Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind, A Life Story


Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s I doubt that I ever put a Joni Mitchell record on the player. Not once. I didn’t have to. My ex-wife played them till she wore holes in the vinyl. I know all the early albums by heart to this day.

I liked Joni, I liked her a lot, but she was totally in love. Then Joni recorded Mingus, and we listened, and thought it was interesting, and put it away and barely played it. I haven’t really heard much of her since then.

My loss. After a lapse of many years when I seldom heard her at all—she doesn’t get a lot of air play on oldies stations—her songs suddenly sound fresh and new, and I realize just what an incredible poet and musician she is. Just how unique she was, just how much she was her own person and still is, totally unlike anyone who came before her and better than anyone I’ve ever heard since.

This is one of the best bios of a musician I’ve ever seen. There is no narration, which is good. Instead of hearing scraps and samples of her work, the music plays almost constantly, sometimes muted a bit so people who know her can comment on it, or she can speak her piece about this or that. One of the people who eloquently sings her praises is our friend David Crosby; another is her one-time lover Graham Nash. Then back to the old performance tape of one song or another. Lord, she was beautiful as a young woman! And how very young she was! She’s still beautiful, of course, but now it’s a mature beauty.

I find myself reflecting on fans. Hers were particularly rabid, and that’s got a downside. They want you to keep doing what you’ve always done, and that is death to artistic growth. Try something new, branch out in a new direction … well, Linda Ronstadt did it several times, but she discovered a new audience each time. Joni lost a lot of people when she found the purity of solo folk too confining. She moved into her own brand of rock, then into jazz, and what I love about her is that she never much cared if her audience followed her or not. If the music didn’t work out she could always go back to painting, which was her first love anyway.

I admit that she lost me, too, with Mingus. But hearing bits of it in this show has made me re-think it. I have tentatively concluded that I wasn’t yet musically sophisticated enough to follow her where she was going. I’ve learned a lot about jazz since then, and maybe I should give it another try.

The DVD also contains 5 more contemporary performances of her old standards, and I know I’ll never like them as much as the originals because you simply can’t improve on perfection. But unlike Bob Dylan, who when he revisits his old classics these days seems to feel that an unintelligible mumble will do for this shit, and those shitheads out in the audience, Joni makes them work. She seems to have lost an octave somewhere along the way, probably due to her smoking, but it’s still one of the great voices of the world.