Happy Birthday, Joni!

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Today is Joni Mitchell’s 72nd birthday, and considering there was a pretty good chance she wouldn’t make it this far just a few months ago, I think that’s a pretty fine reason to celebrate.

Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm in late March, and was in poor condition for some weeks.  But she’s been fighting and working hard at rehabilitation, and recent reports have her walking, talking, and even painting.  I’m very happy to hear good news about her, because while I don’t always love her music, I think she is one of the true icons of popular music.  She has such a powerful presence as a woman who creates art on her own terms and refuses to define herself by the narrow standards celebrity culture dictates.  She is beautiful and intelligent and independent, everything that everyone, man or woman, should strive to be.

I mentioned I don’t always love her music, and I don’t.  But that only really applies to what she’s done from the 1980s on.  The classic albums she produced in the 70s–Blue, For the Roses, Court and Spark–are among some of the best music ever.  It always felt to me like she got away from the things she did best as a songwriter, and her music became too nebulous and distant.  I can understand why she’d move away from what I think is her greatest strength, because the one thing Joni Mitchell does better than virtually anyone else is intimacy.

Whether her songs are autobiographical or not doesn’t really matter, although many of her songs are very much about her and her relationships with others.  She creates this bubble around herself as performer and the audience so that you feel like she’s singing only to you.  Like she’s not even singing.  There’s a feeling to her best songs that you have met her in a quiet corner in a coffee house, and she’s sharing these intimate secrets with you.  That kind of closeness must be difficult to maintain as an artist.  It requires so much from the performer, so much energy and courage, to bare your emotions so publicly.  As a really intensely private person myself, I can understand why you’d want to leave that behind.  It’s one of the reasons I admire Mitchell as much as I do; she really hits some deep emotional chords in her audience because she’s willing to take those emotional risks herself.

I hope her health continues to improve.  I hope she keeps living as freely as she has always done.  And I kind of hope we get just one more glimpse into her heart and soul the way we used to.

Joni Mitchell

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I had the daylights scared out of me this morning when I saw Joni Mitchell’s face on the news.  Luckily, she is still alive, but was rushed to the hospital yesterday after losing consciousness in her home.  She’s currently undergoing tests to determine the cause.

I don’t always love Mitchell’s music, but I respect, admire, and generally adore her.  She is not only one of the most distinctive voices in music history, she’s one of its most distinctive personalities.  She is a true artist–songwriter, performer, musician, painter.  She looks at the world through rainbow-colored glasses, refusing to be boxed in by anyone else’s expectations or stereotypes.  Here’s hoping her condition rapidly improves, and she continues to grace us with her artistic presence.

“California”

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Rolling Stone once described Joni Mitchell’s voice as a “cold-water soprano,” and I’ve always thought that was a pretty apt description.  Listening to her is as refreshing and beautiful as swimming in cool, clear lake on a hot August afternoon.  Her voice pours over you like water.  But as liquid and pure as her voice can be, she can seem as brittle and crackling as ice.  But those moments–when her voice strains and breaks for the highest notes, when she lowers her voice to the barest whisper–those are the moments when the emotion is strongest.  She is momentarily overwhelmed by the feelings her songs evoke.  She is one of the finest singers in music history, something that is only magnified by the beautiful songs she crafts.  Mitchell is a painter as well as a musician and songwriter; all her art is vivid and colorful, no matter the medium she chooses.

“California” is a love song to this weird and wonderful place where anything can happen.  Even though her character is traveling through Europe in this song, you can feel the hot dry Santa Ana winds blowing out from East.  You can feel the sun beating down on your hair, the sand of the beach between your toes.  You can hear the traffic and the slap of flip-flops on the concrete, smell the exhaust from the buses.  There’s taco meat cooking somewhere, everywhere.  Everyone is beautiful, but no one wants to get caught looking.  It’s the oldest dance in civilization–commerce and sex–on the newest, most plastic arena possible.  “California” is about missing the state of mind that California instills in her residents, an unfathomable mix of reality and dreams.

“Will you take me as I am, strung out on another man?  California I’m comin’ home.”