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Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period

Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period

by Michelle Mercer

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Joni Mitchell is one of the most celebrated artists of the last half century, and her landmark 1971 album, Blue, is one of her most beloved and revered works. Generations of people have come of age listening to the album, inspired by the way it clarified their own difficult emotions. Critics and musicians admire the idiosyncratic virtuosity of


Joni Mitchell is one of the most celebrated artists of the last half century, and her landmark 1971 album, Blue, is one of her most beloved and revered works. Generations of people have come of age listening to the album, inspired by the way it clarified their own difficult emotions. Critics and musicians admire the idiosyncratic virtuosity of its compositions. Will You Take Me As I Am -- the first book about Joni Mitchell to include original interviews with her -- looks at Blue to explore the development of an extraordinary artist, the history of songwriting, and much more.

In extensive conversations with Mitchell, Michelle Mercer heard firsthand about Joni's internal and external journeys as she composed the largely autobiographical albums of what Mercer calls her Blue Period, which lasted through the mid-1970s. Incorporating biography, memoir, reportage, criticism, and interviews into an illuminating narrative, Mercer moves beyond the "making of an album" genre to arrive at a new form of music writing.

In 1970, Mitchell was living with Graham Nash in Laurel Canyon and had made a name for herself as a so-called folk singer notable for her soaring voice and skillful compositions. Soon, though, feeling hemmed in, she fled to the hippie cave community of Matala, Greece. Here and on further travels, her compositions were freshly inspired by the lands and people she encountered as well as by her own radically changing interior landscape. After returning home to record Blue, Mitchell retreated to British Columbia, eventually reemerging as the leader of a successful jazz-rock group and turning outward in her songwriting toward social commentary. Finally, a stint with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue and a pivotal meeting with the Tibetan lama ChÖgyam Trungpa prompted Mitchell's return to personal songwriting, which resulted in her 1976 masterpiece album, Hejira.

Mercer interlaces this fascinating account of Mitchell's Blue Period with meditations on topics related to her work, including the impact of landscape on music, the value of autobiographical songwriting for artist and listener, and the literary history of confessionalism. Mercer also provides rich analyses of Mitchell's creative achievements: her innovative manner of marrying lyrics to melody; her inventive, highly expressive chords that achieve her signature blend of wonder and melancholy; how she pioneered personal songwriting and, along with Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, brought a new literacy to the popular song. Fans will appreciate the previously unpublished photos and a coda of Mitchell's unedited commentary on the places, books, music, pastimes, and philosophies she holds dear.

This utterly original book offers a unique portrait of a great musician and her remarkable work, as well as new perspectives on the art of songwriting itself.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Mercer (Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter) covers the "iconic folk maiden" Joni Mitchell during her "Blue" period (roughly 1971 to '76) in what is part music criticism. The book covers the origin and meaning of Blue's songs in Mitchell's own words, her childhood and how her relationships with Graham Nash, Leonard Cohen and James Taylor shaped her music. As her first husband, Chuck Mitchell, said, "There are a couple Joans... the literal girl, the prairie tomboy... the historical person, the narrative writer, and the queen"-and this book reveals a bit of each of them. Written from a fan's perspective, this book is partly Mercer's own diary, the way Blue was partly Mitchell's diary. This is Mercer's love song to Mitchell, which aims it sometimes to an audience already well-versed in Mitchell history and lore. Whether new or old fans of Joni Mitchell, readers can appreciate the extensive research, and much of the book is in Mitchell's own words, including an entire chapter on her favorite things. (Apr.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

The proliferation of musical biography in the rock era has made available anecdotal facts to such an extent that a way has been paved for more inspired and specific study, such as this deft exploration of the creation of what is considered Joni Mitchell's most revered and confessional recording, her 1971 album, Blue. Mercer (Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter), an accomplished music journalist, wisely places her focus on Blue's almost perfect marriage of lyric, melody, mood, and explored experience at the center of the book, surrounded by a careful yet conversational look at how Mitchell got to that point in her life and where she went in the years that followed. Mercer was fortunate to spend extensive time talking directly with the media-shy Mitchell. The author's own thoughts and experiences play a subtle yet pivotal role as the enduring power of Blue is reflected in her personal narrative as one who was, and remains, inspired by this landmark recording. Recommended for all academic and public libraries.
—Peter Thornell

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In the Manner of the Ancients

THE SPRING OF 1970 WAS A LITTLE LATE FOR Joni Mitchell to be dropping in on Matala. In 1968, Life magazine had printed a lavishly illustrated seven-page cover story on the town's flourishing expatriate hippie culture. In a rocky beach cove just outside the village of about seventy-five people, Life reported, America's disaffected youth was taking up residence in a merry beehive of cliff caves. The freckled and wholesome Rick Heckler and Cathy Goldman, a kind of countercultural Adam and Eve, adorned the cover: "Young American nomads abroad, two Californians at home in a cave in Matala, Crete." Some of the kids were "merely off on a lark, doing what the young have done for generations," sympathized Life writer Thomas Thompson. But there were "too many others caught up in some sort of aimless journey toward an unknown destination." Even Ulysses, who was fabled to have stopped off at Matala, had been trying to get home. This self-indulgent generation, the writer's tone suggested, was rejecting everything his readers had struggled to build. These kids were running off o live in caves after all.

