Music

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Joni Mitchell

I really mean it this time!

Literally the Best Thing Ever is usually about not being embarrassed about bizarre fascinations with things like stickers and iCarly and Martha Stewart. But Joni Mitchell is no guilty pleasure. She is not a temporary obsession. She is, LITERALLY, I REALLY MEAN IT THIS TIME, the best thing (person) ever.

Joni Mitchell had polio as a child, which made it hard for her to form traditional guitar chords with her hands, so she made up her own tuning and chords, and sometimes played a dulcimer, which is why it is close to impossible to figure out many of her songs on guitar, and why she has had so few successful imitators!

Here is a beautiful video of her singing with Johnny Cash.

Here is a beautiful video of her singing with Mary Travers and Mama Cass. I mean, they physically embody a RAINBOW with their CLOTHES. Ugh, I totally take back my post about the 21st century not sucking and I hate everything. But I can’t even bring myself to actually hate everything because this video makes me so happy!

People (like myself) write about music in the ’60s like it was so PURE, but even Peter Paul & Mary were totally defined by their manager, Albert Grossman, who made them all stay inside while recording in Florida because he liked the idea of them all being pale. Joni had no contrived brand that way. She wrote her own songs; she got her own perspective of Woodstock watching news coverage in a hotel room; the song “Blue” has moments of being critical of the druggy lifestyle of her music peers. What I love is that she could be part of that music community that was so rooted in fighting against stuff…

…but that her own protest songs were deeply personal and less explicit. “Woodstock” expresses unity without getting all WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER, and “Big Yellow Taxi,” which starts with the lyric “They paved paradise / Put up a parking lot,” somehow feels more about the circle of life and whatnot instead of about society—which, for me at least, has a more powerful effect, and hits way closer to home. (I’m embedding the weird YouTube person slideshow version instead of the live one because the giggle at the end is a no-fail smile-inducer.)

Her personal songs weren’t intended to feel protest-y, but they were subversive in their own way. It’s taken a long time for the romanticism of a poet or a tortured artist to stop being exclusive to dudes—and this hasn’t been 100 percent resolved yet—and so some people have enjoyed the convenience of classifying Joni’s work as dopey overemotional “girl” music. Which is really unfair! As much as I love Bob Dylan, it took him almost 15 years before he could take any blame for a failed relationship in his music! Joni’s right there on the track “River,” saying, directly, “I’m so hard to handle / I’m selfish, and I’m sad / Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I ever had.” It takes strength to admit to weakness, and to be so honest. Why, here’s a convenient quote from Joni herself on the subject:

“The Blue album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there, either.”

I think for some people the most difficult thing is coming to terms with the fact that being happy will not come as easily for them as they feel it ought to, that just smiling will usually not be enough, that being sensitive and observant sometimes makes you feel more “in touch” with “life” or whatever, but most of the time it just feels like a burden, or like everyone else is in on some kind of joke that you’re taking way too seriously, and sometimes you feel like a brat because you can’t just accept how things seem to be, because you have to think about it all and that just results in things always eventually being somewhat painful, and it sounds so pretentious, but it’s not like it’s smart thinking necessarily, it’s not like you’re better than anyone, it’s just that you’re curious about things, I guess. There has been plenty of art made by people trying to make the best out of this personal realization, from Sylvia Plath to Courtney Love to Liz Lemon. But Joni opened that door a crack or two. The range of musical artists who have named her as one of their major influences includes Prince, Madonna, Bjork, Sonic Youth, Led Zeppelin, Joanna Newsom, and Regina Spektor, to name a very few.

I don’t know if I think some people are more this way than others, but I do think everyone, at some point, is attacked by the PUBERTY PTERODACTYL (new Rookie mascot). Sometimes it’s more than just puberty, sometimes it’s depression, and often it’s hard to have the articulation or awareness to create art from it. But, if there’s a way to be optimistic about sadness, the thing I do like about being depressed is that that’s when I get the most out of “Blue,” or out of my favorite Joni song, “Cactus Tree,” the last track on her first album, Song to a Seagull.

Each verse tells the story of a different guy trying desperately to connect with the woman he loves. I’ve always pictured them as multiple lovers of the same woman, though now that I think about it, I guess it could be the stories of various relationships. Nevertheless, the relationship always falls through for the same reason: “She’s so busy being free.” The song describes each man’s story in detail—one climbs a mountain, another sails, the seventh is “bleeding from the war”— but whatever this woman is doing, it’s barely described beyond that one line, repeated at the end of every verse.

The prettiest idea is that “being free” means she’s hitchhiking or playing guitar in a field or some other magical 1960s stereotype thing, and travel is mentioned at some point. But one of the few hints we get about this woman is that “her heart is full and hollow,” which honestly makes me think that it’s possible she’s not doing anything at all, except thinking and feeling and being so preoccupied with all that that it’s hard to let others get too close, hard to be in on everyone’s joke, hard to be satisfied with the idea of happiness all these other people created. And that makes it a little more OK to feel that way myself, because, SPOILER, sometimes people use words like “they” or “you” when they’re really talking about themselves. And god, how comforting that someone else is not strong and not happy and can still get something like Joni’s music out of it, and that sometimes being not strong and not happy means getting the most out of Joni’s music. ♦

39 Comments

  • Fortune_Goddess December 21st, 2011 3:29 PM

    Oh god. This is amazing.

