It’s hard to describe the immensity of the influence Joni Mitchell’s music has had over both my music, my personal life, and even my artistic direction. I didn’t hear her until KNX-FM in LA played her song, The Priest one winter day in 1969. FM radio was still rather new in those days and it brought with it commercial-free, sophisticated music. Instead of pop singles, FM’s playlists were made up mostly of album cuts, introducing listeners to music not deemed “hit material” by AM stations. Once I discovered FM I never went back to AM. While I know that I’m not the only singer-songwriter who fell under Joni’s spell all those years ago, her music had a way of feeling personal. Simpatico. But then again, I wasn’t alone in this. Not by a long shot.
I first heard her name when I was singing outside the fish and chips shop in Haight-Ashbury, playing my 12-string and trying to earn enough to buy some dinner. A guy stopped and listened to me for a while, then said to me, “You sound a lot like Joni Mitchell.” I wasn’t too happy to hear that; I’d worked very hard to develop a guitar and vocal style that would be all mine. When my stint in the Haight was over, I went back home to southern California. I’d forgotten the name, but not the comparison. When I finally heard her I realized I was in trouble. It was Joni’s upbeat songs that made my heart sink, as much as I liked them. The rhythms, the strumming, the chording… songs like Conversation and Chelsea Morning were enough like some of my own songs that I knew I was going to be thought of as an imitator rather than an innovator. I heard the comments from time-to-time, but I never really knew what to do about it.
But Joni was something beyond what I was. Exceptional, something else, indefinable. She is a Renaissance Woman of the highest order. Between Joni Mitchell and Anaïs Nin, the decade of my early twenties was a time of radical change, of recreating myself almost daily, of learning how to live artfully by treating my life as if it were my canvas. They taught me to run toward love, afraid of missing an experience rather than of being hurt. They taught me to express myself through anything I put my hand to, and they taught me to be unapologetic where my identity as an artist is concerned. What a pair of women to have as muses!
A year later I was living in Laurel Canyon, in a house where Joni had spent a great deal of time when Steven Stills lived in it around the time of Woodstock. We knew many of the same people, but we never met. We always just missed each other. The first time I heard her Blue album, I was sitting in a beanbag chair looking out at the city below late one night, headphones on. She’d gone far beyond where I was, musically. I no longer had to worry about being compared to her. (You can read an old blog entry I wrote about this period of my life by clicking here.) Encountering her music actually sent me in another direction, though, one that worked well for me through the following years.
As I write this, Joni is in the hospital after having been found unconscious in her home in LA. I hope morning brings good news, but if not, we need not fear losing her, because the music and the poetry of both her work and her life will remain to inspire us for a long, long time.