On Joni Mitchell, at 75

Joni Mitchell is 75 today.
If art is a way of negotiating the course of our lives by experiencing the expression of the feelings of others, as channelled through literature, music or any other medium, and then seeing them reflected in our own, then there are events in my life which will always carry a soundtrack from Joni Mitchell.
It looks unlikely, given her health problems, that she will ever perform again. She will never record again – she turned her back on a music industry she regards as deeply corrupt more than a decade ago.
She is not the easiest of people. She has upset some for her views on feminism and other issues. She never slipped into that easy going late career that Leonard Cohen, one of the few late 20th century songwriters who can stand as her equal, managed to enjoy towards the end.
And yet… I suppose those of us to whom music forms part of the structure of our lives, as opposed to those who merely quite enjoy the odd tune, take the odd CD out of the rack, have half a hundred artists we enjoy and half a dozen, or fewer, who are more than that to us.
Readers will know who mine are. Miles, Carla Bley, Ralph Towner, Cohen… and Joni. I first heard Hissing Of Summer Lawns at Uni, courtesy of a fellow student and good friend. I had written off Mitchell as one of those wet, lank-haired female singer songwriters obsessed with their own egos and relationships. I was still in my teenage years. Obsessed with prog rock, to boot.
How wrong I was. At a time when (generally male) musicians were harnessing jazz as a way of demonstrating vacuous if stadium filling virtuosity, with honourable exceptions, here was Mitchell using its harmonic sophistication to enhance her astonishing songwriting craft. While singing about middle aged angst and defeated hopes, the duality of existence, the vibrancy of teenage love as recalled in middle age and the corruption of youth by drugs and prostitution. You will know the songs.
And that was just Summer Lawns. She recorded Court And Spark, that album and Hejira, an extraordinary fusion of jazz, folk, whatever, her most painfully personal work yet, in a short handful of years. An astonishing spurt of creativity. Probably unrivalled since the mid-60s Beatles.
(And yes, Blue was personal, too, I know. Was there ever a jauntier, happier tune than Carey? “I’ll put on some silver…” But Song For Sharon, from Hejira? A summary of a life that took that turn, not this, from the perspective of middle age. Who has never looked back on their lives in that way, from that perspective?)
And she went on. Don Juan, even some of the later, less well regarded stuff. Dog Eat Dog. Night Ride Home.
There is so much you can say about this music, so much to quote, so many memories from the small hours of one’s life, hunched over a muffled speaker.