Saturday, November 9, 2013

Method Acting: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period

Joni Mitchell is fond of describing songwriting and performing in theatrical terms. “Ella Fitzgerald was mostly just a singer; Billie Holiday was more than a singer; Frank Sinatra was more than a singer,” she told Michelle Mercer, author of Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period. “There were a lot that were Method actor singers. Etta James, you can’t beat her read on ‘At Last.’” Will You Take Me As I Am, which was released in paperback last year, looks at the series of magnificent albums Joni Mitchell made between 1971 and 1976 – Blue, For the Roses, Court and Spark, Miles of Aisles, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and Hejira, all of them masterpieces in the American popular music canon. The “Blue Period,” as Mercer calls it, brought a new subjectivity to pop music, all in the spirit of avant-garde experimentation that blended the musical, the literary and the visual. (The name “Blue Period” conjures up the synesthesia of the nineteenth century French poets, composers and artists like Mallarmé, Debussy and Bonnard.)

For an artist who started out in folk era, Mitchell so far surpassed the emotional complexity you heard in Judy Collins or Joan Baez, whom she says she began her career by imitating. It’s that complexity – that quality her songs have of being Method performances in miniature – that puts her work during the Blue Period in league with the best albums of the seventies by female singer-songwriters: the sweet, stoned delirium of Laura Nyro’s soul music on Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, the irresistible plainspoken candor of Carole King’s Tapestry, Joan Armatrading’s tough vulnerability on Show Some Emotion. She’s not showy: her technique is so fine that, like Brando’s in his best performances, it’s invisible. She enters into her songs the way an actor can slip inside a role, and she sings as though she’s under its spell. Her Blue Period created something like psychological realism for the popular song.

Will You Take Me As I Am gestures towards this aspect of the work, but it doesn’t do much more than gesture. It’s about the tense relationship between autobiography and art – Mercer takes up one of Mitchell’s hobbyhorses, the misleading notion that a singer-songwriter is a “confessional” artist. The ample direct quotes from her interviews with Joni Mitchell are a high point of the book, but ultimately they don’t do Mercer any favors. Mercer is critical – perhaps even a little disdainful – of the naïve interpretation of Mitchell’s music as pure, undiluted autobiography, so it’s ironic that she constantly defers to the autobiographical narrative Mitchell presented in the interviews Mercer used for the book, adopting the artist’s perspective on how her career has been played out, and giving it pride of place in her analysis of the music. The real subject of Will You Take Me As I Am is not Joni Mitchell’s music or her artistry or even her life, but her ambivalence about all three. The author commits the cardinal sin of biographical writing: she adopts the perspective of her subject. The book is not a study so much as a soapbox for Joni Mitchell’s grievances.

It’s also badly written. Mercer talks around the music with mind-boggling circumlocutions and generalizations, and when she makes a critical claim it’s not fleshed out or explored. She hews too close to Mitchell’s bitterness about the way her career has played out – her resentment at being forced to play the ingénue role over and over, her distaste for the term “autobiographical songwriting” – to get any perspective. You can’t do much with all that resentment in the first place. But you can look at the work itself, which deconstructs the very idea of the autobiographical song in the way perhaps a painter best can – like modern portraits, the songs are not likenesses but evocations of emotion and experience. Will You Take Me As I Am is a shallow, incompetent book with a great premise: that Mitchell’s Blue Period was a moment of extraordinary experimentation akin to the Parisian bohemians of late nineteenth century Paris or the American confessional poets of the fifties and sixties, in which the audience and the artist were so in step they seemed to live through each other, for better or for worse.

When Joni Mitchell released Song to a Seagull, her debut record, in 1968, she revealed a captivating musical intelligence – luminous and sensitive, with the finely strung sensibility of a poet. Although it was her following two albums, Clouds and Ladies of the Canyon, with hits like “Both Sides, Now,” “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Woodstock,” that made her a star of the folk music scene, Song to a Seagull is the true forerunner to her Blue Period. Like a classical song cycle, it wove together words and music in a daring self-portrait. It opened with “I Had A King,” about the end of her marriage to Chuck Mitchell – her “king in a tenement castle” – and chronicled her flight from the city to the seashore like the ethereal lady of a Tennyson poem cut loose from her tower. The album was a declaration of independence from an artist too restless to be bound by love but unable to resist the freedom falling in love can offer. Mitchell expressed herself through a painter’s eye for color combined with a musician’s ear for language. With lyrics like “Peridots and periwinkle/ Blue medallions/ Gilded galleons spilled across the ocean floor,” the songs were fresh and full of wonder, the words themselves like treasures found splashed out across the shore in the sunlight and the spray.

