What Joni Allows

The beautifully opaque life, and work, of Joni Mitchell

Waiting to meet Joni Mitchell for the first time, biographer David Yaffe was so nervous that he crushed his wine glass. The restaurant staff told him not to worry; she was actually very nice. After closing time they returned to Mitchell’s home, where the artist hopped from topic to topic—art to film to environmental disaster—occasionally throwing barbs at her contemporaries—“it was all delivered with a joie de vivre,” Yaffe writes. “She loved to be provocative.” Their conversation continued over the phone the following week, but when the interview was published in the New York Times, she called Yaffe in a fury. “She was a maestro, hurling one indignity at me after another,” he writes. Her objections, it seems, were less a response to his account than a reflex against being pinned to anyone’s impressions. She took special umbrage at Yaffe’s description of her home as “middle class,” which she thought...