Column: Once again, Joni Mitchell gives us all a reason to live
Some days, it is hard not to despair. Europe is on fire and also Yosemite; Russia continues to bombard Ukraine, a religious minority wages war against women; and monkeypox invades an already COVID-riddled world. Mass shootings have become a daily occurrence, the damning evidence of the Jan. 6 committee is being blatantly ignored by too many and otherwise seemingly sane people are complaining about the struggles white men face in the publishing industry.
Then, just when you’re Googling “most affordable and isolated mountaintops,” Joni Mitchell shows up at the Newport Folk Festival and proves that God (or whatever source of sustaining grace you believe in) has not yet left the building.
There at the behest of Brandi Carlile, Mitchell, 78, who has spent years recovering from a brain aneurysm, sang, played guitar and proved there is a reason for social media to exist. Most of us were nowhere near Rhode Island when this miracle occurred, but thanks to video posted to YouTube and shared widely through every media platform available, we all got to start our week watching Joni Mitchell live, performing “Summertime,” “The Circle Game” and most especially “Both Sides Now.”
Musicians Wynonna Judd and Blake Mills, and a Newport Folk Festival producer, recount the lead up to, and miracle of, Mitchell’s surprise performance.
Mitchell built a career, and changed music, with her devastatingly poetic ability to plumb pain and emerge with strength and beauty, to acknowledge disillusionment but never surrender to it. For women particularly, she was a voice where no voice had been. “They could never cage or categorize her,” said one of my friends, who has long worshiped Mitchell. “Each of her works is like a little jewel in how it tells its story, and then there is that beautiful unquenchable voice.”
That voice, grown deep and a bit raw with age, pain and survival, rose and dropped from the stage at Newport as she drew her still-iconic images of clouds and love and life’s inevitable swing between ecstasy and heartbreak. Inevitably moving (what would Emma Thompson’s famous breakdown in “Love, Actually” be without it?), “Both Sides Now” has never sounded so powerful, so genuine a description of the constant human tension between reality and hope, desire and downfall.
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Though supported through some of the higher notes by Carlile and Wynonna Judd, the performance was all Mitchell, floating into the hushed air not just as her signature song but as a benediction. Mitchell delivered the song’s conclusion — “I really don’t know life at all” — not in bewilderment or wistful regret but with amused surrender and a glint of delight. Why waste time trying to pin down the unknowable? And who would know more about that than Joni freaking Mitchell?
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, at Newport or in mine. The simple sight and sound of her was astonishing enough; the world had every reason to believe they would never hear this legend sing live again.
Though Mitchell has been busy putting together archival releases of her trailblazing career (and removing her music from Spotify in protest of Joe Rogan’s podcast), for years after her aneurysm she insisted that her voice was gone. Mercifully, not everyone believed her. That Sunday’s performance came during a set titled “Brandi Carlile and Friends” is no surprise; since 2018 Carlile has helped Mitchell find her way back to performing with star-studded jam sessions at Mitchell’s Bel-Air home.
“Joni’s only motto: ‘Park your pistols at the door.”’ Cameron Crowe observed in an interview he did with Mitchell in 2021 to mark the 50th anniversary of “Blue.” “That meant no phones or video and only one photo — a group shot at the end of the night.”
Thank goodness she did not enforce that rule at the Newport Festival; video of her extraordinary performance — singing beneath a blue beret, behind classy shades and in a chair that could have been swiped from Versailles — began circulating almost as soon as the set was done.
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But it wasn’t just the wondrous and wholly unexpected sight and sound of this Canadian-born American master live that caused throats around the world to catch. It was the sight and sound of her at this moment in time, when the planet is under siege; the world is beset by famine, plague and politics; and the seventh seal of American culture appears to have come undone.
In a world where “Top Gun” is seen as cinema’s savior, where an argument over who was originally the center of One Direction is considered music news and the chatter from all the platforms known as television is so cacophonous you just want to turn them all off, it’s hard to remember how real artistry can connect us — for years, for generations — if given half a chance.
For a few minutes, millions of otherwise quite disparate Americans were united by joy.
For those who had begun to wonder, with troubling regularity, if it is possible for American culture to recover from its wounds, self-inflicted and otherwise — or, even more tragically, if there is even a reason to try — Mitchell’s performance was a brief glimpse of possibility. It wasn’t just a testimony to those miracles that can only be achieved through both individual determination and community support; it was a reminder that there is a reason to keep hanging in there, pushing forward, seeing the bows and flows of angel hair along with the rain and snow. Both are real. That’s the point.
Because who knows? Maybe somewhere amid the doomscrolling of all that is wrong with the world, you’ll find a video of Joni Mitchell doing what she thought she would never do again: Singing songs she wrote to help explain the world.
And for a minute, or maybe more, that will be all that matters.
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