But a lot had changed in the two years since the Matala cave colony received such prominent mainstream coverage. By the time Mitchell arrived, parents were not shocked so much as disappointed when their promising college graduate children eschewed gainful employment for a rocky cave somewhere in Greece. Some of those parents were even beginning to work a Matala hippie tour into their sightseeing swings through the islands. Enterprising Greek villagers had put up a concrete parking lot in the muddy town square for the tourists.

If you had to arrive after they paved paradise, it was even more unfashionable to come as Joni Mitchell did, in pleated pants, looking like the successful California recording artist she was. It was pretty fancy attire for a place where kids would drive fifty miles to sell their blood for 350 drachma at the Iráklion hospital. Of course, some of those kids were only playing at poverty; others would be living with it more permanently. The appeal of Matala was that these two kinds of cave dwellers -- the middle-class dropouts and the poor kids -- could enjoy the same low-rent, high-principled existence there. Idealism was the great leveler.

In talking to some of the people who were in Matala at the time, I discovered something about the culture of the place. On the island back then, cave dwellers loved to talk about Matala's history, bypassing America's recent troubled past for nostalgic refuge in the birthplace of Western civilization. Hippies would refer with equal credulity and confidence to the myth that Ulysses himself had stopped there and the fact that the caves had been cut into the accommodating sandstone in Neolithic times. The ancients had used the caves as burial sites, someone had heard. Pirates stored their spoils there. At one time it was a leper colony. The point was, the cave dwellers were the latest in a long lineage of outcasts and freaks, the kind of people who make their own way. The sheer yellow-gray cliff reaching out like a long cradling arm into the Mediterranean was a visual reminder that hippies had come there to "put out," as the New Testament said metaphorically, "into deep water." That water as seen from the caves was emerald or sapphire or turquoise, depending on the day or who was looking. Always a rich, jeweltoned hue -- in the cave dwellers' estimation, it was such an elemental place that the water seemed to be its own reward.

In the caves, last names had as little meaning as time. One guy went by Proteus. Another was known as Yogi Joe. In spite of her striking Scandinavian beauty -- infinite blond hair, tall, lean frame -- and fine, well-pressed clothes, the practice of dressing for a trip a holdover from her small-town Saskatchewan youth, Mitchell arrived pretty anonymously too. Most of the cave dwellers had been checked out of the culture since Joni had achieved some success. Just that month Mitchell had received a Grammy for "Best Folk Performance" for her album Clouds. Even back in the United States, many people didn't know she was the one who'd written their generational anthem, "Woodstock," capturing in it the alluring prelapsarian notion of getting "back to the garden." Crosby, Stills and Nash sang and owned the song just as various other performers were largely credited with Mitchell's other popular songs: Tom Rush for "Urge for Going," Buffy Sainte-Marie for "The Circle Game," and Judy Collins for "Both Sides, Now." It would be a couple of years before Joni Mitchell posters would grace thousands of dorm room walls.

Mitchell was hoping to blend in with the crowd. She was looking for an escape, as well as a little fun. She was in crisis. In January, she had announced a break from touring, canceling appearances at Carnegie and Constitution halls. She played a final show at Royal Festival Hall in London and returned home to finish Ladies of the Canyon. She thought she'd retreat in Laurel Canyon, her leafy eucalyptus haven rising into the hillside, home to her friends, who happened to be some of rock's strongest talents, including her lover Graham Nash.

"I was being isolated, starting to feel like a bird in a gilded cage," she told Rolling Stone reporter Larry LeBlanc later that year at the Mariposa Festival, after she had returned from her travels. "I wasn't getting a chance to meet people. A certain amount of success cuts you off in a lot of ways. You can't move freely. I like to live, be on the streets, to be in a crowd and moving freely." Already, some of her best music had been stimulated by travel. A clarinetist whom she saw playing on a London street inspired "For Free." "Big Yellow Taxi," which along with "The Circle Game" was the closest she had ever come to a sing-along hit, was composed when she was on vacation in Hawaii and looked out her hotel window to see a parking lot in paradise. Life in the studio and on tour could become self-referential, and Mitchell was keen to escape the industry for a while. "The experiences I was having were so related to my work. It was reflected in the music," she said. "I thought I'd like to write on other themes. In order to do this, I had to have other experiences." She wanted to become her own muse again. Travel would force her to greet each day, person, and scene with a fresh perspective.

There were other reasons Mitchell wished she "had a river to skate away on," as she sang in "River," a song she'd written that winter. She couldn't shake her reputation as an angelic folksinger, which had plagued her ever since Rolling Stone had called her the "penny yellow blonde with a vanilla voice" upon her recording debut in 1968. Also annoying was the constant confusion with Joan Baez and Judy Collins, which had something do with the similarity of their names, true, but Mitchell also saw it as proof that no one was interested in hearing the growing musical complexity that distinguished her from those folk maidens. Worse, her record label, Reprise Records, was making it its business to sell her as a countercultural mascot. Upon the release of Ladies of the Canyon, Reprise took out an advertorial in Rolling Stone with a fictional story about a very hip chick -- the sort who tie-dyes curtains for her Volkswagen van -- who's been through a bad breakup but finds solace in the combination of a strong joint and Mitchell's new record. No hippie Madonna, Mitchell needed a break from her own love life: her life with Graham Nash had certainly seemed idyllic in his 1969 song "Our House," but she had turned down Graham's marriage proposal, realizing she couldn't settle down with him. Maybe she'd find out exactly why on the road.

