Saturday, November 01, 2008

From Poetry to Prose: Joni Mitchell’s Narcissism Problem
By Nicholas Stix

Earlier today at WNYC-FM, Jonathan Schwartz played a Joni Mitchell record so godawful, I could write something equally bad: “The Last Time I Saw Richard.”

The record isn’t a song at all, but some bad prose Mitchell scribbled, and then spoke-sang in the terrible style she adopted in the early 1970s, when she lost her way, yet that so endeared her to her groupies. (I suppose, groupies being groupies, that anything she did was bound to endear her to them. After all, to them, she was a “genius.”)

Mitchell is a perfect case of the limitations of the singer-songwriter bard. During the mid-1960s, when she was in her late teens and early twenties, she constantly played in coffee houses in her native Canada, particularly in Toronto. During and immediately after those years, she wrote four songs that are as good as anything written during the period, beginning sometime during the 1960s, in which rock-and-rollers danced on the grave of The Great American Songbook: “Circle Game”; “Big Yellow Taxi”; “Chelsea Morning”; “Both Sides Now.”

During the 1960s, Mitchell had the most lovely, lyrical, albeit undisciplined, voice in rock. Discipline and rock never did get on.

About the same time that she ran out of musical ideas, but insisted on continuing to write “songs,” Mitchell gave up on lyricism, adopting what would become her signature sing-song way of talking her way through songs. (During the late 1970s, when Carly Simon burned out as a songwriter, she also insisted on foisting on the world horrible essays—songs, she called them—about summers spent on Martha’s Vineyard. Eventually, Simon came to her senses, and cut a couple of great albums of American pop standards.)

Meditating on “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” it finally became clear to me why Mitchell gave up on lyrical singing: She couldn’t write lyrically anymore, yet insisted on singing her own, ahem, “songs,” and was forcing her voice to match the bad prose of her writing.

Had Mitchell wanted to remain a great rock singer, she would have merely needed to sing other people’s songs. Her narcissism and insistence on clinging to the role of bard held her back.

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