Dead Heroes

Joni Mitchell’s health has been in the news off and on over the past couple of months. It’s a bit hard to get a straight story but it appears that all is not well with, arguably, the greatest female singer/songwriter of all time.

The past few years have seen a lot of my childhood musical heroes go to Rock and Roll Heaven. Many of my guitar influences, Rory Gallagher, Johnny Winter, Ronnie Montrose and some of my songwriting heroes most notably Lou Reed. If I live long enough, eventually Todd Rundgren, Marshall Crenshaw, Iggy Pop, the various Sex Pistols, Pete Townsend, Eric Carmen, Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach and the remaining Beatles will also leave this earth.

I was invited to an intimate performance by Joni at Much Music several years ago. Afterwards, I got her to sign my copy of Court and Spark. She did and when I looked into her eyes, they had that sparkle that I’ve seen in some other heroes of mine’s eyes that says, “I’m smarter and more talented than you.”

When Joni released Court and Spark she was without peer in terms of sheer intellectual power and adventurousness as a songwriter while still being incredibly musical and dare I say it, commercial. After purchasing the album, used, at The Wee Book Inn, I spent the next four or five months listening to it. Many point to Blue as a high point for Joni but although there is some fine songwriting there, especially River and Carey, I don’t think it shows Joni fully formed. In most ways, it sounded like any other female singer/songwriter albeit a very good one. Her next album, For The Roses, really identified her musically. Which is to say, it is the record that showed her as being unique, no one else could have made that record. In terms of musical structure and lyrical complexity it’s quite breathtaking. Joni was exploring open tunings on the guitar and coming up with some lovely chords. Those chords would find their way onto her piano keys and would help define her music for several years afterwards. What differentiated Court and Spark from For The Roses was it’s accessibility. I think there were three singles off of that record, Help Me, Raised On Robbery and Free Man In Paris. And they weren’t just singles, radio played the crap out of them. Structurally and melodically, the album was pretty easy to follow and sing along with. But the depth of the songs is incredible. The lyrics are cinematic and, as one tends to believe with Joni, jarringly personal. Some might quibble with what they perceive to be cliches, like “ and you could complete me, I’d complete you,” in the title track but honestly, I don’t think I’d ever heard that said before. Maybe she coined that cliche? The accessibility of the record was aided by the fact that it was her most produced effort to that point. LA session musicians fleshed out most of the songs, which made them more radio friendly. The next album, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns was more experimental. She may have flinched at being so popular with the masses and felt like she needed to show people that she was no sellout. Hejira was when she hooked up with Jaco Pastorius and started to shift into jazz, (though that was always in her music). At a point her releases became infrequent and eventually, she kind of went off the grid.

I’m stopping there because I don’t want this to turn into a discography review. I mention the other recordings only to set up Court and Spark and I’m only talking about Court and Spark because it was such a seminal album in my musical development. Music has been my life, my career and my meager living, so a record and an artist who helped get you there is important.

There is something strangely different about a hero who’s lived a life, maybe is long past their prime, dying compared to a rocker who dies young. I’m trying to figure out what or why that is. When Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain died, it was tragic, a loss of potential, like all young people’s deaths. When Lou Reed died, it was more like losing an uncle, someone who gave you wisdom as you were growing up, wisdom that stayed with you for the rest of your life.

The young dead heroes become myths. Movies are made, old recordings are found and released, conspiracies about their deaths are raised. They become the subject of a long but static conversation. In death, they lose their privacy, every detail of their life is uncovered by zealous fans who can’t let them rest in peace.

But the old dead heroes lived a life. Many of their fans forget about them or just ignore them most of the time. Their artistic output usually slows. Their place in the culture is often diminished. They may no longer have a major label deal and they are rarely in Rolling Stone magazine anymore. When they do re-enter the spotlight we decide whether we are interested or if we’d rather just throw on Transformer and revisit its greatness and/or nostalgia value. Some of these lives are a bit dark at the end. You hear of musicians who should be enjoying their retirement, out on the road to try to make ends meet. They should have been spared the indignity of waning audiences and shrinking guarantees.

Joni Mitchell isn’t going to make any more albums. Even if she did, I’m not sure I’d care. Which maybe sucks of me. Because she was there when I needed her. If she hadn’t made Court and Spark, I wouldn’t have written many of the songs I did or they would have been very different. I also would have had to listen to music that wasn’t as good as hers. We all need to be grateful to our influences and maybe pay more attention to them even after we are done being taught by them. Just like we need to call our uncles and aunts and even our parents more often to make sure they are okay as a thank you to them for all they did for us.