Mitchell did have one standout hippie prop on hand in Matala. A few months earlier, she had commissioned a mountain dulcimer from a local Los Angeles artisan, Joellen Lapidus, and she took her new instrument on the road. The dulcimer's soft but bright drone served Mitchell well in the nightly cave music circles, where she held it across her lap, strumming melodies with a flat pick and sliding depressions of the strings to create her own accompaniment while she sang. There was no room for dancing in the caves, so Yogi Joe performed hand dances that cast surreal shadows on the cave walls.

In Matala, Mitchell sometimes borrowed a Gibson guitar from Johnny McKenzie. When he played his songs for her, he remembers her commenting that David Crosby would have liked them. They'd hike together through the fields, looking at peasants walking donkeys in the rustic countryside. Johnny told Mitchell he'd chased a woman across Europe and was sad because he knew she'd never belong to him. "If you want that girl," he also remembers her saying, "give her a baby." He's glad he didn't do that, no matter how heartbroken he was then.

By mid-April, five weeks into her stay, Mitchell -- along with the promise of free food -- was the main draw of a highly anticipated event advertised as the "Matala Hippie Convention," which worried the local Cretan authorities. But pretty much just the same old cave crowd showed up to hear Mitchell sing Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," a tune she'd never consent to do back home. By then she was ready to go. When you're running away it's easy to run in the wrong direction. Matala was the kind of place where you went to get free but ended up a prisoner in something like Plato's cave allegory. Ensconced in the countercultural lifestyle, the shapes of the outside world began to appear less real than hand shadows on the cave walls. Back in 1968, when the Life magazine reporter had relayed the news of Bobby Kennedy's death and met with no reaction, let alone the stunned grief he expected, he asked, "Is this the new phenomenon? Running away from America and running away from emotion?" "Back to the Garden" had bucolic overtones. But back to the caves? "Everybody was getting a little crazy there," Mitchell said. "Everybody was getting more and more into open nudity. They were really going back to the caveman. They were wearing little loincloths."

It didn't look like the free-spirited vagabond role suited her any better than those of iconic folk maiden or someone's old lady. She'd have to keep trying to get out from under the myths that other people imposed on her -- and that she sometimes imposed on herself. Mitchell knew the caves' communal life was too distracting for an artist. Now, work would come more easily away from Crete, back in the city. As Annie Dillard wrote, sometimes artists need a room with no view, a place where imagination can meet memory in the dark.

Mitchell arrived late to Matala but left just in time. As Johnny McKenzie remembers it, that was "just after the tourists climbed down the one-bucket well" to bathe, and "just before electricity came." Often on trips to Crete, the Greek island shuttle boat seemed as if it would sink in the sea's huge waves. McKenzie and Joni took the same boat on the return trip, and he says the Mediterranean was so calm that it reflected Mitchell's face like a mirror. After so many salt baths, she was looking scruffy enough to resemble the hippie Madonna she was reputed to be.

But Mitchell's listeners already know this. Or at least have sensed it. The hippie travel, the escape from the bonds of marriage, the grand dance between romance and disillusionment, the emerging realization that one's true motives and feelings are not as pure as hoped. We know what she was fighting and seeking as she left Matala and headed to maybe Amsterdam, or maybe Rome, where she'd rent a grand piano and put some flowers round her room. It's there in the confidences and professions of her music.

"Blue is partly a diary," Joni told me. "It's me moving through the backdrop of our changing times. I was in Matala and we got beach tar on our feet and then I went to Ibiza and I went to a party down a red dirt road, then I went to Paris where it was too old and cold and everything was done. But it's also more than a diary. It's one chapter in the Great American Novel of my work."

THE SOUND OF "ALL I WANT" is earthy, strong, and hightoned, attuned to a Mediterranean landscape. You might think you hear a rhythm section. It's actually just Mitchell alone, slapping her dulcimer's strings in a calypso beat while a drone adds a tinge of contemplation. After a few bars of these rhythm chords, she brings in some harmony at an odd interval, a fourth, its sense of suspension heightened by the dulcimer's thin tone. The music moves in a headlong rush, on an exuberant, high-strung search for something.
When Mitchell begins singing, the music has already conveyed mood so vividly that even the simplest lyrics register great poetic impact.

I am on a lonely road and I am traveling,
traveling, traveling, traveling
Looking for something, what can it be?

Lyrics and music are so intricately combined that listening is a pleasant confusion of word and sound. The splitting open of self in the lyrics is like a minor chord with no possibility or need of resolution. This is an aural postcard from the edge of feeling, and its intensity is expressed in odd intervals, rhythmic energy, and the strangely thin over-strummed timbre of the dulcimer.

Even back in 1970, smoking has already thickened Mitchell's vocal cords and brought her upper range down from the helium highs of earlier records like Clouds. But the awareness of her own imperfection gives her voice new grit and backbone: even up high she can no longer be mistaken for Snow White singing to birds, as was sometimes the case on her earlier folkinflected records.

James Taylor joins in on guitar, mellowing and warming the tune. He plays chords, mostly, momentarily breaking those chords into chains of notes that relax the music and add a little leaf and vine to the landscape. Taylor and Mitchell were in love when the recording was made, but this is tempered by Mitchell's lyrical admission that love can be tainted by other emotions.

Oh I hate you some, I hate you some, I love you

Oh I love you when I forget about me.

