Joni: The Anthology, Barney Hoskins (ed.). New York: Picador, 2017.
Summary: A retrospective on the life, music, art, and performances of Joni Mitchell through reviews and articles from the popular music press, chronologically organized.
Yes, I went through a Joni Mitchell phase. Part of it was songs like “Woodstock” or “Big Yellow Taxi” that were anthems for my generation. And part of it was that Mitchell epitomized a certain ideal of artistry and beauty–this willowy woman with long, straight blonde hair and high cheek bones who could write and sing, albeit some of her “yodels” were a bit strange! The last Joni Mitchell I bought was The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Her music and my tastes were changing, and not in the same direction. I have to admit that I more or less stopped following her career except for hearing about an album she did with Charles Mingus before he died, one that seemed to be panned by many critics. Then a couple years ago, her name surfaced again when I heard the news that she had nearly died from a brain aneurysm. (At the time of writing, she is still living, has gone through rehabilitation, and made a couple of public appearances).
This new anthology, edited by popular music writer tells the story of Mitchell’s work and life through a collection of music press articles and reviews of her albums and concerts, arranged chronologically. Hoskins writes in his introduction:
“Her words and her ‘weird chords’ you can read about at length in the pieces pulled together in this compendium. Included in Joni are some of the most open and thoughtful interviews Mitchell has ever given, as well as some of the finest snapshots of her complex, often spiky personality. Here are reviews of (almost) all her albums – the consensus masterworks, the curate’s eggs – and of live appearances she’s made in tiny clubs and glitzy concert halls. Here are the words of writers who’ve fallen, as I did, under the spell of her piercing honesty, her tingling musical intimacy, her coolly nuanced moods: Americans and Brits alike, men and women who know how uniquely brilliant she is.”
The collection begins with an article by Nicholas Jennings tracing her life from her beginnings in Alberta and Saskatchewan, her early singing attempts, her time in Toronto’s club scene, her brief marriage to Chuck Mitchell, the recognition of her writing, performed by others like Judy Collins, the move to New York, and then L.A. and her subsequent success in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. We read of her various liaisons, most notably with Graham Nash, and the role David Crosby played in her early work. We learn about her unconventional practice of “open tuning”, her gradual move toward more of a jazz idiom, beginning with Court and Spark, and, after the Mingus album, a decline in the commercial success of her work, until her Grammy award-winning Turbulent Indigo (1994) garnered her renewed attention.
The strength of the articles that follow is that they trace the development of Mitchell’s career from its early days until her last album in 2007, giving us a taste of the mixture of critical opinion about her work throughout her career, and her own increasing disenchantment with a music world that failed to recognize her brand of creativity. I learned of albums I had never heard of, as well as her long relationship with Larry Klein. Nearly all her album covers bore her artistic work, and we learn of her continuing growth and recognition as a visual artist. Throughout her career from 1970 on, we read of periodic retreats from writing and performing (the later she has never enjoyed), with a return to the studio time again, even after her “retirement” in 2002.
The downside of this collection is that, while you get a kaleidoscope of perspectives, you also get a good deal of repetition, particularly concerning her early life. At the same time, Hoskins has unearthed some of the best writing about Mitchell over the course of her career. By not editing out repetitive material, you get the full impact of each piece.
I found myself with mixed feelings about Mitchell the person, who seemed to become more “hardbitten” as she matured, and Mitchell the artist, who developed in some interesting ways, while continuing to do some of the best writing around. I totally missed Turbulent Indigo. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate jazz far more, so I may want to go back to the Mingus album and others. If nothing else, the book filled in the gaps in my understanding of her work and life through some of the best things written about her.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.