From a time not too long ago when it seemed almost impossible to get a decent book about Joni Mitchell, the bookshops are now seemingly overflowing with them. It's difficult to envisage anyone bettering Lloyd Whitesell's The Music Of Joni Mitchell, but in Will You Take Me As I Am Michelle Mercer at least gets close to the lady herself, and the book benefits from being more of an insider's account of a vital period in Mitchell's career.
Mercer begins with a test for prospective boyfriends. Are they able to articulate their appreciation for Blue in the way she wants them to? I'd have failed. For me, Mitchell had an air of the exotic, she told interesting stories, and some of the feelings and situations were ones I could identify with. I only became aware of the fancy chord changes and the finely crafted poetry much later. And as for the comparison with Debussy. At 15, at 25 even, I wouldn't have known who Debussy was. So, Michelle, don't expect my call anytime soon. I took the songs as they are.
Never mind, the book itself is a worthwhile read, exploring literary and philosophical areas only grazed, if that, by Whitesell. She covers St Augustine and the creation of Christian doctrine, TS Eliot and Symbolist poetry, and Dylan's and Lowell's rejection of Eliot's poetic aesthetic. There's Woody Guthrie and the folk tradition, Rousseau, the Enlightenment and modern autobiography, and a discussion of Mitchell in the context of Nietzsche's "new breed of poet", writing "in their own blood".
There's much debate as to the extent to which the songs within the "Blue Period", between Blue itself and Hejira, are autobiographical. Mercer's first-hand discussions with Mitchell clarify this point, making it clear that there's a lot of Joni in the songs, but the songs aren't all Joni, although Hejira the album gets as close as any. There are some interesting forays into biography by Mercer in this discussion, but it doesn't stray too far into the gratuitous. I particularly like the story at the base of Court And Spark. But I was left feeling a little amazed by the tales of the Rolling Thunder tour: snorting coke, an affair with Sam Shepard, and consulting with a Buddhist teacher. I'll take the songs - without these we wouldn't, apparently, have got Hejira - but maybe I can do without too much biog!
There are some interesting quirks - bizarrely, she manages to place Blue's This Flight Tonight on Ladies Of The Canyon, and characterises Dreamland from Don Juan's Reckless Daughter as a third person song, strange for one with several mentions of "I" - for the observant reader to pick up. But generally this is a competent, thought-provoking account of the art of a singer without parallel.