  • lady95 December 21st, 2011 3:46 PM

    johnny cash is LITERALLY THE BEST THING EVER

  • zoeah December 21st, 2011 3:46 PM

    OH GAWD ROOKIE????!!!!!!! you have now taken it to a whole other level!!! I have forever loved Joni. My Pa had always played her music since i was little, and i first fell in love with her voice. Then, during one car journey, i started to understand what her songs meant. To this day, River is the only song i have ever cried about. SHE IS LITERALLY THE BEST THING EVER.

    Oh and guess what… last year, on my 16th birthday… i found out it was her birthday too.

    Yup. I have the same birthday as Joni Mitchell.

  • Mustachefan December 21st, 2011 3:51 PM

    Joni Mitchell is my icon. So happy you dedicated a post to her, Tavi!!!

  • Mustachefan December 21st, 2011 3:57 PM

    I want to add that I have really intense depression, and nothing helps like listening to Joni

  • jennyw December 21st, 2011 3:59 PM

    so spot on! about everything!
    TAVI YOU JUST GET ME.

  • koolkat December 21st, 2011 4:19 PM

    This is so so beautiful.

  • moonchild December 21st, 2011 5:22 PM

    YES!!!!!!!!!!!! I LOVE JONI MITCHEL!!!!!!!!

    (and if i wasn’t sick and sitting in my underwear needing to go to the bathroom, i would write a much longer comment. but for now i’ll just leave it as…)

    YES!!!!!!!!!!!! I LOVE JONI MITCHEL!!!!!!!!

  • www.theedit.com.au December 21st, 2011 5:29 PM

    Without a doubt my favourite Joni performance… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSZcK48cTiU

  • missblack December 21st, 2011 5:52 PM

    Oh My God-’River’ = best Christmas (or otherwise) song ever.

    I sing it constantly.

    I remember the first time I heard it, it was like my whole world changed.

    Little&Trivial

  • Narnie December 21st, 2011 6:06 PM

    Oh my god Tavi you’re the best. Joni Mitchell is AMAZING. The first time I heard her music….well, I wish I could hear her music for the first time for the rest of my life. Yay for Joni Mitchell!

    • Narnie December 21st, 2011 6:12 PM

      Just to add one more thing, I’ve found that (like you said) that with intense sadness you kind of develop a unique perception of people and the world, almost like a wisdom. You’re definitely right about all the thinking. Just the way you wrote that really long sentence only punctuated by commas really hit the nail on the head. Like you’re in your own head all the time and everything is just a stream of consciousness and it’s really hard to be in the moment. Anyway, thank you so much Tavi for this amazing piece of writing.

  • awesomelikeapossum December 21st, 2011 6:22 PM

    Love this article! I’ve thought the same things as Tavi mentioned above as well. Someone understands and gets me.Yay! Not to mention the puberty pterodactyl is very relatable. Plus, Joni Mitchell is great. I just love how rookiemag makes my day :) I have been reading your posts ever since this the beginning and I honestly have got to say this is my favourite website EVER! So thank you :D

  • Bentivegna December 21st, 2011 7:12 PM

    Wow i love your taste in music i really do. It’s great to see someone so young in love with folk. are you a joan baez fan at all?

    • Tavi December 21st, 2011 10:45 PM

      i love joan too! mostly the typical protest stuff but diamonds and rust too

  • sweeteelou December 21st, 2011 7:16 PM

    I’ve, uh, literally never listened to Joni Mitchell, but because Regina Spektor was mentioned in this article, I must check her out(:

  • MadelinelovesLouReed December 21st, 2011 7:18 PM

    Oh, Tavi, you’re such an insightful and dreamy writer. Reading your writing is like eating intellectual cotton candy. I’m going to print this article out and hang it on my wall.

  • Claire December 21st, 2011 7:41 PM

    I am in total agreement – Joni Mitchell is truly awesome. When I was 13/14 and going through the worst rough patch I’ve ever experienced, I discovered Blue at the library by some stroke of fate. To this day, I cry to “A Case of You,” sing “California” in the shower, and smile whenever I see the video of Joni playing “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio.” She is beautiful and strong, and her music is nothing less than fantastic. Great post.

  • Margelo December 21st, 2011 8:09 PM

    WOW. today, i just started listening to the album, ‘Blue’ right before i saw this article here, on rookie.
    thanks Tavi, i wish i could be your best friend!!

  • whitney.m.r. December 21st, 2011 8:13 PM

    Oh Tavi, I just love you more and more.
    Whenever I feel sad (OR happy) I listen to Court and Spark and sing so loudly in the car.

  • whatevermom December 21st, 2011 10:08 PM

    I have never agreed with anything more in my entire life.

  • Tavi December 21st, 2011 10:46 PM

    thanks guys! nice to see so much joni love <3

  • Mollie December 21st, 2011 11:03 PM

    This is what Rookie is all about.

