BACK TO THE GARDEN
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 we might need to take a harder listen to, 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. And 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. No. She speaks to us, begging us not to forget our history. READ BACK TO THE GARDEN
And as Mark Gurarie explores in his piece, “she is far more than “just” a singer-songwriter with a singular voice—though hers, with its fluctuations and range, is doubtless one, far more than a criminally underrated guitarist, arranger, and wordsmith—though dude guitar gods like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page certainly learned a thing or two from her. She seems, at least within the lens of collective memory, to arise as a kind of force, a totality. But, of course, since we’re talking about an era in popular music and culture whose gates were kept and levers were operated by white men (as they still mostly are), a machine whose gears were and are fueling and fueled by patriarchal assumptions and judgements—she got a lot of flack, not only for her sexual freedom, unconventional approach to relationships, and the way she wrote about men, but her free and unconventional approach to her own career. In a manner that she herself was all too aware, Joni Mitchell was spun up to be at once a very serious, buttoned-up, intellectual, and earnest artist who didn’t play by the traditional rules of femininity, while also playing the role of seductress. It’s of course a legend that falls apart under closer scrutiny, but has always had wings. Though she is indefinable, an artist always stepping forward, a shapeshifter, she nonetheless was always being defined within the patriarchal box, seen and heard through the eyes and ears of men. READ NO REGRETS, COYOTE
Time and memory can make a caricature of anybody, and this can especially be true in the case of a singer-songwriter whose life, fairly and unfairly, is always read into her work. And regardless of how much Joni may have put stock in such things—she’s always been cynical about media representation and the trappings of fame—there was something about her that made her a tantalizing figure and a star. Male journalists loved to love her until they learned to hate her and back again. Throughout her career they have cast as her as the folk queen who crossed over—the queen of LA’s Laurel Canyon set, beaming as she charmed her audiences. Of course, and inevitably, she becomes the femme fatale of the shaggy set, the pretentious artist, the rich hippie past her prime, and eventually the one who ditched it all for jazz. But in spite of being described in the language of the patriarchy, she’s come to be appreciated for the fearless trailblazer she always was: for the woman who built herself a home to work in and who chronicled the road she always felt she must travel, and the rest of the world traveled with her. READ NO REGRETS, COYOTE
Mitchell’s stature among her fellow male musicians was certainly a source of wonder, perhaps even jealousy. Singer-songwriter and writer Leonard Cohen—fellow Canadian, early lover, and musical peer who rose to prominence around the time she did—characterized her as “a musical monster” whose songs arose fully-formed “like a storm.” Another ex-lover and the one that ended up bringing her into the pop mainstream, David Crosby, was similarly smitten—at once intimidated by her boundless talent and hopelessly attracted to her; “she just knocked me on my ass,” he’s said. But what they and many other men, musical and otherwise, latched onto—and how she’s been largely depicted by the musical press—is also, inevitably, draped in artifice, in mirages they, themselves, were concocting. You don’t fall in love with a person so much as your idea of them; that seems to be one lesson you find in Mitchell’s music. And much as she resisted it—few pop stars seem as invested in being true to themselves creatively—a certain aura surrounds and has always surrounded her.” READ NO REGRETS, COYOTE
Looking back at the year 1969, it all comes together; her mistaken identity as a hippie, her complicated relationships with both the culture of music and American culture itself, her ability to be misread, ignored, and as always, reinterpreted by men. Her words were never light, they were pure truth telling. And it only took one simple song for her to sum up an entire generation, a culture, a civilization—and it was ours. It was "Woodstock," the composition she wrote for “a few of her friends to sing” (Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young) and for herself to sing as well. With the imagery that was equal parts graspable and glorifying, she captured the last gasps of idealism and escapism of the Woodstock festival; a spectacular event that, looked back upon now, 50 years later, seems to have been the crest of the ‘60’s counter culture wave. In other words, she was brutally summing up the failure of the counter culture movements themselves, the festival goers trying to hold on to something already lost. However, in Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s rendering, the song depicts a paradise that has returned (even if only for a moment) from the perspective of having been there with a little reworking of the lyrics—they made it sound like a rock 'n' roll re-telling. Boisterous, and urgent, the harmonies soar above, carrying the collective feeling that love can overwhelm the whistles and whoops of war, emphasizing the idea of being made of carbon, as opposed to Joni, the author, putting the emphasis on our being caught in the devil’s bargain. They released it on their 1970 album Deja Vu, the same time as Joni’s own version appeared on her classic 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon, and when the hippy movement all of the sudden felt like it was turning into a distant memory.
