Sunday, November 22, 2009

Joni Mitchell: Her Art, Her Poetry, and the Movies

When I was old enough to notice Joni Mitchell and distinguish her from other artists populating the radio airwaves of my youth, her music and her reedy, soaring voice had a different impact on me from other music....I liked her not for the pounding syncopated rhythms or catchy tunes of the bands that formed the soundtrack of my restless boyhood--the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Four Seasons, Supremes--but for something more delicate and in tune with the rumblings of change that I saw taking place in culture, and especially film, my obsession at the time. 

I studied movies and learned all I could about the treatment of new and serious subjects formerly taboo on movie screens, the new forms of cinematography and montage, used to explore adult subject matter, and the power of music for irony and shock.  I bought soundtrack albums to help recreate the moviegoing experience, especially for the movies that I was barred from viewing owing to the new rating system, which was strictly enforced, at least in our household. 

And so, in the same way, Joni's music gave me  similar excitement and aesthetic pleasure, and stirred my imagination, in much the same way as the soundtrack music from Lion in Winter, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, The Wild Bunch, Zabriskie Point, and many others.

Through college, I bonded with friends who loved Joni's music, and so I listened more fervently.  Not many of her songs were appealing enough to the masses to make them hits, so her radio airplay was limited.  It was when I was introduced to her albums, by my friends Ben and Larry, and others I remember fondly, that real appreciation began.  I always enjoyed the profound and simple poetry of "Both Sides Now".  The dreamy "Help Me" and liberating "Free Man In Paris" fed my romatic longings as I navigated my own emotional attachments as a student in Iowa City.   

But as I listened to the anguish and strength of "Blue" and "A Case of You", the sadness and resignation of the now-standard Christmas anthem "River", the unusual shifts in key and chords in songs like "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire", and the perfection of the lyrics in "Woodstock" and "Circle Game" and "Cactus Tree", I felt as though I were training my mind and heart for a new way of expressing myself.  

I identifed Joni Mitchell with those around me who, like me, had creative yearnings, and through her music I felt myself entering my own place of creativity.  It is in my nature to resist change, and often react against new knowledge (admittedly, a defense mechanism I have outgrown) until I can incorporate it into my intellectual repertoire.  And so it was, too, that I felt momentarily lost as Joni moved away from the romatic themes and Laurel Canyon folk sound, and moved into experimental and jazz realms, used full orchestras and synthesizers, and created an impressionistic feel, which is something I loved about her painting, ironically. 

Very soon, though, I learned to love all that about her music, too, because she was filled with the joy of sharing these new forms.  There is nothing exclusive or snobbish about her....just the exquisite satisfaction of creating, and sharing the work with an appreciative audience. It suffuses everything she does.

Then came the album "Hejira", a work that took me through many periods of lonely desperation and rainy nights, with only candles lit and the sound of her voice warming the room. The songs on this album  did not insinuate themselves into my brain right away (like, for example, her classic hit "Big Yellow Taxi"). Instead, they invited me to return, and listen again, and promised new comfort, and mystery, until very soon these songs-- the hopeful and plaintive "Coyote", the questioning "Refuge of the Roads", the exotic (and erotic) "Strange Boy", the jazzy "Blue Motel Room", and the mesmerizing "Amelia" and "Song for Sharon", --became a part of my own language, a protection against the hurts and insecurities of life as a young man wanting to fit in yet terrified of who I was.

Just as Ingmar Bergman stirred in me the excitement of new possibilities in cinema, and Pauline Kael stood as a standard bearer in critical writing, so Joni became my model for a new kind of honesty and subtlety, a way to use personal feelings and experiences, and by going deeper than one's zone of safety, create work of unusual beauty and complexity that comforts with its immediacy and inspires with its ambiguity and originality.

It occurred to me that two of the art forms I loved, Joni's music and serious filmmaking, were, for me, running on parallel tracks, and never really met.  Considering the brilliant imagery of her lyrics, and how well her songs might be used on screen for complement and counterpoint, it was amazing that I could remember almost none of her songs that were used in a narrative movie, either to advance the plot or enhance a mood. 

Quite a few movies used her songs in the background, like "Love Actually", or in credit sequences, like "Woodstock" (the documentary).  But one film does stand out for me, in which a song was performed as an integral part of a scene---

It was "Alices Restaurant" (1969), the freewheeling counterculture hit based on Arlo Guthrie's 17-minute spoken-word single.  After a character tragically succumbs to his drug addiction, and as the hippies and other members of Ray and Alice Brock's commune gather for the funeral in a silent snowy cemetery service, Joni Mitchell's "Songs to Aging Children" is played and sung by a character in the film (a woman named Tigger Outlaw).  What a lovely, indelible moment. It was used brilliantly to describe these characters, as their dreams begin to fade, and they stand at a crossroads of choice and change.

"Songs to aging children come...Aging children, I am one...."

You can read all of her lyrics, and learn more about this creative, strong, literate, inspiring, and remarkable artist, on her web site:    


  1. Great post Tom! I admit that I never got into Joni's music outside of her "Big Yellow Taxi","Both Sides Now" and what other songs they played on the radio. I guess my musical tastes were forged primarily by my older brothers and Joni wasn't a big part of their repertoire. I inherited a music taste heavy with singers like the Beatles, Beach Boys, Neil Diamond, David Bowie and that kind of stuff. But your article has intrigued me and encouraged me to listen to some of her stuff. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I hope you do discover Joni's music. I urge you to log on to her web site (the link at the end of the post). You can read all of her lyrics and listen to most of her songs there. By the way, I love most of the artists you mentioned, especially the Beatles, who remain timeless, and David Bowie, whose unbridled creativity I find liberating.