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"Joni" - The Crass Meanderings of Katherine Monk
on 16 July 2014
It was the American critic Greil Marcus who once commenced a review of Bob Dylan's album "Self Portrait" with the memorably vitriolic opening line, "What is this s***?". The phrase sprung to mind after enduring Katherine Monk's recent biography of Joni Mitchell. Ms Monk has written an unauthorised work which is not necessarily a bad thing. Think of the unauthorised biographies of Tom Waits by Barney Hoskyns or The Smiths leading lights Morrissey and Marr by Johnny Rogan. This is where great rock writers delve into the most intricate levels of available evidence and do huge research work around their subject in turn producing a great read. Equally you can forgive Ms Monks for being a recent convert to the works of Joni Mitchell, at first only dwelling on the wonders of "Blue", and put off from others by the the impression of "earnest heartbreak and ....marcrame plant hangers". What you cannot forgive are the pages of pretentious pseudo philosophical babble which populate this volume that lead you to wonder is it a biography of one of the great musical giants of our era or Ms Monk's first draft of her PhD?
We are told in the introduction that at the age of six the author had a "prematurely existential shiver down her spine" from watching Ernie in the Muppets (as you do). This fact is tabled to enable her to compare Joni Mitchell to Ernie since "she's an ageless, genderless Muppet with a passion for mischief"? As no narrative is given to support this remarkably trite claim we move on from the frivolous to the pompous. Indeed a few pages later we find that Joni Mitchell developed without the "cauterising influence of the formally educated intellect" (translation = she didn't go to university). This enabled her to "traipse across the hostile landscapes of modern thought where the likes of Martin Heidegger, Albert Camus and Friedrich Nietzsche forever ride the metaphysical merry ground chasing the elusive ring of human meaning". Oh yuck!
No one doubts that Joni Mitchell's deep thinking brilliance and illumination of the human condition is her core strength but when it is put the mangle of Monks six form philosophy and tortuous prose the result is excruciating. The book is littered with paragraph's so embarrassing you wince and feel your skin crawl. Thus Monk feels that Joni Mitchell is "the only human being in modern existence to approach the heights of the Nietzschean superman". To prove this we are treated to an essay mid way through the book where Monk develops this theme to the point of tedium. This reviewer has no doubts that scholars of the great German philosopher are already filing for damages or hiring a hitman. As for the proper commentary on Joni Mitchell's music this is almost incidental. "Both Sides Now" is described as a "catchy tune", whilst "Car on the hill "is truly catchy". The themed chapters make the book an irritating slog not least one on "Woodstock" Myth and Mythmaking" which is essentially a very poor potted history of the festival. In the chapter on "Love" bizarrely Morrissey is described as the "black trousered sex symbol"; but worse is the hilarious metaphor to far that "Mitchell blazed an impressive trail through the sexual moonscape of L.A.'s arid canyons and dry gulches". Honestly this book is a little horror story and the only way it would provide any illumination would be to place it on the barbecue.