Every time I try to clean out my attic, I end up sitting in the dark, listening to a stack of 45s and old vinyl LPs — a musical trek from my misguided youth to my mature years. This time, I found Joni Mitchell, whose life has kept pace with mine through thick and thin for the better part of 50 years. From the time this lovely young woman did “Both Sides Now” until she cut “Sex Kills,” she has been a kind of emotional echo for many of America’s aging baby boomers.
Joni’s interviews were almost as good as her lyrics. I remember her optimism in the ‘70s when she said, “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
When the gossip magazines asked her about her nervous breakdown, she said that “depression might be the sand that makes the pearl.” Later, after therapy, a divorce and soul searching through an unproductive period, she wryly commented, “When you get rid of the demons, sometimes the angels fly away too.”
Then, Joni got angry. “Why are they cutting down all the trees?” she asked. She sang “I Wish I Had a River I Could Skate Away On.” She began to take her lyrics from the front pages of the newspaper: stories of battered wives, drugs, kids shooting kids. She cut a strange and wonderful record with Charlie Mingus that bewildered her fans. Sometimes, she talked back to the audience. When critics advised her to return to her popular, upbeat themes, she said, “I never wanted to be a human jukebox.”
In truth, she ended up being much more than an entertainer. She became a poet and social critic. I guess it cost her, but she made an album called Violent Indigo anyway. I still love “Sex Kills.”
The ulcerated ozone,
These tumors of the skin —
This hostile sun beating down on
This massive mess we’re in!
And the gas leaks
And the oil spills
And sex sells everything
And sex kills...
Oh, my! No one wants to dance to that! Joni’s not going to compromise, I guess. Let me recommend a documentary that puts it all together in a gratifying tribute that reveals both sides now. It’s called “Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind,” and it’s available on Amazon.com (to purchase) and Netflex (to rent). There are also three DVDs – each attempts to feature her awesome musical output. “Painting With Words” is a good one.
— By Gary Carden