Along with its spare arrangement, this animate truth makes "All I Want" as affecting now as it was when first released in 1971. Above all, there's more raw emotion and nerve than anything Mitchell had done before. "I was demanding of myself a greater and greater honesty," she said of the period in which she recorded the song in a 2003 PBS interview, "so that it strikes against the very nerves of people's lives." Like the other songs she wrote in 1970 and recorded on Blue, "All I Want" has the sound of dawning self-knowledge. The music has shades of an intensely interior existence confronting the big sky and open water of experience. Because that's how Joni Mitchell's life played out that year. Mitchell went out traveling to find herself and is telling us what she found. Just after the record was finished, she played it for some songwriter friends.

"At that time we were still young enough that we played our songs for each other. It horrified all the male singersongwriters around me. I was amazed. They'd listen to it and they'd go [swallowing sound]. They were embarrassed for me. Because the popular song had been about posturing. It had been self-aggrandizing. The feminine appetite for intimacy is stronger than it is in men. So my songwriter friends listened and they all shut down, even Neil Young. The only one who spoke up was Kris Kristofferson. 'Jesus, Joni,' he said. 'Save something for yourself.' "

ZEUS WAS BORN twelve miles north of Matala and about several hundred miles south of the place he proclaimed the center of the earth: Delphi, where heaven and earth met, where man was closest to the gods. In Delphi, the oracle received the god Apollo's first commandment: "Know thyself." This notion of the self as the passageway of spiritual ascent was so central to the Greek worldview that Apollo's directive was inscribed over the oracle's doorway.

Knowing yourself is one thing. Writing, or singing, or even just revealing that self-knowledge to others is another. How did we get from knowing yourself to baring yourself so nakedly that people recommend that you just clam up? For that, we have to look away from Delphi, south of Matala, as Mitchell did when she sang, "The wind is in from Africa / Last night I couldn't sleep." As a resident of the seaside cliff caves, you heard and felt the sorokos howling from the Sahara, carrying scorched dust or the rough dream-robbing phantom of it, all the way from Libya. While Mitchell's self-observation stems from ancient Greece, the fact that she told us about her sleeplessness -- her very act of letting us in on it -- can be traced back across the Mediterranean to the North Africa of the fourth century. There was of course an intervening millennium or so and lots of significant literary and social history around the world. But essentially, it all goes back to Tagaste, near ancient Carthage, where St. Augustine of Hippo was born. It was Augustine who first defined and exemplified the practice of revealing the self and its history in words, thereby inventing autobiography in the Western world.

In 397, when Augustine began to write the thirteen books of his Confessions, he had been a baptized Catholic for ten years and a bishop for two. Ordination sat rather uneasily with Augustine. He wanted a monastic life rather than his bishop's church service job, which carried a magistrate's tedious responsibilities. By training, he was a rhetorician, the late Roman period's equivalent of a man of letters, but that's not why he wrote the Confessions. He addresses that issue, for God and for us, at the beginning of Book 1. "Why then do I put before you in order the stories of so many things?" Well, it's because he's lost. "I have become an enigma to myself," he says, "and herein lies my sickness and inner struggle." Since his own questing mind is his closest companion, Augustine has the bright idea of using that mind to objectify and understand himself. In merging Augustine the protagonist and Augustine the narrator, he will come to know himself.

In the Confessions, we learn that the thirteen-year-old Augustine stole from a pear tree not for the gluttony of savoring the fruit but for the pure evil thrill of the theft; after he made off with the pears, he'd throw them to the hogs. He never mastered Greek, for which he blamed a brutal teacher who constantly beat his students. He had a child with a concubine whom he loved deeply but would not marry because of the social and political consequences. He also felt guilty about his continuing attraction to a mystical brew of Manichean philosophy and astrology.

As Patricia Hampl discussed in her introduction to Augustine's work, what he confesses is not nearly as important as how he does it. When he began writing, Augustine intended his work to be read or recited communally, as was customary in this period before publication was invented. Then one day he had an epiphany when he came upon his mentor, Ambrose of Milan, reading alone silently to himself. This unusual sight changed his methodology of writing and his approach to the word itself. To accommodate the solitude of a lone reader, focusing oneself on one text, Augustine crafted a narrative that clearly and closely illuminated the workings of his own mind. "The Confessions is startling because Augustine has found a way to reveal the profound intimacy of a mind thinking," Hampl wrote. "This is the narrative engine that drives autobiography: consciousness, not experience, is the galvanizing core of a personal story." It is a mind in pursuit of meaning that we encounter for the first time in the Confessions, the desire to understand and the admission of what he does not: "These writings are not true confessions of mine," he writes, "unless I confess to you, 'I do not know.' "

The Confessions are not truly an autobiography, though -- the first genuine autobiography was written 1,300 years later by Rousseau. Augustine's confessions are a collection of those fundamental life episodes in which he can find and promote the inexplicable actions of God's grace. The word "confess" has double meaning here. First, it is an inventory of one's thoughts and actions, which for Augustine means a confession of sins. But he is also confessing the truth he knows about God. To confess is to glorify God through an act of humility because after confession God can grant or deny salvation.

Having laid his own soul bare and concluding his personal history at the end of Book IX, Augustine then feels justified in proclaiming the origin and meaning of good and evil for everyone. In Books XII and XII, Augustine fixes his attention on the first chapter of Genesis, performing a verse-by-verse exegesis in which he holds Adam and Eve responsible for everything: "The deliberate sin of the first man is the cause of original sin." Therefore, he asserts, everyone must be baptized and confess one's sins to cleanse oneself of them, just as Augustine himself has done.

