Coming In From the Cold: Joni Mitchell and Me

Joni Mitchell in 1974

“Back in 1957, we had to dance a foot apart….”

-Come In From the Cold

Joni Mitchell entered my life in 1967 when one of my intellectual friends told me about her first album, Song to a Seagull, which had just come out. At the time, in the public high school we attended in a suburb of Pittsburgh, students were “tracked,” grouped together in tight cadres according to their perceived academic abilities, so all we budding intellectuals knew each other well, and even mingled socially, bonding together in a kind of nonstop floating adolescent book club during our last year before we dispersed to college.

We all loved rock n roll, of course, but we also knew, with the insufferable prescience of youth, that it was just for kids, and that we young adults (as we were persistently labelled by real adults) should aspire to higher forms of entertainment. We dutifully listened to a lot of folk music – Tom Paxton and Eric Andersen and of course Joan Baez – but we also doted on Dylan and the Byrds and the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, and there were rumors about this guy named Leonard Cohen.

And then there was Joni. She shared with the other folk divas of the time – primarily the other Joans, Baez and Collins – a heartbreaking natural beauty and a startling soprano, though Joni’s voice had a range and crystalline purity that not even Baez could match. But what really set her apart was that she wasn’t trying to reproduce the musty folk canon like Baez or cover other singers’ contemporary compositions like Collins; Joni wrote her own songs, and played her oddly-tuned guitar (I was studying guitar, and hers were not normal guitar chords) all by herself.

And what songs. We were all readers, we young intellectuals, and Joni paid us the great empathic courtesy of printing out all her lyrics on the inside of her album covers, which always opened up like actual albums and which always featured her own artwork. So we could read her words as we listened to them, and look at her painting, and internalize what she was saying in much more personal way than just listening would have allowed. To be a certain kind of aspirationally needy and romantic teenager in 1967 and to hear the opening lines of “Cactus Tree” sung in that soaring soprano to a rolling, gently propulsive acoustic solo guitar was to be, quite simply, in love with the woman who sang and played it, and to desperately want to know her better:

There’s a man who’s been out sailing
In a decade full of dreams
And he takes her to his schooner
And he treats her like a queen
Bearing beads from California
With their amber stones and green
He has called her from the harbor
He has kissed her with his freedom
He has heard her off to starboard
In the breaking and the breathing
Of the water weeds
While she’s so busy being free

The fan’s illusion that we have a uniquely personal understanding of a favorite artist is common enough, but Joni Mitchell’s deeply, often startlingly intimate songs so powerfully promote that illusion that after decades of absorbing her quietly astonishing output, she inhabits a mental space more like a blood relative or an ex-lover than a public personality.

It’s a good thing, then, that David Yaffe’s engrossing and meticulously detailed biography of Mitchell, Reckless Daughter, sheds some objectivity on a figure about whom most of us who’ve followed her long career can muster nothing but awed adoration.

Joni Mitchell makes a joke of the old conundrum about judging art in isolation from the artist’s life; in her work, the two are one and the same. Yaffe, a professor at Syracuse, styles his study of Mitchell as a “portrait” so as to escape some of the strictures of formal biography and to allow himself the sometimes overly-involved stance of a fan, but he doesn’t shy from some unpleasantries: Mitchell could be a condescending bitch in the studio, was high on cocaine for most of the Seventies, has a selective and relentlessly self-serving memory about the businessmen and musicians who abetted her early career, and indulged an almost compulsive promiscuity (albeit of a very high order, involving seemingly most of the pantheon of the day’s folk-rock gods –Crosby, Nash, Cohen, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and on and on) that by today’s standards might seem borderline pathological. We’re also reminded, as any true fan has long known, that she gave up her only child, a girl, for adoption when she, then Joan Anderson, became married to another folkie, Chuck Mitchell, and couldn’t quite figure out how to combine motherhood with trying to make it as a club musician. We have her remarkable body of work as a result of that harrowing trade-off, but it’s a choice that speaks more of hard-nosed ambition than the profound sensitivity we hear in her music.

