to art in that it demonstrates great respect for the audience's half of the artistic experience.
Michelle Mercer (milkmaids) Thu 12 Apr 12 17:20
Rocket: Now I'm getting all worked up thinking about resonances re: Kubrick and Mitchell. Something of a shared philosophy, yes, in their belief that the audience or listeners must experience the thrill of discovery, that discovery makes ideas in art more powerful. They also both spent time at the Chelsea Hotel. Most of all, they both have, or had, a Nietzsche thing. Much has been written about the Nietzschean thrust of Kubrick's films, the theme of the superman overtaking mankind, especially in 2001. Joni's songs like "The Three Great Stimulants" and "The Reoccuring Dream" are clear takes on Nietzsche's ideas. She also often says she found her poetic ideal in his Nietzsches Zarathustra, who envisions a new breed of poet, a penitent of spirit," someone who "writes in his own blood." But getting back to the topic at hand, don't you think there's room for listeners to discover and identify with a Joni song, *and* to appreciate how she's transformed personal experience into poetic truths in the song?
Michelle Mercer (milkmaids) Thu 12 Apr 12 17:36
David, I've often had that experience of at first feeling indifferent or even aversive toward a record that I later find brilliant. And I'm so glad you brought up how words and music are given equal opportunity in Joni's songs. For her there's never music as mere background to lyrics. The sophisticated interplay of words and music in her songs is what truly distinguishes them. My first recognition of this was when I heard her sing "love so sweet" in "The Last Time I Saw Richard" on Blue. She flattens the phrase's notes to complicate the lyric, making the meaning bittersweet. It just gets more complex from there on out. And you could give a seminar on her phrasing alone: she often pushes at the structure of songs, spilling words out over musical lines, changing the meaning of them. Her famous alternate tunings are key, too. She wants to paint emotion with sound, and she uses odd tunings in the service of pure expression, so that almost every note and word is spirited and shaped by feeling. She likes to talk about her "chords of inquiry." And more on that when I'm back again.
Robin Russell (rrussell8) Thu 12 Apr 12 21:01
I am enjoying this thread immensely. Joni Mitchell certainly has an innovative approach to the guitar. Among acoustic guitar players, she is held in the very highest regard. She blends a fabulous sense of rhythm and a deep understanding of music to colour her words. Song for Sharon from 1976 (Hejira) is a fine demonstration of her narrative approach. "I went to Staten Island, Sharon / to buy myself a Mandolin". And here is Joni at Mandolin Brothers, Staten Island: http://i68.photobucket.com/albums/i20/rrussell8/Guitars/JoniMitchellMandolinBr others-1.jpg I do think Joni cares about her listeners but somehow I get the feeling that she is not in tune with how many of us there are, how deeply we love her work, and what tremendous stature she has in our estimation.
(chrys) Thu 12 Apr 12 23:05
Welcome Michelle! I confess I had difficulty reconciling your view of the universality of Mitchell's music (which I agree with, by the way) and the insistence on digging into the particulars of her relationships. This book seems preoccupied with a *romantic* notion of Mitchell. The collaborations I hoped to read about were the musical ones. How she took the very personal and poured it into music with people like: Tom Scott <<"I remember I was in the studio trying to find this voicing on the piano that I would later translate to woodwinds and I said to her in the booth, 'Is this Cm7 with a &' well, some technical question. There was a long silence and then she pushed the button down and said, "Tom, ignorance is bliss.' And that was it. From there, I was on my own and as I started to work with her I learned I could take chances and do things very harmonically advanced for the style and idiom, and she loved it. I couldn't seem to go too far out for her and once I found that out, I tried to go with my first impulses. So in a sense we were both responsible because it took her to respond to what I was doing. She's a perfectionist, regardless of her lack of technical ability, and that's something I responded to immediately.">> http://jonimitchell.com/library/print.cfm?id=1933 Jaco Pastorus <<I had tried all along to add other musicians to my music, recalled Mitchell in her documentary Woman Of Heart And Mind. Nearly every bass player that I tried did the same thing. They would put up a dark picket fence through my music, and I thought, why does it have to go ploddy ploddy ploddy? Finally one guy said to me, Joni, you better play with jazz musicians. Her search for that elusive bass sound ended when guitar player Robben Ford played for her Jacos head-turning debut solo album. They were touring when my solo record had come out, Jaco recalled. He played her the album and she was knocked out. She just tried to get a hold of me, and that was it really. I just went and played. I didnt even know anything about Joni Mitchell; I hadnt even heard her music. Joni used Jaco on four of the songs that made up her next album Hejira, including its stunning title track.>> http://bassmusicianmagazine.com/2011/12/jaco-at-60-his-legacy-lives-on-by-rick -suchow-%E2%80%93-bass-musician-magazine-december-2011-issue/ and of course, Charles Mingus. (I can't find my favorite bit about Mingus right now.) What was it like for Mitchell when she went out to perform with her first 'band'? How did that mix for her with the very personal content of the music? (On the Miles of Aisles tour, she seemed to divide the show into the solo/very personal set vs. the full band sets with the less personal material. It wasn't until perhaps Hejira that she brought those together.)
