Mark Ford

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Reck­less Daugh­ter: A Por­trait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe

Reck­less Daugh­ter: A Por­trait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe.

Sarah Crich­ton Books/ Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 420 pp., $28.00

In an in­ter­view with Gene Shay for the “Folk­lore Pro­gram” broad­cast on March 12, 1967, Joni Mitchell re­vealed the im­prob­a­ble ori­gins of one of her best-known and most fre­quently cov­ered songs:

I was read­ing a book, and I haven’t fin­ished it yet, called Hen­der­son the Rain King. And there’s a line in it that I es­pe­cially got hung up on that was about when he was fly­ing to Africa and search­ing for some­thing, he said that in an age when peo­ple could look up and down at clouds, they shouldn’t be afraid to die. And so I got this idea “from both sides now.”

In the event, Joni would never fin­ish Saul Bel­low’s Hen­der­son the Rain King, a novel she had been in­structed to read by her soon-to-be-ex first hus­band, Chuck Mitchell, a col­lege grad­u­ate who, it seems, had only de­ri­sion for his wife’s ditty; but vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one else who heard the song was rapidly con­quered by it. Later that spring the ir­re­press­ible Al Kooper, fa­mous for not be­ing an or­gan player and yet com­ing up with the great­est or­gan riff in all rock his­tory for Bob Dy­lan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” met a girl in a bar:

She and I were talk­ing and she told me she wrote songs. She’s good­look­ing and I fig­ured I could fol­low her home, which couldn’t be a bad thing no mat­ter how you look at it.

Back at her apart­ment on West Six­teenth Street, the newly met singer­song­writer played him “Both Sides, Now,” and al­though it was 3 o’clock in the morn­ing Kooper at once tele­phoned Judy Collins, a ma­jor par­tic­i­pant in the folk mu­sic scene of those years, with news of his dis­cov­ery. Joni re­peated her per­for­mance over the phone to a sleepy Collins, who in­stantly woke up:

Ab­so­lutely mind-bog­gling. I had an al­bum that was be­ing recorded right then and I wanted to record the song right away. That night, I went crazy and said, “I must have this song.” And her in­stinct wasn’t wrong; Collins’s ver­sion was not only a hit but won a Grammy.

The pas­sage in Bel­low that caught Mitchell’s at­ten­tion might serve as an epi­graph to her check­ered ca­reer, which now, alas, may be near­ing its close (she suf­fered brain trauma from an aneurysm in March 2015, al­though she has since made sig­nif­i­cant progress to­ward what is to be hoped will be a full re­cov­ery, and—who knows?—she may yet be lured back on stage or into the stu­dio): “We are the first gen­er­a­tion to see clouds from both sides,” muses an air­borne Hen­der­son. “What a priv­i­lege! First peo­ple dreamed up­ward. Now they dream both up­ward and down­ward.” For those who dreamed up­ward in the late 1960s, there was not only Wood­stock, there was also its com­mem­o­ra­tion by Mitchell in her op­ti­mistic paean to the fes­ti­val’s sig­nif­i­cance in her song of the same name. De­spite its use of the first per­son plu­ral (“By the time we got to Wood­stock/We were half a mil­lion strong”), Mitchell’s “Wood­stock” was in fact writ­ten in New York while she fol­lowed live cov­er­age of the sets of The Who, Joe Cocker, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jimi Hen­drix, and oth­ers on tele­vi­sion. Mitchell had been booked to per­form, but it was feared by her man­age­ment team that she might not make it back in time for a sched­uled ap­pear­ance on Dick Cavett’s TV talk show the fol­low­ing day.

