Mitchell: ‘ Blue’ came as a shock to folk music’s system
She also “couldn’t shake her reputation as an angelic folk singer, which had plagued her ever since Rolling Stone had called her the ‘penny yellow blonde with a vanilla voice,’ ” Mercer writes.
For those and other reasons, in the spring of 1970, Mitchell left her then lover, Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills and Nash. Conflicted as to why she had to leave him — she once observed that “if any two people are meant to be together, it was them,” says Mercer — she departed for Europe and landed in the Greek hippie enclave at Matala. There, living in caves with other dropouts like “Yogi Joe” and “Proteus,” Mitchell began a journey of self-discovery that would eventually produce her finest, if most reflective, early work.
“It was a dramatic moment that infuses Blue, when she realized that she couldn’t have the traditional life with Nash,” remarks Mercer. “She knew she had to leave; she loved him but she couldn’t stay. That was the moment when ‘Joni’ became ‘Joni Mitchell,’ this woman of great self-examination.”
There were other turns in her journey, too: time spent with a Tibetan monk who Mitchell said took “away her sense of self” for days; reflections on former lovers like Leonard Cohen, whom she sang about in A Case of You, and pivotal incidents like relinquishing a baby for adoption or a conversation with folk singer Patrick Sky about her hopeless romanticism that morphed into The Last Time I Saw Richard.
“Joni has always said that her crisis in Blue was about hiding that she’d given up a daughter, but there were other existential problems. It was just easy to pin them on that one event,” Mercer argues. “Although Joni is going to hate that I say that, I think what I have to say is true.”
The album, which Mitchell maintains is intensely personal but not confessional, be- came a revelation of self-reflection, essentially goosing folk music out of its torpor. It was a shock to the system.
In fact, one night she played some songs from the recently completed album for male contemporaries, who were stunned into uncomfortable silence.
“I was amazed,” Mitchell says. “They were embarrassed for me. The feminine appetite for intimacy is stronger than it is in men. So my songwriter friends listened and they all shut down, even Neil Young. The only one who spoke up was Kris Kristofferson. ‘Jesus, Joni,’ he said. ‘Save something for yourself.’ ”
In an age of “rampant disclosure” on Oprah and acutely revealing songs from Mitchell-influenced singers like Alanis Morrisette and Tori Amos, says Mercer, such remarks are surprising today.
Yet, regardless of her colleagues’ angst-y take on the songs, Blue went on to eclipse contemporary work to become of Mitchell’s best-loved effort, and one that still bears up well.
Although the chanteuse left behind the intensely personal years ago and has moved into a restless array of styles and projects, including a ballet she’s now developing, the power of Blue lingers. Her original fans may be middleaged and beyond, but Mitchell’s melancholic ability to express love and loss as an inevitable part of the cycle of life still resonates.
“Even after all of these years,” says Mercer, “her music is aging very well with us.”