Inkwell: Authors and Artists
David Julian Gray (djg) Wed 18 Apr 12 05:05
The male skew here probably says more about the well - our "shabby genteel" old time neighborhood here in cyberspace than about Ms. Mitchell's fan base ... and looking forward to Michelle's take ... I recall from the period 1967-1983 - when I was paying closest attention to Ms. Mitchell's output, women were as keen, but not more so, than us guys ... my friend who was most excited about Ms. Mitchell in the mid 1970's Hejira-Mingus period was a teenaged African American who'd escaped his low prospects Newark neighborhood for the limitless possibilities of Bezerkeley ... he thought Hejira was the greatest thing ever and came to it through following Wayne Shorter ...(to Jaco to Joni ...)
damage my pre-conceived views (chrys) Wed 18 Apr 12 13:16
Not everyone here is male... <Was my sis a freak, or did Joni strike a meaningful emotional chord to her female peers?> This was one of those things I'd hoped would get touched on in the book. Baez is the only female collaborator I know of ('Dida') - except for that seemingly isolated trio of Mitchell, Mama Cass, and Mary Tavers. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8aYAUE6is7I Mitchell saw herself as a painter first and her meetings with Georgia O'Keeffe appear to be a kind of pilgrimage to an admired woman. Both were in a worlds dominated by men - apparently by choice as much as circumstance.
Nancy White (choco) Thu 19 Apr 12 04:07
Joni was the soundtrack for significant portions of my life, from the early singer songwriter stuff on into the jazz connection. How many times did I sing and play her songs in my life? I could not count. How often do fragments of her songs still come to me in moments? At least weekly, but what is significant is the fragments are mostly up to Blue, and fewer later. Being able to sing riffs -- and have them stick in little parts of my brain -- seemed harder with the later work. I would find myself listening "across" pieces, rather than diving INTO a single song and getting those lovely little bits into my gray matter. It was like the early stuff was resonating with my personal experience. The latter stuff took me to other places where I could float away from the personal stuff. And I thought I had all her discs, but doing catch up reading, I can see I missed some. Hmmm.. Just one small side story. At college, I was pals with a guy who for some freakin lucky stroke got to work in the studio when Joni was recording. I remember we were working a late shift in the language lab where we had to duplicate audio tapes and it was a boring, mindless job when he told me this story. I sat there, gobsmacked. I would have done anything to hear more stories, but he held them very close. It was almost like he had a religious experience and could not talk about it. But it was at that moment that I understood Joni had sway with guys, because up to that moment, I never found the guys around me cared a whit about Joni's music.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 19 Apr 12 06:55
Your experience with Joni Mitchell's music is something that happens to certain musicians. They almost achieve sainthood and their fans can't or won't move from a certain artistic period. They are caught in amber almost. This happened to Miles Davis. He was way beyond just playing lyrical ballads but his fans kept asking for that. It went in the reverse direction for John Coltrane. Most of his fans got into his later spiritual work and couldn't or wouldn't go back and appreciate his hard bop playing. I think they should write the wikipedia article for this phenomenon using Joni Mitchell and Blue.
Michelle Mercer (milkmaids) Thu 19 Apr 12 08:48
So happy to see such great responses were posted here while I was away. More on the phenomenology of listening to and absorbing Joni's body of work in a bit. Love what you wrote about that, Nancy. Women definitely identified with Joni's music in great numbers. It seems like half the boomer women I meet can sing at least a few lines from the BLUE album, if not all of it . For a look at Joni through the lens of second-wave feminism, see Sheila Weller's GIRLS LIKE US (It's also pretty dishy, if you're into that). But so have African-Americans. One of the most rabid JM fans I ever heard of was a former Black Panther who kept HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS in steady rotation on his turntable. And so have gay men. When I asked Joni about Hejira, she said, I think it gave melancholy its proper duethe melancholy of mate bonding difficulty. And I think thats why it affected the gay male population as deeply as it did. It picked up a big gay following. I received a bunch of mail from gay men who said their special connection to Hejira was affirmed when they read this quote in my book. Like everyone, Joni is in part a product of her culture and environment, so it can be useful to consider her life and work in terms of identity politics. But I'm not sure Joni is a representative woman of her generation (any more than Georgia O'Keefe was a representative woman of hers). That's why I'm more interested in Joni's creative process.
Susan Sarandon, tractors, etc. (rocket) Thu 19 Apr 12 08:59
Prince is an enormous Joni fan, and you can really hear it in his work.