The cost of Augustine's great literary leap, then, the price of his innovation of first putting consciousness onto the page, is shame. Something of the mystical Augustine does live on in certain often-quoted phrases: "Our whole business therefore in this life is to restore the health of the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen." But Augustine the mystic was no match for Augustine the architect of sin and salvation. "The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works," he also wrote, much more influentially. After Augustine's Confessions, there was no closeness to God without the soul-cleansing redemption of owning up to sin. He made shame the only route to holiness.

JONI MITCHELL HATES ST. AUGUSTINE and loves to vent her antagonism in stories about him. As Vic Garbarini wrote, Mitchell is a "great storyteller in the ancient Greek tradition, not so much describing or analyzing a situation as conjuring up landscapes of cinematic power that take the listener vicariously through the event. You emerge from the other side with the feeling that you've lived the event yourself and maybe even learned a lesson or two." Indignation raises the stakes in her stories. Disbelief yields colorful details, outrage evokes sharper, more clearly defined characters, and derision stimulates a heightened sense of action. Mitchell blames Augustine for much that is wrongheaded in the Judeo-Christian tradition. By her account, he misattributed his own human failing of cowardice (not marrying the woman he loved) to original sin, and then had the chutzpah to turn the faulty notion of original sin into doctrine. Sure, Augustine finished off mysticism as a legitimate route to the Christian God, but her real grievance with him is that he's a "champion bullshitter" -- that is, he regimented the act of confessing the truth and made it dogma without seeking the deeper truth about himself and his own messy motivations. He didn't know himself well enough to serve the inner reality of the human condition, which is what Mitchell believes anyone who puts pen to paper should do -- and what she's striven to do throughout her life's work. Mitchell is nevertheless seduced by these moments in his narrative that are surrounded by a magical aura. Conversion moments make for good stories. As Mitchell sees it:

"Augustine was in love or in lust -- in his opinion, he was in lust -- but he was attached to a woman with whom he had a child. They were unmarried, but that was okay, the times were very liberal. But he was expected to marry above his station, rise into the court. He had risen very high because silver-tongued devil, but the next political move was to marry a rich woman and move up the political ladder, which was acceptable back then. But he couldn't let go of this woman with no money. "The Bible hadn't been formulated yet, but Augustine had the letters of the Romans, in some form or another. He'd been reading them and he was abandoning Virgil and Cicero in favor of Luke. He was out in the backyard sweating all this out, this impossible situation: he couldn't let go of this woman; he was screwed because he couldn't just dump her. Through a synchronistic event, he heard a girl, a child skipping in the neighboring yard. This book I was reading said, 'In the manner of the ancients' -- this synchronicity was something that people valued back then. Of course, it's still alive and well today, at least in the arts community. So in the manner of the ancients he heard this child skipping, and the skipping rhyme he heard was saying, 'Pick it up and read, pick it up and read.' And he went in and opened the book of Romans and he came across this passage that was really hostile to lust. "He adapted that stance and that formed this crazy interpretation of Genesis. Which is such a chopped-up story anyway. Huge sections of it cut out Lilith, for example. Among other things. Like the two trees. The Tree of Knowledge gets all the attention, but there's also the Tree of Everlasting Life in it. "Well, I've got my own idea of that story, of what a better interpretation of that story might be, a better interpretation of it than a man who's upset because he can't let a woman go and marry another woman to progress his career. To think about the influence that he's had on the world because of his own obsessions..."

AUGUSTINE'S WORK BENEFITED from a transitional period in Christian history when an ironclad doctrine was just what the Church wanted. With their enormous social upheaval, the 1960s were also a prime time for a talented Holy Roller or despot -- or songwriter -- to glorify a personal obsession into a powerful cult, dictatorship or tune. Lo and behold, Bob Dylan wrote the song "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine," in which he heard the saint sounding his "sad complaint" in a voice "without restraint." This dreamy evocation of Augustine was really nothing more than one of Dylan's personal obsessions, but thanks to his mythic vision and bardic voice, "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" became a song of great influence and a testament to Dylan himself. No matter what Dylan wrote about, fans wanted to listen.

And he wrote about whatever pleased him. Mitchell, whose autobiographical accounts have more epiphanies than a James Joyce story collection -- more conversion moments than even Augustine's confessions -- often cites the transformative effect of first hearing Dylan's "Positively 4th Street" when it was released in 1965. The song is verse upon verse of beguilingly tuneful vitriol directed at someone who betrayed him. "You've got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend / When I was down, you just stood there grinning." The sentiment is personal, and its intention is that the listener take it personally. Never before in songwriting were sore feelings and disdain tossed off in such a disarmingly colloquial style. In Mitchell's telling, she was enlightened the moment she first heard this song; it threw open a hidden door to the self 's wide world of subjective topicality. "Oh my God," she said to herself then, as she later recalled, "you can write about anything in songs!" And eventually she would. Of course, what Mitchell wrote with this carte blanche was quite different from Dylan's songwriting -- as distinct as sadness and anger, as the colors blue and red.

What unites Bob and Joni, the royalty of songwriting, is their common starting point: they both came of age in folk music's pop heyday. They broke away from the folk tradition with as much inevitability as the so-called confessional poets broke away from modernist dicta in the 1950s. Not that the folk world had so well wrought a doctrine as poetry, whose modernist figurehead and spokesman, T. S. Eliot, both showed in verse and told in criticism. It was one thing when Eliot's masterpiece The Waste Land demonstrated the high art of symbolism; it was another when his critical essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" explicitly dictated the ideal tone of a poem as impersonal and crafted to perfection, with no concern for the figure of the poet himself. Eliot's allusive, symbolic, and, yes, impersonal style reigned supreme when confessional poets came of age -- and it was that style which Robert Lowell left behind when he wrote the confessional verse of Life Studies, that Berryman took issue with in Dream Songs, and Elizabeth Bishop moved beyond in North & South.

