The winter of 1970. In “Room at the Top,” a coffee house about seven storeys up in the frigid night sky of Edmonton, a couple of folksingers are tuning up their guitars while their drummer is balancing his congas against his insteps. They start to play “The Circle Game.” I emerge wearing my grey leotard and tights with a ragged hole for my bare foot, to dance with them.
…and the painted ponies go up and down / we’re captive on a carousel of time.
I am entranced by the image of time as a merry-go-round circling, its ponies rising and falling. But what do I know: I’m 21 years old.
Today it seems odd that this notion of inevitable return was staple fare for the young romantic of the 1970s, that fabulous decade. In truth, I was desperate to get away—from my parents, so square, hard-working and respectable; from my “hissing” summer lawn (what a great album title that was); from our pragmatic, oil-and-gas-obsessed province, a place so far from the public imagination that it never got a mention in magazines or movies or books I read. This was not the California we’d been dreaming of, or the Chelsea morning. At the University of Alberta, we rose in darkness for the 8:00 a.m. class and returned to residence in darkness at 4:30 p.m. We got certificates from the radio station for living through 40 days of minus 40ºC. A big yellow taxi was coming for me and the departure would be final.
You can’t return / you can only look / behind from where you came / and go ’round and ’round and ’round in the circle game.
I would be some kind of carnival version of Lot’s wife.
We were young and rebellious and romantic and high-minded and hugely sentimental. Joni Mitchell—a ’60s woman while we were the next rung down, eager imitators—and her apocalyptic exit lines appealed to our sense of the dramatic: I can’t go back there anymore, you know my keys won’t fit the door. Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers was on our CanLit courses, so that for a few magical years, popular culture and canonical literature arrived at the same names.
Cohen was fine, but Joni Mitchell was female. And she was ours. She had started out singing in coffee houses like the Yardbird in Edmonton and the Depression in Calgary. Her orbit drifted close enough to leave a wisp of gossip on our shoulders. She once played folk music with the older brother of my Grade 10 boyfriend. My dad heard her sing at the opening of the Timberline Hotel in Banff.
But really, we knew nothing except her songs. They were poems. Her albums were collections of framed stories, plays in which she portrayed all the characters. They were, as she herself calls them, ingenue—innocent, in life terms and in geographic terms. As we were. She sang about walking home on the railway tracks and I wish I had a river I could skate away on. She sang about the choice between being trapped by love of a man, and being lonely but free. She sang about freedom a lot.
In the summer of 1971 I drove east in a red Ford Econoline van with my poet/folksinger husband (I never managed to call him my old man, though that was what Joni called hers). We slept with fireflies in a field in New England and turned up at Yasgur’s farm, in Woodstock, New York. We were only two years late. I took a picture of my husband. It was one of those little square black and white photographs with the deckled edges, a skinny young man with a guitar. “Me playing at Woodstock” he called it. We had irony going for ourselves. He used to dream private conversations with Bob Dylan. I argued that Joni’s Woodstock song was the best one to come out of the event:
We are stardust / we are golden / we are billion year old carbon / and we got to get ourselves back to the garden
I was pretty sure I was right; I was always pretty sure I was right.
Still, it is never too late to have proof. Here it is, 2009, and we are billion (plus 40) year-old carbon. A scholarly book by Lloyd Whitesell (The Music of Joni Mitchell), who teaches music history at McGill University, includes this quote from Joni:
“Crosby, Stills, Nash and myself all went to the airport. Woodstock had been declared a national disaster area, so we were informed that we couldn’t get in and get out. I had to do The Dick Cavett Show the following day, so I left the boys there, thinking they were going someplace else. But they rented a helicopter. I felt left out. I really felt like the Girl. The Girl couldn’t go, but the Boys could. I watched everything on TV. But I don’t know if I would have written the song ‘Woodstock’ if I had gone. I was the fan that couldn’t go, not the performing animal. So it afforded me a different perspective.”
Exactly. She was the Girl, the left-out one, the insider/outsider, the fan. She was Everywoman. She was me.
In Toronto in the 1970s, while Joni’s music and fame were at their height, I still had the faint sense of being on the tail of her comet. I’d hear things: Henri Bondi, who had been Joni Mitchell’s art teacher in Saskatoon, came to Toronto and opened Henri the Second Kitchen Supplies on Yonge Street. People said that it was in his honour she adopted the circle over the “i.” We lived on Brunswick. She had lived a few blocks over, on Huron. We went to coffeehouses in Yorkville where she had sung, pregnant, eight years earlier.
All through the ’70s I listened to her best album, Blue. She was breaking trail, having adventures, mostly with men, sometimes bad adventures and usually with bad-choice men. She was a prophet of the female.
Being with a man turned her into his “old lady”; she didn’t like it because she then became second, and took on the damn timid pose. Her pattern with men, a kind of seduction by talent, usually turned disastrous. But she wasn’t interested in making compromises: she expressed frank scorn in “The Arrangement”:
Keeping the wheels turning / And the wife she keeps the keys / She is so pleased to be / A part of the arrangement…
Today, despite her long standoff with the press, there is no shortage of the sort of gossip you wish you didn’t know. A book called Girls Like Us, by Sheila Weller, about Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell and Carole King, is full of it. The prairie upbringing: she made her own clothes because it was a way to stand out in a small place. I remember sewing a long blue coat for that folksinger man, a white leatherette one for myself. Her mother vacuumed the garage (so did my father). And while at ACAD she won second place in a beauty contest. How humiliating! The worst would have been that she knew she was an idiot to have entered it in the first place.