Michelle Mercer (milkmaids) Thu 19 Apr 12 09:00
Oh, and I meant to add, after saying I'm not sure Joni is a representative woman of her generation . . . that I think what makes Joni's work relatable to such a variety of people is her unique combination of poetic insight and musical expression . . . so that's why I'm more interested in her creative process than in her gender.
Michelle Mercer (milkmaids) Thu 19 Apr 12 15:21
John wrote about the experience of coming to Joni's work all at once vs. hearing each record at the time of its release. He asked: "Any thoughts to the differences in listening experiences? Is there something about this with Mitchell that might be different than with another artist?" When I started listening to Joni's music in 1988, I discovered her entire discography (up to that point) as a piece. Blue, Wild Things Run Fast, Mingus, the whole shebang. I heard Blue, loved it. I also heard and appreciated Mingus, amazed that she'd written lyrics that fit Mingus's tunes so perfectly, and that she sang more like another instrument in the band than like a traditional vocalist. And I heard Wild Things Run Fast, which I didn't originally like much. But I took it as part of the entire Joni package. The record wasn't a departure from the Joni music I loved; it was just another record in her entire body of work, one I happened not to like as well as others. I didn't come to it with expectations that had built year after year, release after release. I can only imagine the experience of a Joni fan who on the other hand heard these individual albums as they were released. (Would love to hear from more of you who did). Someone who was introduced to Joni through Ladies of the Canyon. A year later comes Blue, which makes this fan feel as if she's somehow tapped into his feelings and articulated them for the first time. Fan eagerly anticipates next recording. There's For the Roses & Court and Spark, which has a different sound, but she's still continuing her inquiry into the nature of modern love. It's still relatable. Then comes Hissing of Summer Lawns. It's too different: Joni's critiquing the upper middle classes and messing around with Burundi drum samples? Not only are this fan's expectations frustrated, but because he's so closely identified with Joni's music, because he's come to expect Joni to articulate his feelings and experiences through her music, he even feels a little betrayed by this new direction. Not saying everyone who disliked Hissing also felt betrayed, though some fans sure did. Someone (David?) mentioned Miles Davis, too. Similarly, I wasn't around to experience Miles going electric in real time. So when I started listening to his music, Bitches Brew was just part of the entire Miles discography for me, along with Kind of Blue.
Virtual Sea Monkey (karish) Fri 20 Apr 12 06:32
I failed the boyfriend test in 1970 by not showing sufficient enthusiasm for Donovan. (Which was a bad rap; I understood his music and appreciated it for what it was, and I'd heard more of it than she had.) From what I could tell the women I knew then felt the songs about love and self on Joni's first few albums so personally that they didn't need or want to share them with men. Or with me, anyway. Her impossibly high, impossibly pure singing and all those suspended chords created a space of feelings about somewhat-idealized relationships that may not have been directly applicable to real relationships. I'm hearing "Michael From Mountains" in my head while I type this. I first heard Joni's songs sung by Judy Collins and Buffy Ste. Marie and Tom Rush. What made me want to go back and hear more was Dave Van Ronk's recording of "Chelsea Morning", which showed off her amazingly catchy rhythms and wonderfully evocative images. The first of her albums that I bought when it was released was "The Hissing of Summer Lawns". It seemed revolutionary at the time, more so for me because I hadn't listened to "Blue" or "Court and Spark". Looking now at what's on it only a few of the songs are jarringly new and different ("The Jungle Line", "Shadows And Light"). The arrangements are a departure. They're lush and gorgeous, far from the stark simplicity and purity of her folk period. Maybe this was her "Dylan goes electric" moment. The biggest change is that she seemed to have completed her move away from the introspective hopeful fragility of her early work, now considering whole relationships including their darker prospects.