Folk music's hero was, of course, Woody Guthrie. Guthrie led by example, not by precepts, although his charisma and songwriting skills gave him a certain messianic quality. Most poets engaged and argued with Eliot, even as they toed his line; musicians simply followed Guthrie. He was a journeyman, traveling across the United States to learn traditional folk and blues songs, trailing migrant workers from Oklahoma to California. Guthrie's observations of the economic and environmental hardships of the Dust Bowl era inspired him to write his own lyrics about working people, which he set to traditional folk music. Topical songwriting as defined by Guthrie meant chronicling a plane crash of migrant workers soon after it happened, with politics giving the lament implicit meaning. "I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work," said Guthrie -- a goal that would impact his most popular song, "This Land Is Your Land," a response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." Guthrie's original 1944 version contained two recriminatory verses, but he later killed them to preserve the wholly patriotic tone of the version that went on to become an American songbook classic. His songs told the truth -- as long as it was an uplifting truth.

In the late 1950s, growing pools of folksingers in Cambridge and Greenwich Village took Guthrie's lead and focused on the issues of the day, especially civil rights. Though all these musicians knew and admired Guthrie, the one to seek him out in his declining years at the Greystone Hospital in Morristown, New Jersey, was Bob Dylan. Dylan idolized Guthrie, calling him "the true voice of the American Spirit" -- indeed, Guthrie is one of the few subjects Dylan does not obfuscate in his memoir Chronicles. When Dylan first hit the coffeehouse scene in New York in 1961, he could be accurately introduced onstage as a "young folksinger" who "sang a lot of Woody's tunes." In those days, a musician was presented with a body of songs, or "rebel ballads," as Dylan liked to call them, so authoritative that it took real ingenuity even to think beyond them. Within a year or so, though, Dylan began to have some doubts about the populist style of topical songwriting, with its focus on real events: "You could usually find some kind of point of view in it and take it for what it was worth," he writes in Chronicles. But "the writer doesn't have to be accurate, could tell you anything and you're going to believe it." Those rousing, heartfelt folk songs didn't always offer much opportunity to find or tell inner truths.

A larger cultural shift was coming. The conformity of the 1950s was giving way to the 1960s ethos of individual freedom, and this epochal shift would also change Dylan's approach to songwriting. Some of the 1960s ideals borrowed from the Enlightenment period of the French Revolution, which also sought to invent a new culture of man. Jean-Jacques Rousseau,an important Enlightenment figure, was also the originator of the modern autobiography.

Augustine had established the conventions for writing a confession, conventions that St. Teresa of Avila and many others had observed in their autobiographies. But while the motives for these confessions were theological, Rousseau would reclaim both the act of confessing and the early title Confessions for his own purposes. "By Rousseau's age," notes Confessions translator J. M. Cohen, "men had begun to see themselves not as atoms in society that stretched down from God to the world of nature but as unique individuals, important in their own right." Rousseau's soul baring is a matter of principle, but it's not a Christian principle, and his commitment to honesty initiated the Romantic practice of analyzing the self as an end unto itself.

The soul-baring ideal thrived in the '60s, and helped Dylan, who like Rousseau had an almost religious sense of elf-importance, break through folk music's conventions with songs like "Positively 4th Street." Dylan's later shift from acoustic to electric guitar scandalized the folk establishment, but that was just a change in external form. More radical was his departure from the political advocacy of Woody Guthrie- style folk in order to sing songs of himself. The Canadian folk scene from which Mitchell first emerged was defined less by political songwriting than by the broadside balladry of the British Isles, though that left just as little room for personal subjectivity in lyrics. She needed to hear Dylan. After Dylan had transitioned from social commentary and folk storytelling to his personal song-poetry, Mitchell also moved to more autobiographical material in 1970 on Ladies of the Canyon. She confessed ambivalence over commercial work, comparing herself unfavorably to a noble sidewalk musician in "For Free." She shared her deep feelings for Graham Nash in "Willy": "I feel like I'm just being born / Like a shiny light breaking in a storm / There are so many reasons why I love him."

And then she went even deeper on Blue. But while bitterness offered Dylan some self-protection, Mitchell's Blue songs were stories of self from a time when she had no defenses at all. "My individual psychological descent coincided with my ascent into the public eye," she has said. "They put me on a pedestal and I was wobbling. I thought I'd show them who they were worshiping." Mitchell often says she found her poetic ideal in the words of Nietzsche's Zarathustra, who envisions "a new breed of poet, a penitent of spirit; they write in their own blood." Joni was entirely a creature of her feelings, and in this way was like Rousseau, who explained their primacy in his Confessions: "I have freely told the good and the bad, and have hid nothing wicked, added nothing good; and if I have happened to make use of an insignificant ornament, 'twas only to fill a void occasioned by a short memory." An accurate memory was unimportant to Rousseau because his Confessions were the fruit of faithful attention to his emotions. He was sickly throughout his life and hypochondriac besides, always preoccupied with sensations of comfort or discomfort. His pleasant, calm, or violent attitudes toward other people and himself were as changeable as the weather -- which also affected him deeply. He revels in feelings as his inner truth, and that inner truth is what he aims to share in the Confessions. "I may omit or transpose facts, or make mistakes in dates," Rousseau writes at the start of his seventh book. "But I cannot go wrong about what I felt, or about what my feelings have led me to do; and they are the subject of my story." This fidelity to human truth is the legacy that Rousseau handed down in Western culture, which eventually made its way into the culture of autobiographical songwriting.