Present in spirit al­though ab­sent in per­son, Mitchell set about com­pos­ing a song that would vividly cap­ture the sense of com­mu­nal pos­si­bil­ity and the hopes for change that Wood­stock came to sym­bol­ize: “And ev­ery­where there was song and cel­e­bra­tion/And I dreamed I saw the bombers/Rid­ing shot­gun in the sky/And they were turn­ing into but­ter­flies/Above our na­tion.” The song’s cho­rus unashamedly cel­e­brates the coun­ter­cul­tural vi­sion­ar­ies who gath­ered in the mud of Max Yas­gur’s dairy farm in up­state New York that his­toric week­end in 1969 as “star­dust” and “golden,” as an­gelic chil­dren of na­ture tak­ing the first vi­tal step that will lead us “back to the gar­den.”

But how about this for dream­ing down­ward, from “Sex Kills” on Tur­bu­lent In­digo (1994)—the al­bum whose cover fea­tures a Mitchell self-por­trait in the style of Van Gogh’s Self-Por­trait with Ban­daged Ear:

All these jack­offs at the of­fice The rapist in the pool

Oh and the tragedies in the nurs­eries

Lit­tle kids packin’ guns to school The ul­cer­ated ozone

These tu­mors of the skin

This hos­tile sun beat­ing down on This mas­sive mess we’re in!

And the gas leaks

And the oil spills

And sex sells ev­ery­thing

And sex kills

Sex kills

Sex kills

Sex kills . . .

It’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine this bleak jeremiad be­ing well re­ceived at the hip­pie love­fest of a quar­ter-cen­tury ear­lier.

Al­though

Mitchell was just twen­tythree when she com­posed “Both Sides, Now,” and still per­formed her ma­te­rial in clubs and cof­fee shops in a win­some, girl­ish so­prano, she had much right to claim that she had al­ready ex­pe­ri­enced life’s ups and downs. She was born Roberta Joan An­der­son in Fort Macleod, Al­berta, in 1943, the only child of con­ser­va­tive Cana­dian par­ents who would view with skep­ti­cism, and on oc­ca­sion dis­may, their reck­less daugh­ter’s ca­reer and views, and well-pub­li­cized love life. At the age of nine she fell vic­tim to the same out­break of po­lio that par­tially par­a­lyzed Neil Young; it weak­ened her left hand, and was in part re­spon­si­ble for her “open tun­ings,” which helped re­duce the amount of fin­ger­ing needed to play the gui­tar.

The An­der­sons tried their luck next in Maid­stone (“When we were kids in Maid­stone, Sharon/I went to every wed­ding in that lit­tle town,” as she re­calls in the glo­ri­ous “Song for Sharon” on He­jira, largely writ­ten, I was sur­prised to learn from this biography, while Mitchell was revved up on co­caine), then moved to nearby North Bat­tle­ford. Fi­nally, af­ter Joan’s year­long bat­tle with po­lio, much of it spent in a har­row­ing sana­to­rium that se­ri­ously re­stricted vis­it­ing hours and was far from home, the An­der­sons set­tled in the city of Saska­toon.

Bright but un­en­gaged by school, Joni (she changed her name when she was thir­teen) de­vel­oped into some­thing of a rebel. She se­cretly be­gan smok­ing at the age of nine, even­tu­ally reach­ing a steady eighty cig­a­rettes a day, and while in eleventh grade was caught shoplift­ing. Her teenage years were spent hang­ing with kids from the wrong side of the tracks, and it was in or­der to per­form at the boozy par­ties they held that she bought a ukulele for $36, a gui­tar be­ing too ex­pen­sive. Only Arthur Kratz­mann, her first English teacher in Saska­toon, made an im­pres­sion, but it was a deep one: her first al­bum, Song to a Seag­ull, is grate­fully ded­i­cated to him for hav­ing “taught me to love words.”