Mitchell’s voice felt both fully formed and haunted by an inchoate sense of something these intricate folk songs couldn’t yet express. “My dreams with the seagulls fly/ Out of reach, out of cry,” she sang on the title track. She soars high above the rest of us, circling and circling, seeing herself, as she does on “Cactus Tree” (the only number she would reprise on her 1974 concert album Miles of Aisles), refracted through the minds of all the men who loved her and endlessly escaping them. By Hejira, in 1977, the dreamy image of the white bird had transformed. On “Black Crow,” the sang of the shameless sensuality and menace of the crow flying “ragged tree to tree/ he’s black as the highway that’s leading me.” At the height of her creative powers, there were no traces left of that remote, oracular voice or its poetic seagulls that never touched the sand. Now her songs were possessed by the dark glint of romanticism – the innocence and experience of William Blake, the electric sensuality of Baudelaire in Les Fleurs du Mal. “A search for love and music my whole life has been,” Mitchell sang, “illumination, corruption, and diving, diving, diving, diving/ Diving down to pick up on every shiny thing.” The artist had become the hungry black crow, plunging greedily to earth.

How did Joni Mitchell get from her airy seagull to the ragged black crow? “The music I was making was very different from the music I loved,” Mitchell told Michelle Mercer of her first three records. Blue, recorded in 1971, changed everything. The title of the album reflected the jazz of Miles Davis (Kind of Blue) and the impressionists like Claude Debussy who wanted to paint color with sound (La Mer). Avant-garde and deeply affecting, Blue is neither Mitchell’s most polished album nor her best. It’s transitional, vaulting the divide between the restraint and romantic glow of her folk albums and the reeling synthetic experimentation of later records like Court and Spark and The Hissing of Summer Lawns. The best tracks on Blue are the ones that catapult her forward musically and boldly declare a new experiential depth: “All I Want” and “Carey,” with their buoyancy and bracing irony about love and restlessness, or “A Case of You” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” songs in which the intoxication of romantic illusions begins to sour. And then there’s the title track, with the gliding melismas of Mitchell’s mellowed soprano and the rivulets of the piano in the opening bars like waves pulling against the flow of the melody. These numbers – utterly original – are mixed in with songs that repeat her earlier work, like “Little Green,” “California” and “My Old Man,” with their neatly garlanded imagery and fresh-faced innocence. On “Blue,” Mitchell sings that “I’ve been to sea before/ Crown and anchor me/ And let me sail away.” Blue may still be anchored to the folk era that crowned Joni Mitchell its queen, but as a whole the music so far surpasses anything she had achieved before – the sublimity of the album is in the way it drifts. Mitchell is “traveling, traveling, traveling,” she sings on the opening track, “looking for something, what can it be?”

Blue made Joni Mitchell a legend, but the album she released the following year, the oft-neglected For the Roses, was stronger and more coherent musically. It was her first record working with producer David Geffen at Asylum, a label that, as its name implied, promised its musical artists freedom from the usual commercial restraints. At the same time, Mitchell was forging her own asylum from the pressures and anxieties of the music industry on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast. With Mitchell’s warm, rolling piano chords filling out each track, the songs on For the Roses were richer and more instrumentally complex than anything she had written before. It was as though the instrumentation defined a landscape that her voice could wander through, a natural sanctuary inspired by her new surroundings. Dipping into her alto range, her voice sounded earthier, too, feeling its way through new character roles in songs that were more like dramatic monologues than lyric poems. “Let the Wind Carry Me” seemed to be composed and sung from deep beneath the skin of a teenage girl yearning to escape her family into the world of rock and roll. “The Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig’s Tune)” was a portrait of Beethoven, the man who composed symphonies he would never hear. Here he becomes Mitchell’s spiritual twin. “So you get to keep the pictures,” she comments to him, “That don’t seem like much.” It was a note to the painter of pictures herself, at a time when the rigors of performing had run her so ragged she was perhaps at times on the verge of giving up music altogether. “You’re too raw,” she wrote to Ludwig – to herself – “they think you’re too raw.” In “A Case of You,” Mitchell had described herself as a lonely painter who lives in a box of paints. But it was on For the Roses, the album she wrote in monastic retreat, that she conceived her most powerful anthem to the pursuit of musical expression: “In silence/ In a bell jar/ Still a song.”