  • timelady December 22nd, 2011 4:05 AM

    I love her so much. Every time I hear ‘California’, I get teary-eyed. I totally understand Emma Thompson’s Joni Mitchell love in ‘Love Actually’. When the song plays after she finds that her husband didn’t get her the necklace, I cry right along with Emma.

    Wonderful post, Rookie. Where were you guys when I was in high school?

  • Helena December 22nd, 2011 4:32 AM

    Joni is, literally the best thing ever, you are so right!

  • Motherfunker December 22nd, 2011 6:22 AM

    Yay. Joni Mitchell :’) Anyone who likes Joni should have a listen to Shelby Flint – (It’s who Joni wanted to sound like when she started!) Here’s a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyHX71Z6M7s
    I challenge you not to get all soppy.

  • rebeccar December 22nd, 2011 7:24 AM

    Though no one could ever come close to Joni, James Blake does a pretty rad cover of A Case of You if anyone is interested:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IG2E3qyFqsw&ob=av2n

  • Gigi December 22nd, 2011 7:24 AM

    Hi Tavi,

    Having just read your piece and Spencer’s About A Boy, it made me think of a speech that you may find interesting.

    http://moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words

    I can’t really comment further, as it’s best articulated by DFW. I also like to think of Keats’ idea of Negative Capability, about being receptive to the world and its beauty without trying to explain it through applied reason. Above and beyond creative expression, or holding up a mirror to society, I think that is what art teaches us. It shows us it’s okay to just ‘be’ in uncertainty, in mystery, or even in a state of ‘weirdness’.

    Thanks for your wonderful words here on Rookie. Peace x

  • coolschmool December 22nd, 2011 8:05 AM

    I know this is about Joni but GOD DAMN MAMA CASS I LOVE YOU AND YOUR MAGICAL RAINBOW KAFTAN.

  • Brite-Luella December 22nd, 2011 9:09 AM

    YESSSS
    I love Joni as well, so it’s great that you’ve written a Joni article because you basically speak out for all the other fans. I tried writing a dedicated piece to Mz. Mitchell (in my diary, lol) but it was so hard to properly word this tremulous magical funk I get when I listen to her. So thank you, Tavi!

  • Naomi December 22nd, 2011 2:57 PM

    it’s crazy how fundamentally important joni is to ALL music and it’s sad when boys don’t listen to her just because she is a women and that must mean she isn’t as important. she influenced PRINCE for goodness sake!!!

  • Tourdivoire December 23rd, 2011 8:25 AM

    I am a little ashamed to admit that I first heard about her watching ‘Love Actually’ in 2003 or something, and it’s taken me almost ten years (watching ‘Love Actually’ about five times a year) to actually look her up on YouTube and HEAR THE LIGHT.

    Joni Mitchell has found her place in my very special comfort music stash, along with Leonard Cohen and Mozart – whenever I feel depressed or just really tired, they’re my magic triad, the only ones I can stand listening to, and the only ones who actually make me feel better.

    Oh, and Joan Baez – went to her concert in my hometown in Brittany about ten years ago. One of the most beautiful concerts EVER.

  • kirsten December 23rd, 2011 3:10 PM

    I named my guitar after Joni Mitchell!

  • Paper-mountain December 29th, 2011 12:47 AM

    How amazing to find so many teen Joni Mitchell fans! I thought I was the only one…
    We should have a party. Fly out to Canada! Bring your guitars! Hello Joni, mind if we stay a while?

  • Helga December 29th, 2011 11:00 AM

    Thanks for such an amazing review of such an amazing artist.
    This makes me wanna listen to Joni all day long.

    You’re great!

  • Kevina December 30th, 2011 5:36 PM

    I adore Joni Mitchell. I recently was given a tribute album on which Sufjan Stevens, James Taylor, Prince, and Bjork all cover songs. Check that out! (Also, JT was really what sold the tribute album to me. I <3 the Troubadours)

  • Celt Glen January 4th, 2012 7:27 AM

    So many of you have referenced your parents introducing you to Joan. I often wonder if your parents and I ever attended a Mitchell concert at the same time.

    A thanks, heart felt, to all of the young folks here who discovered this magical talent. Keep buying her CDs and Tunes..Joni is ill and could use your support.

    Check this out;
    http://www.jonimitchell.com

    Donate to the site if you can it is NOT a commercial sales point and depends upon “the kindness of strangers.”

  • Cosette April 20th, 2012 5:10 PM

    I knew and first heard Joni Mitchell through the singer-songwriter Laura Marling. Laura is currently one of the greatest folk singers and is relatively young, but her compositions are so mature. One of the influences of Laura is Joni, so I tried to know a bit more about her and fell in love too. But Laura still awesome too ;D

  • p4u1p3rry May 11th, 2013 7:01 PM

    1st class, wonderful shout out loud for Joni’s genius. I’ve had her albums for decades and play them now often…what a music treasure. Her limitations did not stop her. She is invincible, in my book. Nice words you wrote, Tavi!!