I'm having a major Joni Mitchell moment, brought on by the sound coming from my son Theo's computer. He's home for the summer, so I get to be an At-Home Mom with an actual (grown up) child at home. Theo is a musician, and is constantly trolling through websites to find interesting music. And, as many of us with children in our lives have found, he often stumbles, with the delight of first discovery, on people and sounds we once cherished. This, after all, was the son who long ago asked me if I had ever heard of the Beatles. This morning he was playing a 1970 BBC recording of a live performance of the song "California", in London.
Joni Mitchell is alone on the stage, a spotlight shining on her long, straight, glossy blond hair. She is wearing a plain pink--pink!--dress with what look like those familiar (in my day) crocheted cap sleeves. Her face is angular, expressive; no makeup, no eccentric visual displays. She is pure, simple, unadorned. She is all about her music. She is playing the dulcimer, and the sweet harmonics coming from that strange, ancient instrument, caught my ear from upstairs in the laundry room. There is no back up, no amplification, no strange and heavy-handed mixing. Her lyrics are poetic, the whole performance ethereal.
As I wandered downstairs, drawn by the sound of her rich, contralto voice, I became flooded with memories...first hearing Joni Mitchell, introduced to her in high school, at exactly the time of this BBC performance, by another extremely talented musician, my friend Ray. He knew everything about jazz, and about great music in general, and we would spend hours listening to new albums, poring over the liner notes, lost in the sounds, captivated, enchanted, as children can be, because they are open to entering into music and becoming one with it.
Joni (and that's who she was, to us, a first name goddess long before there was Madonna) would have been about 26 or 27 during the BBC performance. Of course, I had never seen it--if not for the Internet it would be lost to most of us. She was twelve years older than I, and a guiding light, a sort of big sister and teacher. Everything she sang about, I knew I would get to eventually. Love, loss, despair, pleasure, joy, confusion, amazement, loneliness, independence, anger, and yearning, yearning, yearning--for more, for better. Joni sang about living large, and loving deeply, and about letting herself fly through her days.
As I watched the BBC clip over Theo's shoulder, I began to choke up, and tears came to my eyes. I felt a deep, sharp sadness at how much time has passed, how completely young and innocent she looked--and we all felt--in those days. Yet, years later, I would learn that by the time she was 25 she had already been stricken with polio, taught herself to walk again, given up a child for adoption, left home to join the music scene in Greenwich Village, and gotten married. Her face is unlined, so full of pure, radiant youth--her face is so full of music.
This week I'm going to listen to all the Joni discs I own; as I sit here, I'm playing Clouds, from 1969. (And yes, I know, that means the music is in the background, but I was so moved to write that I couldn't help myself. I'll listen to the record again after I publish the post. And take Theo to the grocery store. And finish the laundry.) She sings the anti war anthem, The Fiddle and the Drum, with no instrumentation at all--that's how strong is her voice--and her confidence. "Can we help you find the peace and the star..." Joni Mitchell's songs have always had a profound moral decency--in the political, do what's right, sense. Even the wild abandon with which she lost her heart seemed important, to me, in my twenties. That she has been able to accompany those of us who love her through our entire lives--and through hers--must be one of the miracles of our days.
Another is watching a new generation discover, and appreciate, the beauty that our generation can bequeath to them--in some enormous, global ways, we are leaving our children such a mess, that it helps to think also about the great things we have given them. Joy began to flicker through my aching sadness. There is nothing lovelier than sharing moments of transcendent beauty. I yearned to reconnect with the girl that I once was, the girl who believed that art would burn through grief, and that love was transformative. "Songs to aging children come; Aging children, I am one."