But it was as a painter that Joni An­der­son ini­tially in­tended to make her name. In 1963 she en­rolled in the Al­berta Col­lege of Art in Cal­gary, but she dropped out af­ter a year, unim­pressed by the fac­ulty’s doc­tri­naire in­sis­tence that Ab­stract Ex­pres­sion­ism was the only game in town. She found more in­spi­ra­tion at mu­si­cal evenings in Cal­gary cof­fee­houses, per­form­ing her­self in one called the De­pres­sion for $15 a week. Yet Al­berta Col­lege did have a de­ci­sive ef­fect on her life, for it was there she met Brad MacMath, a fel­low art stu­dent. That spring she found her­self preg­nant. At the end of the aca­demic year the pen­ni­less cou­ple moved to Toronto, un­til, as Blue’s “Lit­tle Green” poignantly re­calls, “He went to Cal­i­for­nia/Hear­ing that ev­ery­thing’s warmer there/So you write him a let­ter and say ‘her eyes are blue.’” Joni gave birth to her blue-eyed daugh­ter in Fe­bru­ary of 1965, nam­ing her Kelly. No word of her sit­u­a­tion was to find its way back to her par­ents in Saska­toon: “To be preg­nant and un­mar­ried in 1964,” she later re­called, “was like you killed some­body.”

Cast­ing around for a so­lu­tion to her dilemma, Joni de­posited Kelly in a fos­ter care home yet de­layed putting her up for adop­tion. Since she was un­able to af­ford the $150 re­quired for mu­si­cians’ union mem­ber­ship fees, she could play at only a hand­ful of Toronto venues. At one of these, how­ever, the Penny Far­thing, she met an Amer­i­can folksinger called Chuck Mitchell, who liked to per­form his own “im­proved” ver­sion of Bob Dy­lan’s “Mr. Tam­bourine Man.” Af­ter a whirl­wind ro­mance of a few weeks they mar­ried in Chuck’s home­town of Rochester, Michi­gan, then set­tled in Detroit, where they be­gan ap­pear­ing as a duo, mix­ing folk songs with a few Brecht/Weil num­bers, and even Flan­ders and Swann. Haunt­ing their courtship and early weeks as a mar­ried cou­ple was the ques­tion of what to do with Kelly. The heart­break­ing “Lit­tle Green” recre­ates the mo­ment when Joni fi­nally de­cided to sur­ren­der her:

Child with a child pre­tend­ing Weary of lies you are send­ing home

So you sign all the pa­pers in the fam­ily name

You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed

Lit­tle green have a happy end­ing.

Mitchell’s par­ents would not learn of the lies she was send­ing home un­til they were in their eight­ies, when tabloids broke the story that Joni was search­ing for the daugh­ter she had given up for adop­tion thirty years ear­lier.

The first song on Mitchell’s first al­bum is called “I Had a King,” and it’s pretty mean about Chuck. He is fig­ured as a “king in a ten­e­ment cas­tle” who has taken “to paint­ing the pas­tel walls brown.” While he sweeps the rooms with “the broom of con­tempt,” he is far from cool, for he dresses in “drip-dry and pais­ley” and seems ma­rooned in folk mu­sic’s past: “Ladies in ging­ham still blush/While he sings them of wars and wine/But I in my leather and lace/I can never be­come that kind.”

Al­though war­bled in her high­est, sweet­est reg­is­ter, it’s a some­what cut­ting di­vorce song, and re­veals the in­flu­ence of Dy­lan’s “Pos­i­tively 4th Street,” a track Mitchell cred­its with help­ing kick-start her com­po­si­tional ca­reer. “You got a lotta nerve/To say you are my friend/When I was down/You just stood there grin­ning,” Dy­lan’s vit­ri­olic sin­gle opens. It struck Mitchell with the force of a rev­e­la­tion: “I re­al­ized that this was a whole new ball­game; now you could make your songs lit­er­a­ture.” For both Dy­lan and Mitchell (who, al­though she dis­carded Chuck, opted to keep her mar­ried sur­name), mak­ing songs lit­er­a­ture of­ten in­volved get­ting them to de­liver un­palat­able truths, even ad hominem de­nun­ci­a­tions. As it had for Dy­lan ear­lier in the decade, the New­port Folk Fes­ti­val helped make Mitchell known to an au­di­ence be­yond the cliques and co­ter­ies of the cof­fee­house scene. Judy Collins per­suaded its re­luc­tant board to of­fer Mitchell a slot at the 1967 fes­ti­val, where her set was rap­tur­ously re­ceived. Also on the bill was fel­low Cana­dian Leonard Cohen, author of four books of po­etry and two nov­els, and, at the age of thirty-three, poised to make his mu­si­cal de­but. Their brief af­fair is charted in Blue’s “A Case of You,” whose open­ing again re­veals Mitchell’s gift for punc­tur­ing male pre­ten­sion:

Just be­fore our love got lost you said

“I am as con­stant as a north­ern star” And I said “Con­stantly in the dark­ness

Where’s that at?

If you want me I’ll be in the bar.”

Nev­er­the­less, “A Case of You” frankly ac­knowl­edges the pow­er­ful ef­fect Cohen had on her (“Oh you’re in my blood like holy wine”) while also in­sist­ing on her abil­ity to sur­vive ex­po­sure to his po­tent, if con­tra­dic­tory, en­er­gies, his mix of bit­ter­ness and sweet­ness—“Oh I could drink a case of you dar­ling/And I would still be on my feet.” Cohen, like Chuck, fur­nished her with read­ing lists, but Mitchell was non­plussed, when she got around to read­ing the likes of Lorca and Ca­mus and Rilke, to dis­cover that Cohen had lifted a num­ber of lines from them for his songs.

Mitchell’s finest al­bums were made in the 1970s, be­fore de­vel­op­ments in stu­dio tech­nol­ogy tempted her, most dis­as­trously on Dog Eat Dog (1985), into var­i­ous ex­per­i­ments with syn­the­siz­ers and com­put­ers that tended not to suit her voice or ma­te­rial. Her first con­tract with Warner Broth­ers, signed in 1968, granted her pretty much com­plete artis­tic con­trol over the pro­duc­tion of her records, and she fiercely de­fended her right to in­de­pen­dence from the in­dus­try’s suits and mon­ey­men in all sub­se­quent deals. The two high­est points in her record­ing ca­reer, it is gen­er­ally agreed, are Blue (1971) and He­jira (1976), but for Prince, an early fan and later ar­dent friend, it was The Hiss­ing of Sum­mer Lawns (1975) that stood out as her great­est achieve­ment. Al­though her first three al­bums in­clude some durable and fa­mous songs, such as “Chelsea Morn­ing” (which in­spired Bill and Hil­lary Clinton to name their daugh­ter Chelsea), “Both Sides, Now,” “Big Yel­low Taxi” (the one with the cho­rus “Don’t it al­ways seem to go/ That you don’t know what you’ve got/ Till it’s gone/They paved paradise/And put up a park­ing lot”), as well as that sta­ple of camp­fire sing-alongs, “The Cir­cle Game,” it was not un­til she en­tered Stu­dio C at A&M Stu­dios in Hol­ly­wood to record Blue in Jan­uary 1971 that Mitchell’s voice, mu­sic, and words meshed to cre­ate a record that peo­ple still find they want to lis­ten to again and again. Many of the songs had been writ­ten the year be­fore, dur­ing a tour of Europe, which in­cluded five weeks liv­ing in a cave with a hip­pie com­mu­nity in the coastal vil­lage of Matala in Crete—which is why her fin­ger­nails are dirty and she has beach tar on her feet in the song “Carey” (based on one Cary Ra­ditz, whom she met dur­ing her so­journ there). This groovy scene is re­vis­ited in “Cal­i­for­nia,” which fea­tures a snap­shot of a “red­neck on a Gre­cian isle/Who did the goat dance very well.” But while Blue deftly chan­nels the al­ter­na­tive life­styles of the coun­ter­cul­ture’s pioneers and cra­zies, it avoids cel­e­brat­ing them with the kind of dewyeyed hope­ful­ness that buoyed “Wood­stock.” The mélange of dan­gers lurk­ing be­neath the he­do­nis­tic petals of flower power are suc­cinctly cap­tured in the al­bum’s ti­tle song: “Acid, booze, and ass/Nee­dles, guns, and grass.” Mitchell’s own self-fig­u­ra­tions in these songs of­ten ra­di­ate me­lan­choly and in­de­ci­sion, a long­ing to find the key that will set her free. The in­ti­macy of her rev­e­la­tions on the songs of Blue is en­hanced by the sub­tlety and orig­i­nal­ity of her phras­ing, and by her dis­cov­ery of a new melodic range and in­ten­sity. Her voice is al­most un­bear­ably soft and poignant on “Lit­tle Green,” but can also be brac­ing and en­er­getic, as on, say, “Carey.” “I was at my most de­fense­less dur­ing the mak­ing of Blue,” she later con­fided. “And when you have no de­fenses, the mu­sic be­comes saintly and it can com­mu­ni­cate.” Un­doubt­edly Blue does com­mu­ni­cate, but along with her de­fense­less­ness it con­veys a wide-rang­ing cu­rios­ity and a res­o­nant de­light in or­di­nary plea­sures, such as the prospect of shar­ing a bot­tle of wine with Carey at the Mer­maid Café. As well as con­fess­ing that she’s self­ish and sad and wants to skate away on a frozen river, Blue cel­e­brates the urge to get up and jive in a juke­box dive, even to in­dulge in some sweet ro­mance. It’s the in­ven­tive­ness of the songs and the vigor of their per­for­mance, rather than the cris de coeur they oc­ca­sion­ally emit, that make it feel like such a star­tlingly ef­fec­tive leap be­yond her first three al­bums.

