January 28, 2007 Richard Ouzounian Theatre CriticWhen Joni Mitchell is inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame tonight, they’ll be honouring her for a distinguished career that has spanned 40 years.
But without taking anything away from the rest of her work, it’s interesting to note that most of her fame rests on a handful of songs she wrote at the very beginning of her journey.
“Both Sides Now”, ’The Circle Game” and “Chelsea Morning”, to name three of the best known, all came from an intense time of creativity in the mid 1960s.
And from a biographical point of view, this burst of songwriting energy followed an astonishing two-year period in her life that featured the loss of her virginity, an unwanted pregnancy, a marriage of convenience, the giving up of her child in adoption and a divorce from the man she thought was going to save her.
Is it any wonder that a sensitive young woman with an urge to communicate her feelings in song would have so much to say?
The astonishing thing is that – as the years go by – these compositions don’t seem like mere juvenilia, but actually acquire more resonance and depth.
“We can’t return, we can only look/Behind from where we came,” is the kind of reflection that makes sense at 62. To have written it at 22 is astonishing.
“Well, something’s lost, but something’s gained/In living every day,” speaks with the wisdom of age, not the callowness of youth.
But then, Joni Mitchell always was an old soul.
Born Roberta Joan Anderson on Nov. 7, 1943 in Fort MacLeod Alberta, she moved to Saskatoon at the age of 9 and, shortly, after contracted polio, which she later said “made me grow up overnight.”
While a 20 year old student at the Alberta College of Art, she had her first affair with a fellow student and found herself expecting a child.
“To be pregnant and unmarried in 1964 was like you had killed someone,” she recalled to an interviewer years later, so she fled to Toronto, performing as a folksinger in a Yorkville club called The Penny Farthing.
She met an American musician named Chuck Mitchell who was nine years older than her. At first, he promised to care for the child as his own, but he changed his mind soon after.
Mitchell gave the baby girl up for adoption. (They were to be finally reunited in 1997.) Not that long after, the marriage to Chuck Mitchell dissolved and she fled to New York, living in one dingy room in the Chelsea district of Manhattan.
She assessed her life at the time as: “No money, no work, no child, no chance.” And out of that abyss, she began writing.
The songs came from the most unlikely places. She was riding on a plane once, reading Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King and came to a section where the title character was also in a plane, looking out at the clouds.
Mitchell looked out the window, put down her book and began to write: “Rows and flows of angel hair/And ice cream castles in the air/I’ve looked at clouds that way.”
But a pretty song about clouds is one thing. One which also says “I really don’t know life at all” is something else altogether.
All during this period, Mitchell’s life continued to fuel her art, sometimes in the least likely places. One night at a folk club in Philadelphia, she found some broken shards of coloured glass in an alley, brought them home to her one-room lodging on W. 16th street in Manhattan and, with the help of a coat hanger, turned them into a mobile.
“The sun would hit the mobile,” she remembered, “and sent these moving colors all around the room. As a young girl, I found that to be a thing of beauty.”
Out of that, of course, came Chelsea Morning, with its dream of a lover with whom she can talk “in present tenses.”
It wasn’t much later that Mitchell’s career took off, first with other people like Ian & Sylvia, Tom Rush or Judy Collins making her songs famous and then with Joni herself taking her rightful place in the foreground, where she has remained ever since.
For nearly 40 years, we’ve sung her melodies, memorized her lyrics and marveled at the knack she had of illuminating the dark corners of our souls where we thought we dwelt alone.
And she earned this power over us by being true to herself, first and foremost.
She looked in the mirror often and if she didn’t like what she saw, she recorded it with relentless candour. “I’m so hard to handle/I’m selfish and I’m sad” she confessed in her 1971 song River, but she never asked for our pity.
Love affairs blazed, then sputtered; friends nurtured, then betrayed. She roamed the globe, with her songs taking her from the canyons of Los Angeles to the beaches of Crete.
But her spiritual compass always pointed to an inner true north, strong and free, where she looked at the world with a mixture of dewy idealism and level-headed reality.
And it’s amazing to reflect that so much of what we admire about her came from a few years in her youth that seared her soul and forged her art.
“Don’t it always seem to go,” she wrote in 1970’s Big Yellow Taxi, “that you don’t know what you’ve got/Till it’s gone.”
Fortunately for all of us, Joni Mitchell knew what she had from the very start.