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Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell

Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell

by David Yaffe
Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell

Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell

by David Yaffe


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"She was like a storm." —Leonard Cohen

Reckless Daughter is the story of an artist and an era that have left an indelible mark on American music.

Joni Mitchell may be the most influential female recording artist and composer of the late twentieth century. In Reckless Daughter, the music critic David Yaffe tells the remarkable, heart-wrenching story of how the blond girl with the guitar became a superstar of folk music in the 1960s, a key figure in the Laurel Canyon music scene of the 1970s, and the songwriter who spoke resonantly to, and for, audiences across the country.

A Canadian prairie girl, a free-spirited artist, Mitchell never wanted to be a pop star. She was nothing more than “a painter derailed by circumstances,” she would explain. And yet, she went on to become a talented self-taught musician and a brilliant bandleader, releasing album after album, each distinctly experimental, challenging, and revealing. Her lyrics captivated listeners with their perceptive language and naked emotion, born out of Mitchell’s life, loves, complaints, and prophecies. As an artist whose work deftly balances narrative and musical complexity, she has been admired by such legendary lyricists as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and beloved by such groundbreaking jazz musicians as Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock. Her hits—from “Big Yellow Taxi” to “Both Sides, Now” to “A Case of You”—endure as timeless favorites, and her influence on the generations of singer-songwriters who would follow her, from her devoted fan Prince to Björk, is undeniable.

In this intimate biography, drawing on dozens of unprecedented in-person interviews with Mitchell, her childhood friends, and a cast of famous characters, Yaffe reveals the backstory behind the famous songs—from Mitchell’s youth in Canada, her bout with polio at age nine, and her early marriage and the child she gave up for adoption, through the love affairs that inspired masterpieces, and up to the present—and shows us why Mitchell has so enthralled her listeners, her lovers, and her friends.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374538064
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 10/02/2018
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 132,634
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

David Yaffe was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1973. He has written on numerous subjects (music, film, theater, dance, higher education) for The Nation, New York, Slate, The New York Times, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The Paris Review, and other publications. He is currently a professor of English at Syracuse University, and is the author of Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing and Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown.

Read an Excerpt



One more time, she had to explain how she was born, and how the stage would be set for her to be the hero of her own life. The more unlikely, the more heroic. Things conspired — extraordinary things, things no one back home or anywhere else — could have ever imagined. She said she did not grow up playing air guitar in the mirror. But she painted, she danced, nearly died, came back, danced again, and began to unfold.

Roberta Joan Anderson was born on November 7, 1943, in Fort Macleod, Alberta. Her mother had been a teacher and her father was a military man who later became a grocery store executive. The world would come to know her as Joni Mitchell, winner of eight Grammy Awards (including one in 2002 for Lifetime Achievement), inductee into the Rock and Roll and Canadian Songwriters Halls of Fame. She wrote a song — "Woodstock" — that named a generation, and routinely makes critics' top ten lists of the greatest singer-songwriters of the twentieth century. "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Help Me" still play on classic rock radio every day, high school students still quote "The Circle Game" in yearbooks, and recordings of Blue are downloaded, Spotified, Pandora'd, and snapped up with mocha lattes at Starbucks around the world. "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot" has become so familiar it's almost a cliché. In 2017, "Free Man in Paris" played, in its entirety, on the HBO series Girls, and "Both Sides, Now" was sung at the Oscars in 2016, in tribute to a year in which the world lost a stunning array of creative luminaries ranging from Prince (who loved Joni) and Leonard Cohen (who was Joni's lover), to David Bowie, Gene Wilder, Mary Tyler Moore, and Carrie Fisher. In the contemporary imagination, Joni Mitchell is more than a 1970s icon or pop star. She is our eternal singer- songwriter of sorrows, traveling through our highs and lows, the twentieth-century master of the art song tradition that stretches to Franz Schubert. Joni is as introspective and eloquent as Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, but she went beyond them in melody and harmony, exploring chords only jazz virtuosi could play to her satisfaction. She has stopped performing, but her records keep playing, documents of beauty and imperfection. As long as people can listen to music, her story will be told in her voice, her weird chords, her inimitable way.

In her songs, big stories become gloriously condensed. And the story that began all the others — the story of her mother's life and marriage, and of her own birth — are all told, briefly, beautifully, and powerfully in an astonishing song, "The Tea Leaf Prophecy."