I came upon a child of god
He was walking along the road
And I asked him where are you going
And this he told me
I'm going on down to Yasgur's farm *
I'm going to join in a rock 'n' roll band
I'm going to camp out on the land
I'm going to try an' get my soul free
Joni’s original telling of “Woodstock” seemed to capture more of a sense of wistfulness, superficiality, and longing. “We are stardust/we are golden…” accompanied only by organ and some back-up singers, and voiced in the way that only Joni could, it’s a masterpiece of melancholia. Seeing from the outside, (as she famously stayed behind and watched the whole show on TV) Joni was able to capture a fuller picture; she seems—with the power of her voice, and thanks to a brilliant, minimal arrangement—to somehow have drawn the curtains on the 1960’s once and for all. Listening to the original version of “Woodstock,” you can’t help but feel that it was over before it began, that, contrary to what the 400,000 or so that came to Woodstock hoped, it was in fact, the end. Her song, then, as she wrote it, was an elegy.”
Ah, those wonderful three days of peace and music in Bethel, New York, (not exactly Woodstock, but close enough) marking the end of the Summer of Love, the end of the sixties, that one last chance to get your soul free. And free it was. Miles of traffic, military helicopters, mud baths, extraordinary musical performances, the best acid, the worst acid, and an all together happening that we still dissect, distill, try to re-create, and yearn for 50 long strange years later. And what a trip it’s been. Luckily, we have a lot of evidence to examine when it comes to the true nature of the Woodstock Arts and Music Festival that was a summing up of 1969, and maybe of our never-ending search for who we really are, not as we are defined by corporations, the congressional military industrial complex, and our new super surveillance technological overlords. Our fascination with this most authentic version of the counterculture’s past, hundreds of thousands strong, is only growing as we face down a new more chaotic dystopian present. Feeding this fascination are artists like Henry Diltz, whose photographic work captured the moments both famous and infamous, pretty much symbolizing the time when music and the counterculture were one in the same. READ WE ARE STARDUST HERE
According to Marcelle Murdoch, director of the Morrison Hotel Gallery which is celebrating Woodstock: Three Days That Lasted 50 Years with month long revolving installations, events, and concerts, “Henry Diltz is our founding photographer. The gallery wouldn’t be what it is without Henry. He shot the Morrison Hotel album cover for The Doors, that was in ’69—’69 was a huge year for him, plus he was the official Woodstock photographer. So this show is really an homage to Henry, it’s an homage to 1969. It was such a significant year in music, having Woodstock, having this kind of social climate where something like that could happen, and how it happened. Of course we have Henry’s pictures of all the bands, the crowds, the sets, but also we have a couple of other photographers we included; some of them were shooting for the event, but others were just attending. So you really get both sides of what it was like to be there, what the feeling was, what the people were doing, and the show speaks to everyone of all ages. When someone from a younger generation who wasn’t around at that time, didn’t really know what it was about, but now they see these photos—they’re very relatable, it’s all coming back. And we really wanted to honor the performers that were there but aren’t with us anymore because their music is still so much a part of our culture. You know, 20 year olds listen to Jimi Hendrix, they are still buying these photos of him, still asking so many questions about him." READ MORE HERE
“It means something that 50 years later we are still listening to that same music. And it’s just interesting to see what was going on at the time. It was about love, it was about the bands, it was about the music, it was about getting it together without having the whole thing organized top to bottom, and how it worked out, and how people helped out in the midst of it. I think that’s what we are really trying to show through this exhibition—the parts that you wouldn’t necessarily think about, that you don’t see. People in the crowds. Sitting on top of an RV, there is one incredible shot of the gridlock traffic, and in the middle of it there are just people who climbed out onto the hood and are sitting and playing guitar, and they’re so relaxed. It’s so interesting—even in that traffic you made the best of the situation. People just brought tents and camped out, they didn’t expect a certain level of comfort as they would today.” As Henry Diltz remembers, “It really was 3 days of peace and music just as Michael Lang had envisioned it to be, and it defined our hippy generation of brotherhood and caring about your neighbor. I'm so glad to have been a part of it and to contribute to it's remembrance and celebration.” And there is a lot to celebrate, if not at the very least to remind everyone that expressions of culture can come from the heart and soul, you know, the greatest creative collab of all time.
