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Thursday, March 01, 2018


David Yaffe has written an exceptional biography of Joni Mitchell. His genius in telling her life and music lies in 

what he doesn't say!

Yaffe resists interpretation. He obviously interviewed with her and recorded what she said. And he did the same with other celebrities who knew her. Yaffe is also right on top of her music, the music of the scene around her and her position in it. He easily acknowledges her genius, her open tuning which she invented accompanied by her memorable voice. And this is where he excels in praise of her.

I spent an afternoon with her and Joy Schrieber - Joy Fibben - the manager of The Second Fret that showcased Joni before she was famous. A little dive on Sansom Street in Philadelphia, kind of dark and funky. This is where I saw her as I knew Joy and her husband. It was October of 1967 when Joni performed there when I first saw and heard her.

That afternoon she came into the area in Joy's apartment where we were talking, sat down and began to continue to write a song. Quietly, not greeting me at all, just Joy. She showed Joy some little beaded purses she had bought and Joy said, "Joni likes little purses."

I left soon after and saw her perform that evening. In performance she was mesmerizing, seductive and wonderful, promising everything. I knew she would be great immediately. A few nights later I took a lawyer friend to hear her. He was critical of her and said he thought she'll never make it. I said, "Oh yes she will." And I couldn't understand why he thought that. Perhaps it was her waif like appearance. Now I know she cultivated that until the trends changed.

Her bout with polio and her long stay in the hospital is described. This I never knew. Her parents visited her only ONCE! She was expected to be paralyzed, in an iron lung for the rest of her life. But she decided she wasn't going to be and struggled to move and then walk again.

Yaffe says only this about that time. He does not interpret it. I will though. I was utterly chilled by the fact her parents simply gave her up at a terrible time in which to withdraw all emotional support. It is no wonder her relation to her parents became indifferent after that. She must have come to terms with this then, the fact that she could never expect anything from them again. Invert this: nor did she owe them anything after this. She was free. Alone but free. With only herself to depend on. 

I am thinking at this time a great deal of Walter Richard Sickert whom I am convinced was Jack the Ripper. But another time for that. 

Joni made a deal with God. If I can walk again I will pay this back to you. She recognizes the gift and the indebtedness the gift imposes. The counter-gift. And she delivers. 

Sickert made no deal. And he was not yet 5 years old. And in agonizing pain and terror.

Yaffe is aware that she was the singer songwriter of loss. She spoke to those in pain. She knew about that. But her music was the only place, it seems, that she owned it, preferring to deny all this in her life and relationships.

… Don't it always seem to go 

That you don't know what you've got 
'Till it's gone 
They paved paradise… More

The Unsung Poet of Loss

Yaffe quotes Elizabeth Bishop on loss

The art of losing isn't hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster

This is a poem in response to the great Catherine Breese Davis's great poem: A villanelle and her best known poem. A reply to Dylan Thomas's Do Not go Gentle and certainly resonates with Bob Dylan's 
"Nothin left to lose"

After a time, all losses are the same,
One more thing lost is one thing less to lose;
And we go stripped at last the way we came.

So we, who would go raging, will go tame
When what we have we can no longer use;
After a time, all losses are the same
And we go stripped at last the way we came.

Davis's life was composed of losses too terrible to list. Her life was simply horrifying and she was still able to leave us some of the greatest poetry of her time. 

Perry Meisel reviews Hejira thus:

 Hejira presents the Queen of El Lay (referring to a Rolling Stone diss) more explicitly in the guise of a poet than ever before, festooned with cape, beret, slanted pinky, and the backdrop of a resolutely abstract landscape. Well, that's the way poets are supposed to look, I guess, and Mitchell's (self-) portrait here seems to be a little too aware of that.  

He continues but let's not here. This is nasty and yet very true when one stands her lyrics beside a master. Meisel does not understand the oncoming of Simulated Reality when stating one is a poet in IMAGE amounts to CREDIBILITY. The image obscures the real.

Here is an image by Mark Tansey that says it 
Mark Tansey the Picasso of the 21st Century
Mitchell just posits herself as an image of poet and voila she is a poet to her masses of fans. As Bolano saying that mediocre is necessary to see the diamond in the pile. (Something like that.)

Meisel hasn't become aware of this yet but Mitchell has.

Yaffe details with interview quotes from the wonderful and generous Judy Collins who used her clout at Newport to feature Mitchell and Dylan and shine the light of excellence on them. For this wonderful act of generosity and good will Collins received only sniping from Mitchell as she didn't like Collins interpretation of Both Sides Now which Collins had made famous by singing it on her recent album. 

Obviously Mitchell never understood that one's reading (interpretation) of a song "is that person's reading," that there is NO ABSOLUTE READING. Of course Collins would read the song differently from Mitchell or anyone else. And Collins was hurt by her lack of appreciation for the great gift she gave Mitchell in headlining her at Newport.

And this brings us to "The Gift." As Ainslee Meares says it:

Meares travels in the far east searching for new ways to cure old illnesses.
We have all read countless accounts of these travels. Meares gives us such a clear perception we can only be grateful to have all the ideology and PR wiped away.

Giving and receiving. What problems arise from this simple process! It may be hard to give, and I am sure it often is. But it is harder to receive, of this I have no doubt at all. I have seen too many patients tense and disturbed because they could not receive without anger. Once might expect people to be pleased and thankful at being given something. But look around, and you will see how often it has the reverse effect.And it is not difficult to see why this should be so. Giving places the receiver in your debt. No wonder he is resentful. But there is more to it than that. As babies our mothers gave us their milk freely, and we were happy to receive it. When we were children, our parents gave and we received. This is a law of nature. It is set in our mind that grown-ups give and children receive. Then as adults we are given something. Unconsciously it makes us feel as children again....

Nietzsche deconstructs the GIFT in his Genealogy of Morals which parallels the far east thinking detailed by Meares.
If you haven't read Nietzsche it is past time.
Mitchell will finally acknowledge her daughter publicly. She has finally received the long awaited call from her daughter. The one she gave up right after birth to a foster mother, then permanently and legally surrendered 6 months later. Here is what Yaffe says:

Joni held the baby... And then Joni signed the surrender papers. There was a form in the baby's adoption files called "Non-Identifying Background Information." Without revealing either parent's name, there were details left for the baby: that her father had been above average height, that her mother had once had polio and grew up in Saskatchewan, and this telling line:"Mother left Canada for U. S. to pursue career as folksinger."

So cold that last line.

After the honeymoon reunion her daughter vented her anger at being given up. This is natural but Mitchell became estranged. That terrible last line. Gave me up to become a folksinger. How wounding.

Fans and others will read this biography and a portrait will emerge of Mitchell with her adoration of fans muted by age and experience. We cannot know how desperately she had to defend herself and her vulnerability in her life that is bare in her music and lyrics. It is not for any of us to judge. But I do cringe at some of this, but that is just my own personal baggage. Not hers.