“A painter first, and a musician second.” This is how Joni has described herself, but what a musician! She has also said that her music was meant at first to pay her way through art school and to buy cigarettes. Her voice has lowered over the years, possibly from smoking, although she might say it was from age. Her incredible vocal range has narrowed, but she still dazzles in torch singing and jazz.
My first awareness of Joni’s music was in 1971 while lobster fishing as a teenager with my father. That summer, the coolest song that ever came over that boring old AM radio station (I think Dad kept it on only so he wouldn’t miss Paul Harvey News) began with the lyrics, “The wind is in from Africa; last night I couldn’t sleep” and it turned out to be Joni’s song “Carey”. I re-discovered it a few years ago with her “Blue” CD, and recently I’ve burned a copy and listen in the car. It’s new every time I hear it.
Lobstering on my own now, I’ve since made a fan out of at least one crew member, a friend from Switzerland—there was a folk program that used to come on every week (different radio station, and sadly no more Paul Harvey) and the host would open each time with a Joni Mitchell song. I’d shove the poor guy out of my way and scramble for the volume knob and crank it up. He got the hint and bought me her “Travelogue” CD for Christmas, just released that year and featuring her artwork and music about the September 11 tragedy.
Joni’s lyrics really grab my attention. She writes about life—joys and sorrows, broken relationships, and having fun (“Come on down to the Mermaid Café and I will buy you a bottle of wine, and we’ll laugh and toast to nothing and smash our empty glasses down”). Growing up conservative, the smashing of wine glasses didn’t make sense, but by now I can appreciate the act in the song at least (still, who is supposed to clean that up?). Like good literature, she says more with fewer words, painting a picture in the mind (if not on canvas), whether writing about giving her baby up for adoption (“Little Green”) or breaking up with a man, possibly Leonard Cohen (“Oh, you’re in my blood like holy wine; you taste so bitter and so sweet. Oh, I could drink a case of you darling, and I would still be on my feet”), or worrying about a friend mixed up in the occult (“I think of rain, I think of roses blue; I think of Rose, my heart begins to tremble, to see the place she’s lately gotten to, gotten to, gotten to”).
I’m less conservative now, or perhaps more so; and I see grace in more places than I used to because God’s in charge of it and he’s not as stingy as we are. Joni’s music points me to the joy and caring and truth that only comes from grace, whether she is aware of it or not. Oh, there are other musicians that do that for me too, some of them unfit to mention (some might think) in a conversation about grace; but this is Joni’s three-score and ten and I thank God she’s made it this far.
The video was recorded in 1970. She describes her role in Woodstock the year before: she didn’t make it there, but wrote this song that Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young made famous.