But it was the Sixties, and she was mixing it up with other gifted musicians on the rise at a cultural moment when the singer-songwriter was becoming the next big thing in pop music. Me, I was working summers as a janitor cleaning the high school I’d graduated from the year before and getting through the day by singing “Marcy,” from Song to a Seagull, to myself:

And summer goes
Falls to the sidewalk like string and brown paper
Winter blows
Up from the river
There’s no one to take her
To the sea

I defy anyone, all these decades later, to listen to the notes to which those words were sung, and trace them on a piano, and not be taken by their intricacy, the nuance with which each note fits like a key into the lock of each syllable (“up from the river,” a perfect little staircase of flats and sharps), ending with the long quaver of the final word, dipping in and out of the minor like a ripple in a tidepool. I laboriously transposed Joni’s impossible tunings into chords I could play, and learned the song, and played it in the coffee shop on my college campus for anyone who would listen.

I realize as I write this that I remember that summer janitor job, and a hundred other moments of my life, because I remember a Joni Mitchell song. I don’t remember the songs because I recall what I was doing when I heard them; the song is the bearer of the memory, not the other way around. The memory is built out of the song. I suppose aboriginals around their fires sang to fix memory of important rituals, and we may be better rememberers today because we’ve grown up suffused with music.

The permanence and completeness of my recall of Mitchell’s early songs startled me as I began to read Yaffe’s book; after all those decades of waiting silently amongst the synapses, they began spooling out of my head unbidden, invading my sleep; I’d wake up with one of them coming out of my mouth. Loving them though I do, I’m writing this in part to try to make them stop.

By the time her best-known and, for many, most cherished album, Blue, was released in 1971, I was a tired, anxious, overworked law student living a pauper’s life in New York City who was in the process of breaking up with his college girlfriend and went home on vacations to civilization in Ohio to hang out in the beautiful home of older friends; and that album, played in the quiet of their living room on the edge of the woods, delivered me back to a part of life, and the possibility of art, and the possibility of love, that I had felt slipping away and feared might never return. And there’s nothing remotely special in this, for there are thousands of people alive today for whom this or that Joni Mitchell song, or this or that album of hers, was not just a lovely, clever piece of music, but an anchor to what we valued most in ourselves, and proof of it:

Oh I am a lonely painter
I live in a box of paints
I’m frightened by the devil
And I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid
And I remember that time you told me
Love is touching souls
Well surely you touched mine
‘Cause part of you pours out of me
In these lines from time to time
Oh, you’re in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet
Oh I could drink a case of you, darling
And I would still be on my feet
I would still be on my feet

I learned from Yaffe’s book that “A Case of You,” as gently rhythmic and deceptively simple as a lullaby, accompanied by Joni on her dulcimer, was written about her relationship with Leonard Cohen, but of course I didn’t know that then, and could not have cared less. Like all great music, it touches what matters most in each of us in the moment of first hearing, for me an unresolvable love cherished and sparingly imbibed like holy wine, and the wish to remain, at least in some small way, an artist, a painter safe inside a box of paints. I learned to play the song just as I had learned to play “Marcy” a few years earlier, and switched the pronouns to make it work for a man, and sang it to the woman who was in my blood at the time.

Joni Mitchell’s songs, particularly the earlier ones, are persistently, relentlessly, almost exhaustively about love, and losing love, and wishing for love, and remembering what it’s like to be in love. That’s part of her appeal, because we’ve all been in love and hurt by it, but her endless obsession with men and her tendency to define herself in relation to men also calls into question her credentials as a feminist (which she probably wouldn’t claim anyway), and may account for what I’ve always felt was a strain of distrust about Joni Mitchell on the part of the women in my life.

Yaffe’s account of her endless affairs and hair-trigger infatuations confirms that she’s a man’s woman who always preferred the company of men. Her relationships with her female performer contemporaries were prickly at best. And while a large percentage of her fans must be women, I’ve never known a woman who was as enthusiastic about her as I was. This may simply say something about the competitive female spirit, as Mitchell in her prime was not only stunningly pretty and preposterously talented, but clearly had no qualms about sleeping with other women’s men. She was like that cheerleader in high school that all the teachers loved because she was so smart and all the guys liked because she was so pretty, but all the girls hated because they knew she was a slut. Even worse, she keeps no secrets about herself or anyone else; to a woman, she’s much more likely to be a betrayer than a friend.

