Back To the Garden
written by Ruby Scalera
Eric Clapton and David Crosby listening to Joni Mitchell play her new songs in Mama Cass's backyard in Laurel Canyon, 1968. Cass' daughter is listening as well, chewing on a film container of Henry's/photographs Henry Diltz/Morrison Hotel Gallery
Throughout history, artists have had to reconcile the often mutually exclusive roles of being both objective observers as well as interpreters, helping us make sense of defining moments. Visionaries like Mark Twain used satire and the power of the pen to question the social structures that bound American culture to its old orders, while Picasso, in salons all over Paris, did it not only to question the concept of point of view itself, but also to depict the horrific violence inflicted during the Spanish Civil War. These artists, singers, poets, and writers act as markers through the years of history, they act as guides, as the keys without which we can never hope to truly make sense of our time, not to mention the eras that came before us. To best understand these events as they occur, why they occur, and how we can prevent them from ever coming to pass again, we must look to the creators, listen to what they tell and have told us in lyrics, on canvas, and on the printed page, and perhaps, once and for all, we will actually listen to what they have to say.
When it comes to the creative voices of the 20th century who seemed to know before the rest of us, there is no one individual more iconic, defining or, indeed, truth-telling than Joni Mitchell. Over the course of more than fifty years, Joni served as the layman’s eyes and ears, providing insight into factions of society, underground movements, social and political unrest, and the pivotal moments that clearly and not so clearly led to the current events of today, many of which were invisible to the naked eye. For better or for worse, nothing in this world occurs in a vacuum, not the effects of war nor the creation of songs, and it was with her brilliance, her intuition, and her far-greater understanding of human nature than the average, that Joni blended these monumental events, with lyrics and music that reached the world around as she expertly walked the line of commercial success and creative rebellion.
As the sitting President of the United States of America spews racist, misogynistic, xenophobic vitriol against communities and members of Congress mass shootings have become an everyday occurrence, asylum-seeking children and their desperate parents are begging for mercy from internment camps at the border, and a social media app designed to playfully age its user was denounced as a data-stealing tool of the Russian government. And with the continued barrage of tweets, panic-button near misses, and the increasingly cozy relationship between American political powers and international dictators, it is easy to feel as though we are living in the worst time in American history.
Joni Mitchell reminds us we are not. In doing so, she also tells us that unless we make change, unless we question the powers that be, we are doomed to repeat the very history that brought us to this point. Writing in 1969, she was sending out mayday signals, and there is little other way to see it than this is the Judgement she warned us about. To listen to Joni in 2019, decades and decades after some of her most important albums were first released, is to realize that we had the tools all along to be better, and for apathy, greed, distraction, or whatever else takes the individual away from the collective, we somehow missed the chance.
While Mitchell herself is Canadian, she toured, lived, and produced some of her most iconic songs in America and speaks often to the influences of capitalism, racism, and war-mongering so prevalent to its history throughout the 20th century and continuing into the 21st. It is difficult to look at American history and not question the role of slavery, both past, and present, as it relates to our economy, our infrastructure, and the deeply antagonist modern race relations that exist at all levels today. Joni speaks to this truth, winding it up into the glaringly capitalist light of the blue Exxon sign. It is far from the only time she does so.
When she writes these lyrics, sung as though her lips are pursed around the ever-present cigarette, she is speaking to us right now, as much, if not more, than those who listened to her songs when they first came out. They are, in a way, a lost cause. It is too late for them, they’ve already repeated the history of the sinners who came before them. No. She speaks to us, begging us not to forget our history. Her songs were warnings of what happens when injustice is left untethered and unquestioned, and her biggest fear, apparent in lines such as “The worst are full of passion without mercy” and “What happened to this place?/Lawyers and loan sharks/Are laying America to waste” is that America—and the world—would end up looking like it does right now.
How different would the world be if we had taken up the mantle toward a peaceful existence when she first called to action? How different would the world be if it had merely listened to her when she said, look at your past, or else you are doomed to repeat it. To listen to Joni in 2019 is to know we are too late to un-pave the parking lot and put paradise back to where it once was and that our only option now is to stop the pavers before they get the chance to do it again. In many ways, it comes as a relief, the history not written down in government-issued textbooks, stories not told by the victors of battle, to hear that this generation of politicians, and greedy businessmen, and fear-mongering zealots is not the first. To watch the news from the day to day is to feel as though we have invented a new form of hatred and incompetence and justification for inhumanity.
