In bashing the reader over the head with the repeated assertion of Mitchell’s unqualified genius, Yaffe fails to communicate what exactly makes the music of Joni Mitchell unique.
David Yaffe opens Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell with a preface describing how he first met Mitchell for a New York Times profile. He’s nervous and bumbling as Joni tastes and rebuffs every wine available at the restaurant they’re eating at and calls Leonard Cohen a phony Buddhist. After the profile ran, Mitchell called him in a rage, incensed that he had described her home as “middle-class.” “I don’t know what you think of as middle-class,” she told him, “but I live in a mansion, my property has many rooms, I have Renaissance antiques.” Yaffe’s response to this tirade? “I got bitched out by Joni! She was a maestro, hurling one indignity at me after another.” She didn’t speak to him for another seven years.
Yaffe’s masochistic glee in the face of Mitchell’s imperious, elitist rant is telling of the book he spent those seven years compiling. With such unprecedented access to the musical legend after she agreed to be interviewed again in 2014 (no previous biographer has received Mitchell’s cooperation), one would hope that the resulting book would be revelatory, critical and enlightening. Unfortunately, Yaffe’s willingness to roll over for the sake of Mitchell’s approval results in a clumsy, mediocre attempt at hagiography.
The first 100 pages or so are excruciating, beginning with a trek through Mitchell’s childhood in Saskatchewan—a childhood characterized as “an ongoing car crash” but sounds quite ordinary, if rural and conservative. Yaffe expends extraordinary effort wringing from every banal detail of her life some evidence of her impending artistic greatness. Every childhood drawing, every primary school writing assignment gets roped into this laborious genius-teleology. Even obviously significant events such as her experience with polio at the age of 10 are cast as a mythical and spiritual awakening that ostensibly makes her an artist. Yaffe uncritically corroborates Mitchell’s own dubious suggestion that she cured herself of polio through sheer will-power: “The unique link between her inner life, her emotions, and her instrument—her whole body—was formed when she willed herself to stand up and walk.”
As her burgeoning interest in songwriting develops, Yaffe, by emphasizing that every move she makes is dripping with genius, stumbles into making her sound woefully conventional in her tastes, her petty cruelties, her ambitions to explore “love” as a theme. It’s one thing if the biographical subject attributes the advent of narrative coupled with melody to Bob Dylan, it’s another for her biographer to reductively claim that “Joni would have to find her own way: balancing the complexity of narrative that she aspired to and the music” when that has been the goal of every chump who has sat down to write a song. The relentless inevitability of her success implied in every winking gesture is exhausting; when describing David Crosby’s poor engineering on her first album, Yaffe writes, “Still, the sound quality couldn’t bury such extraordinary material. Joni’s ascension was unquestioned.” Was it though?
Yaffe often points out Joni’s innumerable and well-documented encounters with a sexist industry and parasitic lovers: her first album, Song to a Seagull “was advertised…with [billboards] blaring…‘Joni Mitchell is 90% Virgin’” and in the wake of her finest album, Blue, Rolling Stone released a vile, slut-shaming feature documenting all the men she’d slept with in the music industry. What he does not notice, however, are the ways he incidentally perpetuates the diminutive, marginalizing view of her and her work by repeatedly referring to her as a “girl” in contexts where she is clearly demonstrating her maturity. Even more alarming are they ways he refers to her in her interactions with her various paramours (including her first husband Chuck Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, David Crosby and Graham Nash); here’s his description of her relationship with Leonard Cohen: “He looked to the verse of Lorca, the philosophy of Camus, and the wisdom of Zen masters as part of the art of seduction. So here was this radiant woman who appeared before him at the Newport Folk Festival, not only offering her body, but also her mind.” If the goal is to portray Mitchell as an equal, consenting partner in a sexual relationship, perhaps one shouldn’t refer to her body as some kind of sacrificial “offering” while her artistic and intellectual capacities are relegated to a happy surprise. Later, describing the first time David Crosby saw her perform, Yaffe writes, “Joni was seated on a stool, with her skirt just high enough to keep the crowd interested… For a male heterosexual musicophile, there was so much to watch, so much to hear…This beauty was a better musician than he was, and he knew it.” This tendency to couple her physical beauty with her musical skill is pretty common among the men who recount their memories of her (which of course reminds us that had she been less appealing for men to gaze at, her life and career would have been much different), but when Yaffe does the same, the effect is equally, if not more, disgusting.
Around the time Mitchell moves to California in the late 1960s, the reading gets easier, in part because Yaffe’s mindless fawning over her maudlin early material subsides in favor of more in-depth analysis of her indelible stretch from 1971 to 1976 during which Blue, Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and Hejira were released. We learn of her blissful time in Laurel Canyon, her devastating break with Nash, the subsequently torturous recording process for Blue, even the red Steinway piano she used in Studio C of A&M records which Carole King, recording Tapestry one door down, tried to abscond with.
But these lovely details hardly compensate for perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Reckless Daughter: that, aside from giving the names of a few chords, Yaffe offers little in the way of analysis or description of the music itself. Instead he relies on questionable authorities to do this work for him; at one point he turns to a neuroscientist for validation of her genius only to receive the earth-shattering observation that “Joni is incredibly innovative in terms of her song structure and harmonics”—thank god for science. In bashing the reader over the head with the repeated assertion of Mitchell’s unqualified genius, Yaffe contradictorily fails to communicate what exactly makes the music of Joni Mitchell unique, how her voice—sometimes supple, sometimes glassy, sometimes brittle—is able to give life to words that can seem dead on the page, how her meticulously sculpted vulnerability can hollow you out yet leave you warm.