Joni Mitchell wrote her own songs

Polished Weltschmerz

In mid-December, Bob Dylan sold the publishing rights to all of his songs to Universal. That earned the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature an estimated $ 300 million. Among the songs is "Tangled up in Blue" from his 1975 album "Blood on the Tracks" - for many people the pain of separation pressed onto vinyl. When he produced this song, he was not only caught up in sadness - but also in "Blue", the song of the same name and album by Joni Mitchell from 1971, which is dedicated to Dylan's "Tangled up". The fourth album by the then less than 30 year old singer-songwriter is one of many turning points in her life - and one of the milestones in "Joni Mitchell - A Portrait" by David Yaffe. "You put the weight of the world on yourself," Johnny Cash had said to her about "Blue", and between 1967 and 1979, between 1967 and 1979, Mitchell tore, shaped and sanded large musical blocks out of the weight of the world. She has described the great secrets of life with such a disarming honesty that for many of her listeners there was no turning back afterwards, to kitsch, to cliché, to lies, »because Joni Mitchell's songs go to the heart, aim at that what life means, ”writes Yaffe.

Everything can be found in this biography: the childhood on the Canadian prairie, the polio illness and its consequences, which makes Mitchell an exceptional instrumentalist, among other things. The early recognition of the artist's soul, "the love for words" that a teacher shows her. The first musical steps as a folk singer, the daughter given up for adoption - which she sings about again and again as an open secret. The creative explosion of the 1970s and the long period after that until today, when Joni Mitchell doesn't really want to fit in with the times and is constantly being rediscovered. The time in which some songs only become what they can and could be - there is an ageless wisdom in many albums and songs that makes you wonder where on earth it can come from at 25 or 35 years of age. Perhaps "because she can't help but make us all feel that we are not alone," as the New York Times once wrote.

Yaffe spoke to Mitchell several times for the book, including many musical companions, mostly men. Anyone who had a relationship or even just a love affair with her could be sure that it would be processed in a song. That was Graham Nash, that was Leonard Cohen. "I'm a living picture book," Mitchell said to Yaffe in 2015. And with "Blue" at the latest, she exhibited everything, the entire growing up of love. “After 'Blue', nothing in the love song genre was the same as before; Above it all hovered Joni's emaciated pain and her clear-sighted recognition. Of course, shallow, frizzy love songs continued to be written in western cultures. But after 'Blue' it was always a matter of decision, «says Yaffe. And as if by the way, she set the clearest and saddest Christmas song of all time with “River” on the same album, which reminds of “Jingle Bells” but says that you are responsible for your actions and your failures and your life and still sometimes just needs a frozen river to slide away on.

It is not politics that sounds out of the lyrics, and yet Mitchell captures the time in which she lives more clearly than few before. In "Big Yellow Taxi" from 1967 the environmental destruction ("They paved paradise and put up a parking lot", the song begins and almost everything is said), she wrote probably the best song about "Woodstock", although or maybe precisely because she wasn't there at all. Crosby, Stills and Nash, who found and created their harmonious sound in Joni Mitchell's living room in Bel Air, California, turned it into an anthem. But Mitchell's original is a lament - she knew before anyone else that it was an epoch's funeral.

After »Blue« from 1971, further masterpieces followed. "For the roses" at the end of 1972 - a macabre title. "To run for the roses" - flowers are put around a horse's neck after the race, "but one day you take it somewhere and shoot it" (Mitchell). An album that is even more emotionally exhausting; she knows who she is, where she stands and what the applause that is coming now means. Yaffe quotes Don Hackman, who wrote in 1972: “It seems to me that Joni Mitchell has become one of the most talented composers North America has ever produced in her own unique way. The fact that she has decided to express her art in small forms and personal feelings does not diminish its influence or significance. «With» Court and Spark «from 1975 she already has» one foot in the seventies and with others in timeless realms «- musically, the albums are becoming more and more sophisticated, the best studio musicians of the time, especially from the jazz sector, work with her.

»Hejra« from 1976 already captures the loss itself, which is there and which is there and which gives art its depth. Also that of your voice - not just 60 cigarettes a day since early youth are taking their toll. The almost whispered folk songs of earlier days were passé once and for all, instead a cocaine-fired "Song for Sharon", ten verses, no chorus, no bridge - a whole life from childhood in Canada to New York in the 70s, an album without a center , without a beginning, without an end - musical wonders and marvels of a wounded man too.

There are still albums to come (there was more and more jazz) and tours, but the mainly commercial success is waning. Joni Mitchell's “output in the 1970s resumed, if unintentionally, the private and public life of the decade. She would later call the eighties the lost decade. She would be told that she was no longer a mirror of her time. Thank God, she thought, and then wrote: To agree with the eighties would have meant 'a moral and artistic degeneration,' ”Yaffe said. Nevertheless, she then follows trends instead of setting them herself, and complains more and more. Success is addicting and it was difficult for Mitchell to do without it - especially since there were many bills to be paid. But it no longer fits: "Joni's career moved parallel to culture - at least for a while" - her listeners heard her as part of a broader conversation that concerned herself and her life, but also society. But: Vulnerability and openness are rejected in the 80s as "totally seventies" - and thus what makes Joni Mitchell so special.

And yet the musical end point belongs to her: When she released her first album in 1967, her voice spanned three octaves and the sound was minimalist. Mitchell wants to end her recording career with a full orchestra: She reinterpreted her songs around the turn of the millennium. When she recorded “Both Sides, Now”, the 1967 song about recognizing the clouds and life and love from both sides, with the London Symphony Orchestra, the musicians lose their composure and cry. Perhaps they are lamenting »the missing voice, spanning several octaves, this flawless and melodious, but now reduced instrument. Maybe the musicians were crying because for the first time they understood what this song was really about. It had taken Joni all these years until she finally sounded as if she had gotten to know life from both sides, ”writes Yaffe. At the end of March 2015, Joni Mitchell suffered a stroke. Since then, she has withdrawn almost entirely from the public eye.

We must agree with Thomas Steinfeld's afterword when he describes Mitchell's music primarily as one that is for adults - people who have become something and who do not long for or excite the desire to become someone else. Who see life from both sides, no matter how old they are.

David Yaffe: Joni Mitchell - A Portrait. A. d. Engl. V. Michael Kellner. Matthes & Seitz. 583 pp., Hardcover, € 28.

nd journalism from the left thrives on the commitment of its readers

In view of the experience of the corona pandemic, we have decided to make our journalism permanently freely accessible on our website and thus make it available to everyone who is interested.

As with our print and epaper editions, our work as an author, editor, technician or publishing employee is reflected in every published article. It is what makes this journalism possible.

Volunteer now with just a few clicks!