DAVID YAFFE ON TRYING TO KEEP UP WITH AN ICON
When I was 15, I had a high school girlfriend who was a couple of years older than me—dog years in those days. She had a piano and a stereo in her room, and very tolerant parents. We were both music students at an arts high school in Dallas; she sang, I played piano. We had a ritual of lying on her bed together in pitch-darkness, taking in what we were hearing with everything we had—the Velvet Underground, Miles Davis. One day, she played me Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Years later Joni would tell me that when she made that album she was totally without defenses, as vulnerable as “a cellophane wrapper on a packet of cigarettes,” as she once put it. When one is 15, everything is new and raw. I was falling in love with a girl and falling in love with this music. Neither came to you. You had to come to them. I held on tight in those tender, cellophane years.
In time, I would learn that while Joni was famous for being tender in public she also had to be tough in private. By the time Blue was released in 1971, she had survived polio and a bad first marriage, and recently fended off a marriage proposal from Graham Nash, whom she had loved. I didn’t know about these things yet. But my need to know about this woman I heard on the record eventually brought me closer and closer.
Over the years, I would turn to Joni’s music, sometimes when I needed to hear her tell me, as she does in “Trouble Child,” that I really am inconsolably on my own: “So what are you going to do about it / You can’t live life and you can’t leave it.” Ouch. And yet, in that voice, in those chords, there was nevertheless an implicit promise that life would go on, and would be full of surprises. And in her music, as again and again she sought someone who could understand her, who could offer a counterbalance to her ramblings and yearnings, she would tell us not to listen for her but to listen for ourselves. She wanted us to have some sort of transference. It was not a delusion to listen for yourself. It was an injunction.
Excerpted from David Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter
Read the complete excerpt
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.
A selection of Joni Mitchell’s lyrics will be included in our study of “The Poetry in Popular Music” on October 26. Please bring your own favourite examples – whether on the original or expanded topic – and, preferably, post them first on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly.
See the SCHEDULE PAGE for submissions to-date.