David Julian Gray (djg) Fri 20 Apr 12 11:15
I'm one of those who's acquired Joni's albums as they came out - starting with "Song to A Seagull" and going on to "Shine" - I missed one - I think... Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm ... I started seeing Joni in clubs even (or really just) before "Seagull" came out ... and it was Tom Rush's version of "Urge for going" that brought her to my attention - then I found out several of my friends were already big fans - seeing her at the 2nd Fret in Philly (one of these friends became her very good friend, too - and that's how I got to meet her a few times...) I was a guy (still am, I believe) but her words and music were captivating from the very first - and almost every album STILL evokes my mental states from the time it was released - even the two cuts I got into on Shine (yeah... just two) ... my women friends from the time (they were girls then, but identified as women) never assumed Joni had more to say to them ... maybe she didn't ... Let me say I'm a big fan of "Wild Things..." since it came out and have never understood why folks dis it, and a lot of folks do ... OK - it was a blatant commercial play - and it FAILED! (commercially) - but it's still got some great Joni Mitchell songs (Chinese Cafe; You Dream Flat Tires) played with flair and intensity by some of LA's finest (Steve Lukather, Vinnie Colaiuta...) It was interesting to to watch my son, now an 18 year old aspiring composer and musician, develop his appreciation for Joni Mitchell - our home iTunes server was the main source of his musical education, so he too had her entire oeuvre available at once. He immediately took to Joni, from when he was about 9. When he was 15, by then a pretty sophisticated musician, he surprised me by saying he thought - and assumed everyone agreed with this - Turbulent Indigo was her best album! - I got him to concede Hejira was at least as good ("but only 'cuz of Jaco!" he said) - his favorite Joni Mitchell cover: Paul Desmond's ca. 1972 instrumental version of "song to a seagull" ...
Nancy White (choco) Fri 20 Apr 12 20:02
Reading back again, I realize that some of Joni's songs that I love I heard through the voices of others. But letting my mind unspool, I can eventually hear back to Joni's. Interesting.
Scott Underwood (esau) Fri 20 Apr 12 20:21
I wonder if Joni has mentioned covers of her songs, and whether she's found them successful or otherwise? (I have a favorite: Jason Falkner's rocked-up "Both Sides Now.")
Ed Ward (captward) Sat 21 Apr 12 01:32
And here's some Joni news: Taylor Swift may be tuning up to play another blonde music legend on the big screen: Joni Mitchell. The country superstar is eyeing a part in "Girls Like Us," Sony Pictures and Di Bonaventura Pictures' take on Sheila Weller's biography of Mitchell and two other big voices of her generation: Carole King and Carly Simon. Swift is attached to the project, but there is no deal on the table at this point, and the feature hasn't yet been approved, according to an individual familiar with the situation. "House" executive producer Katie Jacobs optioned Weller's 2008 book about the trio of singer-songwriters and is slated to direct from John Sayles' script. Lorenzo di Bonaventura is producing. More: <http://news.yahoo.com/taylor-swift-might-play-joni-mitchell-biopic-233550397.h tml> I've read the book and it gave me The Horror. I can't believe Sayles signed on to do the script. Well, maybe I can...
Dan Flanery (sunspot) Sat 21 Apr 12 02:33
In my old age I find it kind of funny that Mitchell is seen by so many women (and men!) as an iconic female voice representing the female experience. I think it's the high-pitched vocals and a superficial read of the lyrics, coupled with a few of her frillier, girly and slightly twee early tracks. But even on her first record you have tracks like "Nathan La Franeer" and "The Pirate of Penance" which are just dark and eerie and I think incredibly masculine underneath the veneer. Her viewpoint and attitude is often so resolutely not feminine the effect is somewhat disconcerting, like you're witness to some implausibly convincing drag act. She'll make an observation or share a thought that you'd assume could only come from a man, and then moments later offer another you'd think could only come from a woman. So Mitchell sounds like a woman, but if you listen she often isn't really speaking in a woman's voice ("Woodstock", which you'd think was written by CSNY). I think it's that androgyny just beneath the surface that spoke to gay men long before Hejira dropped, with its compelling themes of flight and solitude, featuring an observer often somewhat disconnected from their current environment (hmmm, can't imagine why that disc would be so popular with the gays). For example, "Down To You" off Court & Spark is the best summary of the same-sex pick-up experience I've ever encountered. The Pet Shop Boys couldn't say it better. It can't have been her intention, but again she seems to have an innate ability to touch on deeper truths of emotions and relationships that transcend gender, even orientation - a knife of observation that cuts all ways. That album is also home to "Free Man In Paris". Very good friend of mine, indeed. And when she dropped the angel hair from her lyrics, dropped her voice an octave and picked up an orchestra or a jazz band to back