New York/Vulture‘s Tim Murphy attended a soiree the night before last for song painter Joni Mitchell and her album Shine (her first since ’98’s Taming the Tiger) at Soho’s Violet Ray Gallery. Easily the most soulful and influential female poet-composer-performer of the late 20th Century (as well as the most emotionally arresting, elegantly phrased, bravest and saddest), Mitchell spat out the blunt truth when Murphy asked why she’d recorded no new tunes since the days of the Monica Lewiinsky scandal.
“I was angry at the politics. Especially [at Bush]. Angry at the American people. At Christians. At theology — the ignorance of it. And I didn’t want to write about it. I removed myself from society and painted. It was a method of avoiding the anger, not addressing it.
“I couldn’t listen to music for ten years, I hated it all. It all pissed me off. Music just became grotesquely egocentric and made for money. It wasn’t music — there was no muse. Music requires a muse. The producer is not a muse. He’s a manufacturer. Contemporary music made me want to punch people. I couldn’t stand any of it. The whoring, the drive-by shooting of it all. I don’t care how well crafted it is. America is in a runaway-train position and dragging all the world with it. It’s grotesquely mentally ill.”
Mitchell’s reputation as a world-class phraser, searcher and sufferer will last for the next several centuries. She’s a heavy cat among kittens. Nobody has recorded a more touching and transcendent version of “Unchained Melody” than Mitchell. Her early ’70s to early ’80s stuff was rock perfect. Especially The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira. Those “six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain” and ” the hexagram of the heavens.” That “poppy poison-poppy tourniquet [that] slithers away on brass like mouthpiece spit.” I’ll take these lyrics with me into the next life.
I saw Mitchell play at Studio 54 in ’81 or ’82, and I stood fairly close (ten or twelve feet from the mike stand) and just smiled and beamed out every positive-energy combustion I had inside me, and after a couple of songs she caught my eye (or vice versa), and I don’t care if this makes me sound like a fan but I was grovelling at that moment and I couldn’t have felt more rapture. It happened 25 years ago, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel now like that Everett Sloane moment on the Staten Island ferry in Citizen Kane when he saw the girl in a white dress with a parasol.
I just checked the lyrics to “Refuge of the Road,” and all this time I thought the line went “hard of humor and humility,” as in “hard of hearing.” I loved that line! But apparently Mitchell actually sings “heart and humor and humility.” Very disappointing…very.