David Yaffe’s prose is perhaps over-effusive, and insufficiently reflective about some key aspects of Joni Mitchell’s life/’journey’, as opposed to extolling her (undoubted) genius. Events are taken merely as signposts on this narrative of Genius. Possibly THE pivotal event was surely the giving up to adoption of her only child, a trauma continually revisited in songs on her albums, most famously in Blue’s ‘Little Green’, which only really made full sense once she had made the adoption public knowledge. Everything else followed on, like William Burrough’s admission that the shooting of his wife was the fountainhead of his later work.
This is not the trope that Yaffe makes much structural use of, however. Similarly, there is little systematic analysis of her seeming compulsion to get together with at times-unpleasant (but then again, who isn’t at times?) male fellow musicians. This is probably a reflection of my own position as a male observer, prurient and perhaps wishing to judge? I’m working on it.
Joni comes across as the possessor of awesome talent - as a writer, musician, fine artist and dancer. She also was also clearly aware of this, and, at times. let it make her a bit mean about others who helped her along - Judy Collins (”there’s something la-di-da about her”) and David Crosby (”He was paranoid and grumpy. He was unattractive in every way..”). These are no doubt cruel-but-fair comments, but even so…But again, would we extend the same criticisms to ‘mean’ male blowhards like Jagger et al? Her dismissal of her first hubbie, Chuck Mitchell, is clinically eviscerating, and one gets the sense that Joni never tolerated fools easily. At least in retrospect, as some of these fools proved to be the motivator for many of her finest songs. Chuck’s sexism presumably provided a template for Joni’s questioning of same. Or did it? This theme is unfortunately not really taken up by Yaffe, even though it represents a key dissonance in then-contemporary gender relations.
In our current, hyper-sensitive era, her decision to ‘black up’ (most famously on the cover of Don Juan…) seem puzzling, if not exactly offensive somehow (it would have been, if, for example, Robert Plant had worn blackface?). Her tobacco smoking habit also seems to catapult her back to a different time (file along with Frank Zappa and George Harrison, in this instance, puffing compulsively in nearly every shot), but the big mystery with this superlative artist, is what happened after 1979 and Mingus? Quantum physics issues are probably easier to solve, in terms of Joni’s catastrophic qualitative fall. None of here post-1980 recordings hold a candle to her Canonical Six.
But, ultimately and arguably, Joni Mitchell’s achievement is of being the greatest songwriter, lyricist, composer, guitarist, pianist and (phew!) painter that the ‘classic rock’ era ever saw, all facets of her genius being taken into account. The fact that she is a woman is notable, but ultimately a side issue. This is an consummate artist.