Joni Mitchell - A Seventies Can(n)on   Part One

I’ve been having a bit of a Joni Mitchell ‘binge’ of late, and have finished reading two books on the great songwriter - David Yaffe’s intermittently interesting 2017 biography “Reckless Daughter”, and Sean Nelsons disquisition on Court and Spark (C & S), part of the 33 1/3 Press series of record album tributes. I’d have been just as happy to see a book on Hissing of Summer Lawns (HOSL), to be frank, but, as Nelson points out, how to award competitive points to Mitchell’s glorious six-album ‘run’ from 1970-1975? Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, For the Roses, C & S, HOSL and Hejira form a peerless series, and that’s leaving out the 1974 live Miles of Aisles and the late-seventies controversies, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus, both of which pretty much cooked her goose as the general public were concerned, and much to David Geffen’s chagrin. Shame, I still rate Mingus highly, although it does lack the internal coherence of the canonical six.

What other ‘runs’ are there of equivalent heft in this time period for single artists? I’ve given this some thought, and came up with John Martyn’s Island Records sequence, ending conclusively with Grace and Danger in 1980 (absolute disaster then ensued for this apparently unpleasant drunk); Tom Wait’s Asylum Records series, concluding with, again in 1980, Heart Attack and Vine (although I’m not  a fan of the latter recording, nor Blue Valentine) - however, other great runs were still to come for Waits in the eighties and nineties; Neil Young, from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere through to Rust Never Sleeps (but also acknowledging a couple of stiffs during this eleven year run, including Journey Through the Past and On the Beach); Scott Walker’s four solo albums from 1967 to 1970, and, of course, David Bowie’s incredible through-seventies masterpieces from The Man Who Sold the Earth to Scary Monsters (I still don’t like Diamond Dogs, though, and the first two Berlin albums are uneven in the extreme, imho).

There are hardly any weak tracks on Joni’s sextet of classics, which cannot be said of any of the above. One of her many achievements is that they were made in an age of hippie/yuppie male chauvinism, summed up famously by the preposterous Rolling Stone magazine, which in 1971 ‘named’ her ‘Old Lady of the Year’, and charted her various relationships with male musicians (mostly of far less talent than she), such as Leonard Cohen, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, James Taylor and David Crosby. Just imagine if male artists were held up to the same hypocritical standards - blokes such as Picasso and Warren Beatty and Mick Jagger, just to name three with severe trouser-problems, were equally ‘slaggish’ (to name the subtext of this asinine ‘tree of shame’). Mitchell had the self-confidence (and self-knowledge) to give the middle finger to such passive-aggression, and produced six albums that could all be potentially finalised for ‘Top 100 Albums of All Time’, or suchlike. It’s easier now for female artists, but it must have got “so lonely” at that time (to quote from ‘California’) for female artists, who knew that they had the talent to put their male contemporaries into the shade. Just think of the relative pygmy-talent of the likes of Nash, Crosby and Browne. Reading Yaffe’s book, the crap that Joni had to put up from ‘ex-lovers’ like Browne, drummer John Guerin (who specialised in double standards, by the sound of it) and the physically abusive ‘Othello-syndrome’ (basically, alcohol-fuelled pathological jealousy) jerk, percussionist  Don Alias, whose presence on Bitches Brew does little to excuse his abusive behaviour. 

Graham Nash comes across as one of the few famous amours in her life who weren’t in some way abusive, but Joni’s powers of forgiveness appear to be saint-like with regards to them (but not to others, it seems, as we will see).

To be continued...

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.