The Genius of Joni Mitchell


While I have been at Steamboat MusicFest, I have been listening to a great deal of Joni Mitchell.  She is simply one of my favorite songwriters of all time.  Her music is so unique that I both understand and don’t understand why she isn’t more popular.  I understand that her music can be challenging in the way that so very few singer songwriters are, with serpentine melodies and completely unique chord progressions.  But I also don’t understand as she is a giant in terms of talent and so very few artists have ever come close to what she has accomplished.  I think she is haunted by the tag of FEMALE singer songwriter, as in my mind, she is the peer and equal of someone like Dylan, whom I also love and respect.  In fact she is probably more original and talented on a purely musical level than Dylan is.  While someone like Dylan or Neil Young, who is also from Canada like Mitchell, are regarded as almost founding fathers by this point, I feel like Mitchell is acknowledged in a much more limited way.

Although everyone should own what many consider her masterpiece, Blue, I would also recommend that everyone check out her 70’s trilogy of The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.  This is not to say that this is the only work that she has worth hearing.  Although I don’t own every album she has ever made, I find something valuable in all the periods of her music.  Her last studio album, Shine, is simply fantastic, with a title song among the many that simply show she has never stopped being a master.  One of the hardest subjects to write about without coming across as cheesy is the environmental concerns of the day, but she does so on this album with a poetic depth that no one, outside of maybe Jackson Browne, has been able to do.

The 70’s trilogy that I mentioned is some of the most original music of all time.  It is expansive work, where each album seems like its own universe.  If one listens to pop music, like Nick Hornby suggests, until one can solve the puzzle of each song, I can’t imagine ever getting tired of these records.  They seem as if they were created by someone on another plain than most normal humans operate on.  This music is shape shifting as folk, jazz, pop, rock and occasional tribal music intertwine and emerge with a fluidity that very few could accomplish.  She holds her own with musicians such as Jaco Pastorius, and seems more than a capable leader of such talents.  In fact she takes someone like him, makes his work more accessible, and loses none of the musicality in the process.

Mitchell’s guitar playing is some of the most original in recorded history.  She uses a wide variety of tunings and creates chord structures that are simply one of a kind.  Rhythmically influenced by jazz at times, she has a style, combined with the tunings, that sounds unlike any other singer songwriter of her or any time period.  While most greats, like the above mentioned Dylan and Young, synthesize what came before them into their own style, Mitchell seems to use different elements of music as a launch pad to take off to her own unique stratosphere.

Her melodies are again a thing completely of their own.  Listen to one of her most popular albums, Court and Spark, and ask yourself how this album became so popular.  Not many humans could sing, let alone write those melodies.  While they eventually ingrain themselves into your subconscious, they are not the simple hooks of pop music.  That album alone makes me wonder if music audiences were more advanced in their tastes back then, then they are now.

Enough cannot also be said about her lyrics.  They are simply some of the most poetic ever recorded.  Listen to the wordplay, the intelligence, and the wit displayed throughout her career.  She is the equal of a Dylan, without copying him.  Sometimes it almost seems as if she came out of nowhere.  While Dylan built an entirely new language in pop music, it was definitely rooted in the traditions of the folk world.  Mitchell seems to create a language all of her own, especially once she got to the above mentioned trilogy, that is still relatable as often as it is complex.

Now there is no doubt that Dylan had a greater cultural impact.  I am also not trying to say that Mitchell is better than Dylan.  I am only trying to make the case that if you want to talk about truly originals in music, she is one of the few that should be put on equal footing with the all time greats.  And while better or greater mean something different than more original, I would argue that Mitchell is actually more original than most of the all time greats.  She has consistently turned out fantastic mind bending stuff.  I constantly put on her records and am left awestruck at the sheer mastery of each component of song craft and playing. If you are a real music fan, I am telling you to get this stuff.  If you can open yourself to what she is doing, and she definitely is an acquired taste at times, this is music that will open up entire worlds that no one else has explored.  We will not see the likes of her again.  She is a true one of a kind and should be realized as such.

Why Shouldn’t I Love Cyndi Lauper?

I have listened to more Cyndi Lauper than probably any straight male should admit to.  But alas, I love her so.  She has a voice that could carry through the din of a Biblical storm.  Blessed with a four octave range, she makes you think she can sing anything.

There are certain kinds of songs of hers that I prefer.  I like when she has a great melody and sings either one of her rock/pop confections or one of her stirringly sad ballads.  I have no use for her blues renderings, her take on classical pop tunes, or some of the stranger numbers in her career.  Her recording career is no doubt dodgy and the great is heavily weighted towards her first three records.

That’s not to say that she hasn’t made great music in recent years.  The song Shine off her Shine-Ep is fantastic.  There are several songs that I love off her dance pop album Bring Ya to the Brink.  Although she can sing anything, several albums just feel like marketing attempts, even if the intentions behind their creation probably ring true.  It’s not her voice that brings them down, which is always exceptional, but the production is often too adult contemporary and the song choices uninspired.

She is one of those artists I wish could find a producer for, who would help her find the right material and treatment for her unique and tremendous talents.  But there is absolutely no doubt that she is a tremendous talent.  Listen to her voice at the end of Money Changes Everything.  She is hitting notes that other singers could only dream of.

A great deal of her music is pop music, but it is pop music of the greatest kind.  It is the kind of stuff infused with emotion.  I have a soft spot for female sung pop music dating back to the 60’s girl groups.  Lauper often carries on that tradition.  Her songs of joy make you want to dance around the living room.  Her ballads often can’t help but connect.  No one should cover her classic hits.  Any attempts pail in comparison to the originals.

I once found myself listening to Girls Just Want to Have Fun with the young girl (She is now a teenager and I don’t want to put her name here for fear of embarrassing her!) that I helped raise.  It was like one of those scenes in a chick flick where the characters play guitar with mops and bounce around their home.  That song is just ecstatic joy.  I have always wanted to take the stage to that song to play with an audiences expectations.  The idea always makes me smile.  Maybe someday I will.

I don’t believe in guilty pleasures.  There are only things you like and things you don’t.  I have always loved Lauper.  If it ruins my credibility on other matters, then so be it.  Watch the above video of I Drove All Night, a song originally written for Roy Orbison, and pay attention to when she hits the big vocal part while laying down.  If you tell me she can’t sing, I’ll tell you you are fucking crazy!


This Place

Sparkle on the ocean
Eagle at the top of a tree
Those crazy crows always making a commotion
This land is home to me.

I was talking to my neighbor
He said, “When I get to heaven, if it is not like this,
I’ll just hop a cloud and I’m coming right back down here
Back to this heavenly bliss.”

You see those lovely hills
They won’t be there for long
They’re gonna tear ’em down
And sell them to California
Here come the toxic spills
Miners poking all around
When this place looks like a moonscape
Don’t say I didn’t warn ya…

Money, money, money…
Money makes the trees come down
It makes mountains into molehills
Big money kicks the wide wide world around.

Black bear in the orchard
At night he’s in my garbage cans
He’s getting so bold but no one wants to shoot him
He’s got a right to roam this land.

I feel like Geronimo
I used to be as trusting as Cochise
But the white eyes lies
He’s out of whack with nature
And look how far his weapons reach!

Spirit of the water
Give us all the courage and the grace
To make genius of this tragedy unfolding
The genius to save this place.

This Place by Joni Mitchell.  It’s really hard to write song lyrics about the environment that have some kind of poetic weight to them.  Joni is, of course, a genius.