A Free Woman Everywhere Finally, Joni Mitchell Gets the Biography She Deserves

By O'Sullivan, Carol | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), November 19, 2017 | Go to article overview

A Free Woman Everywhere Finally, Joni Mitchell Gets the Biography She Deserves


O'Sullivan, Carol, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


There was a time when young girls everywhere felt Joni Mitchell was talking directly to them through her intimate recordings filled with achy lyrics about yearning, heartache, disappointment, and rivers to skate away on.

Hard to imagine the singer/songwriter just turned 74.

Joni Mitchell (Roberta Joan Anderson) was an only child born into a conservative household in the prairies of Saskatchewan. From an early age she questioned authority, chafed at her parochial education, and craved bold art. Busting loose was only a matter of time.

The scrappy painter, poet and self-taught musician eventually landed in Southern California where she became a touchstone for the Woodstock generation. Rolling Stone magazine now ranks her among the top 10 best songwriters of all time, and in 1997 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She's received nine Grammy Awards including a Lifetime Achievement Award.

For his biography "Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell," David Yaffe interviewed dozens of musicians, friends and lovers from her past, but more impressively he conducted long interviews with the press-shy legend in person.

He found her provocative from the start, first meeting with her in 2007. "A devastating mimic and raconteur, she serves up Dorothy Parker-like zingers with terrifying speed," he recalls.

A music critic and university professor, Mr. Yaffe has authored two other substantial books, one on jazz history and the other on Bob Dylan.

This one - a more than decade-long labor of love -is equally comprehensive. He shows a deep appreciation for her music, analyzing every album as she evolves from folk to pop to rock 'n' roll to jazz. And though Joni Mitchell lost some of her early fans with her switch to experimental, jazz-infused work, Mr. Yaffe fell more in love with her.

"Joni is as introspective and eloquent as Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen," he says, "but she went beyond them in melody and harmony, exploring chords only jazz virtuosi could play."

Reading about her contempt for music industry execs, as well as her struggles to forge a path in such a male-dominated field - in the context of the recent onslaught of sexual harassment accusations - was somewhat head-scratching. …

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