"It's a lot of history in a small space, shorthanded," Joni told me. "My mother, Myrtle McKee, had been a country schoolteacher and she came into the city. She was working in a bank next to the police station, and the windows of the cop shop looked down into the tellers' area, and they were always flirting from the windows. But the tellers found Mounties and cops distasteful. She and her girlfriend went to the fancy hotel, and they had a tea leaf reader, a palmist also. They wore white gloves and hats and it was very la-di-da, because it was the tail end of the Canadian Anglophile era. So it was a kind of poshy thing to do. And when he read her tea leaves, he told her three things: you'll be married in a month, you'll have a child within a year, and you'll live to an old age and die a long and agonizing death, which is a terrible thing, even if you see it, to say."

When Joni first recorded the song for her 1988 album, Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm, she used a pseudonym for her mother: Myrtle McKee became "Molly McGee." First she tells the story of her mother's visit with the tea leaf reader:

Newsreels rattle the Nazi dread The able-bodied have shipped away Molly McGee gets her tea leaves read You'll be married in a month they say

"These leaves are crazy," says Molly McGee. It's a joke. Consulting the leaves isn't crazy; they're just not making sense. And Joni's musical mind emerges here figuratively. There are no men, just boys "talking to teacher in the treble clef." The next verse is a beautiful, lyrical telling of her parents' unlikely wartime romance. The man in this love story is, like Bill Anderson, a sergeant on a two-week leave. They meet and their fate is sealed. Joni imagines her young parents making love — a topic that would be awkward for most — with tenderness:

Oh these nights are strong and soft Private passions and secret storms Nothin' about him ticks her off And he looks so cute in his uniform

This romance is immediately followed with the locked-in domesticity of long hard winters in the Canadian prairies that is her mother's life. There are endless chores, and the cycles are relentless, banal, with endless drudgery. And even her stated intention to flee becomes monotonous, too:

She says "I'm leavin' here" but she don't go

The story of Joni's parents is one she attempted to unravel throughout her lifetime and in her music. Why had the stars aligned for Myrtle McKee, who had taught in a one-room school and was clerking at a bank in Regina, and William Anderson, on leave from the Royal Canadian Air Force? Anderson's family hailed from Scandinavia. When a grown-up Joni asked him why his name didn't have the usual Swedish spelling of "Andersen," he said the name was changed at Ellis Island from "Amberson." Joni suspected from her high cheekbones that she had Laplander blood. She also wondered if her father's family was hiding a Jewish name.

She came of age in the postwar baby boom, but she was an only child. Her mother's unhappiness with marriage and motherhood is threaded through "The Tea Leaf Prophecy": "She says 'I'm leavin' here' but she don't go." There is also, in the song, Myrtle's advice to her only daughter:

"Hiroshima cannot be pardoned!
It was a line from real life that Joni found baffling. "She used to say it to me all the time: 'Don't have kids when you get grown.' I was an only child and I found it insulting. She meant that I was a pain in the ass. I was in conflict with her. She was a bigot, she was very cautious and conservative and wouldn't take any chances, no displays of emotionality or anything."

Joni sized up her parents and found them wanting. As a toddler, she had a recurring dream, more like a nightmare, of being in the car with her parents and her father losing control of the car. "I would wake up with the most horrible emotion," she told me. "And I would have never been able to figure that dream out, and I can usually interpret my own dreams easily, because I'm in touch with my own symbolism. This was a real incident that stored like film. I thought, 'Okay.' My dream was a stored photograph of what preceded his irrationality. The road ahead was flooded after we came on a bright, sunny day. The slough was overflowed, and you could see there was water lying across the road. We were in danger. And as an infant, I could see: What is he acting like that for? Turn the fuckin' car around. And I sucked my thumb and gave myself an overbite. My parents — their judgment was so sucky all the time. These people are not thinking and I'm small and in their care. Help! So I had to be my own person very young."

Many years later, she and her friend Tony Simon were with her father, talking about dreams; her father usually had an uncanny ability to interpret them. Joni, who was still unable to understand the dream, brought it up. Her father hung his head in shame.

"Well, that really happened," he said. "I behaved irrationally."