I also think that a lot of women are put off by Mitchell’s music because it so vividly communicates female vulnerability – to love, to men, to the emotional dangers of being a woman in the world. Her songs are a string of painful reminders of what can happen when a woman lets her guard down:

I am a woman of heart and mind
With time on her hands
No child to raise
You come to me like a little boy
And I give you my scorn and my praise
You think I’m like your mother
Or another lover or your sister
Or the queen of your dreams
Or just another silly girl
When love makes a fool of me

To a young man who thought himself a writer, the language of her lyrics was a revelation. That you could say these things in a pop song, and say them so uncompromisingly, with no concession to the conventions of traditional pop vocabulary, seemed and seems hugely courageous. Sometimes her verses are so erudite they’re almost comical, like someone practicing vocabulary for her SAT:

Is this just vulgar electricity
Is this the edifying fire
Does your smile’s covert complicity
Debase as it admires

But then, sensing she’s gone nerdy, she brings things down to earth:

Are you just checking out your mojo
Am I just fighting off growing old
All I ever wanted
Was just to come in from the cold

Mitchell’s other great love and talent was for painting, as most of her album covers attest. (I still have all these albums, all the vinyl LPs in their paper sleeves, pristine, waiting to be played again the way they play in my head.) Her second album, Clouds, which included perhaps her best-known song, “Both Sides, Now” (the comma does appear in the liner notes), came adorned with one of her most accomplished and startlingly frank self-portraits, her widely-spaced blue eyes seeming to peer right through the viewer and into the distance behind us. Her lyrics, when not channeling a state of mind, are photographically visual, as in “Amelia,” from the album that ranks as my personal favorite, Hejira:

I was traveling across the burning desert
When I spotted six jet planes
Leaving six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain
It was the hexagram of the heavens
It was the strings of my guitar
Amelia, it was just a false alarm

Or this, from the album’s title song:

White flags of winter chimneys
Waving truce against the moon
In the mirrors of a modern bank
From the window of my hotel room

On the cover of Hejira, released in 1976, when I was newly married with a baby daughter of my own, working in a law firm and not going much of anywhere, Mitchell is stunning in a black beret and fur cape, her Scandinavian face made up like a model, frank, quizzical, her perfectly manicured fingers holding a cigarette (how could she play guitar with nails like that?), an icy Wisconsin lake scene in the background and a photo of a highway superimposed on her torso, making her a gateway to elsewhere. I learned from Yaffe’s book that the songs on this album were written during a road trip Mitchell took from Maine to California the year before.

Travel, escape, flying, “running to lose the blues to the emptiness in here,” as another song has it; the beckoning, forgiving road is the theme of Hejira, and of much of Mitchell’s music. One of her earliest compositions, covered by a number of less famous folksingers but never included in any of her own albums, was called “Urge for Going,” and Hejira runs several variations on the theme of escape, ending with “Refuge of the Roads,” Mitchell’s anthem to the freedom of continual departure, which itself ends with one of those sudden God’s-eye-view re-framings that ambush you just when you think you know where the song is going:

In a highway service station
Over the month of June
Was a photograph of the earth
Taken coming back from the moon
And you couldn’t see a city
On that marbled bowling ball
Or a forest or a highway
Or me here least of all
You couldn’t see these coldwater restrooms
Or this baggage overload
Westbound and rolling
Taking refuge in the roads

She is a poet, of course, but the poetry of Hejira and its attendant philosophical stance is always in the service of self-revelation:

I’m porous with travel fever
But you know I’m so glad to be on my own
Still sometimes the slightest touch of a stranger
Can set up trembling in my bones
I know – no one’s going to show me everything
We all come and go unknown
Each so deep and superficial
Between the forceps and the stone

There were a couple of later Joni Mitchell albums that riveted me like this one, but I was working hard and travelling a lot myself by this point and hadn’t the time to sit and read along with each word as she sang it, as I had back in those high school days. Over the decades her lyrics grew more strident and her melodies less delicate, the vinyl albums shrank into CDs, and I lost track of which affair she was having with which member of which of her latest backup bands (usually the bassist, like the phenomenal Jaco Pastorius or the merely serviceable Larry Klein, whom she later married). She got heavily into jazz, did an album with the dying Charlie Mingus that I bought in tribute and never listened to. I thought The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1977), much as I loved the title, was eminently forgettable.