Ed Ward (captward) Fri 13 Apr 12 03:07
Incidentally, as always, this Inkwell discussion is open to the public, so if anyone reading this outside the Well wants to take part by asking a question, just e-mail it to email@example.com and we'll post it.
Michelle Mercer (milkmaids) Fri 13 Apr 12 08:12
Hello, Chrys. Thanks for your comments. I'm definitely of the "writer should never answer to critics" persuasion, though this forum seems set up for just that. I'd also love to learn more about the musical partnerships you mention, and I'm very curious about the evolution of Joni's musical performance. The subject of my book was the development of Joni's autobiographical songwriting during what I call her "Blue Period." I limited my focus to her autobiographical songwriting & its defining intensities. You might be interested in this brand new excerpt from Don Alias's autobiography, which has stories of Joni's work with Mingus: http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=41782&pg=1 And if you're interested, I did explore Joni's musical relationship with the jazz musician Wayne Shorter in my 2005 biography of him. As for your suggestion that I zeroed in on the particulars of Mitchell's relationships and am preoccupied with a romantic notion of Mitchell . . . for the life of me, I can't see how the book reflects that claim. It's probably more fair to say I have a preoccupation with St. Augustine, since more pages in the book are devoted to the Saint than to Joni's one-time partner Graham Nash, for example. The book spends way more time with landscape in music than with Joni's lovers. That said, I did how Joni's approach to romance colored her songwriting. To have left romance out altogether would have been a huge oversight, since it's a major theme in Joni's autobiographical songwriting. Joni's ex-husband Larry Klein once said the "focal point of her work has been an inquiry into the nature of modern love." I don't think he's far off. For a long time, listening to her lyrics, I assumed she was beset with the conflict between love and freedom that plagues so many women in their 20s. And early on, she probably was. But looking at how her approach to writing about romance changed from Ladies of the Canyon to Hejira, and talking to some of her close friends, I came to see that she *deliberately cultivated* that love/freedom conflict for the purposes of her art. From the time of For The Roses, Joni's lifestyle followed a pattern: 1) fall in love & experience the love affairs stream of episodes; 2) break up & follow it up with the stillness of solitude, when she could then worry those episodes into the big themes of her songs. And with such dedicated practice in love, it's no wonder that her songwriting persona evolved from wrestling with romance to taking a more detached perspective on it. It's all in the difference between "My Old Man" (Blue) and "Strange Boy" (Hejira).
Michelle Mercer (milkmaids) Fri 13 Apr 12 08:31
Robin, it sounds like you might be a guitar player. Do you know about the amazing collection of tablature at jonimitchell.com? Here's a link to the tablature for "Song For Sharon," which comes complete with a standard tuning and "Joni tuning." http://jonimitchell.com/music/transcription.cfm?id=199 What's also intriguing to me about the wildness of Joni's guitar tunings and her disregard for harmonic laws is that it's all untutored & instinctive. She never studied music theory. She carefully maintained her musical "illiteracy," while at the same time taking in or absorbing music of great complexity, like the 1960s Miles Davis Quintet. And this astounding natural talent belongs to a person who still considers music her accidental profession.
Scott Underwood (esau) Fri 13 Apr 12 09:40
Michelle, I wonder if you've read Daniel Levitin's indightful thoughts on Joni's music (and her relationship with Jaco) in "This Is Your Brain on Music" (other Wellians are saying "Let it go, man.") Joni's genius is that she creates chords that are ambiguous, chords that could have two or more different roots. When there is no bass playing along with her guitar (as in "Chelsea Morning" or "Sweet Bird") the listener is left in a state of expansive aesthetic possibilities.... And when Joni strings together several of these amibguous chirds, the harmonic complexity greatly increases; each chord sequence can be interpreted in dozens of different ways, depending on how each of its constituents is heard... In this sense, Joni's music is as close to impressionist visual art as anything I've heard. As soon as a bass player plays a note, he fixes one particular musical interpretation, thus ruining the delicate ambiguity the composer has so artfully constructed. All the bass players Joni worked with before Jaco insisted on playing roots, or what they perceived to be roots. The brilliance of Jaco, Joni said, is that he instinctively knew how to wander around the possibility space... Jaco allowed Joni to have bass guitar on her songs without destroying one of their most exapansive qualities.
