In Search Of Love and Music: Joni Mitchell's Musical Exploration (1971-1979)
"You have two options. You can stay the same and protect the formula that gave you your initial success. They're going to crucify you for staying the same. If you change, they're going to crucify you for changing. But staying the same is boring. And change is interesting. So of the two options, I'd rather be crucified for changing."1 – Joni Mitchell, Rolling Stone, 1979.
In June of 1971, a 27-year old woman named Joni Mitchell released Blue. The name was not entirely new - she had already gained attention for writing songs such as “The Circle Game” and “Big Yellow Taxi,” but it was Mitchell’s 4th album, Blue, that would prove to forever outshine the relevance of most of her other albums, bringing her up to the same plateau that her male counterparts like Bob Dylan and Neil Young had been standing on for quite some time. Indeed, in a career that has resulted in twenty proper albums, few argue that any of Mitchell’s efforts top Blue, a mature and confessional diary that is undoubtedly female in its subject matter and delivery, and an album considered by fans and critics alike to be one of the greatest ever recorded.
Blue was more than just a hint at the genius and beauty of Mitchell’s work. After a decision to stop touring, she allowed herself the time to reflect and discover herself more thoroughly. Equipped with alarmingly strong songwriting, her acoustic guitar style was also innovative, incorporating avant-garde tunings and chords seldom used by anyone else. She played the piano, the guitar, and the dulcimer (which she learned while vacationing in Crete) with equal skill: not in a virtuosic sense as much as in an experimental sense. Her lyrics were reflective and mature, well beyond her 27 years. They convey a sense of her experience and self-education, as well as a crucially important ingredient to her music: independence. Joni had overcome disease, marriage and separation, and relocation all by the age of 24. Songs like “Carey” and “California” explicitly deal with her experiences traveling, while “Blue”, “River”, and “A Case Of You” explore nostalgia and raw emotion. Mitchell tells stories of the past, whether it be her own past or the past of others, and she deals with history in a very prosaic way. Had it been attempted by any other artist, Blue may have faltered and seemed overly egotistical. Timothy Crouse said it best in his 1971 Rolling Stone review of the album: “In portraying herself so starkly, she has risked the ridiculous to achieve the sublime. The results though are seldom ridiculous”2
As mentioned already, Blue conveys the genius and beauty of Mitchell’s work. What would change over the decade, however, was this idea of genius and beauty. Her lyrical and musical style would change at a remarkable pace over the next eight years. The unique rhythmic guitar style and avant-garde tunings would remain, but a growing interest in jazz and lyrical exploration would characterize much of her further output of this period. Indeed, by the time Mingus was recorded in 1979, little was left of the simplicity and raw emotion of Blue, and yet, who else than Mitchell could grow in a way that remained so true to her musical vision?
After relocating to British Columbia, Joni began working on a follow-up to Blue. For The Roses (1972) is different to its predecessor in that it utilizes additional instrumentation. The stark mood and minimalism that resulted from Blue’s limited use of instrumentation is exchanged for a fuller and more explorational sound. Mitchell’s distinctive acoustic strumming is augmented by the woodwinds of Tom Scott, guitar by the legendary James Burton, and Russ Kunkel’s drums. Indeed this would mark the beginning of Mitchell’s mission to seek out musicians who best convey her musical vision. The album marked Mitchell’s return to live performance, and gave her a hit single, “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio.” The song titles themselves point to an expansion in subject matter (“Banquet”, “Electricity”, “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire”) that the lyrics only prove to confirm, but they remain earthed in honesty and emotion.
Legend tells it that upon hearing Mitchell’s Court & Spark prior to its release in 1974, Bob Dylan fell asleep. Quite a surprising reaction from His Bobness, considering that Mitchell was well on her way to surpassing his relevance (indeed, if it weren’t for Blood On The Tracks, one could argue that Mitchell had surpassed Dylan at this point, in terms of songwriting and innovation).
The album was Mitchell’s commercial peak, including a big hit in “Help Me,” but Mitchell made no sacrifices, only continuing to develop as a songwriter and performer in the way that she chose for herself. Following her musical involvement with Tom Scott on For The Roses, Mitchell decided to utilize the rest of his band, the L.A. Express on Court & Spark. Many of these musicians would continue to perform on Mitchell’s albums that followed, particularly guitarist Larry Carlton and drummer John Guerin, with whom Mitchell became romantically linked. The album was more instrumentally involved than anything Mitchell had previously done.
The true highlight of the album (and certainly Mitchell’s career as a whole) is “Free Man In Paris,” a song Mitchell wrote for David Geffen while the two visited Paris. Other highlights include “Raised on Robbery”, Mitchell’s first true foray into rock ‘n’ roll (with guitar from Robbie Robertson), and the album’s closing rendition of “Twisted”, featuring comedy duo Cheech & Chong(!). Mitchell must have been delighted to see an album so true to her personal vision receive radio play and a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year in 1975. Of course, by that time she had continued to move further along in her musical journey.
