Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell'

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David Yaffe's 'Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell.'
David Yaffe's 'Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

In 1990, Joni Mitchell joined Roger Waters's all-star performance of The Wall to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. Backstage, Thomas Dolby stuck his tongue out at her. Bryan Adams asked for a picture with Mitchell, then spoke rudely to his girlfriend as she tried to snap the shot. Cyndi Lauper seemed jealous that her boyfriend was starstruck by Mitchell. Sinéad O'Connor wouldn't look up from her feet. The Band's Garth Hudson ran away rather than chat with the only female featured guest on The Last Waltz.

"Was there an adult in the room?" Mitchell later asked, rhetorically. "No. Not one single adult in the whole pack."

It must have been a familiar feeling for Mitchell, who's been the adult in the room for much of the rock era. From the beginning, her astonishingly fluent songwriting voice has been wise beyond its years, and when she finally grew into those years, it became devastating.

Mitchell granted a couple of long interviews to author David Yaffe, and her voice permeates his new book Reckless Daughter. She's often catty, but never petty: even when men abused her and betrayed her, she honored their lingering traces in some of the most piercing breakup songs ever written.

Yaffe's book follows a biographical trajectory, but it's more an appreciation than a biography as such. While it's concise and accessible enough to serve as an introduction for the Joni neophyte, its ideal reader is someone who's soaked in Mitchell's world and can appreciate the close attention Yaffe pays to her music. Mitchell's own sharp voice keeps the book from seeming too hagiographic, but there's no question that Yaffe reveres both her artistic gifts and the perspicacity with which she's deployed them.

A sophisticated listener, Yaffe helpfully explains just what it is that makes Mitchell such an inimitable musician. Her left hand weakened by a bout of polio, Mitchell adopted a guitar style that relies on open tunings, her right hand working wonders with layered chords as her left hand slides up and down her dreadnought's neck. Her most cherished collaborators have been jazz musicians, who can rise to the challenge of her highly idiosyncratic compositions.

Her lyrics are often compared to those of Bob Dylan and her fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen, but she's more musically innovative than either of them: while Dylan outgrew the folk movement, he's kept his musical roots in the blues. His songs sound accessible, even when there are unexpectedly complex things happening below the surface. Mitchell's music is gorgeous, but uncompromisingly elusive.

The deep-dive fan will appreciate Yaffe's careful attention to Mitchell's lesser-known efforts, and to her behind-the-scenes personal and professional relationships with collaborators like Wayne Shorter and David Crosby. The casual fan will come away with a renewed appreciation of the subtle genius behind well-known songs like "Woodstock" (a song ironically motivated by FOMO, when Mitchell had to miss the festival due to a planned TV appearance), "Big Yellow Taxi" (inspired by a literal parking lot she saw in Hawaii), and "Both Sides Now" (Mitchell was reading Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King, with a character who looks down from a plane flying to Africa).

The 1970 classic Ladies of the Canyon encapsulates the Laurel Canyon scene that helped define the sound of the Me Decade, and Mitchell was close not just professionally but personally to artists like Crosby, Cohen, Graham Nash, James Taylor, and Jackson Browne. She deeply resented a Rolling Stone graphic that suggested she was overly free with her love; "in the Summer of Love," she says, "I was one of the least promiscuous people around." The subject of adoration, she could be with just about any man she wanted — and she chose the most musically gifted.

Mitchell wasn't just beyond the childish lovers' games her peers played, she also had a songwriting sensibility that acutely reflected her baby-boomer generation while avoiding either the maudlin hope or doomy despair that can be heard in other records of the '60s and '70s. "The Circle Game" was written in answer to Neil Young's "Sugar Mountain," a moody lament for childhood lost. Mitchell wanted to give Young, and herself, some hope and perspective.

Yaffe doesn't offer any tidy explanation for the post-1980 arc of Mitchell's career. He suggests that she was ill-suited for the winking, synth-driven 1980s, though her superfan Prince tried to give her some pointers on how she could reclaim a large audience using her signature gifts. (Wendy Melvoin of the Revolution told Yaffe about how Prince brought Mitchell to Melvoin's 20th birthday party in Minneapolis, and later brought Melvoin to hang out at Mitchell's apartment in Malibu. Prince sat down at the piano to play his favorite Mitchell song, "A Case of You," and was amused when the songwriter herself didn't recognize it.)

Mitchell remained intermittently active into the 21st century, though smoking four packs of American Spirits a day eventually deprived her of her formerly soaring vocal range. She suffered a stroke in 2015; she's sufficiently recovered to go out and socialize, though her musical career may be over. Yaffe closes his book with a poignant story from a recent gathering at which Mitchell seemed to space out for a moment.

"Joni?" asked a friend. "Did you lose your train of thought?"

"Yes," she replied. "But that's not such a bad thing for a writer to do."

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