her, I think that made her work more overtly androgynous and accessible to men, especially gay men. I vaguely recall Bob Dylan once remarking in an interview that there weren't any great female songwriters, and when the journalist responded, "What about Joni Mitchell?" Dylan's brief reply was something like, "She's not really a woman." I can't think of any male songwriters with the same ability to transcend gender. They all seem a bit limited to me compared to La Mitch, forever rooted in their male identity. Bowie in his glam heyday did bend genders and orientation, but more as a delightful act and a springboard to a different musical space. With Mitchell it's just intrinsic and seemingly effortless and not a vehicle for anything else (except perhaps getting to that deeper truth, although I suspect it's a result of that quest, the effect and not the cause). It's asexual - unlike most gender-bending acts - having nothing to do with orientation. Joni had been on my "to listen" list for literally a couple of decades before I started buying. Loved "Help Me" when I was a kid, was familiar with "Both Sides Now" thanks to Judy Collins, and my uncle (gay!) had her first three records when I was little, so I'm sure I heard them all when I was a toddler (there was something so familiar about their sound when I finally purchased them for myself 25 or so years later). I started with Court & Spark back around 1990, followed it with Hissing, then skipped forward to Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm for some reason. Backtracked to Blue and For The Roses, then picked up Hejira and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. Skipped way forward to Night Ride Home. Finally got her first three (Seagull, Clouds, Ladies of the Canyon), then got Wild Things (a huge disappointment) and Mingus. Got Dog Eat Dog, and picked up my first "new" Joni record Turbulent Indigo when it was released (which I think is easily her best post-Mingus work, although Wild Things probably has better songs, and Night Ride Home has its moments - especially "Two Gray Rooms", which come to think of it is about a same-sex romance). I guess I took the Slaughterhouse 5 approach to her oeuvre. >Let me say I'm a big fan of "Wild Things..." since it came out >and have never understood why folks dis it Because it sounds like a sell-out after Mingus. Which I could totally forgive if it was any good, but it's not. The production is half generic 1981 pap and half Court & Spark, which clashes instead of meshes and drags what it turns out were some well-written songs (like "Love") down to its crummy level. Feh.
Scott Underwood (esau) Sat 21 Apr 12 08:13
Gee, I wonder -- as I always do -- what the artist would say about that last paragraph? "Sell-out" implies she held her nose while making it, and I doubt very much that's the case, or that someone else forced her to do it, and somehow I don't think that's the case, either. Maybe she actually liked what she was hearing on the radio at the time and decided to echo a bit of the current production values in her own work. I bought it new, and while it hasn't aged well it always sounded to me as if Joni's having a lot of fun. Too bad she didn't call you -- you could have set her straight.
damage my pre-conceived views (chrys) Sat 21 Apr 12 12:40
<<"One of my favorite compliments that I ever received was from a Black blind piano player, Henry, I don't know what his last name was. And said to me, "Joni, you know, you make genderless, raceless music." And I thought, well, I hadn't set out, you know, saying "I'm going to make genderless, raceless music," but in some part of the back of my mind, I did want to make music that crossed -- I never really liked lines, class lines, you know, like social structure lines since childhood, and there were a lot of them that they tried to teach me as a child. "Don't go there." "Why not?" "Well, because they're not like us." They try to teach you those lines. They start at about 12. And I ignored them always and proceeded without thinking that I was a male or a female or anything, just that I knew these people that wrote songs and I was one of them. >> http://jonimitchell.com/library/view.cfm?id=678
Michelle Mercer (milkmaids) Sat 21 Apr 12 13:02
Scott, you asked about Joni's response to covers of her songs. Joni praises Tina Turner's performance of "Edith and the Kingpin" on Herbie Hancock's RIVER: THE JONI LETTERS. Joni to me: "She got the read right, the read on the lyrics. It took three days to get that vocal out of her and she was practically in tears. It was very difficult for her. They had to explain it to her, every word. Because shes never had to sing that way. But whatever the effort was I just love her performance. And most songs do not require that. I mean they had to break it down so she knew what she was singing about, because it is a play, its not just singing in one mood and shaking your hips." (I wrote the press bio for this record, so I spoke with Herbie and producer Larry Klein about "Edith" as well. The following is adapted from the press bio. Just have to share it, cause I find Wayne's take on the tune so amusing). Capturing the tunes mood led others in the band to altogether different perspectives. While Tina Turner channelled the noirish nightlife characters of Edith and the Kingpin, Wayne Shorter responded on tenor saxophone from a more peripheral vantage point. Herbie explained how Wayne found new character in the tune: When we were talking about the tune, Wayne said, Im going to be like one of the cats at the bar whos talking to some of the chicks or something, or be part of the hubbub going on over at the bar at the club. Now, thats not in the lyrics but I realized thats a brilliant part to play. Because the song is not just about the characters in the lyricEdith and the Kingpin. Its also about the characters that are there in the environment or scene that the lyric is based off of. I'm a big fan of RIVER. Herbie often uses my press bio for RIVER as his personal bio. If you're interested: https://www.facebook.com/herbiehancock/info