For Joni, it was a powerful affirmation of her childhood suspicion that she was being raised by adults who were not up to the task. She would veer back and forth between feeling contempt for them and the deep desire to protect them. "So, I was two and a half years old and I discovered that my parents were nuts — that they had really bad judgment. But that they were acting like they were in danger. After that incident, I perceived him as vulnerable, and I was kind of his champion. Because in school, people would say, 'If you talk about your dad one more time, I'm going to punch you.'"

She had similar memories of her mother's own shortcomings. Sharon Bell (who is now Sharon Veer) remembered, "Joni and I were hanging out at her house, and Myrt went to get groceries. She was buying liver for supper because Joni liked liver, which I could never understand at that age. Myrt went down to the basement, she tripped, she fell, and this liver splattered out and Myrt fell on the floor. We were all standing there looking down the stairs at her. [Our friend] Marilyn said, 'Is she dead?' And Joni said, 'I don't know, but I don't think we're having liver for supper.' For whatever reason, Joni thought that was just hilarious, and I bet she told that same story every time I saw her."

The near accident and Joni's traumatic recurring nightmares about it confirmed her feeling that her childhood was an ongoing car crash. She was alone in a house with her simple and conservative parents, in a countryside whose beauty she embraced and whose provincialism she abhorred. Nobody else could tell Joni how it felt when her parents' slights and shortcomings made impacts. No one knew how many times she felt the vehicle of family life flip and turn and crash.

Joni felt her parents lacked vision — figuratively and literally. As soon as Joni could identify her colors, she already had an advantage over Bill and Myrtle Anderson. "My parents are both color-blind and I'm color acute," Joni recalled. "I don't know how they got through traffic. My father wanted to fly and they grounded him, which broke his heart. But he wouldn't be able to see the color of the landing lights. They never tried to paint or anything. You could paint color-blind, but you'd be making green skies and blue water, which is okay. They'd think you were being very modern, daring."

Joni's mother was a housewife, and her father was the merchandising coordinator for Shelly Bros., owners of the OK Economy grocery chain. They led a modest life and never wanted to attract too much attention. And then they had Joni. In the words of Philip Roth: There is a God, and his name is Aristophanes.

"I knew her parents very well," said Tony Simon, her friend from Nutana Collegiate High School and the Y dances in Saskatoon. "They were friends with my parents. They were not friends with a lot of people. My parents were very social. The Andersons weren't. They were very nice. They didn't energetically mix with a lot of people, but they were always very receptive to anybody that Joni brought over. They paid attention. Her father especially, if you met him at any age from sixty-five up, you'd think, what a laid-back nice guy. But what you'd be missing was that he was an intensely competitive guy. Not many people have shot their age in golf. He has. He was a championship tennis player, and I think some of Joni's competitiveness came from that. He was quietly competitive. Saskatchewan during the war and right after was not a very competitive place. Being a grocery store owner in those days was a pretty prestigious job. They didn't have [a lot of] money, but in those days, people were careful with resources. Living was pretty goddamn good for Joni compared to what's going on today. Did she have to scrape along? Not really."

Growing up in the years after World War II made an impression on Joni. They made her a rebel, with a strain of Rosie the Riveter in her DNA. At the same time, she was a young woman of the 1950s; she came of age in the Mad Men era when happiness seemed just a purchase away. "There were only two stores in town," Joni explained. "My dad ran the grocery store and Marilyn McGee's dad ran the general store. She and I called the Simpsons-Sears catalogue 'The Book of Dreams.' It was so glamorous when I was a child ... We'd be down on our bellies looking at every page, and she and I would ... pick out our favorite matron's girdle and our favorite saw and our favorite hammer. 'I like that one best.' Every page, 'That's my favorite.' So in that way you learned to shop before you have money, you learn the addiction of the process of selection." The love of shopping stayed with Joni. So much so that even today, she says, "You could take me anywhere on any budget level and I'll go into 'That's a good thing for that much money. That's a beautiful thing.'"

She always loved music. "The Hit Parade was one hour a day — four o'clock to five o'clock," she recalled. "On the weekends they'd do the Top Twenty. But the rest of the radio was Mantovani, country and western, a lot of radio journalism. Mostly country and western, which I wasn't crazy about. To me it was simplistic. Even as a child I liked more complex melody. In my teens I loved to dance. That was my thing. I instigated a Wednesday night dance 'cause I could hardly make it to the weekends. For dancing, I loved Chuck Berry. Ray Charles. 'What'd I Say.' I liked Elvis Presley. I liked the Everly Brothers."