Easy to say, I guess. As much as we all hate to admit it, we are music consumers. Often, we like something, then we don’t like it or we don’t like it as much as this new thing we like. Or we like this one thing by an artist but nothing else by them. Sometimes we like something and later, we are ashamed we liked it. Like Peter, we deny our former gods. But mostly, they just outlive their usefulness to us. It’s a rare artist that can hit a home run every time at the plate or keep the high standards and vitality of their early work into their twilight years. So my plan is to take a good long listen to Joni’s last full length record, Shine, which I sadly admit, I haven’t heard a single note of.

2 Responses to “Dead Heroes”

  • Warning: Undefined variable $oddcomment in /home/laurab/public_html/ on line 22
    id="comment-206894" >
    Terry McManus Says:

    Music seems to be an “of its generation” thing Moe with a few artists, The Beatles perhaps, managing to make the transition across the years. But perhaps even they will be the next “last” thing.

    Joni’s songs chronicled a certain time and place. Yes she was able to create moods and have you in a Chinese restaurant in Saskatoon or a sunny day in Laurel Canyon. Lyrically and musically she stands apart. However, I think she would have been better off if she had never picked up the guitar or never let us hear the songs. Even she has speculated about this.

    Her paintings are at the level of Emily Carr and the Group of Seven. I think we lost a great painter when she had her first hit record. I love to hear some of her songs now and then, but I could look at her paintings every day.

    I once wondered what it would have been like for her to have become a high school art and music teacher. You know exactly the type she would have been. The Bohemian one on the faculty. Inspiring students and playing at the local coffee house or church basement as they do in the prairies. Exhibiting her paintings in a local gallery until, like Alice Munro, her talent exceeded her surroundings.

    Certainly these days have us all reassessing the value of music and, as it logically follow, the value of being a musician. I am not sure we feel so special anymore and perhaps that is reflected in what is popular and for how long. In my day music was the voice of a generation. Certainly your band went that way as well in another decade. But, as Bob Ezrin says so eloquently, no one is writing those songs that define who we are, young and old, good and bad, saint and sinner anymore. Maybe that was “of its time” as well.

    There are some good artists around but there is is almost too much media background noise happening for anyone to grow into their potential.

    God bless Joni. I would love to think of walking down some dim lit high school hall in early August and coming across a picture of her beside one of her paintings and a little blurb about how she taught there at one time.

    I think the public looks to people like her for musical enjoyment, while fellow artists look to her for inspiration. And to see that in spite of her great work, she can fade away with the years… and we let her… is somehow disheartening.

    I believe that at some point, her painting is going to eclipse her music and rescue her artistry for future generations. She may not be as “big” as she could have been had she produced more works, but she has done enough that when the retrospectives begin you will be able to overhear someone say, “And she used to sing as well!”.

  • Warning: Undefined variable $oddcomment in /home/laurab/public_html/ on line 22
    id="comment-207084" >
    Mark Kleiner Says:

    This reflection resonates with me on numerous levels — having just drafted my own social media reflection on meeting Ms Mitchell in 1988, and also having just performed ‘Mystery to Me’ with my bro in tribute to you, Moe — & well, because it’s such a plainly kicks ass tune and is so much fun to sing and perform, but also as an expression of gratitude for your artistry and your sharing of this artistry to immeasurably enrich my own life and musical journey. And I have also been reflecting on my own hopes and expectations as a songwriter and performer — I appreciate validation; were it not for validation, particularly at key points on my musical road, those ‘yes’-s (and thank you, Moe, for your invaluable encouragement over the years), well, such vibes have brought wind beneath my wings. But I have also slogged through deserts of silence and artistic bankruptcy, I have yearned for acclamation that never arrived, I have gone to the hardware store for milk on more than a dozen occasions, and I have particularly in such moments given a bit of thought to the relationship between artist and acolyte…and maybe it is the proximity of this essay to the one on American Idol that has me thinking of a way to look at this relationship between artist and fan, and understanding the vocation of artist. No fan/listener/receptee will ever, through her/his response, adequately satisfy the yearning from which the artistic act percolates out into the ether. Even if I continue to stay on top of all recent releases from influence x or y, my own response, at one level of seeing, will in some way appear to perpetuate the summer canibalism Patti Smith sung of…but here is the thing: I believe artistic works in their truest state function as icons to the divine — and if the language here is too blatantly theological let me explain this as meaning pointing beyond themselves, for a moment drawing our attention to light not sourced within themselves…the icon (much less even the icon-fashioner) is never to be worshipped in and of itself, but to help direct our worship to the divine. Idolatry occurs when the artistic work or the artist demands or receives and assumes ownership of the reverence the artistic work/performance stirs up…which is assuming the role of being God in God’s place, a hellish place on which to stand. but relieved of the burden of either as fan engaging in the doomed calling of satisfying my hero’s yearning, or as artist in looking to my audience to fulfill what they could never fulfill…’Our hearts are restless til they find rest in Thee’ — St Augustine

Leave a Reply

Warning: Undefined variable $user_ID in /home/laurab/public_html/ on line 120