Dan Flanery (sunspot) Sat 21 Apr 12 13:06
That's a great quote, <chrys>. I'd read that years ago and then forgot about it. And now that I think about it, reflecting on something I said last night, maybe *that's* why so many women connected with Mitchell as well. It's not that she was a strong female voice necessarily - it's that women were hearing something *other* than a male voice and sensibility (or a female voice of the era, which like most of the male voices tended to concern itself with things stereotypically female for the times). Women had this whole inner life that wasn't being fully reflected much in the broader culture, and suddenly here were these thoughts and feelings that had gone unreflected being bounced back at them. As for Wild Things, in interviews that's exactly what Joni says inspired the sound of the record - she liked what she was hearing on the radio and in bars and clubs, especially The Police, and Wild Things was drawn from that. Sorry, but I can't help it if it sounds like a sell-out to me (even if it sincerely wasn't, which I totally believe). I think I can't get over the feeling it's a sell-out because the Court & Spark / New Wave combo just lands with such a thud (to my ear). If she'd intentionally set out to sell-out and it had *worked* for me, I'd probably applaud it as an artistic triumph. Hell, there are acts who did by far their best work I think after selling out. I don't think artistic integrity is worth a hell of a lot if the product doesn't connect with me, anyhow. As it stands, it's not all that far-removed from the Ethel Merman disco record - Mitchell layered over something trendy and not particularly well-done. It sounds ridiculous to me. You said it sounds, "dated," which implies it's kinda a has-been. But for me, I'd argue it's a "never-was". I actually think it's worse in some ways than the oft-berated Dog Eat Dog, although again the songs are better-written. Hey, every unit off the assembly line can't be a Maserati. Even Jehovah had to rest on the 7th day.
Michelle Mercer (milkmaids) Sat 21 Apr 12 13:26
Ed, yesterday also brought news of a possible Joni performance: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/liz-smith/joni-mitchell-comeback_b_1438032.html Taylor Swift as Joni. Well, she strikes me as an incongruous and even bizarre casting choice. But that entire project is foreign to my sensibility and alien to my understanding of Joni and her work. A couple of books about music/musicians I'd love to see adapted for the screen: BUT BEAUTIFUL by Geoff Dyer and especially THE BEAR COMES HOME by Rafi Zabor. Oh, and Michael Ondaatje's COMING THROUGH SLAUGHTER.
Michelle Mercer (milkmaids) Sat 21 Apr 12 14:33
That is a great Joni quote, Chrys. Joni says she's made "genderless, raceless music," and I wholeheartedly agree. The thing is, though, she's sometimes identified as a black man. Joni's said she'll launch her autobiography with this sentence: I was the only black man at the party. She means it as a metaphor for having been misunderstood. But Joni also means it literally. She once went to a Halloween party in Hollywood costumed or disguised as a black pimp. Later she named this character or alter ego "Art Nouveau." He's on the cover of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. A weird thing to put forth without commentary . . . but that's all I have time for now, and I want to mention this before I forget.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sat 21 Apr 12 18:23
"Furry Sings the Blues" is one of the great moments in music in terms of confronting the debt that white musicians owe to the black experience and the distance that can never fully be bridged. It certainly doesn't say everything that could be said about the subject, but it says a lot.
david gault (dgault) Sat 21 Apr 12 19:44
That Tina Turner/Herbie Hancock performance is superb.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Sat 21 Apr 12 21:11
Yeah. I enjoyed Tina Turner singing a jazz tune.
Ed Ward (captward) Sun 22 Apr 12 00:58
Rafi Zabor's book would make a great movie, now that we have good CGI that could make a saxophone-playing bear credible visually. And anyone here who hasn't read it should seek out a copy: it's probably the best book about how music is made ever written. Certainly when I read the gossipy, trivial "Girls Like Us" I didn't see "Soon to be a major motion picture" written on the cover. But that' the kind of journalism on popular music history people want, apparently.
Scott Underwood (esau) Sun 22 Apr 12 08:07
"But Beautiful" would make a wonderful movie that would be enjoyed by 15 people.
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