She called herself a "good-time Charlie" and her school friends still confirm it. The laughter at the end of "Big Yellow Taxi" was as familiar to them as a telephone call from an old friend. "I was anti-intellectual to the nth," she explained. "Basically, I liked to dance and paint and that was about it. As far as serious discussions went, at that time most of them were overtly pseudo-intellectual and boring. Like, to see teenagers sitting around solving the problems of the world, I thought, 'All things considered, I'd rather be dancing.'"

She was anti-intellectual, in part, because she had little faith or interest in rote learning. As a little girl she attended Parish Hall, which was associated with the Anglican Church. Canadian culture was deeply shaped by the English influence, and in the 1940s and '50s when Joni was growing up, nearly half of all the immigrants were British. Joni remembered, "Because of the Baby Boom population, I was there. It was grade three. We were marked and given grades. And this old lady that was brought out of retirement to teach this class was cheerful and well- meaning, but old-fashioned in her teaching methods. She examined us and broke down all the rows. She put the A students in one row and called them Bluebirds. She took the B students in a row and called them Robins. All the C students in a row and called them Wrens. Then the flunkies were lined up and she called them Crows. I looked at the A students with their hands clasped on the desks, looking like they'd won something important, and there wasn't a person in that line that I thought was smart. They were all looking so proud, and I remembered looking at them and thinking, 'All you did was she said something and you said it back.' So I broke with the school system at that moment and I had this thought, 'I'm not even gonna try from here on, until they ask a question that nobody knows the answer to.'"

This push and pull between not giving in to what she felt strongly were inferior metrics of success and the desire for other people to know and acknowledge her gifts would play out throughout Joni's career. She would later say, "I don't know how to sell out. If I tried to sell out I don't think I could. By that I mean, to make an attempt to make a commercial record. I just make them and I think, 'If I was a kid I would like this song' ... You have to have a certain grab-ability initially and then something that wears well ... for years to come. That's what anything fine is. It's recognized in painting [but] I'm just working in a toss-away industry. I'm a fine artist working in a commercial arena, so that's my cross to bear."

Just how she would bear the cross of being different was something that Joni wrestled with from her earliest days. She took solace in what she could. For example, when she began to explore astrology, she found what she considered a good reason for her interest in difficult questions. "I got into the zodiac and found out I'm born on Marie Curie's birthday [November 7], the day of the discoverer, the week of depth. So it's the deepest week in the year and I have an ability to discover. I have a scientific ability, really not just an artistic ability. The stars give me a scientific ability, too."

Just as she wasn't going to parrot back answers to a teacher, she had no interest in taking the Bible for gospel. "I broke with the church because I asked questions they found embarrassing," she told me. Then she proceeded to tell about the day she raised hell in her Sunday school class with all of her questioning.

"Adam and Eve were the first man and woman, right?"

"Right," said the teacher.

"They had two sons, right?"

"Right, Cain and Abel."

"And Cain killed Abel and then Cain got married. Who did he marry? Eve?"


Excerpted from "Reckless Daughter"
by .
Copyright © 2017 David Yaffe.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface: Nothing Lasts For Long xi

1 All Things Considered, I'd Rather Be Dancing 3

2 Let The Wind Carry Me: Lessons In Womanhood 19

3 Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? 20

4 A Common Modern-Day Fairy Tale 34

5 Don't Give Yourself Away 44

6 The Word Man: Leonard Cohen 52

7 Experienced 64

8 Clouds 86

9 Our House 102

10 Ladies of the Canyon 114

11 Sand 122

12 Blue 127

13 Between Breakdown And Breakthrough 140

14 The Sunshine Coast 150

15 For The Roses 156

16 Star-Crossed 165

17 Court And Spark: Something Strange Happened 171

18 Miles Of Aisles 190

19 The Queen Of Queens 194

20 Hejira And The Art Of Losing 218

21 Crazy Wisdom 225

22 Mirrored Ball 243

23 Don Juan's Reckless Daughter 253

24 Mingus 261

25 Nervy Broad 279

26 Wild Things Run Fast 290

27 Dog Eat Dog 307

28 Emergency Rooms 318

29 Save The Bombs For Later 321

30 Turbulence 336

31 See You At The Movies 348

32 Curtain Call 368

33 Just Like This Train 374

Notes 377

Acknowledgments 393

Index 397

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