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 pejorative, and reductive. From the start, Mitchell has always been exacting about the spaces she makes for herself.
Reckless Daughter is a biography without a thesis, and Joni Mitchell doesn’t need one; she is one of the few artists so present in her work that one wonders less about who she is. Not that the circumstances of her life don’t inform her music—they do: her childhood in Saskatchewan, the months of isolation after she contracted polio as a child, her pregnancy as a young art student and her decision to give her daughter up for adoption. But her work is so dense with her sensibility, and so virtuosic, that it doesn’t require a biographical code to crack, nor is her persona one that warmly invites interest.
This may seem a complicated way of saying that her work speaks for itself, but consider the paucity of artists to whom this applies. Many more artists, even great ones, are persona-dependent. Leonard Cohen’s body of work is animated by Leonard Cohen, such that Sylvie Simmons’s 2012 biography, I’m Your Man, is a delight to read, whether or not you’ve ever listened to one of his albums. Bob Dylan’s work is inseparable from his aura, and even Laura Nyro—a rare contemporary of Mitchell’s whose work is just as brilliant—made room in her music for a listener to nest in. Nyro communicated by enigmatic reasoning, through both small and sweeping gesture; the details of her character, lovingly assembled by Michele Kort in 2002’s biography Soul Picnic, don’t so much complement the work as issue from the same place.
Mitchell’s work is much more opaque. It rarely permits ecstasy, instead demanding constant attention—it is harder to make yourself comfortable in, harder to appropriate. The same could be said for her: she is often described as aloof, ornery, compelling but hard to please. Yaffe’s cautiously respectful approach, his reluctance to scribble his own take over the materials of her legacy, is reverent. The book feels as if it is written for Joni, whose approval is rarely and only conditionally offered. It’s meant to be definitive, drawn from extensive interviews and unprecedented access, but it is not a great read; it’s more like a monument.
An artist’s legacy is subject not only to critical consensus, or counter-consensus, but contingent also on how much fodder they provide their critics, how easily they can be made into an example. What makes them interesting to posterity is less their inherent genius than their utility: “The test of time is less like a separation of wheat from chaff than like clearing out the apartment of a dead relative,” writes H.J. Jackson in Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame, a study of the factors that contribute to a writer’s afterlife, “when you can’t keep everything so you save the footstool but get rid of the clock, discard the nest of tables but reupholster the chaise longue because you can use it.” Given Mitchell’s stature, it’s surprising that Yaffe’s book, as other critics have noted, is the most substantial yet on her life and legacy. Other attempts have fallen short, as Carl Wilson wrote in Bookforum, “either too hagiographic or subsuming her under second-wave feminism or California lifestyle-ism.” Neither is totally appropriate, and Mitchell actively resists being flattened to an avatar.
As Josephine Livingstone noted in the New Republic, most of Mitchell’s career aligns poorly with the California ideal she embodied at the start; though the trope of the seventies singer-songwriter was built to her model, Mitchell’s “confessionals” are too abstracted to feel at all diaristic—knowing the subjects of her songs is often distracting. Like most artists who have been hailed as political symbols, she also has limited utility as a political symbol. Her strength and resilience and refusal to be sucked dry by patriarchal vampires make her admirable through a feminist lens, but her own convictions are hard to map onto an ideology; her strongest stances seem to be mostly about herself. This myopic sense of her own marginalization might have contributed to her disturbing decision to appear in blackface, initially at a costume party and then on the cover of her 1977 album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, as a character she alternately called “Art Nouveau” and “Claude the pimp,” and claimed to have based on a man she’d seen on the street. As Carl Wilson notes, Mitchell had a significant black fan base and worked with black artists more than most white musicians in her genre, but “was often crassly self-congratulatory about it,” and callous in her identifications. Yaffe writes that much of the history of blackface “was unknown to her”—she had thought of this grotesquely misguided gesture as a form of tribute.
More benignly, Mitchell is a classic curmudgeon, matter-of-factly trashing fellow artists and mythologizing her own persecution such that a producer’s misstep might become, in her telling, a deliberate attempt to sabotage her art. She is ungracious almost as a matter of principle: “I once asked David Crosby, ‘Why is Joni so mad at me?’ ” Judy Collins told Yaffe. “He said, ‘Joni hates everybody.’ ” Collins’ version of “Both Sides, Now” gave Mitchell her first big break; Crosby, who produced her first album (admittedly not well), saw her playing in a club in Miami and brought her into the West Coast limelight. Mitchell’s wariness was forged in real experience—she has survived countless attempts on her agency, autonomy, and character by the men in her personal and professional lives, from her marriage to Chuck Mitchell, “a guy who was using her and keeping her down,” in Crosby’s words (“my first major exploiter, a complete asshole,” Mitchell told Yaffe), to Rolling Stone dismissing her as “Old Lady of the Year” and the “Queen of El Lay” just before the release of Blue—her vigilance has been essential to her success. Her prickliness feels at times like an evolutionary adaptation to protect her genius, and she has that antiheroic cast so often beloved, yes, in male artists, of someone whose outsize spikes reflect the formidability of the threats they’ve deflected. “She’s a really strong woman who doesn’t give a fuck about what anybody thinks,” Yaffe quotes Joan Baez as saying; she doesn’t strictly mean it as a compliment. “We all wish we could be that way, but we can’t.”
If the story of Mitchell’s strength in the face of sexist hardship serves her legacy at all, good; but feminist readings of great artists are exasperating for the fact that gender is not the reason they matter. The feminist take is often self-defeating: either it reduces artists to an abstraction of their identity, or it vaults them to martyr status, leaving them vulnerable to teardowns once their flaws are remembered. Gender overshadows the work, so that the artist is evaluated according to their fitness to a political imposition, or else it skews the way that work is interpreted. Mitchell is not her gender, nor is her gender an accent or qualification to her talent, but it affected every part of her life and career, which became her material, which stands on its own.
Reckless Daughter is at times plodding, both over- and underwritten; many times I wanted to stop reading and just listen to The Hissing of Summer Lawns. But perhaps its flaws are what best serve its subject: the book builds a portrait of a complicated person whose character is not easily assimilated into narratives literary or political. I am not one of those disingenuous purists who believes that an artist’s life or character is irrelevant gossip—nor do I believe that an artist is reducible to the best or worst of their moral decisions or characteristics. The facts are always more or less relevant, and it doesn’t diminish the work to pair it with an understanding of person. But, as Yaffe conveys, one of Mitchell’s most cherished values has always been self-sufficiency. This has led to stubbornness, in the studio and out. Producer Henry Lewy, who worked with Mitchell on her greatest albums, was always credited as some variety of “engineer” in the liner notes. But it also created a body of work that relies on no advocate, no backstory, no external way in. “A producer is an interior decorator,” Mitchell said. “I decorated my own house. I don’t need a decorator.”