Author(s): David Yaffe
Joni Mitchell is a cultural touchstone for generations of Americans. In her heyday she released ten experimental, challenging, and revealing albums; her lyrics captivated people with the beauty of their language and the rawness of their emotions, both deeply personal to Mitchell and universally relatable to her audience. In this intimate biography, composed of dozens of in-person interviews with Mitchell, David Yaffe reveals the backstory behind the famous songs-from her youth on the Canadian prairie, her pre-vaccine bout with polio at age nine, and her early marriage and the child she gave up for adoption, up through the quintessential albums and love affairs, and all the way to the present-and shows us why Mitchell has so enthralled her listeners, her lovers, and her friends.Yaffe has had unprecedented access both to Mitchell and to those who know her, drawing on interviews with childhood friends and the cast of famous characters (Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Leonard Cohen, David Crosby, and more) with whom she has crossed paths and influenced, as well as insightful analyses of her famous lyrics, their imagery and style, and what they say about the woman herself.
Legend has it that the great blues man, Robert Johnson, went down to the Mississippi crossroads and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his considerable musical gifts. Not to be outdone, Roberta Joan Anderson made her devil’s bargain with something she called “a spirit of destiny or something.” In 1953, when she was ten years old, she couldn’t finish her daily walk to school. She became paralyzed. She was shipped off to a polio colony in Saskatoon, where she lay in isolation for months. Her spine was bent. Her back muscles were gone. She couldn’t walk.
That Christmas, young Joni made a deal in her head: “Give me back my legs and I’ll make it up to you.” It wasn’t entirely clear who the deal was with. “It wasn’t God or Jesus.” But she took her treatments, yielded to the painful therapeutic twistings of her body, and beat the odds. “I came back a dancer,” she said.
Confession: I’ve been a Joni Mitchell fan since hearing Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s version of her 1970 anthem, “Woodstock.” Her fourth album “Blue,” released in 1971, is universally acclaimed as one of the greatest albums of all time. As she aged, her vocals became narrow and rough, but some of her greatest recordings came as her once-golden voice absorbed the wisdom of decline – witness “Magdalene Laundries” from the 1990s, which is as good as it gets. Truth be told, Joni Mitchell was way better than any of the male singer-songwriters from the 1960s and after (including Dylan and her Canadian compatriots, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young), who got a lot more attention – and the reason was probably sexism, plain and simple.
So I trotted down to McLeod’s Bookstore last month and bought a copy of David Yaffe’s 2017 biography of Joni, Reckless Daughter. This purchase placed me in a dilemma. On the one hand, I wanted to know how a girl from such modest circumstances in rural Canada could grow up to become the legendary Joni Mitchell. And the facts are all there in Yaffe’s book– the inspirations, the progression from folk to jazz, the oversights, the lovers, the self-indulgence, the craziness, the drugs, the legacy. So I can, in good faith, recommend this book.
But in keeping with McLeod’s integrity, as the central hub of Rotorua’s cerebral sub-culture, I’ve got to be honest: David Yaffe is the most embarrassingly awful writer I have come across in decades. It seems that back in 2007 he wrote an article about Joni for The New York Times that annoyed the hell out of her. So ten years later, he approached her again, cap in hand, for redemption. The result is this new book, an extended meditation on sycophancy. (Brief example: “Joni, like Joan of Arc, is tough.” And it goes on like this for 376 pages.) Like Robert Johnson and Joni before him, Yaffe has sold his soul to someone. But sadly, Yaffe’s share in the bargain was not creativity, but rather the resuscitated approval of his chosen subject and a padded list of second-rate publications.
So if you want to learn about a remarkable, but deeply flawed, woman of genius, buy this book. And if you want the best example I’ve come across lately of a writer with zero self-respect and even less integrity, buy this book. Those are two good reasons. Reckless Daughter is like a technicoloured puddle of puke – thoroughly disgusting, but I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
- Jeshel Forrester
David Yaffe was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1973. He is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University and a 2012 winner of the Roger Shattuck Prize for Criticism. His writing has appeared in many publications, including The Nation, Harper's Magazine, The New York Times, Slate, New York, The Village Voice, The Daily Beast, and Bookforum. He is the author of Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown and Fascinating Rhythm.