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.
on 19 May 2009
This is the best attempt at a biography on the elusive and peerless Mitchell. Charting the 'BLUE PERIOD' is detailed and insightful, particularly since Mitchell herself is involved to a degree. From Blue through to Hejira, the book offers a fresh look at a woman who learned to believe in her gift and follow it to a level that trascended the narrow categories she was placed within - folk, rock, jazz, WOMAN! The only woman to match and better the men who were and still are regarded as gods. None of them come close musically or lyrically during this period ( especially Hejira) and it's nice to finally hear Bob and Neil and Leonard, acknowledging it. When the dust settles...........
What a lovely well researched book. It is a biography that reflects on her influences, piers who often became her lovers, contemporary music, poetry, construction and content. Joni leaves no stone unturned in her autobiographical songs exposing her innermost feelings and experiences, hence the title `Will you take me as I am'.
You learn a great deal about Joni and the detail behind the words of her songs, often from interviews with the author. Michelle Mercer takes you on a fascinating journey through her work that will probably open up a new understanding about yourself.
You may think that you understand the words of the songs but shortly after starting the book you will begin to realise that there is so much more. You will also start to realise that there is a lot of yourself in the songs and that if you start to realise this that Joni will be pleased, as that is one of her main aims.
Joni has always wanted to be recognised as an artist and has a fantastic collection of paintings to her name. As a muscian she never learnt to read music, study it's theory or read many books (up until she met Leonard Cohen) and yet she produced such great songs of depth and complexity. Joni was handicapped by polio and wouldn't have been able to learn to play a guitar in the traditional way. Nevertheless she overcame all these obstacles and found her own unique way to play the guitar and construct poetry to song that didn't fit in with convention. She brought her poetry/stories alive through music in a magical way.
The result was something very special and the author beautifully captures it. Whilst the Blue LP features strongly in the book the author cleverly extends the study to a few years either side so that it encapsulates what she calls Joni Mitchell's Blue Period.