I have very close friends, whose opinions I value, on both sides of the Joni divide. Fifty years ago I had a girlfriend who loved Mitchell and I heard a lot of her early albums which I found charming without them necessarily making much impact on me, and if that sounds condescending, it’s probably not an accident.
About six months after we broke up, BLUE was released and, somewhat to my surprise, I bought it the week it came out, maybe out of some nostalgia for the bygone relationship. I was stunned. BLUE wasn’t charming. It was a hurled gauntlet, the apex of what was going on at that moment in pop music: Mitchell was no longer the beflowered folkie of the other albums but had invented a music that was entirely her own, naked & devastating & incisive & beautiful & often tough on nobody so much as herself.
The strange thing is that, at the time, people didn’t say about BLUE what they say now. It was well reviewed but existed very much in the shadow of the other female singer-songwriter album of the day, Carole King’s TAPESTRY, which was a monster, arguably the biggest album since SGT PEPPER; Mitchell’s breakthrough didn’t come till two years later with COURT AND SPARK.
So the decades passed and just as I was beginning to assume I had heard something in BLUE that wasn’t there, its reputation began exploding to the dimensions of its current exaltation. Whether it’s one of the half-dozen greatest albums of all time — even among women’s albums I probably still give the edge to Patti Smith’s first one — it remains Mitchell’s one flat-out incontestable masterpiece among a couple other excellent albums like HEJIRA, some very good ones like FOR THE ROSES, and of course great songs sprinkled throughout from “Both Sides Now” to “Free Man in Paris” to “Amelia.”
Also along the way, Joni became a crank. I think her comments about Leonard Cohen, a former lover of hers, are especially regrettable in that Cohen spent a lifetime barely achieving in his last years just some of the stardom that came to Mitchell early. It’s all particularly unfortunate now when she's getting her due, because she’s made it difficult for some to extend to her the graciousness that she withholds from contemporaries.
But it bears pointing out that Bob is a crank too, and Neil, and Keith is a crank who’s put down everyone from Macca to Bowie to Prince to Bruce — all of which we seem to have decided just makes the old rock n roll reprobate that much more lovable — and Van Morrison's crank-quotient is so toxic he's on his way to becoming the Ezra Pound of pop.
Lou Reed was as cranky as they come and most of us would have been pretty thrilled (if slightly disconcerted) to see him get a Kennedy Honor. Crank tho she may be, Mitchell deserves this as much as anybody alive, for BLUE alone if she never had done anything else. It might even mellow her a bit, tho I wouldn’t count on it.
I first heard BLUE at the home of a Scottish guitarist in London.
I’d seen Joni Mitchell play in New York at The Fillmore East, and I’d already heard some of the songs from BLUE in markedly different versions. Live, “Little Green” had been the standout, that and “River,” and I hadn’t noticed how great “A Case of You”was till I heard the album.
“Wow,”was all I could say.
And then I said it again.
“You like that?”the guitarist asked in disbelief.
“Really? You like that?”
He looked at me closely, and I wondered what he was thinking.
If we’d been in a moving vehicle, seemed like he might have opened the door and pushed me out. “She must be a stone cold bitch,” he said. “What a put down! You think that’s even semi cool?”
“That’s not a put down,”I protested. I wan’t used to contradicting him. I was the kid. I got to tag along. He wasn’t used to my having my own opinions, and he looked puzzled, as if a pot of tea had just asked what time it was.
“That’s not a put down. It’s a declaration of strength. I could drink a case of you. Whatever you’ve got, I can take it. Try me. I’ll still be standing.”
He considered that for a moment. Then shook his head.
“Nah. That’s a put down. That’s all it is.”
He lowered his voice like he was letting me in on a secret.
“And you know every time her voice swoops like that, whoooooooo, every time she does that, five hundred erections die. They just die, man. And some of them may never come back!”
Susan's coda: "Good riddance."
Steve Erickson is the author of ten novels and a Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Riverside. He also writes about media and the arts for Los Angeles magazine. Brian Cullman and Susan Zakin are editors of this magazine.
Brian's Joni Mitchell Playlist
Tin Angel ::: Joni Mitchell
A Case of You ::: Joni Mitchell
Cold Blue Steel & Fire (live in London) ::: Joni Mitchell
Amelia ::: Joni Mitchell
Come In From The Cold ::: Joni Mitchell
Man From Mars ::: Joni Mitchell
Stay In Touch ::: Joni Mitchell
The Magdalene Laundries (live in Toronto) :::: Joni Mitchell
"Trouble Is Still Her Muse." NPR story on her 75th
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