The “unwed pregnancy” was an unendurable terror that one endured because there was one thing worse: having to tell your parents. She had affairs with Graham Nash and James Taylor and Leonard Cohen and a mean old daddy on Crete. Still, she was only “half a rebel”—you could sample the scene, the drugs, the behaviour, and not lose your mind. We all knew/had friends like my friend Bill, who went to San Francisco, did acid and was found at home digging a grave in the garden to bury himself.
“I was queen of the hippies,” said Joni, “but in a way I wasn’t really a hippie at all. I was always looking at it for its upsides and downsides, balancing it and thinking ‘here’s the beauty of it and here’s the exploitative quality of it and here’s the silliness of it.’ I could never buy into it totally as an orthodoxy.”
Also, no doubt, she would miss clean white linen and fancy French cologne.
These new books dish up some dirt about my idol. Joni is considered arrogant and insensitive; she gave up her daughter and took an awfully long time to come out about it. She’s selfish and she’s sad. When the going gets tough, she runs off to her wilderness retreat in BC. She’s so busy being free. I already knew that the ego was huge. She compares herself to Miles Davis and Pablo Picasso. There’s that line of spontaneous chat to the audience in the album Miles of Aisles; asked to sing some old favourites, she complains, “No one ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint The Starry Night again, man!’”
But most peculiarly, to me, she won’t talk about being a woman artist. She finds it an “isolating question.” Here’s a single woman who fought her way to fame in the world of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Who tried the older man thing, the younger man thing, but never worked it. Who made it on her own in a male-dominated industry and whose music, illustrious as it is, has never been rated as highly as it should, because she, and it, are female. But she won’t talk about it?
Flying westward over Saskatchewan. Down there the farms lie in their grid, assorted rectangles of tan and lighter and darker green. Between that earth and me is a spray of evenly spaced dot-clouds, perfectly straight rows of round, white, ragged balls that fan out like a bridal veil. They are chased, from below, by their own little round shadows.
These are Saskatchewan clouds. They have been claimed and are beloved by the province. An atmospheric scientist could explain why these streams of spherical fluff occur over Saskatchewan and nowhere else. It has something to do with the distance over the flat land from the Rockies. I always thought they were Joni Mitchell clouds. If I lived in one of those crossroads below, with twelve streets and three dozen houses, I imagined her lying on her back, looking at them. They would have been a lifeline to the outside world.
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now / from up and down but still somehow / it’s cloud illusions I recall / I really don’t know clouds at all.
I’ve come to realize: I don’t know Joni Mitchell at all. I thought I did. But I only identified with her.
But apparently she borrowed the image for “Both Sides Now” from the novel Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow, to write a song she hoped would be a commercial hit. Here’s the Bellow quote: “And I dreamed down at the clouds and thought that when I was a kid I had dreamed up at them, and having dreamed at the clouds from both sides as no other generation of men has done, one should be able to accept his death very easily.”
I wonder if “Both Sides Now” is a song about death, the ultimate dramatic departure.
And I’ve come to realize that I really don’t know Joni Mitchell at all. I thought I did. But instead, I only identified with her. It’s not complicated: billions do it, accounting for the enormous power of pop music. I identified with a complete stranger because I could hear in her music what I wanted to hear.
Still, it’s tempting for us prairie-dwellers to find something, particularly something regional, in her words, in the skywriting images, the vapour trails, the flight, the wings, the moving on. Now when I listen to Joni Mitchell, I hear the very opposite of prairie common sense. I hear alchemy and a sense of unreality. Whitesell calls it “the apprehension of the world as a shifting semblance.” Her songs were Gretel’s bread crumbs dropped in the forest; they were postcards from a journey without a map… travelling, travelling, travelling.
Maybe I’ve never really loved / I guess that is the truth / I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes.
I went to see The Fiddle and the Drum, the ballet set to Joni Mitchell’s songs. It is a hymn to youth. Mitchell had to make new songs out of Kipling and Yeats poems to fill out the score: despite the sonorous words—“We have all come to fear the beating of your drum”—she was no protest singer. Her peers sang against the war in Vietnam. Her fight was with her place and time. And there, it seems to me, she won the battle but lost the war.
Her lyrics are doused with guilt and regret for having left a better place behind—singing real good for free—the same regret she predicted in her earliest published songs. You can’t go back, you can only look behind from where you came…
Her green stance—they paved paradise and put up a parking lot—may be seen as prophetic environmentalism, but it isn’t, really. It is nostalgia. It is sentiment. It is survivor’s guilt.
The nostalgia is for some prelapsarian, woman-made, Jake and the Kid prairie, a pre-oil-sands “Drink Canada Dry” garden. The regret is for a purity that is not geographical, but emotional. Whitesell says Mitchell has a constant sense of “a state of grace from which she has fallen.” Yes. We don’t know where exactly the State (or the province) of Grace is. It is up north, in Canada, where skies are blue and garage floors are clean. It is nowhere but in the streaming clouds, the vapour trails; it is an illusion, sky-written. It is in that past with its safe roles and hissing lawns where we so luxuriantly wallow, posturing, before leaving youth behind. Never again will life will be quite so safe and such a trap.
Looking over my shoulder, I try to reconstruct that trap. I find it elusive. It was perfect and horribly limiting and we had to escape. The beautiful 20-year-olds who have taken our place don’t have the same fight. Thank God they listen to Joni Mitchell’s songs. But—here’s where she’s wrong—we do come back. We come back and attempt, with irony and hope against hope, to marry our carbon to that of our place on earth.
Katherine Govier divides her time between Canmore and Toronto. She is working on her ninth novel.