Two years later, in 1974, the final chords of “The Judgement of the Moon and Stars” were still ringing on the opening and title track of Court and Spark. Only now we were as far from the silent woods as could be – backed by The L.A. Express, who accompanied her on tour that year where they recorded the live album Miles of Aisles, Court and Spark burst with the energy of the city. Its songs took place in Berkeley (“Court and Spark”) and Paris (“Free Man in Paris”); they were about one-night stands (“Down to You”), whores and thieves (“Raised on Robbery”), and hip Los Angeles parties (“People’s Parties”). Taking off from jazz riffs, the crooked stitching of the lyrics detailed emotional insecurity:
I feel like I’m sleeping
Can you wake me?
You seem to have a broader sensibility
I’m just living on nerves and feelings
With a weak and a lazy mind
And coming to people’s parties
Fumbling deaf dumb and blind
But Mitchell wasn’t asking for pity. These were the finely strung nerves of a grown woman set against the muscle of a full jazz band; the music was lush and playful and declarative. The virile strains of Tom Scott’s saxaphone weren’t offsetting the vulnerability of the lyrics; they were expressing it. That vulnerability was the very grain of the songs’ libido. It was desire itself. As though in answer to Blue and its pastoral romantic illusions, Court and Spark was about falling in love when there’s no innocence left to be lost – just naked emotion, with all its shimmering distortions.

The following year, The Hissing of Summer Lawns took Mitchell’s fusion experiments in jazz and rock and roll even further. She built up pulsating, percussive tracks – “The Jungle Line” sampled a field recording of the Drummers of Burundi overdubbed with Moog synthesizer and guitar, while “The Boho Dance” opened with the lush piano chords familiar from Court and Spark and then layered on a full jazz ensemble, the horns and reeds bursting with enticing new colors. The Hissing of Summer Lawns is fascinating and energetic, but her greatest album is the one that follows, where she seems to strip down to the essence of these new musical ideas. On Hejira, Mitchell took the experience of being on the road and enlarged it for existential meanings. (The title has a double resonance of pilgrimage and exile.) She was “a prisoner of the white lines on the freeway,” she sang on the opening track, but Mitchell had found refuge in the roads. She didn’t seem to be moving forwards, only moving through, and the songs opened up like an exhalation. On tracks like “Hejira” and “The Refuge of the Roads,” Mitchell worked her acoustic slide guitar like a loom, the notes darkly gleaming in abstract design. “All entities move and nothing remains still,” the ancient philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “you cannot step twice into the same stream.” All the roads on Hejira were Heraclitean streams, and Mitchell drank deeply.

Jazz had brought Mitchell new freedom and sophistication as a vocalist, and while the variety of sounds and stories on The Hissing of Summer Lawns allowed her to develop new roles for each track, Hejira seemed to figure a single character. “No regrets, coyote,” she addressed a philandering lover on the opening track, like one of the women of thirties or forties comedy who are always leaving their men in the dust with the lightest touch of their ironic wit. (Imagine Bette Davis reading the line.) On Hejira Mitchell was the hunter, not the hunted, and she stalked love and music with a matured sensual delight. “Pawnshops glitter like gold tooth caps,” she wrote on a song for the country blues legend Furry Lewis, “In the gray decay/ They chew the last few dollars off of Beale Street’s carcass/ Carrion and mercy.” For Mitchell in her prime, even birds of prey could possess a sort of grace.

Thursday was Joni Mitchell’s seventieth birthday, and today like Old Furry her reputation for intransigence precedes her. (“He points a bony finger at you and says, ‘I don’t like you,’” she wrote of him with wry admiration. “Everybody laughs as if it’s the old man’s standard joke/ But it’s true/ We’re only welcome for our drink and smoke.”) In interviews she is often embattled and ornery – in her June interview with Jian Ghomeshi on the occasion of her birthday concert at Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto, he asked her what she likes least about her career in music and she answered, pointedly and without apology, “this.” Michelle Mercer, who she seems to have warmed up to considerably over the course of Mercer’s interviews for Will You Take Me As I Am, provides a more robust view of Mitchell’s temperament. But she gives the impression of having ingratiated herself to the artist by assuring her that she prefers Mitchell’s more recent work to schoolgirl albums like Blue – and so she trades on her readers by telling us that, like Joni, she is so very far beyond the music she is writing about. The fanatic attraction of listeners to albums like Blue was often the fantasy that here was an artist who could soothe the pain of their own vulnerability. But Mitchell was never out to make anyone feel better. It’s curious that, more than 40 years after Blue, those who interview Joni now fantasize they can make her feel better. (“You’re so hard on yourself,” Ghomeshi told her sympathetically.) Whether genuflecting to Joni Mitchell as a sun-bleached goddess of the folk movement or condescending to her in her old age, critics and fans have often insisted on putting her before her music. And when they do, Mitchell continues to remind anyone who’s listening that the only artist available for comment already speaks through the music.

– Amanda Shubert is a PhD student in English at the University of Chicago. Previously, she held a curatorial fellowship at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, working with their collection of prints, drawings and photographs. She is a founding editor of the literary journal Full Stop.

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