“Both Sides Now” sung by Judy Collins was everywhere in 1968/69. I remember sitting on the floor of a dorm room with my suitemates, playing the song over and over on a rinky-dink record player. I doubt any of us realized it was written by Canadian Joni Mitchell.
But Joni soon attained stardom on her own, becoming as famous as Collins and Joan Baez. Folk music was eclipsed by rock music, but Joni straddled both worlds. She changed our ideas about what a “girl singer” was all about. As author David Yaffe points out, “men fell in love with her and women felt like she was singing their secrets out loud.”
I had a vague memory of the fact that Joni had polio as a child, but I did not know until reading RECKLESS DAUGHTER that her left hand was so affected, she strummed her songs using right-handed open tuning. This technique only added to her unique sound, especially when combined with her accomplished lyrics and vocal leaps.
As I read the book, I jammed it full of Post-It notes in preparation for writing this review. I learned more about her than I could ever outline here. I believe she is a genius: moody, complex, and conflicted, all qualities she poured into her music. Here is one priceless accolade Joni treasures from the 1990s: some teenage girls told her “Before Prozac, there was you.”
Yaffe shows us the Joni who writes songs for the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was 20, the Joni who despises the music business, the Joni who describes her lyrics on “Blue,” her most acclaimed album, as “private letters that were published.” We see her in relationships with Leonard Cohen, David Crosby, Graham Nash and Jackson Brown. Couplehood was rarely easy for her. Solitude seems to be her preferred state.
We see Joni gaining and losing popularity. Many listeners tuned out when she went more towards jazz. Classic rock radio kept her songs alive. The public “put her on a pedestal,” she said at one point, and she “was wobbling.” We see her battling aging and illness. Struck down by a brain aneurysm in 2015, she was progressing towards recovery as the book closed.
I wish there had been more coverage of Joni’s life as a painter. I’ve always been in awe of her paintings featured on her record covers. “I sing my sorrow and paint my joy,” Joni famously said. Yaffe includes many details of various recording sessions, sections I have to admit I tended to skim. But as it should be with a biography of a gifted musician, this book sent me right back to Mitchell’s music. May it be so for any other music lovers who reach for this compelling biography!
Keddy Ann Outlaw
A librarian for nearly 30 years, Keddy is also a veteran reviewer for Library Journal. Formerly an art major, she’s now busy making mixed media collages, prints and assemblages, and posting as “The Lone Star Librarian” on her website, Speed of Light.