No, Joni tells us, this has happened before, and it will continue to happen unless we stop the machine. That these same messages came from decades of her writing, from the Woodstock era, and the Civil Rights era, from the AIDs epidemic and Watergate, is to say that we did not listen and that the tides grew ever closer to the shore. Joni is often associated with the counterculture movements, with Woodstock and the peace and love festivals but from the perspective of history, it feels more true to say that Joni did not represent one culture or counter-culture. How could she? She was vehemently critical of all systems that allowed bigotry and violence to thrive, movements that aided some and held down others, the microcosms of early intersectionality that were appearing even before we understood what they were. She didn’t spare her targets, the government, the church, her ancestors, our ancestors, the market of war. That she critiqued herself too, her own actions so succinctly and honestly scrutinized, may perhaps speak to why she was able to paint such broad and damning strokes over all the rest and still maintain commercial and lasting success.
Is it possible, then, that America has always been an abusive, toxic friend? That even in its heyday of innovation, progress, and creativity, it was not a country for all people, not without the bone-deep need to produce more at less cost, to create bigger banks, to strive for the me instead of the us. Such a truth can be seen in what we consider the golden of our years, the rise of social infrastructure under FDR, post-war suburbia, Obama’s election—periods of brilliance that have been undoubtedly painted over with rose-colored glasses, if not outright toxic on their own, then toxic in what they de-emphasized, covered up and pretended solved. After all, if a black man can be president, then racism is over, right? Of course, it has never been that simple.
There are even more concretely obvious examples than the metaphor of America as the abusive, loose-cannon friend, so nail-on-the-head specific one almost feels as though a negative film slide has been laid over today’s world, making it impossible tell the difference in decades from then to now. Winding allegories about the plights of nameless and faceless generals and soldiers, of wars past and present. She speaks to the ills brought upon the Native American societies when foreigners first landed on their soil, speaks to the war crimes, large and small, for which no apologies were ever offered. Her lyrics could be about any great war or oppressed people in history, any of the societies and cultures left behind by the greed of the few. She sings of the same foundational issues facing women today, in the words we still use.
And at the end of it all, there is purpose for the history she tells us, an undeniable connection between the larger evils and the smaller injustices, behind dreams someone saw the bombers/Riding shotgun in the sky/Tuning into butterflies/Above our nation. Her instructions for slowing the roll of a cannibalistic society, one that feeds on the vulnerable but cannot live without them, are not as clear as her critiques, but she offers us some ideas. She tells us to get back to nature, to stop spraying our apples with DET, to pick the fruit with the holes and the brown spots. She reminds us that we don’t know how good it is until it’s gone and that we should celebrate the peaceful places, the beauty, and the love, and the artists. She sings of time passing and she emphasizes, again and again, that time will pass whether we make a stand, make our voices heard, fight for the right things, or if we do not. Not fighting, she tells us, in every decade of song and verse, is what got us here.
In her lyrics, there is a sense of the collective, a living the universal truths of all time. Women love men they shouldn’t. Children grow older. Wars come and wars go. There will always be goodness in the hearts of some and there will always be emptiness in the hearts of others. In times when it feels as though the world is on a hair-trigger, a spinning top doomed to fall to great destruction, when extreme ideologies near closer to the mainstream and progress is repealed a state at a time, there is comfort to be had both in her truth that we are not entirely responsible for these dystopian times, and that they have happened before. Too, she tells us, we have the power to prevent them from happening again if, unlike those who came before us, we do not lose sight of the history happening right now and everything that led up to it.
The truth-tellers of history don’t always look like Greek philosophers, wise sages wearing purple robes and speaking through long, white beards. The truth-tellers in history are often communicators in the ways society needs them most, mirrors to what the world looks like at the time, reflections of the best and worst parts of culture, art, and politics. Is it that Joni Mitchell is the prophetic type of artist, the one who doesn’t merely observe and report on the world around her, but interprets what the actions of individuals and governments and businesses actually mean, so she may speak to those actions, behaviors, and consequences before they occur? Or is it merely that she connects into the universal themes of all generations, the netting below all of society that tugs on these same issues again and again, relatable as much in 1969 as 1991 as 2019? To listen to Joni Mitchell in 2019, one has to conclude that is a little bit of both.