Two words tend to be overused: “genius” and “survivor.” In Joni Mitchell’s case, however, they’re both well-deserved. The genius part has been obvious throughout her long career; the survivor part has become evident in more recent years.
When she was 9, she was diagnosed with polio and told she would never walk again.
In 2015, she suffered a brain aneurysm. For a time, it was doubtful she would live. But she did. Then there were rumors that she would never walk, let alone play, again.
She has done both.
Recalling her amazing physical comeback, Joni noted that a doctor had once told her when she was a child, that she “had grit.” That she does. In spades.
Joni Mitchell is now acknowledged as a treasure, but larger appreciation has been a long time coming. Despite winning 11 Grammys, Mitchell’s music has never been predictable. In some instances, such as 1975’s, The Hissing of Summer Lawns or 1979’s Mingus, her vision has perhaps been a little hard to fathom – even among her most ardent fans.
While her 1971 album, Blue, is now roundly lauded as a masterpiece and one of the most important albums of our time, Joni notes that a lot of people (critics, in particular), didn’t quite “get it” at the time. That seems ironic, considering how she didn’t shy away from sharing her most intimate feelings about former lover Graham Nash and present (at the time) lover James Taylor. It could be that some listeners of the era just weren’t accustomed to such raw, open honesty.
In recent years, and especially since her brush with death, Mitchell has finally been “getting her roses,” as they say. A Kennedy Center Honor, the Gershwin Prize, and roaring adulation when she surprised attendees at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival. She had not stepped on that stage since 1969. In fact, she hadn’t stepped on any stages at all for years. Part of it was her illness. Before that, however, she was content to paint and perhaps put out the odd bit of new music, such as she did with Shine (2007). Joni was just being very…Joni.
However, during her convalescence, friends visited her California home for casual evenings of ping pong (she’s pretty awesome) and informal monthly music sessions that came to be known as “Joni Jams.” From Elton John and Paul McCartney to Herbie Hancock, Bonnie Raitt, and Chaka Khan, these low-fi evenings lit the spark in her to play and perform again.
But first, she had to re-learn how to play guitar, which she did by watching YouTube videos of past performances and observing where to place her fingers. Of course, learning to play “differently” was no big thing: her childhood polio had affected Joni’s left hand, leading her to develop her famous open tunings as a way to compensate. And what beautiful compensation it was.
And thus, in July 2022, Joni was onstage at Newport, surrounded by musicians including Brandi Carlile who had formatted the gig to resemble one of those comfortable Joni Jams. She was part of a 13-song set and concluded with some solo plucking on her electric guitar, picking out the riff to “Just Like This Train” from Court and Spark. It was an astonishing moment and a true sign of her determination.
In June 2023, Joni performed at the Gorge Amphitheater in Washington to an audience of 27,000. It was her first headline show in 23 years, and she participated in an almost 3-hour set with support from guests including Annie Lennox.
Despite a voice that’s deepened from the crystalline mezzo-soprano of her early career and her need for a little help on certain songs, the fact that she’s on stage at all is nothing less than a miracle.
At almost 80 (her birthday is in November), it’s clear that Joni is relishing this last part of her life and career. Too often, she’s taken heat for her bluntness and unflinching devotion to forging her own path. She began smoking at 9. In 1971, Rolling Stone snarkily dubbed her “Old Lady of the Year” for her many relationships. She broke up with David Crosby by singing a new song about ending it…in the middle of a party (she sang it twice). She’s publicly called Bob Dylan a plagiarist and a phony. She doesn’t suffer fools and has frequently shared her loathing of the music industry.
Now, she’s wrapping up her extraordinary life and career in a very Joni way: finding new ways to express herself (she rocks braids and a colorful cane like nobody’s business) and as determined as ever to live out the rest of her years on her own terms.
As she once sang, Joni’s still too busy being free.
Photo: Joni Mitchell at the Gershwin Prize Concert, March 2023 (Shawn Miller, Library of Congress – public domain)