Mitchell's originality as a songwriter was not to write music about just anything -- Bob Dylan had already done that -- but to investigate her inner life and make its inchoate aspects concrete in lyrics and music, to excavate and flesh out her feelings. "The writing has been an exercise in trying to work my way towards clarity," she said in the 2003 PBS interview. "Get out the pen and try to face the beast yourself. And what's bothering you, right? Well, that's not exactly it. It's very hard peeling the layers off your own onion. When you get to the truth, do I want to say that in public?"

IN AUGUST 1970, Mitchell was forced to figure out just what she was willing to reveal in a very public moment. The third and final edition of the Isle of Wight Festival took place on East Afton Farm in Freshwater, England, and its bucolic setting put attendees in mind of Woodstock. But the crowd grew unruly as promoters tried to keep out people who hadn't paid by putting up corrugated iron fences and hiring police to patrol with trained guard dogs. When things got ugly during Mitchell's set, she confronted the audience.

The mood of Mitchell's performance at Isle of Wight was a preview of the Blue album, which she was then writing and would record a few months later. On the festival stage, she came off as kind of angry, kind of vulnerable, kind of sad, but with a cold blue steel will to tell the crowd exactly how she felt. One night at dinner, I asked her how she managed to gather up her courage at Isle of Wight. Almost forty years later, it's still one of her favorite stories:

"The first time I stood my ground was there, in front of half a million people. It was a hostile audience. Some French rowdies stirred people up, based on the fact that we had sold out because we arrived in fancy cars. Neil Young and I rented a red Rolls. It was decadent backstage. So there was an 'us versus them' mentality from the audience, we performers were seen as privileged and elite, putting on royal airs. "Some acts canceled and there was a gaping space in the program. For about an hour, no one would go on. So it created a dead space. I was scared witless, but wanted to be cooperative. I said I'd go out. Onstage I had a broad perspective on the crowd and its energy that you couldn't see from inside it. Soon after I started -- maybe in the second song -- a guy near the front started flipping out on acid. He let out a banshee yell, like he had the devil at his heels. The whole crowd started undulating with waves of his energy. It was not good. There was brewing unrest. "I moved over to the piano to play 'Woodstock,' which was kind of funny -- this event was more like a war zone than Woodstock. A guy from the caves, Yogi Joe, who taught me my first yoga lesson, he suddenly appears on the stage. He gave me the victory sign and says, 'Spirit of Matala, Joni!' And then he starts playing congas -- with terrible time, the time of a disturbed child. I bent over to him and told him it was entirely inappropriate. At the end of the song, Yogi Joe leaps up and grabs the mic: 'It's desolation row and we're all headed to hell!' or something like that. The guards grab him. The crowd had already been agitated, but this really riles them up: 'They've got one of ours!' and they're moving forward. "I wanted to run, but I'd been running away a lot, canceling shows, you know, to travel and avoid the big stage. But here's where I got my strength. With Dennis Wilson and James Taylor, I'd just been at a Hopi ceremony, a snake dance ceremony to bring rain to their corn crops. They dance with live snakes. One stood up on its tail and rocketed into the audience. The people parted like the red sea, but the musicians, who were priests, these drummers, kept playing, kept the groove. They knew they had to bring the rain."

Videos of Mitchell's Isle of Wight set tell the rest of the story. Unsure what to do about the crowd, she bought time by vamping on a piano intro to "My Old Man." She was the very image of feminine vulnerability in a long yellow dress and a turquoise belt and bracelet she'd just bought at the Hopi reservation. After a couple minutes of holding back tears, her chin quivering with the strain of it, her confusion hardened into righteous indignation. She stopped playing and addressed the crowd.

"Listen a minute, will ya? Will ya listen a minute? Now listen...A lot of people who get up here and sing, I know it's fun, ya know, it's a lot of fun. It's fun for me, I get my feelings off through my music, but listen...You got your life wrapped up in it and it's very difficult to come up here and lay something down when people...It's like last Sunday I went to a Hopi ceremonial dance in the desert and there were a lot of people there and there were tourists...and there were tourists who were getting into it like Indians and there were Indians who were getting into it like tourists, and I think that you're acting like tourists, man. Give us some respect."

"And the beast lay down," Mitchell said, finishing the story. "The beast lay down. Depending on who you asked, I either saved the festival or was the victim of it." Concertgoers have mentioned that Mitchell couldn't see or hear the noisy helicopter that flew overhead during her set -- the real object of the crowd's jeering hostility. Regardless, it was good practice for her: even while keyed up in the face of a large, restive crowd, she could stand her ground by speaking with intimacy and honesty. She finished out the show with several more songs, including "A Case of You" and "California," which would appear on Blue.