Imagine how far the business of culture has come, taking all of the arts and ideas on a wild branded ride. Long gone are the days of the festival’s organically evolved economic eco-systems, which outlasted the sixties and somehow even re-emerged around The Grateful Dead through bootleg recordings and generations of teenagers looking for alternatives to the just say no superficial aesthetics of the 1980’s. And the real or perceived threat of nuclear war was enough to push even the preppiest of fair isle sweater wearing kids to stop shaving their legs, start playing hacky sack, start tie dying and hitting the road with brother Jerry Garcia. To follow the Dead in the ’80’s was a new way to join a commune, complete with a summer job beading jewelry, making fruit cups or selling drugs. They piggy backed onto the remains of the zombie counterculture, knowing there was something wrong with society and wanting to drop out one last time before tuning out would no longer be an option. But it’s important to remember all this, as we keep asking the question, where is the music that should be emerging with our current state of political chaos and upheaval? Was it Joni all along? READ BACK TO THE GARDEN HERE
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 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.
All photographs by Henry Diltz, courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery-self portrait paintings by Joni Mitchell/banner image-Eric Clapton and David Crosby listening to Joni Mitchell play her new songs while Mama Cass' daughter chews on a film container of Henry's in the backyard, Laurel Canyon, 1968/Joni Mitchell, Laurel Canyon, 1970/Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, and Eric Clapton at Cass Elliot's picnic, Laurel Canyon, 1968/Joni Mitchell, Hills of Laurel Canyon, 1970/Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell, 1969/John Sebastian, Woodstock, 1969/Janis Joplin, Woodstock, 1969/Jimi Hendrix, Woodstock, 1969/Grace Slick, Woodstock, 1969/Joni Mitchell, Nevada Desert, 1970
Every pop song is a process, a field of communication—it’s expression, sure, but it’s also curation: an amalgamation of what came before it while being a reflection of its time. The threads that connect popular forms of music are only growing as genres continue to develop and in the easily hyperlinked internet age, but they’re always there to trace. Doubtless, an iconic singer-songwriter like Joni Mitchell will have thumbprints over vast tracts of the musical landscape, be it via cover versions of her songs or stylistic influences.
And one of the most interesting such pop musical conversations occurred in 1997, with Janet Jackson’s “Got ‘Til It’s Gone,” (from the album, The Velvet Rope) a song that hinges on a line from Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and features inimitable MC, Q-Tip (A Tribe Called Quest). The refrain that gives the song its title very well may be how most got to know the Canadian folk popstar in 1969, but it also sets the tone for this groovy, R&B/hip-hop crossover hit, the video for which won a Grammy.
The Joni sample, alongside a minimal jazz organ and piano accompaniment, give the song a distinctive flair, repackaging the socially-minded angst of the original into a duet between Q-Tip and Jackson about lost love and regret. The fourth wall breaks right from the outset: “I like this song,” says Janet, “Uh-huh like Joni says” before the sample cuts in. Later on, Q-Tip adds, “Joni Mitchell never lies,” making the performers, alongside us, also listeners.
The narrative of the duet is a bit tragic, with Janet Jackson remaining wistful about the love, hoping to rekindle it, and, essentially, Q-Tip noting that there’s no chance, you can’t go back, it’s gone. The video for the song (directed by Mark Romanek) adds a further layer of complexity, as Janet and Q-Tip are cast as lounge-singers in apartheid-era South Africa, with a televised Joni (from a 60s appearance)—and the video’s only white person—singing her line. Despite the setting, and the obvious signs of oppression (ID cards, “Europeans Only” signs), there’s nothing but celebration depicted: joy and transcendence in the face of abject white supremacy.
Certainly, then, “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” invites the listener to seize the moment, to let love be appreciated, to feel. It’s clearly also a love letter from Janet Jackson and Q-Tip to Joni, inviting their listeners to check her out, and her listeners to check them out. Janet herself sought permission to use the sample directly from Joni, making sure she heard the song before its release. Thankfully, Mitchell was touched and honored to be a part of it.