Friday, September 16, 2011

"Girls Like Us" and A Joni Inspiration

Sheila Weller's 2008 triple-biography titled "Girls Like Us" is an ambitious, successful attempt to recreate the 1970's era of social and artistic ferment, as told through the life stories of three musicians who achieved their greatest success at that time: Carole King, Carly Simon, and Joni Mitchell.

Weller's book reads like an episodic novel with three completely realized female leads.  Each of their life stories are vastly different from one another, yet complement each other.  The book alternates and weaves the three stories into a "tapestry" (pun is intended) about the creative process, the sublimation of hardship to art, and the way music reflected and influenced the changing gender roles and cultural expectations of a generation.

It is a marvelous read.  As I make progress, I hope to record my impressions, and share passages that especially stimulated and moved me.

Joni Mitchell's story is especially interesting to me.  I regard her with some reverence, for her lyrics stand alone as poetry apart from their tunes, but together they make a potent statement about love, loneliness, creativity, and the machinations and the yearnings of the heart and mind.  

I am listening to Mitchell's 1970 album "Ladies of the Canyon" as I write this, around midnight in Chicago on a cool, crisp autumn Friday evening.  This album introduced listeners to her pop classic "Big Yellow Taxi" ("....they paved paradise and put up a parking lot..."), and her anthem to a milestone event, "Woodstock", performed as a mysterious and dreamy ballad (in contrast to the classic rock-and-roll  version recorded by Crosby, Still and Nash).

Mitchell's music and poetry constantly refresh me,  put me in touch with my creative energy, amaze me with their intelligence and soul-baring emotion. 

Joni lived a life that I would love to turn into a screenplay: a small-town Canadian girl from a conservative family, who discovers her passion for music and painting, fights polio, and hits the road to sing and write music.  Alone, and pregnant, with little to sustain her but her talent, she gives her baby up for adoption, becomes an iconic member of the Laurel Canyon folk-rock scene, and earns the respect of musicians and artists through a stormy but brilliant career.  As her voice mellows and matures, her music takes more chances, and her art and talent find new adherents.  Eventually, dramatically, she is reunited with her daughter.....

It has always been a dream of mine to hear her in concert; but I don't think that will ever come to pass.  Joni seems to have retired from the "cesspool" that she calls today's music business, but her absence from the scene is mainly due to her suffering, from a rare and strange nerve disorder called Morgellon's Disease.

As a guy who is trying hard to lay a claim to an artistic life, and offer the world something interesting and original, who is feeling his way through a process of reinvention, I have been inspired by few artists as completely as I have been inspired by Joni Mitchell.

I have occasionally travelled through a "blue" landscape these days, but it is true that sometimes "there's comfort in melancholy, when there's no need to explain." * 

Joni has articulated her own journey with uncompromising honesty and grace, and in her lyrics I find words of understanding.

The final song on "Ladies of the Canyon" is a classic about maturing and accepting the bittersweet cycles of living.   It is called "The Circle Game".

I will devote more pages in this journal in the coming weeks to Joni, and her influence on my humble work and my world-view.

Here's a video I found from a 1968 Canadian Broadcasting Company program, featuring the one-two punch of "Both Sides Now" and "The Circle Game".  Take the lyrics to heart.  Enjoy.
...So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty
Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true
There'll be new dreams maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

(*From her song "Hejira")

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