On Tuesday, the Internet went nuts after TMZ reported that Joni Mitchell was in an intensive care unit of an undisclosed Los Angeles hospital. For many, it was a surreal experience. #JoniMitchell was trending worldwide. A cryptic tweet from her verified account promised updates when available. With no real information to assuage her worried fans, many were left to speculate, with a veritable smorgasbord of strange diseases on which to lay the blame. Had her nearly 60-year smoking habit finally done her in? Was it her still-prominent symptoms of childhood polio or Dengue fever? Was it the effects of her controversial Morgellons disease, an ailment that literally mimics the effects of crawling skin?
As of Sunday, the reason for her slip into unconsciousness remains a mystery. Despite vague insider claims that she is “doing well,” as we speak, some staff writers from major news agencies currently have a Joni Mitchell obituary compiled and standing by on their hard drives. So, are we really prepared to bid farewell to the lady who never lies?
It goes without saying that, perhaps second only to Neil Young, Joni Mitchell is our most treasured musical export. Few people in the industry are as revered or respected for their artistic contributions. Her records, from the chirpy David Crosby-produced Song to a Seagull, all the way to 2007’s dramatically operatic Shine, have demonstrated unparalleled technical achievement, while highlighting a rare and consistent talent.
She has influenced literally every musician worth his or her salt (Prince, Robert Plant, Madonna, Annie Lennox, Cyndi Lauper, Elton John, Janet Jackson, Björk, Tori Amos, Cat Power, Fiona Apple, Joanna Newsom, Elliot Smith, Jill Scott), and yet no one has ever really managed to successfully replicate her sound. So how do so many artists of varying tastes and backgrounds come to worship at the altar of this fair-skinned prairie girl from Saskatchewan?
An outspoken critic of the current music industry, she has never shied away from expressing displeasure at the tactics used to sell records and promote style over substance. Nor has she allowed the suits to tell her how a Joni Mitchell record should sound.
She garnered a reputation in the business when, after the success of the radio-friendly Court and Spark (1974), she veered into experimental jazz territory, enlisting the help of bassist Jaco Pastorious, and playing with the likes of Charles Mingus and Herbie Hancock (who won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2008 for River: The Joni Letters, a collection of Mitchell’s earlier songs, reworked by the likes of Tina Turner and Norah Jones). While her updated sound may have alienated older listeners, she gained an entirely new audience – young female songwriters, in particular – simply by adhering to her own voice, never sacrificing integrity.
She has done it all on her own terms, remaining unwaveringly cool in the process (in 1997, when she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she declined to attend the ceremony).
Despite her absence from the current music scene, last week’s announcement reminded us all of her invaluable and lasting gift. As we wait for more news, we need to remind ourselves that, like the aforementioned polio and Dengue fever, as well as the Scarlett fever, the measles, the record executives, and the star-maker machinery, she will surely overcome. She has to. She’s Joni Mitchell.
“Chelsea Morning” – Clouds, 1969
“Dreamland” – Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, 1977
“Woman of Heart and Mind” – For the Roses, 1972
“Coyote” – Hejira, 1976
“In France They Kiss on Main Street” – The Hissing of Summer Lawns, 1975
“Ladies of the Canyon” – Ladies of the Canyon, 1970
Got some time? Listen to the seminal Court and Spark and Blue from start to finish.
Court and Spark, 1974