Joni Mitchell's Biography
Author David Yaffe is an unabashed Joni Mitchell fan, and his admiration oozes in nearly every paragraph of his 376-page biography, Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. As a reader who knew little about Mitchell aside from her musical output from 1970 through the early 90s, I found this book to be an enlightening read that offered a glimpse into how Mitchell developed creatively, broke down barriers, explored new terrain, and how the difficulties she experienced in her personal life fed her art. Still, at times Yaffe’s love becomes overbearing, his writing devolving into a fawning fit of approbation.
Yaffe certainly knows his subject, and the book is buoyed by direct quotes from Mitchell herself, as well as many of her ex-lovers, fellow artists and friends, not to mention concert and album reviews from publications as Mitchell’s career unfolded. Fortunately, Yaffe doesn’t gloss over Mitchell’s less admirable qualities, allowing her cantankerous personality to barge through as she blasts the likes of Thomas Dolby, Joan Baez, ex-husband Larry Klein, and even her daughter, with whom she reunited thirty-three years after placing her up for adoption. The most revealing remark in the book may be from Klein, who concludes, “I think that the seed of the angry, narcissistic element of her personality was always there, but I think that it was a gradual process of that part of her growing, and the curious and joyful part gradually receding.”
Too many biographies are too thin on the creative process and too robust on private life (Daniel Lanois’s autobiography being Exhibit A), but Yaffe may be the first author I critique whose summary of an artist’s output becomes too much at times, especially as he describes Mitchell’s career of the late 70s that delved deeper and deeper into jazz influences and esoteric lyrics. When a subject’s lyrics are obscure, more grounded prose would be helpful, but some of Yaffe’s detailed analyses of Mitchell’s lyrics are as hazy as the source. Consider the following description of the final verse of “Paprika Plains” off of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter:
“Changing weather becomes changing rhythms. Now the disco ball is shining on the dancers, illuminated by an artificial globe. It’s a continuum. She’s still as ‘wide-eyed open to it all’ as she was when she was ‘three feet tall.’ Everywhere she looks, she sees patterns and makes poetic images out of them. Like a medicine ball, the mirrored ball is moving, yet it is also a center, like coming back to middle C. That mirrored ball shines on everyone.”
This kind of writing bogs the book down.
But there are other moments when Yaffe hits the nail on the head. When describing the effect that Mitchell’s reimagining of her classic song “Both Sides Now” in 2003 had on the orchestra and conductor Vince Mendoza, Yaffe writes:
“The arranger and the musicians were losing it, but Joni was smiling. She had them exactly where she wanted them. She knew she had achieved spectacular theater just by getting older and going back to a song people thought they knew.”
Simple and straight forward, but effective.
The coolest tidbit I learned was that the line from Led Zeppelin’s ”Going to California” – “to find a queen without a king/they say she plays guitars and cries and sings” – is a reference to Joni and her first track off her first album, “I Had a King.” I wish I’d known this when I was a 12 year-old putz claiming Zeppelin to be the greatest band of all-time.
It’s funny that certain words stand out when reading a book, and in Reckless Daughter Yaffe’s love for the word ebullient is almost as apparent as his love for Mitchell. If I had a digital copy of the book, I’d do a quick count. And he refers to Mitchell on several occasions as a “goddess,” which – to me – reads over the top, as if he’s projecting his own fantasies with the younger Mitchell. That’s quibbling on my part, but there are meatier grievances, particularly those pages where Yaffe reveals his own prejudices. His blanket statement about 80s music being “the aural equivalent of fluorescent lighting” is, of course, ridiculous. Let’s not forget that in the 80s many of Mitchell’s peers released some of their best work: James Taylor, Paul Simon and Jackson Browne among them. Mitchell didn’t. It was her choice to follow trends, but there was nothing inherently bleak about the 80s music scene. Great music was there for the taking. Mitchell didn’t create much, if any.
And Yaffe inexplicably critiques artists of that decade: “If Nietzsche was disgusted by Wagner, what would he have made of Hall and Oates, or Phil Collins? The sickness of the decade even plagued music that might have otherwise been good. The standards, in other words, were low, and the people were sheep.”
Ouch. Okay, Yaffe, you got your licks in, but I confess without shame: I would rather listen to 1980s Phil Collins – and hell, even 1980s Hall and Oates – over 1980s Joni Mitchell any day of any week of any year. Don’t blame these guys on Joni’s poor output that decade
Still, Reckless Daughter is a good read and it educated me on several blind spots I had regarding Mitchell’s discography. One habit I employ that I would recommend to anyone reading a book about music: have your streaming app handy. It took me a while to finish Mitchell’s biography because every other page led me to listen to another song on Napster, and there are some gems I hadn’t heard before, or at least hadn’t paid much attention to: most notably, “I Had a King” and my new favorite, “Roses Blue.”
Yep, those are old songs. What can I say? I’m a melody guy, and when it comes to heartfelt lyrics and melody, you can’t do much better than Joni Mitchell’s first decade of recordings.