Joni Mitchell has been with me all my adult life.
I remember hearing and seeing Joni for the first time on Israeli TV when I was 14 - and thinking to myself, "Wow - that’s some strange and beguiling stuff," but not getting pulled in.
It was only when I began to really grapple with 'Life' - feel, see, and not understand its complexities and complications - that Joni became one of the closest guides and life companions to me, like she was and would still become to multitudes of others - even though I had not met her YET...
I had read that New Musical Express magazine had designated her album "Hissing of Summer Lawns" as the album of the year, and I was already beginning to follow sophisticated contemporary music and was curious about what was so revolutionary about this album that it had received that accolade from such a high-end prestigious musical publication.
My parents bought me the album, and what happened when I put the needle down on the record for the first time was nothing short of the miracle that Joni has been to ALL her devotees and to the world of music over the past 60 years that she has been creating and performing. It was a revelation that, without exaggeration, changed my life, had such a profound, lasting impact on who I am, how I think, how I hear, how I experience music, and more importantly, how I experience life.
Joni's music - if you can call it that - because it's actually a LOT MORE - opened my mind to the possibility of being PRESENT in life no matter what it brings; no matter the joy or the hardship, the love and the fury, the intense highs and the seemingly bottomless lows.
Her poetry, music, performance, painting, artistry, fierce individuality, ability to be alone, to live life on her own and without any lasting dependencies; to have many, many deep and meaningful friendships, loves, relationships - professional and personal; and her ability to blur the lines between the personal and professional and merge them into one; her independence from what 'others' were doing or thinking or creating; to find and pursue life in her own voice, her own style, her own being, staying true ONLY to humility, dignity, honesty, and life itself... ALL of these inspired me and have continued to inspire me through and through to this day.
I can sincerely say that Joni is the artist who has had the most profound, meaningful, constant, and lasting impact on who I am from the very first inventive challenging chord I heard on "In France They Kiss on Main Street," which was the first song on "Hissing of Summer Lawns."
From there, it was a journey of discovering Joni's early works, getting to know every word of poetry she had written and the music that she attached to it; being blown away by the layered artistry and innovation that always accompanied every production of every album. And just taking it all in and learning, learning, learning from the master.
As she went from 'folk singer with guitar' in her early days to 'confessional songwriter' with her magnum opus 'Blue,' to rock/jazz with "Court and Spark," to progressive, experimental with "Hissing" or "Hejira," to world music (before ANYONE had ventured out beyond traditional Western music - other than the Beatles) in "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," to the purest of jazz collaborations with Charles Mingus on "Mingus," and then back to the personal and social commentary with a much more steely, tough view in the 80s and 90s with such albums as "Night Ride Home," I was with her every step of the way, growing and expanding my understanding.
The irony was that Joni's art was never truly personal, as many people labeled her the "female Bob Dylan," a moniker she rightfully hated. Joni's work is universal, reverential, referential, and reflective on the very nature of being alive - a life storytelling, at the same time as it was intimate, philosophical, opinionated, political, and visionary from a social perspective. Joni was always ahead of the curve, and she still is.
So after a life spent drinking in and digesting every word, note, or paintbrush she ever created, seeing her twice live, both times not in her own show, but once in a group show with four other artists (more on that below), and the other on a tour with Bob Dylan, it was with all that charged affection that we (her global fans) were hit with sad news that she had a stroke, an aneurysm, that had left her unable to speak, walk, play, or do anything other than breathe some 7 years ago.
The thought that THIS is how the great lady would depart, stricken and separated from her core being and ability to express herself, was very hard to bear.
Joni had recovered once from paralysis and a terrible debilitating disease - polio. She had suffered from childhood polio that killed and paralyzed many of her generation, and through sheer determination had not only survived but overcome and triumphed. So deep inside - THAT was the hope here too. And she did not disappoint.
Slowly, word started to creep out that she was reemerging, working on rebuilding herself, overcoming even that great strike against her existence with the sheer willpower that only she could have. And then there were rumors that she was close to Brandi Carlile and that Brandi had made it her goal in life to 'bring Joni back'...
