Tag Archives: Blue

A Woman of Heart and Mind

Joni: The Creative Odyssey of Joni Mitchell by Katherine Novak (Greystone, $21.00, 298 pages)

Joni Mitchell, a self-described woman of heart and mind, never shows up within the pages of Joni.   There are a couple of reasons for this.   First, Katherine Monk never had the opportunity to interact with Ms. Mitchell, leaving her unable to shed light on the human being.   Second, Monk sought to create a quasi-academic treatise on the subject of Philosophy and Religion and the Music of Joni Mitchell.   Frankly, it’s simply not that interesting even if one was (like this reader) a Philosophy and Religion major in college.

No, this is not another fan’s tribute to Joni; instead, it’s a somewhat overwrought collection of essays that seeks to find the meaning of Mitchell’s music via the words of Nietzsche and other philosophers.   This is painful enough, but just when one hopes that she won’t throw religious figures into the analytical mix, she proceeds to discuss St. Augustine and revisit the biblical Story of Job.   In the end – in the words of Bob Dylan, nothing is revealed.

Mitchell herself once said that writing about music is like trying to dance to architecture.   Picking up a copy of Joni’s Blue or For the Roses album is much preferable to attempting this strange dance.   Very much preferable.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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On the Road Again

Corn Flakes with John Lennon and Other Tales From a Rock ‘n Roll Life by Robert Hilburn (Rodale; $14.99; 280 pages)

“…the best music doesn’t just fill a void in the listener…  it can also fill a need in the artist.”

“I look at people as ideas.   I don’t see people as people.”   Bob Dylan

The fine long-time music critic for The Los Angeles Times, Bob Hilburn, takes us along on his trips with “the best rock stars” in this engaging account of his years in the music business.   It is mostly a study of personalities, big ones, such as John Lennon, Bob Dylan (“The most important figure in rock…  rock’s most celebrated living figure…  the greatest songwriter”), Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley, Neil Young, Bono of U2, Johnny Cash and Janis Joplin.   There are also brief encounters with Elton John, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Joni Mitchell, John Prine, Waylon Jennings, and Jack White.

You might be thinking that you’ll enjoy this memoir if you like these artists, most of whom were blessed with the approval of both Hilburn and Rolling Stone magazine.   You’ll be right in that thought, and also will likely find that it has less charm if these artists are not your cup of Java.   Hilburn makes very clear that he dislikes “superficial artists” (a term coined by Dylan), among whom he includes Rod Stewart, the “cold” Steely Dan, and Madonna.   He writes of the latter that she’s a “sharp cookie” who always provides good quotes for an interviewer, but “I’m not generally a fan of her music.”

So, yes, this is an account of hanging out on the road with the stars of boomer rock and country music.   The true tales from the 1970s are the most interesting ones – when rock was full of excitement and energy – and the telling seems to get tired and pessimistic as we approach present times.   Hilburn, in fact, closes the book with a lot of pessimism about the current music trade’s prospects for survival.

If Hilburn has a fault, it’s an obvious one in that he often gets close to being over the top about those artists, those geniuses, he favors.   Not only does he realize it, but so do some of the artists he’s supported.   For example, at one point he asks Bono if the musician is afraid that the public will become tired of him.   Bono answers, “Look, I’m tired of Bono and I am Bono.”

“Paul’s like a brother.   We’ve gone past all that.”   John Lennon

If there’s a reason to buy this book, now available in trade paperback form, it’s for the touching overview of Hilburn’s days spent with Lennon in New York City just two weeks before the former Beatle’s tragic death.   This Lennon is a man at peace with himself, in love with his life, and ready to forgive and forget.   One very revealing note is when John tells Hilburn that all of the stories about the deep rift between him and Paul McCartney were just that, stories.   John noted that he and Paul were, deep down, brothers still.

Hilburn’s book is a brief for the power of rock ‘n roll.   It may now be an endangered art form, but Hilburn reminds us that, at its best – as when it’s performed by Bruce Springsteen, “rock ‘n roll (can) still be majestic.”

Well recommended.

Take Away:  This is a very entertaining journal of life within the rock ‘n roll circus tent.   However, Hilburn sacrifices a bit of credibility when he refers to Kurt Cobain as one of rock’s great figures and as “the great talent” of the 1990s.   As he admits, “I often had a hard time convincing…  people when it came to Kurt.”   Take what you need from this account and leave the rest.

Joseph Arellano

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Clouds: A Review of Will You Take Me As I Am – Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period

“No written appreciation of [Joni] Mitchell’s work has ever gotten at the depth and texture of the feelings her work provokes in me.”   This is quite an audacious statement to put in print when one is offering a collection of essays that attempts to do exactly this.   This statement alone from Will You Take Me As I Am rapidly telegraphs to the reader the author’s doubts about anyone’s capacity to do so.

Michelle Mercer presents here a bit of spot-on analysis that derives from cooperation in the form of face-to-face interviews with her subject.   The unfortunate part is that for every bit of clarity we see concerning Mitchell’s work, it’s more than offset by ramblings taking the reader on too many tangents and rabbit trails and impertinent subjects.

The introduction starts off well, but as Will progresses, it reads like a graduate student’s paper on music, music appreciation, and even philosophy and religion (St. Augustine is often mentioned).   Other musicians, such as Loudon Wainright III, are discussed for no apparent reason, and the writing wanders far off course from Joni’s Blue album creation period.

Mercer also throws in some unnecessary and blatantly offensive comments about the late and highly talented Dan Fogelberg (such as “Fogelberg’s optimism for simple lyrics…   Fogelberg’s lackluster music and lyrics…   I couldn’t stand any more of Fogelberg’s mellowness…”), the context of which she admits is “admittedly dangerous territory.”   Shame on her.

Bottom line, Joni Mitchell is a genius musician, singer-songwriter, poet or whatever one wishes to call her.   It would likely take a literary genius to translate her work into something Copland-like for the common man, woman, or reader.   Three writers come to mind who might have been better equipped to handle the assignment (Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion) and Ms. Mercer does not seem to stand with them in terms of skill.

It was Capote who so bitingly observed of the Rolling Stones, “The drummer is 90 percent of the band!”   He or Mailer or Sacramento’s own Didion would likely have written in just as clever and enlightening a vein about Ms. Mitchell.

Will you smIf you want to actually understand Joni’s Blue, consider taking the money you would spend on this book and instead purchase the CD.   It will serve you well.

Free Press, $24.99, 240 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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