Biography climbs inside counter-culture icon Joni Mitchell


We got to know music journalist Michelle Mercer from her biography of saxophonist Wayne Shorter (Footprints: the Life and Work of Wayne Shorter), a well-crafted account of an enigmatic jazz original.

Thanks to a recommendation from Shorter, Mercer got a chance to interview the reclusive Joni Mitchell and gather the intimate and revealing quotes that enliven this fascinating deconstruction of her life and evolution in the 1960s and ’70s.

She emerged from the folk-music rooms of Yorkville in Toronto to her iconic status as a singer-songwriter, based in Laurel Canyon, L.A.’s happening music scene. She ranks with Leonard Cohen as a pioneer of the personal and quasi-confessional lyric.

Her songs Both Sides Now and Chelsea Morning helped define the period. And who can forget her famous ode to Woodstock, when this blonde ingénue sang, “We are stardust/We are golden/And we’ve got to get ourselves/Back to the garden.”

The period of peace and love was about to end, but Mitchell, in her mid-20s, was blossoming as an artist as she carved out new ground with lovely lyrical ballads based on personal experience, with whatever universal truths the listener may discern therefrom. Her high falsetto enhanced the dream-like quality to the words.

This book, published in 2009, does many things, possibly too many to add up to one coherent whole. But it works and is a fine read. It is interlaced with glimpses of Mercer’s own life growing up on a farm in the Midwest as the writer, a generation younger, personalizes the story with parallelism and contrasts.

Mitchell didn’t finish high school but was blessed with artistic talent, never learned to read music but acquired sufficient skill on the piano and guitar to make her poetic observations pleasing.

Mercer digresses with an informed discussion of the confessional style of writing, starting with St. Augustine. Mercer agrees with Mitchell that poetic license can be extended to songwriting and that poetic truth, not historical veracity, is what counts.

The book is laced with the real-life-experiences that sparked many of the songs in Mitchell’s still-wonderful Blue recording. Such songs as River, California and Carey take us back to those days of rebellion, searching, experimenting, free loving, and “travellin’, travellin’, travellin’.”

Yes, Joni had lots of boyfriends, including James Taylor, Graham Nash, Leonard Cohen and Larry Klein. She travelled to Crete and Paris and Rome. She gathered experiences and material, and slowly moved on to other musical genres, including jazz.

The book, sometimes reading like a collection of essays and possibly lacking in a central cohesiveness, takes us there, up to the mid-1970s.

We learn about Mitchell’s strengths and weaknesses, abandoning her only daughter, reuniting with her as an adult, striving to realize artistic and personal aims, even as she sought to define them.

She retreats to the rugged shores of British Columbia, emerging now and then with controversial statements—denouncing Bob Dylan as a plagiarist with a fake name and voice and slamming McGill music students’ interpretations of her music when she came to Montreal to collect an honorary degree.

Meanwhile, as rumours of a comeback tour surface, this book goes a long way toward appreciating the mind and spirit of the woman behind the music.

Will You Take Me As I Am, by Michelle Mercer, Back beat Books, ($21.96).

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