“I am on a lonely road and I am trav­el­ing,” opens Blue, “Trav­el­ing, trav­el­ing, trav­el­ing/Look­ing for some­thing, what can it be.” As proved the case for nearly all those who cut their mu­si­cal teeth in the 1960s Amer­i­can folk scene, at some point the lonely trav­eler ends up re­al­iz­ing that, to make it big, what he or she most des­per­ately needs to find is a band; also, that a great deal de­pends on find­ing the right one. The likes of Stephen Stills and James Tay­lor had made guest ap­pear­ances on early Mitchell al­bums, but as the ideal of the folk trou­ba­dour re­ceded ever fur­ther into the past, Mitchell be­gan scout­ing for a group that might en­able her to reach a wider au­di­ence. Court and Spark (1974), her high­est-chart­ing al­bum, fea­tured LA Ex­press, an ensem­ble of ver­sa­tile jazz mu­si­cians who were un­fazed by her ec­cen­tric tun­ings.

A sin­gle from the al­bum, “Help Me,” reached num­ber seven in the US charts (her one and only ap­pear­ance in the Top Ten).

Mitchell’s gifts, it seems to me, reached their fullest and most ef­flo­res­cent in the al­bums and concerts of her LA Ex­press years. Par­tic­u­larly won­drous is her voice, some­what rough­ened and low­ered by her in­de­fati­ga­ble con­sump­tion of cig­a­rettes, which soars and swoops like the black crow in the song of that name in­cluded on He­jira, an al­bum that came out the year af­ter Bob Dy­lan’s Blood on the Tracks and Bruce Spring­steen’s Born to Run, thus com­plet­ing a mid-1970s holy trin­ity. Dy­lan’s Rolling Thunder Tour was, if only obliquely, a cat­a­lyst for the first song on He­jira, “Coy­ote.” Mitchell was not among those orig­i­nally re­cruited for Dy­lan’s ten-week cav­al­cade through the north­east­ern states. She joined half­way through in late Novem­ber, fas­ci­nated both by the car­ni­va­lesque shows and by the be­hav­ior the tour elicited from those in­volved (“ev­ery­body was so in­sane, I mean in­sane”). De­spite her mis­giv­ings, and her acute dis­like of the reign­ing queen of the troupe, Joan Baez, she was not pre­pared to miss out as she had at Wood­stock. “Coy­ote” is “al­legedly,” as her web­site puts it, about Sam Shep­ard, who was along to work on the script of the film Re­naldo and Clara (which Dy­lan would re­lease, to lit­tle ac­claim, a few years later). Ru­mors that she and Shep­ard had hooked up were soon swirling through the tour buses, de­spite his pre­ex­ist­ing com­mit­ments—or as “Coy­ote” puts it, “Now he’s got a woman at home/He’s got an­other woman down the hall/He seems to want me any­way.” Shep­ard, for his part, saluted in his Rolling Thunder Log­book the “un­canny” na­ture of Mitchell’s “word ma­neu­ver­ings,” cit­ing a line from “Don’t In­ter­rupt the Sor­row”: “I’ve got a head full of quandary/ And a mighty mighty thirst.”