And bring Joni back she did.
On Saturday night, like the MIRACLE Joni Mitchell has always been, Joni took the stage at the spectacular Gorge Amphitheater in Quincy and commanded the stage from her armchair (she still cannot really walk without assistance or stand for any length of time) - having relearned how to speak, how to sing, and miraculously how to play her guitar in her immutable, inimitable style. Yes.
The woman who was almost DEAD 7 years ago was back on stage presenting a finely curated catalog of her work, and a little bit from others, with a clear message:
personal dedication, hard work, determination, focus, creativity, a belief in the willpower of humankind and love CAN transcend the most incredible challenges that life has in front of us - even the gravest ones that can almost kill. As she herself said, "Love wins."
The set was designed not only to showcase the incredible range of the work but to focus on the social message, the sense of prophecy of her work with a strong emphasis on her poetry, not just the 'music'.
Poetry was always the foundation for Joni, and she quoted it and wrote music to it always. And it was the foundation of the show (and in this case also a dig at the only other performing artist who she has always seen and has been her true equal - Bob Dylan - and his receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature). Because Joni's voice is near declamatory now, at times it seemed like she was performing her poetry rather than singing her 'songs'.
But the message was clear: the world needs to take heed of the direction it's going, wake up, say something, DO something to save our society, our democracy, our planet in all its grandeur and the beauty that she has described so well.
A true personal example of the old adage "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger", she gave a three-hour performance which not only blew away every person that was there in endurance and execution but was itself, again, thoughtful, creative, completely accepting of the limitations of life and her newfound "low" voice. In her career, having smoked throughout, her voice went from a high-pitched soprano, ever deeper and lower in range, and ultimately to where it is now, almost a baritone, never leaving behind her unique diction, twist of phrase, even her special vibrato.
There she was playing her guitar again, in her own special style, her unique open-tuning "chords of inquiry," having relearned to play by watching videos of herself performing.
27,000 friends of Joni, her family, her community from around the world, congregated there around her and her musician friends and helped her take the ultimate step in recovery from near death to reemerge as the Grand Priestess of her own tribe at the Gorge. It was an act of sheer defiance of the ordinary, the 'given', to take control of life itself with sheer willpower and the help of dear friends.
To say that this show was a monumental event would be to understate its meaning and meaningfulness. It was not only a gathering of joy, it was a gathering of a global community of people who have loved Joni all their lives or just discovered her but understood.
The full spectrum of age, nationality, language, gender, background was astounding - they were all there, not only witnessing the miracle but actively taking part, seeing the miracle of life force, of creative power like icarus ascending.
On August 15, 1998, Joni Mitchell performed at a concert called "A Day in the Garden" at Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel, New York. The concert was a 30th-anniversary celebration of the original Woodstock festival, which had been held at the same location in 1969, which Joni did not attend.
Other performers included Richie Havens, Lou Reed, and The Who." I was at that concert, as a guest of Joni's drummer, Brian Blade, through my friend Debbie Deane, a singer-songwriter in the classic Joni style and just as much a Joni fan as I was, who took me with her.
Not only had I fulfilled my life dream to see her live for the first time, but I did it as part of her entourage, seeing the WHOLE concert from the stage itself and then joining her band at a post-concert lunch, sitting around the table and talking.
I had a few minutes with the lady herself, and she actually asked ME how I thought the concert was and then cast some doubt on her performance of one song.
So, here I was, not only had I seen her and met her, she was asking ME what I thought. It was an opportunity to experience her in person and to validate just how genuine, humble, unpretentious, warm, and unassuming she was, treating me instantly like the friend I always knew she was to me and she always "knew" I, like the many others, were to her, this giant of an artist and our dear friend.
Here is the link to a specially curated playlist that gives a unmatched introduction to Joni Mitchell's music and reflects her one-of-a-kind sound and creativity (exclusively on Apple Music):
Here are some of my favorite (sourced) images from the evening: