Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe
4 out of 5 stars
I don’t like Joni Mitchell. Let’s get that out of the way.
Joni Mitchell would absolutely despise me and, in turn, I’m certain I could not stand being in the same room with her for any longer than it would take her to put down her guitar. The thought of thanking her for creating music that saved my life makes me cringe; her ego has enough girth already and has left many casualties along the way.
Yaffe (who admits immediately that he is cowed and intimidated by Joni Mitchell, making this an extended attempt not to offend Her Majesty) talks about Joni’s troublesome, lonely childhood suffering during the polio epidemic that hit more than half a million kids in the 40s and 50s. Her life changed shaped in the wake of it and so she turned to art and music. I relate, at least to the suffering: eight years ago, I got sick. It wasn’t polio and I wasn’t shipped off to a secluded hospital but it was an isolating experience that follows me still. I was betrayed by my body and forced to put my dreams on hold right at the brink of realising them. Life seemed suddenly fickle so I turned to music to survive.
While laying in my mother’s spare bedroom on a mattress on the floor, penned in by cardboard boxes, I tapped into the neighbour’s wifi and listened to Court and Spark. I don’t know why that was the album I chose. I knew Joni Mitchell’s music but I hadn’t fallen for it. Semi-bedbound with my hands and feet tingling painfully, I listened again and again to the album, then swallowed up all her others.
My mother, a tall and anxious woman, walked in while I was listening to Both Sides Now. At the time I was unable to lift my head without blinding pain so I sang along flat on my back, content in that moment if not in others.
“You should turn off that sad music,” she said. “Listen to something happier.”
It was true that I’d spent most of the day before crying. I dreamt of the pills I took turning into little black spiders that skittered over my skin, biting me relentlessly. I was supposed to be moving to Canada the next week but had put it off indefinitely. Yet I couldn’t understand why she thought the music I’d chosen was sad. It was the only thing in my life at that time that didn’t feel the shallow simplicity of ‘sad’.
Perhaps my mother missed the lines where Joni tells us that ‘something’s lost and something’s gained from living every day’. Yes, I had lost a lot at a formative time in my life; Mitchell helped me understand that the loss, that sadness, was only a part of the picture and I would be selling myself short to dwell in it without grasping for the hope of change that comes with it.
This book (for all its unabashed swooning over Mitchell’s genius) recognises this complexity and excels at portraying it in an interesting, beautiful way. I remain utterly convinced that Joni Mitchell is not someone I’d like to meet; she’s stuck up, grumpy, and prone to an impressive grudge when her ego is dented (which is often). Yet I love her imperfections because from them we gained some of the most beautiful, rich music of the last century.
Despite his fear of Joni Mitchell and his tendency to gloss over the blatant racism in her past, Yaffe’s writing is beautiful and never dull. He brought life to even the dullest of her works and wrapped it up in enough euphemism that his portrayal of Joni Mitchell as the arrogant genius almost comes across as sweet. Whether or not you like Joni Mitchell (or her music), this book shows another side to a turbulent pile of musical decades through which this similarly turbulent artist ran like a thread.