Ea­ger not to be con­sid­ered a pu­ri­tan­i­cal, drug-averse party-pooper like Baez and keen to get with the spirit of the tour, Mitchell asked to be paid in co­caine for her ap­pear­ances. Some lines from “Coy­ote” mem­o­rably cap­ture the pre­vail­ing Geist of life on the road with Cap’n Bob:

And peek­ing thru key­holes in num­bered doors

Where the play­ers lick their wounds

And take their tem­po­rary lovers And their pills and pow­ders to get them thru this pas­sion play

“Coy­ote” also ini­ti­ates Mitchell’s pre­sen­ta­tion of her­self as a rest­less seek­ing wan­derer on He­jira as a whole—the al­bum’s ti­tle, mean­ing “jour­ney or flight,” al­ludes to Muham­mad’s depar­ture from Mecca to Me­d­ina in the Ko­ran. The cho­rus of “Coy­ote” sub­tly il­lus­trates, how­ever, her abil­ity to ex­am­ine the myths of the road in the same spirit as Bel­low’s Hen­der­son the Rain King from both sides now: “You just picked up a hitcher/A pris­oner of the white lines on the free­way.” Does the free­way of­fer es­cape or just a dif­fer­ent kind of en­trap­ment?

Up un­til He­jira Amer­ica’s open road seemed in­vari­ably to have been the imag­i­na­tive prov­ince of men, from Walt Whit­man to Woody Guthrie, from Jack Ker­ouac’s Sal Paradise and Dean Mo­ri­arty to the foot­loose nar­ra­tor of Dy­lan’s “Tan­gled Up in Blue” (writ­ten, in­ci­den­tally, af­ter Dy­lan spent a week­end lis­ten­ing to Mitchell’s Blue). The courage re­quired to re­con­fig­ure so boldly and bril­liantly such a well-worn trope may have owed some­thing to the ef­fects of co­caine, de­scribed by Mitchell as “a war­rior’s drug,” and one which made her feel as in­de­struc­tible and ag­gres­sive as Scar­face. Yet He­jira is not an ag­gres­sive al­bum; its ex­plo­ration of the “strange pil­lows of [her] wan­der­lust,” of the “refuge of the roads,” is at once ex­act­ing and beau­ti­ful, as haunt­ing and frag­ile as the va­por trails she ob­serves while driv­ing across the burn­ing desert in “Amelia,” and com­pares to both the hex­a­gram of the heav­ens and the strings of her gui­tar.

Mitchell’s

“head full of quandary” and her “mighty thirst” have pro­pelled her mu­sic in all man­ner of di­rec­tions in the four decades since He­jira. She has never been afraid to ex­per­i­ment, as was per­haps most dra­mat­i­cally proved when Min­gus, her avant-garde trib­ute to the iras­ci­ble jazz bas­sist Char­lie Min­gus, was re­leased in 1979.