She also became a bit of a cliché, the ultimate effete intellectual songwriter in an era gone to disco glitz and punk. Even her name, perfect for a folksinger, sounded frivolous in the age of grunge. She tried to keep up, adding percussion and synth to her tracks, but the words were always there, reminding us that we were dealing with an imperially smart woman who fundamentally hated the business she was in and the compromises she was making to stay in it. The “woman of heart and mind” from For the Roses began to show less heart and a lot more mind. You’d bring her up in conversation and people would roll their eyes.

But there was one later album that grabbed me by the throat the way the early ones had, and that was Night Ride Home, released in 1991, which for my money, song-for-song, is one of her very best. There are a couple of her angry screeds in there, but even those are set to sweet, catchy melodies. It includes, for all us English majors, a beautiful transliteration of W.B. Yeats’ “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” and the eminently listenable, gently rocking, wistfully confessional “Come in From the Cold.”

The song runs some seven and a half minutes, and like many of Mitchell’s songs, has no chorus and no bridge. It contains the aforementioned hyper-literate (and to me unforgettable) lines about a smile’s covert complicity debasing as it admires, about checking out one’s mojo and fighting off growing old (Mitchell was 48 at the time), and what must be one of the prettiest descriptions of lust ever written:

I feel your legs under the table
Leaning into mine
I feel renewed
I feel disabled
By these bonfires in my spine
I don’t know who the arsonist was
Which incendiary soul
But all I ever wanted
Was just to come in from the cold

I could go on, and I wish that she had.

Joni Mitchell is in severe physical decline these days, as though her immense gifts and all that wild living in her youth really was just the front end of the devil’s bargain she sang about in “Woodstock,” and now he’s come round to collect. A lifelong chain smoker, she had a brain aneurism in 2015 and suffers from Morgellon’s syndrome, an arguably psychosomatic condition whose primary symptom, perversely appropriate to the hyper-sensitive Mitchell, is the sensation of parasites crawling on one’s skin. She’s withdrawn completely from performing, but briefly appeared at a pre-Grammy gala in L.A. earlier this year. She’s now 74, and she’s still my hero.

But before the curtain came down on her voice and our love affair with it, she recorded in the year 2000 her seventeenth studio album, a compilation of vocal jazz standards set to orchestral arrangements titled Both Sides Now (the comma having been jettisoned). Included amongst such classics as “You’ve Changed” and “Stormy Weather” are two of her own compositions, a lush, sweeping, torch song version of “A Case of You” featuring an intro that sounds sampled from Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings; and, inevitably, a deeply meditative rendition of “Both Sides, Now,” its fugitive comma restored.

Listen to it. It opens with a mélange of gently dissonant strings, then moves into those first few lines about angel hair and ice cream castles with the somber, ironic cadence of a dirge. The crystalline soprano, ravaged by decades of smoking, is long gone, replaced by a resonant contralto. The little girl from Saskatchewan, all her dreams broken or vastly surpassed. The strings meander uncertainly behind her until she brings them back – it’s a remarkable arrangement by the brilliant Vince Mendoza and represents one of the only instances in her career when she gave herself fully to someone else’s interpretation of her music. Her voice lingers on the words, especially in the last line about how she really doesn’t know life at all, with all the freight of retrospect that her decades in the world, and in our lives, can carry. Yaffe recounts that the seasoned studio musicians accompanying her, members of the London Symphony Orchestra, openly wept as she sang it.

Crazy woman, reckless daughter, genius, lifelong companion. Joni Mitchell, we miss you already.

One thought on “Coming In From the Cold: Joni Mitchell and Me

  1. As a woman who has adored Joni since I first heard her in the 70s, I am surprised to see a man talk about having similar feelings. All of the many people I know who love Joni are women, and I would venture to say that none of us find her threatening in the way you suggest. I have never heard a woman say anything even remotely negative about her. I don’t think you have the experience living as a woman (do you?) to make such statements about “how women feel.” I suggest cutting that part, because otherwise, this is a terrific essay. Thank you.

    A good article just came out in the Atlantic that might interest you: “The Unknowable Joni Mitchell,” by Jack Hamilton (yes, yet another man). I’d put the URL here for you, but it would probably get my comment tagged as spam.

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