At last, a book about Joni Mitchell which cuts out the fluff and concentrates on the music. It is, of course, almost impossible to write a book like this without some biographical detail, the author's as well as the subject's, just as reviewers cannot resist imparting a little of their own back story, so with apologies, that's how I'll start.
Since the early eighties, Joni Mitchell has been a constant presence for me, and before that, on and off, she drifted in and out, sometimes hanging round for a while, sometimes just making a quick call and then wandering off again. This one artist has nursed me through more heartaches, disasters, long drives, celebrations, lonely evenings, social evenings and loose ends than all the others put together. To say she provided my adult life with a soundtrack would be an understatement.
She is also, incidentally, one of two musical figures to whom I would willingly attribute an, albeit ironic, lifestyle influence, with the line "business men in button downs" determining my work attire for many years. (The other, in case you're asking, was "Sipping Jack Daniel's in Third World bars," from America For Beginners by Latin Quarter, the second part of which is, regrettably, little more than an aspiration.)
With some relationships though it takes a while to appreciate their significance, and so it was I came quite late to thinking I might read a book about Mitchell. The first of these, Mark Bego's Both Sides Now, was a big disappointment; the second, Karen O'Brien's Shadows and Light, much more satisfactory, but it still falls short on the bit I am most interested in, the music, and specifically in looking at how the continuum that is Joni Mitchell's lifework interrelates.
Some of the appeal for me in Nelson's book was that the work is exactly what I would like to do but never had the time/talent/contract, so much of the time I was reading I also spent wondering how I would have said it.
Somewhere towards the beginning of the book, Nelson asserts that your favourite Joni Mitchell album is the one that's playing right now. But if you had to choose your Desert Island Joni which would it be? As often as I find myself singing one of the songs on Court and Spark whilst in the car (unlike Nelson's mom, who provides the autobiographical episode at the opening of the book, I don't need to have it playing at the time), mine is actually Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. No, Hejira. Mingus. Er, just hope I never get shipwrecked!
Judging from this monograph, though, there's little doubting which album is Mr Nelson's pick, and in these pages he does the collection proud, discussing it track by track, comparing the songs with others, usually Mitchell songs but occasionally throwing in someone else's. He discusses the various scenarios depicted in the tracks, speculates as to their significance, and differentiates the various personas featured.
Unlike Mark Bego he, as do I, detects different people in songs such as People's Parties, Same Situation and Down To You. Also like me, and unlike Bego, Nelson does not consider Car On The Hill to be "upbeat". And of the speculation regarding who is being sung about in each song, he writes, "Could anything, indeed, matter less?" Quite.
In fact, with much of what he says I have little argument. It's only when he starts doubting the comparative value of the later material (anything after The Hissing Of Summer Lawns) - and incidentally possibly contradicting himself about his favourite Joni Mitchell album - that I began to really take issue.
Take for instance his critique of The Boho Dance, from The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, which he characterises as a spiteful snipe at fellow artists unwilling to take a step out of their comfort area. Although I can kind of see his point, I'd never taken it as quite as caustic as he does. Sure she's somewhat critical; sure she's a little dismissive. But I have also read into it a kind of maternal fondness and, crucially, a little self-effacement, this opinion partly based upon an interview Mitchell gave back in the seventies where she described herself roughing it with the hippies in Crete, but with diminished credibility due to the finish given to her clothing by hotel services: "The cleaner's crease was in my jeans", in the words of this song. In the interview she was laughing at herself, and in the song I think she is too. The lesson seems clear: "Don't you get sensitive on me," as she intones later.
Unfortunately, Mitchell is not the only popular musician to fall victim of her listeners' inability to move with the changes - Miles, Trane, Dylan - and here Nelson joins a host of pundits also unable to make the journey. I'll admit to slightly less than ecstatic enthusiasm for Wild Things Run Fast and Both Sides Now, but whilst they're mediocre by Mitchell's standard they stand head and shoulders above the majority of other folks' material.
But I don't want a couple of minor disagreements take away from the book overall, and in fact the contrarian views are part of the fun, and while there are some diversions into biography there's not so much that it crowds out the music. This is a superb little book. Read it while you're listening to your favourite Joni!