"NO, NO, NO, NO!" Mitchell yelled, pounding the table with her cigarette-free hand. We were outside smoking after dinner, during which she had told her Isle of Wight story. I had remarked that Joni's obituaries might very well focus in on this period in the '70s when, as she said onstage at the Isle of Wight, her "life was wrapped up" in her music, when she brought new literacy to personal songwriting. I had suggested that, like it or not, her most enduring legacy might even be as a "confessional songwriter." Never one to mince words, Mitchell said, "That's as close as someone could come to calling me a nigger." She went on to say:

"When I think of confession, two things come to mind. The swinging light and the billy club, you know, trying to get a confession out of somebody that's been captured. Confess, confess! Or a witch hunt. Or trials. Confession is somebody trying to beat something out of you externally. You're imprisoned. You're captured. They're trying to get you to admit something. To humiliate and degrade yourself and put yourself in a bad position. Then there's the voluntary confession of Catholicism. Where you go to this window and you talk to this priest and you tell him that you're having sexual fantasies and he's wanking on the other side of the window. Both of those things, that's confession. That's the only two kinds of confession I know -- voluntary and under duress -- and I am not confessing.

Graham Nash told me much the same thing: "I think the word confessional has a religious connotation that I shy away from and so do most of my friends. So I think that that is the problem with confession. It implies guilt and something that you did wrong. And none of that is true." My first experience with confession came during second grade, at my Catholic grade school, when we were excused from math class and marched single file to the church next door. One by one, we were ushered into the curtained booth. I eavesdropped on my classmates' confessions. Debbie Mays had stolen candy? Really? On the other hand, it came as no surprise that Brian Lee had hit his little brother. When it was my turn, I recited, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession." I was burning to get 44 Will You Take Me As I Am to the freshly memorized Act of Contrition prayer, where I knew I'd shine. But first, I was asked by Father Mohr to unburden my seven-year-old soul of its many sins. I couldn't come up with any. "Have you stolen?" he asked. No. "Well, did you cheat in school?" No. "Did you get jealous of your sister or brother?" No. "Did you help your mother as much as you could have?"

I sensed Father Mohr's growing impatience as he moved down his list in order of decreasing gravity, from sins of commission to sins of omission. Back in 1980, when the culture of therapy hadn't yet softened the church, and secrets were too terrible to meet face-to-face, our small-town Kansas church still practiced anonymous confession. But through the plastic haze of a book-sized window I could make out Father Mohr's aged profile, visualize his bulbous red nose. I'd been so pleased when he'd sat down across from me in the school lunchroom that day and had stifled my nausea when he'd accidentally spit some spinach into my milk -- a priest wasn't supposed to make you sick to your stomach. He'd recently been at the family farm, a holy star in our midst, to help us dig up potatoes in the garden (consecrating both priest and potatoes in my mother's mind) and to talk baseball with my dad out in the milk barn.

Sitting in the dark, draped confessional, I wanted so badly to appease Father Mohr with an overripe peccadillo, rich in horrible detail. Some spoiled and rotten deed that he could sink his teeth into, something he could present to God in exchange for the clean bill of forgiveness he would then fetch back for me from on high. While I worried about how grievous a sin it might be to concoct one, Father Mohr waited in silence, an old hand at this kneeling booth show. Finally, the time-honored process of extracting confessions joined forces with my eagerness to please. I committed my original sin right there in the confessional booth: I told the priest a lie by telling him I had lied.

Artists who commit themselves to the autobiographical form, revealing their thoughts and feelings in song or verse or prose, sometimes place themselves in a position similar to mine in the booth. They are required to cough up juicy admissions and pretty lies because the form demands it. What Mitchell and so many others disdain about being thrown into the confessional category is partly its implication of an original or basic flaw as the starting point for a poem or song. The term connotes a need to flush out and thereby cure what isn't actually in need of revealing or healing and perhaps may not even be there t all. Sylvia Plath condemned the idea of poetry as "some kind of therapeutic public purge or excretion."

But artists' common contempt for the "confessional" tag is about something even more crucial. Elizabeth Bishop lamented the trend toward "more and more anguish and less and less poetry." Pain alone is no credential for a poet. Poetry is not merely recorded experience -- maybe painful, maybe not -- but experience transformed into insight by invention and expression. Or as Mitchell says, "Sometimes you write about the exact thing you saw, but other times you take something that happened over here and put it with something over there." The difference between mere disclosure and the enduring work of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, or Robert Lowell is at once simple and profound. Mitchell identifies that difference as art.

"Art is artifice and it doesn't matter whose life I scraped to get that text. Of course, I have more access to my own. If you spend a lot of time alone, that's your major resource -- your own experience. If I have a human revelation about myself, that's the kind of thing that inspires me to say, 'There is a human element worthy of a song.' It doesn't have to be very big. You can make a good play out of anything, including yourself. But songs traditionally didn't carry these literary elements, and that's what my contribution to the songwriting form probably was, to bring songs closer to something like a good play. But I'm not making these songs out of a need to confess to anyone; it's out of a need to create a story. It works in plays; it works in movies. 'I could have been a contender...' Was Brando confessing? People get Academy Awards for that kind of stuff and they don't call them confessional."

For the most part, Mitchell's claim seems accurate. The confessional literary innovation of Augustine was the basis for autobiography, which was in turn the basis for personal songwriting. Yet "confession" is the wrong word for what Mitchell does. She doesn't strive to tell the truth about herself. She strives to find and express human truths, and in the process, she happens to reveal quite a bit about herself. "In songs I'm developing characters and experiences which may or may not be based on myself," she said. During the first half of the 1970s, Mitchell's songs were often based on her own experiences. "Yes," Joni went on, "my songs have always been more autobiographical than most people's." So while her Blue Period may not have been confessional, it was about as personal as songwriting had ever been.

Copyright © 2009 by Michelle Mercer

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