1975’s The Hissing Of Summer Lawns allowed Mitchell to use the luxury of having a talented guest list of musicians to continue experimenting both lyrically and musically. “Edith and the Kingpin” is one of the best narratives Mitchell has ever written, conveying the story of a simple girl’s relationship with an organized crime leader. “The Jungle Line” introduced African rhythms and lyrics about Rousseau and featured an odd musical backing with Moog synthesizers. Although it peaked at #4 on the Billboard charts, the critical response was mixed. Yet those who respected Mitchell’s musical progression raved about the album. Melody Maker’s Michael Watts wrote of the album: “As indicated before, the nature of her music is now leagues away from the generally straightforward folk songs of the past, and she has forged a form of personal expression that is beyond imitation. This, her most mysterious and ambitious record, breathes with her cool and damaged beauty that lingers long after the last playing.”3
The playing of legendary bass player Jaco Pastorius was crucially defining for Mitchell’s work in the late 1970s, particularly on her 1976 album Hejira. After the album had already been recorded with many of the same musicians utilized on her past few albums, Joni invited Pastorius to overdub bass parts on four of the album’s songs. Of the bassist, she has since said, “Jaco was doing something I was dreaming of at the time that I came to work with him. I kept asking bass players to do certain things and they'd say ‘the bass doesn't do that.’”4 His inventive bass playing went on to play a key role on Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977) and Mingus (1979), as well as the great live album Shadows & Light (1980).
Hejira continued as a solid progression from where The Hissing Of Summer Lawns left off, yet when even compared to what Mitchell was doing two years earlier with Court & Spark, it is much more different than similar. Like Blue, it is bare and stark. Mitchell still utilizes talented instrumentalists like Larry Carlton and John Guerin, but leaves the instrumental arrangements sparse. Lyrically, the album is much more sophisticated in its message than Blue. It once again deals with coming to terms with being alone, but does so from a more learned perspective. Mitchell, now 33, can allude to even more experiences, as if she were a prophet or sage. The album’s highlight, “Amelia” is a musical biography of Amelia Earhart, with whom Mitchell identifies:
A ghost of aviation
She was swallowed by the sky
Or by the sea, like me she had a dream to fly
Like Icarus ascending
On beautiful foolish arms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm
Much more challenging and ambitious than any of her albums that preceded it was Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977), a double album that expanded upon Mitchell’s interest in improvisational jazz. The album marked the beginning of an era where critics would refuse to respect her for a musical innovation that had pushed herself well past the critical acclaim of Court & Spark and even Hejira. In Janet Maslin’s review in Rolling Stone, she criticized the “painful banality” of Mitchell’s lyrics and of the concept itself the journalist wrote:
“Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is a double album that should have been a single album. It's sapped of emotion and full of ideas that should have remained whims, melodies that should have been tiffs, songs that should have been fragments.”6
Charles Mingus, on the other hand, must have decided that music critics were simply nitpicking the work of an artist who clearly had talent. The legendary jazz bassist contacted Mitchell in hope that she would consider collaborating with him on a musical adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Mingus, who was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, had written six melodies, “Joni I” through “Joni VI” specifically for Mitchell to add lyrics to.
Mingus had been intended as more of a collaboration than it ended up being. The resulting album was more of a tribute, as Mingus died before most of it had been recorded. Interspersed with the album’s six songs are five ‘raps’ (no, not rap music, but dialogue) - recordings of Mingus with family and friends, including Mitchell herself. Joined once again by Jaco Pastorius, the album also includes other jazz musicians like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. The album’s one true collaboration between Mitchell and Mingus is “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines,” an upbeat jazz vocal composition that is credited as a Mitchell/Mingus composition. However, Mitchell took it to task to close the album with an updated Mingus classic, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” The song had initially been released by Mingus in 1959 as a jazz instrumental tribute to the late Lester Young. Mitchell reworked the piece, adding new lyrics, as a fitting farewell to not only Lester young, but Mingus as well:
When Charlie speaks of Lester
You know someone great has gone
The sweetest swinging music man
Had a Porkie Pig hat on
A bright star
In a dark age
When the bandstands had a thousand ways
Of refusing a black man admission
In those days they put him in an
Cellars and chitlins’
In 1979, after the completion of Mingus, Cameron Crowe interviewed Joni Mitchell for Rolling Stone. It was an interview he had been trying to get for seven years. Of his days with the magazine he has said: "I became identified with Southern California musicians: The Eagles; Joe Walsh; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young . . . and I'd run across Joni Mitchell in various situations for seven years. And I pestered her for an interview for seven years. I even wrote her a letter when Don Juan's Reckless Daughter came out (in early 1978), saying, this was the time for her to talk. She was not interested."8 The interview came at a crucial time, when Joni could finally reflect a decade worth of growth that for another artist could have easily spanned several.
Since the creative explosion that resulted in Joni Mitchell finding her own throughout the 1970s, she has continued to be a musical chameleon, moving into a pop arena into the 1980s. Her love of jazz remained consistent throughout, and by the 1990s she had moved almost exclusively into jazz standards and jazz-oriented updates of her old material.
The 1970s was an important time for Joni, introducing her to the genre and musicians that would define the latter part of her career, far away from the folk-oriented pop of “Big Yellow Taxi” and “The Circle Game.” She took many risks in regards to her credibility with fans, but surprised and influenced a world of musicians as a result, an influence that continues to have impact today.
by Adam D. Miller