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Joni Mitchell's not done yet

Joni Mitchell performing at "California Celebrates the Whales" at the Memorial Auditorium in Sacramento, California on November 20. 1976. (Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Joni Mitchell performing at "California Celebrates the Whales" at the Memorial Auditorium in Sacramento, California on November 20. 1976. (Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Seven years ago — when I had only recently entered my 60s — I wrote a column about the risks of seeing aging musicians. “The live music that defined my youth is now shaping my loss of it,” I said then. “I dread seeing my own shortening life reflected in the stooped physiques and narrowing vocal range of the musicians who defined me and my tribe.”

When I wrote those words, I was thinking about how aging diminishes you, how it evokes pity and a sense of loss in those who witness it. So when, seven years after suffering a life-threatening brain aneurysm, Joni Mitchell, tottered out onto the Newport Folk Festival stage, I was apprehensive about watching her performance on YouTube. When she sang her first audible lines, I was shocked at the even deeper register of her once ethereal voice. Her phrasing at first seemed rushed and out of synch, and in a desperate desire to avoid seeing her as a cruel shadow of who she once was, I almost stopped playing the streaming videos of her set.

But the more I watched and listened, the more joyful I felt. What I was witnessing wasn’t deterioration, but resurrection.

In a television interview that aired on CBS Sunday Morning, Joni said that she’d had to re-learn everything — how to speak, how to stand up, how to swim and how to play guitar. She learned “by rote,” she said, watching her own performances online to see where she should place her fingers on the guitar neck. What she lost in muscle memory she reacquired through her grit, her evident pleasure in singing again, and her pride. (“I’m never nervous about performing,” she said. “I just want it to sound good.”) And, of course, she was helped enormously through her “happy convalescence” through the army of nurses, therapists, helpers and young champions like Brandi Carlile.

But what can Joni’s near miraculous recovery teach those of us without her drive, wealth and resources? How can she inspire and comfort those of us caring for newly impaired elders … or those of us already anticipating and dreading that fate for ourselves?

By absorbing what she sings, and how.

She was telling us and showing us that she’s not yet done -- with striving, with seeing, with longing for connection

Like everyone I know — at least everyone older than 45 — I wept my way through “A Case of You,” one of my all-time favorite love songs. When Joni sang the refrain, when she repeated the words “I would still be on my feet,” the crowd erupted in delirious appreciation of how life was imitating art. She was demonstrating resilience just by singing about it.

But what moved me wasn’t just the fact that she’d defied all expectations by performing again. It wasn’t even the adoration, kindness and ecstasy shown by her stage mates — artists half her age.

No, what inspired me was that Joni, ever the iconoclast, was still revealing to her fans and fellow musicians what rules could be broken. She vocalized like the jazz singer and composer she became fairly early in her career when she shattered the genre constraints that the industry wanted to impose upon her. She may have had to relearn the guitar by repetitive imitation, but in her singing, she reinvented, playing with the rhythm, harmonizing in ways that were sometimes melodic, sometimes dissonant, but always intentional. And like all great singers, she showed as much fealty to the lyrics as to the meter,

And what lyrics they are. It was poignant to watch her sing her classic, “Circle Game,” and find resonance in the refrain that “We can’t return/We can only look/behind from where we came/And go round and round and round in the circle game.”

But listening to her defiance in “Come in From the Cold,” I was struck by her refusal to be frozen in amber: “I am not some stone commission/Like a statue in a park/I am flesh and blood and vision/I am howling in the dark.”

She was telling us and showing us that she’s not yet done — with striving, with seeing, with longing for connection. And for those of us who are afraid of eventually being hobbled and constrained, that’s a bracing message.

The same song holds these prescient lines: “I feel renewed/I feel disabled/By these bonfires in my spine/ I don't know who the arsonist was/Which incendiary soul/But all I ever wanted/Was just to come in from the cold.” But when Joni sang it up on that Newport stage, she held back a line, refraining from declaring “I feel disabled.”

For some of us, that omission would be an act of denial. For Joni, I suspect it’s an assertion of truth.

She is no longer young and effortlessly slender. Her voice can no longer swoop and soar. But she is who I hope to be when age or illness afflict my body: a jazz singer dancing in her chair, playing with meter, out of step with the crowd and entirely in tune with herself.

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Related:

Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” and “Burning and Dodging.”

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