reckless daughter: a portrait of joni mitchell by david yaffe has been my late night literary lullaby for the past few weeks. like many free-spirited millennials who cite “river” as their favourite christmas song, swoon over her chronicled and convoluted romance with leonard cohen, mimic her leather and lace ensemble, and embrace her folk lyrics as love letters of their own, i’ve forever and a day adored joni mitchell. our canadian prairie poetess who brought a bohemian beatitude to the masses.
yaffe’s biography of the gritty gypsy is deep and moving. it’s the type of writing that is so raw and transparent that even i, as the reader, cannot help but feel a connection to the musician. her songwriting provides sweet soundscapes for us all. as she sings in “blue”, songs are like tattoos. her lyrics go more than skin deep. they burn straight into the solitude of the soul.
“every bit of trouble i went through, i’m grateful for … bad fortune changed the course of my destiny.” (joni mitchell)
joni mitchell’s 1982 album release was called wild things run fast. i was born into this mad crazy world that same year. much like i do with “i walk the line”, which was recorded by johnny cash on april 2, 1956 (twenty-six years preceding my birth), i believe the music of the past makes a fine mix tape for the present. i came to appreciate joni mitchell in my 20s as i delved into leonard cohen and bob dylan and the enchantment of a 1967 new york. yet only now – with yaffe’s poetic herstory – do i comprehend the wonderment of the woman who “forever changed the genre of the love song.”
the most powerful prose from the book for me is joni’s realism that feeling blue is more than a song title: “depression can be the sand that makes the pearl … most of my best work came out of it. if you get rid of the demons and the disturbing things then the angels fly off, too. there is the possibility, in that mire, of an epiphany.” i also discovered a new mantra when it’s revealed that joni renamed a song called “traveling” to “hejira”, which means to escape with honour. traveling is that – to escape honourably only to return with honest intentions.
other deep and meaningful paraphrased note-taking from reckless daughter that resonated with me as a woman plagued with wanderlust and a genuine joni mitchell admirer include:
…”[joni] would invariably shift to her emotions, her body, her desires, the desires of men, the impossibility of relationships”
…”her theme would be relationships, her biggest subject would be love, even in its absence”
…”she longed to roam and she craved home, all at once […] she was always out to make people fall in love with her”
…”as her work began to mature, she began to long for her own growth”
…on leonard cohen, “he was a man in possession of poetry, mysticism, and wisdom”
…leonard cohen on joni mitchell, “her beauty was a very accurate manifestation of her whole being”
…”the vulnerability and the longing that she believed so few people understood”
…joni on one of her lovers: “we had a summer affair. but there were no plans”
…”she had a backlog of songs from various incarnations, lovers come and gone, cities lived in and abandoned”
…in 1974 joni defined freedom as “the luxury of being able to follow the path of the heart”
…’of joni’s fourth album, blue, the critics wrote, “a restless woman travels, falls in love and longs for what she left behind as she moves on”‘
…”joni sought wisdom in solitude”
…”over the years people were still invested in joni who even as she changed she took her sincerity with her”
like joni, i find solitude in knowing life is full of both hope and melancholy. and as yaffe concludes, she was able to evolve through the many chapters of her life because “she [didn’t] even have to keep the person she was.” and there’s the honest joy in the story about joni mitchell – her lyrics of broken hearts and lost lusts are a transcript for surviving the loneliness, finding refuge on the road and peace in knowing that nothing lasts for long. the book ends with a few lines from “the circle game”, a song tattooed for yesteryear and the fate that tomorrow has yet to bring: we’re captive on the carousel of time / we can’t return / we can only look behind / from where we came.
just before our love got lost you said / ‘i am as constant as a northern start’ / and i said, ‘constantly in the darkness / where’s that at? / if you want me i’ll be at the bar’ (joni mitchell, a case of you)