The al­bum had mixed re­views and un­doubt­edly alien­ated a seg­ment of Mitchell’s fan base. But her col­lab­o­ra­tions with a num­ber of other jazz mu­si­cians, such as the glo­ri­ously in­no­va­tive, if some­what un­sta­ble, Jaco Pas­to­rius, whose deep, thrum­ming bass gui­tar pro­vides an ex­quis­ite coun­ter­point to Mitchell’s voice and open tun­ings, and with the ge­nius sax­o­phon­ist Wayne Shorter (who was part of Miles Davis’s quin­tet in the 1960s, and like Pas­to­rius, a mem­ber of Weather Re­port in the 1970s), have re­sulted in wholly suc­cess­ful fu­sions of Mitchell’s words and sound with the id­ioms of post-be­bop jazz.

Al­though her lyrics are of­ten full of self-ques­tion­ing and self-crit­i­cism, her be­lief in her tal­ent and judg­ment seems never to have wa­vered. Per­haps the most strik­ing tes­ti­mony to this comes from her Rolling Thunder ri­val, Joan Baez, who in an in­ter­view with David Yaffe for his new biography ob­served: “She’s a re­ally strong woman who doesn’t give a fuck about what any­body thinks, and we all wish we could be that way, but we can’t.”

Un­doubt­edly she can be some­what can­tan­ker­ous. In Yaffe’s co­pi­ously quoted in­ter­views with Mitchell she vividly de­nounces the mu­sic in­dus­try, com­plain­ing at length of the short straw she feels it has given her in the years since her hey­day. Many times she has quit in dis­gust, only to re­turn with a new al­bum, and even­tu­ally a wholly new voice and act. In 2000 Both Sides Now ap­peared, and two years later Trav­el­ogue, both of which pre­sented her as a throaty torch singer backed by a full orches­tra. Whether she was cov­er­ing stan­dards such as “You’re My Thrill” or “An­swer Me, My Love” or “Stormy Weather,” or hits from her own by now vast back cat­a­log, the re­sults were of­ten spine-tin­gling. Her in­de­pen­dence and au­dac­ity were also strongly in ev­i­dence in her adap­ta­tion for Night Ride Home (1991) of W. B. Yeats’s poem “The Sec­ond Com­ing,” reti­tled “Slouch­ing To­wards Beth­le­hem” and in­clud­ing many ex­tra lines penned by Mitchell her­self, while her last stu­dio al­bum, Shine (2007), closes with a re­work­ing of Rud­yard Ki­pling’s “If.” Clearly she couldn’t sing Ki­pling’s orig­i­nal con­clu­sion (“And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”); in­stead Mitchell’s oeu­vre to date ends with lines twinning the pug­na­cious and the vi­sion­ary: “Cause you’ve got the fight/You’ve got the in­sight/You’ve got the fight/You’ve got the in­sight.”

Yaffe con­ducted two sets of in­ter­views with Mitchell: one in 2007 for a pro­file in The New York Times (which she hated), and the sec­ond eight years later (by which time she’d for­given him). These form the core of his con­tri­bu­tion to Mitchell stud­ies, for as a biography Reck­less Daugh­ter is def­i­nitely not to be pre­ferred to Karen O’Brien’s much bet­ter writ­ten Shad­ows and Light: Joni Mitchell (2001). Still, the ex­cerpts from his ex­ten­sive in­ter­views are re­veal­ing in a range of ways: there is much set­tling of old scores—with Dy­lan, for in­stance, who fell asleep when Mitchell first played him Court and Spark back in 1974, get­ting ac­cused by her of pla­gia­rism. Ex-lovers and ex-hus­bands also have their cards harshly marked. But why, I found my­self won­der­ing, should one ex­pect Mitchell, alone on her pedestal as the grande dame of North Amer­i­can singer-song­writ­ers, to have mel­lowed? For how could she have achieved what she did had she not both trusted her in­sights and been full of fight?

Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen at the New­port Folk Fes­ti­val, July 1967

Joni Mitchell, New York City, Novem­ber 1968

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