There’s a well-known scene in The Last Waltz in which Neil Young sings “Helpless.” On the chorus a haunting harmony vocal floats on the air, weaving under Young’s raspy vocals. The camera cuts to the willowy figure of Joni Mitchell sitting offstage, behind a curtain. We never needed the revelation, though; those sultry tones unmistakably belonged to Mitchell. She then came on stage to lead The Band through her open-tuned discursive journeys of “Coyote,” “Furry Sings the Blues,” and “Shadow and Light.” Her own performances stunned the band and the audience with her poised free-form compositions.
A primitive beauty and fearless creativity imbue Mitchell’s songwriting. She remains, even more than Dylan, our most ambitious — in the sense of curiously and restlessly moving into new musical terrains in search of new and different sounds — and visionary songwriter. In 2015, the music world collectively held its breath when news broke that Mitchell appeared to be on her deathbed. While many of those reports were exaggerated, Mitchell had suffered the debilitating effects of a brain aneurysm. While she has slowly recovered, mostly out of the public eye, she remains the foremost lady of the canyon, whose music has influenced countless other musicians and whose songs — from “Both Sides Now” to “Shine” — are lodged in our memories.
Drawing on intimate and in-depth interviews with Mitchell, her friends, and musical associates, David Yaffe paints a colorful and riveting portrait of the singer and songwriter and painter in his definitive biography Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell (FSG). Since Mitchell has not given us a memoir, Yaffe’s biography allows us to peer behind the curtains of her life, since she gave him unrestricted access. In many places, the biography reads as much like a conversation between Yaffe and Mitchell as one writer’s chronicle of an artist’s life. Yet, it’s Yaffe’s critical insights into Mitchell’s music that elevate this into more than just another music biography.
Of course, he traces the contours of Mitchell’s life from her birth, as Roberta Joan Anderson in Alberta, Canada, in 1943, her early bout with polio, and her marriage to Chuck Mitchell in 1964, when she changed her name to Joni Mitchell, to the birth of her daughter in 1965, her creative struggles in the 1980s and 1990s, and her most recent medical issues. He also regales us with her relationships with Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Judy Collins, Charles Mingus, David Crosby, and Leonard Cohen, among many others.
Yaffe brilliantly conducts us through Mitchell’s evolution as a musician with vivid descriptions of the making of each of her albums. He calls Song to a Seagull “an astonishing debut.” Even so, Yaffe observes, “it did not give everything away. Joni already had enough excellent material for three albums, and she would sit in some of the greatest among her songs with the confidence that her career would unfold, and that whatever growth she would make along the way would accommodate some songs that, in the hands of others, had already proven to be successful.”
Her first album with a wide release on a label, Clouds, more than confirmed her brilliant artistry: “Clouds is filled with daring emotions, open tunings, weird chords, enchantment, sorrow and ebullience, and everything in between. It offers no shortage of beauty, and yet every song on Clouds sees beyond conventional ideas of beauty, forcing listeners to rethink what they thought they knew or appreciated. Those chords, those feelings, for all their drowsy nights and Chelsea mornings, could be dark, eccentric, brooding, difficult.”
For the Roses, according to Yaffe, “is a watershed album for Joni, not only because it’s a bridge between two masterpieces. In it, you can hear that she is changing, you can see her mind growing muscles … Even when she was writing about her own particular sadness, struggle, and depression, her lyrics and her tunings were filled with a generous sense of grandeur, as if the doors of her heart had been flung open and she was inviting the world in.”
Mitchell’s creative genius and artistic fearlessness are not confined to the song themselves or to her jazz tunings or to her wry vocals. She also possesses a canny knack for the just-right production of her songs and her albums. Yaffe observes that the “ability to suss out what was hip was a quality that would hold Joni in good stead when she got into the music industry. She simply had an innate sensibility of what was commercial, which allowed her to anticipate and preempt the arguments of meddling record executives, and would make her impervious to the interventions of producers … Joni commandeered the sequencing and sound on her records, and what she picked was usually right: right for her and right for her audience.” Such insight and aural intuitions produced some Mitchell’s most far-reaching and most musically transgressive and musically transportive albums: Mingus and Hejira among them.
After exploring the hills and valleys of Mitchell’s personal and musical life, Yaffe affectionately concludes that “she is our eternal singer-songwriter of sorrows, traveling through our highs and lows, the twentieth-century master of the art song tradition that stretches to Franz Schubert … As long as people can listen to her music, her story will be told in her voice, he weird chords, her inimitable way.” Yaffe’s vividly narrated and affectionate biography captures radiantly the shining facets of Mitchell’s jeweled career. He introduces new fans to the depth of her music and her genius, and he confirms for long-time Mitchell fans the extraordinary enduring power of her music.