It is an understatement to say that I am a lifelong fan. Maybe devotee, reverent student. At twelve years old, I discovered “Blue” and “Song to a Seagull” in my mom’s box of old records, and ever since Joni Mitchell has been like a family member to me, the High Priestess presiding over my dawning musicianship from the very beginning.
Hearing of Joni’s health in jeopardy earlier this week made me realize that the long-dreaded day that Joni is not in the world any longer is getting closer. It feels much like when I finally started realizing my maternal grandmother was not going to live forever: I understand it intellectually, that no one lives forever, but my heart seizes in objection nonetheless.
I still remember when I first heard “A Case of You.” I had started learning guitar earlier that year, but when I tried learning a few of Joni’s songs, it turned out the “Blue” songbook in our piano bench was only reductions with oversimplified chord progressions, and it didn’t sound right. I went to the music store and left with the Joni Mitchell Anthology, and from there I discovered altered tunings.
If not for Joni and her exotic tunings, I probably wouldn’t have become a guitarist, maybe wouldn’t have even kept going with music.
Learning Joni’s songs was like following a treasure map to all these sonorities that were completely outside the music on pop radio. On her use of sus chords, which she called chords of inquiry, she expressed the open-ended questions in her life (see Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words). This openness to the grey and in-between is what she has also called “the poetic stance.”
Though she was often critiqued for veering towards jazz later in her career, she actually grew up on jazz (see Herbie Hancock’s book Possibilities for a great story on their collaborations, or check out her collaboration with Charles Mingus: Mingus). Though Joni was drawn to folk music to showcase her lyrics, deep down, she was always a jazzer in her harmonic sensibility and her forms.
Of course I had no idea about any of this as an angstful preteen writing bad poetry; I just knew I heard something in her music that felt true to me, and I had to follow it. That feeling propelled me down musty thrift store aisles, pawing through bins of old records trying to find all her other albums. It wasn’t only the musical aspect, of course; it was also the visceral and visual spectacle of her lyrics, which gave an intriguing glimpse into a grown woman’s love affairs, independence, politics, opinions, and struggles–not something that is often represented with much accuracy or intelligence in much of popular culture, even today.
Through her sound and her words, Joni introduced me to a different universe entirely; it was like getting the keys to explore who I was and come into my own being, something beyond the uncomfortable beginnings of adolescence, the oppressive regime of junior high, the turbulence of my family. I didn’t have language around it at the time to know what to call it, but now I look back and realize this was the beginning of my experience of the interiority of the soul, through poetry and music.
As a newbie guitarist, this new allegiance to alternate tunings also put me in a weird place amongst my friends who played guitar, as it was much harder for me to “jam” or pluck out chord progressions in altered tunings. Or, I wasn’t very interested in doing that anyway. Changing the tuning of the strings beyond their normal tension makes the guitar more fragile, and I was always weary of retuning the Ovation electric/acoustic my dad bought me for my 11th birthday too often. But the loss of the social communion and the extra instrument maintenance seemed worth it, as I got so much emotional solace and intellectual stimulation through exploring all those different sonorities.
Today when I look back at those songs–“Michael From Mountains,” “Cactus Tree,” “Both Sides Now,” “For the Roses” (it’s too long a list)–I see how this entire musical vocabulary was internalized into my playing and my eventual songwriting. Aside from my dad, I have always thought of Joni as the only guitar teacher I ever had.
Over the years I’ve heard many opinions as to why Joni hasn’t received the place in history she deserves as a musical giant: her chords are too complex, so the average musician has a harder time covering her and her songbook thus remains less familiar; she gave up a baby for adoption to pursue an artistic career (a no-no for women, especially back then); her jazz and folk affiliations have meant her music is appreciated more by audiences that are African-American and/or female, an audience demographic that doesn’t have much influence on the (mostly white, male) rock critics and their often narrow lens on music culture.
As writer Linda Grant theorized more recently, Joni suffers from a more introverted, quietly reverent kind of fanbase, so she didn’t have these legions of fans following her around the country like the Dead or canonizing her every performance and every artistic incarnation like Dylan. Too, like her jazz friend Charles Mingus, Joni has always had a bit more prickle to her personality.
Too, though she has serious technical chops, Joni’s music is not about the chops for their own sake, the playing fast and hard and Wow-look-at-me. Hers is a less showy, more intellectual type of musicianship, a different but equal kind of mastery. Though often undersold as an influence on only female singer-songwriters who look the part or sound distantly similar, she is actually in everybody’s musical DNA, her Laurel Canyon male folkie and rocker contemporaries included.
Joni has been in the press more recently, starting with a New York magazine article where she discusses how she is trying to fix her legacy after decades of an understandably bitter relationship with the music press. Even though Joni has always maintained she’s not a feminist, (“I’m just looking for equality, not to dominate“) her fight against invisibility and male-defined descriptions of her music is an undeniably feminist one. But either way, with the recent health scare and the resulting social media outpouring of love and appreciation (WeLoveYouJoni), maybe now she is finally getting a taste of the recognition she has long deserved. Regardless of the attention she receives on a mass culture level or not, Joni is a matriarch of the spirit, a goddess of the intellect and the soul, a preserver of the independent self in a culture that too often undermines authentic expression.