Joni Mitchell is one of those artists I’ve always loved but never known. Or as Zadie Smith puts it, “The first time I heard her I didn’t hear her at all.” Mitchell’s chilling runs and wails didn’t play throughout the soundtrack of my childhood the way the Beatles, ABBA, or Electric Light Orchestra (thanks, Mom) did. I heard her occasionally, but I didn’t appreciate Blue in its entirety until the album was approaching its semicentennial, and I never truly understood Joni Mitchell’s impact on individuals and on the world until I read Zadie Smith’s 2012 essay, “Some Notes on Attunement.”
Smith’s complex nostalgia for her childhood music (which, like mine, highlighted other artists much more often than Joni Mitchell) leads into a fascinating anecdote about the unlikely landscape in which she finally connected with Joni Mitchell: an impromptu trip to Tintern Abbey with a cab driver/amateur poet. Smith’s experience hearing “River” for the millionth time—and for the very first time, in a way—makes for the incredible realization that listening to Joni Mitchell can be something akin to religious experience. She compares the listening encounter to Allen Ginsberg’s Tintern Abbey acid-trip-turned-“Wales Visitation” and William Wordsworth’s poetic ecstasy written about the same place.
I’ve never visited Tintern Abbey, though I long to someday. Smith’s experience there elucidates Wordsworth’s complex imagery of the “Gothic skeleton,” where the visitor seems to inhabit both inside and outside space simultaneously. Or, as Ginsberg remarks, “the wisdom of earthly relations, / of mouths & eyes interknit ten centuries visible.”
Between Smith, Wordsworth, and Ginsberg lies a universal dichotomous feeling of present vacancy and deep history, rooted into the earth through mossy groves and vines. As Wordsworth writes in “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” (1798), “That time is past, / And all its aching joys are now no more, / And all its dizzy raptures.” Such is Smith’s and my encounter with Joni Mitchell—her music propels me into my past and makes me feel as though she is whispering both histories and future promises directly into my ear.
Though people tend to remember Joni Mitchell alongside other Laurel Canyon–dwelling ’70s stars, Joni Mitchell is not Carole King. While Tapestry colored the soundtrack of my early adolescence, Blue is not an album that can be played passively in the background; it demands center stage. It isn’t that I don’t have visceral memories associated with certain Joni Mitchell songs, but rather, it’s that I’d often rather not unlock those memories. As Smith puts it, “Her voice did nothing for me—until the day it undid me completely.”
Smith confesses, “I can’t listen to Joni Mitchell in a room with other people, or on an iPod, walking the streets. Too risky.” I can’t either. “The Circle Game” makes me cry tears of deep nostalgia and ache to hold my mom’s hand, so I rarely listen to it, despite its rhythmic beauty. And don’t get me started on “A Case of You”…
In second grade my class performed “Big Yellow Taxi” at a community sing. Our music teacher tried desperately to pull apart the lyrics and help us make sense of them. I remember being devastated by the very first line: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” The catchy tune has never sounded quite the same since I realized that one of my favorite hotels was the cause of such a loss of natural beauty. My parents got engaged at the “pink hotel” that is mentioned, the Beverly Hills Hotel, which previously was a plot of rolling greenery in the center of largely undeveloped Los Angeles.
Years later, I took voice lessons with the same woman who once taught 30 screaming second-graders “Big Yellow Taxi.” I was reintroduced to Mitchell when my voice teacher brought out “Little Green,” and taught me to lean into the wails and embrace the crackle in my voice when I sang through my passaggio.
I also learned “River”—we began working on it in the middle of summer, beads of sweat dripping off my ponytail in her unairconditioned Sherman Oaks apartment. As my Christmas obsession grew with me instead of out of me—the way my parents thought it would—“River” became the Christmas song I could get away with singing all year round. I actually prefer listening to “River” on a solemn fall day than any time during the holiday season.
In many ways, “River” is the antithesis of a Christmas carol—another thing that required maturing to understand and appreciate. It’s a deeply sad song, and when I finally glimpsed its true irony I sang it at my final high school winter choral concert—a bittersweet and chilling farewell to a special place during a special time of year. I might not have been able to relate to the sentiments conveyed through the lyrical storytelling of “River” about how difficult Christmas can be for many people. But I could suddenly identify with the heart-wrenching experience of leaving a comfortable and familiar environment behind to face the unknown.
Joni Mitchell changes with age; as I grow older, my appreciation for her artistry deepens. The first time I listened to “The Circle Game” from start to finish in many years was on the plane ride from Los Angeles to Providence to move into my first-year dorm at Brown. I was finally able to loosen the grasp on my childhood—I didn’t plan on letting go of it completely, but I also didn’t cry. Then, my first time visiting home that Thanksgiving, I had a newfound affection for “California,” a Blue track I never paid much attention to. “California, I’m coming home / I’m going to see the folks I dig” – despite Mitchell’s lyrics being within the original context of her participation in ‘70s counterculture movements, I found solace and solitude in her admiration for my home state.
“It’s the feeling we get sometimes when we find a diary we wrote, as teen-agers, or sit at dinner listening to an old friend tell some story about us of which we have no memory.” Zadie Smith captures the essence of listening to Blue with this sentence; it’s a full-body experience that leaves you numb. Every once in a while, when I feel like being vulnerable with myself, I’ll sit in my room and listen to Blue from start to finish. It knocks the wind out of me, but in a refreshing way. “Roofless, floorless, glassless, ‘green to the very door’—now Tintern is forced to accept the holiness that is everywhere in everything.” Blue is Tintern Abbey is religion is love. Zadie Smith connects the dots with stunning rigor and poise. Like her immediate transition from ambivalence to love, my Joni Mitchell epiphany was “involving no progressive change but, instead, a leap of faith. A sudden, unexpected attunement.”