Michelle Mercer (milkmaids) Fri 13 Apr 12 10:55
I had seen the Levitin, thanks. Yes, Joni often talks about how Jaco solved that particular musical problem. As she put it to me: "Jaco was the most progressive bass player at that time, the one where the innovation was taking place. The way I wanted the bottom end to move . . . I was trying to guide bass players and they were stubborn with me, theyd say 'Im not playing that note' and I said 'Well, why not?' and they said 'Its not the root of the chord.' I said, 'Well, it will be when you play it." So finally one of these guys suggested I send for Jaco " And we could talk about how Jaco rejected the plodding, lowrider role of the bass, instead playing soaring, dynamic melodies and commanding territory that had previously been the province of the vocalist or saxophonist. But if you know Jaco's playing, you already know that. Here's another snippet about Jaco from one of our interviews.(I haven't gone back and re-checked this transcription against the audio, btw, which I'd usually do before publishing it anywhere). Michelle: (about Jaco) When I listened to the first few notes on Hejira, you know, I think I hear him quoting Stravinsky. Joni: Yeah . . . (sings) Rite of Spring, yeah . . . Michelle: And also at the same time, hes suggesting the character of the song's narrator. Doing all that stuff at the same time his playing always has layered metaphors in it. Joni: Oh yeah. In the end he got really selfish and wasnt really a good player. He'd just push you over to the left and it was all about him and at that point he was no longer a team player. And at that point he started to be bad and on the tour that we took him on he was showing off so badly that he wasnt really good. On the day that we shot the film, the dread was, it was going to make him worse. But something happened backstage. His mother and his wife showed up. I dont know what they did to him, but thank God. Whatever it was they did, they humbled him in some way. Because when he came out, he powdered the stage and shoved everybody over to the left and started up, the first few notes he played were I was high and mighty! And he played it with such sincerity, you know, like (sings) and then he took it someplace. Thats kind of like Wayne, thats one of the moments when Jacos going into genius pictorial thinking, you know, where hes playing more than notes. I mean how many people are going to pick up on it? I mean thank god that you pick up on some of it, you know. Thank god that there are people out there that will find the holograms in the music, suddenly itll just become pictorial and theyll see it . . . you know, see hear it . . ."
My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease. (pdl) Fri 13 Apr 12 15:34
I have a very minor, unimportant question--what stravinsky is jaco quoating at the start of Hejira? He definitely quotes the opening bassoon riff from Rites at the start of Talk to Me off of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. But I'm not placing the phrase at the start of Hejira. Thanks.
Michelle Mercer (milkmaids) Fri 13 Apr 12 18:21
PDL: That may have been a mistake. I just went back and listened to "Hejira" on the Hejira album, where he doesn't quote any Strav that I can recognize. Then I listened to "Hejira" on the live album, Shadows and Light, where at the start of the song he *almost* quotes the bassoon riff from Rites to which you refer. It's interesting that Joni went along with it in the interview. Maybe she assumed the riff led off "Hejira" cause it so easily could have: when they were on tour he must have quoted Rite of Spring dozens of times. It was one of his favorites. And it is definitely at the start of "Talk To Me." Hope that doesn't detract from the larger point Joni and I were pursuing in the interview. Jaco often layered references, metaphors and what Joni would call "pictograms" into his bass playing, and she really dug that aspect of his playing.
My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease. (pdl) Fri 13 Apr 12 18:44
That doesn't detract from the larger point and thanks so much for that response. I was just wondering what I was missing--if the quote was from some other part deeper into the Rites that I had not recognized. Jaco definitely liked that phrase from the bassoon solo and used it now and again in different contexts. Thanks again!
david gault (dgault) Fri 13 Apr 12 19:29
I read this book a month ago and I want to thank you for writing it. I didn't get Joni Mitchell and I would have failed the boyfriend test dismally after the first 8 bars. But your book encouraged me to pick up her more recent work (since 30 years ago, at least) and it's fabulous. Great book!
John P. McAlpin (john-p-mcalpin) Fri 13 Apr 12 20:09
Michelle, is there a relationship between Mitchell's development in this autobiographical period and the expansion of her sound and musical development from "Blue" to say "Hejera"? And David, I would have failed the test -- or maybe gotten by with a C minus -- at that age! I've come to appreciate this work much later, in part through the encouragement of people here especially in the music conference.
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